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by Scott Bay

October 2, 2023

Here’s what you should do with your hands to swim faster

Swim instructors back in the day often used verbal cues about hand positions such as, “Don’t make your hands like forks—cup your hands to make a spoon,” or “Keep your hands flat like a paddle.” If these tableware references sound familiar, and you’ve been away from swimming for a while, you might never have received any instruction later about what’s truly most effective.

Your hands are your anchors. The goal for all strokes is to find some still water that you can put pressure on to pull yourself forward. In that sense it is best to maximize the surface area that is putting pressure on the water.

Some of this is going to be genetic, so people with bigger hands (thanks mom and dad) are going to have a larger surface area to hold the water. That does not mean big hands are the only key to fast swimming. The key is to maximize what you have. Here are the different cues that used to be (and in some cases still are) taught and why they are not the way to maximize your hold on the water.

  • No more spoons. If you were taught to cup your hands to make “spoons” to hold the water, it might make sense, until you really think about it. If you make your hand into a spoon and trace around it on a piece of paper, you will no doubt notice that it makes the area of your hand smaller than when it’s flat.
  • No tight paddles. It could be argued that flattening the hand gives you more area. But once you make the hand rigid to keep it flat, you’re recruiting muscles in your hand and arm that aren’t helping you swim. Tightening muscles that aren’t doing the work is a distraction and wastes oxygenated blood needed for the muscles that are doing the work.
  • No aggressive forks. So if cupped is not good and flat is not good, then spreading the fingers must be right? Nope. Aggressively spreading the fingers opens the area between the fingers and reduces the pressure applied to the water by allowing it to slip through the spaces between the fingers.

The Combo Approach

The solution is that the ideal hand position for holding the water is a combination of all three things. The most effective swimmers in the pool all share common characteristics borrowed from each of the verbal cues that were taught in swim lessons years ago, with some added wisdom from the world of fluid mechanics. Here are a few things you can learn from each idea and modify to maximize your hold.

  • From the spoon. It’s best to keep the hand slightly cupped almost as if it is just hanging by your side. Not stiff and not having the fingers closed either.
  • From the paddle. The hand should be a little flatter than it would be from the spoon method but not all the way. Not too cupped and not too flat, but just right.
  • From the fork. The fingers should be slightly separated. When you put pressure on the water, the skin on your fingers will flatten out, increasing the surface area of each finger. If they are clenched tightly together, there is no flattening. More importantly, interesting things happen in the boundary layer between your skin and the water surrounding it. A good analogy is that water flows fastest in the middle of the river rather than close to the shore because of the interaction between the land and the moving water. This boundary layer between your fingers produces a similar effect, creating a bit of pressure on the water between your fingers, like a natural webbing, increasing the surface area and your hold on the water.

Maximize Your Anchors

In summary, the hand should be slightly curved, somewhere between spoon and paddle. The space between the fingers is not too far apart and not too close. Above all, the hand must be relaxed enough to feel the water.

A good place to start is to soften your hands and make small adjustments until you find your best hand position. Like everything else in swimming, it will be specific to you as an individual athlete. Start relaxed, as though your hands are at your sides, and adjust until you can maximize your most effective pulling surface.


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