Annie's Tips For Your Kick!

This week on the blog, new Swim Smooth team member and coach Annie Oberlin-Harris gives you her tips on improving your kicking technique for beginner and intermediate swimmers. Go Annie! :

I've been coaching all levels of swimmer from beginner to advanced swimmers for many years and have seen all sorts of kicking technique along the way: bendy knees, sinky legs, feet pointing downward, half breaststroke kick (with freestyle arms!), the classic overglider-kickstart and even a full whip kick! As you probably appreciate, none of these are good!

For example the swimmer below is bending a lot from the knee as he kicks. Notice how the whole of the front of his thigh will be causing drag by pushing water the wrong way (forwards):

If you're learning to swim freestyle it's quite likely that you are kicking ineffectively and this is making things much harder than they need to be. By this I mean either bending your knees too much when you kick, kicking too hard or even dragging your legs low behind you making staying streamlined virtually impossible.

There's no magic to kickING efficiently, it is actually really easy when you know how! Studies into Ian Thorpe’s leg kick showed that even he could only generate about 10-15% propulsion from it (with super flexible size 17 feet!), the vast majority of his propulsion was from his upper body. Pool sprint swimmers may wish to develop a strong leg kick but for the majority of people doing triathlon or long distance and open water swimming, you should be looking to minimise your energy expenditure from your leg kick. You are just using it to keep your legs high to reduce drag.

Here's three of my favourite exercises to try to improve your kick:

1. Lie on your front on the floor or poolside with your forehead down, body straight with legs together. Now lift one of your legs up straight. Look behind at what that leg is really doing - are you bending at the knee? If you are then you need to learn to lift your leg up WITHOUT bending your knee, so you can actually kick from your hip. Use your lower back, glutes and hamstrings to pick that leg up about 15cm / 6 inches off the ground, keeping your knee straight and your toe pointed. Repeat a few times on each side, then have a go alternating with a faster rhythm as you would in the water.

2. In the pool, hold the wall or steps with both hands and keep your arms straight.  Put your head in the water looking at the pool floor beneath you and gently exhale.  Lift your legs up so your body is fully horizontal kicking lightly with your new straighter leg technique.  Think about trying to keep your legs within what I call 'the shadow of your body' - no deeper or wider than your torso behind you.

Turn your feet in like pigeon toes and brush your big toes together lightly as they pass. Close your eyes and tune into what you can feel - can you feel the surface of the water or bubbles with your toes? It should feel very soft as you lightly break the surface with your ankles (don't lift your whole foot clear of the water).

Kicking like this will remove the need to use lots of energy but keep your legs high up to reduce drag. If you keep your core engaged and you are kicking correctly from the hip you'll notice your body starts to roll slightly with every kick, right up to your shoulders!

3. Perform a normal torpedo push off with your hands streamlined one on top of the other, head underneath your arms and push off the wall, legs straight and together, and toes pointed.  Just at the point that your momentum slows, start to lightly flutter kick. Tap your big toes together as they pass, let your ankles stay floppy and let the kick bring your legs up high. Perform this drill without lifting your head to breathe if you can, if you lift your head you will immediately feel more downward pressure on your legs.

Whilst moving down the pool, make your kick gentler and gentler until eventually you feel a threshold and they start to sink. When you're kicking with good technique you will be amazed at how gently you can kick without sinking. This low level of kicking effort is what you should be aiming for in your full freestyle stroke - if you are kicking any harder you are burning a lot of energy and oxygen doing so which will leave you really short of breath.

Push off again but this time go into your full freestyle stroke, reproducing that gentle kicking technique you just learnt. Remember nice straight legs, floppy ankles, feet pointed inwards. Let your arms do the work instead and feel the difference.

So, get down to the pool and use these new techniques to start kicking effectively. You’ll be amazed how much easier swimming freestyle will feel - let your arms do the work!

Post on the comments of this post and let me know how you got on!

