7 Reasons Why Caeleb Dressel’s Start is So Deadly

by Olivier Poirier-Leroy. You can join his weekly motivational newsletter for competitive swimmers by clicking here.

If you watched the FINA World Championships in Budapest, you were witness to one of the most dominating performances in swimming history.

American Caeleb Dressel decimated the fastest swimmers in the world in the 50 and 100m freestyles and the 100m butterfly. He also rattled the supersuit records in all three of those events, dipping under the 50 second mark in the 100m butterfly, and nearly breaking :21 and :47 in the freestyle sprints.

While Dressel’s consistency was remarkable—he improved with every swim from prelims to semis to finals in every event but one—his start was the thing that got the most attention.

During every race, from the relays, which he usually led off for the Americans, to the 50m freestyle, the fastest event on the program, he exploded to an early lead, often up to a half-body length.

Here are some things you can learn from Caeleb Dressel, the man with the fastest first 15m on the planet:

1. His hips are in a high position on the blocks.

When he is crouched, taking his marks, Dressel’s hips are nice and high.

“This elongates the hamstring and gets the leg ready to fire,” says Jason Calanog, one of Dressel’s coaches at Bolles, and now an assistant coach at Texas A&M. (At that time, the Bolles program also included 100m butterfly Olympic champion Joseph Schooling, 100-200m backstroke Olympic champion Ryan Murphy, and Santo Condorelli, who placed 4th in the 100m freestyle in Rio. That’s a nasty squad.)

Calanog has found that his swimmers are able to get a faster reaction time out of this kind of hip placement. The advantage of a high hip position means that the hamstring is taut and ready to go. If you have your hip low, the muscle ends up having to react and than fire.

2. Huge amount of explosiveness.

Swimmers aren’t traditionally known for being amazing athletes.

We spend so much time in the water that it is hard to achieve blinding levels of athleticism. It’s a running joke that swimmers are uncoordinated on land, and it’s probably no surprise that most of the injuries that swimmers incur are as a result of dryland and strength training.

But the start is inherently a dryland activity. It’s not something you can train in the water; the explosiveness necessary for a fast and powerful start is developed in the weight room.

And make no mistake, Dressel is an athlete there, too.

Here is a video of him cleaning over 260 pounds (from blocks, sure, but still impressive):

Got better today with @matt_delancey double red tasty #264

A post shared by Caeleb Dressel (@caelebdressel) on May 6, 2017 at 9:07am PDT

Think that kind of explosive power helps him fly off the blocks like a missile? Absolutely.

3. He back loads his start.

A lot is made of reaction time off the blocks, and that is generally the metric used when talking about whether or not a swimmer has a good start.

Reaction time doesn’t tell nearly the whole story, even though it’s an easy measurable to lob around. But it doesn’t account for force and acceleration of the athlete when leaving the blocks.

At the FINA World Championships in Budapest, Dressel pummeled everyone on the starts. Half-a-body length pummeled the competition. And yet, his reaction time wasn’t anything that would represent his otherworldly lead at 15m—in the 50m freestyle, for instance, he was third for reaction time (0.62) of the finalists.

What makes his reaction time impressive is that Dressel back-loads his hips on the blocks. Unlike other elite swimmers like Florent Manaudou, who center their hips above their front foot, Dressel’s hips are further back, in a modified slingshot start.

Would Dressel have a slightly faster reaction time if he front-loaded his weight? Maybe. But those one-hundredths of a second he would gain in reaction time he would be forfeiting in terms of power and acceleration.

The start isn’t dominated by who is off the blocks the fastest; it’s who gets to the 15m mark first.

4. Uses his arms.

A common mistake swimmers make on the start is not using their arms to generate propulsion.

We are seeing the arm movement becoming more prominent as younger swimmers are starting with it earlier, but for the most part, swimmers use their arms only in terms of gripping the blocks when awaiting the start and making sure they are in a streamline.

One of the most visibly noticeable aspects of Dressel’s start is that he brings his arms above and around him, creating a coupling motion that helps to generate more distance and momentum into his streamline.

And because he is back-loading his hips on the block, he is also more reliant on his arms to pull him through to gain acceleration off the block. “He pulls back on the block with his arms to use his entire body in the start,” says Calanog. “Most swimmers don’t use their arms.”

As Dressel recently said in an interview in Splash magazine, he makes sure that his “arms do as much work as my legs.”

5. Back foot on an angle off the blocks.

When Dressel leaves the blocks, his legs are not together. Anytime you use a track start this is inevitable, but it also has a purpose. Raising the back foot helps to create a sharper angle of entry when diving into the water.

