What Is The Best Streamline?

Courtesy of Gary Hall Sr., 10-time World Record Holder, 3-time Olympian, 1976 Olympic Games US Flagbearer and The Race Club co-founder.

For years, at The Race Club, we have been teaching that with regard to the streamline position, Michael Phelps had it right. The position that excellent swimming coaches teach their swimmers to hold during the streamline on the start and turns is controversial. Not everyone agrees with the way Michael streamlined. Here are the differences between the two most popular streamlines being used today.

Phelps would place his chin on or very near his chest, extend (arch) his lower back, place his arms behind his head, squeeze his elbows as closely together as possible and pull the arms forward as far as possible in the shoulder joint. Sound uncomfortable? It is, and if you are not uncomfortable doing this, you are not in the Phelps type streamline; what we refer to as the hyper streamline.

The other streamline that is commonly taught is with the head straight in alignment with the body, biceps placed over the ears, with little or no extension of the lower back. With either streamline, the hands should be stacked together wrist over wrist, secured by the top thumb, with the fingers squeezed together and pointing forward, in alignment with the forearms.

While teaching technique at The Race Club, we hate being wrong. It has bothered us for years that we didn’t have the data to support this hypothesis. Now we do. Recently, we began using technology called Ben Hur, which measures frontal drag with great accuracy. One of the first tests we did with this new technology was to compare the various streamline positions done well and with some commonly seen mistakes. Here is what we found.

The swimmer (me) was towed at a speed of 2 meters per second, less than the speed of a swimmer leaving a wall (around 2.8-3.3 m/sec) and considerably slower than a swimmer that enters the pool from a starting block (5.5-6.5 m/sec). The differences in frontal drag forces we noted would have been even greater had we been able to test at these higher speeds. The forces and speed were measured in Newtons for five seconds during the middle of the tow, when we were most certain of being precisely in the intended positions.

The hyper streamline position showed the lowest frontal drag force at an average of 167.1 Newtons of frontal drag. With the other commonly used streamline, with biceps over the ears, the average frontal drag was 181.5 Newtons, an increase of 8.6% over the hyper streamline. When we separated the arms in front, the so-called Superman pose, we found the average frontal drag to be 182.2 Newtons, 9% more than hyper streamline. Surprisingly, there was very little added frontal drag from separating the arms.

We also tested two other commonly seen mistakes on streamlines, separating the fingers with a thumb sticking out (with toes pointed backwards) and with the feet hanging (with a hyper-streamlined front), instead of pointed backwards. With the fingers separated and thumb sticking out, the average frontal drag was 197.5 Newtons, representing an 18.2% increase over the hyper streamline! Of all the positions we tested, the feet hanging was the worst. The average frontal drag in this position was 222.4 Newtons, a whopping 33% increase in frontal drag!

We also helped to confirm our hypothesis using Olympian gold medalist, Jimmy Feigen, on the Velocity Meter. We had Jimmy push off of the wall hard using three different streamline positions and measured the distance he traveled under water in exactly six seconds after his peak velocity (toes leaving the wall). In the first streamline position, with biceps over the ears, he traveled 6.8 meters in 6 seconds. With the second streamline, he tucked his chin down a bit, but not completely down to the chest. With this streamline, he traveled 7.07 meters in 6 seconds. With the hyper streamline position, chin on the chest, he traveled 7.15 meters in the same 6 seconds.

The results of these comparative studies not only confirmed that Phelps did have it right, it also confirms what we have always suspected. In swimming, details matter. At The Race Club, we pay attention to the details and insist that our swimmers do also. If you don’t, you will never swim as fast as you could have.

Yours in Swimming,

Gary Sr.

Gary Hall, Sr., Technical Director and Head Coach of The Race Club (courtesy of TRC)

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3 years ago

Any chance you have the raw data? Would love to use this in my statistics class

3 years ago

Might the arms-over-ears streamline provide more flexibility? It seems easier to undulate one’s upper torso that way. Same question for separating the hands. I always thought that was why Denis Pankratov (and perhaps Ian Thorpe) did it.

Reply to  M L
3 years ago

I started experimenting with the MP streamline a while back. On a push-off, I can elongate my arms/chest more, which somehow frees up from my diaphragm on down (esp on my back, very similar to Ryan Lochte, who also uses the MP streamline) – I feel like I have a wider amplitude/more even kick. I cannot find that ideal streamline on subsequent turns, but this is all anecdotal anyway.

Reply to  CBswims
3 years ago

It’s interesting that you think of Lochte as using the MP streamline. I see Lochte doing something closer to arms-over-ears. See, for instance, this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=95FSJoIZ3Vg

Reply to  M L
3 years ago

You are right, the video you include absolutely has his arms over his ears – and when the ears are tough to see, I make a note of head position – how much of the cap can be seen behind his arms (https://youtu.be/95FSJoIZ3Vg?t=1). Like you said, this is the more traditional streamline.

But when Lochte kicks on his back, he’s closer to the MP/hyper stream line – note the head positions in the following videos, there is almost no cap visible behind his arms and chin is much closer to the chest.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xegsVe4vn_o&feature=youtu.be&t=11… Read more »

Reply to  M L
3 years ago

Lochte traditionally used biceps over the ears streamline.

dude 2.0
3 years ago

I agree with this except for the arched lower back. Phelps has almost no arch in the lower back. You can still tuck your pelvis in with a streamline behind your ears if you are flexible