Hand Paddles and Parachutes on Sprint Swimming

Hand paddles are external devices used to increase propulsion. Parachutes are external resistance devices used to decrease propulsion. These devices are on every pool deck, but despite the common use of both external devices, minimal research supports or disproves their effectiveness. One study (Telles, 2011) studied four maximal freestyle resistance conditions: no equipment, hand paddles, parachutes, and hand paddles + parachutes. Relative stroke phase duration of each arm, swimming velocity, and stroke rate were analysed from video (60 Hz).

Specifically, these researchers had the swimmers perform maximal swimming sprints and looked at the lag time between each phase of freestyle swimming to determine if the index of coordination differed with the external devices. It was preconceived if lag time significantly differed between the various conditions, then the efficacy of the external devices would not be warranted.

Eleven male-swimmers (age: 21.9 ± 4.5 years; 50-m best time: 24.23 ± 0.75 s).

The authors noted:
"the stroke rate decreased in all conditions (P < 0.05) and swimming velocity decreased with parachute and with paddles + parachutes (P < 0.05). The coordination mode changed from catch-up in free swimming (-2.3 ± 5.0%) to opposition with paddles (-0.2 ± 3.8%), parachute (0.1 ± 3.1%), and paddles + parachute (0.0 ± 3.2%). Despite these variations, no significant differences were observed in relative duration of right and left arm-stroke phases, or in index of coordination."

This study was significant as it looked at the efficacy of equipment commonly used on the pool deck. Often times, equipment is used without proper evidence or knowledge. This should not suggest discontinuing use of equipment, but until research has confirmed the efficacy of such devices, they should be used with much scrutiny.

This study confirms the use of paddles and parachutes in sprint swimming. However, the study describes the transition from 'catch-up' freestyle to 'opposition' freestyle with external devices. This difference is important to note, as many swimmers are trying to improve 'catch-up' or distance per stroke. If improving distance per stroke is the goal of the athlete, perhaps using external aids is not indicated for this athlete in sprint swimming.

Keep in mind, this study only looked at sprints, not longer aerobic distances. The use of paddles is commonly used for aerobic sets without supporting evidence. Added resistance, that is, "parachute training," can be used for specific strength training purposes as long as swimming is performed near maximum velocity (Schnitzler, 2011).

Future studies need to look at the different types of resistance swimming (swim rack, parachute, and weighted rack) and the efficacy of paddles on longer distance.

  1. Telles T, Barbosa AC, Campos MH, Junior OA. J Sports Sci. Effect of hand paddles and parachute on the index of coordination of competitive crawl-strokers. 2011 Feb;29(4):431-8.
  2. Schnitzler C, Brazier T, Button C, Seifert L, Chollet D. J Strength Cond Res. Effect of velocity and added resistance on selected coordination and force parameters in front crawl. 2011 Oct;25(10):2681-90.
By Dr. G. John Mullen, DPT, CSCS. He is the founder of the Center of Optimal Restoration, head strength coach at Santa Clara Swim Club, and creator theSwimmer's Shoulder System.


  1. We do a lot of swimming with paddles, snorkel and tennis shoes (all at once) and the kids have enjoyed the challenge.