Annie! @swimsmoothannie

Also see our full article on leg kick on the Swim Smooth website here:


RikV said...

yesterday-evening an Arny of our squad performed the same drills you describe in your post and performed them perfect. However, when trying to repeat the good way of kicking with straight crawl, he failed doing so. Kicking as a sole excercice went fine but combinging the strokes seems to be too difficult ...

any suggestions ?

Jonas said...

Exactly. What rik V is referring to is the key to a good kick: coordination between arms and legs. Adam Young told me once that the kick in free style goes too fast to bother about coordination. I do not agree at all. Coordination is paramount, either if you swim fast or slow. I improved my coordination (and feel great now) thanks to "Mr Smooth" animation and Jono van Hazel's video. I recommend watching them for a well coordinated six beat kick. Kick technique in itself, as Annie explains here, is essential too but this lack of consideration to kick coordination by Swim Smooth is a big mistake.

Paul said...

Thanks for your comments everyone.

Rik V: a good little exercise with Arnies is to have them swim 50m (preferably in a 50m pool) with a pull buoy between their legs for the first 25m, solely focusing on the catch & rotation within the stroke (see last week's blog on the rotation aspect of this). At the 25m mark the swimmer can be instructed to let the pull buoy pop out and to bring in the leg kick as per Annie's advice in this week's blog, namely a light flutter kick with the big toes angled in like being "pigeon toed". This should help systematically build in the necessary coordination if practiced over say 4 to 8 x 50m. Give it a try.

Jonas: I would hardly suggest we have a "lack of consideration for kick coordination" - check out this more indepth discussion about kick timing here: starting at the thread of the same name here:

Also, you say you love Mr Smooth and he's helped you a lot...presumably then you've seen the leg to arm coordination pane on the console? As discussed from the thread above here:

Also, if you have the Mr Smooth PRO console, there is a kick timing animated frame which highlights his kick timing, showing his right hand highlighted in red as the left leg kicks down and vice versa. Mr Smooth has a 6-beat kick, but we do have a lovely lady (soon to be revealed!) who has a 2-beat kick. Suffice to say though the timing is the same, just that Mr Smooth has 2 intermediate leg kicks in between each major downbeat, taking his rhythm to a 6-beat kick. Watching Laure Manadou at is another good way of visualising this.

Jonas, the key to remember here is that many swimmers read about 2-beat and 6-beat leg kick and how it should be performed, but we always draw caution to the fact that it's a highly technical skill to be able to switch from one to the other. Not impossible of course, but hard nonetheless. You're right, getting the coordination for this (2 or 6-beat is essential) but we see far too many swimmers think that they need to adopt a 2-beat kick but whom have a very slow stroke rate and really then struggle with the coordination and inadvertently end up adding significantly more drag (the images in our forum thread above will explain this more clearly).

Our belief that a light flutter leg kick using the drills and technique ideas as mentioned by Annie in this week's Blog are a simple and easy way of improving the efficiency of the kick in places where the majority of us fall foul.



Karen Palmer Photography said...

I have a hard time understanding how to point your toes and let your feet be floppy at the same time. It seems like the physical act of pointing your toes locks my ankles in place.

Any advice? Thanks.

Paul said...

Hi Karen

The key thing here is to point your toes inward (pigeon toed) so you can feel your big toes brush lightly against each other with each kick. An elite swimmer would typically have so much flexibility that they can plantar flex their foot and attain positions very much like olympic bronze medallist Cassie Patten here:

...most of us though if we try to attain this position will either lock up (as you say) or even cramp up, so the key is to focus on pointing, turning the toes in and then backing off on the point a smidgen to allow the floppiness to come back into the ankles. Theres' a very freaky video clip of Charles halfway down showing how this should be done. Enjoy!


Annie Oberlin-Harris said...

