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

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


VoloBlades: Strength Training for Triathletes

Today’s perspective on strength training by Luis Vargas on featured an image of VoloBlades. The image illustrates one of Luis’s recommendations–using paddles to increase strength. Thanks, Luis for emphasizing tools and methods for strength training!

XTri. VoloBlades

Introducing VB AIR Paddles

[repost from AquaVolo]

There are three common types of underwater arm pull in swimming:

1) the dropped elbow arm pull;
2) the straight arm pull; and
3) the high elbow arm pull.

Here is how James Counsilman describes each in his book, The Science of Swimming (1):

“The dropped elbow arm pull is the poorest type of pull and provides the swimmer with very little forward propulsion, since very little water is pushed backwards.

Dropped Elbow Pull

“The straight arm pull is better than the dropped elbow arm pull so far as effectiveness is concerned, but at points A and B the force applied downward is too great, and at points D and E the force applied upward is too great. This tends to push the swimmer upward at points A and B and downward when the hand is at D and E.

Straight Arm Pull

“The best pull is that which will minimize the dropped upward and downward components of the straight arm pull and provides a greater push backwards. It begins almost as a straight arm pull except that the elbow is higher. The elbow bends during the pull and then nearly straightens as the pull finishes.”

High Elbow Pull

The “best pull” here is synonymous with fast and efficient swimming. One of the prerequisites for the “best pull” as seen in the illustration above, is the high elbow catch (the arm position between the points A and B). To achieve the “best pull” the swimmer must first establish a high elbow catch, which is why the high elbow catch is considered a critical component of fast and efficient swimming. Swimmers and coaches dedicate a lot of time and effort to refining the technique involved in high elbow catch.

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. For instance, if the swimmer consistently drops her elbow during the catch, the brain sends the information necessary to perform that particular movement (dropped elbow catch) to the appropriate body parts along established motor pathways. Let’s call these pathways the “dropped elbow catch” motor pathways.

If this swimmer wanted to develop a high elbow catch (a new movement), she would first have to develop the new “high elbow catch” motor pathways that would carry the appropriate signals from the brain to the body parts responsible for the high elbow catch. For the brain to activate new motor pathways, however, it needs to receive certain information related to the new movement. A logical question to ask at this point is: How can the swimmer perform the new movement in order to send the information related to this movement to the brain, if she doesn’t know how to perform the movement? It feels like a chicken and egg question, but the answer is to do drills and use tools that emphasize certain parts of a stroke and stimulate active thinking at critical moments. Drills allow the swimmer to perform in a consistent manner, over and over in order to refine a specific movement. Appropriate tools bring the swimmer’s attention to specific aspects of a stroke and/or build awareness of the water and the muscles involved in particular movements. VB AIR is one of such tools.


VB AIR inherit their design from our popular VoloBlades paddles. As we have written before, the design of VoloBlades shifts the point of pressure down to the lower palm, which promotes a high elbow catch and quick engagement of core muscles, resulting in a faster and more efficient swim. Furthermore, due to the unique design of VoloBlades, the fingers have direct and unobstructed contact with water, which is a crucial requirement for increasing the feel for water. VB AIR have an additional unique property: they are buoyant. To overcome this buoyancy, the swimmer has to exert extra effort when her arm enters the water and establishes the catch. When the swimmer is forced to exert extra effort in an unexpected place, it brings about awareness of that particular place and time. It forces the swimmer to pay closer attention to the details of the movement that she is performing.

Pushing down with the lower palm on the buoyant VB AIR promotes superior high elbow catch. The design and the buoyancy of VB AIR in combination with the swimmer’s awareness and active thinking during the catch phase create an environment in which the swimmer is able to make adjustments necessary for improved high elbow catch.  As it happens, the information related to the high elbow catch is sent do the brain that begins to activate new “high elbow catch” motor pathways. “The more particular pathway is activated during consistent, purposeful action, the likelier it is to be stabilized.”(2) VB AIR allow for this consistent, purposeful action and the creation of an automatic high elbow catch.
Related posts:

VoloBlades: Shifting The Center Of Pressure Down To The Lower Palm

Do Finger Paddles Increase “Feel For Water”?

1. The Science of Swimming. James E. Counsilman (1968)
2. What’s Going On In There. Lise Eliot (2000)

The beauty of VoloBlades

[my repost from]

VoloBlades are unique. Unlike traditional paddles, VoloBlades shift the point of force down to the lower part of the palm which:

  1. Encourages high elbow catch allowing for better anchoring,
  2. Generates significantly more power during the pull phase by recruiting bigger muscle groups such as lats and core.
  3. Reduces stress on the shoulders.

Sometimes it’s useful to use analogies when describing something innovative so let’s try this:

Imagine pulling yourself up onto the deck from the deep end of the pool. You do it by placing both hands on the deck and pushing down on the lower parts of the palm. It happens automatically. Without much thinking, you assume a position that will generate the most power in order to pull yourself up onto the deck. You use the bigger group muscles – lats. Now, imagine doing the same but this time shifting the point of force up towards your fingers and you will have a much harder time. It’s harder because this time you are using your shoulder muscles which are not as big and powerful as your lats. You know this without thinking and so you use your lats and push down on your lower palm. VoloBlades is similar in that they help you use your larger muscle groups for more power. Swimming with VoloBlades capitalizes on your body’s natural tendency for efficiency.

