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by Scott Bay

March 13, 2017

We don't swim with our heads up, so why kick that way?

You’ve seen them, the kids at the pool doing a happy little social kick—with their arms stretched out over the kickboard—just chatting away as they cruise up and back along the lane in packs. You might even have a social kick at your Masters practice. But this can cause a great deal of tension in your lower back, upper back, and neck. And really, how often do you flutter kick in swimming with your head up like that? You shouldn’t ever, actually, unless you’re doing a drill or playing water polo.

In addition, kicking with your head up can cause you to develop an asymmetrical kick, where you spend most of your effort kicking down, rather than up and down, to keep your hips up. This is also true in dolphin kick.

Let Go of the Kickboard

There are many ways to ditch the kickboard and develop a more propulsive kick that will help you maximize pressure on the water in both the up and down directions. Have you ever seen someone who is a natural born kicker? They don’t possess any magical power, but what they do very well is kick from the hip in both directions. Try these suggestions to develop your kicking without a board.

  1. Kicking on your back. There are a number of ways to do this. You can flutter or dolphin kick but the key about this position is to feel the pressure on the tops and the bottoms of your feet. This requires a certain awareness, but the key is not overpowering the water. Many strong swimmers ‘push’ at the water with the tops of their feet only. You should also try to curl your toes, as if you were trying to pick a penny up off the deck, rather than pointing them. This allows you to put the foot in a position to feel the up and down motion without being rigid through the whole lower half of the body.
  2. Underwater kicking. Underwater kicking is great in the sense that if you do it right, it helps develop a great kick in both directions. The key here is alignment.  Remember, your spine must be aligned from the base of your skull to your pelvis. Your head will almost act like a rudder—if you lift it and look forward, you’ll have to work to stay submerged. If you submerge too far, your head will point the rest of your body toward the bottom of the pool. Concentrate on the kick force and moving underwater in a straight line as efficiently as possible. As always, come up for air when you need it!
  3. Fish kicking. This advanced drill involved flutter or dolphin kicking on your side. Try this with both arms down at your sides, or with one arm down and the other extended in a streamlined position. If you find yourself bouncing off a lane line or suddenly find that you’ve moved three lanes over, you need to focus on kicking back and forth like a fish. This drill helps you stay aligned and develop a propulsive. symmetrical kick.
  4. Wall kicking. Wall kicking seems pretty easy when you’re just hanging out on the wall, grabbing the gutter, kicking and chatting with friends with your head out of the water. But good, propulsive wall kicking is different. Let go of the gutter and extend your arms in a streamlined position. Kick and position yourself with your face in the water and let your propulsive force push your fingertips into the wall. Good alignment is once again the key to successfully executing this drill, along with kicking in both directions.

Gear and Variations

Ditch the kickboard, but not all your gear—these items make kicking more efficient, easier, or harder, depending upon how naturally skilled you are at kicking and what your goals are.

Snorkel. Using a snorkel makes kick sets much more efficient, as you won’t need to lift your head to breathe. You can kick on your front using a snorkel and a hand paddle, held just under the water out in front, or FINIS’s Alignment Kickboard, or even a regular kickboard, held out in front, with your face and head down. You can even use nothing, and just stretch your arms and hands into a streamline position, or keep them at your sides, while you’re kicking with your snorkel.

Fins. Fins are a great tool to use during kicking drills as long as they help. That means you’re not using them as a training wheel, so to speak. Rather, use your fins as a way of pushing the water up and down to strengthen your legs and feet. Fins will also allow you to feel the effort of the kick more. Beware of just ‘pushing’ at the water with the top of the fin. Good kickers: fins will definitely strengthen those muscles that make you an even better kicker.

Drag socks/shoes. Lots of drag shoes are currently available on the market, but I’ve had swimmers kick in old tennis shoes (much to the chagrin of the pool operator). The point of wearing drag shoes is the added resistance they provide. That forces you to really focus on kicking with your entire leg. Novice kickers find the use of resistance a steeper learning curve and good kickers find the challenge interesting and fun.

It’s amazing what kicking does for swimming in almost every stroke. The great takeaway from working on your kicking is to make sure you’re doing it in a position that best mimics your swimming position. And make sure you’re always kicking in both directions!


  • Technique and Training


  • Kicking
  • Snorkel
  • Fins
  • Kickboards