Swimming and Flexibility

Where on the Flexibility Scale Should Competitive Swimmers Be?


By Bill McKeon



On a Saturday night, some years ago, a swimmer from a northeastern college had a run-in with the police. He was handcuffed behind his back. When the officers looked away he brought his arms up over his head, shrugged his shoulders, and then brought his arms down in front of his body—wrists still securely shackled.


After some questioning the officers realized that they had the wrong person in custody. They promptly removed the handcuffs with an apology, but not before they asked him how he pulled off that “repositioning trick.” 


Truth be known, there was no trickery involved in this swimmer’s unorthodox maneuver. It was simply a display of hyperflexibility—in his case, an inherited condition more accurately referred to as joint laxity.


On a flexibility scale of one to ten, this swimmer was a ten plus. Other swimmers often assumed that his loosely-hinged joints gave him a competitive edge in the pool—but nothing could have been further from the truth. His condition caused him to struggle with positional awareness, and joint dislocations were common occurrences. In fact, except for the attention he received for his exotic moves on the dance floor, his hyperflexibility caused him nothing but heartaches.


Obviously, this swimmer’s story is an unusual one, yet, it makes an important point: More is not always better when it comes to flexibility. So the question arises: Where on the flexibility scale should a competitive swimmer be?  It’s not an easy question to answer. 



As the four competitive swimming strokes evolved into their current forms, the limitations of the shoulder joint could not be ignored. So it is by design that modern stroke techniques do not require swimmers to have extraordinary shoulder flexibility. Today’s swimmer needs shoulder flexibility in what might be called the “athletic normal” range. That is, a degree of flexibility that is just a little better than that of the average Joe or Jane. This level of flexibility enables a swimmer to do such things as: fully extend the arms at the front of all strokes, get a deep catch in backstroke, and recover the arms above the surface of the water in butterfly. 


For determining a swimmer’s current level of shoulder flexibility, the Mouth Wraparound Test is a useful tool. To perform this test, the swimmer’s head is held vertical and turned 45 degrees to the body. With the head looking to the right, the swimmer reaches around behind the head with the left arm—elbow pointed up—and tries to reach the mouth.


Although there are great differences in human physiques, most swimmers should be able to at least reach the near corner of the mouth. The inability to do this demonstrates a less than normal range of motion at the shoulder. Swimmers with longer limbs may be able to reach the middle of the mouth or even the far corner of the mouth. Individuals who cannot reach around behind the head may have damage to the joint capsule and may need medical intervention.


For a more sport-specific assessment of shoulder flexibility, nothing beats observing a swimmer in the streamlined hand-on-hand push-off position. When performed on land or in the water, the elbows should be locked with the biceps squeezing the ear flaps against the head. This should be accomplished without shoulder pain or excessive muscle tightness. A swimmer having trouble assuming or holding this position is demonstrating subpar shoulder flexibility.  



Ankle flexibility is one area where a swimmer might benefit from having a better than average range of motion. This is because a swimmer would be better served by having a fish-like tail instead of feet. And since growing a tail is not an option, having flexible ankles is the next best thing.


In all swimming strokes, the ability to extend the foot and point the toes enhances the kick. Some forms of training—such as running—tend to decrease ankle flexibility. An inflexible ankle not only inhibits kicking but can actually create unnecessary drag by causing the feet to act like the flaps on airplane wings.


A swimmer with normal ankle flexibility should be able to kneel on a mat and sit back on the heels with the toes pointing backwards. The tops of the feet and the lower legs should form straight lines against the mat. If this is painful or cannot be held for 30 seconds, ankle flexibility is deficient.


For breaststrokers, the ankles also need to be flexible in the opposite direction (dorsiflexion). To test for flexibility in this direction a swimmer should stand with feet shoulder width apart and slowly lower into a deep squat while keeping the feet flat on the floor. A swimmer with normal ankle flexibility should be able to maintain this position for 30 seconds without pain and should not have to struggle against falling backwards. Mature girls may have to extend their arms forward as counterbalance to the hips.


It should be noted that some swimmers may not be able to achieve normal levels of flexibility. The reasons for this can range from something as simple as having inherently tight muscles, to something as unusual as the presence of an extra bone that inhibits range of motion. Swimmers who are plagued by these kinds of problems may have to adapt their strokes to compensate for flexibility limitations. 



An authoritative article published on the Internet states that “if done properly, stretching increases flexibility and this directly translates into reduced risk of injury.” And a blurb for a training video claims that “stretching is a key component in injury prevention.” However, in 2004 the American College of Sports Medicine declared that there “is not sufficient evidence to endorse or discontinue routine stretching” as a way to prevent sports related injuries. They added that further research was “urgently needed.”


