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Technique and Training

Making the Most of Your Pull Sets

Using a pull buoy gives you an opportunity to focus on some critical components

Terry Heggy | September 25, 2017

When some of us grab pull buoys and paddles, we immediately think, “Oh boy, I finally get to rest my legs!” or “Yippee! Now I can go faster!”

There’s nothing wrong with these thoughts, but if that’s all we think about, we’re missing a huge opportunity for improvement. A pull buoy (or any equipment, for that matter) should always be thought of as a tool, not a crutch. We want to focus on the benefits to our training rather than any temporary enhancement of our comfort.

Performing pull sets lets us zero in on a few critical swimming components.

Power

We can think of pulling as a form of weightlifting. By isolating the arms as the sole propulsion provider, we can emphasize muscle contraction and acceleration. With each stroke, your vertical hand and forearm “paddle” should engage as much water, as fast as possible. When working on power, each stroke should feel exhausting. You’re sending a message to the muscle that says, “Dude, you have to get stronger!”

As in the gym, proper form is crucial. You want to get a good catch and pull straight through to ensure that you don’t overstress the shoulders and rotator cuff. Have your coach watch to verify that you’re using your lats and triceps and not putting all the effort into your deltoids.

Speed

Using paddles for speed sets can help you with race-pace swimming. Pay attention to how the water feels as you cut through it at maximum velocity. Be aware of the sensory input from all parts of your body and remember the way the water rushes by when you’re really flying. Then recall those feelings when you’re doing your race visualization.

Form

The greatest benefit of using a pull buoy is the opportunity to develop better body awareness. If you suddenly double your speed with a buoy between your legs, it’s likely your legs are creating drag when unsupported. Swim a set of 50s alternating between using the buoy and then going without and try to diagnose what your legs are doing when not squeezing the buoy. Common leg drag problems include:

  • Biggus kickus (a.k.a. excessive amplitude)—If your kick extends a significant distance below the drag profile of your torso, it creates resistance. This is usually caused by kicking from the knee, rather than from the hip. Solution: Keep your kick quick and shallow, using the entire leg.
  • Running with scissorsIf your kick gets wide and splays out to the side of your body’s line, it’s likely caused by something you’re doing up front. Common issues that lead to scissor kicking include arms crossing the center line or the head moving to the side when breathing. Solution: Keep the catch directly in front of the shoulder and keep the head directly in line with the spine when breathing. The paddle-on-head drill is a good way to practice swimming straight.
  • Ankle anchorsIf your ankles lack flexibility, your toes point straight down and the entire foot presents a drag surface rather than being a source of propulsion. Solution: Do dryland ankle stretches. Kick with fins, using the fins to help stretch your foot into a “toes pointed” configuration. When using a pull buoy, point your toes to extend your ankle’s range of motion.
  • Vexing verticalityIf your feet simply sink to the bottom as you swim, you may feel that you’re constantly trying to swim uphill. Solution: Balance your body from front to back. In other words, try to get as much body mass in front of your lungs (your center of buoyancy) as you have behind them. Extend your catch as far as you can without twisting your torso and keep your head down (eyes on the bottom.)

Tool Tips

Check out the SWIMMER magazine pull buoy testing video to help you decide which style might work best for you. Find a buoy that lets you hold your core tight and straight and allows you to turn without having to readjust the buoy’s position. Then, each time you reach for your little foam friend, think to yourself, “Oh boy, I get to use this cool tool to improve my technique!”

USMS Wave Seperator

About the Author—Terry Heggy

Terry "Speed" Heggy has been swimming for more than 50 years. He won his age group in the 10K Open Water Championship in 2006, competed in the National Championship Olympic Distance Triathlon in 2014, and qualified again for USAT Nationals in 2015. He's the head coach of Team Sopris Masters in Glenwood Springs, Colo., and is a USMS-certified Level 3 Masters coach and an NASM Certified Personal Trainer.

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