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Biomechanics of the Shoulders & Neck

One of the most important things you can do for your clients is to improve their posture with proper biomechanical arm swings. The water is a great place to do this because of the buoyancy and protection for the movement. The hydrostatic pressure offers a traction effect allowing the humerus (arm bone) to separate naturally from the acromial clavicular articulation, eliminating the wear and tear on the joint that occurs with gravity.

For good shoulder mechanics, cue your class to maintain good upper body posture for the entire time they are in the water.  

Two keys to good upper body posture are:
1) neutral cervical spine rather than a protruding neck and,
2) slightly retracted scapula (the shoulders blades pull slightly together).  
The arm position in the water can be a major influence on upper body posture. If you pull the water with a swimmer’s style of stroke the scapulae protract (shoulders coming forward).  The breaststroke, front crawl or butterfly strokes involve internal rotation and impinging of the tendons of the rotator cuff  - especially when the body is in a vertical position to the arms. This position, by itself, places the body in bad posture. Additionally it will cause a relaxation of the abs which is the core musculature system.  

For correct arm position the elbows should be kept slightly flexed, or, when someone has shoulder and/or neck problems, flexed at 90 degrees. The arms should swing from the shoulder with flexion & extension rather than more abduction. The range of motion (ROM) of the arms is 20-30 degrees extension (or just behind the pants pockets) and forward to just below the surface of the water (or 80 degrees of flexion). Do not let the arms come out of the water. Having the arms come in and out of the water (in a ballistic fashion) places undue stress on the shoulders because: first you have the resistance and protection of the water, then no resistance nor protection of the air.

Practice having everyone swing the arms through optimal ROM while traveling through the water. The arms, in fact, are the accelerator; the faster you move the arms the faster the legs will naturally cadence. However, as the move becomes faster maintain this ROM; never sacrifice ROM of the arms and legs to speed. You can overload this arm movement by using flex paddles or foam dumbbells through the desired ROM.  When using equipment, be sure to watch that the arms are still working to flex and extend.  Many people have the tendency to just float the dumbbells out to the front.  The focus of the arm swing should be down and back or to drive down through the water to just behind the hip pockets (which is the normal functional range of motion).

Proper arm positioning and arm swing will also reinforce upper and lower body coordination, which is key to good balance.  Coordination and balance are two other fitness components that are negatively affected by pulling with a swim stroke or an internal rotation of the arms. So whether your class is walking, jogging, leaping, bounding, galloping, hopping, or running, cue to maintain correct arm positioning.

Notes from WaterART:
The shoulder joint is the most moveable joint in the body and as such is very vulnerable to injury if misused in water training.  Always keep the shoulder protected as much as possible.

DO Keep arms and shoulders submerged as much as possible. When surrounded with water the shoulder  joint is protected 100% with equal resistance around the area.
DON'T take the arms in and out of the water with any kind of speed or using long levers.
WHY? If the arms bob in and out of the water shoulder joint protection can change drastically from 100% to 0%..
HOW?   The pull out of the water into the zero resistance of air paired with the impact upon return into water creates great stress on the shoulder joint.

DO use a neutral working position (NWP) for stationary exercise and Modified Rebound (MRB) for travel moves.
WHY? The neutral working position keeps water at neck level for the entire exercise. Legs can be used in an athletic stance or squat position to anchor the shoulders under water.
The Modified Rebound is a mixture of starting the move in Extended (tall) and stepping down into Neutral working position which will submerged the shoulders on the power phase of the exercise and relax back into Extended on the return phase. These two movements train the body to anchor the move down into the water resulting in superior core and leg strength.

WATCH  hand position - when using the arms in Flexion and Extension  (swinging the arms forward to back) or Horizontal Abduction and Adduction (swinging the arms in and out in a lateral position) keep the thumbs facing upwards or outwards (palms up). This will prevent the shoulders rolling forward into a rounded position which places stress on (or can squash) the bursa in the top of the shoulder.  This bursa is there to protect the shoulder from bone on bone injury which can result in impingement.

WATCH arm length - If there are any neck or shoulder problems start with shorter levers (keep the elbows bent)  before extending the arms full length for any exercise.
For example jog with short levers using a bent elbow move before doing Cross Country, with the elbows extended into longer levers.

Please note: there are some specific strengthening exercises for Latissimus Dorsi and the Deltoid muscle group  that require straight arm pulls. It is advisable that these exercises are targeted initially less rhythmically (i.e. in an athletic stance) and separated from the cardiovascular sets in order to maintain good body alignment. As the client is able to co-ordinate, lower body movements may be added as well as assistive and resistive travel moves. However, remember that the key is to perform the upper body strengthening movement correctly prior to adding intensity or complexity. Doing so will help clients to maintain a proper body posture, shoulder and neck position as well as learn the important power positions of the movement. Start without equipment prior to adding more surface area and resistance.

Latissimus Dorsi will adduct the shoulders. Beginner level exercise will start with the arms out tothe sides of the body (hands under the water) in athletic stance and pull the arms down towards the sides of the body or slightly behind the body. Try to power down and then relax and streamline on the ascent (as to not engage the medial deltoid). In other words  web the mitts  down and slice the hands with thumbs up.


Posterior Deltoid will extend the shoulders. Beginner level exercise will start with the arms in front of the body (hands under the water) in athletic stance and pull the arms down towards the sides of the body and then behind the body. Try to power down and then relax and streamline on the ascent (as to not engage the medial deltoid). In other words web or fist the mitts downwards and then slice the hands with thumbs up to the start position. Be sure to utilize enough sets and reps.

Certified WaterART Master Trainer

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