How Michael Phelps' Body Made Him the Perfect Swimmer

The quirks of Phelps' physique gave him unusual advantages in the pool

Michael Phelps swimming the butterfly
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When you look at Michael Phelps' body, it's easy to see some of the features that made the lanky guy with the long arms and big feet the most accomplished Olympic swimmer in history. But how exactly did all those parts work together?

Phelps retired from competitive swimming in 2016 after winning five gold medals and a silver medal in the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. He's the most decorated competitive swimmer in history, having won eight Olympic gold medals in 2008 and four gold and two silver medals in 2012.

He's known as an intense competitor who practiced tirelessly to be in top form for Olympic competition. But he had more than a few physical advantages over fellow swimmers.

Simply put, Phelps has the anthropometrics of the perfect swimmer. From head to toe, his body type and proportions are uniquely suited for swimming with both speed and endurance.

Phelps Is Tall With a Huge Wingspan

First, he's tall, but not too tall. At 6' 4" Phelps probably would be about average for a professional basketball player, but as a swimmer, his height (or more accurately, his length) gives him enough glide in the water to provide a little extra forward momentum.

Next, his arm span (or wingspan as some call it) of 6' 7" is exceptionally wide even for a man of his height. His arms act almost like oars on a rowboat, giving him incredible pulling power in the water. His wingspan is a big reason for Phelps' success with the butterfly stroke, which relies heavily on the upper arms and back to push and pull a swimmer through the water.

Then there's his unusually long upper body, roughly the length one would expect to see on a man who is 6' 8" tall. His long, thin and triangle-shaped torso helps him with his reach, especially on strokes like the butterfly and the freestyle. His torso is more hydrodynamic than the average swimmer's, meaning it's able to move through the water with less drag.

But Phelps' Short Legs Are Perfect Too

Phelps' lower half is hydrodynamic too. But while his arms give him an advantage by being longer, his legs give him an extra kick (literally) by being a little shorter than one would expect for a guy of his size. Phelps' legs, which are roughly those of a man about 6' tall, help with kicks and give him more power in turns at the wall, where crucial seconds can be lost or won during competitions.

We haven't even factored in Phelps' enormous hands and flipper-like size 14 feet. Both let him push and pull more water than other swimmers, adding to his overall speed. 

Phelps' Body Is Double-Jointed

If all that isn't enough, Phelps also is double-jointed. He doesn't have extra joints as the term implies, but his joints have more mobility than average. Most swimmers —and some dancers— work hard to stretch their joints to make themselves more agile, which in turn makes performance easier. With his more flexible joints, Phelps can whip his arms, legs, and feet through a greater range of motion than most swimmers.

Phelps Produces Less Lactic Acid

But Phelps' unique build isn't his only advantage in competitive swimming. Most athletes need recovery time after exerting themselves because the body produces lactic acid, causing muscle fatigue. Phelps' body produces less lactic acid than the average person, so he has a much faster recovery time. In the Olympics, being able to bounce back quickly and compete again are distinct advantages for any athlete.

When you add up all the parts, it's easy to see what makes Phelps the perfect swimmer. It's amazing to consider that someone so well-built for the sport managed to find his way into swimming, but not at all surprising that Phelps was as good as he was.