Do you think you might have Surfers Shoulder or Swimmers Shoulder? 

Shoulder, also widely known as Swimmers Shoulder, is characterised by pain or discomfort during or after a surf or swim and is often aggravated by overhead arm movements or even sleeping on your side.
While ‘Surfers Shoulder’ or ‘Swimmers Shoulder’ are not specific diagnoses, shoulder pain is a common complaint among surfers and swimmers. Naturally, surfers and swimmers want to know how to get rid of shoulder pain and prevent it from happening again (or in the first place!).

What is Surfers or Swimmers Shoulder?

While the cause of shoulder pain is most often multifactorial, conditions affecting the shoulder that are commonly associated with shoulder pain include:

  • Rotator Cuff Related Shoulder Pain where the rotator cuff muscles and tendons are irritated or injured.
  • Inflammation of Bursa, or Bursitis, where fluid-filled sacs that reduce friction between moving parts of the shoulder become inflamed.
  • Osteoarthritis of the glenohumeral joint, a degenerative disease of the shoulder joint.
  • The three conditions above are commonly seen in our clinic at Motus Health and Performance, however there are hundreds if not thousands of reasons your shoulders might hurt, and for our physiotherapists, there lies the challenge in correctly identifying the driver of your pain!

What causes Surfers or Swimmers Shoulder?

Perhaps the most obvious cause of shoulder pain is an acute injury. This means that there was an incident or moment where there was damage to tissues within the shoulder complex. Think blunt force from a surfboard, hitting the reef or falling awkwardly on hard water at speed. Shoulders can be acutely injured without direct contact to the shoulder as well, for example, shoulder dislocation, subluxation or rotator cuff tears can occur from simply catching your arm awkwardly in a wave.

On the other hand, pain onset could be insidious. This means there was no moment or incident where the shoulder was injured. One cause of insidious onset shoulder pain is a lack of capacity. What we mean by this is that the shoulder was asked to do too much, too soon after doing too little for too long. This kind of injury is commonly referred to as an ‘overuse injury’. For example, after a flat spell or time off, you over froth on your first surfs back, surf for ages, maybe multiple times in one day and your shoulder simply does not handle the big spike in stress/load.

In addition to being over-used/over-capacity, some surfers and swimmers can have movement dysfunctions that could be contributing to their shoulder pain.

Possible impairments contributing to shoulder dysfunction and pain for surfers include:

  • Reduced external rotation range of motion
  • Reduced strength of shoulder external rotators (rotator cuff muscles).
  • Poor control, range or rhythm of the scapula (shoulder blade).
  • Poor thoracic (upper back) mobility.
  • A discerning physiotherapist can help to determine whether your biomechanics and movements patterns are relevant to your pain.

How serious is surfers or swimmers shoulder?

While shoulder pain is rarely a sign of anything serious or life threatening, its can certainly impact your quality of life, especially it is getting in the way of doing what you love! If you have any doubts, see your physiotherapist to help find the correct diagnosis and rule out any serious underlying issues. A physiotherapist can help identify drivers of pain, refer for further investigation if necessary (such as an MRI or specialist) and come up with a plan of attack. More often that not, images or referrals are not necessary and your physiotherapist can tailor a rehabilitation plan for you and your goals.

What exercises are best for Surfers or Swimmers Shoulder?

As a general rule, you can’t go wrong getting strong, however, what should you do? Unfortunately there is no ‘one best exercise’ for surfers shoulder just like there is no ‘one best exercise’ for back pain. If only it were that simple! The best exercise and the best frequency and intensity of that exercise will depend on you and your situation.
Movement is medicine and the dosage matters. The key is finding right exercises at the right time and at the right right frequency and intensity. Just like medicine, you need the right medicine and the right amount! For these reasons we are not big fans of providing generic exercises for complex issues, especially if there is the potential to hinder your recovery.
If you need any guidance, see your physio! At Motus Health and Performance we have a team of skilled physios that love to surf!

Why should a surfer or swimmer train in the gym?

To improve performance, create longevity and minimise time out of the water with injury!

For paddling specifically, a well designed Strength and Conditioning program will improve paddling speed, power, endurance and shoulder capacity. Perhaps most importantly for surfers with a history of shoulder pain, gym based training can provide injury resilience and longevity in the sport. The great thing is, if you’ve never done any specific surf strength traini
ng before, you’ll see great results within weeks. If you have general gym experience already, training to be more athletic for surfing can be a game changer.
Your training should reflect what you love to do outside the gym. If you’re a surfer, train to surf!

Doesn’t paddling alone help with shoulder strength and longevity? 

Paddling itself is good for paddling. Any exercise or movement is a positive and paddling is no exception. However, balancing out your paddling load with an appropriate gym program can combat any potential over-use issues from a repetitive motion like paddling. The beauty of the gym is that we can progressively overload the system easily and safely in a targeted way. We can use weights, bands and body weight resistance to stress the body, including the shoulder, just the right amount so that it overcompensates and adapts, strengthening bones, joints and muscles. We target structures that are commonly overloaded and under capacity in surfers so that you can paddle stronger for longer.


Where can I find Strength and Conditioning for surfers?

At Chocolate Box Training we have a Surfer Strength Program powered by the Physiotherapy and Strength and Conditioning team at Motus Health and Performance.
In our Surfer Strength sessions we build strong rotator cuff muscles for performance and injury resilience. We also develop strength in muscles and tissues involved in getting your arm comfortably overhead in the recovery stroke and a strong catch to propel you forwards. In addition we work on upper back and shoulder mobility so that you can access the positions you need to when paddling or swimming.

Some of our go to shoulder resilience exercises for swimmers and surfers are:


  • Banded or Cable Face Pulls
  • Pull Downs or Pull Ups
  • Horizontal Rows
  • Horizontal and vertical press
Also, we don’t just work the shoulders! We train the whole body from head to toe, focusing on mobility, strength, power and injury resilience. We train you to be athletic. We train you to surf better for longer.

Interested in Physiotherapy, Exercise Physiology or Surfer S&C classes for surf related rehab and fitness? Contact the team at Motus HP. We have a professional and friendly treatment centre situated inside Chocolate Box Training facility in Cromer.