This may seem counterintuitive. After all, a “tight” muscle would be more susceptible to being strained than a “loose” muscle, wouldn’t it? Well, maybe.  But research shows that most activity-related muscle injuries occur while the athlete is moving through a normal range of motion. If this is true, it logically follows that an athlete would receive no protection from injury by having an enhanced range of motion. On the other hand, a swimmer who displays a restricted range of motion—at any joint—may be able to lessen the likelihood of injury through flexibility training that restores normal limits.


The fact that coaches and athletes perceive a strong relationship between increased flexibility and injury prevention can probably be attributed to the blurred distinction between warming-up and stretching. Since stretching is often performed immediately after a warm-up—or even combined with a warm-up—the two activities often get lumped together.


Warming-up and stretching are both activities that affect muscles—but in different ways. Warming-up has the goal of raising the temperature of a muscle, while stretching has the goal of elongating a muscle. Research does show that warm muscles are less likely to sustain injuries than cold muscles. There is also evidence that stretching without first warming up can cause injury. But a link between stretching and injury prevention has not been clearly established—not even by those researchers who have set out trying to do so.



To the surprise of some coaches, there are few studies that specifically link enhanced athletic performance to improvements in flexibility. One reason for this might be that well executed studies are hard to come by. Humans tend to present so many variables that well intentioned studies often yield inconclusive results.


But even in the absence of  scientific evidence, most swimming coaches would probably agree that an improvement in sport-specific flexibility—the kind that leads to better execution of accepted stroke mechanics—would give a swimmer a competitive advantage. So, practically speaking, flexibility has the potential to be a valuable performance enhancer.   


For now, the only strong scientific link between flexibility and enhanced athletic performance is an indirect one. It has been shown that a regular program of stretching—continued over weeks or months—has a positive effect on both force and power. This in turn can translate into a small percentage gain in race speed. The key here is that a swimmer must stretch on a daily basis to get this result. A three-day-a-week stretching program will not produce the desired effect.


Of course, the problem with conducting a regular team stretching program is that it takes valuable time away from other types of training. To solve this problem, coaches sometimes begin a flexibility program early in the season and then transition this responsibility over to the individual swimmers as the season progresses. Swimmers can then do their stretching while studying or watching television. A once-a-week team stretching session enables the coach to monitor progress and be sure that proper techniques are being maintained.


A key point to remember regarding stretching and performance is that the immediate effect of stretching is just the opposite of the long term effect. The immediate effect of stretching on muscle tissue is a temporary reduction of force and power. Some researchers have suggested that this temporary “weakness” may last for up to an hour. This means that a significant amount of stretching, performed right before a race, is likely to reduce the explosiveness of a swimmer’s start and generally make the swimmer slower in the water.


For this reason, swimmers who complain that their muscles get “tight” during competition might want to try lengthening their warm-up and warm-down sessions. This may relieve the tightness and thus eliminate the need for stretching during the span of the competition. If the tightness persists, swimmers can probably indulge in a limited amount of stretching—just enough to remind a tight muscle where its normal limits should be—without degrading performance.


One area where flexibility can make a noticeable difference is in helping swimmers achieve stroke symmetry. Differences in bilateral flexibility can affect body roll, arm recovery, arm pull, and even kicking. For example, a freestyle swimmer who rolls more to the right than to the left will swim in a lopsided manner. Equalizing flexibility on both sides of the body will leave the swimmer with a stroke that is more graceful and more rhythmic.


So, although it may not be worth it for a swimmer to develop flexibility that rivals that of comic book hero Mr. Fantastic, it is crucial for a swimmer to maintain that “athletic normal” measure of flexibility. A swimmer who is working against stiff or tight muscles does not swim with the same economy of motion as does the unrestricted swimmer.



Swimmers stretch for many reasons. Reducing muscle soreness, relieving stress, and improving sleep are all benefits sometimes attributed to stretching.  But there is still much that is not understood. Some of the benefits that have long been attributed to stretching are being questioned. 


In his acclaimed text on competitive swimming, Swimming Fastest, Ernest W. Maglischo writes: “Swimmers should perform specialized flexibility exercises only for those joints in which a limited range of motion interferes with efficient swimming.” Dr. Maglischo clearly believes that training programs should be based on the latest scientific research.  


But Olympic Swimming Coach Mark Schubert has a slightly different take on the subject. At the 2005 U.S. Western States Swim Clinic, Schubert listed seven things that American swimmers need to work on. One of the items he mentioned was ankle flexibility. This doesn’t mean that Schubert is unaware of current research or that he ignores it. It could just be that his extensive experience with world-class swimmers has given him a clear picture of the link between performance and certain areas of flexibility—the link that many sports scientists are still trying to find.


© 2008 Bill McKeon     Contact