Of all the competitive swimming strokes, breaststroke stresses the rotator cuff the least.
The four muscles that make up the rotator cuff -- the supraspinatus, the infraspinatus, the teres minor and the subscapularis -- work together to keep the shoulder joint securely in place. All of these muscles connect the shoulder blade to the humerus, the bone in the upper arm. As the name of this muscle groups implies, the rotator cuff is responsible for rotating the upper arm. These small muscles are prone to injury and irritation, particularly with the repetitive motions of swimming.
Rotator Cuff Injuries in Swimming
Swimming, with its repetitive arm motions, can lead to injuries of the rotator cuff. In particular, freestyle, backstroke and butterfly cause problems, because the arms circle overhead. In breaststroke, the arms remain in the water, and they stay in front of the body. Because of this arm motion, breaststroke causes the least number of rotator cuff injuries of all of the competitive swimming strokes. It can, however, cause rotator cuff problems.
Rotator Cuff Use in Breaststroke
In the breaststroke, the swimmer begins with his arms overhead, his elbows stretched and his hands close together. At the start of the pull, he internally rotates his shoulders, so that his palms face outward to push against the water as his arms open. At the end of the pull, he must externally rotate his shoulders as he brings his elbows together under his body before extending his arms over his head. These internal and external rotations are produced by the rotator cuff.
Potential Problem Areas
While all breaststrokers have a risk of developing overuse injuries to the rotator cuff, certain swimmers have an increased risk of aggravating their rotator cuffs during the breaststroke. Swimmers with hypomobility in the thoracic spine -- restricted movement in the mid-back -- will overuse their shoulders during breaststroke. This can compress the rotator cuff and lead to injury. Additionally, once a swimmer has a painful shoulder, he will tend to alter his stroke mechanics to increase the amount of internal rotation in the stroke. This change can lead to impingement and pain in the rotator cuff.
Seek Expert Advice
Repetitive activities, such as the breaststroke, can lead to rotator cuff injuries. If you've already been diagnosed with a rotator cuff injury, do not do breaststroke unless cleared by your doctor or physical therapist. If you experience recurrent shoulder pain while swimming, restricted range of motion or a grating sound when you move your arm, seek the advice of a physician knowledgeable about sports-related injuries.