The key to making this work is something you have probably heard your coach tell you a hundred times—make sure your entire body uses a tight bulls-eye when hitting the water. Aim to dive into the water using the same small hole, from finger tips to toes to get a clean entry.

Having that back foot up “creates a more steep angle into the water,” says Calanog, which helps you hit your bulls-eye.

6. Dressel dolphin kicks like a, well, dolphin.

Dressel maintains excellent speed through the breakout with his dolphin kicks and a tight streamline. You can’t really talk about Dressel’s start without talking about his underwaters, which are among the best in the world.

One of the reasons that it is so strong is that his up-kick is very powerful. Most swimmers can kick towards the bottom of the pool with a nice amount of power, but use the up-kick only as a resetting phase for another down-kick, instead of using the up-kick for more propulsion.

It’s no accident that he kicks this way.

“He’s been working on it for years, with slow, perfect kicks in practice,” says Calanog.

Another reason for his epic start? He dolphin kicks into his first stroke, (something I discussed in this post here) which sends him hurtling into that critical first stroke cycle at top speed.

7. Practice, practice, practice.

For most swimmers, their starts only get attention when the big meet suddenly looms on the horizon.

And so what do they do? They cram in a few sessions’ worth of starts, and never really get the reps in that they need to develop the skill that is inherent in a great start.

For Dressel, and his coaches at Bolles (and now at Florida), this means working on them every day, over years.

H/T: Thank you to Jason Calanog for taking the time to send over his notes and thoughts on his time working with Caeleb at Bolles.

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40 Comments on "7 Reasons Why Caeleb Dressel’s Start is So Deadly"

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crooked donald

I’d add an 8th thing. He contracts his muscles (particularly his arms, but this looks like it’s translated through to his entire body) into a ready position —- instead of just being relaxed —- BEFORE he starts. Almost like gripping the bar hard, contracting the lats, and squeezing the glutes in preparation for a heavy deadlift. He’s neuromuscularly activated BEFORE the gun goes off. Very much like Schoeman.

It’s harder to clean from blocks…

JP input is too short

Depends on where you’re strong/weak and what your pull looks like. I know people that can snatch/clean significantly more from the blocks.

Agreed, but I would argue that timing is an even bigger aspect of it than relative strength from each position (which may be what you mean when you say “what your pull looks like,” I can’t tell. Sorry if I’m just restating what you said). If you can smoothly connect the initial pull/deadlift motion to the shrug and second pull, you’re going to have a much longer acceleration period and be able to get more weight to the necessary height. I would say that 95% of people with proper technique/timing are going to be able to clean more from the floor than the blocks.

NEWTOSWIMSWAM

I would say the #1 reason is something that can’t be taught: 40″ vertical! He is physically more talented and simply leaps farther.

Don’t cheat him of inch. He has a 41″ vertical. 😂

Look man, no disrespect intended but I could write a long response about why this take is wrong. Let me know if you’d like to have this discussion and I’ll write it up, but I’d hate to be the try-hard posting two-page long responses to two sentence comments.

You can’t teach genetics Sven.

NEWTOSWIMSWAM

SVEN – No need to write a 2-page post. I know this from experience: A good friend and HS/college basketball player who had 40+ vertical and was one of top D1 recruits. He swam with us for a partial season in his HS jr year to nurse a minor basketball injury (hand). At 6’4″ with natural athletic talents (although not so natural in water), he mastered his start and turn: so powerful off the block and wall. He started out with a 25 in 50FR and ended with 20.75, by far the best sprinter on our small HS team.

That kid was naturally talented compared to your small HS team, but that has nothing to do with Dressel running a week-long start clinic on the best sprinters in the world. I’ll keep this short: 1) Maximum force (aka strength) is trainable. 2) Neuromuscular factors like % muscle activation and rate of force production are trainable. 3) Body composition factors like %body fat, distribution of muscle, etc. are influenced by diet and exercise. 4) Technique is critical and completely trainable. Proper timing and involvement of the arm swing, proper timing of triple extension, depth of countermovement, core stability, not rounding the lower back during countermovement… There are so many things that need to happen at very precise times in that… Read more »

Just watch: in a year, at Pan Pacs and other high level meets, other sprinters will start to close on Dressel’s 15m times because they’ll start emulating him and his start training. They probably won’t be beating him just yet, but they’ll close the gap a bit, and by Tokyo there will be a few who can hang with him at 15m. He’s a talented swimmer, but a 40 inch vertical is not at all unreasonable to expect from people who can go <21.5 in the 50. (Anthony Ervin is the exception because his start is awful and he's too old to know how to dolphin kick.. He's just so good above the water)

