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Wetsuits come in two major categories: full-sleeve and sleeveless. A full-sleeve wetsuit has neoprene sleeves that come all the way to the wrist, while a sleeveless suit stops at the shoulders like a tank top. Both styles have full legs and a rear zipper and are very similar in all other aspects. Determining which style of suit is best for you might not be a clear-cut answer. And sometimes, owning one of each kind is a really (really) good idea.
Pros of Full-Sleeve Suits
The benefits of a full-sleeved wetsuit are additional warmth, added floatation, increased hydrodynamics, and protection from the elements.
More heat is retained when wearing a suit that covers more body surface. By limiting the amount of cold water flowing over the skin, body heat is stored inside the suit. Removing sleeves—particularly in the armpit area, where much of your heat can be stored or lost—can make a big difference in core temperature, for better or for worse. Also, the small amount of water that enters the suit through the neck hole is warmed up by the body and provides a more comfortable experience in chilly water.
The additional neoprene of the sleeves also provide additional lift and flotation in the water. Even though the sleeves are typically made from a thinner and more flexible layer of neoprene, they still provide buoyancy to the arms and upper body.
A full-sleeve suit also gives the wearer a sleeker cut through the water. Just like how Olympic swimmers wear skin-tight suits or how Spanks smooth all the wrinkles out, the wetsuit sleeves keep the wearer’s arms silky and streamlined for less resistance and more speed through the water. The full sleeves also provide additional protection against the elements. Some ocean swims are infamous for jellyfish, sea lice, or other uncomfortable sea life. With a bike and run to follow, protecting as much skin as possible from unwanted stings and irritations can be a smart advantage.
RELATED: The Best Triathlon Wetsuits
Pros of Sleeveless Suits
A sleeveless wetsuit also has numerous benefits including less insulation, a better fit, and less constriction.
The wetsuit legal cut off temperature for triathlons in the USA is 78 degrees F (or 25.5 degrees C) which can be quite warm on a hot summer day. Athletes can prevent overheating in the water by choosing a sleeveless wetsuit for higher temperature waters while still getting the flotation and speed benefits provided by the rest of the suit. Instead of holding in body heat, the open arms are able to allow the wearer to cool off and better regulate body temperature without sleeves and exposed armpits.
Sleeveless wetsuits are also typically a better choice for triathletes with large upper bodies. This includes any athlete with heavily muscled shoulders and arms who would struggle to fit and function in tight sleeves. Maintaining maximum shoulder range of motion is a high priority when trying to swim fast. Athletes with large chests can have difficulty breathing in a full suit due to torso constriction. A sleeveless suit gives more freedom to fit, breathe, and move during the swim.
What Suit Should I Choose?
Consider these five questions when choosing between a sleeveless or full-sleeved suit:
- What types of swim conditions am I expecting at my races?
- What is my body shape?
- Is my priority speed or comfort?
- What is my budget?
Today, there are sleeveless or full-sleeved wetsuits to match any budget. The higher priced suits will include more technology designed for speed like higher flexible neoprene, fewer seams to cause chafing, neutralized buoyancy, etc. Typically, sleeveless wetsuits are produced in line with the mid and low-range full-sleeved suits. The higher range wetsuits are only produced with full sleeves because the primary focus is speed.
Get One of Each
Owning one of each wetsuit is a smart decision for the invested triathlete. Make a big purchase on a well-fitting and high quality full-sleeved wetsuit and keep it safe for the major races. Then, purchase a mid to low-level sleeveless wetsuit to use for weekly training purposes like pool training sessions, low priority races, transition practice, summer open water swims, vacation swims, and more.
Choosing to wear a sleeveless or full-sleeved wetsuit is not a one-size-fits-all answer. Don’t choose to wear a particular wetsuit just because someone you know or an athlete you admire has made that same selection. Give an honest answer to the questions above, consider all your race-day conditions, and choose the wetsuit that will give you the best results.
Below we’ve collected two of our favorite sleeveless wetsuits and two of our favorite sleeved suits, but be sure to check out our extensive roundups for full reviews on this year’s sleeved and sleeveless suits.
Our Favorite Sleeved Suits
The Huub Pinnacle is a new wetsuit for 2022 designed alongside tri superswimmer and Olympian Andy Potts. Huub is already well-known for its previous pro/suit collabos (like the super buoyant Brownlee-based Aegis), but this suit is puzzlingly exceptional for helping swimmers who struggle with form—very very unlike Potts himself. This suit uses slightly rigid panels of neoprene along the hips, torso, and upper legs to help connect and lend structure to the junction between the upper body and the lower body. For those who notoriously “snake” through the water—creating inefficient drag as they go—the Pinnacle is completely novel in its effectiveness. The structure provided by this suit helps swimmers with this particular affliction more than any other suit on the market, and the flexible shoulders and moderately buoyant legs help as well.
For years Roka was known as a premium brand only, and if you wanted their logo on your wetsuit, you had to be ready to fork over $500 at least. With the introduction of Roka’s first budget suit, triathletes can get the same innovative arms-up design that helps balance out the less-expensive neoprene they use to save some money. Furthermore, the Maverick comes with Roka’s unparalleled return policy (30 days, 100% satisfaction guaranteed, even used) and is available in 10 sizes—when they’re in stock. More sizes and a good return policy means you’ll get a suit with the most important thing you need: a good fit. For right at $300, that’s incredible.
Our Favorite Sleeveless Suits
Synergy Hybrid EFX3 Sleeveless
In our extensive sleeveless wetsuit roundup, the HYBRID EFX3 was the only suit to receive five stars from our testers—and there’s a reason for that. Rather than costing an arm and a leg, this sleeveless version of Synergy’s ultra-premium suit ticks all of the boxes of a $500+ wetsuit, but is a better solution than most for warmer swims, triathletes with larger upper bodies, or swimmers who simply want zero shoulder restriction when they swim. Our testers noted a super-important “thin and soft 2mm hiflex neoprene” as a huge asset to being secure but gentle around the neckline—huge for sleeveless suits. Our testers also loved the minimal cut around the arm holes to give upper back protection, warmth, floatation, and hydrodynamics.
Blueseventy Sleeveless Reaction
Coming in a close second to the Synergy suit, BlueSeventy’s Sleeveless Reaction is the result of a newly redesigned Reaction template for less than half the price of its sleeved sibling. Multiple panels across the upper and lower body meant a tighter fit with less chance for leakage or chafing. The only downside to the Sleeveless Reaction’s premium neoprene is how delicate it is for anyone looking for a second training suit to toss around or keep in the car, but the other side of that coin is that the delicate neoprene feels super supple and flexible.