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Get a (better) Grip! – Part III

(Alice Through the Looking Glass)

Fair Warning: What follows relies on terminology and concepts developed in the preceding parts. This article will make little sense to you if you have not yet read the preceding stuff.

(Author’s note, Sep 22, 2008 – This article series has been posted for a couple years now and I’m pleased to see it has gotten traction. Check out the following youtube clip showing a number of these drills that are being put to use by Total Immersion:

Putting it in motion

There is only so much you can learn from the stationary vertical exercises presented in Part II. So in this part you’ll take the next step and work on propelling yourself horizontally with sculling motions intended to create a horizontal slipstream flowing through a vertical blade plane (like I said, we’re building on terminology introduced in earlier sections of this series).

Watch again the video you’ll find at the following link:

GoSwim OTB sculling video

You’ll note the swimmer is using the same general sculling motions you have been refining with the whirlpool exercises in Part I, just in a different body orientation and different arm position with respect to the body. I like to describe this arm position as reaching “over a barrel”. The sculling motion then is a bit like trying to spread possum fat on the far side o’ that thar barrel. As with whirlpools the motion should be entirely from the elbows - forearms and hands only - keep your upper arms as stationary as possible.

Toward the end of the clip the swimmer gets pretty exaggerated with his hand motions. It’s a good idea to experiment with lots of options, but my observations tell me that the motions you see earlier in the clip - hands stay firmly in line with the forearms without extra movement at the wrist - are going to be the most effective for the largest portion of the population.

Pontoon assistance

You’ll also note that the swimmer stays very balanced (head, shoulders, hips, legs all right at the surface) without any kicking. Consider that a critical success factor for this drill. If you have balance “issues” then this is one of the few situations where I’ll suggest the use of a pull-buoy.  For these drills it will be important not to be distracted by teetering (or failing) balance. Even a tiny bit of kicking to prop up your hips and legs will take away from the desired momentum sensations. Long-term, as you improve your overall balance skills, you’ll want to work toward weaning yourself off the styro-virus for sculling drills. (See also the What Floats Yer Boat? article.)

Over The Barrel drill

When you were standing still, playing with whirlpools in Part II, your blade plane was horizontal (parallel to the surface), your slipstream flow was vertical-downward and the pressure on your hands was vertical-upward. But now you are going to shift your core body attitude and get horizontal with this. If you push off the wall at one end of the pool and scull as in the video clip, your blade plane will be vertical (or nearly so), your slipstream flow will be horizontal toward the wall you just left (or your feet, if you prefer to think of it that way) and the pressure on your hands will be horizontal toward the far end wall. In this horizontal body, vertical blade plane orientation you’ll be propelling yourself down the lane instead of creating stationary whirlpools.

You’ll quickly realize that the idea of creating larger whirlpools that you played with in Part II translates to greater propulsion in this new drill. Spend some time working with this over-the-barrel (OTB) sculling, playing with different combinations of scull tempo, scull amplitude and blade pitch angle. For now we want to keep the blade plane out in front of the head.

Sculling vs “little strokes”

If you are sculling properly your hands move only in the blade plane and there are no backwards “stroking” motions involved. The suction side of your blade plane faces the far wall and the pressure side faces the wall you are moving away from. If you keep outsweep and insweep identical in range of motion and effort you will feel equal pressure on your blades during both the outsweep and insweep. It is this combination of forces acting on your blades – constant pressure on one side and constant suction on the other – that adds forward momentum to your blades. And, because it is connected to your blades, the rest of your body goes along for the ride. If there are any backward/pulling motions, it’s not sculling any more. We’d call it “taking little strokes” instead. Go back and check the video clip again and look at the hands in relation to the lane line in the background. You’ll see that the hands and the blade plane are moving forward at all times, regardless of which direction they are sweeping. They never move backward.

Vertical vs semi-vertical blade plane

The more vertical your blade plane, the more propulsive your efforts will be. If your blade plane is vertical, your slipstream will flow straight back and the opposite force acting on your blades will be entirely forward propulsive. If your blade plane is somewhat short of vertical, then your slipstream will flow at somewhat of a down angle. This will mean the opposite force acting on your blades will be only partly propulsive, with the remaining portion of force tending to lift your front end out of balance and drop your hips which, of course, causes extra drag.


As you work with OTB sculling you will, of course, need to breathe from time to time. For now you have two options. Your first option is to lift your head in front, grab a breath, put your face back in the water and get your head back onto your spine-line. This, of course, tends to muck up your balance and will be a distraction from the real work of this drill. It’s workable (especially if you can get by with only a few breaths per length) but not ideal. A much better option is to get a center-mount snorkel (like this: I highly recommend such a snorkel for sculling drills. It will allow you skip the distracting lift-your-head-to-breathe-and-muck-up-your-balance cycle that keeps wanting to interfere with your otherwise impeccably balanced position. 

