Podcast, Swimming, Training

12 Swimming Drills and 3 Expert Coaches’ Opinions of them | EP#69

 October 23, 2017

By  Mikael Eriksson

12 Swimming Drills and 3 Expert Coaches' Opinions of Them | EP#69

12 swimming drill and 3 expert coaches' opinions of them

Round-up of what 3 of the most renowned coaches in triathlon swimming think about 12 classic swimming drills.

In this Episode you'll learn about:

  • Paul Newsome's, Sheila Taormina's and Gerry Rodrigues' opinions of 12 of the most common swimming drills
  • What the reasoning behind doing some of these drills is (for some coaches...)
  • ...and why others may think they're a waste of time
  • What you have to keep in mind when you decide to do a drill, no matter what drill it is


1. Catch-up drill

05:01 -

Paul Newsome and Swim Smooth

  • They don’t use it because it may flatten your body rotation and make the swimmer overemphasize the catch-up style of swimming.
  • They recommend doing the 6/1/6 drill as a replacement.

Sheila Taormina

  • Uses it often in the warm-up. It activates the scapula and encourages good form in the workout to come.
  • She also uses this in the middle of sets to maintain good form.
  • The purpose of this drill for her isn’t to train a glide and wait stroke rhythm but rather to slow down the stroke in order to concentrate on the high elbow catch one arm at a time.

Gerry Rodrigues and Tower26

  • He doesn’t use it (as far as I can remember from listening to all of his podcast episodes).  

2. Kicking with a board

06:42 -

Paul Newsome and Swim Smooth

  • They don’t do it because most adults don’t have ankles that are flexible enough to kick well in this drill.
  • They recommend kicking without a board in the torpedo position  as replacement drill if you want to practice kicking.

Sheila Taormina

  • She uses this drill. She believes that it develops the kick and also the strength of the lower core.

Gerry Rodrigues and Tower26

  • They do kicking, but usually use a snorkel in a streamline position and not a kickboard.
  • They often use fins in their kicking.

3. Side kicking

07:30 -

Paul Newsome and Swim Smooth

  • This is the core of their drill pack. They use it a lot.
  • It is used to develop posture and alignment and also the set-up position for the catch phase of your stroke.
  • They use fins for this. This side-kicking drill then develops into the 6/1/6 where you do side-kicking for 6 kicks, then you take 1 stroke, then rotate to the other side and do 6 more kicks and another stroke. Then repeat again.
  • Correspondingly, 6/3/6 is 3 strokes in the middle between those 6 kicks.

Sheila Taormina

  • She does a version of this drill. It’s called the serape kicking drill.
    It’s similar but you don’t rotate in quite the same way.
  • She believes that this develops strength in the core muscles that drive your swimming.

Gerry Rodrigues and Tower26

  • Most age-groupers don’t really do the side kicking drill well enough so they tend not to do it.

4. Kicking on your back

  • 09:34 -

    You lie on your back with your arm in an overhead position stretched out and streamlined while kicking.

Paul Newsome and Swim Smooth

  • They don’t use this drill.

Sheila Taormina

  • She uses this because this builds great swim-specific core strength.

Gerry Rodrigues and Tower26

  • They use this often, typically with fins.

5. Vertical kicking

10:13 -

Paul Newsome and Swim Smooth

  • They don’t do vertical kicking in the traditional form using both legs to kick.
  • They use a one leg variant that they call the ballet leg kick. You stand on the side of the pool with your inside support leg towards the edge of the pool. Then you kick your other outside leg.

Sheila Taormina

  • She doesn’t do this drill.

Gerry Rodrigues and Tower26

  • They do this drill. In some of their podcast episodes, they talk about starting with really short reps of about 15 seconds in the foundational phases of their program. Then building up to several minutes at a time.

6. Single-arm drill

  • 11:26 -

    Swimming with just a single arm.

Paul Newsome and Swim Smooth

  • They don’t do this. Paul thinks that this reduces the swimmer’s rotation or it may teach them to do the catch phase in a flatter position. They use the 6/1/6 drill instead.
  • They also use the Unco drill which they call the king of drills. Any intermediate or advanced swimmer can benefit from this drill. They always use fins for this drill. It’s similar to the single-arm drill but they make sure to rotate to both sides equally.

