Tool Review #5: Fins for fitness & strength? Not!
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on January 2nd, 2011

This is the last in my 5-part series of TI-flavored reviews of  ’swim tools’ featured in the Active Swimming newsletter article 5 Tools to Spice Up Your Swimming.

Here’s an excerpt from the piece on Fins: Fins are a great way to work your legs while improving ankle flexibility. They also help correct any cross-over kick you may have. Ankle flexibility is a key element in being able to generate propulsion from your kick and is usually a very important area to work on for newcomers, especially for runners and cyclists.

A previous Active Swimming article “Used Properly, Fins Can Be a Boost to Swim Strength, Technique” claimed that while fins have long suffered the stigma of being misunderstood as cheating tools, allowing swimmers to swim faster while requiring them to exert less energy . . .  [they] actually serve to strengthen a swimmer’s legs, improve cardiovascular endurance, and teach proper stroke technique.

It’s likely that 99% of those reading these articles will accept uncritically these assertions that training with fins on will benefit your swimming first by increasing fitness, secondly by increasing strength, and to a lesser extent by improving technique.

The TI position on fins is a good deal more nuanced. We don’t categorically disagree with the proposition that there may be some potential to increase fitness and strength by training with fins. If a swimmer told me they swim purely as a workout — essentially treating the pool as a ‘low-gravity gym’ — I’d have no hesitation to encourage them to train with fins. Kick with a board and fins. Swim with fins. Kick lustily. It’ll give you good workout.

Or at least a workout. If lower-body strength is really your goal, exercising with fins is far less efficacious than doing squats, stepups, lunges, etc. in a full-gravity environment. It is however a lower-impact aerobic workout than running.

Where these prescriptions become dodgy — in fact misleading — is when they mix claims for exercise benefit with claims that fins will improve your swimming.

On this the evidence is incontrovertible:

(1) Efficiency, not fitness, is far more critical to swimming endurance; and

(2) Streamlining, not strength, is far more critical to swimming speed.

In that context, the most common way people use fins – I.E. as these articles advise – will yield far less improvement than practice that targets streamlining and/or efficiency.

This is because (i) Kicking on a board with fins imprints the least efficient form of swimming locomotion, as well as terrible body position; and (ii) Swimming with fins encourages you to overkick — another counterproductive habit to imprint.

As for the proposition that using fins will correct kicking errors, this is also incorrect. Fins only address the symptom, not the cause. The most common kicking errors are caused by poor balance — fore-aft or lateral. The proper approach is to fix the cause of the error by drills or whole-stroke with focal points which closely targets the underlying balance or stability errors.

I have  used fins selectively to help an occasional student  learn to integrate the kick with the whole stroke. This occurred late in the stroke development process, usually after many hours of imprinting and refining balance and stability. Further, in this application, we explicitly sought to minimize power from thigh muscles. Rather we focused on using the quads as a ‘force coupler’ linking the lower leg to an abdominal power source. When you use fins as most swimmers do — and as the two Active articles advocate — you virtually always overload the thigh muscles, creating a low-efficiency habit.

My rating: 2 out of 5.

16 Responses to “Tool Review #5: Fins for fitness & strength? Not!”

  1. Joaquim says:

    Hi Terry,

    As you alredy mentioned, when you move faster through the water, the bigger is the resistence. Wouldn’t it be ok to use fins as a way to move faster through water and feeling an amplified resistence so we can work on active streamline?


  2. Mamand says:

    I started learning swimming 6 months ago, but I can’t swim 400m in a row. I have a weak kick, and my right leg is stronger than my left one, as I am right handed, my right side is stronger than my left side from head to toe, what should I do?

  3. Mamand
    It’s a challenge to diagnose without seeing you swim, but what you describe sounds very much to me like a balance issue.
    1) Being unable to swim 400m continuously is usually related to what we call ‘survival stroking’ – the feeling that if you slow your stroke, you might sink. Learning Fore-Aft Balance gives you the ease to swim in a ‘sustainable’ way.
    2) Feeling that one side of your body works better than the other is a stability issue. Learning Lateral Balance cures that.
    Both are taught in Lessons 1 and 2 of the TI Self-Coached Workshop DVD.

  4. Joaquim. That might be one useful application for fins.

  5. Alias says:


    How about using fins when doing many of the TI drills (skating, switching, et c), just to have a bit more propulsion?

