Absolutely… there is a time to add pull sets to workouts.
There should be no doubt that there is significant value in doing pull sets. Whether its a pull set with a pull buoy, with a kickboard instead of a pull buoy, using bands with or without pull buoys, with finger, hand, or forearm paddles, with a snorkel, or any other mix and match combination, pull sets have their place in swim training. The issue is not whether there is value in doing pull sets, the issue is who should be doing pull sets?
Swimmers who have a core driven stroke, who understand and can adjust body position in real time without ongoing cuing from the coach should progress their training by adding pull sets.
Those swimmers still learning how to swim from the core, should not pull until they have achieved all of the above. To pull with the arms, as opposed to the core will serve only to weaken your stroke (in the long term), decreasing your strokes’ effectiveness and efficiency. Unfortunately, athletes and coaches who only know pull sets fall to the faulty belief that improving as a swimmer is simply a matter of doing longer and longer, and harder and harder pull sets. The outcome to this training approach is consistent and predictable: the athlete experiences a short term spike in speed, plateaus relatively quickly, leading to extra effort made to try and break the plateau (with even more pulling). In time, the all out effort to generate marginal returns results in shoulder pain or injury, and little else. If the athlete forces it by self-medicating pre or post workout with pain killers or NSAIDs, they often manage to cut a few seconds from splits before seriously injuring their neck, shoulders, back, or all of the above.
Progressing to pull sets before you have complete control over your body is not swimming, its learning to drag yourself through water. Why do many novice and sport level triathletes and masters swimmers become frustrated with swimming? Having learned to drag their bodies through water as if crawling under barbed-wire in an obstacle course, and unable to differentiate between dragging and swimming, do not realize that (a) they are not swimming, and that (b) dragging is a dead-end game because with increasing speed, dragging builds an insurmountable wall of resistance which prevents the athlete from progressing. From experience, I will humbly share that this is true regardless of how much swim and dryland training the athlete does in trying to break the wall of drag.
Dragging yourself thru water is a double edged sword: in the short term, gains made with paddle and pull buoy training are often astounding to new swimmers. This is exciting, and it is the reason you cannot pry paddles or pull buoys from most triathletes or masters swimmers (as they are convinced pulling is the answer to all things swimming). In the long term, without developing a sense of balance, coordination, timing, and body control via the core, these swimmers hit the limit dragging imposes, and fail to experience the joy of true swimming, plus their potential as swimmers.
Swimming is the ability to balance the body in all 3planes simultaneously so as to minimize the resistance of moving in water. With water 800x denser than air, it is not the ability or inability to generate power that limits swimmers, its the ability to minimize resistance, reduce drag through posture, form, and positional adjustments. Its not power, but core control which is pivotal to fast swimming. Once you have the balance, then absolutely, generating power is critical, so progress to pull sets; but to put power first is to put the horse before the cart.
Swim training must focus the athlete on learning to feel the water, and themselves in water, to feel what generates greater drag coefficients, and what eliminates or reduces drag. Listen to the commentary during Worlds or the Olympics and you will undoubtedly here reference made to a swimmer having “a great feel [for water]”. That ‘feel’ may come easier to some, but it is a skill that anyone can learn… if and when coached properly. To those for whom the skill comes more easily, they still have to train it, to refine it, to rise to their potential.
Problem is, most novice and sport athletes are concerned more with their speed and split times, figuring that the technical parts can always be learned later. Sorry, that is not how it works.
There was a column recently at one of the triathlon websites where a swim coach wrote that if your body – like the hull of a boat – is equivalent to that of a barge, it matters not, how many outboard engines you strap to it nor how powerful the engine. A barge is a barge and it will always max out at barge speed… slow, brutally and painfully slow. Ever notice how barges are also usually pulled along, dragged by one or several tugboats? Its no different for novice and sport level swimmers who instead of learning how to balance in water (i.e. develop their core into the hull of a speedboat), focus on short term results, failing to realize that in so doing have built themselves into a barge.
There is no amount of drydock work that will turn a barge into a speed boat: you have to start from scratch, first un-learn dragging, then back to the basics, learning how to swim from fundamentals, building upwards.
Swimming at the highest levels is less about arms and legs, and more about the body: the boat hull.
