Born to Swim: Does Michael Phelps’s Body Give Him A Competitive Advantage?

MacArthurPeter H. MacArthur, MD, is board certified in sports medicine and family medicine and is a member of the Inova Medical Group. He has a special interest in the prevention and management of musculoskeletal and athletic injuries. Read Dr. MacArthur’s profile.

American swimmer Michael Phelps ended his final race in Rio this week with yet another gold for his collection. The most decorated Olympian in history, Phelps has swum in five Olympic games and earned an incredible 28 medals – 23 of them gold.

What makes Phelps so successful? Many people have pointed to his extra-long “wingspan,” or the length of his outstretched arms. Most of us have an arm length roughly equal to our height. But Phelps’s arms are said to stretch about 4 inches longer than his 6’4” stature.

With longer arms, Phelps has slightly more reach with every stroke. His large hands and feet also act like flippers to propel him through the water. Both of those features could definitely give him a competitive advantage.

Mitch Gunn /

Mitch Gunn /

Torsos and Training

Even more important, I suspect, is his very long torso. He has the torso of a man about 6’7” or 6’8”– while his legs are relatively short for his height. This helps him to sit up higher in the water as he swims, creating less drag as he slices toward the wall.

Many of Phelps’s features are the result of winning the genetic lottery, so to speak. But training clearly plays a role. He is known for extremely flexible feet, ankles, arms and shoulders that propel him through the water like dolphin flippers. Some of that flexibility is most likely genetic. But over the years, he’s probably increased his flexibility through training and stretching.

I’ve heard people say that Phelps has a body that was born to swim, and there’s little doubt his physical form has helped him. But the fact is, he never would have reached his record-breaking success without a lot of hard work.

So if you (or your pool-loving child) want to be the next Michael Phelps? The only way to get there is to train hard and take care of your body. For help doing that, learn about Inova Sports Medicine.

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