Is It Harder to Swim with a Life Jacket On? (Explained)


Life jackets are essential for any person that does not know how to swim. There’s no doubt that life jackets are more than advantageous for survival, but there are lingering questions surrounding how beneficial life jackets genuinely are when it comes to swimming.

Swimming is slightly more difficult while wearing a life jacket. This is because life jackets compromise mobility in the water, prevent certain swimming strokes from being used, and potentially cause mild discomfort. They are primarily designed for flotation purposes, not movement in the water.

The sections below will provide further explanation on how life jackets complicate swimming. Read until the end to discover whether or not swimming with a life jacket is even possible, along with various instances where it’s strongly recommended that you wear a life jacket.

Why It’s Harder to Swim with a Life Jacket On

Many people are surprised to find that swimming with a life jacket is, in fact, more difficult than if you had no life jacket on at all. It’s no secret that floating at the water’s surface comes much more naturally, but actually propelling yourself through the water is a whole different story.

Extra Buoyancy Comes at the Expense of Mobility

For one, the majority of standard life jackets are somewhat restrictive in design. Life jackets have a considerable amount of foam padding tucked beneath the outer nylon shell (source). Although this foam padding certainly helps with buoyancy, it takes up a fair amount of space. Needless to say, this added bulk disrupts a swimmer’s natural body mechanics in the water. Still, it is a necessary tradeoff to ensure that the person wearing the life jacket can remain at the water’s surface.

Aside from the bulkiness, life jackets are designed to fit snugly along the torso. If a life jacket is too loose, there’s a strong likelihood that it could loosen and leave its user at the mercy of the water. On the other hand, if a life jacket is too tight, it can make breathing difficult and stifle any freedom of movement.

The ideal life jacket is meant to fit somewhere in between these two extremes. But, unfortunately, even if you do manage to find the perfect life jacket, you will sacrifice maneuverability in the water to at least some extent.

Limits the Swimming Strokes You Can Readily Use

Secondly, life jackets are designed to keep you lying on your back at the water’s surface. This may seem like a minor detail, but it has significant implications on what swimming strokes you can realistically utilize.

To give you some perspective, five main swimming strokes are commonly used (source):

  • backstroke
  • breaststroke
  • butterfly stroke
  • freestyle stroke
  • sidestroke

Of the swimming strokes listed, only one swimming stroke is meant to be done while the swimmer lies on their back: the backstroke.

For all of the other swimming strokes listed, the body is oriented differently. The freestyle stroke, for example, is performed with the swimmer’s belly facing down towards the water. The sidestroke is performed with the swimmer’s body facing sideways, as its name implies.

Since a standard life jacket is designed to keep you floating on your back, performing any other stroke besides the backstroke is slightly harder to accomplish. To move at an efficient pace, swimmers typically have to modify their technique to account for the difference in balance points and buoyancy.

These adjustments are a lot easier said than done in many cases, which is one of the reasons why experienced swimmers often say that life jackets impede their swimming capabilities. It can be difficult to break away from old lifelong habits to move at the same speed in the water.

Improperly Sized Life Jackets Can Cause Discomfort

Yet another reason why life jackets can increase the difficulty of swimming is the discomfort associated with wearing this accessory. We touched on it earlier, but a life jacket must fit snug on the upper body to work correctly. Some people do not bode well with body restraint, regardless of how slight that feeling of constriction may be. This discomfort can distract a swimmer from their primary goal of getting to where they need to be.

In extreme circumstances, this discomfort—combined with an instinctual fear of the water—result in so much distress that it causes a swimmer to panic. A person may have all of the physical tools needed to swim, but that matters little if they are in a state of panic.

Most people are aware of the fight-or-flight response, but not many people are aware of the third possibility: the freeze response. Simply put, the “freeze response” is the transitional period where your body is preparing to either fight or flee (source). In other words, your body would be stuck in a state of immobility as you decide on what would be the best course of action.

If a person is motionless in the water, they won’t be able to swim. Sadly, physical discomfort can turn into mental distress rather quickly. In this way, life jackets can be more of a detriment to swimming than a benefit.

Can You Even Swim with a Life Jacket?

Having discussed the various ways that life jackets complicate swimming, some of you may be wondering if swimming with a life jacket is even doable. If you have a basic understanding of how to swim, then swimming with a life jacket on should be more than achievable.

Oftentimes, those who struggle with swimming with a life jacket on would have encountered the same issues with the life jacket off. Very rarely does the root of the problem lie with the life jacket itself. Typically, glaring mistakes in swimming technique are responsible for stopping a person from moving in the water efficiently.

For example, it is a common fault among novice swimmers to maintain a vertical orientation as they swim instead of a horizontal orientation. As a beginner, it can be tempting to keep your head above water at all times, but this leads to a less streamlined posture and creates additional water drag. With the majority of swimming strokes, the body must remain in the horizontal plane for adequate propulsion.

