Pilates for Triathletes Swim Part I: Move from the Back

This is the first post in a series entitled: Pilates for Triathletes: Swim, Bike, Run. Over the years, I have treated many triathletes and have found Pilates to be an effective cross-training tool for endurance athletes. Why? Pilates is a low impact, endurance-based strength and flexibility workout that teaches the athlete how to efficiently engage one part of the body while conserving energy in another; this concept is key for successful training and racing.

I mentioned in an earlier post that Pilates masters the ability to teach our bodies how to move through space for function and sport. In addition, it addresses the muscle imbalances that can cause pain or dysfunction. And, for a competitive triathlete who is trying to make workouts efficient and meaningful, Pilates is a perfect choice to keep the athlete engaged and interested.

This post will concentrate on the scapular coordination and muscle activation needed for the freestyle stroke, the swim stroke used by triathletes.

Most of us have heard that the swimmer’s muscle is the latissimus dorsi (lat). In Pilates, we use the phrase: “move your arms from your back.” You can see from the image how that makes sense. But, here’s the problem with the latissimus dorsi: it likes to get short and tight. If the muscle length and tissue extensibility (flexibility) is compromised, so is the swim stroke.

Latissimus Dorsi Muscle

Latissimus Dorsi Muscle

What does that latissimus dorsi do that makes it so important for swimming?

It is the main arm extender, and a powerful one at that. The triceps can assist, but should not be the dominant extender of the arm (although it is a lot of the time!). From the catch phase of the swim stroke, the lat initiates the pull through the water to propel the body forward.

Ok, so just work lengthening (stretching) the lat and I’ll be good to go, right? Nope. The lat becomes short and tight because it’s trying to double duty: act as a stabilizer and a mover. So, if other muscles come in and help stabilize the scapula, then the lat can return to it’s primary function as a powerful mover of the arm. This principle is called proximal stability for distal mobility and is imperative for a masterful swim stroke.

Upper Cross Syndrome

Upper Cross SyndromeHave you ever heard of this? Vladimir Janda was a physician in Czechoslovakia who figured out that certain muscles respond to pain or abnormal stress (swimming a lot of laps!) by tightening and others by weakening. The scapular muscles (lower trapezius, serratus anterior, rhomboids) become inhibited and weak and the pectoralis major and minor become tight. Further, the deep neck flexors become weak and the upper trapezius and levator scapula become tight.

 Scapular Stabilizers (weakened)

Swimming Muscles

Serratus Anterior: stabilizes the scapula on the thoracic cage for optimal arm power

Lower trapezius: anchors the scapula (along with the lat) to allow optimal lat initiation of arm extension

Rhomboids: controls upward rotation of the scapula as the arm reaches overhead.

Along with the scapula control, the swim stroke requires a relaxed neck and lengthened pectoralis group (pecs). Here’s something to thing about: if the pecs are lengthened they will indirectly allow for increased strength of the scapula muscles…Huh? Lengthen the front to strengthen the back? YES! Tight pecs limit scapular mobility. Limited scapular mobility limits the range of motion that the scapular muscles can activate, thus they are weak. Weak scapular muscles are not efficient at their job: stabilization.

Anatomy review is over.

About a year ago, an elite age-group triathlete (now a Kona qualifier) decided to come see me. While treating her IT band syndrome, she mentioned that her swim stroke didn’t feel comfortable and wanted to feel more efficient and powerful in the water. After a few conversations, she thought Pilates would be a good fit to her training.

During the first session, it was apparent that she, like many other triathletes, had upper cross syndrome.  She did not know how to engage her scapular muscles, especially her lat, creating a triceps dominant arm extension with forward shoulders. This combination was creating an impingement of her shoulder and negating all of the possible power she could be getting from her swim stroke.

In addition, she did not know where her scapular muscles were in space. This is common in adult athletes. I call it: “The muscles we don’t see in the mirror syndrome”. Most adults have difficulty engaging the posterior muscles such as: latissiumus dorsi, lower trapezius, gluteals and soleus. After early childhood, adults rely on vision to give feedback of how the body is moving in space; thus, if we can see it we often don’t use it.

The following video and pictures demonstrate some specific Pilates exercises to enhance the swim stroke and address upper cross syndrome. The added bonus: core training.

Pulling straps I + II Combo (video): scapular stabilization endurance, pectoralis and neck lengthening. Application: proximal stability for distal mobility.

Swim stroke simulation: a single arm drill for strength, stabilization and relaxed cervical rotation. Application: sports-specific

Pilates for Triathletes: Swim

Stomach massage: Flat back: pectoralis lengthening with core stability and scapular activation. Application: lengthen the front to strengthen the back

Pilates for Triathletes: Swim

Shave the head: scapular proprioception (awareness) and stabilization. Application: finding the muscles you don’t see in the mirror and welcoming them back to your life!

Pilates for Triathletes: Swim

© 2014 and Beyond. ALL BLOG CONTENT at duncansportspt.com by Lori Duncan PT


Lori Duncan, DPT, MTC, CPT is a respected Physical Therapist, Manual Therapist and Pilates instructor in Lafayette, CO. Lori is passionate about preventive physical therapy and education and is a nationally recognized presenter. She can be reached at [email protected]. You can also follow Duncan Sports Therapy + Wellness on Facebook & Instagram for more free tips and information.

Leave a Comment

Subscribe to Our Blog

* indicates required