Oh boy, closed-fist drills ...

author : Team BT
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Here’s what triathletes can learn from this swimming drill

When you aren’t a superstar swimmer, it can be difficult to make yourself work on drills that seem to make you go even slower. Swim technique drills are often included in triathlon training plans, and it‘s easy to groan when you see them on your training calendar.

Today we’ll pick apart the closed fist drill, to demonstrate what’s so great about it that you would want to diminish the average pace for your workout AND potentially look foolish in the pool.

Closed Fists: A Simple But Difficult Drill

To begin, push off the wall in the streamline position, and then switch your hands to closed fists. Begin swimming as usual. It may not be fun.

We recommend always alternating a closed-fist lap or length with a regular one. That means swim 25 yards with closed fists and then 25 yards with open hands, or alternate 50 yards and 50 yards.

You may think the purpose of this drill is to have you be more aware of your hand position and improve the amount of water you move efficiently with your hands. That’s not wrong. 

But it’s not the whole story.

Body Position and Propulsion

One thing the closed fist drill reveals, quickly, is whether you’ve been using your hands and your stroke to compensate for poor body position. Once you can’t use your hands well, you will quickly see if you are sinking or lopsided in the water.

If you do find that you are suddenly sinking, you’ll want to add some floating drills and other basic balance drills to your workouts until you’ve mastered staying level and high in the water without using your hands.

Another important thing to notice is whether you slow down a lot. Most triathletes (and many swimmers overall) depend almost entirely on using their hands as paddles to push them through the water. The best swimmers generate propulsion in many ways, and synchronize them together. Swimming with closed fists will give you an opportunity to maximize those other kinds of propulsion.

Non-hand propulsion comes from the hips, and from quick, forceful rotation of the body in the water. (It also comes from kicking, but triathletes aren’t big kickers. We are saving our legs for the bike and run. Kick enough to flip and rotate your torso with force. As your right hand enters the water, kick hard, once, with your left leg, causing you to snap your hips so your left hip joint is facing the ceiling and the right one is facing the bottom of the pool. This will allow your right arm to extend farther upon entry.)

In addition, you may not be getting the maximum benefit from the surface of your forearm. By closing your hand, you will be focusing attention on the rest of your "paddle" which is your arm from the elbow to the wrist. Many swimmers don't get the most out of this large surface area because they don't keep their elbow high (at the surface of the water) as they begin the pull.


If you inhale a mouthful of water when you first try the closed-fist drill, congratulations. You’ve just revealed another important clue to getting faster and more efficient in the water.

If this happens, that means your body position and head position haven’t been quite right for breathing, but you haven’t noticed because you’ve been using your arm stroke to lift your head out of the water. That’s no good and hurts your pace and your efficiency, so that’s something you’ll want to fix. Once you have closed fists, you can’t use your hands to cheat on the breathing stroke. You’ll need to fix it another way instead. That probably will mean keep your head flatter in the water (don’t lift up your forehead) and rotating your body a bit more to get your head out of the water. You‘ll also learn to get a good breath with your mouth very close to the surface by being precise and changing the shape of your mouth and lips to get the air in while keeping the water out.


Most “adult-onset” swimmers start out kicking like crazy and driving their heart rates up, but still finding they are only a third as fast at a kick set in the pool when compared to an experienced swimmer. 

The closed-fist drill will give you a chance to focus on how your kick can be slow, purposeful and powerful as a tool for getting in a quick and strong hip rotation that flips your body in the water. Flipping from side to side is important because it automatically extends your arm and shoulder much farther, without stretching your shoulder.

Make the Drill Fun

It’s tough to do things that feel awkward and difficult. The closed fist drill can fall into that category, but it reveals so many important opportunities for improvement, we would hate for you to avoid it.

Here are the top three reasons it’s fun and awesome:

  1. You get to pretend you are Superman flying through the air

  2. You look like a super serious swimmer, doing your laps without the benefit of your hands. Compared with many other drills, this one makes you look dead serious.

  3. If you alternate drill-swim-drill-swim you will have the amazing feeling of being super fast and strong when you open those fists and get to use your hands again!

Happy swimming, triathletes.

More information and a demonstration of the drill here, in a video by Mike Ricci from D3 Multisport:



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date: April 18, 2021

Team BT