What Swimmers Need to Know About Swim Paddles

Looking to level up your power and strength in the pool? Strap on a pair of swim paddles and give your shoulders a workout that will leave you a faster, stronger swimmer.

When it comes to your swim workouts there is no shortage of different ways that you can tweak your training. Whether it’s focusing on the upper body with pulling sets, or hammering away at your legs with kick sets, there are an endless number of ways to train.

Whatever you are doing in practice the end goal should be the same—to become a faster overall swimmer. Here is what you need to know about picking up a pair of swimming paddles.

1. Pick a paddle that is just larger than your hand. The first instinct swimmers have when it comes to paddle selection is to grab the biggest one available. As a young age grouper I remember scrambling for the dinner plate-sized paddles anytime our coach scribbled a “paddles + PB” set up on the white board. The excess surface area helps you create some serious propulsion—you are able to pull much more water than you otherwise would, after all—but it also drastically slows down your stroke rate. Therein lies the major drawback in paddle usage. When swimmers take extra large paddles (in comparison to the size of their hands) it’s almost impossible to maintain a normal stroke rate. For sprinters this strength building workout becomes counter-productive—fast swimming means being able to generate lots of power very quickly. With super large paddles you train yourself to be able to pull with more force, but at a much slower tempo. When choosing your weapon of choice, select a set of paddles that are just larger than your hands. This will help balance out the power work with a stroke tempo that is still relatively close to your regular pull rate.

2. If you have shoulder issues, avoid paddles. Swimmer’s shoulder is a common, and some would say, prerequisite part, of the swimming experience. I don’t think I can name a single swimmer I ever trained with who at some point didn’t fall victim to some sort of shoulder impingement injury over the course of their swim career. Swim paddle usage is akin to resistance training. Which means: If you have shoddy technique with your regular swimming adding paddles will only magnify them. In short bursts this might be helpful to help you fully absorb and address technical shortcomings you have in your swimming, but sustained use of swimming with paddles with poor technique (and all that entails, including compromised hand placement, poor posture, and so on) sets you up perfectly for further injury.

3. Use paddles for your goals in the water. As mentioned at the outset, any swim equipment you use in your training should be in service for your goals. When you use paddles you will get a little stronger. Your bicep tendon will get a good workout. Your lats and chest will feel it. But as research on elite college swimmers has shown your distance per stroke will go up, your stroke rate will go down. While swimmers will readily admit that they love using paddles—and I am one of them who does as well!—prolonged use will actually be detrimental to your swimming technique and speed if your goal is to strictly get faster.

In Sum

One of the joys of the sport of swimming is the near endless variety of ways that we can train. Whether it is strapping on a pair of swim fins, a pull buoy, doing vertical kicking, or in this case, using swim paddles, there is no limit to the ways we can aspire to being faster swimmers. However, all the fancy gear and equipment, as shiny and as cool as it looks, should always be in service of your goals in the water, and swim paddles are no different.

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