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by Chris Campbell

January 25, 2013

The beginning of a beautiful friendship

Crutch or Tool?

Standing on deck coaching a Masters workout, I often have mixed feelings when I see swimmers reaching for their pulling gear. All too frequently, hand paddles and pull buoys become crutches, an excuse to avoid working the legs, especially on longer freestyle sets. It’s an easy trap—our hips and legs ride higher, we can get more bite on our underwater pull, we go faster and expend less energy. This has its uses, but such things can be overdone. Our club used to give a humorous award at the end of the year for Pull Buoy Dependency.

Yeah, there are downsides to using pull buoys, especially to excess, but before we ban them from our sets outright, consider what happens when we add our brain to the equation. I have a mantra that I invoke frequently: Use the big muscle. Ours is a thinking person’s sport. The big muscle is your brain, and you shouldn’t leave it in the locker room when you come to the pool. Not only is every workout an opportunity to improve, you should be thinking about every stroke you take. Pulling gives us a great chance to focus on our body alignment.

From the deck, watching a couple of my teammates grind their way through a pull set, I noticed that one was moving quickly, but his legs were fishtailing left and right. The other moved through the water straight as an arrow.

What was different between them? Hip rotation. Without the legs churning up a bunch of bubbles, it was easy to see that my fishtailing friend’s stroke was driven by his shoulders. His hip rotation lagged slightly behind—not a lot—but enough to be very apparent to my eye, and enough to create a significant amount of drag. His power was down, and his stroke count was higher. Our teammate, on the other hand, was driving his stroke from his core muscles, and his hips were leading his shoulders in textbook fashion. His stroke was a lot more efficient, and his stroke count was lower.

I’ve been reluctant to pull during my own workouts for many years—damaged elbows and chronically sore shoulders—but this was too much to pass up. Sure enough, I’m fishtailing. Now when I grab my pull buoy, I focus on my keeping my body alignment clean. I engage my core muscles and try to keep my legs straight behind me, driving from my hips. It means slowing down and thinking about what I’m doing, and for many of us, that’s tough to do. But it pays dividends in the long run.

For an even greater challenge, one of our other coaches suggests holding the pull buoy between your ankles. In addition to highlighting late hip rotation, any body misalignments that result from breathing also become obvious. Flip turns can be a problem, so open turns may be in order when pulling like this.

Core engagement and the resultant body alignment are the foundation of good freestyle. Paying attention to details like this take the pull buoy out of the realm of garbage yardage and make it a powerful diagnostic and training tool. But use it appropriately—too much of a good thing can work against us. So the next time you reach for your pulling gear, turn your brain on first. It’s your most powerful muscle.


  • Technique and Training
  • Coaches Only


  • Freestyle
  • Pull Buoys
  • Training Aids
  • Pulling
  • Stroke Technique