One common question beginner triathletes often ask is whether they should cup their hand when pulling underwater. This question is understandable since it may seem that cupping the hand would help the swimmer scoop more water. However, this is not the case.

Let’s refer to a section from the book “Essential Swim Skills for Beginner Triathletes” to gain a better understanding:

How the hand enters the water is important because it “sets up” the all-important catch phase. The “catch” happens when a swimmer reaches through the water and anchors their lead hand in stable water. Keeping ahold of this water while applying accelerated pressure is the key driving force for triathlon swimmers.

(Editor’s note: Get the free Essential Swim Skills for Beginner Triathletes” book.)

There are two points to consider from the above statement: “keeping ahold of water” and “applying pressure.”
To “apply pressure,” swimmers should aim to maximize the hand’s surface area by keeping it flat. The hand (and forearm) should be viewed as an oar rather than a spoon. Cupping the hand reduces the surface area and should be avoided.

To “keep ahold” of water throughout the pull, swimmers must adjust the pitch of their hand. The underwater pull is not a straight back pull. Swimmers who effectively use the pitch of their hand to find stable water and propel themselves forward are said to have a good “feel for the water.”

Therefore, instead of cupping the hand and scooping water, swimmers are more effective if they maintain a flat hand and adjust the pitch of their hand throughout the pull.

One effective drill to improve the “feel for the water” is sculling. During sculling, a swimmer keeps their hands and arms along a horizontal plane, moving from left to right, without traveling along their body line. They use the pitch of their hands, as they move them in-and-out, to create forward momentum, similar to how the pitch of a propeller moves an object forward. Sculling may be a slow exercise, but it is beneficial.

In conclusion, scooping water with cupped hands is not advised. Instead, creating an oar-like plane with the hand and forearm is preferred for distance freestylers.

We’ll incorporate sculling into our free swim workouts to improve our feel for the water.