8 Tips for Effective Sculling

by SwimSwam 6

March 07th, 2016 News

Sculling for swimmers is a technique that helps swimmers build strength and improve form. What is the science behind sculling? Sculling is a technique that allows swimmers to “feel the water,” by focusing on the pitch of the hands in the water. This is similar to sculling when rowing. When the paddle is in the water, it drives, stops, and turns the boat. The pitch is what determines where and how fast you go. When swimming, the hand acts like the paddle. Sculling focuses on the pitch of your paddle.

The pitch of the hand gives swimmers a sense of the water pressure. Coaches and swimmers use sculling drills to train the hands and the body to recognize the pressure. Sculling drills assist in training swimmers to feel the the pressure of the water and to evaluate the necessary changes to prevent fatigue, tension, and poor stroke mechanics.

What is Sculling?

Sculling is a hand technique that allows swimmers to “feel the water” and maintain the ideal hand and arm position to move through the water. Sculling allows the swimmer to maximize surface area for effective propulsion and lift. This is effective only if the hand’s surface area differs from the water’s surface area. Adequate surface area and speed of the surface area – when moving in the intended direction – are the two contributors that must work together to produce speed and lift for a successful swim. Sculling is a way of maximizing surface area for movement in the water, for turns, and for the catch phase of the stroke.

What does sculling look like? Depending on your training and desired outcome, sculling drills can look a little different. Each sculling technique helps with different part of your desired stroke.

Sculling Positions

What does sculling look like? Basically, sculling is any hand motion in the water. Sculling can include making ‘S’ or figure-eight motions with the hands in the water, it can be side-to-side, and it can be up and down. Sculling-assistive devices, such as the FINIS Instinct strapless sculling paddle, can make sculling more effective. Sculling paddles are designed to teach the appropriate thumb and palm position during sculling drills. The paddle can be used for any of the four competitive swim strokes.

There are a few variations of sculling. The basic, and most important, benefit of sculling is allowing swimmers to feel the pressure and maintain the pressure of the water. Awareness of pressure and its relation to the swimmer’s palm and forearm improves the stroke overall. The variations of sculling depend on the desired stroke and outcome of the stroke.

Catch Scull

The catch scull is perfect for swimmers who want to improve the catch of the front crawl in freestyle. The catch scull uses the forearm and hands to produce frontward propulsion. To do the front catch scull, put your arms out in front of you and bend your elbows. You should lie face down in the water and put a buoy between your legs. A small kick may be effective, but only to prevent sinking. This is all about the arm strength, and not the leg strength. Make sure your elbow is above your hand and your fingertips tilt toward the bottom of the pool.

When doing the catch scull, do not put too much stress on the shoulders. The movement must come from the forearms and the hands. This is a relaxed position. Use your hips to do the positioning. The hip rotation brings the elbow up; the shoulder does not. This takes the pressure off the shoulders to prevent injury and improper form.

Feet-First Scull

Feet-first scull improves forearm performance. Whether you swim breaststroke, freestyle, backstroke or fly, the feet-first scull benefits various stages of your stroke. You can do this drill either on your back or on your stomach if you have a snorkel. Your feet—as the names suggest—should lead. Relax your body so that your knees bend slightly and your neck is relaxed. Put your arms straight at your hips and use only your wrists. Most of your movement will come from the forearms as your hands scull in circular motions no more than 10 inches from your hips.

Hip Scull

Backstroke and Butterfly swimmers use different variations of the hip scull. To complete the hip scull, lie face-down in the water. During this scull, your arms start straight. Your elbows are locked and your hands are at your thighs. When you transition into the scull, your forearms and wrists act as one unit. Sweep the water out and back, but do not extend beyond 12 inches. Flip your palms to the sky when you sweep out, and then face your hands in and point your thumbs down to the pool as you sweep back toward your body.

Superman Scull

Put your arms out in front of you and place your face in the water. For this sculling technique. The wrists and hands are what do the sculling. Initiate forward propulsion by moving the wrists and hands in a side-to-side motion to propel your body through the water.

From the Superman Scull, you can transition into Wide-Y Sculling. From the superman scull, scull out to the Wide-Y position and then bring your arms back in front of you. Do not bend your elbows.

You can transition into the Windshield Wiper Scull, too. Envision your forearms as windshield wipers. Stabilize your elbows, point your fingers down, and use the windshield wiper position to propel your body forward.

8 Tips for Effective Sculling

  1. To scull effectively, remember these keys points for success.
  2. Do not pull
  3. Focus on your hands and forearms
  4. Do not allow your legs to take over the sculling drills. Support your legs with a buoy or do small kicks. Do not try to propel yourself through the water with your legs when sculling.
  5. Make sure your body is exactly as it would be in the pool. An effective sculling drill requires the same body position as competition does.
  6. You can perform some sculling techniques on your back or with your face in the water. If you train with your face in the water, use a snorkel so you don’t interrupt the flow.
  7. If you do not use a snorkel, breathe just as you would in a competition: quickly and effectively.
  8. Do not squeeze the hands together; separate them slightly to maximize the total surface area.
  9. Focus on form and the feel of the water; don’t try to go faster. Speed is not your concern in these drills, but these drills may improve your speed.

While sculling may sound simple, it allows swimmers to produce force and maximize propulsion. Sculling tackles these two significant forces to make the most of stroke efficiency and recovery.

Courtesy of Swimming Science and FINIS, a SwimSwam Partner. 


John Mix and Olympic Gold Medal swimmer Pablo Morales founded FINIS in 1993 with a mission to simplify swimming for athletes, coaches, beginners and lifelong swimmers around the world. Today, FINIS fulfills that mission through technical innovation, high quality products and a commitment to education. FINIS products are currently available in over 80 countries. With a focus on innovation and the fine details of swimming, FINIS will continue to develop products that help more people enjoy the water.

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Domingos de Lancastre Pinto-Coelho
2 years ago

Usefull text !!

7 years ago

Some swimmers need to kick in the beginning to learn sculling.

Reply to  billyjoe
7 years ago

Definitely. But it’s great core and balance work to learn to do it without 🙂

7 years ago

I find sculling to be a great body balance drill. We did enough sculling drills when I was in college that we all sculled without kicking and without a buoy. Great for core strength and learning to press the chest…

Tom Elslie
7 years ago

Great tips!

7 years ago

Great list, save for #9. Focusing on form and feel is definitely how to start. Once that form and feel is established, treat sculling as a regular training component – create sculling sets that train endurance, VO2 and sprint power.