Alice Through the Blade Plane drill

This drill’s name is inspired by Lewis Carroll’s tale of the curious things that happen to young Alice when she goes through the looking glass..

Once you get really good at OTB sculling there are many more skills you can add to your sculling toolbox. I call this drill Alice Through the Blade Plane (or just Alice for short) As I noted earlier, the blade plane is constantly moving forward in OTB sculling. Keep that awareness as you do the Alice drill. Push off and begin with OTB sculling. Once you have established good forward propulsion with a vertical blade plane, begin sliding your whole body slowly forward through the blade plane. Keep sliding forward till your blade plane is past your hips. Once your blade plane gets past your hips, do an underwater breaststroke-type recovery to get your arms extended back out front to complete the cycle. Reach over the barrel and establish a new blade plane to begin another cycle.

Lots of sculls

When first attempting this drill, start with about 50 sculls for each cycle. Your first OUTsweep is scull #1, your first INsweep is #2, second outsweep is #3 and so on.

Let’s assume the distance measured from where you establish your initial OTB blade plane to that spot past your hips where the blade plane will end up is 50 inches. This will mean that with each sideways sweep of your sculling blades you’ll slide about one inch forward through the blade plane. Sounds simple, but it is not. Most people find that there are places along the body where keeping a smooth sculling motion (and, hence, a well-defined blade plane) is harder than at other places. Avoid the tendency to hurry through those “rough spots”. As your body moves through the blade plane the angles of your upper arm and lower arm will unavoidably change – but your job will be to keep the blade plane as vertical as possible at all times.

Accurize your feelings

When you first attempt the Alice drill it might feel as though you are moving the blade plane slowly down the body. But as you keep your awareness on the fact that your blade plane is still moving forward at all times, you want to tune your visceral feedback to accurately reflect that it is really your body that is sliding forward through the blade plane. 

Slowly decrease the sculls per cycle

After you’ve done this a few times with lots of sculls per cycle, it is time to cut down the number of sculls per cycle. Do a couple cycles using about 30 sculls, a couple using about 20 sculls/cycle, and a few using about 15. Assuming you use the same sculling tempo, fewer sculls/cycle will mean your body slides through the blade plane more rapidly. Regardless of how many sculls you use in the cycle, try to have your body move the same distance through the blade plane with each scull. The fewer the number of sculls the greater will be the tendency to let your hands kind of “blow by” some parts of your body - those pesky rough spots.

As you continue to decrease sculls/cycle and get below 15 sculls/cycle, it becomes important to count sculls precisely (remember to start with your first outward scull as #1) and do an ODD number of sculls/cycle (13, 11, 9, etc.). An odd number of sculls will always have you finishing with an outward scull past your hips.

Vital concept revisited and expanded

Each time you decrease the number of sculls by two, proper execution of the drill becomes a bit more complex. On one hand you want to keep focused on feeling that your plane blade continues to move forward with each scull. On the other hand, the original sensation of “sliding through the blade plane” will become more like “pulling yourself through the blade plane”. These two sensations may compete for your attention.

Recall from the Whirlpools drill that sculling allows you to create a horizontal firm spot upon which you applied some amount of downward force. In the Alice drill your sculling is also creating a firm spot. But because your blade plane is vertical, so is the firm spot. The result is that now you can apply a horizontal-backward force on your sculling-induced firm spot. As you begin to get the “pulling yourself through the blade plane” sensation, the idea is to develop your awareness that it is this firm spot that you are applying backward force against in order to pull yourself forward through the blade plane.

  • Definition: “propulsive paddling force” – the amount of pressure that your arm/hand exerts on, or transmits to, the blade plane. This force is exerted against the firm spot created by sculling motions.

It is important not to confuse this with the previously defined “sculling pressure”. The distinction being that sculling pressure is what moves the blade plane forward and creates your firm spot while paddling propulsive force is what pulls your body through the blade plane.

Keep decreasing your sculls/cycle till you get down to 3 sculls (out, in, out). When you have whittled the Alice drill down to 3 sculls you’ll notice great similarity to a pullout stroke for breaststroke and/or a butterfly stroke.

Getting closer to full-stroke freestyle

You have now moved from simply propelling yourself with effective sculling skills to being able to judiciously apply some propulsive force to the firm spots your sculling creates. You can probably already feel how these skills might affect your short axis strokes. Read on through Part IV to see how to transition your two-arm sculling skills into alternating one-arm skills more closely related to freestyle (and backstroke). 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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