Why Sculling Matters in Swimming

By Gary Hall Sr. | Dec. 15, 2015, 9:39 a.m. (ET)

swim school

Go back to school! Erase the smelly, crowded hallways of your high school from your mind and imagine yourself under the Islamorada sun in a clear pool ready to absorb knowledge that will enable you to swim faster. Swim School from Gary Hall Sr. of The Race Club is about lifelong enjoyment of the sport. It’s always more fun to swim to your potential.

Sculling with the hands is one of the best ways to teach a swimmer to feel the water. For years I have heard coaches teach their swimmers to feel the water and have been trying to figure out exactly what that means. Holding water is another commonly used expression that needs explanation, although it has a slightly different meaning than feeling the water.

swimThe two most important forces that the hands and feet can generate in order to swim fast are downward forces (lifting the body upward) and backward forces (providing propulsion). Forces to the side can also produce lift, but unless they occur bilaterally and counter oppose one another, such as in fly or breaststroke, they will also produce an undesirable side-to-side motion of the body. What determines the forces of the lift or propulsion are the effective surface area and the speed or the acceleration of that surface area moving in the desired direction.

Because of flow dynamics, the effective surface area of the hand is different from the actual surface area. When the fingers are separated slightly as the hand moves through water, the flow through the narrow spaces between the fingers becomes turbulent. A turbulent flow slows down and doesn’t allow the water behind it to get through. In other words, it makes the hand with the separated fingers act as if it is a larger solid hand, increasing the effective surface area compared to a hand with the fingers squeezed together.

Not only that, but a hand with fingers separated is more relaxed than a hand with the fingers squeezed together. For both of those reasons, separating the fingers slightly is desirable.

Being able to produce a maximum amount of force with the hand is what I believe coaches refer to as feeling the water. Holding the water refers to not only maximizing the propulsive forces, but also the ability of a swimmer to couple those forces with other motions, such as the body’s rotation or the arm recovery, in order to increase distance per stroke.

Here are two really great sculling drills that help enable the swimmer to feel and hold the water better. The first is the high-elbow scull and the second is the snap-paddle scull. Both can be done with or without the snorkel.

Stay tuned for the next Swim School column on Jan. 5.

gary hall srGary Hall Sr., M.D. is a three-time Olympic swimmer (‘68, ‘72, ‘76) who earned a medal in each of the three Olympic Games. At one time he held 10 world records in all strokes except breaststroke and was the World Swimmer of the year in 1969 and 1970.

Gary Sr. serves as president and technical director of The Race Club Inc. based in Islamorada, Florida. He is the current president of the United States Olympians and Paralympians Association and co-founder of World Fit, a non-profit organization promoting childhood exercise and sports. He has six children, the oldest of whom, Gary Jr., also swam in three Olympic Games (‘96, ‘00, ‘04) and earned 10 Olympic medals. Two other children, Richard and Amy, and his wife, Mary, work with Gary Sr. at The Race Club. In 2006, Gary Sr. retired from ophthalmology to dedicate his remaining professional career to teaching advanced swimming techniques for competitive swimmers and triathletes. 

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.