Sculling drills are one of the best ways to improve freestyle technique and unlock your potential in the water to make you a faster, more efficient swimmer.

Every triathlete wants a better freestyle stroke, but the complexity and nuances of swimming technique can make it difficult to progress without expert guidance. This is where sculling comes in – a simple set of drills that will help you develop a better feel for the water, which you can then take into your main stroke to increase efficiency and speed.

Freestyle swimming is all about pushing as much water as possible with each arm stroke to propel yourself through the water while also being as hydrodynamic as possible. This means that catching that water as early and effectively as possible is essential.

a simple set of drills that will help you develop a better feel for the water

In practice, that’s easier said than done – we’re talking about a fluid after all, so getting a grip on it isn’t always easy. Sculling drills help with this by encouraging a high-elbow position and increasing propulsion from the forearm, rather than just the hand, so you’re able to maximise the surface area you’re pressing against the water with.

What do sculling drills help achieve?

Many swimmers have a tendency to drop their elbows during the pull phase of the stroke, creating an inefficient technique as water slips around the arms making it very difficult to gain purchase for powerful propulsion. Regularly employing sculling drills in sessions helps reprogram muscle memory so you get into the habit of a strong, high-elbow position which sets you up for the rest of your stroke.

Applying this to freestyle, when swimming with good technique, the hand enters the water with a spear-like motion, fingers slightly pointed down, wrist above hand, elbow above the wrist. From this entry point, the aim is to keep the elbow high and position the hand and forearm downwards to create the biggest paddle possible to catch as much water as you can.

reprogram muscle memory so you get into the habit of a strong, high-elbow position

It’s this portion of the stroke – from hand tilt to a powerful vertical forearm position – that sculling helps to develop. By holding yourself in this position for much longer than in your normal stroke, sculling drills help you to hone the sensation of creating pressure on the water using your hands and forearm in preparation for the propulsive action of the stroke. You can then draw on this enhanced feel for the water when returning to your full stroke.

Sculling drill positions

There are three key sculling positions to help with your catch phase – front sculling, quarter sculling and halfway sculling. These emulate the initial catch, transition to high elbow and power positions in your freestyle stroke. 

In all sculling positions, the arms mirror one another when performing the sculling action. Some athletes prefer to use a pull buoy during sculling so they can concentrate purely on the arms while others employ a gentle balancing kick – experiment to see what works for you.

Sculling drills position
Sculling is about learning to feel the water, helping you to better understand ideal arm positions to maximise the surface area for effective propulsion. (Photo: Triathlon Vibe)

Sculling is performed with your face in the water, head in the same position as it would be when swimming. Don’t forget to breathe out throughout and lift your head to breathe in regularly – holding your breath will only add tension and compromise the drill.

Front sculling

Front sculling works the very first part of the catch phase, right after the hand has speared the surface of the water. Stretch both arms out ahead of you, a slight downward bend in the elbow, and tilt your hands so that your fingers are pointing towards the bottom of the pool.  The wrist should always above the fingertips, elbow higher than the wrist.

The sculling action in all positions is a sweeping, scooping movement that pivots from the elbows with upper arms fairly fixed – avoid waving from the shoulders. Imagine rolling your hands around the front of two large beachballs that you’re trying to keep under control at all times. If you’re doing it right, you will generate a little forward propulsion as you do this.

Quarter sculling

To transition to quarter sculling, pivot at the elbow so that the forearm is angled at about 45° – halfway between the front sculling position and vertical. Your elbows should stay high, near the surface of the water.

Your hand and fingers should remain pointed to the bottom of the pool. The movement stays the same as before, however, you should now feel that it’s your forearms as well as your hands that are starting to generate purchase on the water and create propulsion, increasing your speed – showing that there’s power to be had well before the vertical forearm position.

Halfway sculling

Keeping the elbows high, pivot further still so that your forearm, wrist, hand and fingers are vertical. With your hand and forearm working together as an efficient paddle, performing the side-to-side sweep of the sculling movement in this position should show a marked increase in the pressure you can exert on the water and in turn, your sense of propulsion.

Replicating this power position in your stroke is the key to improving your power during freestyle swimming.

Bringing sculling into your freestyle stroke

Once you’re well-practised with your sculling drills, you can begin to really focus on emulating sculling’s increased feel for the water in your main stroke. Focus on these key areas adding just one element at a time:

  • A clean entry, beginning the catch as soon as possible with a tilt of the hand.
  • Bending at the elbow – without the elbow dropping – to create a big paddle and start the propulsive phase.
  • Getting your forearm into a vertical position ready to push powerfully against the water.
  • Pushing straight back, keeping the forearm vertical for as long as possible.

To make sure you’re hitting all these touchpoints correctly, you may wish to reduce your arm cadence initially or swim with a pull buoy so you can concentrate on good arm technique.

Sculling workouts

To really start developing a better feel for the water, you’ll need to regularly add sculling into your swimming routine. It’s ideally slotted in between your warm-up and main set, giving you a chance to find your feel for the water before swimming longer reps.

Sculling drills
Adding sculling drills into your swimming warm-up is a great way to get a feel for the water and encourage correct positioning before your main set. (Photo: Triathlon Vibe)

If you’re swimming in a 25m pool, you may want to scull to halfway down the pool before swimming out to the end of the length before taking a little rest and doing the same on the way back. As you improve, you can progress to sculling whole lengths before swimming out – concentrating on maintaining that feel and pressure on the water. If you swim in a 50m pool, you may wish to break the lengths into quarters – scull, swim, scull, swim.

Sculling set

2x 12.5m front scull, 12.5m swim – 10sec rest after each length
2x 12.5m quarter scull, 12.5m swim – 10sec rest after each length
2x 12.5m halfway scull, 12.5m swim – 10sec rest after each length
1x 100m swim, concentrating on full technique.


2x 25m front scull, 25m swim – 10sec rest after each 50m
2x 25m quarter scull, 25m swim – 10sec rest after each 50m
2x 25m halfway scull, 25m swim – 10sec rest after each 50m
1x 200m swim, concentrating on full technique.