Part of the problem is that coaches convince athletes that all they need to do is change the position of a hand, an arm or leg and their swimming will improve. To correct these problems, coaches offer videotape analysis, where the coach records the athlete swimming from various angles, even underwater, then circles on the video everything that is out of place, with the sum total of advice being that everything circled simply needs to be put in its place. Its made to sound as if cleaning up a swim stroke is equal to cleaning up a room after a toddler has pulled out and played with all their toys. Do it once, and boom, done, perfection. Hah! If it were that simple we would all be going to Canadian Olympic Swimming Trials. What most coaches do not comprehend is that most of the ‘problems’ that novice swimmers have (e.g. cross-over, dropped elbow @catch, karate hands, sinking feet/legs, lifted head) are not the problem, these are in fact solutions the novice swimmer is using to try and correct for a lack of a core driven stroke. To correct a cross-over without addressing spinal rotation and side bending is ridiculous… its dumbing-down swimming to points on a checklist as if ticking them off one after another will yield the form, the efficiency, the same level of control as top Canadian swimmers such as Penny Oleksiak, Santo Condorelli, or Ryan Cochrane.
If pull sets are inappropriate for novice and sport level swimmers, then why do coaches write up workouts with pull sets for these athletes?
- Because as well intended as they may be, they are simply ignorant of the fact that pull sets for novice and sport level athletes will do more harm than good in the long term.
- Because they do not know how to break down the strokes into the fundamental components.
- Because they do not know how to prescribe drills and skill work to address specific stroke issues.
- Because they do not know how to assess where an athlete is in their stroke development.
- Because their understanding of swimming lacks a basic appreciation of exercise physiology, physics, hydrodynamics, and sport specific technique,
- Because without a working knowledge of the science of swimming, the most a coach can offer is a conditioning workout.
- Because they are of the mindset that to be like Michael Phelps, you must train like Phelps; but fail to appreciate that today’s workout is dictated by the athlete’s ability today, not their ability tomorrow, or 5years from now.
- Because they are afraid if they told athletes the truth of what it takes to become a competent swimmer, their athletes would go find a coach who panders to the need for instant gratification.
On a personal note…
Looking back on my years swimming club and then with UofT, it wasn’t a lack of pulling that prevented me from progressing as a swimmer. As a distance freestyler I’ve done more pulling than I care to remember, especially during training camps. Yet despite all the training, what stands out in my mind is the kick of Turlough O’Hare, a 37x All-Canadian in distance freestyle events, with whom I had the privilege to train alongside. At the time, I had no idea to the significance of his kick, nor that it played so critical a role in his speed, nor did I have any clue as to how to develop the kick, train the kick, how to have a kick. I hit a brick wall at 17mins for the 1500m by training almost exclusively the pull. What frustrated me to no end was that I knew I had more potential, I just did not know how to tap into it, where it was, how to access it. Turlough’s nick name was Turbo; now I’m not certain if it was as a reference to his kick, but if it was then it depicts exactly the power of his kick, the speed with which he swam.
The point of these posts is to share with you that I have been down the road… all the way to the end and I can tell you what lies at the end of pulling and pull sets: not what you are looking for. At least not if you want to experience your fullest potential, without injury, without illness, without the side effects of banging your head against a wall year after year.
I speak from experience when I say pulling as a starting point for training will not deliver you to your potential as a swimmer or as a triathlete.
There are always exceptions, most recently the reference cited for not kicking is the Italian swimmer who won the 1500m in Rio by dragging his right leg the entire race. Here is the response to exceptions: (i) what an athlete does racing (e.g. Sun Yang breathes to both sides going into the wall) is racing, not training, and you cannot extrapolate an athlete’s training from how you see them compete, and if that doesn’t do it then (ii) the reply my first masters swim coach – Dave Judd/OAK, and for that matter all the coaches I have had – would give every time anyone questioned the methodology by referring to a National level athlete who was doing different: “when you put in the training of _______________ (fill in the blank with the athlete you are referring to), then you can race however you please”… aka, here is the workout, get going or get out.
I have already gambled thinking that I could pull it off by pulling. It didn’t work, so as a coach I refuse to gamble with the training of any of my athletes. Besides, look at distance freestylers who have been consistently on the podium, who have consistently set records… they kick, all of them, Ledecky, Yang, Cochrane, Thorpe, Phelps, Coughlin, et al. They kick from the core, with power, kicking in their own individual way, and all finish events strongly by elevating their kick cadence into an even higher gear. Coughlin can crank up her kick into an 8 beat pattern! That Natalie Coughlin has stood on the podium 60 times at major international competitions, spanning the Olympics, Worlds, Pan Pacs and Pan Ams should therefore be no surprise.
If you are training and competing as a triathlete or as a competitive swimmer and plan to continue competing in the sport as the activity for maintaining health as long as possible, then I encourage you to consider starting over, make it a do-over, beginning with the basics. Learn how to float, how to sink, how to balance in water, how to kick, how to turn, twist, how to move like a fish and the world of swimming will open up to you in ways you could never have imagined. I did, and after already swimming for decades, its all of a sudden brand new.