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Get a (better) Grip! - Part IV

(The Alice Variations)

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. 

The drills in the previous section involved sculling with both hands at the same time. Now we'll move into the one-arm-at-a-time realm that your long axis strokes (free and back) live in.

One-Arm Alice drill

As the name implies, this drill is the same as the Alice Through the Blade Plane drill, but it is done one arm at a time. With only one blade to propel you this will be a bit more challenging than the two-arm version.

As with the Alice drill you'll do this entirely in the prone position. Push off the wall in streamline position. Before you lose all momentum reach OTB with just your right arm (leave your left arm extended) and begin sculling to establish your OTB blade plane. Remember you want this blade plane as far in front of you as possible and you want it as vertical as possible (at least past 45˚ from the horizontal). Once you have established good forward propulsion with a vertical blade plane, begin sliding your whole body slowly forward through the blade plane while keeping your left arm extended in front. Keep sliding forward till your blade plane is past your hips. As when you first did the original Alice drill, use lots (50+) sculls to do this. Try to keep awareness of the blade plane constantly moving forward. If you find yourself tending to get a bit catawampus in the lane, move the center of your blade plane a bit closer to the centerline of your body.

Once your blade plane gets past your hips, do an underwater breaststroke-type recovery to get your right arm extended back out front with the left.

Now is a great time to lift your head to get a breath, and put your face back in the nose-down position and rebalance before starting again.

Then, leaving your right arm extended, reach OTB with your left arm and establish a new blade plane to begin the other side of the cycle.

Decreasing sculls per cycle

Once you become proficient with this single-arm thing with many sculls, begin trimming the number of sculls as in previous drills - all the way down to three sculls per stroke. Try to keep constant or slightly increasing propulsive force on each scull of a stroke so that you move evenly through the blade plane. The notes and focus points suggested for the Alice drill are all applicable in the One-Arm Alice drill.

Alternating Side-Gliding Alice drill

This is the final drill in the progression. You'll likely find it more challenging than the others and thus requiring more time to get comfortable with. Be patient.


Push off from the wall and achieve an impeccably balanced side-gliding nose-down position on your right side, gently kicking for just enough forward momentum to be able to maintain your balanced position. Your whole top (left) arm should be in firm contact with your side and showing a dry strip of flesh from shoulder to wrist. Your bottom (right) arm should be extended at a bit of a down-angle toward the far end of the pool.

Using a high-elbow, finger-tip dragging recovery motion, bring the top arm slowly forward. As your left hand passes your shoulder, two things need to happen in close succession:

  1. the right arm reaches over the barrel and establishes a semi-vertical (45 degrees or more) sculling blade plane

  2. then your whole body begins slowly to roll


As your left arm continues forward past your head continue rolling and begin sliding your body through the blade plane. Continue to slowly roll as you slowly slide through your sculling blade plane. As your roll gets roughly to the belly-button pointed straight down position, your left hand pierces the surface and begins to extend toward the far end at a slight down-angle as the roll continues.


The idea is to continue, with many sculls, this "stroke" till three things happen simultaneously:

  • the right arm takes its last scull past the bottom edge of your suit

  • your roll finishes on your left side (belly button facing the right wall)

  • your left arm reaches full extension (at a slight down-angle)

You are now kicking gently along in an impeccably balanced (hopefully) side-gliding nose-down position on the opposite side from where you began. Once you have double-checked balance (and made any necessary corrections), rotate your head to a nose-up position and breathe freely. Breathe enough that you'll be able to get through the next stroke in a relaxed manner without starving for oxygen, then rotate your head back to the nose-down position.

And repeat

Mirror-repeat the above steps for the other side to execute the second half of the cycle, returning to your original side-gliding position. Throughout this drill, resist the temptation to breathe anywhere other than during impeccably balanced side-gliding time.

Decreasing sculls per stroke

Once you get smooth and comfortable doing this with many (30+) sculls per stroke, begin reducing the number of sculls in each stroke. As with the original Alice drill the idea will be to progressively trim the number of sculls.

You'll likely find that with each decrease in the number of sculls per stroke, proper execution of the drill becomes more complex. It helps to keep checking to be sure that you do not begin to roll till the recovering arm gets past your head. Of course, as you trim the number of sculls each stroke takes less and less time. Accordingly, the recovery of the other arm should increase speed in like proportion.

Nit-picky details and focus points

A lot of the learning you did as you decreased scull counts in the original Alice drill will be revisited here in the Alternating Side-Gliding version. A few specifics bear repeating:

  • 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.

  • Most people find that there places along the body where keeping a smooth sculling motion (and, hence, a well-defined blade plane) is harder than at other places.

  • Try to keep awareness that your blade plane is cutting forward through the water with each sweep.

  • Search for the feeling that it is your body that is sliding forward through the blade plane, as opposed to moving the blade plane past the body.

  • 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 kind of "blow by" some parts of your body. The idea is to keep constant or slightly increasing propulsive force on each scull so that you move evenly through the blade plane.

  • Assuming you use the same sculling tempo, fewer sculls/cycle will mean your body slides through the blade plane more rapidly.

  • When your scull count gets down to the low teens you'll need to start counting exactly, making sure to do an odd number of sculls, starting with an outward scull in the OTB position and finishing with an outward scull past your hips.

  • As your scull count gets down to the low teens more propulsive force is required to complete each stroke down past your hips.

Getting closer to full-stroke freestyle

As you whittle the Alternating Side-Gliding Alice drill down to 7 and 5 sculls you should be combining the "reach over the barrel" action with the first outward scull. As you finally get down to 3 sculls per stroke (out, in, out) note the similarity to a normal freestyle stroke, both in timing and motion. It is in this area that you'll be bringing together all of the skills and awareness you have developed while learning and refining all of the preceding drills. In fact, it is the 3-scull endpoint of this drill that we want to employ in your full-stroke freestyle swimming.

Read on through Part V to see how to transition your sculling skills into continuous swimming. 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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