How to Train With a Pull Buoy

By: Nathan Chandler
Pull buoys come in different configurations and sizes, so be sure to find one that fits your body.

You don't have to aspire to the level of Michael Phelps to want to drastically improve your performance in the pool. Regardless of your goals, you may find that your life as a swimmer is stronger and your technique sharper if you train with a pull buoy.

Pull buoys are exceptional training devices for swimmers, and in some cases, they are also good for certain types of physical rehabilitation. Before we continue, here's a bit of clarification -- don't confuse pull buoys with pool buoys, which are the floating lane dividers you see in lap pools where swimmers train.


Most pull buoys are figure-eight shaped pieces of foam, though they come in other configurations, too. Some are two pieces of foam connected by an adjustable strap or rope. Regardless of their shape, they're designed to be held between your legs as you swim.

The buoys also come in various sizes, a fact you'll want to keep in mind as you shop. Some buoys are meant for children, while other, full-size products offer much more floatation for larger adult bodies. Fancier buoys can be partially filled with water to adjust buoyancy and drag. This feature lets you adjust the product to match specific swimming strokes better.

You might be surprised to note that pull buoys are designed without straps to attach them to your body. That's because you're supposed to keep your legs together to keep the buoy in place. This action helps you keep your legs as motionless as possible, to concentrate on strengthening your upper body.

Pull buoys are easy to use. You simply place the buoy between your thighs and hold it there as you swim. As you swim, you'll feel the buoy keeping your legs from sinking and dragging in the water behind you. Without the buoy, trying to swim without using your legs would be difficult. Your legs would pull your waist and torso to a more vertical position in the water, making traditional swimming strokes impossible.

With the buoy, you can just use your arms for forward motion in the water. By omitting assistance from your legs, you're isolating the muscles in your upper body, forcing your arms to do almost all of the work of propulsion.

Keep in mind that if a specific buoy model doesn't work for the kind of training you're doing, you may need to find a different product. For example, a bigger or more buoyant product might add better flotation to your workouts, keeping your lower torso and legs higher in the water.

Pull buoys range from very inexpensive to somewhat pricey. You can find very cheap buoys for around $5, but you may find that more expensive versions are more durable.

No matter which type of buoy you choose, you'll quickly see the kinds of benefits they offer. Keep reading to see how to put pull buoys to use and to see how you'll benefit from pull buoy training.


Pull Buoy Workouts

Pull buoys are most helpful when you're working out using a freestyle stroke.

It's easy to add pull buoy sets to your workouts. Perhaps the most challenging aspect of using these buoys is getting used to the way your legs float when you're using these products.

To use a pull buoy, you place it between your legs above the knees. Some swimmers move the buoy as high up as possible between their legs, in the groin area, while others move it closer to their knees. If the buoy has a large and small side, orient the buoy so that the smaller portion points to the pool bottom.


The buoy should keep your hips and legs relatively high in the water even without kicking, and it will push you to keep your head down during your stroke. Buoys are used with swimming strokes that immerse the head, so you'll want to wear goggles or risk getting chlorine in your eyes.

If you're just beginning with the buoy, use your freestyle stroke, which is the primary stroke used with these products. Hold the buoy securely and do your best not to kick your legs. Swim with your normal freestyle stroke. If you normally swim at a fast pace, you will feel some extra strain because your arms are doing more work.

Buoys help reduce drag. You can maximize this trait by keeping your toes pointed. In addition, constrict your abdominal muscles as you swim with a buoy. This keeps your body straighter, further reduces drag, and increases overall efficiency.

As you work with a buoy, remember that this device is meant to accelerate the development of upper body strength and improve technique, not as an aid for every part of your workout. Keep buoyed laps to 25 percent or less of your total number of laps.

There are endless possibilities in the variations for buoy workouts. If you want an extra-challenging workout, hold the buoy between your ankles. This forces you to really constrict your core torso muscles in order to keep your body straight and will increase the speed with which you fatigue.

Some swimmers advocate the use of ankle locks when working out with pull buoys. Ankle locks hold the ankles together and prevent you from doing any sort of scissoring kicks whatsoever, letting you concentrate more on other parts of your technique. What's more, you can add hand paddles in addition to the buoys. This further intensifies the work that your arms get from your swim.


Benefits of Training with Pull Buoys

Serious swimmers may find that they achieve faster race times after working out with pull buoys.

Pull buoys are useful primarily because they reduce the amount of large, sweeping kicks that swimmers usually make -- in short, they encourage faster development of upper body strength. They also help you focus your mind on arm motion and breathing.

Pull buoys are very useful in training situations. However, it's worth noting that not all coaches and swimmers advise the frequent use of buoys, as they feel the buoys interfere with proper technique and create sloppy strokes.


Of course, to get any benefit at all from these products, you have to have the right buoy. It must fit your body and be comfortable as you swim. You should be able to backstroke, flip turn and push off with the buoy in place.

With the right product, you can gain a better sense of balance in the water, as well as increased upper body strength. Moderation is key. You may want to add just a single set of buoyed laps to your normal routine.

Because you're omitting half of your stroke (the kick), a buoy frees you to really concentrate on mastering your arm-stroke technique. Take advantage of this and really work out the kinks in your freestyle stroke.

Buoys are also great because they eliminate kicking. Kicking is hard work that leaves even experienced swimmers gasping. Minus the kicking, your breathing will be more relaxed, letting you work on disciplined breathing.

If you generally swim at a slower pace, you will find that your freestyle stroke feels easier with a buoy. Thus, at this easy pace, buoys are a great way to work on the technique of your stroke, building good swimming habits that carry over to buoy-less outings.

You'll feel your body glide easily through the water as you use the buoy. You'll be even more hydrodynamic if you point your toes during your workout. But be sure not to clench your legs or your toes -- this can lead to cramps.

With a bit of practice, you'll feel at ease working out with a pull buoy. After just a couple of weeks of consistent use, your upper body will begin to feel stronger, and with some attention to detail, your strokes will be more precise and powerful, too.

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