Why Sculling Matters In Swimming

Courtesy of Gary Hall Sr., 10-time World Record Holder, 3-time Olympian, 1976 Olympic Games US Flagbearer and The Race Club co-founder.

Feeling the Water

Sculling with the hands is one of the best ways to teach a swimmer to feel the water. For years I have heard coaches teach their swimmers to feel the water and have been trying to figure out exactly what that means. Holding water is another commonly used expression that needs explanation, although it has a slightly different meaning than feeling the water.

Downward and Backward Forces

The two most important forces that the hands and feet can generate in order to swim fast are downward forces (lifting the body upward) and backward forces (providing propulsion). Forces to the side can also produce lift, but unless they occur bilaterally and counter oppose one other, such as in fly or breaststroke, they will also produce an undesirable side-to-side motion of the body. What determines the forces of the lift or propulsion are the effective surface area and the speed or the acceleration of that surface area moving in the desired direction.

Flow Dynamics

Because of flow dynamics, the effective surface area of the hand is different from the actual surface area. When the fingers are separated slightly, as the hand moves through water, the flow through the narrow spaces between the fingers becomes turbulent. A turbulent flow slows down and doesn’t allow the water behind it to get through. In other words, it makes the hand with the separated fingers act as if it is a larger solid hand, increasing the effective surface area compared to a hand with the fingers squeezed together.

Not only that, but a hand with fingers separated is more relaxed than a hand with the fingers squeezed together. For both of those reasons, separating the fingers slightly is desirable.

Being able to produce a maximum amount of force with the hand is what I believe coaches refer to as feeling the water. Holding the water refers to not only maximizing the propulsive forces, but also the ability of a swimmer to couple those forces with other motions, such as the body’s rotation or the arm recovery, in order to increase distance per stroke.

There are two really great sculling drills that help enable the swimmer to feel and hold the water better. The first is the high-elbow scull and the second is the snap-paddle scull seen on the links below. Both can be done with or without the snorkel.


Gary Hall, Sr., Technical Director and Head Coach of The Race Club (courtesy of TRC)

Gary Hall, Sr., Technical Director and Head Coach of The Race Club (courtesy of TRC)

Yours in swimming,

Gary Sr.

[email protected] <http://[email protected]  
Www.theraceclub.com <http://Www.theraceclub.com 


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6 years ago

Yes. I have been trying to get others to understand the importance of this for a while now. Great article. Additionally, an amazing coach I once had back in club swimming also told me to slightly separate my fingers, which I greed with and complied, and it is great to see more folks discovering this. If only I could get my stubborn college coach to understand the importance of detail, but thats another story haha. Again, great article and please continue to help swimming evolve and progress the minds of swimmers and coaches everywhere.

Reply to  MidMajorSwimmer
4 years ago

I’m not sure that your explanation can be scientifically supported. Is it just your opinion or you can provide some references to the scientific studies. In general case whenever turbulence happens the efficiency drops. A swimmer may indeed gets different feeling of extra efforts that you call the “feel of water” but this extra effort not necessarily increases the propelling force but goes on creation of turbulence. I’ve never seen oars with holes. If your theory is accurate then this way one can save a lot of materials and can make them lighter with the same efficiency.

Reply to  Prickle
4 years ago

Oh, no! I only now noticed that this MIDMAJORSWIMMER posted his/her comment two years ago. She/he may already got drawn using this technique 🙂 and I’m trying to converse with the ghost.

Reply to  Prickle
4 years ago

Scientifically supported or not, leaving your fingers separated and relaxed will allow you to move more water backwards and swim faster. Scientific results are in the pool at the Olympics. Look at any underwater still shot of Adrian, Ervin, McEvoy, Phelps, etc. If you need proof, it’s easy to find.

Reply to  Marmot
4 years ago

Sure. Who needs this science if everything is obvious.
Who told you that leaving fingers separately moves more water backward? Have you measured it or know how to do it?
Who told you that moving more water backward means swimming faster? Not necessarily.
Spreading fingers increases the surface of palm. Try to make your palm as wide as possible and check the positions of your fingers. The main effect is achieved by keeping the thumb as far as possible. Other fingers contributes very little unless there is rudimentary membrane between them. Separating fingers stretches the palm increasing by that effective surface but creates turbulence that means extra resistance that means extra efforts are needed to move arm… Read more »

Reply to  Prickle
4 years ago

As a starting point, research has recently been carried out by a number applied physics professors at Eindhoven University of Technology. They discuss the benefits of having fingers slightly apart and presented their findings at the recent APS Division of Fluid Dynamics – “Abstract L19.00008: More efficient swimming by spreading your fingers”. You should find it and a fair bit more on the subject with an effective google search.

Reply to  PRA
4 years ago


Reply to  Prickle
4 years ago

So there is your proof. PRA provided what sounds like a great reference. Elite swimmers have figured out to spread their fingers for more power, even though many swimmers are told to squeeze their fingers together. The spread of the fingers changes the area of the palm very little, but alters the flow dynamics (turbulent flow) to increase the effective surface area of the hand. The amount of difference in propulsive force generated between the two (fingers separated and squeezed) is far less than the area provided by using training paddles, which can add considerably more torque to the shoulder and cause inflammation.
While the fingers should be separated and relaxed on the recovery, they should be separated and… Read more »

Reply to  garyhallsr
4 years ago

It is not a place for scientific discussion but I’m really surprised that such an obvious thing became obvious just recently. Generations by generations of swimmers of all ages and origins, professional and amateurs instinctively kept fingers together. And that actually requires some efforts. Much easier not to do that. I also believe that swimmers asked this question long long long time ago: how to keep fingers to swim faster. And all of them years by years, miles by miles of swimming couldn’t come to the conclusion that should be easily achieved as the result of so many experiments. Such a discovery should’ve been made long time ago purely by try-and-fail experiments.
I read this article. Nothing conclusive and… Read more »

About Gold Medal Mel Stewart

Gold Medal Mel Stewart

MEL STEWART Jr., aka Gold Medal Mel, won three Olympic medals at the 1992 Olympic Games. Mel's best event was the 200 butterfly. He is a former World, American, and NCAA Record holder in the 200 butterfly. As a writer/producer and sports columnist, Mel has contributed to Yahoo Sports, Universal Sports, …

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