Lift vs. Drag: Which Matters Most to Swimming Speed?

Swim Speed Strokes SSST_600x315_pullout

Swim Speed Strokes SSST_600x315_pullout

In her book Swim Speed Secrets, Sheila Taormina makes the case that swimmers should focus their attention on the one part of swimming that matters most to swimming fast: the underwater pull.

She provides the example of “Tarzan”, Johnny Weissmuller, the Michael Phelps of his generation and one of the most dominant swimmers of all time. Weissmuller swam using the body position considered fastest during his time: he swam freestyle with his head fully out of the water. And he set world records doing it.

Johnny Weissmuller shows off his Tarzan swim stroke in Swim Speed Secrets

[See Olympic swimmer Peter Vanderkaay demonstrate the “Tarzan Drill” from Swim Speed Secrets and Swim Speed Workouts.]

Sheila says in her book that Weissmuller’s swimming form shows that the drag created by poor body positioning is not as critical to fast swimming as the thing Weissmuller got right: his strong underwater pull.

In her new book Swim Speed Strokes, Sheila explores the contributions that lift and drag make to the underwater pull in all four swimming strokes.

Two ideas drive 90 percent of swim propulsion theory and discussion. These concepts are also fundamental to aerodynamics and flight. They are drag and lift.

Here are several ways to explain drag:

  • Drag is the resistance a fluid has to being pushed aside.
  • Drag is the force on an object that resists its motion through a fluid.
  • Drag is a force that works parallel to the flow direction of a fluid (parallel here simply means “head-on”).


The easiest way to understand lift is to consider an example with which we are all familiar: airplanes flying.

This example will give us a visual image, and once we have an idea of how lift works on a plane, we can better visualize its role in the swim stroke.

An airplane gets off the ground because of a force called lift. The physics behind flying is quite complicated, but two basic conditions required for lift force can be applied to the swimming stroke. The first is the orientation, or angle, of the airplane wings. The wings are pitched up during takeoff. In phys­ics this is called the angle of attack. For lift to occur there must be some angle/pitch to the wings and a pressure imbalance between the bottom of the wing and the top.


So which matters more to swimmers? Pushing back on the water (drag) or changing the pitch of the arm like a wing (lift)?

If you’ve done a fist drill (swimming with hands balled into fists), you know that drag’s awfully important.

But if you’ve done a sculling drill, you know that lift is important, too.

Sheila Taormina demonstrates sculling, a drill that improves feel for the water.

In her book Swim Speed Strokes, Sheila Taormina offers an interesting overview of the swimming theories that dominated the sport from the 1940s on. She explains how the sport has been informed by legendary coaches like Doc Counsilman (a proponent of lift), Cecil Colwin (vortices and lift), and Ernie Maglischo (drag first, then lift).

Then she explains the two simple steps that guarantee a swimmer isn’t missing out on a stronger underwater pull.