Get a (better) Grip! - Part II
(Don't get sucked in)
Fair Warning: What follows relies on terminology and concepts developed in the preceding section of this series! This article will make little sense to you if you have not yet read the preceding stuff.
Sculling while standing still
Before we start trying to propel ourselves as shown in the videos, I want you to experiment with a bit of sculling while standing in water that is roughly armpit deep. Stand with both hands at your sides. Now, bend your right elbow so that the forearm sticks straight out in front of you. Now let your elbow move 6 or 8 inches out from your side. Your hand should be between 6 and 12 inches under the surface, palm facing down. In this position, start sculling side to side, alternating the pitch of your hand with each sweep. It's a bit like spreading icing on a big cake with your hand. In this position your blade plane is horizontal (parallel to the surface) like a ceiling fan's blade plane.
Allow me a brief digression. If you walk under a ceiling fan it is easy to note that the continuous rotation of the pitched blades accelerates a tube of air downwards, adding momentum to that tube of air. If you recall Isaac Newton's third law, when momentum is added to anything, there is an equal and opposite reaction. On the ceiling fan this equal and opposite reaction is an upward force on the blades.
You can easily see this on a large ceiling fan. Stand on a ladder so that the blade plane is at eye level and have someone turn the fan on its highest setting. As the fan speed increases you'll note that the fan blades tend to bow upwards a bit. The faster the fan moves the air the greater the opposite force on the blades and hence the more they bow upwards.
Hand blade vs. fan blade
Likewise, while you are standing there sculling, the horizontal sweep of a pitched hand adds downward momentum to the water it contacts. This water is deflected downward away from the palm/pressure side of your blade. And, again according to Newton, there is an equal and opposite upward force on your blade.
Unlike your ceiling fan, the pitched blade of a sculling hand does not continue round and round but, rather, traverses a rather short distance before your elbow runs out of effective range of motion and must reverse direction. And, dexterous being that you are, a deft reversal of the pitch of your blade allows the return sweep to continue to accelerate water downward away from the pressure side of the blade. Repeatedly reversing the pitch at the end of each sweep, so that each sweep of the hand presents the palm side as the pressure side, creates a continuous flow of water downward away from the pressure side of the blade.
As with the ceiling fan, the faster you scull (tempo) the greater the slipstream flow downward from your blade.
As you create greater downward water flow from your blade, you'll feel increased upward pressure on the pressure side of your blade. We call this "sculling pressure".
While standing there sculling you can easily feel the slipstream by simply extending one leg into the space directly below your sculling blade. You'll feel a gentle flow of water heading toward the bottom. This continuous flow of water has to come from somewhere. This means there is actually a continuous flow from above the hand taking the place of the water accelerated downward. You'll see evidence of this as a whirlpool vortex appears on the surface over your hand, much as a whirlpool appears over the drain in your sink. What you really have is a continuous vertical flow of water through your blade plane. And keep in mind this is all the result of your entirely horizontal sculling motions.
Vital concept translated
As you vary your sculling motions, the amount of upward pressure on your blade increases or decreases depending on scull tempo and pitch angle. You'll notice that, in order to keep your blade plane stationary, you instinctively apply more or less downward force to just offset the amount of upward sculling pressure.
Read that last paragraph again, it introduces a very important concept - that, by sculling, you can create a semi-firm spot on your blade plane that you can push down on without your hand slipping down through the water. If you'll recall the underwater ladder I talked about in Part I, this is not far different from the ladder rung against which one might apply force propulsive force without it yielding.
By sculling faster (or more effectively) you can make bigger whirlpools. And as your whirlpools grow you'll notice increased firmness of that spot - it will withstand an increased amount of applied force. As you become more proficient at making big whirlpools you'll be surprised how much downward force you must apply to keep your hand in the same sculling plane - in other words, you'll be surprised how firm a spot you are able to create on your blade plane by sculling.
Unsure how much force a firm spot created by effective sculling might support without yielding? When you watch synchronized swimmers in the Olympics, you'll sometimes see them supporting themselves upside down with legs high in the air. Their only support comes from furious sculling beneath the surface. 'Nuff said.
We'll be working a lot with this "firm spot" concept later in the article series. It will play a vital part in explaining how sculling is connected to highly effective swimming (in all 4 strokes).
Tweaks and adjustments
As you scull to make whirlpools it is ok to adjust your elbow a bit further away from your side to make the side-to-side motion easier, but if you move your upper arm around too much while you are sculling you'll disturb the surface enough that you won't see a whirlpool appear. The idea is to have your sculling motions come entirely from your elbow, not your shoulder. And if your hand isn't deep enough your motions will tend to tear up the surface, obliterating any possible whirlpools.
The size of your whirlpool will be a good indicator of the effectiveness of your sculling motions - the bigger the whirlpool, the better your sculling. Try to enlarge your whirlpool. You have several options you can play with. Increasing the sculling tempo will increase the flow and thus the size of the whirlpool. Changing the pitch angle of your blades will change the amount of water flowing in the slipstream. The greater the pitch angle, the more water you will move into the slipstream...up to a point. Somewhere between 45˚ and 90˚ pitch angle you'll reach a point where you'll become aware that you are creating more turbulence than flow. At any given scull tempo there will be a pitch angle that results in the greatest flow and, consequently, the biggest whirlpool.
Also experiment with sculling amplitude - try narrow sculls, wide sculls and everything in between. Search for the combination of tempo, pitch angle and amplitude that gives you the biggest whirlpools for the least amount of physical effort. Aside from whirlpool size, another way to get some feedback on how effective your sculling motions are is to extend one of your legs out into the slipstream to feel the slipstream flow.
As you try to make bigger whirlpools, you may find that you instead get multiple small whirlpools, some of which fade in and out. This is an indication that your sculling motion has some "dead spots" where your motion is not adding momentum to the water it contacts. This will be either because your hand isn't pitched correctly or that you are changing the pitch at the wrong time in relation to when your hand changes direction. Keep experimenting with various pitches and timing. As you find your multiple whirlpools merging, consider it a good thing.
Some people, particularly those with wrists that are much wider than they are thick, may find that they actually create a secondary whirlpool a bit closer to the elbow than the the main whirlpool created by the hand blade. This is different than the multiple small whirlpools mentioned above. The appearance such a secondary whirlpool indicates that your forearm is acting as a blade surface in addition to your hand. Not everyone will experience this. If you do, be of good cheer!
Just be careful not to get sucked in yourself - you don't want to get body-slammed to the bottom by your own whirlpool! :)
Getting closer to full-stroke freestyle
You have learned how to make effective sculling motions that accelerate tubes of water while creating tangible firm spots in our elusive medium. Read on through Part III to learn how sculling can produce forward propulsion with no backward motions at all. v
© H2Ouston Swims, Inc. 2006Fitness Swimming (Human Kinetics, publishers) and the second edition was released mid-2008. Fitness Swimming has been published in French (entitled Natation, pub. by Vigot), Spanish (entitled Natacion, pub. by Hispano Europea), Chinese (entitled Jianshenyouyong), Portuguese (Natacao Para Condicionamento Fisico, pub. by Manole) and, soon, in Turkish and Italian. 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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