Tool Review #3 Hand Paddles: Exercise Utmost Care
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on December 26th, 2010

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.

Hand Paddles

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.

3 Responses to “Tool Review #3 Hand Paddles: Exercise Utmost Care”

  1. Terry,

    I read an article today by Isuzu Tabata (of Tabata HIIT fame) that studied Oxygen uptake in swimmers with and without paddles, pull buoy on legs, in incremental swimming to failure sets. The swimmers showed no difference in Vo2 uptake even though they swam faster with paddles. The conclusion is that there is no additional (signficant) motor recruitment when using paddles. If so, then what’s the use?


  2. Suzanne
    I hadn’t seen that article but it raises a valuable question. Thanks for sharing. Where did you find it?

  3. Mike T says:

    I find using hand paddles useful for two things – entry position and a long smooth pull, accelerating my pull so my hand is going fastest at the bottom of the stroke (ie by my hip). I often do this together while using a pull buoy so I am not thinking about too many things at once. Generally I do this towards the end of my workout rather than the start so I am usually tired even before using the paddles. I rarely do more than 4×100 or 8×50 as I like to follow this with smooth free style without the paddle or buoy and try to focus on holding water as long as I can.

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