Athletic development specialists dedicated to the art and science of excellence in movement

Thoughts on Overcoming Movement Dysfunction in the Masters Swimming Population

With masters swimmers, we focus upon restoring lost movement literacy. Quite simply, most swimmers (especially masters, but age group as well) have fundamental movement dysfunctions on land that make efficient movement very difficult in the water. If you can't move efficiently on land in a sterile environment with no temporal parameters, your chances of success probably won't improve when we make you answer to the pace clock, take your oxygen away, and inject your muscles with metabolic waste products as the aquatic workload increases. Dryland conditioning must support the technical elements you are trying to achieve in the water. Otherwise, you are simply adding power to dysfunction.

Dysfunction is a pretty strong term, so let me briefly describe how we identify it. We use both the Functional Movement Screen and the rotational sport screening tools developed by the Titleist Performance Institute in coordination with the Functional Movement Screen founders. Each land-based screening tool looks at some aspect of your fundamental movement ability. We can determine dysfunction based upon how you perform in each of these basic screening moves in a controlled environment. Think of screening as like an eye chart or a blood pressure exam. The blood pressure exam determines whether your blood pressure is above or below a certain known risk factor level. A low blood pressure doesn't tell us whether you are fit in terms of cardiovascular performance. Likewise, a high blood pressure doesn't tell us whether the cause is short term stress or a major coronary blockage. However, the blood pressure exam is effective at identifying those in the population who are at risk for serious conditions.

The same applies to basic movement ability...for example, if you can pass the shoulder screenings, it doesn't mean that your arm mechanics will be great in the water, but if you can't pass the shoulder screenings it means you are at greater risk of injury when attempting complex sport specific movements involving increased load. Even if you manage to keep yourself free of injury with fundamental movement dysfunction, it often requires you to use inefficient compensations such as calling upon your "prime-mover" muscles to act as stabilizers or calling upon your stabilizing muscles to act as "prime-movers". Note, just because something is inefficient doesn't mean it should be changed. With experienced athletes, it is sometimes necessary to take an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach. Ultimately, this is a strategic decision to be made by the coach, athlete, and any support staff (dryland coach, PT/chiro) involved in the process.

The term "functional training" has become quite the buzzword in recent years, but has unfortunately become bastardized. The scope of "functionality" has become so broad that it often includes any body weight exercise performed with high repetitions for long enough to make you feel sore in muscles that you think should be sore (see, e.g., Boot Camp Blast-o-robics class).  We should define "functional" not by what the workout looks like, but instead "what does it produce." Jumping up and down from boxes CAN be a functional exercise for developing explosiveness and most would consider it to be more functional for athletics than strapping yourself into a machine and cranking away. However, if you have some fundamental movement limitation, one of two things will happen if we give you any advanced exercise. First, you might use poor mechanics. Second, you might use good mechanics but use inefficient motor-neural pathways to achieve the good mechanics. If your knees collapse inward during your jump landings, you really aren't improving your "function" unless your standard of functional is to simply move inefficiently with greater power.

Working hard on land is great.  I just want to make sure that everyone holds themselves to high standards in their dryland workouts and doesn't simply shop around for novel exercises. As physical therapist extraoridinaire Gray Cook notes, if you shop around for exercises without screening and assessing basic movement ability, it is like throwing a bunch of letters against a wall and hoping that a dictionary will emerge. What is more important than the exercises to improve function is finding out what is causing the DYS-fucntion in the first place (whether a lifestyle factor or current exercise selection). Remove the bad before adding the good.


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