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Sculling ' Developing a feel for the water

This is an excerpt from Swimming: Steps to Success by Scott Bay.

The next skill in developing a feel for the water involves sculling (figure 2.3) and putting pressure on the water with both your hands and your forearms. Your hand position should be loose rather than rigid. Though some people advocate holding the hand like a paddle or spoon, a rigid hand position provides no meaningful hydrodynamic advantage for most swimmers. The hand should be slightly curved like the blade of a propeller on a plane or boat. The curvature provides great ability to produce higher and lower areas of pressure similar to that also of an airplane wing.

Stand in the water with your back to the pool wall. Extend your arms straight out in front of you and sink to the point where your shoulders are just below the surface and your arms are completely covered with water. With your hands in a natural, relaxed position and slightly cupped, rotate your thumbs down so that your palms are angled slightly rather than parallel to the pool bottom.

Next, sweep your hands outward, making sure to keep your elbows straight. You should feel pressure from the water on your hands and forearms. Once your hands are about 2 feet (0.6 m) apart, rotate your thumbs up and your little fingers down so that, once again, your palms are slightly angled - only this time toward each other rather than away - and move your arms back to the original position. Again, keep your elbows straight.

Repeat this motion several times and adjust the pitch of your palms to get a good feel for the water. As you progress, angle your fingers down slightly as well. The sculling motion creates higher pressure on the palm side of your hand and lower pressure on the back of your hand, thus providing propulsive force.

Figure 2.3 Sculling


  1. Check the water around you to ensure that you have enough room to perform the skill.
  2. Make sure that you are in water no deeper than chest level.
  3. Position yourself with plenty of distance to cover in the same depth of water.


  1. Begin by lying on the water facedown.
  2. Extend the arms in front and over your head.
  3. With the hands slightly cupped, sweep the hands out and in with fingers pitching down toward the bottom of the pool.
  4. Keeping the elbows and arms long but not locked, repeat the process until you can feel forward movement.


You keep your hands very stiff.


Relax your hands and feel the water.


You don't go anywhere when sculling.


Make sure that your hands are slightly cupped, which provides the same high-pressure and low-pressure propulsion as propellers and airplane wings. Water will flow faster over the top part of the hand as it has a greater distance to travel, and the inside arc of the hand has a smaller linear distance, so the water remains easier to hold. The faster moving water on the top of the hand is low pressure, and the palm would be higher pressure. To achieve equilibrium, the barrier (i.e., the hand) will move toward the lower pressure.

Drill for Sculling

Use the following drill to help practice the sculling skill.

Sculling Drill: Sculling With a Pull Buoy

Next, put this skill to work in a swimming position. Place a pull buoy between your legs slightly above your knees. Lie flat and facedown on the water in a neutral position, as described in step 1, with your arms extended above your head. Keep your hands relaxed, with your fingers pitched slightly downward, and slowly try the sculling motion until you feel yourself being pulled forward.

This is a complex skill that takes time to master. It requires movements that are not fast, rigid, or mechanical but slow, controlled, and fluid. Use slow, rhythmic movements and make sure that your hands never stop; they should be sweeping either out or in at any given time. Failure to master this skill does not prevent a person from swimming, but mastering it enables greater proficiency in later stages of the learning process. Repeat the drill several times, experimenting with hand angle and positioning to see what works best for you in creating propulsion. To develop a good catch, you must feel where the water pressure is on your hands and forearms!

To Increase Difficulty

  • Do not use a pull buoy.

To Decrease Difficulty

  • Bend your elbows slightly.
  • Use a swimmer's snorkel.

Success Check

  • You can make it down the pool.
  • You can move forward with just the sculling motion and your arms straight. The motion is back and forth with the hands slightly cupped.

Score Your Success

  • 1 point: You can swim across half the pool.
  • 3 points: You can go farther than half of the pool length with no snorkel.
  • 5-7 points: You can make it all the way down the pool length with little difficulty.

Learn more about Swimming: Steps to Success.

More Excerpts From Swimming: Steps to Success