Exercises to Strengthen the Rotator Cuff and Prevent Injury for the Water Polo Player

by Thomas Martinho, DPT

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Shoulder injuries are amongst the most common injuries that water polo players experience. The repetitive overhead motion of swimming coupled with throwing can lead to overuse and result in issues such as labral tears, rotator cuff injuries and biceps tendonitis. The demands of throwing have been extensively studied in the case of a baseball pitcher, however, the mechanics of throwing in water polo alter these demands. In most overhead throwing sports, much of the power that goes into each throw is created through the elastic stretch of the internal rotators that happens during the cocking phase (when the arm comes back.) This cocking phase is mostly passive with the forward momentum of the body assisting in bringing the arm back. In water polo, this cocking phase is absent. A player must keep the ball in the overhead cocked position to both keep it out of the water and maintain faking position. This results in an increased demand in the external rotators to hold this cocked position and stabilize the arm during faking. Try these water polo-specific exercises to strengthen your rotator cuff and prevent injury.

ER Isometric at Multiple Angles

Face a wall with a resistance band anchored at about chest height. Bring your shoulder to 90 degrees and rotate your arm backward into a throwing position. Make sure your shoulders are squared up to the wall so that the band is pulling your arm in a forward direction. From there, you can step side to side, slightly varying the angle of pull. This exercise trains the endurance of your external rotators at multiple angles. This will allow you keep the ball in a ready-to-shoot position. This exercise can be progressed by adding forward, backward and side to side perturbations as shown in the second video.

Ball Circle

Stand about 8 inches away from a wall facing forward. Reach up and pin a weighted ball against the wall using the palm of your hand. While gently pushing the ball into the wall, make 10 clockwise circles and 10 counterclockwise circles. Repeat at multiple angles. This exercise is designed to create shoulder stability and strength at different shooting angels and throughout your range of faking.

ER Ball Drop

Lay prone on a Swiss ball with your chest in the center of the ball. You can place your feet up against a wall for additional stability. From there, bring a weighted wall into a throwing position. Drop the ball and catch it before it hits the ground. Perform 10 slow drops followed by 10 rapid ones. Repeat 2-5 times. This exercise trains deceleration of the arm and helps build up the endurance of your rotator cuff to prepare for repeated throwing. It’s also great for coordination!

Bicep Curl in Faking Position

The cocked or throwing position is one of the most vulnerable positions for the bicep tendon. In water polo, we repeatedly contract the biceps in this vulnerable position while faking. Strengthening in this functional position helps build up strength and resilience in the tendon. With a resistance band anchored to the wall, turn 90 degrees to have your throwing arm closer to the anchored band. From there, bring your arm into the shooting position. Slowly flex and extend the elbow to contract the bicep brachii and move your arm through a faking motion.

If you are having trouble performing these exercises, experiencing pain while playing or simply want to further develop your training program, please reach out for a comprehensive evaluation with a physical therapist!

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