The science behind hand paddles is still relatively unknown despite their ubiquity on pool decks and the extensive research and design behind their creation. Some coaches and swimmers treat them like poison, as paddles may aggravate cranky shoulders or make swimmers pay dearly for flaws in stroke mechanics (McMaster 1993). Others treat them like an addictive drug as paddles can bring otherwise unsustainable paces or unmakeable intervals within reach, thus improving one’s perception of their standing the team’s social hierarchy.
Paddles remain a mystery for several reasons. One, most paddle studies have involved swimming sprints (See Hand Paddles and Parachutes on Sprint). These studies don’t directly address whether paddles benefit paddle free swimming after use in longer, more aerobic efforts. Further, “paddles” is a very general term with many different shapes and sizes available to swimmers. Even the best study cannot be standardized for all makes/models. There is also very little research on paddle use in short axis strokes, although their use in these strokes is often limited for various reasons: shoulder strain in butterfly and a well-grounded belief that paddles designed for freestyle may result in confused motor patterns for breaststroke where the hand action is unique from other strokes.
One common justification for paddle use is in-water strength. Although we’ve often reminded swimmers that out-of-water strength has very little correlation to in-water strength, many believe paddles may be the answer. It’s clear from research and anecdotal observation that swimming speed may improve when using paddles, but’s unclear whether paddles improve long term outcomes via transfer to non-paddle swimming. Proving whether paddles work is difficult but we can make some inferences from existing research.
Maybe paddles work like training wheels. Feel-for-the-water is difficult to teach, but the right paddles might help the swimmer feel something they would not otherwise feel on their own. Perhaps one goal of paddles is to accelerate the learning process. As Gourgoulis (2008) writes, “Hand paddles also increased the propelling efficiency, the stroke length and the swimming velocity, mainly because of the larger propulsive areas of the hand in comparison with free swimming.” By exposing the mind to the ideal, perhaps goal when removing paddles is to try and replicate that feeling. Strength may not be the correct term, but improved mechanics may improve speed not only through propelling efficiency but also with improved body position to reduce drag.
Though a long pulling set with paddles may give the shoulders and lats a good burn, improved speed may still be due to improved mechanics rather than force. Ogita studied six male college swimmers in a flume in a progressive exercise test in two conditions: paddles and no paddles. They found no difference in mean oxygen deficit values between the two conditions and concluded, “These results suggest that the faster swimming speed accomplished with hand paddles does not affect metabolic responses and that it may be realized by recruitment of roughly the same muscle mass.” Is this “strength” or is this “efficiency”? Hard to say, but its clear the benefit in this study was not metabolic. Further, Zafiriadis (2007) studied national level backstrokers and found no difference in blood lactate levels during normal swimming, paddled swimming, or with parachutes when swimmers maintained the same stroke rates. However, paddles did result in the greatest stroke length.
Along with injury, the greatest concern with paddles is using paddles too large may alter stroke rate (Gourgoulis 2006, 2008, 2009). This point may seem obvious if you’ve seen someone slap on large paddles and then reduce their stroke count by half. At some point, paddles do become too large for the stroke to retain a sufficiently close relationship to normal swimming. However, appropriately sized paddles should preserve stroke coordination (“the movement pattern was not significantly modified when swimmers swam with hand paddles, at a constant stroke rate. However, large hand paddles caused a decrease in their hand velocities during the underwater stroke, most significantly during the insweep and push phases.” (Gourgoulis 2006)).
Most of what we know about paddles is based feel and observation, a condition that’s unlikely to change. However, know that research offers some clues that can help improve our understanding in this area.
- McMaster WC, Troup J. A survey of interfering shoulder pain in United States competitive swimmers. Am J Sports Med. 1993 Jan-Feb;21(1):67-70.
- Gourgoulis V, Aggeloussis N, Vezos N, Mavromatis G. Effect of two different sized hand paddles on the front crawl stroke kinematics. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2006 Jun;46(2):232-7.
- Gourgoulis V, Aggeloussis N, Vezos N, Antoniou P, Mavromatis G. Hand orientation in hand paddle swimming. Int J Sports Med. 2008 May;29(5):429-34. Epub 2007 Sep 18.
- Gourgoulis V, Aggeloussis N, Kasimatis P, Vezos N, Antoniou P, Mavromatis G. The influence of hand paddles on the arm coordination in female front crawl swimmers. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 May;23(3):735-40. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181a07357.
- Ogita F, Onodera T, Tabata I. Effect of hand paddles on anaerobic energy release during supramaximal swimming. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1999 May;31(5):729-35
- Zafiriadis, S., Loutpos, D., Valkoumas, I., & Tsalis, G. (2007). The effect of backstroke swimming using “paddles” and “swim chute” in stroke parameters and in the concentration of lactic acid. Inquiries in Sport and Physical Education, 5, 437-445.
By Allan Phillips. Allan and his wife Katherine are heavily involved in the strength and conditioning community, for more information refer to Pike Athletics.
Originally written January 2013.