Another analogy is using an ab wheel during dryland training. In order for you to roll all the way out, you have to push down on the handle with the lower part of your palms. By pushing down with the lower palm, you are recruiting your lats and core muscles. You do this without thinking, but if you try pushing down with your middle or upper part of the palm, it will be virtually impossible to roll all the way out. The automatic, natural position is the most efficient, with the force being generated on the lower palm. Just as in the previous example, VoloBlades follow the body’s natural inclination for efficiency and strength by utilizing the lats and core muscles.

The beauty of VoloBlades is that they use the body’s natural tendencies and enhance them. Swimming with VoloBlades helps build strength in the lats and core while protecting the shoulders.


Do you want to swim faster?

I love to swim.  I’ve been swimming since I was 6 years old and I still swim at least 5 days a week.  I come up with my own workouts and swim by myself or with friends who share the same training philosophy as me.  I swim much faster now than I swam when I was on a swim team in high-school and in college (over 20 years ago).  How is it possible?  I trained then just as hard if not harder as I train now, but I just couldn’t improve that much.  The answer is technique.  In swimming technique is everything.  It seems like everyone understands this but only few actually work on improving it, especially triathletes.

Every triathlete or swimmer should ask him or herself how much time do I spend working on my technique?  I am sure the answer in most cases would be close to 0.  As a contrast, Fred Bousquet, one of the fastest swimmers in the world, spends 75 min a day on technique work.  Think about it, 75 min a day doing nothing but drills!

I’ve swum with triathletes before and here is a typical workout that a lot of triathletes do: warmup 300-400, then may be a couple of 50s of kick, drill, swim and then one or more excruciatingly boring sets like 10×200 or 10×400 or even worse 4×1000.  Workouts like these will never make anyone swim faster, they might actually make you swim slower and they will definitely wear you out mentally.  Sure, your endurance will probably increase and you’ll be able to swim longer BUT you will still swim at same slow speed.  If swimming longer, not faster, is your goal, then it’s fine.  But if you want to be able to swim faster, here are a couple of things that will help you.

1. Every time you swim work on your technique.  Dedicate the first 30 min of every workout to warmup and drills.  All drills must be done at a slow pace – don’t rush.  Learn about drills as much as you can.  There is no one magic drill that will make you faster.  You have to think about drills as a progression.  Break down the stroke into simple parts and work on each of them, breathing being the most advanced.   It will be hard in the beginning because chances are, you don’t have a good balance in the water but if you stick with it, it will get easier. Don’t expect fast results.   Wear your snorkel and fins in the beginning.  Once you get better, you can take them off.  It takes a long time to retrain your neurological pathways.  Give yourself at least a year to see results.

2. Throw away your buoy.   Triathletes love to swim with buoy because buoy gives you a false sense of buoyancy, it elevates you in the water and it makes you think you swim fast.  Get a bend and wrap it around your ankles when you do pull sets.  You’ll quickly realize how much harder it is to pull without the buoy.  Pulling with bend around your ankles will force you to develop good catch and it will make you stronger.

3. Throw away your paddles.  You don’t need paddles, especially the big ones that triathletes like to use.  They make your arm turnaround slower and you lose the feel of the water.  If you really must wear paddles, get the small ones, not the size of a kick board that I’ve seen some triathletes wear.

4. Swim at the pace you would like to swim in your race – race pace.  This is another concept that most people seem to understand but few do anything about it.  Figure out your pace per 100 and then swim as much as you can at that pace.  For example, if your goal pace is 1:20 per 100 then your 50 pace is 0:40 and your  25 is 0:20.  Instead of swimming boring 20 x 100, break the distance and swim it at pace.  Here’s one possible set:

4 rounds of broken 100 as:
round 1:  4 x 25
round 2:  25-50-25
round 3:  2 x 50
round 4: 50 + 2 x 25
all 25s on 0:20
all 50s on 0:40

Have enough rest between the rounds to be able to swim the next round at the same pace.  If you can’t maintain the pace, increase the interval.  If you feel like your technique is falling apart while you are trying to make the interval, slow down and increase the interval.  You don’t want to develop bad habits, you probably have enough of them already.

5. Kick, kick and kick.  This is probably the opposite of what you’ve been hearing from other triathletes.   Most triathletes have this idea that they don’t need to kick hard or kick at all because they need to “save” legs for the bike and the run.   It makes no sense.  If you don’t kick in swimming, your legs start to sink and they will create a lot of drag.  To overcome this drag you’ll have to work harder with your arms and as a result waste more energy.  What good do fresh legs give you if you finish the swim half dead?  If you work on your kick (and technique) you will become a much more efficient swimmer with stronger legs.  What’s wrong with having strong legs? They can only help you on the bike and the run.  If you get more efficient in the water because of kicking then you’ll finish the swim with much more energy left and your bike and run times will be faster.

Obviously, there’s much more to swimming than these 5 items, but if you consistently work on these 5 steps, next season your competition will be left behind.  Happy training!

Extra: Take a look at DragSox and VoloBlades – some of the best training tools for swimmers!