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While giving a short talk on physics (fundamentals) in swimming at each of our camps, I still find that this is a common answer to my question, how does a swimmer reduce frontal drag? Body rotation is extremely important in augmenting propulsion, but not in reducing frontal drag forces. The drag forces on the human body on its side or stomach are very similar. Thanks to our Pressure Meter technology, we have found that the speed of the body’s rotation, whether at the shoulder or hip, can profoundly increase the propulsion force of the pulling hand.
Nearly all of the propulsion from the pulling arm comes from the hand and forearm. Because of the popularity of the high elbow pulling motion, most coaches and swimmers believe that the forearm contributes more propulsion through the swimmer’s pull than the pulling hand does. Not so. The hand is a flatter surface than the forearm and moves backward faster than the forearm so contributes much more than the forearm to the propulsion. I have not yet been able to measure the propulsion force generated from either, but if I had to guess, I’d say at least 90% is coming from the hand. Most of the rest is from the forearm.
Elite sprinters (50 meters) will pull with a deeper pulling motion than all other elite freestylers swimming 100 meters or longer. The surface area of the deeper pulling arm is about the same as with the high elbow pull. Biomechanically, a swimmer can pull with more force with a deeper pull than with the high elbow pull. That deeper pulling motion also causes more frontal drag, primarily from the motion of the upper arm (elbow to shoulder). In any event longer than 50 meters, the frontal drag forces caused by the deeper pull will chew up the swimmer and spit him/her out. The reason for the high elbow pulling motion in events longer than 50 meters is to reduce frontal drag forces, not to increase propulsion. In those longer events, frontal drag trumps propulsion.
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