Sheila Taormina

  • She uses this drill in the traditional form with or without the kickboard.
  • The purpose is to isolate some part of the stroke which can be the catch, pull, or finish of the stroke without having to concentrate on the full stroke.

Gerry Rodrigues and Tower26

  • They don’t use this drill.

7. Swimming with fists

  • 13:17 -

    This is the only drill that all 3 coaches agree on. Neither one of them does it.

Paul Newsome and Swim Smooth

  • They don’t use this drill.
  • Instead, they use the Finis Freestyler/Agility paddles to achieve the same effect of reducing the hand’s effective surface area for the swimmer to learn how to use their forearms to push water instead of having them clench their fists which causes them to tense up.

Sheila Taormina

  • She doesn’t use this drill.

Gerry Rodrigues and Tower26

  • He doesn’t use this drill.

8. Water polo or Tarzan drill

14:27 -

  • This is where you swim with your head up above the water.
  • This is drill is named after Johnny Weissmuller who won 5 Olympic gold medals in the 1920s. He set his world record at 100 meters freestyle at 57.4 seconds in 1928 swimming with his head above the water.

Paul Newsome and Swim Smooth

  • They use this drill for advanced swimmers to improve the rhythm and timing of the stroke.
  • They also use this drill to remove dead spots from the stroke. This is because when you have your head above the water you are suffering so much from having a sub-optimal position that the other parts of your stroke (rhythm and timing) really need to be on point for you to move forward.
  • In the Swim Smooth book, there is an example set of how to use this drill:
    25 meters Tarzan at 90% effort. Then 25 meters freestyle at 90% effort. Then repeat this one more time.

Sheila Taormina

  • She also uses this drill to build the strength and the stroke rate of the swimmers.

Gerry Rodrigues and Tower26

  • They don’t use this drill (as far as I'm aware).

9. Doggy paddle drill

17:16 -

Paul Newsome and Swim Smooth

  • They use this. It’s one of the mainstays of their drill pack. In his book, Paul says that all swimmers should do the doggy paddle drill regularly.
  • This develops your catch and feel for the water. This also forces you to use a bent elbow catch instead of a straight elbow catch.
  • Examples of how to use this:
    15 meters of doggy paddles straight into 35 meters of rhythmical freestyle OR
    10 meters of sculling, then 15 meters doggy paddle, then 25 meters freestyle

Sheila Taormina

  • She also uses the doggy paddle drill to build strength in both arms and also the core. She says that this is the kind of strength that translates brilliantly directly to freestyle.

Gerry Rodrigues and Tower26

  • They don’t use this drill.

10. Sculling

18:21 -

  • There are two or three different sculling drills. Scull # 1 is the front scull. Scull # 2 is sculling under your shoulders. Then there's the finish drill, the last push of your stroke.

Paul Newsome and Swim Smooth

  • They use Scull # 1 and # 2 to develop a feel for the water. They do this using a pull buoy.
  • They consider Scull #1 as the most important. This is one of their mainstay drills because it develops the all-important catch phase of the stroke.
  • An example of how to use this in the Swim Smooth methodology is to do 4x100 meters as 15 meters of Scull # 1 into 85 meters of freestyle swimming with 15 seconds recovery between reps.
  • You could also do 10 meters Scull # 1 into 10 meters of Scull # 2 into 30 meters of swimming.
  • They use Scull # 2 because it’s a useful drill for focusing on the transition from the catch to the pull phase of the stroke. This is very good when you have a tendency to pull too wide (too far outside of your body laterally). Also, it’s good if you tend to pull with a straight arm rather than with a bent elbow.

Sheila Taormina

  • She uses Scull # 2 to develop a feel for the water like Swim Smooth and to work the scapula, deltoids, and the core muscles.
  • She also uses Scull # 3 to develop strength at the back end of the stroke.

Gerry Rodrigues and Tower26

  • They don’t use sculling.

