There is one technique that I rely on more than anything else when teaching swimmers the mechanics of swimming. It's sculling. Most sessions will have at least a few lengths of sculling, whether it's part of a warm-up, cool down or even part of the main set. Learning how your body moves, manipulates, and feels in the water is a crucial part of increasing both your speed and efficiency in the water.
There are several ways to practice your sculling. If you are a beginner, try using a pull buoy between your legs to help with buoyancy and body alignment. If you are an intermediate to advanced swimmer, try sculling without any assistance. This means no kicking as well. If you kick, you will rely more on your legs instead of focusing on your ability to grab the water and get the best catch possible.
Basic sculling is done by moving your hands back and forth with your palms facing down in a circular or figure-8 motion. I prefer introducing it as a figure-8. When you scull you should be applying pressure downward from your palms, this will allow you to move your body forward.
With your hands out front, you want to remember to always keep your elbows bent and your hands slightly wider than your shoulders. This will help you keep high elbows throughout the motion. By subtly varying the tilt of your forearms and palms, you determine whether you move forward, backward or just stay in one place.
Tilting your forearms and palms back slightly towards your body will allow you to propel yourself forward. Depending on the amount of downward pressure you are exerting, you'll go faster or slower. Always try to remember to position your body in a perfect horizontal with your face down in the water. This will reduce the amount of friction and drag in the water.
Please take note though that sculling is not pulling. The movements should be small. You won't go fast if you are doing this correctly. Keep your kick minimal, if at all, and concentrate on propulsion just from the scull. Your hands and forearms will begin to feel the focus.
Arm and hand position effect
The position of your arms helps determine the amount of strength you need to scull efficiently. For example in breaststroke, you don't get a lot of propulsion from the first outward sweep of your pull or sculling motion. The power of the stroke comes from the inward sweep that pushes the water back and under your body. A vertical scull, which places your forearms at a perpendicular position to your body with your fingers pointing down forms the basis of a freestyle pull. Using different positions during a practice will help you across all your strokes.
Three key positions to practice
When I work on sculling with young or novice swimmers, I focus on three positions. The front extension (catch), the middle perpendicular position (pull), and finally the side hip position (finish). Once an athlete has gained an understanding of these four basic movements and positions, I will introduce other variations that allow for athletes to work on Backstroke efficiencies, but I won't cover those here today.
The Superman scull is one of the slowest sculling methods but one of the most efficient when it comes to understanding the catch. With your arms extended and straight and place your head in the water, move your wrists and hands back and forth to initiate the forward propulsion.
A variation on the superman scull is the Wide-Y scull. Instead of only moving wrists and hands, you use your whole arm. Keep arm straight during this motion. You will push the water out creating a Y and then back in. During these two drills, you don't want to bend your elbows at all.
The catch scull is similar to the superman scull except you use your entire forearm during the sculling motion. To do this, bend your elbows slightly like you were coming in from your recovery during Freestyle. Make sure that you keep your elbows higher than your hand and fingertips.
When working on the catch scull, you want to avoid putting too much pressure and stress on your shoulders. Try to think about the movement coming from your forearms and hands. This should feel like a relaxed body position. If you feel stress on your shoulder, try to position your hips higher in the water. The hip rotation will bring your elbows up without causing the shoulder to go higher.
Windshield Wiper Scull
Transitioning from the catch to the pull, bring your arms in line with your shoulders. You want to keep this straight line from your shoulders to your elbows. Stabilize your elbows with a 90° bend. This will point your fingers directly down. Then envision your forearms as windshield wipers moving in and out. This wiper motion will propel your body forward.
Perhaps the slowest of the sculling drills, hip scull is extremely useful for working on your finish. To complete the hip scull, lie face-down in the water with your arms straight by your side. Your elbows should be locked and your hands positioned next to your thighs. During this drill, your forearms and wrists will act as one component.
The motion for this scull is flipping your palms to the sky when you are sweeping out. Then face your hands in and point your thumbs down to the pool as you sweep back toward your body. I always tell swimmers I want to see them spray water out behind them.
When you are working on your sculling there are few things you shouldn't do. Below is a short list of what not to do while sculling.
Don't scull near the water surface.
The surface of the pool is not where your stroke is most efficient in moving forward. The correct position feels a little awkward. Imagine yourself sculling over a big barrel. By reaching around in an arch with your shoulder blades lifted up, elbows high and finger tips to the bottom of the pool, you'll be more efficient in your motions.
Don't go for Speed.
I mentioned before you do not want to rush. The point of the drill is to increase your hand strength and feel of the water.
Don't let your legs override the purpose of the drill.
Don't use your kick for propulsion during sculling. You can either lightly kick but the preferred method is to use a pull buoy between your legs. If you are a strong swimmer and can hold your body in a horizontal position then you can try it without the pull buoy, but don't like your legs to drag down behind you.
Incorporating sculling into your daily workouts will allow you to a better catch and feel for the water. This, in turn, will help you improve your ability to propel yourself quickly through the water making you a faster more efficient swimmer. However, to emphasize remember this drill should be done slowly and with focus. This way you will gain the greatest benefits from this technique.
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