Reason Not to Use a Pull Buoy

Originally from AquaVolo.com

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.

Core

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.

Hopefully, it is clear by now why 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.

Improve Balance and Reduce Drag with VB AIR

[repost from AquaVolo]

The goal of every competitive swimmer is to swim faster. One way to swim faster is to reduce drag. One way to reduce drag is to improve your body position in the water by making it more horizontal and stable. A more horizontal body position displaces less water as you move forward. The less water is displaced, the less drag the swimmer has to overcome. What makes the body position horizontal, creates stability and reduces drag is balance. This balance is achieved by engaging core muscles and by pressing down the lungs. (Pressing down the lungs brings the hips and legs up, acting as a lever.) When one of these two components—engaging core or pressing down the lungs—is missing, the body position gets distorted, efficiency falls and speed drops.

I have mentioned in a previous post that when we learn a new movement, our brain generates new motor pathways that carry the signals from the brain to the body parts responsible for that movement. And that “the more a particular pathway is activated during consistent, purposeful action, the likelier it is to be stabilized [become automatic].”(1)

Let me summarize what I have just written:

1) one way to swim faster is to reduce drag;
2) swimming with a horizontal body position reduces drag;
3) balance is required for attaining a horizontal body position;
4) balance is achieved by engaging core muscles and pressing down the lungs; and
5) swimmers need consistent and purposeful training to make new movements automatic.

Based on these insights, we can assert that swimmers need to consistently and purposefully try to achieve balance by engaging the core muscles and by pushing down the lungs. We can also say the opposite, that swimmers need to minimize activities that distort horizontal body position and discourage engagement of core muscles. One activity that both distorts the horizontal body position and discourages the use of core muscles is kicking with a kick board.

Kick Board

The idea behind a kick board is to provide support for swimmers’ arms so they can concentrate on the kick. However, for many swimmers, especially younger swimmers and those with weak core and poor balance, kick board introduces serious drawbacks.

First, as the swimmer kicks, his hands press down on the kick board that is extended in front of him. In addition to adding pressure on the shoulders, pushing down on the kick board creates a lever that lifts up the lungs.

Arms Lungs Lever

Similarly, when the lungs go up, hips and legs go down (it’s the same lever effect).

Lungs Legs Lever

As we have already established, to have a horizontal body position the swimmer has to push down with the lungs which aids in elevating the hips and legs. The exact opposite happens when you kick with a kick board: the lungs go up and the legs go down.

Some might argue that the swimmer doesn’t have to press down on the kick board, which is a valid argument. However, due the physical properties of a traditional kick board, which is very buoyant and not easily submerged, there will always be some pressure from the hands on the board. The arms of a perfectly streamlined swimmer reside slightly below the surface of the water. When the swimmer places his arms on the kick board, which is on the surface of the water and is not easily submerged, he is faced with two choices: to press down on the board to try to attain a horizontal body position (which causes the lever effect outlined above) or not to press down on the board and leave the arms at a slight angle (from shoulders up to the surface of the water). In either case, there will always be some distortion in the body position.

Second, many swimmers use the kick board as a stabilization platform. They grab on the kick board and use its high buoyancy property to balance their body in the water to achieve stability. Instead of using the core muscles to stabilize and balance the body, they use an external device. When swimmers do this, they are discouraging the use of the core muscles which are essential for developing a horizontal body position. Swimmers that use the kick board as a stabilization platform never get an opportunity to learn how to use their core to balance and how to develop an efficient body position.

After we created VB AIR and started training with them, we discovered a latent benefit that we had not anticipated: VB AIR are the perfect split kick board. VB AIR and kick boards are made from similar materials and both are buoyant. However, VB AIR are significantly less buoyant and easily submerged, which makes them so great for kicking.

VB AIR Kicking

First, although VB AIR do provide support for arms, they are not as buoyant as the kick board. The weight of relaxed arms will submerge VB AIR just below the surface of the water, which is ideal for streamlined body position. Swimmers cannot press down on the VB AIR, as they can with the kick board, because the VB AIR will sink and the swimmer will lose balance. Hence, the lungs will not be pushed up and the legs will not be pushed down because there is no lever effect as in the case with the kick board.

Second, unlike the kick board, VB AIR cannot be used as a stabilization platform because they do not provide enough buoyancy to support the weight of the body.  As a result, swimmers must engage core muscles to balance themselves. If there is no external device to use as a stabilization platform, swimmers have no choice but learn how to use core muscles and lungs to balance themselves in the water.

To summarize, balance allows the swimmer to achieve a horizontal body position which reduces drag and results in increased speed. Balance is gained by engaging the core muscles and pushing down the lungs. As with any movement, to make the horizontal body position automatic swimmers need to consistently and purposefully practice by engaging the core and by pushing down the lungs. Activities that distort horizontal body position and discourage use of the core to attain balance, such as kicking with the kick board, need to be minimized. We believe that VB AIR are an effective alternative to traditional kick boards. Like the  traditional kick board, VB AIR provides support for swimmers arms so that the swimmers can concentrate on the kick. Unlike the traditional kick board, VB AIR force the swimmers to use the core muscles and to push down the lungs to achieve balance in the water. Improved balance leads to improved body position which results in faster speed.

 

Related Posts:
Introducing VB AIR

References
1. What’s Going On In There. Lise Eliot (2000)

Swimming Technique: Verbal Instructions vs. Visual Input (AquaVolo.com)

“You have two brains: a left and a right. …your left brain is your verbal and rational; it thinks serially and reduces it’s thoughts to numbers, letters, and words…  You right brain is your non-verbal and intuitive brain; it thinks in patters, or pictures composed of ‘whole things,’ and doesn’t not comprehend reductions, either numbers, letters, or words” (“The Fabric of Mind”, Richard Bergland)

read full article

Dead Spots and Inefficiencies in Your Stroke (swimming)

One of the first things I noticed when I started swimming with DragSox (aside from how hard I had to kick to keep moving forward) is that DragSox forced me to develop better rhythm and timing. Because DragSox add resistance, any dead spots in my stroke were quickly exposed. Every time I had a dead spot, I felt like I stopped moving forward and had to work much harder to accelerate to gain speed again.  This slowing down and accelerating wastes a lot of energy.  I took it as an indicator that I needed to work on my rhythm to make my stroke smoother and more efficient.

The “Dead-Spot” challenge: identifying inefficiencies and improving  your rhythm and technique:

 

 

 

Flutter Kick Connection Drill with DragSox

After training with DragSox for a few months, my legs have gotten much more powerful.  It’s a great training device for anyone who wants to build power.   When I first started using DragSox, every 3 x 25 kick felt like 3 x 8 squats with heavy weights in the gym.  We have a lot of workout videos at http://aquavolo.com.  Check them out.