Hi Karen,

One tip you could try which would help you achieve what I mean is while keeping your leg straight in ballet kick, keep your foot completely relaxed. If you're reasonably flexible in the feet as you move your leg forwards in the water at a certain speed the water will move your foot and point your toe for you. Essentially this is what's happening in the down beat of the kick when you're horizontal- give it go and let me know how you get on!

Jonas said...

Thanks Paul for your comments. But where is the "lovely lady (soon to be revealed!) who has a 2-beat kick" you talk about (you "cut and pasted" the paragraph beginning by "Also, if you have the Mr Smooth PRO console" from a comment posted in October 2011 !!). I am curious about that lady !

Jonas said...

Paul: Laure Manadou 2-beat kick is very nice but, in line with what you say, it is working well because of her high stroke rate. Actually I do not understand the 2-beat kick advocated by the Total Immersion (TI) school in the swimming pool (they overglide). I can understand it for sea swimming (but in the sea, at times, one can even swim without moving the legs at all). For the pool I feel much more comfortable with a 6-beat kick that I can adapt to my swimming speed. Did you notice that the tall Chinese champion in 800 and 1500 m in Barcelona combines a 2-beat kick with his left foot with a 6-beat kick with his right foot: that is, for a complete stroke he kicks once for his left pull and three times for his right pull? It is not orthodox at all, maybe he does it because his right arm catch and pull through is weaker than his left (he opens too much the fingers of his right hand). So I wonder whether a 2-beat kick is right even for a 1500 m race.


Mike A said...

Jonas, I presume you're referring to Sun Yang - if so, that's a classic 4-beat pattern. It is a trade-off between the energy-saving of 2-beat and the extra propulsion of 6-beat. Yang actually varies between 2-beat, 4-beat and 6-beat kicking (he generally saves the 6-beat for the last few hundred metres).

Rudolf said...

very nice very nice this article indeed, my led legs thank you already in advance of my hopefully up and coming kickin' improvements - yet, at this point i have ANOTHER PRESSING ISSUE of which i hope you could make an article sooner rather than later!

The flip-roll!!
I know, you have a lot of open water swimmers in your team / system, and for those this may not be as pressing or important as for us poor "polar bears" (in Speedo's of course) doing something above and beyond 320 25m pool laps every morning.

Yep, at anything above 7500m a perfect flip roll (rather than a veggie roll or worse a dead monkey roll) will save us not only time but also possible muscle pain in the central back region (below the shoulder blades for me, strangly enough, most likely due to my new and imperfect filp-roll where i seem to call out (with my arms badly sideways) "someone help me, i don't know what i am doing here" - i try to make extra sessions just swimming into the wall and flip roll off of it, but so far everyone else is doing it better than i and they all tell me they can't remember how it was when they started learning it (!) or that it will come eventually naturally to me.

Yet, i fear if i keep on with these sideways rotating arms it turns into a bad habit .. just wondering if nobody else has similar problems to get to a perfect flip-rol stage??

If there are many others, please Swim Smoothers, give us the lowdown in all details and segments on how it's done or what can be done to learn it right and for good??

Paul said...

Joan's, all will be revealed very soon - it will be worth the wait!

Philippe V. said...

Thank you very much for this post, I have been looking at tuning my kick and the advice you give will help me very much. As a bonus, it will add a bit of variety into my sessions were I focused on just the kick. There were three points I was hoping you could clarify.

First, I believe I lose some of my kick effectiveness especially when rotating to the side in my stroke. I gleaned from the post that I could practice kicking at about a 45-60 degree angle by doing exercise 2, and maybe even exercise 3. Any other suggestions for kicking well while rotated at 45-60 degrees?

Second, when you say to have you core well engaged, we will feel some body rotation in exercise 2, I presume you refer to the lower core with the licorice analogy given in the book/website. Or is the upper core with shoulder blades back also required?

