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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.

Vital concept

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.

  • Definition: "pressure side" - as a pitched blade sweeps through the blade plane the surface where greater pressure develops is called the pressure side. On a ceiling fan that is blowing air down, the pressure side is the bottom side of the blade. For our purposes, in sculling, the palm side of the hand will always be the pressure side.

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.

  • Definition: "slipstream" - the continuous flow of water accelerated away from the pressure side of the blade/hand. The direction of the slipstream water flow created by sculling is at right angles to the blade plane (just as the flow of air from a ceiling fan is always at right angles to the fan's blade plane).

As with the ceiling fan, the faster you scull (tempo) the greater the slipstream flow downward from your blade.

  • Definition: "scull tempo" - how often your blade passes the center point of the sculling motion; frequency of sculling motions.

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".

  • Definition: "sculling pressure" - the amount of pressure, due to sculling alone, exerted on the pressure side of a sculling blade.

Making whirlpools

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.

  • Definition: "suction side" - side of the blade that air or water flows toward. On a ceiling fan that is blowing air down, the suction side is the top side of the blade. For our purposes, in sculling, the back of the hand will always be the suction side.

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.

  • Definition: "firm spot" - the sense of increased stability or solidity of a spot on the blade plane that results from effective sculling motions. A spot you can apply some additional force to without it yielding in the same way still water yields.

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.

Multiple vortices

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!

Whirlpool experimentation

  • I encourage you to spend some time expanding your sculling skill base. Here are a few suggestions for skill development activities you can do while standing still.

  • Use your right hand to make a whirlpool directly in front of your right shoulder. Once you have the whirlpool going, without turning your body, see how far around to your right side you can take that whirlpool. Then how far to your left you can take it? How quickly can you move the whirlpool through that whole range?

  • Try sculling with both hands simultaneously to create 2 whirlpools roughly shoulder width apart.

  • Try getting a whirlpool going with one hand, then see if you can switch hands without losing the whirlpool.

  • Try passing a whirlpool from one person to another.

  • Try holding your thumb and forefinger together (as in making an "OK" gesture) as you make whirlpools. Can you feel the flow of water through the "O"?

  • Try whirling your pools with fists.

  • Try starting a whirlpool with one hand, then adding a second sculling hand about 6 inches beneath the first so that its motion is centered in the slipstream of the top hand. The hands should always be sweeping in opposite directions. Can you increase total slipstream flow and thus enlarge your whirlpool in this manner? Working with a partner can you get 4 hands sculling as a team in the same slipstream?

  • How deep can you make your sculling motions and still have a whirlpool appear on the surface?

  • Place a small item that floats (a 1-inch cube of styrofoam, for instance) on the surface and then try to create a whirlpool large enough to suck it under and through your blade plane. Once you have accomplished that, try a larger piece of the same floatable material. Work toward being able to sink larger and larger such floaties. How big a floaty can you suck under with slipstream teamwork?

  • Be sure not to neglect your "other" hand. Whatever whirlpool activity you undertake with one hand, be sure to give equal work and challenges to the other.

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. 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, was a Senior Coach for Total Immersion Swim Camps for many years, holds an American Swim Coaches Association 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. 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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