During my previous post A List of My Favorite Drills (1 of 2), I wrote about why and how you might want to utilize drills to improve your swimming as well as noting when it is best to use (or not use) drills during your practice sessions.  Technique improvement is the probably most common reason to drill.  (Remember, technique is something you practice in the pool, not when you’re fighting with the elements.)

Just as it is important to change the sets that you do in practice, learning and applying new drills from time to time can help challenge your body and mind.  Shaking up your practice routine can ensure you keep improving your stroke, challenging yourself and keeping practice interesting.

Technique Drills

Technique drills are meant to allow you to focus on a particular component of your stroke.  If your idea of improved swimming is to swim further, then there are probably two areas that you can focus to improve:  strength/conditioning and efficiency.  I’ll leave strength and conditioning training for another day.  Drills allow you to focus on your efficiency.

Let’s look at some numbers to think about just how much technique could help you.

  • The pool is 25m long. Allowing for a 3m push from the wall and a 1m glide at the end, that means a swimmer must swim 21m to get to the other side.
  • With a core stroke length (twice the length of the arm from shoulder to wrist) of 1.2, it should take just over 19 (21 / 1.2) strokes to get to across the pool with arms alone.

Example stroke counts per 25m:



Cruising stroke – 11
minimal kicking, slow stroke rate

Normal stroke – 12-14

Weak stroke – 14-16

Sprint – over 16

Endurance swimming – 16

Warmup – 14-15

Start of sets – 13-15

With his “cruising” stroke, with only minimal kicking, Keith can move down the pool in 11 strokes.  Somehow, the stroke distance is 1.9 (21 / 11) meters/stroke, over a 50% increase in distance for each arm movement.  This isn’t black magic.  Where did that extra distance come from?  There must be more going on in each swim stroke to propel him forward.  Of that 50%, probably about 10-15% came from kicking.  (Some may even gain much more through their kick!)  As much as 10% might be gained by gliding between each stroke by slowing the rate and allowing the body to glide.  (Of course, while gliding, you may be slowing down slightly.)  But that leaves an additional 25% that is purely based on technique (both to increase propulsion and decrease draft) that may come from a few areas, such as:

  1. Body position decreasing drag and maximizing propulsion.
  2. Kicking may cause the body to rotate more, enabling a somewhat longer stroke.
  3. A more complete stroke (e.g. completing the push to thigh).

By focusing on and practicing minute areas of the stroke, we can improve our efficiency in the water and, possibly, maximize that 25% gain.

Below are just a few of the common technique-focused drills that I use or have received questions about.  As noted, you should search out new drills from time to time which allow you to learn more about swimming and your stroke.



Sculling is an important part of the stroke that can allow you to swim further with less effort.  While I have ­always tried to improve the sculling portions of my stroke, I honestly never did specific sculling drills in practice before coming to Ireland as a master swimmer.  Until I learned sculling drills, I was told to tread water (which involves moving your arms and hands laterally to maintain a position in the water) for long periods of time to learn how to scull efficiently.  I have found sculling drills to be invaluable in re-enforcing good technique.  Some of you might have noticed that I’m one of the slowest swimmers in the pool when we do scull drills.  This is due to my focus on these drills and avoiding all pulling (“vertical”) motion.  Sculling is slow.  Doing it right is even slower.  In fact, it can take up to a minute to go 25m sculling.  And, the longer that you take sculling down the pool, the more you are getting out of the set.  This is because you are focusing solely on sculling actions rather that partial pulling movements and you are sculling more between breaks at the end of the pool.

What is sculling?

Your arm likely doesn’t just move straight back down your body while you are swimming.  This is because your body has to roll to allow you to breathe and recover your arms during your swim stroke.  If you didn’t scull, any time your hands moved laterally through the water, you would stop propelling yourself forward.  Water would literally slip past your hand.

In swimming, sculling means angling the hands in such a way that they provide forward propulsion while the arm is moving laterally.  So, your arm is moving across your body but you are propelling the water backward and yourself forward.

Think of this like a propeller on a boat.  The individual blades on a propeller are moving laterally through the water.  However, because they are angled, they push water in a direction that provides propulsion.

I prefer to do these drills with a pull buoy or very light kicking.  The goal for this drill is to work the scull.  Kicking is cheating yourself.  Be patient, it can take up to a minute to go 25m.  You will not feel winded at all when sculling.  You might feel some tension in your forearms after about 100m or more.

There are three primary sculling drills that I like to do:

Superman Scull This exercise is focused on the first couple inches of your swimming stroke, when you first catch the water.
Both arms are extended forward.  Elbows are locked or only slightly bent and remain at that position for the entire length.  Your hands are relaxed and bent at the wrist to angle down towards the bottom of the water.
Move your arms out and in (without changing your elbow angle).
Tilt wrists to force water back towards you.
You’re moving your arms correctly if, when not twisting your wrists, you do not make any forward progress.
Catch Scull This exercise is focused on the middle of your stroke.
With elbows bent and your hands roughly a foot below your chest, move your arms laterally.  Your hands should not move either closer to your feet or head.
Tilt your hands to propel yourself forward.
Again, you’re moving your arms correctly if, when you don’t twist your wrists, you do not progress down the pool.
Hip Scull With both arms along your side with your arms slightly bent so that your hands are below your hips.
Backward Scull Can you lay on your back and scull to move through the water feet-first?


If you feel you’re not making any progress try the following.  (This can work regardless of the sculling drill you’re doing, but I’m going to discuss the Catch Scull.