  6. We used to recommend that people with a poor kick bring fins to TI Workshops to assist them in completing lengths of drills that were more reliant on kicking for propulsion. That helped them get through the workshop. But we noticed that when they removed the fins for a bit of swimming at the end, they would struggle to a greater degree than others. And some would report difficulty weaning themselves off fins.
    So we began searching for ways to teach the same skills without fins. In many cases, that meant without full lengths of drills such as skating.

    Teaching and practicing with partial lengths – stop when you feel your kick grow labored – worked so well that it’s now standard. And it’s therefore no one ever uses fins at a TI workshop or lesson any more. Some may still do so on their own, but we no longer recommend.

    The Self-Coached Workshop DVD has made an art of part-length practice. We call them Tuners.

  7. Zoltan Golacs says:

    Hi Terry,

    What is your opinion about the Finis Forearm Fulcrum? Is it worth to use?


  8. I tried the Fulcrum Paddle and hated the sensation it produced. When striving to extend my arm into a position where I gain great traction with it, the optimal sensation is of reaching forward and down in a gentle, graceful arc.
    The Fulcrum Paddle forced my hand down awkwardly and abruptly. Not a movement or sensation I want to imprint. About a minute of use was enough to persuade me this is another in a long line of swim tools designed by people who are clueless about the kinesthetic sensations of great swimming.

  9. Levent Topcu says:

    Hi Terry,
    Great fan of yours’ from Turkey. I’m using fins coupled with fist swimming to concentrate on my technique. I usually get 19 SPL’s with fins and 16-17 SPL’s without fins (with the same tempo of 1.25), which tells me that I have problem with my legs not being stable all the way through…
    Am I correct to assume this?

    I’m a fellow triathlete, and my target is to get some speed (sub 25min for the swim leg). I’m able to finish long distances without problem but I can’t get speed.

  10. Levent
    Since your stroke length seems to be greater without fins, I suggest you stop swimming with fins.

  11. Levent
    Since your Stroke Length is better without fins, I suggest you not train with fins. After all, you’re not allowed to use them in races, so why get used to them.

  12. Tom says:

    Contrary to Terry’s observations:

    Fins add more balance than propulsion. It simply takes too much energy to move the fins anywhere near the speed of a regular kick without them. So… what happens is the swimmer winds up “pulling”. Granted…a 25 or 50 yard sprint is faster…but after that there is not alot of advantage…after 200-300 are literally dragging the fins behind you. Terry also ignores the fact that fins are slower off the wall… and ADD drag just before starting the kick.

    Bottom line… need hydrodynamic studies to measure the differences between the two types of swimming.

    What Total Immersion really does not get is……. if they encouraged the use of fins …especially with those over 50 years…his business would grow geometrically.

  13. Au contraire. We did encourage use of fins at our workshops for many years. However, swimmers who were using them felt they were “cheating” and that the fins became a ‘crutch’ they were anxious to discard. We responded to their dissatisfaction with fin-aided swimming in coming up with teaching methods that made fins unnecessary. The swimmers who learn via these methods have been much happier and had a balance foundation to progress far more in acquiring grace.

  14. Bill says:

    I have just returned to swimming 4months after 40+ years of not swimming. I have been drilling the TI way but use fins. I am up to the triple Underswitch and progressing thru the Perpetual Motion Freestyle In 10 Lessons. I have been taking about 2 weeks of drills for each lesson. I wait until I feel very comfortable with each chapter before I move on. I have been using the fins because I seem to go no where without them. What is a “sinker” to do. I go to the pool 5 days a week for 35-45 minutes. I have signed up for a TI Workshop in Oct 2011. What do you suggest I do until Oct comes around.

  15. Bill, Welcome to the world of TI. This is a good place to discuss blog posts but not as good for getting feedback on learning challenges or advice. For that I recommend you visit the TI Discussion Forum and repost this query word for word on the Freestyle conference.

  16. Nick Potter says:

    I have been swimming on and off with both hand fins and training fins for 3 years now. I’ve always been a good swimmer and have found using fins has increase endurance and lung capacity.

    I’ve had comment from people at the pool that i’m cheating, but i disagree.

    Since i got to swimming hard for an hour with fins, i tried swimming without fins for an hour and it’s very easy compared.
    Swimming with fins requires far more oxygen and builds more mussel, plus the hand fins do make your stroke more precise.
    If you use fins, you will feel the workout the next day.

    I’ve never been so fit using fins in all my work outs, and my back has never been better.

    Nick with a prolapsed disk!

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