Swim paddles: a guide for beginners

The swimmer's ultimate guide to swim paddles

If you’re a regular at the pool, you may see some people swimming with swim paddles, or hand paddles. Swim paddles are a kind of extension of the palm of your hand. They are either flat or sometimes curved a bit to follow the natural shell shape of the hand.

But why do people use them? Are they for novice swimmers who need extra help? Or experienced swimmers who are developing specific skills? Do you need them? What kind are right for you? This beginner’s guide to using swim paddles is here to answer all your questions.

In this article, we’ll discuss:

  1. How swim paddles work and what they’re used for
  2. How to choose a good pair
  3. Some drills to get you started

The hows and whys

Why and how to use swim paddles

If you can imagine swim fins, but for your hands, then you are already most of the way there to understanding hand paddles.

Swim paddles usually have a configuration of straps across the back into which the swimmer can slide their hand. Others have thumb holes instead of straps—a simpler design. Both options keep the paddle in place while swimming, yet makes putting them on and off quite easy.

Once the paddles are on, you can give them a go on all the major strokes. You might find it more difficult at first. Or you may find that where you place your hand has changed. You aren’t doing it wrong! In fact, the paddles are used to:

  • Add resistance
  • Refine technique

Build strength

swimming paddles for strength

Like swim fins, paddles are a wider, stiffer extension of your limb. And like swim fins, they feel difficult to move on each stroke. However, each stroke with swim paddles is more powerful than without. That’s because:

  1. The bigger ‘hand’ displaces more water
  2. The reach on each stroke is longer
  3. The hand conforms to the correct technical position

When used correctly, in conjunction to training without paddles, the paddles will give the upper body an intense workout. The muscles of the back, shoulders, chest and all along the arms will work hard to move the paddles through the water. Over time, this extra resistance will build up strength and make for more explosive power in the water.

Swim smarter

Swimming Paddle Technique

Technique is improved because of the way the paddles force the hands and arms into position. They do this by:

  1. Providing a template that the hand must hold while strapped in
  2. Using feel in the water to let you know if the pull is correct

If the pull is out of alignment, you won’t feel much resistance with the paddles on. Adjust the stroke until it feels like hard work, and you’re probably doing it right. A teacher can watch and assist you if you’re unsure of the correct positioning.

Choosing the right paddles
The first question to ask yourself is, what’s the most important outcome for me? Is it:

  • to build strength, or
  • to improve technique

Different paddle shapes and designs will benefit different outcomes. The answer will help you choose the right hand paddles to achieve your goals.

If you want to get better technique, consider choosing paddles with one of the following features:

  • Strapless – this style forces you to hold your hand in the correct position for the stroke. If you have a tendency to curl your hand up, splay your fingers or slap the water, you’re likely to lose hold of the paddles.
  • Fingers – Finger paddles cover the fingers, leaving the rest of the hand free. They help improve hand positioning for the catch on the stroke. Yet there won’t be as much resistance, so you won’t overwork yourself.
  • Forearms – Paddles that cover not only the hands but also the forearms are great for the front crawl in particular. They assist in aligning the fingertips, wrist and elbow for streamlined entry into the catch.

If you’re after great strength in each stroke, look into these types of paddles:

  • Big – Oversized hand paddles give your hand a larger surface area and displace more water with each stroke. As a result, your arms, shoulders and back all work harder with each movement.
  • Iso – Isolation paddles are designed with instability in mind. To keep iso paddles on your hands, you have to engage specific muscle groups while you perform the stroke, which uses a wider range of muscles.

Getting started

To avoid overstressing your shoulders, warm up without the paddles. Then try a couple of drills to see how you get on.

  1. Sculling – This is a great first exercise with paddles. It’s gentle and the movements are very small. It gives you time to get a feel for the paddles and how they work in the water. Remember to engage your core to keep your feet up so that you don’t sink.
  2. 1 x 100, 1 x 100 – After your warm up, swim your preferred stroke with the paddles for 100 metres. Then remove the paddles and swim the same stroke for another 100 metres. Do you notice differences? Make a mental note. Continue your workout without the paddles.

Build up use with paddles slowly and gradually. It is easy to overwork your shoulders because of the increased resistance.

Hopefully this swim paddles guide for beginners makes clear that use and choice of paddles is totally personal to your goals. They’re a great addition for those who want to build strength on particular skills or work out kinks in performance. But you can get a lot out of swimming for fitness and fun without them, as well.

If you’re interested in getting to grips with hand paddles, and you’d like expert help, why not give us a call? One of our teachers would love to assist you.

Private Swimming Lessons


by Alistair Mills

In 2016 I saw an opportunity for a new swimming company that did things a little bit differently and here we are almost 4 years later, having built a family of teachers and clients that we are all really proud of.

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