Human Performance: Is There Gait Dysfunction in Swimming?

April 26, 2018

 

Shoulders get most of the attention from the swimming and medical community as the number one problem/complaint/downfall of being a swimmer. Swimmer's posture also has an equally bad reputation, classified commonly as having "upper-crossed syndrome" with a forward head, rounded shoulder positioning. This posture plus the repetitive overhead motion of the sport only further promotes the downfall of shoulder health in swimming. 

 

 But what about the glutes?

 

Glutes, or your butt muscles, are incredibly important in pelvic stability, hip stability, upright posture, and locomotion. For sports that have high ACL injury rates, much research has been performed in order to fully understand gluteal firing, strength training, and rehabilitation protocols in order to better promote the hip stability so necessary for effective athletic movement. 

 

Swimmers need bi-lateral strength of both their hips in order to perform symmetrical body rolling, kicking, and ultimately propulsive stroke cycles. Water polo players must have control of their vertical posture and strong kicking in the constant abduction position. Both athletes need the pelvic stability to reduce excessive forces through their lumbar spine (lower back) region.

 

 What are the gluteal muscles and what do they do?  

 

1. Gluteus minimus - abduction of the hip; preventing adduction of the hip and medial rotation of thigh. 

 

 2. Gluteus medius- abduction of the hip; preventing adduction of the hip and lateral rotation of thigh. 

 

 3. Gluteus maximus- external rotation and extension of the hip joint, supports knee extension, "chief antigravity muscle" in abduction of the hip. 

 

Recent research in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport found differences in activation patterns within the gluteus minimus between non-elite and elite swimmers. While this research was performed with the swimmers walking, the findings are applicable to underwater analysis. Non-elite swimmers showed anterior segments of the gluteus minimus to peak earlier than the posterior sections, while elite swimmers had more equally timed activation. While this can be attributed to compensatory factors with the swimmers dealing with ground reaction forces, we can apply it easily to maladaptive movements in all of the strokes. 

 

Identifying "gait dysfunction" in breaststrokers:

 Breaststrokers will often complain on knee pain. Many swimmers received conflicting cues that they should "whip" or "glide" their kick. If we reflect on the gluteal firing patterns as seen during underwater video analysis, the gluteal muscles are not visually firing in swimmers that:

 

 1. Complain of knee pain

 2. Complain of low back pain

 3. See decreased performance in breaststroke races

 4. Have a lateral hip drop as seen as zig-zagging in the lane

 

In the underwater world of constant horizontal motion, this posture becomes the new "upright/vertical" so often studied in gate analysis. The glutes ability to stabilize a swimmer's hips during breaststroke is the easiest cue to identify if the swimmer is suffering from a lack of activation or beginning to experience fatigue. 

 

Just as we watch for changes in scapular positioning as a sign of fatigue in a youth baseball pitcher, we should look for changes in hip stabilization as a sign of fatigue in swimmers. 

 

So how can movement scientists/clinicians teach swimmers and coaches to care about their glutes?
 

1. Educate that glutes are important to force production, swimming efficiency, injury prevention, and quick recovery from knee or low back pain. 

 

2. Include easy glute activation exercises during developmental swimming including glute squeezes, hip extension, and abduction. 

 

3. Cue swimmers that are "wiggling" in the lane to activate their glutes. 

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