What Is Sculling in Swimming?

Man swimming in the pool, front view, defocused
In breaststroke, you bring your hands forward underwater after your pull. (Image: DAJ/amana images/Getty Images)

When landlocked friends hear you are performing sculling drills they might question the activity, but fellow swimmers know that you are improving your strength and efficiency in the water. Basic sculling keeps you from sinking in the water and is a first safety skill that beginning swimmers learn, yet expert synchronized swimming performances also depend on sculling movements. All four competitive swimming strokes -- freestyle, breaststroke, backstroke and butterfly -- benefit from sculling exercises or drills, breaststroke in particular.

Basic Sculling

In basic sculling, you move your hands, palms down, in a circular or figure-eight motion, on or just under the surface of the water, exerting pressure downward. You keep your arms in front of you with your elbows bent and position your hands slightly wider than your shoulders. The motion keeps you afloat when your body is in a vertical position in the water. Water polo players use a sculling motion continuously during a game to keep on the surface of the water between sprints. By subtly varying the tilt of your forearms and palms, you determine whether you move forward, backward or just stay in one place.

Vertical and Hortizontal Movements

When you tilt your forearms and palms back toward your body slightly, you propel yourself forward. Sculling forward while your body is in a vertical position takes strength because you meet the full force of water's resistance against your body. Put yourself in a horizontal position, facing downward in the water, to lessen friction and resistance. If your legs sink, place a pull-buoy, which is a small peanut-shaped float, between your thighs to keep your legs afloat.

Arm-Position Effect

How wide you position your arms determines how much strength you need for sculling. In breaststroke, you don't get much propulsion with the first part, or outward sweep, of your sculling motion. The powerful inward sweep that follows pushes water back and under you, moving you forward. The entire sculling movement forms the basis of a breaststroke pull and the out-sweep portion of the sculling motion mimics the start of a butterfly pull. A vertical scull, which places your forearm perpendicular to your body, fingers pointing down, forms the basis of the freestyle pull.

Sculling Drills

Practice your forward sculling, moving your hands rapidly in front of you in a tight, circular motion. In the"bucket" sculling drill, you move feet first across the pool. Position yourself as if you were leaning back on an armchair, your arms on either side of your body, forearms parallel to the surface and palms facing down. Bring your knees up so that your shins are parallel to the surface of the water and scull with your hands to move. The drill works well to tone your abdominal core as well as your forearms. The vertical-arm, "windshield wiper" sculling drill teaches you to keep high elbows and an early vertical catch, essential for an efficient freestyle pull. To perform the drill, assume a regular forward sculling position, then switch your forearms from a horizontal to a vertical position.

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