Swimmers have been known to have a stereotypical look about them after years spent in the pool. With a taller stature, long limbs, a wide V-tapered back, and broad shoulders, these athletes are said to have a “swimmer’s body.” One particular aspect of this stereotypical look that draws the most attention from prospective athletes is broad shoulders.
Swimming can broaden the shoulders, but only to a certain degree. Much of a person’s shoulder width is determined by their bone structure, not their shoulder muscle. Even if the shoulders do grow in response to swimming, this transformation is typically only seen in competitive swimmers.
We will explore why it’s possible for swimming to broaden your shoulders in the sections below. Following that, we will address additional topics like whether it’s common for all swimmers to get broad shoulders and the various factors that promote shoulder growth in swimmers.
How Swimming Can Broaden Your Shoulders Over Time
The archetypical “broad-shouldered” look of swimmers is no fluke. Swimming does have the capacity to build muscle, particularly in the shoulders. The reason for this traces back to the fundamental mechanics by which the body builds muscle, which we will revisit now.
How Swimming Can Lead to Superior Shoulder Development
Muscular growth only occurs when the muscle fibers are placed under a considerable load and subsequently damaged. These muscles come back larger than before during the recovery process, in what is known as muscular hypertrophy (source).
Swimmers put their shoulders under perpetual strain with practically every swimming stroke. This is because the shoulder muscles are relied upon to guide the arms forward and into the water time and time again.
Think about the freestyle stroke, for example. The shoulder muscles are responsible for letting a swimmer reach out in front of them to ready themselves for the upcoming stroke. This reaching maneuver, combined with the subsequent pull through the water, puts stress on the muscles when the shoulder is at its most extreme range of motion—180° over the swimmer’s head.
The stability and range motion required of the shoulder girdle to perform this movement is unparalleled. With everyday activities, the shoulders are only activated when they’re in a shortened state. It’s not very often that we put our shoulders under such stress when the muscles are lengthened practically to their fullest degree.
Over the course of a single workout, the shoulders could be called upon to perform this same taxing movement hundreds to thousands of times. And that’s just one single workout!
The sheer frequency of movement demanded of the shoulder muscles, combined with the unorthodox range of motion, is sufficient to build muscle in the long term.
Why Swimming Isn’t Primarily Considered a Muscle Building Activity
Having just gone over the muscle-building potential of swimming in the shoulders, it should be noted that swimming is not largely considered the best activity for muscle building. Those that want to build muscle will often see better results with other forms of exercise—like weightlifting, for example.
Recall that the very first step for muscular growth to happen is that the muscle fibers must be “placed under a considerable load.” This is easy enough for an activity such as weightlifting, where one can easily adjust the level of resistance and weight according to their muscular capabilities.
Swimming, on the other hand, has no such luxury. Swimmers are only presented with one constant level of resistance, that being water.
For this reason, swimmers may experience muscular growth in their first couple of months of serious training since their bodies have yet to adapt to this new stimulus. Once their body gradually adapts to the resistance presented by water, however, this muscular growth tends to diminish significantly.
Is It Common for All Swimmers to Get Broad Shoulders?
Not every swimmer will have the classic broad-shouldered look sported by Olympic swimmers. There are a couple of reasons for this. The most prominent of which have been outlined below.
Recreational Swimmers Don’t Swim Nearly Enough
The fixed resistance of water is the underlying reason why the large majority of casual swimmers typically do not acquire “swimmer’s shoulders.”
Swimming only once or twice per week is not adequate for muscular growth, especially when the body has already adapted to the initial shock of adjusting to the stimulus of exercising in the water.
Since upping the resistance level is not an option, swimmers must notch a substantial number of practice hours under their belt for muscular growth to occur. Realistically, only competitive swimmers in the pool three to five days a week can attain the number of repetitions necessary for a broad-shouldered appearance.
Young swimmers that participate in swimming year-round on their school team or club team reach these numbers consistently. In fact, I’ve known some competitive swim teams that regularly practiced six times a week, with two-a-day practices on top of that!
As young athletes continue to progress on their swimming journey, those long hours in the pool begin to mold their physiques day by day until they have the quintessential swimmer’s shoulders that are such a staple feature of the competitive swimming community.
Swimmers Cannot Change Their Bone Structure
In addition, it’s worth pointing out that a person’s skeletal frame is a key determining factor of their shoulder width (source).
Some people have naturally wide collar bones, which is conducive to the appearance of broad shoulders. Others have relatively narrow collar bones, giving off the appearance of narrow shoulders.
It goes without saying that you cannot change the width of your collar bone through simple exercise. A person’s skeletal frame is largely determined by their genetics more than anything else.
