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Training with a Pull Buoy: Friend or Foe

Adam Nakada

Training with a Pull Buoy: Friend or Foe?

The pull buoy is one of the standard pieces of equipment at the end of every swimmer’s lane. But when does it go from training aid to training crutch? Here is why you might want to rethink using a pull buoy today at practice.

“Can I do this set with my pull buoy?”

If you’ve heard these words before then you have trained with the Specialist. Or maybe you are the Specialist. You know, the swimmer who can pull faster than they can swim. The appeal of the pull buoy is strong and obvious—we can simply swim longer and with less effort with one that we can without one. It’s flat-out easier. Which in theory sounds nice, but in reality, it’s not as simple as that.

The Benefits of Training with a Pull Buoy

When used properly and with intent, grabbing and using your very best pull buoy can be a very powerful tool for better swimming and for getting the most of your swim practices. It can be easy to make the case for its use based on the following arguments:

  1. Teaches you proper body position

Fast swimmers ride the surface of the water. They glide across the pool, their hips high, giving them a slim profile in the water. When a swimmer’s legs drop, drag shoots through the roof. The pull buoy helps us to achieve a more efficient body position by keeping our butts nearly dry and our feet dangling at or just below the surface of the water. The idea is that by being better able to feel proper body position we can transfer this over to our regular swimming. We learn how efficient swimming should feel like.

  1. Target exclusively your upper body.

There are myriad reasons that you would want to be doing this—your legs are gassed, it’s a recovery workout, or you simply want to level up your upper body strength, you can isolate your arms, shoulders and back with the use of a pull buoy.

  1. It is less taxing than swimming.

Our legs demand a lot in the water. While flutter kicking may only provide a fraction of actual propulsion, it contributes to overall swimming speed in other ways, particularly with keeping proper body position in the water. This contribution comes at a cost—our legs are incredibly oxygen-thirsty and can leave us feeling winded quickly. The pull buoy allows us to train for longer, allowing us to develop increased upper body fitness.

  1. It can help you focus on better technique.

Swimming faster is equal parts conditioning and efficiency (i.e. awesome technique!). I find that when using a pull buoy it’s easier to focus on that high elbow catch and a balanced arm stroke because there is simply less to focus on. With the focus solely being upstairs, you can devote all your mental energy to improving your pulling technique.

  1. Work on arm mechanics independent of your legs.

Some swimmers have such a hopelessly awful kick that the only way they can develop the fundamentals of a better arm stroke is to use a pull buoy and completely isolate the movement. It allows these swimmers to experience moving through the water as though they had a better kick and proper leg and hip positioning.

  1. It is helpful with breath control work (and even improving your walls).

Long course swim practices were always fertile ground for lung-buster sets. It wasn’t uncommon to see coaches write up breathing patterns of 5-7-9 when doing a pull. These are great for helping us learn breath discipline. In addition, while doing pull sets I find that flip turns can be better addressed because you aren’t so out of breath and scrambling for air between the flags and the wall—as a result you can swim in and out of the wall without breathing, resulting in generally faster turns and breakouts, a small but sharp positive.

  1. Combined with paddles and a band can be a heckuva workout for your arms.

Swimming with a pull buoy might be “easier” but add a pair of hand paddles and a band to the equation and things start to get a whole lot harder. The band, in particular, will escalate things. If you want to get truly serious about developing upper body power and strength ditch the pull buoy and go strictly with the band around your ankles. It’s great for stroke rate, stroke power, stroke awesomeness, etc etc.

  1. Good for improving feel for the water.

The debate in the competitive swimming community has almost always been quality versus quantity in training. I sit somewhere in the middle, with larger yardage sessions being helpful for one thing in particular–helping you improve your feel for the water.

Doing long pull sets isn’t the most exciting thing in the world for most swimmers, but as a sprinter, I actually enjoy them. My stroke always feels a little more dialed in afterward. Because you can *generally* do pull sets longer than regular swimming there is more time spent working on the arm stroke, and more time improving your hand’s relationship with the water.

Alexander Popov, the Russian sprint legend who dominated the 50m and 100m freestyles for a decade, did long, unbroken swims in practice. The goal wasn’t necessarily aerobic work, it was a conscious effort at playing with his stroke to test what was most efficient. Long pull sets–when done with correct form, of course–are great at improving your feel for the water.

