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Get a (better) Grip! – Part I


This series began as an answer to a swimmer’s email question – the result is probably more than she was looking for.

You have no doubt heard or read that one of the things that set great swimmers apart from the rest of us is “feel for the water” - great swimmers have it and the rest of us, well....not so much. But then little is said about how the rest of us might attain or improve our “feel for the water”. In fact, little is even said about what “feel for the water” is. Toward that end I like to substitute the phrase “getting a grip on the water” in place of “feel for the water”. I think it gives a better mental image for the desired result.

But, for most swimmers, the idea of getting a “grip” on a fluid seems more like trying to herd cats or lasso smoke. Yes, water does offer some resistance to a hand moving through it, but, in general, when you yank your hand backwards through the water, the water yields easily to the forces you apply. You get a large portion of backward motion of the hand and a less than satisfying portion of forward motion of the body. You simply don’t have as firm a grip on the water as you’d like.

Now imagine that there is a ladder extended from one end of the pool to the other in your lane about 18” or so deep. With each stroke you reach out in front of you, grasp a convenient rung and launch yourself forward past that rung toward the next convenient rung. In such a case, the concept of getting a “grip” on a firm handhold with each stroking hand/arm is pretty easy to understand. And launching yourself forward by applying propulsive force against the unyielding rung provides very satisfying results. Watch a great swimmer, squint your eyes just right and you can almost see their ladder rungs materialize with each stroke.

My hope here is to help you achieve that same kind of result in your own swimming.

Maximize your paddle

As you are likely aware, one of the ways to improve your grip on the water is by maximizing the surface area of the “paddle” you use to apply propulsive force to the water. You do this primarily by focusing on using the entire forearm and hand as your paddle, rather than just your hand. That’s where fist swimming is so useful. (see also In Search of the Dreaded Dropped Elbow and Tricks of Mother Nature)

Add sculling to the mix

But there is an additional way we can increase effective “grip” on the water – and that’s where sculling drills come in. What I offer here is an accumulation of sculling drills, offered in a progression that will get your neuromuscular system accustomed arm motions that improve your grip on the water. My descriptions of the drills will include an explanation of how the motions they teach are effective in improving your grip. As much as possible I’ve tried to keep the explanations as non-technical as possible, mixing common analogy with descriptive terminology. My hope is that you will be able take these concepts from the screen to the pool and incorporate them into your workouts and, ultimately into your stroke habits.

Sneak preview

Before we go any further, I want you to follow each of the links below. You’ll be visiting the totally awesome site owned and produced by my friend and fellow Total Immersion veteran, Glenn Mills. The site has loads of video, drills and all manner of stuff swimming (and all the GoSwim DVDs are first rate!).

Each of the links has a “Watch the video” link in the upper right portion of the page. The video clips show swimmers propelling themselves quite handily using nothing other than side-to-side sculling motions. The comments that go along with the videos are good, but I’m mainly interested in you getting a peek at some of the sculling motions I’ll be talking about.

GoSwim OTB sculling video

GoSwim Back-end Sculling video

In this series of articles I’ll be suggesting a lot more sculling skills using the same general sculling motions shown.

For freestyle…and other strokes too

The motions I’ll be dealing with through most of this are not stroke-specific but rather intended to teach general awareness of how the hands interact with the water and how sculling improves your “feel” or “grip”. Working through this series will help you develop the ability to find an effective sculling motion in nearly any conceivable combination of body position and arm position. Thus, though the progression of drills I offer ends up in swimming freestyle, both the general concepts and the visceral learning are applicable to all 4 competitive strokes.


I want to set out a few definitions for terms I’ll be tossing around. These are terms I have adapted from other uses (or plucked from the aether) for ease and consistency of communication. As you’ll see in the definitions, I’ll be analogizing a common ceiling fan to help with some of the explanations herein.

  • Definition: “blade” - on a ceiling fan the blades are those wide, flat things that stick out from the center hub. In sculling, the blades are those wide, flat things at the ends of your arms - also known as “hands”.

  • Definition: “blade plane” - For the ceiling fan it is the spatial plane in which all the fan blades move as the hub rotates. In sculling, this is the plane in which your sweeping hands/blades move.

  • Definition: “pitch” – deviation from the blade plane - on a ceiling fan the blades are tilted with respect to the blade plane. In sculling, your hands are tilted, or pitched, with respect to the blade plane. 

  • Definition: “pitch angle” – the degree of deviation from the blade plane - ceiling fan blades are tilted 12 to 20 with respect to the blade plane. In sculling, you will find, through experimentation that different pitch angles yield different results at different speeds.   

I’ll also be explicitly setting out more definitions as appropriate throughout the ensuing diatribe.

Ready to get started?

This series of articles has a lot of information and quite a few drills, each with variations and nuances. It is OK (perhaps even advisable) to read through the entire series before heading off to the pool. But, when it comes to putting these words into action in the pool, I strongly encourage you to take it one part at a time. Don’t skip any of the core drills as each relies and builds upon learning accomplished in the preceding sections. Skipping sections or drills virtually guarantees you’ll get an incomplete, ineffective and confusing result. Drills that you struggle with require more work before moving on. Read and re-read the descriptions. Maybe even print out the article in question, ensconce it in a Ziplock and take it to the pool edge with you.

Some of what I lay out comes in baby steps – but baby steps that keep you on the narrow path are better than big leaps that land you out beyond the cliff’s edge.  v

H2Ouston Swims, Inc. 2006

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Emmett Hines is Director and Head Coach of H2Ouston Swims. He has coached competitive Masters swimming in Houston since 1981, holds an ASCA Level 5 Certification, was selected as United States Masters Swimming’s Coach of the Year in 1993 and received the Masters Aquatic Coaches Association Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002. He recently overhauled his popular book, Fitness Swimming (Human Kinetics, publishers) and the second edition was released mid-2008. The first edition has been translated and released in French (entitled Natation, published by Vigot), Spanish (entitled Natacion, published by Hispano Europea), Chinese (entitled Jianshenyouyong) and, soon, in Turkish. Currently Coach Hines coaches the H2Ouston Swims Masters group in Houston, TX and works privately with many clients. He can be reached for questions or comments at 713-748-SWIM or via email.
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