11. Swimming with bands

20:33 -

Paul Newsome and Swim Smooth

  • They do this drill because it delivers better rhythm and timing to your stroke. It develops core strength because with the ankle straps on your ankles, your legs will tend to sink, so you need to have your rhythm on point and your stroke rate up.
  • For most swimmers, Paul recommends using a pull buoy.
  • You should swim short distances of 25-50 meters when doing this drill.

Sheila Taormina

  • She doesn’t use this drill.

Gerry Rodrigues and Tower26

  • They use this drill a lot and it is one of their mainstays.
  • They typically do it with a pull buoy and snorkel.
  • They also use this in combination with trying to really work on good mechanics, body alignment, and working the core muscles.

12. Press-outs or deck-ups

21:35 -

  • This is when you press yourself out of the pool onto the deck. Alternatively, you can just press yourself up from the edge of the pool and then lower yourself down then repeat it.

Paul Newsome and Swim Smooth

  • They don’t use this drill.

Sheila Taormina

  • She does this drill both ways. For example, in a middle of a set, she may add 8 press-outs after each 50 meter. It may be 6 reps of 50 meters and after each, you would do 8 press-outs.
  • Alternatively, you could press-out onto the deck. So you climb onto the deck at the end of the press-out and then you dive right back in and keep swimming.
  • This develops strength. Also, when you climb out onto the deck it causes the heart rate to spike, which is similar to what you would experience in T1 in a triathlon race. So it’s highly sport-specific.

Gerry Rodrigues and Tower26

  • They do this drill  lot, using the terminology deck-ups. It isone of their mainstays, especially during the competitive season.
  • They specifically do it by climbing up onto the deck and if you can, you run on the deck and then you jump back in. So it’s really practicing that T1, getting a heart rate spike and trying to get more and more comfortable with that.


23:19 -

  • The only drill that all three expert coaches completely agree on is that they don’t use the drill swimming with fists.
  • It was quite a mix of who likes to use what sort of drills. This goes to show that there really isn’t any black and white answer to the question which drills are good and which are bad. It’s a lot about the context in which they are used.
  • Different coaches have different styles to teach swimming.
  • Different swimmers have very different ways to swim and to learn swimming.
  • Don’t do drills without having a specific purpose, without knowing why you are doing them, and without knowing exactly how to execute them properly.
  • Some of the attributes of the 3 coaches, when it comes to how they use drills (from an outsider's perspective at least):
  • Gerry Rodrigues uses the least drills. He is more on the scaled down, triathlon end of the drill spectrum.
  • Sheila Taormina uses the most drills. She has a very traditional swimming background.
  • Paul Newsome falls somewhere in between.

Listener question

25:45 -

Katrin from Iceland writes:

“I got qualification for the championship 2018 in the challenge family. That’s on the 3rd of June. So I’m training for that but I was wondering if you have any tips for knee injuries. I got injured in my IT band and I have jumper’s knee. Do you have any good advice on how to beat that injury and keep on training? I feel that I’m getting in worse shape and I’m scared that I will not be ready for June next year. If you have any experience then let me know.”


The first thing that I do is to make the investment of seeking out a really good physio with a lot of experience with endurance athletes. He or she will hopefully put you on your best path towards full health again. When you find that good physio, it’s really all about sticking to their plan and being diligent about it.

I speak from my own experience here as my small knee niggle turned into a 9-month hiatus from running. This is actually got me to switch completely into triathlon. This running injury didn’t get any better until I got the help from a good physio. I tried several but it was only the third physio that I went to that I actually stuck with and then kept going to her regularly. So, it’s probably necessary to keep going to the physio regularly at least for a while.

For the best general advice I can give you, I would recommend the podcast episode I did with James Dunne. That’s called Dysfunctional movement patterns, injuries and reduced performance in Episode 45.

As James points out, IT band issues are generally not the root cause but something else like lack of hip or glute strength or activation. So if you don’t do it already, get started with a good core training and activation program and do it diligently and regularly. In the episode, you can download a few of those example workouts.

Links, resources and contact

Links and resources mentioned

Connect with host Mikael Eriksson


Hi! I'm your host Mikael,

I am a full-time triathlon coach and an ambitious age-group triathlete. My goal is podium at the Finnish national championships within the next few years.

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