They won’t. Other guys have tried similar techniques. There’s a pretty wide array and most sprinters are gravitating towards what works for them already. Ever since Schoeman the start has become a respected and highly trained component of the race. People aren’t going to magically catch him now because they learned his secret or decided to focus on it more. The difference really is the (reported) 41″ vertical and his raw explosiveness. That is elite football/ basketball/ track/ olympic weightlifter status. Swimming is such a different skill set that most just don’t have that crossover. I’d bet most of the other guys in the finals at world champs are high 20s low 30s for vertical jump. And simply training more… Read more »

SwimFan247 – The population average for males is about 20 inches. I only ever went 22 low in the 50 yard freestyle and my standing vertical is 28 inches. I doubt any elite 50 freestyler breaking 22 in long course would have any trouble jumping 35+.

I shouldn’t say “any” but understand that these are not normal athletes, and they are all about explosiveness.

Can you say more about what you mean by “triple extension” and “countermovement”? I’m genuinely interested.

Sure thing, ML. Triple extension refers to the simultaneous extension of the ankles, knees, and hips. It’s a pretty common term in most coaching circles, but I haven’t heard a lot of other swim coaches really emphasize it. If all three joints hit full extension at the same time, then the cumulative force applied to the ground or block is increased. A higher peak force applied to the block means more work is being done to get the swimmer off the block. More work in the same period of time results in a higher power, which results in a higher velocity off the block, greater distance off the block, etc. A big issue with swimmers is that many are quad-dominant… Read more »
ERVINFORTHEWIN

i loved hearing from those very technical aspects of the training . Very interesting .

Almost everything you wrote here is spot on. The one thing I have to say is that you can only improve someone’s vertical leap by about 10%. Maybe a little more. Fast twitch glycolytic muscle fiber, the muscle fibers mostly responsible for someone’s vertical leap, as a percentage of the total seems to be relatively static, some small increases can be made, but if big changes are possible, it’s not clear exactly how to do so.

Sorry if I sound dismissive, O_O, but I’m having trouble believing that. Can you cite and/or explain it, please? I may have missed some detail. I have not seen that in any of my reading on the subject and from an intuitive standpoint that seems extremely low (someone with a 20 inch vert can only expect to get to 22?). This study (http://elitetrack.com/article_files/squat-plyos-vertical-jump.pdf) had a group that used squat and plyometric training for 6 weeks and improved their vertical by an average of 10.6cm, which is over 4 inches. During a quick skim of the study I can’t find the average vertical of the participants during initial testing but if that 10% estimate is anywhere near accurate, then it must… Read more »

Fair enough, I was misremembering the number looking back at my source it was about 30%, which seems to match the linked study more accurately.

The 4 in. improvement is impressive, but it was with relatively untrained participants and as we all know you improve much more quickly when you are a beginner. I still don’t think that you can take a 20in. vertical and turn it into a 30in much less a 40in. vertical.

There is a zero percent chance that he has anything close to a 40″ vertical leap. He has perfectly ordinary leaping ability just as he has the perfectly ordinary ability to clean 260 lbs from blocks as shown above.

I’ve been skeptical too. But that is a power clean, pulled super high, off of blocks, with mediocre technique. And the guy has absolute twig legs and you just know that Florida is grinding out the yardage and he’s exhausted from that too. He struggled to stand up with the weight when he did the full clean so his legs are probably not super strong and developed. To me that all just says that he’s naturally really explosive. Couple that with his start and turns and the air he gets when he stretches behind the blocks and I can start to see it. If he was training like a football player or weightlifter for many years and still could only… Read more »
NEWTOSWIMSWAM
Glad my comment has generated such interesting discussions. Thanks to Sven for your perspectives, some of which I agree while some I honestly don’t understand. But I do know and believe super natural talents can’t be taught. Swimmers can’t go too far without them. My 1/2-season HS teammate was not a small fish in a big pond – he ended up playing 4 years of basketball in a top D1 program and led his team to a final four. I still remember his start and turn in 50fr: he simply out leapt everyone at start and beat everyone by so much with his powerful turn. Had he returned to swimming in his HS senior year, he could have easily gone… Read more »
NEWTOSWIMSWAM

Meant “big fish in a small pond”…

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About Olivier Poirier-Leroy

Olivier Poirier-Leroy has been involved in competitive swimming for most of his life. Starting off at the age of 6 he was thrown in the water at the local pool for swim lessons and since then has never wanted to get out. A nationally top ranked age grouper as both a …

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