I thank Steve Tarpinian and his webinar “Swim Myths” for inspiring and providing some of the information in this post. I get asked a lot by my swimmers is they should swim with paddles to get stronger in the water. I’m not a big fan of this strategy mainly because I’m a teacher and paddles can cause injuries. I worked with newer swimmers and I work on teaching good pulling form. I haven’t experienced that paddles do a great job of teaching good pulling form nor do I like the risk of shoulder injury that comes to a new swimmer using paddles incorrectly.
Paddles come in all shapes and sizes and they certainly will increase the resistance and the load on your arms when you pull. The problem is that depending on the size and shape of your paddle you can cause some major shoulder problems. If your pull is not perfect, the added load, the tendency to pull out of synch with the body, and inefficiencies in your pull pattern (e.g., dropping the elbow, wide outscull at the catch, pulling across the midline, dropping the lead arm on the breath, outsculling too strongly to turn the hips to breathe), can lead to or exascerbate swimmer’s shoulder, or tendonitis. Worse still, trying to fit the resistance might start building one of these inefficiencies into your stroke. The trouble with paddles is that these problems might not happen this year, or the next, but they will eventually happen.
I’ve tried using paddles during swim lessons at the Swim Studio, and I’ve never gotten the results I’ve wanted. You can still drop your elbow like a champ when you are wearing paddles. You can start pulling too close to the surface and “short-stroke” the finish with paddles. You can still drop the lead arm during the breath using paddles. The problem is that with the added resistance, you still feel like you are catching a ton of water when you pull. I’ve used paddles with a couple of students successfully by slowing down their tempos to ridiculous levels (1.8-2.0 seconds per strokes) and used the paddles to slow down the arm so they could feel their hips turn with the arm. I’m still not convinced that this is the best way or only way to achieve this result.
I’ve gotten the best results teaching the high elbow catch using the good old-fashioned windshield wiper scull and the catch-up drill. These drill exercises can be integrated into the full stroke without affecting the shoulder muscles. Since you don’t have the plastic paddles on the hands, you don’t lose the feel when you transition to the full stroke.
As far as “getting stronger in the water,” a better route is to find a trainer who can create a strength development program specific to swimming where you can build strength and power to support the swimming motions. You will get stronger with the added benefit that you will be using the right muscles to initiate the motions with better core support for the shoulder. So long as your trainer know what he or she is doing, you can also get this added strength without the risk of injury.
Also, don’t discount the value of spending more time in the water. Water all by itself provides a great deal of resistance. If you go from 1-2 days in the water to 3-4 days in the water, you can get stronger simply by doing more swimming. Also learning the other strokes can also work the swimming muscles in different ways and put you in different energy systems. Many of the “strong” swimmers you see got to where they are not because of using paddles but by swimming 6-10 practices a week and doing dryland exercises.
Now, paddles are used in a large percentage of club, high school, collegiate, and triathlon training programs across the country. I’m sure that there are a lot of coaches who disagree with me and that’s their right to do so. I just saw too many friends of mine take up soccer, track, and tennis as kids because they shredded their shoulders using paddles too much. As I said above, if you have an excellent pull and you are in good shape, paddles can help to develop strength. I don’t know if it’s worth the risk and rehab time to find out that your pull is not as good as what you think.