The Swimmer’s Ultimate Guide to Swim Paddles

Swim paddles are a staple in just about every swimmer’s training. Here is everything you need to know about making the most of this piece of equipment.

“Fins and paddles!” coach called out.

A chorus of smiles and cheers swiftly followed at swim practice.

Some things are totally universal in our sport, and one of them is the pleasure of getting to swim at Mach-1 speeds while wearing equipment that throws our swimming into hyper-drive.

Swim paddles are one of those pieces of equipment found in almost every swim bag across the world, but have you ever really stopped to think about why we use them?

The right swim paddles can elevate your swimming, from increasing upper body strength and pulling power to fine-tuning stroke technique.

In this guide, we will do a deep dive into the benefits of swim paddles.

We will list some tips on how to maximize swim paddle use, the research behind their effectiveness, potential shortcomings to be aware of, and more.

Buckle up and let’s get to paddling with just about everything you ever wanted to know about swim paddles.

The Swimmers Ultimate Guide to Swim Training Paddles
“Please, please, please let us use paddles today, coach.”

Swim Paddles: The Research

As an experienced swimmer you have used them so many times that you have never really paused to consider the point of them.

But you do know what happens when you strap them on: you swim longer (in terms of distance per stroke) and you swim faster.

The research backs this up:

  • A group of female swimmers strapped on small hand paddles (116 cm) and over-sized paddles (286 m) and completed a series of 25m sprints. Both swimming speed and distance-per-stroke increased significantly. While DPS went up, the stroke rate went down. Of particular note was that the pulling phase took longer to execute, while the speed of the recovery was unchanged.
  • In what is basically a copy of the previous study, this time a group of male age groupers swam a series of 25m sprints (the oversized paddles were bigger in this trial—311cm). They were instructed to hold a consistent stroke rate via an underwater speaker that helped them keep it constant. Same results: increased speed and distance per stroke, and hand speed in the push and in-sweep phases were down when wearing paddles.
  • A group of nationally ranked backstrokers performed a bunch of 100s with and without paddles. When the 100s were swum at full max, the rate of perceived exertion and blood lactate concentration were lower when swum with paddles compared to without. In other words, the paddles made the swimmers more efficient when they were swimming all-out, but interestingly enough, not when they were swimming at sub-maximal speed (85%).
  • If you’ve swum for even a moderate amount of time you have stumbled upon swimmer’s shoulder, either yourself or in the warnings of others. Swim paddles, as well as other shoulder-bearing exercises, were found to be one of the things that aggravated shoulder injuries when used in this group of 1250+ swimmers from age group to national level.
Benefits of Swim Paddles

The Benefits of Swim Paddles

There are generally two main benefits to using hand paddles with your swimming: building power and strength in the water, and also to help solidify good technique habits.

Here’s why you should use paddles during swim training:

1. Specific development of power.

In terms of building strength and power, swim paddles are about as swim-specific as it gets.

Swim paddles straight-up help you become a stronger swimmer by exaggerating the surface area of your hand, forcing the shoulders, elbow, and lats to work overtime to complete the pulling motion.

As long as you are performing the stroke precisely as you normally would (which can be hard with a slower catch and pull as shown in the research above), you are adding resistance to your stroke, thereby becoming a more powerful swimmer.

2. Teach you speed and efficiency.

You don’t need me to tell you that swimming with paddles is awesome because you get to go much faster—probably as fast or faster as race pace when going all-out.

When swimming at this kind of speed you can really get a feel for how you are most efficient in the water, from keeping a rigid torso, to having an early catch, and so on.

3. Spices up your workout.

For those long, monotonous repeats of 500s or whatever coach is subjecting to you that day, throwing in some paddles is an easy way to mix things up and keep you fresh mentally.

4. Encourages a better catch.

When you are feeling particularly hardcore, use only the middle finger strap on your swim paddles.

When you don’t engage the early forearm catch the paddle will slip off and you will be feeling like a rank amateur having to put your paddle back on mid-length.

(On the bright side, it will teach you what not to do.)

5. You’ll know when you aren’t pulling correctly.

Paddles exaggerate everything about the pulling motion. Your catch is stronger, the pulling motion is stronger—you will be able to better focus and tune those parts of your stroke.

Paddles are a great way to help you really “feel” each part of the pull stroke.

Disadvantages of Swim Paddles

The Downsides of Swim Paddles

Everything is not all golden when it comes to your hand paddles, though.

