SANTA CLARA, California, February 9. SWIM coaches are commonly familiar with the two aforementioned categories, length and timing. Muscle timing is a necessary but unfamiliar component of injury prevention and rehabilitation. Unfortunately, poor muscle timing can mitigate strength and length, increasing one's risk for injuries.
Muscle timing is quintessential for injuries and sports performance. Who hasn't seen a guy with more muscle than physiologically possible attempt to swim? Despite his apparent muscle strength, his inability to time and coordinate his muscles prevents his forward progression. Another example is a yoga Masters swimmer with all the muscle length in the world. Unfortunately, these athletes' muscles are typically so lax they have difficulties identifying their joint in space. Muscle timing is essential for swimming performance, but even more important after a shoulder injury.
One client I worked with was an elite age group swimmer with a three-year history of shoulder pain. Her parents had spent more than three thousand dollars with various health care professionals. The first time I worked with this swimmer it was clear she had gone through more trial and tribulations in the sport than her age indicated as frustration was seeping off her and her parents. I don't mean they were unpleasant in any manner, they were highly skeptical and felt they've seen the best rehabilitative specialist with no chagrin.
After three days of improving muscle timing, her symptoms alleviated on land and in the pool! She was pleasantly surprised with the result and her parents regretted the process she endured throughout her young career. Since her symptom alleviation, she has made massive improvements in the pool and her parents have noted a resurrection in her swimming motivation.
Shoulder injuries cause poor muscle timing (kinesthesia) as they lose joint awareness in space (proprioception). The common muscles that do not fire properly are the four rotator cuff muscles. The rotator cuff muscles lie in front, side, and behind the head of the humerus (upper arm) and function to stabilize the upper arm. Imagine if all four muscles are supposed to fire during the catch phase of freestyle, but only the front muscles fire. This causes excessive anterior mobility, potentially causing impingement of the rotator cuff muscles and irritation of the shoulder. On top of this, the humerus of most swimmers is already sitting anteriorly, due to their Neatherthal posture which perpetuates this anatomical flaw.
One method to improve muscle timing is through perturbations during static and dynamic movements. These perturbations need to be performed in all planes of motion with light, gradual changes in pressure. Many people perform these movements rapidly, applying a maximal pressure on, then off. This process doesn't allow the muscles to react and will cause numerous compensations.
Another method to improve muscle timing is to have the athlete close their eyes during the exercise and with perturbations. This forces the athlete to understand the position of their joint, without visually watching the joint. These subtle differences may seem goofy and any 13-year-old girl with a Ryan Lochte obsession will find the exercises humorous, but are essential and a forgotten element in nearly all swimmers' shoulders system.
Just because muscle timing was discussed last doesn't mean it is the least important. Every preventative and rehabilitative shoulder program must contain exercises to improve muscle length, strength and timing. If you are not encompassing their facets, you aren't giving your swimmers all the tools they need to succeed. Every coach demands a lot from their swimmers make sure you're working just as hard!
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Dr. G. John Mullen is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. At USC, he was a clinical research assistant at USC performing research on adolescent diabetes, lung adaptations to swimming, and swimming biomechanics. G. John has been featured in Swimming World Magazine, Swimmer Magazine, and the International Society of Swim Coaches Journal. He is currently the strength and conditioning coach at Santa Clara Swim Club, owner of the Center of Optimal Restoration and creator of Swimming Science.