Take the freestyle stroke, for instance. It can be challenging to generate sufficient force with both the arms and legs if the swimmer’s body is not entirely parallel to the water’s surface. Not all of the force is directed forward in this scenario. Consequently, the swimmer moves at a much slower pace and wastes a considerable amount of energy during the process.

This is not the only common technique fault that swimmers struggle to overcome. There are others as well, such as:

  • improperly timing breaths between swimming strokes
  • neglecting kicking and general lower body strength
  • swimming with strokes that are too fast or too slow

In short, it is relatively uncommon for a life jacket to be the sole determining factor of whether a person can or cannot swim. For non-swimmers, the underlying issues can be traced back to technique flaws and a lack of experience more than anything else.

Why Swim with a Life Jacket if it’s More Difficult?

Now that we’ve established that life jackets tend to complicate swimming, it’s only natural to ask, “Why swim with a life jacket at all?”

For one, life jackets grant inexperienced swimmers the confidence they need to get in the water in the first place. Even with supervision, venturing into a large body of water for the first time can be a colossal undertaking. The extra measure of safety that a life jacket provides may help a beginning swimmer get accustomed to the water and build from there. Similar to how a child is not meant to run before learning how to walk, a person is not meant to swim before learning how to float.

For more detailed information on whether it’s possible for a person to swim even though they can’t float, click over to Can You Swim if You Can’t Float? (Easy Explanation).

Aside from the extra vote of confidence, life jackets can be of great assistance to negatively buoyant individuals. Although it’s somewhat rare, certain individuals in the population cannot float. Due to their low body fat percentage and high muscle mass percentage, their body density is higher than the density value of water. Consequently, their body has a natural inclination towards sinking as opposed to floating.

If you’re still interested in the explanation behind why certain people are negatively buoyant, click over to Why Can’t Some People Float? (Everything You Need to Know! for further details.

A life jacket can be a helpful tool for a negatively buoyant individual. It allows them to learn the basic mechanics of swimming without having to worry about sinking. Unfortunately, negatively buoyant people must fight a constant uphill battle when swimming.

Not only do they have to concentrate on propelling themselves forward, but they also have to worry incessantly about propelling themselves up near the water’s surface to breathe. Simultaneously accomplishing these two feats is a tall task, particularly for novice swimmers. The use of a life jacket allows negatively buoyant swimmers to focus on mastering one set of skills before the other.

When to Swim with a Life Jacket On vs. Off

There are situations where life jackets are a necessity and other cases where life jackets are merely an accessory. Sadly, it can be challenging to find the line that defines when a life jacket should be worn, especially for someone not used to being around the water.

For this reason, we will discuss various scenarios where life jackets are typically worn and not worn. As a disclaimer, you should always wear a life jacket in and around the water if you’re not entirely comfortable with your swimming capabilities. By no means are the guidelines listed below intended to be hard and fast rules. They’re merely meant to provide you with some perspective on making your own informed decisions on when to wear a life jacket.

Times When People Swim with a Life Jacket On

  • When You’re an Inexperienced or Novice Swimmer – It should go without saying, but beginning swimmers are at an increased risk for drowning. They lack the necessary skills to keep themselves safe in the water. Although life jackets may slightly hinder movement, it’s worth the cost so long as the swimmer’s breathing airways stay above water level.
  • When You’re in the Open Water – Regardless of how experienced or inexperienced of a swimmer you may be, a life jacket should be worn in open bodies of water. There are significantly more safety variables to account for in open water conditions. Any one of these variables could potentially put you in harm’s way. These variables include rip currents, tidal fluctuations, boat traffic, and surrounding sea life. In the event of injury, a life jacket could act as a much needed safety net.
  • When You’re Participating in Water Sports – Water-based activities—such as SUP, kayaking, canoeing, and water tubing—are typically done in open water conditions. It’s always required for water sports participants to wear life jackets in case an emergency arises. Unfortunately, water sports participants may be unable to respond or react if they fall and suffer serious injury, let alone swim. Again, the life jacket serves as an extra layer of safety to help swimmers that may be incapacitated.

Times When People Swim with a Life Jacket Off

  • When You’re in a Shallow Swimming Pool – In swimming pools where you can stand throughout, life jackets are not commonly seen being worn by adults. Rather, all that pool-goers truly need is an appropriate set of swimwear. Though, life jackets are allowed to be worn for those that want to bring them.
  • When You’re at a Recreational Beach – The beach is yet another area where life jackets are not necessarily needed. Many beach-goers wade into the water, but stay relatively close to shore where they can easily stand on the sandy depths below. If you plan on venturing any farther, however, make sure to put on a life jacket!

Sources: 1 2 3

Austin Carmody

I am the owner of HydroPursuit. I enjoy kicking back and getting out on the water as much as I can in my free time.

Recent Posts