If you’ve ever had pain in your shoulders, you know that they tend to exacerbate the tenderness, and while they can encourage some good training habits in some instances they can also open the door to bad ones.

Here are some of the big disadvantages of swim paddles:

  • Over-sized paddles place added strain on the ligaments and tendons in your arms and shoulder capsule. If you have weak shoulders, or are experiencing a fresh round of the dreaded swimmer’s shoulder, then large swim paddle use is not for you. Think of paddles like weights: if you have bad, shaky form in the water, or you are already injured, the potential for serious injury increases. One study done with 1,200 competitive swimmers found that paddles (somewhat obviously) aggravated existing shoulder pain.
  • Leaves you slipping through the water afterward. While gliding along at a reduced rate of exertion can make you feel like an aquatic superhero, taking them off—especially when rocking out with dinner plate-sized paddles on your hands—can leave you feeling like your hands are trying to catch sand the next time you push off.
  • Paddles can encourage bad training habits. Just as often as they encourage good ones, throwing the dinner plates on your hands can also develop habits you are trying to steer clear of: from spreading the fingers, to having a gallop in the stroke from a slow pull but fast recovery, and so on.

Swim Paddles - Best Practices

Best Practices for Using Hand Paddles

Start with paddles just larger than your hands

We all vary in terms of natural hand size and shoulder strength. You might have small hands but boulder-shoulders, and vice versa—so start with paddles that are just a little bit larger than your hands and progress from there.

The tendency is to start with dinner plates right off the bat (guilty!), but if it means that your stroke is unbearably slow or that its straining the tendons in your elbow than the paddles become a moot training tool.

Remove the wrist straps

The last thing you want to do is throw on some paddles and start ingraining some less-than-rad training habits. By removing the wrist straps you will find out very quickly whether or not you are swimming with good technique, particularly in freestyle.

Swim Paddles - Remove Wrist Straps
These A3 paddles have removable wrist straps for leveling up your hand entry.

If you aren’t swimming with your “natural paddle”—the hand to elbow, and going for early vertical forearm at the beginning of the pulling motion, the paddle will slip right off. To be sure it is annoying when it happens, but it will keep you technically honest.

Some paddles, like the FINIS Agility Paddles and the FINIS Manta Paddles have strapless designs. The Agility Paddle in particular is awesome for ensuring you are exerting steady pressure outwards from the palm of your hand.

Mimic natural finger position

A common occurrence with really big swim paddles is for swimmers to spread their finger in order to apply pressure across the paddle. If you need to do this, the paddles are too large.

Similarly, if your fingers extend beyond the edge of the paddles, you are going to naturally curl your finger tips around the edge of the paddle for more stability.

Your fingers on a paddle should be the same as without a paddle; loosely together.

The Top Swim Paddles on the Market

Alrighty, so now that we have covered the ups, the downs, the benefits and downsides of using the bad boys, here are some of my favorite paddles for swimmers.

1. Speed Power Plus Paddles. 

⭐ Best paddle for getting stronger in the water

Speedo Power Plus Swim Paddles

I put these bad boys at number one because, well, they are in my swimming bag. The current set I have (the XL) are going on year three of working rather wonderfully.

I have taken the wrist straps in and out a few times with no visible wear or worrying that they would snap.

Speedo Power Plus Swimming Paddles

They would be in better shape if I took them out of my mesh bag once in a while and gave them a rinse, but hey, I’m kinda lazy when I get home after swimming for two hours.

They are available in small to extra large.

2. FINIS Agility Hand Paddles

⭐ Best strapless swim paddles

FINIS Agility Strapless Swim Paddles

When it comes to freestyle, crushing the catch and having a strong early vertical forearm separates the top of the pile from the rest.

These paddles–which have no straps–are built specifically to ensure that you are catching the water early and fast.

(These paddles are also usable in other strokes, but as a freestyler myself this has been my experience using them.)

FINIS Agility Swim Paddle

The premise of the Agility paddles is simple: swim with good technique or you are spending half the workout stopping mid-length to put them back on your hands.

The Takeaway

Like anything else in your swim bag, your swim paddles should serve a clear purpose when you use them.

Whether it is improving your technique, developing more power, or acclimatizing yourself to cruising along at race pace, use your swim paddles smartly and with purpose and your swimming–and shoulders!–will thank you.

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Olivier Poirier-Leroy Olivier Poirier-Leroy is the founder of He is an author, former national level swimmer, two-time Olympic Trials qualifier, and swim coach.

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