Third, I am reluctant to do ankle stretching (I do some drills with fins though) as I have this notion that it may make the ankles a bit weaker for other land based sports. Am I being overly cautious? Could some ankle stretching help without really weakening my ankles, is there some guidance as to how much flexibility we should aim for while stretching?


John said...

Any benefit to doing the wall kicking or torpedo kicking with a snorkel on?

Cosmin said...

I'm also struggling to get control over my legs. I started swimming three years ago, by the age of 35. Meanwhile I'm able to swim 500m or even more, but still my legs are tensed and I have no control over them.
I think, starting swimming so late bring two aspects into play which those who started swimming as children have trouble understanding it.
One is the fear of water. Although the reasoning is telling me I have no reason to be afraid, I think the subconsciousness is still afraid and is tensing my body and my legs. Somehow I have the feeling that I have to support my lower body in my legs by tensing them.
The second aspect is the low brain control over the legs. This means that for those who started swimming as children, the nervous system has developed itself to control the legs. Those people do kicking so naturally, with no effort.
For me is so difficult to do the leg kick! I have to close my eyes and visualize my legs, check all the time what body part is still tense while kicking and relax it. As soon as I start crawling, the hands take over the brain and I don't kick at all, the legs are out of control and they start to drag me down!
My conviction is for those people like me, with a low coordination of legs, the brain has to learn to control the legs, this mean the neuronal connections have to be build and that can only be done by practicing the leg kick. It is the only exercise for me, where I can concentrate only at my legs. I'm doing now a lot of kicking, not to get propulsion from my legs by to teach my brain to coordinate my legs. And indeed, I get little by little a better feeling about where my legs are when I swim, still far from perfect...:)
This is my opinion, but if you have any other suggestions I'm happy to try them out.

Rudolf said...

An answer to John's question on using a snorkel here:

(was actually checking back if there where any tackers on the flip-roll tutorial issue, but nope, nobody cares about how we roll and flip it seems)

Back to the snorkels ...
I do about 1500m (out of about 8000m) every day with snorkel, including the very exercise SM recommends in this post, with stretched out arms.
This one i do in two varieties, with and without fins.
The fins are faster and more fun, of course, but mainly useful to get higher ankle flexibility in the long run.
Without fins you still have the benefit of complete focus on the way you kick and move forward, that alone is a benefit, at least for any beginner.
Second benefit - you don't simply run out of air, so you can pay attention on how much oxygen and energy you really need to move forward with your legs only - and how far you get with that until you are totally exhausted (and the exhaustion comes faster than if you would do no kicking but just free styling with your arms).

Not sure if real coaches would entirely agree with using a snorkel, but in long practice sessions it's the spice that makes it worth while and helps a lot to concentrate on stuff like body roll, kick and high ellbows throughout your pull and recovery rotations because you never have to worry about turning to catch your breath.

Disclaimer - this is just an add-on exercise and should not replace the real thing, i mean workouts without snorkel!

Paul said...

Hi Rudolf

Sorry, I dont think anyone was purposefully ignoring you - I personally wasn't sure what you meant with flip roll / veggie roll / dead monkey roll...were you simply asking if we could run a blog on tumble turns?

As for the snorkel suggestions, yes I agree, the snorkel can be very beneficial in some of these regards. I don't personally use one that frequently and like any aid you'd want to avoid using it all the time yourself, but it can definitely serve a purpose.



Rudolf said...

Sorry about the confusion with the roll Paul, i was not aware that different parts of the world named it differently.... (the veggie and dead monkey rolls where just my humor.. for really bad turns)

Here in Canada they all call it flip roll, so, let me consult big G - oh great, i find some video and here they call it flip turn ...
but yes, the video to it shows exactly what i mean (and still try to learn) okay, there is also a video for tumble turns
so it's all the same - and i still wonder why i can't do this without wobbling around with my arms way out on my sides ...

So, something on this issue once on a blog entry would be great ..

Cyndy@swimsmooth said...

