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by Laura Thornton

November 9, 2018

Practice kicking the right way to improve your swimming

When it’s time for a kick set, many of us grab a kickboard and get kicking—that’s usually my modus operandi anyway. But is kicking with kickboards the safest way for us to get our kicks in?

“From a postural perspective, using a kickboard encourages swimmers to arch their backs and that’s unnatural,” says Scott Bay, a U.S. Masters Swimming Level 4 coach, member of USMS’s Coaches Committee, and head coach of the Central Florida Y Masters, in Orlando. Using a kickboard can lead swimmers to kick in a downward direction, he says, and that slows a swimmer down and can strain the lower back.

Practice Kicking on All Sides

Instead, Bay’s swimmers do kick sets without a kickboard, “to keep things more in line.” Bay has them kick on the right side, left side, stomach, and back—on top of and under the water—for both flutter and dolphin kicks, and on the back for the breaststroke kick.

“We do all the sides to make sure we have a symmetrical kick, which will help prevent injury by strengthening and stabilizing” the leg, hip, and core muscles, Bay says.

Michelle Smith, a Level 2 USMS coach with Eastern Shore Masters Swimming in Fairhope, Ala., and a certified USA Triathlon coach, also has her swimmers kick on their backs as a way to perfect their flutter, dolphin, and breaststroke kicks. This keeps the lower half of a swimmer’s body in alignment with the top half and allows the swimmer to breathe more easily while focusing on good kick technique.

Kicking on the back is especially helpful as a drill for the breaststroke kick, she says, as it emphasizes the importance of creating as little resistance as possible when dropping the heels and then whipping the feet together.

“You’re looking for power with minimal resistance during recovery” in the breaststroke kick, Smith says, “and this is more noticeable when you’re on your back.”

Kick from the Core and Hips

“Kicking starts in the core and moves through the hips, to the knees, and then the ankles, right down the kinetic chain,” explains Karlene Denby, a Level 2 USMS coach and coach of the Houston-area South Shore Sails Masters, whose members are mostly triathletes and fitness swimmers. “It’s a whole-body exercise. You don’t want to keep your knees stiff, but you don’t want to over-bend them, either.”

Kicking from the core—especially the hips—propels a swimmer forward, Smith says. “If you’re not accessing your power from the core,” she explains, “you’re not going to get very far, and you’re inviting potential injury by overusing smaller muscles like the calves and inner thighs.”

Denby advises maintaining a “fairly small amplitude in your kick, not having it too deep, so there’s not too much resistance” from the water.

And the toes should be pointed back behind you, not down to the bottom of the pool, says David Breitenbucher, a Level 2 USMS coach and the head coach of California Gold Masters in Tracy, Calif. Pointed down, he says, “they’re not getting you anywhere.”

Buoys and Bands

One good drill for developing a strong, smooth kick is to put a pull buoy between your thighs and maintain your kick—that’ll force you to kick from your hips and keep your kick nice and narrow, Smith says.

Breitenbucher finds pull buoys useful in practicing the breaststroke kick, too. You’ll have to squeeze your thighs together to keep it in place but that’ll help you keep your knees closer together resulting in a straighter, lower-amplitude kick.

Another option Smith gives her swimmers is to do the freestyle or dolphin kick with a resistance band around the ankles. Don’t make it so tight you can’t move—you want it to restrict the amplitude of your kick just enough that it forces you to kick from your hips, Smith says. “The more you use your hip muscle groups—psoas, glutes, even hamstrings—the more efficient your kick will be.”

Vertical flutter kicking in the deep end of the pool, Smith adds, is another great way to get a swimmer to kick from the hips. “But keep it narrow,” she advises, “or you’ll sink.”

A Good Kick Set

Bay will often mix kick sets into warm-ups. One set he uses starts with 50 yards (or meters) of kicking, followed by 25 yards, rotating through each stroke in individual medley order. Then repeat, for a total of 600 yards. Bay doesn’t always give intervals for kick sets—he wants swimmers to focus on their kick, not the clock. “I want you to do it right,” he tells them.

“It’s amazing what kicking does for swimming,” he adds. “You can transform your swimming with the kick.” Adding in kick drills and kick sets may mean reduced mileage by the end of practice, but if you’re kicking correctly, it’s worth it.


  • Technique and Training


  • Backstroke
  • Breaststroke
  • Butterfly
  • Kicking
  • Freestyle
  • Stroke Technique