Tool Review #2: Pull Buoy — Crutch or Virtue
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on December 24th, 2010

Pull Buoys

Steve’s review of pull buoys opens this way: The pull buoy is a standard piece of equipment that enables you to build upper body strength.

My rating: 1.5 out of 5 – I would never use one personally but might recommend its use in a very limited and conditional way (see note below.)

I used to think as Steve does. I justified using pull buoys on the basis that they were ‘strengthening’ my pull. I believed it strongly enough that for nearly 20 years I ignored the obvious. When I wore the buoy it was easier to swim nearly any distance and pace with them, than without. That quality makes buoys both seductive and insidious. I can’t count the number of triathletes and Masters I’ve encountered who can barely be separated from their buoys.

The reason is that buoys do precisely the opposite of what Steve and most others believe. They don’t overload the arms. They underload them by providing artificial buoyancy.

Mat Hudson the leader of TI in Turkey made this comment about my review of the Swimmer’s Snorkel: Terry tells us if a certain tool enbles the swimmer to turn a weakness into a strength, then it is useful. But when it is used to avoid dealing with the swimmer’s weakness, it has become merely a contaminant.

The notion that buoys ‘build upper body strength’ allows those swimmers who are most attached to turn a crutch into a virtue. Why a crutch? Because the buoy allows those who have poor balance to mask their skill deficiency. They hate taking the buoy off because it masks their skill definciency while doing nothing to correct it, In fact it seduces them into thinking that – along with their wet suit – they don’t really need to learn balance. Ever since I finally learned balance in my early 40s – after 25+ years of unbalanced swimming – I’ve felt far better, and swum much faster, without the buoy than with it.

As well, Steve’s reference to ‘building upper body strength’ as a workout goal, differs from TI philosophy in two ways:

1) It puts swimming in the context of being ‘exercise.’ I’ve long since stopped swimming for exercise. I get exercise while swimming, as a natural byproduct I almost take for granted. I practice swimming as a movement art, which I seek constantly to refine and master. And those efforts to master it as an art bring me Flow experiences nearly every time. Exercise happens.

2) Pulling with a buoy (or paddles) – like kicking with a board or fins – advances a concept that the stroke has an Arms Department that has the job of pulling you along, and a Legs Department responsible for pushing you. Conventional training treats them as separate entities to be trained – and strengthened separately with targeted work. Twenty-plus years of studying swimmers and their video has shown me that at the highest level of skill and efficiency the arms, legs and torso work in a harmoniously integrated system. Take out any part and the others all suffer. When they work together all benefit. Therefore virtually all training should be designed to promote integration.

So, what are the circumstances in which I could reluctantly endorse a buoy’s use? I could imagine suggesting to a lean or muscular and highly uncomfortable swimmer, one who was struggling mightily to learn balance to swim a few 25s with one. However in doing so I would combine that with many reps of Superman Glide, SG-to-Skate. and SG-to-Swim.

In those prior reps he or she might swim only 3 to 5 strokes. That’s not necessarily a bad thing for a short period of learning balance. But if I felt it might benefit him or her to experience ease and comfort for a slightly longer duration, I would consider use of a buoy for one to several 25s, interspersing ‘naked 25s as early and frequently as possible, to accelerate transition of the easeful experience to real swimming.

13 Responses to “Tool Review #2: Pull Buoy — Crutch or Virtue”

  1. Louis Tharp says:

    Yay you. Pull buoys are aquatic crack. I’ve devoted many words to them in Overachiever’s Diary And I have seen the disappointed looks on the West Point Tri Team when I’ve taken them away. Withdrawal is painful, but not as painful as being an inefficient swimmer.

  2. Katie Kenny says:

    Do you think pull buoys and wetsuits offer about the same illusion of balance and speed? Or is it one more so than the other? How good does your balance have to be before those tools would slow you down rather than speed you up?

    I personally can’t stand using either one. Partly for the reasons you mentioned, but mainly because they’re one more barrier between me and the water. All that *stuff* seems like it’s meant for people who hate the water and feel they have to conquer it.

  3. They do offer similar illusions of balance and speed. Being sheathed in neoprene is no doubt the more profound barrier to real awareness; you certainly ride higher than will be the case with a few ounces of foam between your thighs. And indeed you feel nothing of the water. But the buoy is the more insidious because no one wears neoprene every day. What neoprene does do is allow some triathletes to feel they can bypass the work of learning skills and just do more — or less — yards. I’ve heard more than one triathlete say “I can survive the swim in my wet suit.”