The Pull Buoy: Foe at Large

Of course, with any piece of swimming gear, there is the temptation to cross-over from tool to crutch. If swimmers are constantly reaching for the pull buoy to avoid having to do proper swim or kick work than it’s almost certainly a case of the latter.

When we lean on the pull buoy we start avoiding some of the critical aspects of our swimming, from using the full kinetic chain to having incorrect stroke technique.

The use of the pull buoy can also produce the following downsides:

  1. Limited hip rotation.

Power in your arm stroke doesn’t just come from your arms and shoulders—a lot of it is derived from your hips. Throwing a pull buoy between your legs tends to make your hips flatter, which will slightly reduce your stroke length.

Having proper hip rotation while rocking out with your pull buoy is tough—try doing catch-up drill while doing pull and you will know what I mean.

The difference isn’t always noticeable, but it’s there. You’ll notice that over the course of a long course 50m your stroke count will go up by a handful of strokes.

  1. Makes us reliant on it for the proper hip position.

If the pull buoy created resistance on our hips it might make proper hip positioning easier once we took it off—but it doesn’t. A pull buoy gives our hips an artificial lift–but the moment we take them off they plunge to the bottom of the pool.

Having our hips nice and high might give us the impression of what we should be swimming like, but it doesn’t necessarily make it so when we start swimming again.

  1. Breaks the kinetic chain.

Efficient swimmers are able to fly through the water because their whole body works together to make this happen.

Everything from their fingertips, head position, hip rotation, to the whipping motion of their toes works together as one large system to create propulsion.

When we isolate parts of this system—in this case with a pull buoy–in the name of “strengthening” it’s less time we are spending becoming more efficient at the whole system.

  1. Less work on your core.

Swimmers, unlike our land-based brethren, lean exclusively on our core strength for stability. It acts as a platform and conduit for our swimming (back to that whole body system thing again). What ends up happening when we put a slippery pull buoy between our legs is that it replaces the core–the power-broker for our swimming.

The pull buoy provides artificial support and in essence relieves the core of its duties. The core no longer needs to provide a base of support, stability, balance, transfer of power or the link between the arms and the legs. All these tasks are outsourced to an artificial device: a pull buoy. The core can just sit back and relax.

Using the Pull Buoy: Best Practices

Wherever you stand on using our pull buoy, whether refusing to release it from your sharp talons or not, there are some things you can do to ensure that this tool is serving your goals in the water first and foremost:

Alternate pull buoy and swimming.

If you use the pull buoy as an instructional tool (and ya should!) for better technique, alternate its use with regular swimming.

For instance, you could perform a set of short course 50s alternating pull/swim, where you do pull with a killer early vertical forearm catch and high hips—and then perform the swim rep as if it is still there.

Use it for targeted work.

Just like using swim fins, or a kickboard, or a swimmer’s snorkel, it should serve the overall goal that you have for yourself in the pool.

Too many swimmers will lean on using a pull buoy simply because it is easier to do so, and not use it tactically and in service of what they want to accomplish in the water.

When doing pull sets don’t just focus on a strong arm motion, address other areas of your swimming:

Hold a specific breathing pattern. As mentioned earlier, pull sets are awesome for breath discipline. Breathing bilaterally, or holding a higher than usual breathing pattern is easier during pull sets, so take advantage of this in order to help improve breath discipline while swimming.

  • Charge into the walls. Even though you should make swimming in and out of the walls like a boss habitual, it is easier to work on during pull sets because you aren’t so winded. Make a point to swim fast into the turn, not breathing the last few strokes into the wall.
  • Target specific technical elements of your stroke. There is no such thing as “technique work” in swimming–it’s all technique work! When doing pull address a weak point in your stroke–the high elbow catch, for instance, so that you are getting the upper body work + technique work as well.

The Takeaway

Is a pull buoy the most effective way to become a better swimmer?

Not necessarily.

Be realistic about why you are using your pull buoy.

Are you strapping on the pull buoy because it is easier than doing swim work?

Or because there is something you want to accomplish outside of being a better pull specialist?

Instead of just swimming with it because it feels easier, or because it’s “the way it has always been done”, or because of nostalgia (in my case, at least), consider truly thinking whether or not the pull buoy is effectively serving your goal of being a better and faster swimmer.

Training with a Pull Buoy Friend or Foe

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