  • Start by not angling your hands as you move your hands back and forth. Consider this a 0% scull.  You will not propel any water with this movement.
  • Now, increase the sculling angle slightly As your hands move towards the center of your body, move your wrist so that you expose your palm slightly inward.  As your hands move outward, move your wrist to expose your palm slightly outward.
    This will propel you slightly forward.
  • Continue increasing the angle over time to see what angle provides you with the most forward propulsion.

Some further explanation that might help: https://livehealthy.chron.com/four-different-sculling-techniques-3225.html


Single Arm

Some people like to do single-arm swimming on their ‘weak side’ in order to strengthen that arm.  There may be minimal value in doing so, but you may find that dry-land work (bands or weights) will likely provide more value for this goal.

Single arm drills are used to isolate the actions of your body in relation to only one of your arms and how this relationship impacts your pull.  The pace of swimming should be the same as when swimming with two arms.  Namely, your right arm should complete a pull as often in single-arm as your right arm pulls when swimming normally.

I like to use a single arm or catch-up drill to ‘check in’ on my stroke and see if there are any areas to improve.

Things I like to focus on:

Balance Do I feel off balance when I swim with one arm?

My goal in swimming is to expend as little energy as possible while using as much of that energy as possible for propulsion.  If I am unbalanced swimming with one arm, that means I must be using energy to provide that balance while swimming with two.  Most likely, I’ve changed my hand action or kicking to balance my stroke.

Catch Am I catching the water early enough and keeping my grip on the water all the way through the stroke?
Scull Am I keeping my grip on the water all the way through the stroke?
Finish Am I completing my stroke beyond my hips?
Elbow I try to achieve an early vertical forearm.  Am I doing this successfully or am I dropping my elbow during the stroke?
Roll Am I rolling enough to breathe even on the non-working side of my body?

Some further detail can be found at https://www.velopress.com/the-single-best-swimming-drill-the-freestyle-one-arm-drill/



This is one of my favorite drills as it takes the best part of single arm swimming (isolating a single arm to allow focus) but also allows you to think about your timing for the recovery of your stroke and when you want to start a new stroke.

How to do the catch-up drill

Start with both arms forward as you push off of the wall.  Begin your full stroke with one of your arms.  (I always start with my left arm off the wall as this ensures I don’t take a breath on my first stroke.)  While not moving your other arm, complete the recovery of your active arm.  Tap your still hand with the fingers of your active hand.  (One hand has caught-up to the other, you see?)  Now, you switch arms by completing a full rotation with your other hand until it catches up to your resting hand.

During this drill, I’m focusing on the same items that I would in a single-arm swim drill.  I would also alter the catch-up point.  For example:

100% Catch-up This is the normal catch-up drill and is the most common.  You don’t start a new stroke until you’ve tagged your hands together.
75% Catch-up This might take a little bit more coordination but actually more-closely emulates my typical cruising stroke.

Start your pull with your forward arm when your recovering arm has reached a point 75% of the way through its recovery.

50% Catch-up Similar to the 75% catch-up, except you start the pull even earlier.
This might take a lot of practice in order to achieve but it actually helps you learn more minute control of your stroke.

More detail at:



One pool that I used to go to for practice actually had lane-lines on the outside of the outer lanes of the pool, right next to the wall.  There was actually a 1-1½  foot space between the lane marker and the wall.  If I was bored, I would sometimes swim in this space.  Why?  It would help ensure that I was swimming straight and rotating my body enough to get my arms and hands over the wall and lane marker.  (The penalty for not getting this right was a lot of scratched skin!)  Not only did this help me improve my stroke but also makes it easier for me to swim in crowded groups.

In addition, I want to make the recovery a resting period in my stroke when cruising.  With enough body roll and a high enough elbow, I can complete relax my forearm and wrist.  Not only does this allow my arms to relax briefly, but it has some advantages in open water swimming.  What are they?  If a wave I don’t expect hits my forearm, my body is not thrown off of balance.  If I clash with someone else’s forearm while swimming in a crowd, I’m not thrown off balance as my forearm is relaxed and will simply swing away from the collision.

So, swimming with a good amount of body roll and high elbows is something I value in my stroke.  As mentioned in earlier posts, this isn’t for everyone as each person must adapt their stroke to their own physical and technical abilities.  There is no one, perfect stroke for everyone.  There is only a perfect stroke for each of us, and our goal is to find it.

To help with this, my absolute favorite technique drill is the finger-tip drag.  Why?  Because this allows me to ensure that I’m swimming a narrow stroke.

How do you do finger-tip drills?

Swimming is never the result of putting your body under any stress.  This is especially true during drills, when you’re trying to teach your body to move comfortably.  Many people will stress their hands, wrists, and/or shoulders in order to complete finger-tip drills.  If you feel such pressure, either your body may not have the natural flexibility to swim in this manner or you are focusing on the wrong areas.  A finger-tip drill should involve no pressure on any part of your body.

While swimming a normal stroke, increase your body roll slightly.  Make sure you have high elbows and allow your forearm to simply rest vertically.  From this position, your finger tips should lightly drag across the surface of the water.

To increase the amount of body roll, you can even try to scratch the side of your body with your thumb.


A Few References

Speed Secret: https://www.velopress.com/about-the-swim-speed-secrets-drill-videos/

  • Did some of these drills often when competing. For example, the press-out drill actually helps strengthen your stroke as you are using the same action to get out of the water that you use in your swim stroke.  Just be careful you don’t hurt your chin when you get tired!