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As a freediving instructor since 2009, one of the single most common problems I encounter in my students is wearing too much weight.

This is a safety concern, and from a performance standpoint, it can reduce their bottom time when excessively overweighted.  Let’s dig in and discuss everything I teach my students regarding weighting during my in-person classes.

Who is Ted Harty?

My name is Ted Harty, and I’m the founder of www.ImmersionFreediving.com as well as my pride and joy, www.FreedivingSafety.com

I’m a past USA Freediving record holder and past captain of the USA Freediving Team. My deepest dive is 279ft, and my longest breath-hold is 7 minutes.  I’ve appeared on Discovery channel with Tim Kennedy, have worked with Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, and have been interviewed on 12 different podcasts, and am a PFI Instructor Trainer. You can learn more about me here.

The Rule of 9’s

90% of the blackouts happen at the surface after the diver takes 2 or 3 breaths. They may look fine when they hit the surface.  I’ve seen videos of people hitting the surface, taking two breaths, giving the ok sign, and THEN blacking out.

9%  of the blackouts happen between 15ft and the surface, so 99% of the blackouts happen between 15ft and the surface.  These are all easily dealt with, assuming someone is actually paying attention.  You can learn more about loss of motor controls and blackouts in my free safety course @ www.FreedivingSafety.com. You will also learn my bulletproof buddy system which works great for spearing, and is approved by Noob Spearo and Spearing Magazine.

What happens to the air in your lungs when you black out?

Once a diver has a blackout, one of the first things that happen is, they let out a good amount of air in their lungs.  Releasing this air makes you less buoyant. This can cause a problem, depending on how much weight you are wearing.

Where do you end up after a blackout?

If you were to black out, there are two places you can end up.  Floating on the surface (very good) or the bottom of the ocean (bad, very bad).  

Which place you end up is 100% determined by how much lead you are wearing on your belt.  If you were to black out, where would you rather end up?

Would it be easier to rescue your buddy if they were floating on the surface, or if they were sinking down to the bottom in 60ft of water?  What if you were not right next to them when they surfaced? What if you were 50 ft away from them and they started sinking down to the bottom?  Not good, right?

TEST – how to determine if you would end up on the surface or the bottom after a blackout.

During my classes, I preach the importance of this test repeatedly until my students are sick of it.  

In order to determine if you will float or sink – perform the Surface Safety Test.

  1. Hop in the water wearing whatever wetsuit and weights you normally wear.
  2. Take a big breath at the surface and then do a relaxed exhalation at the surface, like a sigh. The video below shows exactly what I mean. You can view it here if it doesn’t show up below: https://vimeo.com/492241689
  3. Don’t move your hands or fins, and see if you continuously sink or stay at the surface.

As I said earlier, when you black out, you will release some of the air in your lungs. As you saw in the video, I didn’t push out every single bit of air I have.  People often think you would push every bit of air out if you had a blackout, but that is not true.  To push out every bit of air is an active process and if you are blacked out you will not be doing anything active.

If you are overweighted, you will start sinking when you perform the Surface Safety Test.  This means if you blacked out wearing that much weight, you would end up at the bottom of the ocean, not good, right?

If you are sinking, you need to take 1 pound off your belt and do the test again. Repeat this test until you can do the relaxed exhalation and not continually sink.  This is what I call passing the Surface Safety Test.

This is why I like 1 and 2-pound weights. It’s easy to adjust. If you do the test and are sinking and are wearing 2 four-pound weights, you can’t make the small adjustments you need.

Variables to consider with the Surface Safety Test

My students perform this test every single time they are in the ocean; it’s the first thing they do before we dive.  Let’s say a student ends up wearing 4 pounds.  That doesn’t mean they always need to wear 4 pounds.  If they are renting one of my wetsuits, they will be wearing a high-quality Oceaner 3 mil rec 45 wetsuit, which is more buoyant than a typical 3 mil.  So if they leave my course and wear a different 3 mil wetsuit and wear 4 pounds, they will likely be overweighted.  What if they gain weight or lose weight?  What if they decide to just wear wetsuit tops and not the bottoms?  What if they are in a freshwater spring and not in the ocean?  What if they wear a 5 mill instead of a 3 mil?

All of these variables will change the outcome of this test. That is why I tell my students; every time you jump off the boat and hit the water, the very first thing you do is the surface safety test and make sure you are not continually sinking.  When done properly, it takes 15 seconds and is well worth your time.

Here is a video of 2 spearfishing blackouts.  You can see how in the first blackout, the spearfisherman sinks to the bottom once he blacks out out due to wearing too much weight. Don’t be like him!

