Should I cup my hands when I swim?


One fairly common question I get from beginner triathletes is, “Should I cup my hand when I pull underwater?”  This is a fair question. It seems like cupping the hand would help the swimmer scoop more water. This might make sense if the underwater pull was a straight-line, scooping action. But, it’s not.

Let’s review a section from the Essential Swim Skills for Beginner Triathletes book…

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 of Essential Swim Skills for Beginner Triathletes.)

There are two pieces of the above statement you should make note of….“keeping ahold of water” and “applying pressure.”

To “apply pressure,” swimmers should maximize the hand’s surface area by keeping it flat. Swimmers should think of their hand (and forearm) as an oar, rather than spoon. In other words, 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.”

So, rather than cupping the hand and scooping water, swimmers are far more effective if they maintain a flat hand and adjust the pitch of their hand throughout the pull.

One of the best drills to improve your feel for the water is sculling. When sculling, a swimmer keeps their hands and arms along a horizontal plane, i.e. moving from left to right. In other words, their hands do not travel along their body line at all. They use the pitch of their hands, as they move them in-and-out to create forward momentum. Think of how the pitch of a propeller moves an object forward. Sculling is often a very slow exercise, and that’s fine.

So, the bottomline is that scooping the water with cupped hands is not advised. Creating an oar-like plane with the hand and forearm is preferred for distance freestylers.

We’ll incorporate sculling into our free workouts here.