Should you use swim paddles? A rule of thumb

Swim paddles (in my opinion) are useful for developing swim-specific strength, especially in the shoulders and lats. I prefer Strokemakers:

strokemaker paddles
Strokemaker paddle (size red #3). NOTE: The paddles come with a longer strap meant for the wrist, but don’t use it. That’s goofy. If you need the wrist strap to keep the paddle stable, you’re doing it wrong.

Strokemakers are the classic paddle for competitive swimmers. At various points in my swimming career I’ve used Green #1sYellow #2sRed #3s, and Blue #4s. As a Masters swimmer, I use Reds. As an open-water and marathon swimmer, I feel that the strength I develop with these paddles (which some have derogatorily described as “dinner plates”) helps me power through waves and chop in rough-water conditions.

(Note: I have no financial relationship with the company that makes Strokemakers. Every one of their products I own, I’ve paid for. I just like their paddles.)

There’s a catch, though: It’s probably a bad idea to use these paddles as a beginning (or even intermediate-level) swimmer. You can hurt yourself! Certain stroke flaws (thumb-first entry, crossing over the mid-line, dropping your elbows on the catch), combined with paddles, can lead to rotator cuff injuries.

How do you know if your technique is good enough to start using “power paddles” such as Strokemakers?

I’d like to suggest a simple rule of thumb: If you can swim with the FINIS Agility paddles without struggling to keep them on your hands, your technique is probably good enough for power paddles.

Karen has a nice description of how the Agility paddles “test” your technique.

Important caveat: If at any point you develop shoulder pain while using paddles, stop using them immediately!

finis agility paddles
FINIS Agility paddle. Hand not included.

I received a complimentary pair of Agility paddles from FINIS at Jamie’s swim camp a few months ago. I have no trouble keeping them on, but I still use them occasionally because of how well I can feel the initial “catch” of my stroke. I think of the Agility paddles as feel for the water paddles, in contrast to the Strokemaker power paddles.

I was happy to hear recently that FINIS is now selling three sizes of Agility paddles – small and large, in addition to the original size (now called “medium”). I always felt the original Agility paddles were a bit too small for my hands, so if I were in the market for new ones, I’d get the Large.

One final note: as usual, I find Terry Laughlin’s perspective on this to be overly simplistic and dogmatic.

15 thoughts on “Should you use swim paddles? A rule of thumb”

  1. Thanks for this post, Evan. I don’t have much of a feel for my catch and have been frustrated in my attempts to improve it. The FINIS paddles seem like just the thing to help.

    I second your opinion on what I understand of Terry L’s perspective on pool tools. I shared that perspective as I was learning to swim with TI but now I see value in them. Yep, they can become crutches for some swimmers, but that doesn’t mean they can’t help.

    I have pretty good body position (a benefit of TI training) and want to improve it. The pull buoy [I just read those posts of yours] is really helping that and my bilateral breathing training. I can get a better feel for how my position in the water is different when breathing to each side — don’t have to be concerned w/kicking and don’t get tired. I can then swim w/o it and feel what I need to improve. I would think Terry would embrace it if only for this. And I’m much more sensitive to body rotation with the buoy. Works for me.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Bubbles. It sounds like you are finding a combination of different approaches (including TI) and tools (paddles, buoy) that work for your particular situation. That seems smart. I do think the Agility paddles are great for working on the catch. Also fist drill – do you know that one?

      1. I conveniently forget about the fist drill. That one has frustrated me more than just about any other. I seem to do better when just focusing on my elbow, keeping it high, and letting the forearm & hand really be a paddle. But I can’t exactly *feel* it. The water doesn’t feel any “thicker” and I have a hard time feeling it against my forearm. That’s why I’m gonna try those paddles, to help me know when my mechanics are sound and when they’re not. And maybe I’ll develop more of a feel.

        You’d think I’d have a good catch b/c my hands are big for my frame size. As are my feet, though that doesn’t seem to help my kick! ;^)

        1. Fist drill is frustrating by design 🙂 It seems to me that by neutralizing the hand (especially for folks like you and me who have relatively large hands!) we train ourselves to get traction from the rest of the arm… then once we have that muscle memory, it’s easier to integrate with the hand.

  2. I like the agility paddles as well. One of my swim flaws is crossing over the midline. When I make this mistake, water enters between my hand and paddles from the side (pinky finger side) and immediately knocks them off. After no more than a length of the pool it strongly reinforces a more 10&2 entry. Plus as you mention, they have great feel, unlike my TYR catalysts

    1. Hey, Mike. Yeah, I have the Freestylers too, but I think basically they’ve been replaced in FINIS’ product line by the Agility paddles. They serve the same function but the Agility’s are much better. IMO.

  3. I got me some Agility paddles and have been using them for the past few swim sessions. I like them a lot! They’re helping my palm and arm feel for the catch, and they’re helping me keep my palm flat rather than having it curl (on the right side). I’m relieved to see that I do generally keep my hands in line and don’t waggle them.

    Still, I will re-introduce the fist drill. Maybe the combo of the paddles & drill will accelerate my improvement.

    Have you used the paddles during backstroke? Shoulder issues are making me do more backstroke & I’m wondering if they’ll be useful or detrimental.

    1. Glad to hear of your success with the Agility paddles!

      I have never tried using them on backstroke, but from what I understand they can be used in all four strokes. Since you mention it, I will try to make a point of trying it.

  4. Evan,

    I invite you to take a look at the new VoloBlades paddles developed by AquaVolo ( These paddles were specifically designed to address some of the concerns you outlined in your post. For instance, because the VoloBlades’ center of pressure is shifted down to the lower palm, it encourages a high elbow catch and quick recruitment of bigger muscles (core and lats) while taking pressure off the shoulder.

    Also, the wide edges of VoloBlades serve as a feedback mechanism when something is off. As you mentioned, some swimmers have “thumb-first entry.” With VoloBlades the paddle would catch and the swimmer would know immediately that there was a problem with the hand entry.


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