If you would like to learn more about how to avoid blackouts, what causes them, and how to save your buddy if they have one, sign up for my free safety course @ www.FreedivingSafety.com

The worst case of overweighting I’ve ever seen.

I had a spearfisherman from Miami in the class and he said he wore 13 pounds on his belt. We did the test and found out he needed 3 pounds. He was floored, said there is no way he could dive with that little weight. He ended up hitting 115ft and was surprised how much easier his diving was.

Why do people wear so much weight?

There are many reasons freedivers and especially spearfishermen wear too much weight.  

When I first started freediving, I had zero idea what I was doing.  I was a dive instructor at the time, and we regularly were at Sombrero Reef (30ft), in Marathon, Florida, where I worked at Tilden’s Scuba Center.  I remember trying to freedive to the bottom and struggling to get to the bottom.  Well, I quickly knew the best way to solve that problem, put on a ton of lead. I was wearing no wetsuit, and I put 10 pounds on my belt.  Problem solved! I easily got the bottom.

Oftentimes beginners, for a variety of reasons, struggle to get to the bottom.  They often, as I did, decided to “fix” the issue by wearing more weight.  Unfortunately, sometimes their dive buddies will give them this advice as well.

Struggling to get to the bottom for beginners is often due to a poor entry technique.  Here is an article I wrote for Spearing Magazine on how to clean up your entry: https://www.spearingmagazine.com/clean-up-your-entry/.

Other issues are poor kicking technique or equalizing problems.  If you are struggling to equalize your ears, check out my online course –  Make your equalizing problems a thing of the past.

I know lots of spearfishermen wear extra weight because they say it makes it easier to get the bottom, which is 100% accurate. It does!  It takes very little skill to overweight yourself and get to depth, all it takes is the ability to equalize, and the weights do most of the work. Here is the thing, when you are overweighted, yes, the weights make it easy to get to the bottom, they also make it the same amount more difficult to make it to the surface.

So if you are wearing too much lead, it is easier to get down and harder to get up.

If you are weighted my way, it is harder to get down, and easier to get up.

The amount of work is the same either way. It’s just a matter of where you are placing the work.

From a safety standpoint, does it make more sense to make the difficult part in the beginning of your dive or at the end of your dive?

In the beginning!

Remember, 99% of the blackouts happen between 15ft and the surface. 

We want to make it so we have an elevator ride to the surface, not struggling to the surface.  If you are spearfishing, this is even more true. Spearfishermen are often fighting to bring a fish to the surface that has zero intention of going to the surface.

Overweighting can decrease your dive times.

Overweighting, especially when done in excess, can actually reduce your dive times.

When you are weighted my way, the surface is a zone of rest. You will easily and effortlessly float at the surface. This way, you can focus on your breath up between dives.

If you are interested in learning how to increase your dive times by breathing up properly, check out my online course Breath Hold Secrets.

Let’s look at what happens to you if you are excessively overweighted. When you are breathing up at the surface, if you stopped moving your hands and feet, you would die because you would sink.  This means, while you are breathing up, you are being forced to spend some amount of energy to keep your snorkel above the water so you can breathe. 

This extra work will increase your heart rate. This is an extra effort that would not be needed if you were correctly weighted.  Guess what this increased heart rate does to your bottom time? It reduces it!

Wearing too much weight is a disadvantage to your freediving. If there was any benefit to wearing too much weight, I assure you, every single competitive freediver on the planet would overweight themselves, but we don’t because it makes us dive worse.

Limitations of the Surface Safety Test.

This test only tells you if you are wearing too much weight. For instance, I typically wear 5 pounds. When I perform the surface safety test with 5 pounds on, I float, meaning I pass the surface safety test.

If I jump in the water wearing no weights and I do the surface safety test, I’ll pass. So does that mean I’m wearing the right about of weight? No, I’m underweighted in this circumstance.  Remember, this test will only tell you if you are wearing too much weight.  

If you are wearing too much weight, take one pound off at a time, and repeat the test until you no longer sink.

My advice is to perform the surface safety test every single time you get in the water.

I know everyone is all about hashtags nowadays, so I’ll end with this.

#TooMuchLeadMakesYouDead

Ted Harty – your trusted online Freediving resource.

If you enjoyed this article and learned something from it, please do share the article with your freediving friends and consider telling them about my free safety course @ www.FreedivingSafety.com

You can view all of my online courses, which includes courses on equalizing secrets, freediving training secrets, and much more @ www.OnlineClasses.ImmersionFreediving.com

My other articles on Freediving Safety

The great debate snorkel in or out? 

How I found out I was not doing a good enough job teaching safety.