Arm Length And Swimming (Ape Index, Part Deux)

Whilst working with professional triathletes Guy Crawford and Kate Bevilaqua, Paul Newsome takes a few minutes out to highlight why they swim with very different stroke styles. Check out the video clip:

youtube clip of kate and guy
(don't miss the last minute of this clip showing Kate and Guy's swim strokes)

This is a great example of the importance of an individual approach to swim coaching. Many swimmers are told that they need to swim with a very long stroke to be efficient and whilst this suits someone with very long arms like Guy it does not suit swimmers with shorter arms such as Kate. If Kate tried imitating Guy's stroke style she would become a much slower, less efficient swimmer.

Here in Australia 40 strokes per 50m is commonly used as a 'benchmark of efficiency' and swimmers are told they must take 40 strokes per lap or less to swim well regardless of their individual make-up or experience level. Frankly, we find this a bit ridiculous and are working hard to change this attitude. The right strokes per 50m lap could be anywhere between 35 and 60 depending on your height, arm length and also the size of your hands.

If you have shorter arms than Guy then don't despair, it's perfectly possible for you to swim quickly and efficiently like Kate. You will find that a slightly shorter stroke with a faster stroke rate works best for you and you can do this without fighting the water.

If you are tall with long arms then a long stroke style can work well but don't over do it and be prepared to adapt your stroke depending on conditions. For instance, in open water Guy shortens his stroke and lifts his stroke rate to help him punch through chop and the wake from other swimmers. This is something that comes naturally to Kate with her faster stroke rate.

A big thanks to Kate and Guy for letting us share this with you, find out more about them on their websites:

Also see: our original post on Ape Index

Swim Smooth!


Unknown said...

This is a great post - the conventional wisdom that there is a "correct" number of strokes per lap is ridiculous. Could ever you imagine track sprint coaches telling their athletes that they all must now do their 100M sprints in 41 strides like Usain Bolt (who at 1,95M/6'5" is waay taller than most sprinters)?

Tri Coach Tom said...

Posted this over on Youtube but thought I'd do it here too.

Quick question regarding ape index, I have a +1 ape index but have very wide shoulders. I'm assuming this would effect the ape index and for me I swim better with a higher stroke rate than my ape index would indicate. Is there some way of compensating for shoulder width when considering ape index or is it on a case by case basis? Cheers Tom

Adam Young said...

Hi Tom,

That’s a good question. Most great swimmers are broad and we’d normally say that this helps develop a long stroke as would long arms. However, if you are exceptionally broad then your arms are going to be a little shorter than average to create the +1 ape index, this might well become the dominant factor and explain your preferred style.

At the end of the day if you swim best with a higher stroke rate then plan A is always to nurture and develop that, not try and change stroke style completely – that very rarely works for the better. Keep developing your stroke, removing any crossovers and tweaking up your catch aiming for a refined Swinger style. Get it right and it’s super fast and efficient!

Mike Kay said...

I really love your approach to not all swimmers are created equal, but all can become powerful swimmers.

For example in my case, I have been swimming for several years and only recently looking seriously at my technique, so I have yet to define my swimmer type.

My body type is a little unusual, not exceptionally tall at 68-69" but with an ape index of about +4 or so. My legs are also fairly long proportionally and my shoulders broad. So although I have the length in my apendages, I lack the length in my torso which challenges my natural stability. Still trying to get myself to glide more smoothly and efficiently across the pool.

Thanks for these tips, as they give many of us insight into our own development as swimmers.

Johnboy said...

Aaah, Gliding. You gotta stop gliding. I spent years trying to glide only to discover it's a bad thing. Now i can't stop!

armeria said...

Terry Laughlin, the Total Immersion head coach, also addressed on the relationship between the height of the swimmer and the efficient stroke length in his recent presentation "Swimming Faster":

Garry said...

You often talk About shortening your stroke but how is this done. As a tall guy with not overly flexible shoulder I think this may help but don't know where to start.

Adam Young said...

Hi Gary,

I would say it's not about intentionally shortening your stroke, it's about removing deadspots and returning the rhythm to your stroke. This will increase your stroke rate (stoke cadence) slightly from the removal of the pause from the stroke cycle. You may well find that the increased propulsion from doing this actually increases your stroke length, see below:

Many swimmers do struggle with removing their deadspots and I think it's something we should revisit on the blog soon. The tendency is to think about lifting stroke rate and do this by keeping the deadspot in place but speed up the rest of the stroke. That really is hard work!

A good catch presses the water back behind you, helping the water on its way. A poor catch presses down on the water with a straight arm, or to the side. It's also common to see overgliders entering the water and pressing it forwards with a dropped wrist as they chase stroke length. Any of these things (forwards, side or downwards) adds a delay to your stroke because you have to change the water's direction and water is very hard. If you add just two tenths of a second doing so you'll drop your stroke rate from 60 to 54 strokes per minute - a huge drop.

By working on your catch mechanics you'll start to press the water back behind you and your stroke rate will naturally lift. You'll also increase your propulsion so there's a good chance that you'll also go further on every stroke too - although equating stroke length directly to efficiency would definitely be a mistake as it's very easy to overdo it, harm your stroke rhythm and lose efficiency again. The sweet spot in the middle is key.

We wrote about this here:

How should you go about improving your catch? Ideally using the techniques, methods and visualisations in our Catch Masterclass DVD:
In conjunction with our overglider Swim Type Guide:

Hope that helps!

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the video. I'm curious about the biomechanics of this though. Isn't it more about arm length than ape index? Surely, it's easier with short arms to turn them over more quickly, since the arms are travelling a shorter distance? I'm 6 foot 2, with an arm span of about the same, and I just don't think I could clock 80 strokes per minute, even if my arms were an inch or two shorter.

At the same time, I find it hard to explain how quite short people manage very long strokes. Take TI's Shinji Takeuchi,, who has one of the most-watched swimming videos on Youtube.

He typically gets across a 25m pool in about 12 strokes even though he's only 5 ft 8. How does he do this? And is he swimming smooth, or is he an overglider?

I started swimming freestyle with the TI method and advanced very rapidly. However, I then hit a plateau and realised from some video footage that there were some kinks in my stroke (crossovers, scissor kick etc). Swimsmooth helped me iron these out with its various drills and advice on quickening stroke rate. However, even at 65 strokes per minute I find my times disappointing and I sometimes still wonder about the TI method.


armeria said...

I think Shinji Takeuchi is an overglider. His stroke length is very long. However, his stroke rate is very high. As a result, his speed is not very fast. When watching his underwater video, you can clearly see how he glides during each stroke.

armeria said...

Oops. There is a typo above. His stroke rate is not very high.

Anonymous said...

I have always been amazed at the attitude about optimal stroke length.Bill's opening comment hit it right on the mark. Imagine cycling insisting on 110 cadence for every rider. I slowed down something fierce when I began to really push the few strokes per length stuff. Rhythm and timing are far more important than stroke length.

Sam said...

Very interesting read, gotta play to your strengths!

Reminds me of bodybuilding someone taller often has long arms so can Deadlift easier, while someone shorter typically has shorter legs thus finds it easier to squat.

Thanks for the interesting read.


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