Brief History of Resistance Training Gear for Swimmers

From the early age of competitive swimming athletes have been using various devices to help them get stronger and faster. Fins and paddles were probably among the first training devices to be used by swimmers. Benjamin Franklin, who was an avid swimmer, invented both in the early 18th century (around 1717).

However, in this post I wanted to look at the training gear other than paddles and fins. In particular, I wanted to see how resistance gear has changed in the last 100 years. As the title states, this is not an in-depth review but rather a quick overview of the evolution of resistance equipment for swimmers.

In general all swimming resistance gear can be broken into 3 categories:

  1. Devices that connect a swimmer to the stationary part of the pool. For example, a band that connects a swimmer to the start block.

  2. Devices that are connected to a swimmer and not connected to the a stationary part of the pool. In such cases swimmers usually pull something behind them. For example a parachute, a bucket, etc.

  3. Devices that are worn by a swimmer and that allow free swimming. For example, a drag suit.

The first device I looked at was a "Swimming Apparatus" from 1914. It was invented by C. Homewood.

As you can see from the picture above, the device consisted of something similar to arm and leg warmers. Each of them had several pockets attached to it. Here is an excerpt form the description:

"Since the movements of the limbs in swimming are largely sidewise as well as rearwardly, it is better to have the pockets open obliquely as shown, in order to better engage the water on the power strokes. When the swimmer is progressing forwardly and thrusts out the arms forwardly, the pockets collapse flatly, and offer no opposition to progress through the water. When the limbs are thrust back the pockets open and thus engage the water most efficiently in aiding the swimmer in his forward movement."

Today this product would probably be called something like "full drag suit" or "drag leggings". This device was pretty advanced for its time. In fact if you look at this 2010 patent application from Nike Inc., you will find a lot of similarities:

"The athletic garment has a first fabric for covering at least a portion of a first body segment, and a second fabric, different from said first fabric, for covering at least a portion of a second body segment; wherein the second fabric is a turbulence-generating fabric." In other words, there are drag generating pockets. 100 years later, pretty much the same idea is being used in a different sport.

Back to swimming. Let's look at the next training device - Swimming Stroke Development Indicator. This product was invented in 1956 by Stanley Coltune.

It looks a lot like a stretch band that is used by most swimmers today. However, there are two differences here. First, the device is not using a stretch band but a regular cable. Second, it had "a spring-balance force scale for the purpose of indicating relative swimming stroke development." Even though, a spring-balance scale is not very accurate, it was still a good idea for 1956!

Next is a device from 1969 - Variable Resistance Swimmer Training Device.

It was invented by Jacobsen: "a training device for competitive swimmers which can be adjustable mounted on the swimmer's body to provide predetermined resistance of various degrees of the forward movement." Basically, there were several drag generating attachments of various shapes that would be connected to the swimmer. Even today swimmers use similar contraptions (e.g pulling buckets).

The next device will be familiar to every competitive swimmer. It is what is known today as a power tower. It was invented in 1973 by Robert Thorenz Hopper.

"... an apparatus having variable weights which may be attached to a line connected to a belt worn about the waist of a swimmer for applying weight to provide a restraining force against a swimmer attempting to swim away from the device which helps build, condition and tone the various muscles of the human body employed in swimming." Although, modern power towers can be used by two swimmers simultaneously, it is still not the best use of space. The other major downside of this device is its prohibitive cost.

This is yet another very familiar training device, a "swim band". Douglas Burke patented it in 1989.

I am surprised that the patent was actually granted for this device. I remember using stretch bands in the beginning of 1980s but we had them attached to the waist, which I think is a much better place for attachment. As you swim farther away from the wall, the band starts to pull you up slightly. If the band is attached to your ankles, you won't be able to generate a powerful kick.

Here is a training device from 1990 called "variable resistance device for use in training swimmers." It was invented by Steven Murphy and it "includes an L-shaped scoop member, a belt and a surface area varying mechanism:

I have never seen anyone training with this type of a device. When you have to place a hard object on your waist, it is very likely that it will negatively affect your technique and it will be uncomfortable.

Next is a parachute for swimmers. Everyone is familiar with this training device. I do not know when a parachute was first used in swimming (maybe 10-15 years ago?) but there is no reason why it couldn't be used in the 1950s.

The lower part of the following image is from an incredible book by Alain Bombard “The Voyage of the Heretic”. Alain was a great swimmer himself, by the way. The book was published in 1953. Here is an excerpt from the book that would make any swimmer realize that this device for sailing could be used by swimmers:

“This was a device much in favor in sailing days, and revived for modern use by the famous Captain Voss. It can consist of any half-submerged object strung from the bow on a length of rope. Its purpose is to keep the head of the ship into the wind in order to meet the waves in the most favorable position.”

Replace the boat with a swimmer and you get a new resistance training device for swimmers. As I said the book was published in 1953. The top part of the above image is from the patent application from 2006 for "Device For Resisted Swimming" by Mauro Ottaviani. Go figure...

Finally, the latest resistance training device for swimmers is DragSox™, which was invented in 2010. I think DragSox is the best resistance training device on the market today but since it was invented by me, I am obviously biased. So, instead of me writing about it, you can read about DragSox here, or view a video about DragSox by Glenn Mills from GoSwim.tv, or check the Community page that lists some of the teams and testimonials from coaches that are using DragSox today.