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After completing this chapter, you will be able to:

  • Explain the ways in which the composition and flow characteristics of a fluid affect fluid forces.

  • Define buoyancy and explain the variables that determine whether a human body will float.

  • Define drag, identify the components of drag, and identify the factors that affect the magnitude of each component.

  • Define lift and explain the ways in which it can be generated.

  • Discuss the theories regarding propulsion of the human body in swimming.


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©Vaara/Getty Images

Why are there dimples in a golf ball? Why are some people able to float while others cannot? Why are cyclists, swimmers, downhill skiers, and speed skaters concerned with streamlining their bodies during competition?

The ability to control the action of fluid forces differentiates elite from average swimmers. ©Susan Hall

Both air and water are fluid mediums that exert forces on bodies moving through them. Some of these forces slow the progress of a moving body; others provide support or propulsion. A general understanding of the actions of fluid forces on human movement activities is an important component of the study of the biomechanics of human movement. This chapter introduces the effects of fluid forces on both human and projectile motion.


Although in general conversation the term fluid is often used interchangeably with the term liquid, from a mechanical perspective, a fluid is any substance that tends to flow or continuously deform when acted on by a shear force. Both gases and liquids are fluids with similar mechanical behaviors.

fluid substance that flows when subjected to a shear stress

Air and water are fluids that exert forces on the human body.

The velocity of a body relative to a fluid influences the magnitude of the forces exerted by the fluid on the body.

Relative Motion

Because a fluid is a medium capable of flow, the influence of the fluid on a body moving through it depends not only on the body’s velocity but also on the velocity of the fluid. Consider the case of waders standing in the shallow portion of a river with a moderately strong current. If they stand still, they feel the force of the current against their legs. If they walk upstream against the current, the current’s force against their legs is even stronger. If they walk downstream, the current’s force is reduced and perhaps even imperceptible.

When a ...

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