Hi Cosmin,

Sorry to hear you've been having trouble getting your legs coordinated and for the delay in responding. I've seen this quite frequently in people who learn later on in life and I tend to agree with you, that you do need to create the neural connections in order for smooth movement patterns to take regularly effect. As with learning any skill, it takes practice practice practice!! To begin with I would use the exercises in this blog repeatedly in order to facilitate the correct technique and practice it. Obviously try not to tense the whole of your legs, just slightly clench your buttocks and imagine you have a coin in between them to help lift your legs up straight from the hip and get them close to the surface for a light flutter kick. I would recommend swimming full stroke with a pull buoy to isolate your arms rather than allow your incorrect technique to be rehearsed, since it will confuse the motor coordination that you're trying to correct, if that makes any sense!?

Regarding your fear of the water, have you tried doing our sink down exercise?

This will allow you to really relax in the water and learn to trust it a little more. Other ways to overcome it are floating on your front and back and allowing your body to go floppy, learn to push the water different directions and the affect it has on your direction, sometimes this feel of the water is what you really need to start enjoying it rather than fearing it!

I hope that helps and let us know how you get on!

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Nicky P said...

Hi, Thanks for all this great advice you're giving! Personally I tried changing to a 2-beat kick earlier this year, after several years of struggling with the co-ordination for a 6-beat. I'm now finding it MUCH easier to really engage my core and lift my legs, and I sense my stroke rate is increasing. I may not be getting faster but I'm much more comfortable and enjoy my swimming more, as it's less tiring and I can keep going longer. I'm uncertain whether to try adding the intermittent kicks back in to get a 6-beat kick, but worry I'll lose the gains I've made. Any advice appreciated...

Cyndy@swimsmooth said...

Hi Nicky,

I too find a 2 beat kick sits better within my overall stroke rhythm, a six beat just feels awkward and exhausting! Agree with you thats its easier to engage your core and maintain a higher stroke rate and hence speed over distance with the increased efficiency. Personally I will stick to my two beat and I'd advise you to do the same if it works for you- most people would be envious as you've managed to unleash the two beat! But you may wish to use the 6 beat at the swim start/finish or for overtaking, so do practice a little bit. Hope that helps!

Woody said...

Hi Annie
I really need to improve my kick action to make it a constant kick and take out the pause as I go for air.
I think I have interpreted your advice of a gentle kick to the extent that I slow it down too much so I get 4 ineffective kicks per cycle of two strokes .
Any advice on how to speed the kick up without ending up kicking so hard that it exhausts me . I swim at about 45 to 50 spm so that means I have to kick at 135/150 kicks pm but when I concentrate on kicking quicker I just end up kicking harder.

Cyndy@swimsmooth said...

Hi Woody,

Rather than focus on increasing the frequency of your kick I would get yourself a tempo trainer and increase your arm stroke rate, your leg kick should naturally increase. Try taking the ramp test to establish your ideal strokes per minute:

Hope that helps!

Woody said...

Thanks Annie I do have a tempo trainer. I will try it out. It's the gentle bit I was misunderstanding maybe . My legs seem to go too slow in relation to my arms annd when I speed up the kick they get tired .it's learning how to keep the speed going at. 3 per arm stroke and not put so much effort into the kick that it exhausts me ! I think a session with a swim smooth coach focusing on kick is the best thing .I was lucky enough to have a session with Paul last March here in the uk lots of improvement but leg co ordination alludes me. I even tried Charles waltz but I can't dance either !

jim said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Unknown said...

Really helpful article as achieving the co-ordination for a real 2 beat kick seems too technical for me in any case! With above - does the depth of the kick remain the same regardless of speed? Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Hi , I have just started learning swimming. I have been trying to learn kicking. When I start in the pool, I am able to move straight, but in between loose balance while kicking and am not able to control the direction in which I move. Most of the times move sideways instead of straight. What can be the reason for this?

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