I’ve been meaning to write a post about the use of the pull buoy in training for quite some time now but, unfortunately, never got around to it until today. What finally made me sit down and write this post was the swimmingscience.net article titled “7 Theoretical Reasons to Use a Pull Buoy.” It’s an interesting read and I highly recommend it. As the title implies, the article outlines reasons to use a pull buoy. I, on the other hand, would like to talk about one reason NOT to use a pull buoy. I believe my argument against the use of pull buoy outweighs most of the arguments for it.
For reasons that will become apparent later, I’ll first quickly explain the paramount importance of the core in swimming.
We can think of a human body as a set of interlinked components that work in unity. It’s helpful to visualize this set as a chain where each link represents a different body part as in the diagram below. This chain is called the kinetic chain.
Image source: Complete Conditioning for Swimming. Dave Salo and Scott A. Riewald (2008)
To swim fast and efficiently, all links in the kinetic chain must work in coordination. Because all links in the chain are connected, a change in one link impacts the entire chain. When one link breaks, so does the coordination between the links. We call the link that orchestrates the coordination of various parts of the body the core. The core achieves this coordination by performing several important tasks—transfer of power, base of support, stability, link between arms and legs, and balance—that are illustrated in the following image and explained in greater detail below.
Transfer of power
Chains are often used to transfer power. A bicycle chain, for example, enables the transfer of power from the pedals to the wheels. In swimming, the core transfers power between the legs and the torso and the arms.
When a link in the chain breaks, the transfer of power is impeded. When the core fails to transfer power between the lower and the upper parts of the body, the swimmer is left with power produced by smaller muscles (e.g. shoulders). This not only reduces total available power, efficiency and speed, it also increases the risk of injury.
Base of support
Swimmers, unlike land-based athletes, must create their own base of support to generate propulsive movement. Runners, for example, use ground as the base of support that they can push off from. Swimmers, however, train in a fluid environment and don’t have a solid surface to use as the base of support. What swimmers use instead is the core. The stronger the base of support, the more propulsive power the swimmer can generate.
When the core fails to provide stable base of support, swimmer’s efficiency and speed drop. Frequently you can see a swimmer who is working very hard with his legs and arms yet moving forward very slowly. It looks as if he’s spinning in one place. This happens because the core doesn’t provide the stable base of support and the swimmer has nothing to push off from.
Link between the arms and the legs, balance and stability
Fast and efficient swimming requires coordinated movement of the body. The core achieves this coordination by linking the upper and the lower parts of the body and by providing balance and stability. When the core fails to perform these tasks, coordinated movement of the body breaks down and efficiency and speed drop.
Let’s look at one example. An outward hand sweep during the initial phase of the pull is a common flaw in freestyle swimming. What causes this flaw, many people believe, is late breathing. Late breathing might indeed be the cause, but the root of the problem is a lack of balance and stability.
When the core fails to provide balance and stability, the body is forced to find an alternative way to accomplish these tasks. Late breathing and outward hand sweep are the two side affects of the body’s alternative way to provide balance and stability. The outward hand sweep is a clear indicator that the core is failing to perform these two essential tasks.
Putting it all together
The core is the foundation upon which everything else is built. When the core is properly trained to perform the tasks discussed above, the swimmer has a strong foundation and potential to become fast and efficient.
Back to the pull buoy
Now that we understand the importance of the core in fast and efficient swimming, let’s look at what happens when you introduce a pull buoy.
When a swimmer puts a pull buoy between his legs, he essentially removes the core link from the kinetic chain (see the kinetic chain image above). As we have already established, when a link in a kinetic chain breaks, the entire chain is compromised.
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.
I believe that the pull buoy should not be used in training or at least their use should be minimized. While there are situations in which a pull buoy might be beneficial (such as drills, for instance), traditional use of a pull buoy for pulling is detrimental to a swimmer’s improvement. The pull buoy compromises the kinetic chain and robs the swimmer of an opportunity to train the core to perform the essential tasks that are necessary for fast and efficient swimming.