All Strokes – The Ins and Outs of Sculling

Sculling is a back-and-forth movement of the hands and forearms that provides almost constant propulsion. It may not be a FAST way to get to the end of the pool, but if you keep at it, you will soon be faster when you try to swim to the other end. Sculling teaches your hands how to propel at every point in the pull cycle.


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Sculling is one of the most important skills in swimming. It’s part of having that elusive “feel” for the water – the ability to hang on to the water at every stage of the pull.

To understand it, think of a propeller. A propeller — rather than moving backward or forward — cuts sideways through the water (or through the air, if it’s an airplane propeller). It’s the pitch of the propeller that causes the water (or wind) to be directed away from the surface, thus creating forward motion. The blade on your summer fan works in exactly the same way.

Another useful image is to think about what happens when you stick your hand out the car window at 60 miles per hour. You can feel how a slight change in the pitch of your hand has a dramatic effect on how the air travels around your hand and how much resistance is created.

The same thing happens in the water. A slight change in the pitch of your hand has a big effect on drag, lift, and propulsion. Sculling is nothing more than the constant changing of the pitch of the hands and forearms to create propulsion.

This video illustrates an easy sculling drill that can lead to a more efficient, propulsive stroke.

Start by treading water in the deep end, but without using your legs (or use them as little as possible). Sweep your hands back and forth, in and out, with very little movement in the upper arm (elbow to shoulder). Try to apply constant pressure on the water with your palms, and try to keep your back-and-forth movements rhythmic and steady – as if your hands and forearms were a windshield wiper.

As you continue this back-and-forth movement, start to focus on HOW you change the pitch of your hands. As you send the hands AWAY from the center, the palms will face slightly away from each other, but not directly away. As you bring them back to center, the palms face slightly toward each other, but not directly at each other.

The angle of pitch should be about 45 degrees. An easy way to remember this is “thumbs down out; thumbs up in.” As you sweep out, the thumbs are angled slightly down; as you sweep in, the thumbs are angled slightly up.

Focus on making your motions very even. If your outward push is stronger or faster than the inward push, it’s hard to create any lift. You should always apply a slight downward pressure on the water with some part of the palm.

Remember the image of the propeller. You’re trying to create LIFT with your hands, simply by sweeping them back and forth. The downward pressure on your palms, combined with the lift from the back-and-forth movement, keeps your body from sinking in the water, and allows you to breathe.

This eventually becomes very important. If you point your hands directly to the sides, you will lose your downward pressure. If your movements are uneven, you don’t create lift.

Continue to sweep the hands back and forth, monitoring your ability to hold your body still, and high enough in the water to continue to breathe without struggle. As you get better at this, start to experiment with rate, or how quickly you sweep your hands. The faster you sweep, or scull, the higher you’ll hold your body in the water. Of course, this takes much extra energy.

When you want to see how sculling can actually propel you down the pool, lie face down and flat on the surface of the water (you may want to use a pull buoy to support your legs). Keep your upper arms and elbows as still as possible, and begin to sweep, or scull, your forearms and hands back and forth, just as you did when treading water.

Your progress may be very slow at first, but you should begin to move forward. As you practice, make sure you’re not bobbing, or bouncing up and down in the water. Keep your entire body stable, except for the hands and forearms. This helps to ensure that you’re actually sculling and not pulling.