  4. Thorsten says:

    When I started with TI and also tried to learn the 2BK I had lots of trouble getting my legs in sync. I either kicked too fast and ran out of energy, or got twisted trying to figure out 2BK. By using a buoy I could get a good position in the water and bring a lot of calm to my stroke. That allowed me to really experience the whole rotation & arm stroke combination, combine with breathing, etc. After that I was able to add one synchronized kick every few cycles while the buoy kept me afloat. Once I got the 2BK synchronized I could feel good without buoy. I still use it every now and then for a length to calm down my stroke or allow me to focus on rotation and arm position without having to spend thought or energy on legs.
    Perhaps all of this can be learned using the super glide and add-ons, but I don’t find doing that for 30 minutes fun, nor is it practical when you share a 50m lane with 5 other people and a significant deep section…

  5. Hag says:

    I’ve lost 1/3 of my bodyweight, and recently started gaining in muscle again. I also have a great time in the pool. All because the bouye has allowed me to focus on streamlining, stroke technique and body rotation.

    If it wasnt for the bouye… 5/5 from me. Gave me back my life, and my enjoyment in swimming.

  6. Johan
    It’s good that you can swim farther and with more enjoyment. If you’d like to be able to do so, without resorting to the artificial buoyancy aid provided by the buoy, learning balance would do that.
    You may feel that since you’re losing weight, and therefore gaining exercise benefit, why bother? The reason is that using the buoy restricts you to using only your upper body when you swim. Whole body exercise would be even more healthful. Learning balance, then learning to coordinate a relaxed, yet effective 2-Beat Kick would allow you to swim any distance you wish, most likely faster than at present, and greatly enhance the exercise benefits you derive from swimming. It would also bring the satisfaction of continuing to learn new skills and improve.

  7. I never practice Superman Glide for 30 min – or 50m. Rather, might do 4 repeats of 6 or 7 m, out and back, then swim 1 or more by 50m trying to feel the sensation of weightlessness.

  8. Mike T says:

    I do find pull buoys useful for a couple of things – swimming upper body only after a long kick set and for focusing on some fine tuning of entry position, catch up/ overlap and side to side transitions. To me, its almost like practicing position skills in slow motion since you dont have a kick pace to sync to. Most of my swimming is in sets of 50s or 100s and I usually have a particular goal in mind for that set. My interests for now are more along the lines of swimming 10×100 on a 2 minute or faster interval versus swimming a 1650… so going out and pulling for 1000 doesn’t really fit my goals. I always bring a pull buoy but 2/3 days it says on deck…

  9. “upper-body swimming” is arms-dept thinking. Kick sets are legs-dept thinking.

  10. Lance R. says:

    Love it. So true. In our masters workouts, I find the pulls to be a ‘break’. I can do the same thing without the buoy and no kick. That, to me, is more useful as it takes balance.

  11. Lance With which Masters team in Rochester do you swim? Do you know Bruce Gianniny?

  12. Dave D says:

    I have been a masters swimmer for 20 years now (just turned 60 this year) and have just been forced to buy my first ever pull buoy. ( and ankle strap). Our coach is irritated that on pull sets I go too fast without a pull buoy, because I am still kicking he says and therefore not getting the benefit of pull sets isolating my upper body. I can’t seem to stop a foot flutter so he wants me to use the ankle strap too.
    Having borrowed both items I find they certainly slow me down enough to be last in the lane instead of leading the lane with pull sets.
    But what is the point? I never did try less hard without the PB. So am I likely to swim even faster in completion with these pool aids. I am keen to add to my World and European rankings for 1500/800m events. Any advice gratefully received.

  13. Dave. you’re right to be skeptical of the value of the buoy, etc. Those sets bring no benefit at all to your swimming. First of all you don’t swim with your Upper Body + Lower Body. You swim best with your Whole Body working as a Unit. Pull and kick sets–by ‘isolating’ as your coach advocates–train for dis-integration, which is not beneficial. In addition, wearing a buoy doesn’t give your arms an overload–like putting more plates on a barbell. It UNDERloads the arms, by making the body artificially buoyant.

    As an adult swimmer, you have the right to politely decline to do things you don’t feel are beneficial. Exercise it. I no longer swim with Masters groups, but exercised that right for about 15 yrs before I began swimming solo in 2007.

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