Here’s the third installment of my analysis of the 5 “swim tools” mentioned by Steve Munatones in his Active Swimming article 5 Tools to Spice up your Swimming.
My rating: 2 out of 5 – Use with caution, in short repeats only with meticulous form.
Hand Paddles are addictive but less insidious than pull buoys in that they don’t help you mask a serious stroke flaw. The downside was articulated by bestselling author Tim Ferriss in his new book 4-Hour Body in the chapter “10 Days to Swimming Mastery.” “Hand paddles? Tried them. My shoulders will never forgive me. Isn’t swimming supposed to be low impact?”
No swimming tool is responsible for so many shoulder injuries as paddles.
Besides being downright dangerous for your shoulder the Pull Buoy also encourages misguided thinking in two ways:
1) It emphasizes power development. And power is far less important than drag avoidance, as noted in this excerpt from Chapter 3 of my next book The Grownup’s Guide to Swimming Faster (read the full chapter here) In a study of all competitors in the Mens 100-Meter Free — always considered swimming’s ultimate ‘power event’ — Jane Cappaert, Biomechanics Director for USA Swimming, found that the finalists (the eight fastest swimmers) produced an average of 16% LESS propulsive power than the swimmers who failed to advance from prelims. The more powerful the swimmer, the slower they swam! Cappaert’s conclusion? What sets apart the fastest swimmers is “superior whole-body streamlining.” Increasing power won’t make us faster. Reducing resistance will.
2) It encourages “Arms Department” thinking. What I said in my review of Pull Buoys holds nearly as much for paddles, especially if you use them in combination with buoys as is often the case. It advances a concept that the stroke has an Arms Department that has the job of pulling you along, and a Legs Department responsible for pushing you.
Are there circumstances in which I might – with extreme caution – endorse their use? Only after devoting dozens, if not hundreds, of practice hours to developing a stroke nearly as smooth as Shinji’s and you swam whole stroke (no pulling) with small paddles (only slightly larger than your hand) solely to feel a bit more water resistance and put a moderately higher load on the optimal set of muscles for holding water. This could help you recruit some extra motor units, mimicking the effect of highly-specific weight/strength training. Keep your repeats short to avoid inattention or muscle fatigue that could undermine form perfection, putting you at risk of injury.