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Get a (better) Grip! – Part V

(This Ain’t Your Father’s ‘S’ Shaped Stroke)

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. 

Original intent

Remember that our original intent was to improve “feel for the water”, which I then restated as “getting a grip on the water”. We can, in general, boil “getting a grip” down to three critical success factors:

  • maximizing the surface area of the “paddle” you use to apply propulsive force to the water by focusing on using the entire forearm and hand as your paddle (rather than just your hand),

  • creating as firm a “spot” as possible in the water with effective sculling motions and,

  • applying propulsive force to that spot, as opposed to simply yanking the hand backwards through the water.

Automatic transition to swimming

Do not be surprised if, when returning to full-stroke swimming after doing lots of sculling drill work, you notice significant changes to what your hands “want” to do as they take strokes. This is a result of the visceral “firm spot” feedback they’ve been getting during all those drills. In the alien fluid blue environment your inner swimmer has always been searching for something more solid – but now it knows where to find it! The more you work the sculling drills the more your hands will be able to find satisfying “grips” in your lane.

5-scull and 3-scull swimming

We can also be more deliberate about the carryover from drilling to swimming. When doing the Alternating Side-Gliding Alice drill you deliberately paused, gently kicking in an impeccably balanced side-gliding position (with that top arm resting firmly on your side) between each stroke. As you get down to 5-scull and 3-scull ASGA drill you’ll find that you create a fair amount of momentum with each stroke.

With that in mind, our next step is to eliminate the “top arm resting on your side” pause and instead begin your recovery as soon as the final outward scull of the stroke is completed. This takes the exercise out of the realm of “drill” and into the realm of “full-stroke swimming”. Swimming alternating lengths of 5-scull freestyle and 3-scull freestyle is quite useful in keeping one focused on the intricacies of smoothly balancing sculling pressure and propulsive force.

  • Staying on your side till the recovering arm passes your head will give you the best shot at timing your body roll properly.

  • Beginning your body roll just as you begin the first inward scull (2nd scull) will allow you to maximize the amount of your core rotation that can be translated to propulsive force.

  • Maintaining consistent or increasing propulsive force throughout the entire wingspan of each stroke is, as before, a critical success factor

  • In the ASGA drill you waited till your recovering arm passed your head to begin reaching OTB. But as you transition to swimming you’ll want to experiment with precisely when you begin the outward scull into the OTB position.

Full-stroke swimming

Check out the following video clip of full-stroke swimming incorporating effective sculling.

Although this swimmer appears to have only a small side-to-side amplitude to his sculling motions, the dynamic of body-roll adds a couple vector components to the motion that may not be apparent at first viewing. You’ll notice that the initial outsweep is actually an outanddownsweep and that the final outsweep actually ends up being outandupsweep.

Eschew the tempting but treacherous giant leap

Avoid the common error of trying to make the giant leap from “I just figured out how to move my body with nothing but sculling…” to “…now how do I use that to make my freestyle faster?” The pristine path involves many steps along the way. Only by embracing, to the point of mastery, each new challenge along the way will you reap the desired benefits. Whenever the shortcut urge strikes you, consider the following:

  • You’ll never have too much skill in the area of sculling.

  • Your stroke(s) will always be able to benefit from acquisition or refinement of sculling skill.

  • Repeatedly going through the progression of drills will greatly increase your overall skills – particularly if you have a goal of refining current skills and/or learning something new at each stop along the way.

  • Over time, experimenting with the variables – pitch angle, scull tempo, scull amplitude – in each drill will bring new insights to familiar drills and thus to your swimming as well.

  • Mixing the extra drills found in the Addendum into your workouts will further expand your visceral grasp of the concepts and solidify your grip on the water.

  • Inventing new sculling drills will help you further explore your relationship with the water. The drills presented here are just a tiny subset of the universe of all possible ways to expend your sculling skills (and hence your “feel for” and “grip on” our favorite fluid). Need ideas? Watch underwater shots of synchronized swimming for loads of ideas.

  • As you become a sculling master you will find that, when swimming, your hands will automatically begin to seek (and find) firmer spots against which to apply your propulsive forces. And not just in freestyle – you’ll find positive sculling applications in all your strokes.

“Hey Coach, isn’t this really just the old ‘S’ shaped stroke revisited?”

Not by a long shot. While you will notice some semblance of S-ness to the shape of a 3-scull stroke, there is a huge gulf between the consciously forced S-shaped stroke that moves backwards through the water and the finesse of a scull-based stroke with a true grip on a firm spot in the water.  

For decades swimmers were taught to “make an ‘S’ shaped stroke” with little or no information about how this might be helpful. Some attempts at explanation were offered. One oft-repeated explanation goes something like, “as the pressure of your hand accelerates a column of water you must move your hand to the side to find new, still water to stroke against”. Or sometimes the purpose was shortened to simply “finding still water to push against”.

While these statements contain essential nuggets – the general concept espoused is entirely backwards. As you learned in Part I, it is the side-to-side sweeps of the pitched blade – sculling itself – which accelerates a column of water. And in Part II you learned that the equal and opposite sculling pressure on the palms of the hands resulting from accelerating that water creates what amounts to a “firm spot” which the swimmer can apply propulsive force against.

Creating that firm spot is all about pitch angle, timing and finesse; not about the shape you draw with your hand. Learning to create a series of firm spots to use as launch points for successive strokes requires lots of skill building through focused sculling activities. Turning your attention to “drawing Ss” instead of learning (and creating habits of) sculling skills will greatly diminish the results potential of your efforts.

The final word

An individual’s stroke is assembled from many parts. As you build your stroke it is good to bear in mind the following: Every inch that your hand travels backwards as you take a stroke is an inch your body cannot travel forward. As you follow the drills through to their logical extremes you’ll be building the skills necessary to minimize backward slippage in your strokes – and that translates to greater forward momentum. You’ll also be conditioning the muscles required for effective sculling motions – muscles you probably don’t put to much use otherwise. Combining sculling skills, maximized “paddle” size and proper conditioning will give you far better propulsive opportunities than the guy inn the next lane who still insists on just yanking his hand back. 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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