Although you can develop the shoulders to a certain degree, some individuals with narrow collar bones may never obtain a broad-shouldered look due to their bone structure.
Since long-limbed, broad-shouldered individuals have a natural advantage over other swimmers due to optimal leverages, this is why practically all top-tier swimmers have “swimmer’s shoulders.” Their genetics are primed for swimming at the highest level.
Swimming virtually all day, every day, is also a tremendous help to constructing this V-tapered, streamlined physique.
Factors that Promote the Development of Broad Shoulders
Now that you know that broad shoulders can result from swimming, you’re probably wondering what the contributing factors are for increasing shoulder width. Lucky for you, all of these contributing factors are discussed in greater detail below.
As aforementioned, how often a swimmer hits the pool is essential to shoulder growth, especially in the absence of weight training.
Increasing the weight or resistance level is not a viable option for swimmers, so they must resort to performing an exorbitant amount of repetitions to see appreciable muscle development. Ultimately, you’re likely to see superior shoulder development if you swim three to five times per week instead of one or two.
Another factor that plays a major role in shoulder development is swimming intensity. Recall that intensity is a measure of how hard an individual physically exerts themself during exercise.
The greater the intensity, the greater the likelihood of muscular growth. For example, swimmers that are more prone to high-intensity sprint workouts have a greater likelihood of tearing their muscle fibers and growing their shoulder muscles.
On the other hand, long-distance swimmers perform at a low, sustainable intensity, which is slightly less conducive to muscular growth. Long-distance activity is better suited for cardiovascular fitness. It’s similar to the difference in physiques seen in sprinters versus long-distance runners.
Furthermore, certain swimming strokes are inherently more strenuous relative to other swimming strokes. The front crawl and butterfly stroke, for instance, burn considerably more calories on average than breaststroke or backstroke, as shown in the table below (source). All of the data listed pertains to a 155 lb swimmer.
|Type of Swimming Stroke||Average Calories Burned|
|Front Crawl||820 calories|
Thus, the butterfly stroke and front crawl have slightly more muscle-building potential compared to the others.
The length of your pool workouts also has an impact on your shoulder development. Ultimately, the longer you’re in the pool, the greater the potential stress on the muscles.
If you go to the pool three to five times a week and only spend ten minutes in the pool for each workout, there’s not that much opportunity for muscle growth. I probably sound like a broken record by now, but the only way for the shoulders to grow by swimming is through high volumes of repetition.
It may be somewhat grueling to stay in the pool for so long week after week, but this is how swimmers earn their broad shoulders.
Quality of Technique
Lastly, performing the various swimming strokes with the correct form is pivotal to shoulder development.
When a swimmer fails to execute proper technique, certain muscles will bear additional strain while others will not bear enough. Swimming is meant to be a full-body workout, incorporating both the upper body and the lower body. Therefore, the physical stress of swimming should be distributed somewhat evenly across the body.
You may think that loading up on the shoulders with an even greater degree of physical stress may supplement muscular growth, but this is usually not the case. More often than not, improper form where the shoulders bear the brunt of the load leads to injury.
Shoulder impingement injuries are actually so prevalent in swimming that they’ve earned the nickname “swimmer’s shoulder” in the medical community (source). Obviously, being injured will render you inactive in the pool, stopping any potential shoulder gains you had hoped to achieve.
Why the “Broad-Shouldered” Look Shouldn’t Stop You from Swimming
Some female athletes who are interested in swimming may be turned away from the sport due to the potential for building broad shoulders. They’re under the impression that broad shoulders will take away from their appearance and make them look “boxy.”
For one, the process of developing broad shoulders strictly through swimming usually takes several months to years of consistent hours in the pool (source). Only those that swim all day, every day, have any realistic chance of seeing a big difference in shoulder width. If you plan on only swimming casually, then the chances of developing broad shoulders are rather slim, as we previously discussed.
Even if you are considering joining a competitive swim team, the prospect of developing your shoulders shouldn’t stop you from venturing into the realm of swimming. There’s just so much to be had from participating in this sport to let a little feeling of self-consciousness stifle your ambitions.
Not only do you strengthen your muscles and build up your cardiovascular health, but you also get to meet friends along the way that share the same fitness aspirations as you. Moreover, the memories built with your teammates are something that will last for years to come.
Put simply, the mental, physical, and social benefits of swimming with a team far outweigh the drawbacks of having well-developed shoulders.
Plus, the athletic physique of top-tier female swimmers is something to take pride in. You shouldn’t be embarrassed about having a well-toned swimmer’s body!
In short, go out and try swimming. You may uncover a passion you never knew you had.