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Causes of Shoulder Muscle Pain From Swimming


Shoulder muscle pain is a common swimmer’s complaint because of the nature of the sport.  As you swim for miles while training or competing, each of the muscles that moves your shoulder and arm are being repetitively strained.

Jerry, an Ironman Triathlete, was the catalyst for the inspiration to write, The Pain-Free Triathlete which eventually expanded to Treat Yourself to Pain-Free Living.  Jerry’s pain and the treatments that solved it is the reason Julie is now so involved with endurance sports athletes.  Thanks Jerry!

Originally Jerry came to Julie with a calf problem that only allowed him to run 2-3 miles before he had to stop.  He seriously feared the end of his dream of competing in Ironman Utah 2002.  In less than a week after starting the calf self-treatments he was back to long distance runs — and then shoulder muscle pain hit!

After his calf problem almost ended his dream, Jerry now feared that he would be defeated by severe shoulder muscle pain.  The pain was diagnosed as a rotator cuff injury and he was told to stop swimming.  This was completely unacceptable, and as it turned out it was also not the case.

Fortunately, Jerry had relieved his calf pain with the Julstro Method (taught in our stretching system) so knew where he could find a solution!

Jerry went on to compete in several Ironman triathlons, as well as other world-class competitions!

Muscles That Cause Shoulder Muscle Pain:


The shoulder has more muscle attachments than any other joint in the body, which is why there is more potential movement and also why there is a higher potential for injury and shoulder muscle pain.

Swimmers have a high potential for a shoulder injury.  The key muscles that are examined for a rotator cuff tear are:


The Get Body Smart graphics shown on the links above show how these muscles rotate your arm.  However these muscles are not the only ones responsible for shoulder muscle pain.  Every muscle attaching to your shoulder blade (scapula) or your upper arm (humerus bone) are capable of causing pain and can prevent your arm from moving in any direction – a condition called “frozen shoulder”.

What’s Happening When You Have a Rotator Cuff Tear:


The muscles are tight from repetitive strain causing them to pull hard on the tendon.  This contraction (the pulling) causes strain where the tendon attaches to your bone.  The pull can become so tight that as you move in the opposite direction you can either tear the muscle from the tendon or the tear the tendon from the bone.

Frequently professionals consider a rotator cuff tear as to why you are feeling shoulder muscle pain, but rarely are all the other muscles impacting your shoulder or arm movements even considered.  This is an oversight that forces many athletes unnecessarily out of their sport.

Other Muscles That Can Cause Shoulder Muscle Pain:


  • Pectoralis Minor:  Pulls your shoulder forward

  • Pectoralis Major:  Rotates your upper arm medially (toward your body)

  • Teres Minor:  Rotates your upper arm laterally (away from your body)

  • Levator Scapulae:  Lifts up your shoulders (called “the shrug muscle”)

  • Biceps:  Bends your arm and originates deep inside your shoulder on your scapula

  • Triceps: Brachii:  Straightens your arm and originates close to your shoulder joint

  • Latissimus Dorsi:  Brings your arm down from the raised position

  • Trapezius:  Impacts most of the movements of your shoulder depending on the fibers that contract with the exception of forward movement.

Why You’re In Pain:


With so many muscles inserting into the bones that comprise your shoulder joint, it’s easy to see why spasms (muscle knots) in any of the muscles cause shoulder muscle pain.

When one muscle is contracting (shortening) an opposite muscle must be lengthening.  If the muscle that needs to lengthen is shortened by a muscle knot, it can’t stretch, preventing you from moving in that direction.

While swimmers repetitively strain their shoulder muscles more than in any other sport, shoulder pain can affect golfers, tennis players, cyclists, paddling and any sport requiring repetitive arm movements.

Fortunately, since muscles cross over each other as you self-treat one muscle you also release several muscles at the same time.

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