4 External Rotator Exercises to Prevent Shoulder Injuries for Swimmers

Alex Meyer is an open water swimmer who represented the USA at the 2012 Olympic Games, where he placed 10th. He won a gold medal at the 2010 FINA World Open Water Swimming Championships and numerous National Championships. Alex is a graduate of Harvard University. He is a passionate advocate for open water swim safety. We are proud that he is a Vasa Ambassador athlete.

Recently, Alex reported on how he keeps his shoulders healthy and strong by incorporating shoulder external rotation (ER) exercises into his dryland training workouts and his Vasa Swim Erg and Vasa Trainer sessions.

The four examples we will be examining are as follows:

1). Ball-to-wall:

Keep the upper arm / elbow at 90 degrees and rotate keeping the elbow in place as if it were fixed on a swivel, like a spit. Throw the ball to the wall, catch it, and repeat. Alex suggests using a two-pound ball that’s basically a plastic casing with sand in it, so it doesn’t bounce very much and is the perfect weight for the exercise. They are available in various weights at just about any exercise equipment store or can be ordered online.

Alex Meyer, shoulder exercises to prevent injury, VASA

2.) Band External Rotator (ER) at 90 degrees:

Same basic motion as ball-to-wall but using a band instead of the weight of the ball as resistance. Anchor it somewhere around shoulder height.

Band-External-Rotator-v21, Alex Meyer, shoulder exercises to prevent injury, VASA

3). Band (ER) with arm at side:

Anchor the band around waist height.

Alex Meyer, shoulder exercises to prevent injury, VASA

4). Bilateral (ER) band pull apart:

Use a band with less resistance for this.

Alex Meyer, shoulder exercises to prevent injury, VASA

Below, you can find our Q&A interview with Alex on the details and fine points of utilizing the ER exercises:

Q: Frequency – How many times a week are you doing this exercise?

Alex Meyer: “Tad Sayce advises me on strength & conditioning. He mixes these exercises in with my workouts, but I always make sure I get some of it in during my Vasa workouts. I will do one set of ER between sets on the Vasa Swim Erg and Vasa Trainer. Though if you are looking for insight into incorporating this into a general routine, you should ask Tad.”

Q: Sets & Reps – How many do you perform each session?

Alex Meyer: “I’ll pretty much alternate between a set on the Erg or Trainer with a set of 10-12 on each arm of any one of those ER exercises. So I’ll end up doing 3-4 sets”.

Q: How do you select how much Intensity / Resistance?

Alex Meyer: “Just a pretty light band will do. The muscles you are using are small, so you will know if you are using too much resistance. It should feel good. Too little won’t feel like anything, and too much will hurt. If using a cable column, about 5-10 pounds will do”.

Q: Internal Rotators- Do you include any of those in your routine? If yes, which ones?

Alex Meyer: “Definitely not. Swimming and using the Vasa machines is all internal rotation – no need to exercise those muscles more. The whole point of doing ER is to keep things balanced”.

Q: Any other shoulder health exercises in this routine?

Alex Meyer: “There are many possibilities and my list is not exhaustive. There are many possibilities and my list is not exhaustive. There are many to skin a cat, but if you don’t mind some repetitiveness, these four exercises will do you just fine but feel free to get creative”!

Q: For External Rotator exercises 2, 3, and 4, we’ve had reports from conditioning coaches that they use the Swim Erg at a very light fan resistance and have the athlete pull on one drive cord. Would this work OK, or do you prefer the bands for the eccentric load they provide?

Alex Meyer: “I prefer the band, mostly because you can adjust the attachment height, but using the Vasa Swim Erg for these works too. It’s kind of like using a shotgun to kill a mosquito – not really the right tool, something much simpler is all you need, but it (the Swim Erg) will work”!

We want to thank Alex for taking the time to talk with us and informing us on his great training workout routine. If you’d like to view other materials for information and inspiration, please see the two videos below:


VASA_SwimSwamAd_300x300_OUTVasa has produced premium quality training equipment for sports, fitness and rehabilitation. For decades, Olympic-level swimmers, swim coaches, triathletes, triathlon coaches, and dry land conditioning coaches worldwide have selected the Vasa Trainer and Vasa Ergometer to dramatically improve performance for swimmers, surfers, paddlers, skiers, triathletes and those seeking total-body fitness.

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8 years ago

It’s important to recognize that the featured exercises are “isolation” muscle exercises that are never programmed in isolation themselves. They are always part of a comprehensive shoulder care program that includes positional breathing, rib mechanics, scapular and trunk control. Naturally IR strength is greater than ER strength, Swimmer or not. Swimming inevitably increases this bias. One should strive for a 2:3 or 3:4 ER to IR strength ratio, it’s often much lower. It’s common for Alex Meyer to push 90km weeks during peak training. These demands warrant an unbalanced strength training approach. In other such cases, once might find dedicated IR exercises beneficial. Furthermore, it’s difficult to isolate the small stabilizing internal rotators from the large prime mover internal rotators.… Read more »

Old sprinter
8 years ago

These are excellent external rotator exercises, however one of the most important things to remember is emphasizing the eccentric phase of each motion.

Also, don’t forget the importance of scapular stabilization work for healthy shoulders.

8 years ago

Interesting that Alex doesn’t recommend internal rotation exercises. While I can see his logic (and his results speak for themselves), lots of other sources suggest using both internal and external rotation for shoulder injury protection. Any other thoughts on the subject out there?

About Gold Medal Mel Stewart

Gold Medal Mel Stewart

MEL STEWART Jr., aka Gold Medal Mel, won three Olympic medals at the 1992 Olympic Games. Mel's best event was the 200 butterfly. He is a former World, American, and NCAA Record holder in the 200 butterfly. As a writer/producer and sports columnist, Mel has contributed to Yahoo Sports, Universal Sports, …

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