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by Terry Heggy

September 14, 2020

These sets build more propulsive legs

Some swimmers enjoy kicking. Some do not. But all swimmers benefit from understanding how their legs contribute and from doing specific sets to enhance that contribution.

Kicking Considerations

Kick sets need to be monitored just as much as swim sets, perhaps more. Things to watch for and correct include:

  • Junk yardage—Kick sets should accomplish a purpose other than just giving the coach time to check his cell phone or finish his coffee. A level of effort outside the desired training zone is wasted.
  • Poor form drag—Feet that extend too far outside the torso’s drag profile often slow the swimmer down by creating more resistance than if there was no kick at all. Examples include inflexible ankles that act as anchors, giant amplitude kick resulting from the erroneous idea that kicking hard means kicking big, and wandering feet caused by poor body position including raised heads or arm crossover.
  • Poor-form inefficiency—Legs may move a lot without creating propulsion, such as when the knees bend too much (bicycling) on flutter kick or dolphin kick, or when the ankles don’t get turned properly on breaststroke.
  • Findependence—Yes, I totally just made up a word. But I bet you know exactly what it means. Fins are great tools for building leg strength, enhancing ankle flexion, supporting body-position drills, and aiding in understanding what race speed feels like. But you should strongly discourage their use as a crutch to make swimming easier, to keep up with lane mates, or to disguise a kicking deficiency.

Kick Sets for Success

Include specific interval-based kick sets in your training program, including the same performance expectations you set for swim sets. (Hint: If swimmers are always happy to hear that a kick set is coming, you’re not doing them right.) Here are some suggestions.

  • Vertical kick—Vertical flutter and dolphin kick sets with hands held out of the water encourage core engagement and proper form. Tell swimmers to drive the kick from their hips (rather than knees) and to imagine their feet staying within a home-improvement store bucket to approximate the body’s drag profile. Build kick endurance with five sets of one minute of kicking with 20 or 30 seconds rest. Build maximum strength with 10 x 20-second bursts with one minute rest, trying to lift the shoulders completely out of the water.
  • Leg burst breakouts—For backstroke, freestyle, and butterfly, have swimmers push off the wall and do intense underwater dolphin kick in streamlined position trying to come as close to the 15-meter mark as possible before executing a full-sprint breakout stroke. For breaststroke, have your swimmers execute four underwater breaststroke kicks in streamlined position before taking their pulldown and breakout stroke. Remind swimmers to exhale as they perform the kicks while they work up to a safe distance underwater. Hyperventilation before pushing off and remaining underwater too long, causing excessive hypoxia, are forbidden.
  • Sprint swim with fins—Specify that even though the arms are used, these are primarily kick sets, and that the goal is to train the legs to tolerate high intensity. Mix it up throughout the season, sometimes doing 25s, sometimes 50s, and sometimes 100s. Your more masochistic swimmers may even be able to do 200s, though the effectiveness is lost if they’re unable to keep the kick cranking for the entire distance. Six repeats with rest equal to the swim time is a good number to start with.
  • Back streamline—Have swimmers kick on their backs to focus on kick form, holding both arms above their head in streamlined position. Have them occasionally sneak a peek at their knees, which shouldn’t be rising up out of the water to obscure the view of the feet. For flutter kick and dolphin kick, there should be “boiling” water at the toes. If you want focus entirely on form, have them do a straight 500. If you want some form plus effort, do 5 x 100s with 20 seconds rest.
  • Board wars—Have swimmers pair up with someone of similar ability and share a single kickboard between them as they face each other. The goal is to push your partner back to the opposite wall within one minute. Rest 40 seconds, then repeat four times. Add an element of fun by using a whistle to signal the start and end of each interval without telling the swimmers how long each will be. (Note: This shouldn’t be done during any pandemics that require social distancing.)

Note that board wars is the only one of these sets that uses a kickboard. Kicking with a board doesn’t replicate the posture used in swimming, so kicking in streamlined position is more applicable to racing form.

Bonus Legwork

Most Masters swimmers should supplement these workout sets with dryland exercise, including ankle flexibility work and core strength exercise, as well as squats, lunges, and jumping rope.

And I know I said junk yardage and kickboard sets were to be avoided, but from time to time it’s be good to include some social kick, during which swimmers can chat and gossip as they kick for 10 or 15 minutes straight. It may not do much to enhance their leg strength, but social kick sets can contribute to team bonding and swimmer enjoyment.


  • Technique and Training


  • Kicking