Power Your Swim Kick: Flex Appeal

This article was published for Triathlete Magazine written by Gary Hall Sr.  See article in Triathlete Magazine.

Increase ankle flexibility for a stronger back half of your swim stroke.

For any swimmer, the kick is typically the most undertrained, under-appreciated and underdeveloped swim skill. Since most triathletes kick slowly, it also offers the greatest opportunity to increase swimming speed. The pace of your kick determines your baseline swimming speed and separates the truly fast swimmers from all of the rest. However, improving your kick is not an overnight fix. It requires a months-long program including stretching, strength training the legs and core and lots of pool training.

The question is, “is getting a faster kick worth the investment?” If you want to make a significant breakthrough in your swim time, it is. The kick not only helps to propel your stroke, it also serves three other important functions: It provides lift to help reduce frontal drag, it creates a part of the counter-force (along with body rotation) that you can pull against to improve your distance per stroke and it helps sustain a more constant speed instead of slowing and re-accelerating with each pull.

How To Speed Up Your Kick

Ankle flexibility is a huge issue in developing kicking propulsion. Increased ankle flexibility serves the same function as the flick of a fish’s tail to provide propulsion, and without it, even the strongest legs won’t kick fast. The extra plantar flexion of the ankle is relatively easy to get with the right dry-land exercises and stretching (see right).

Also, consider the level of leg fitness you will need. Unlike the arms that have recovery time during each pull cycle, the legs never get a rest. The feet are moving continuously, and in both directions until you finish your swim. (No wonder the legs are always the first body part to get tired in a race!) To help condition legs to perform that kind of relentless activity, look for kick-specific strength exercises in our next issue.

You need the right kinds of kick sets in order to improve your swim, beyond just meandering down the lane on a kick board. The third installment of this series will give you the best kick sets to build power and speed.

Freestyle Squat

Ankle Flexibility Exercise: ƒFreestyle Squat

Sit with your knees bent, legs under your body, with your feet pigeon-toed underneath. Try to lift your knees off the ground, balancing yourself so that all of your weight is on the tops of your feet. (If you are physically unable to do this, lean backward slightly and support yourself with your arms behind you as shown.) Stay in this position for 30 seconds. Build to one minute, then eventually you should be comfortable in this position for minutes at a time with no pain.

freestyle squat pushupsAnkle Flexibility Exercise: ƒFreestyle Squat Pushups

Start with your feet under your body like above and lift knees off the ground, pushing upward with legs and straight back to a stand. Stay on the tops of your feet until you absolutely have to flip them over. In the beginning, assist yourself with your hands pushing off the ground. Within days or weeks you should be able to push yourself up to a stand with no assistance. The higher you can go before you flip your feet over, the better.

Ankle Flexibility Exercise: ƒFreestyle Kicks

Do flutter kicks for one minute, three different ways, with 15 seconds’ rest in between:

Straight-leg kicks on shoulders: Lie on your back and lift your legs straight into the air while staying on your shoulders. Support your back with your hands if needed. In a nearly vertical position, make fast, tight flutter kicks from the hip.freestyle kicks

Straight-leg kicks on elbows: Lying on your back, lift your upper body off the ground about 25 degrees, supporting yourself on your elbows. Kick with straight legs for one minute.

Flick kicks: In the same position, bend the knees slightly and flick the ankles as loosely as they can be as fast as possible. Try to hold this speed for one minute (which will take some practice). ƒ

warrior poseAnkle Flexibility Exercise: Freestyle Warrior Pose

Modify this traditional yoga pose by positioning the back leg on the top of the foot rather than the bottom, holding the arms in a tight streamline behind the head and stretching the upper body over the front leg as far as possible, staying horizontal to the ground. Hold for 30 seconds and switch legs. It takes balance, quad strength and core strength to hold this pose.



All of these ankle flexibility exercises to power the swim kick are things we do here at The Race Club. -Gary Hall Sr.

19 Responses to Power Your Swim Kick: Flex Appeal

  1. Michael

    When kicking, are the ankles supposed to be loose or fully pointed?

  2. gary hall sr

    Loose. The power from the kick in freestyle comes from the flick of the foot at the beginning of the down kick. This is the only time in the foot cycle that the foot is actually moving backward (relative to the water), creating propulsion. The more plantar flexibility in the ankle and the faster the flick of the foot, the more power that is generated from the kick. It takes years to develop this motion and create a really strong kick….but it can be done at any age.

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  5. Mason mickle

    Can you send these to my email an not just FB?

  6. Mike

    Thanks for your great insight Gary. Question: Since there is no propulsion gained from the up-kick, should there be a difference in energy expended between the up and down kick?

    • Gary Hall Sr.

      While the up kick provides no direct propulsion, by exerting more effort on the up kick, the vortex or wake behind the foot becomes greater, leading to a more powerful following down kick. It also increases the cycle rate of the kick…leading to more speed.

  7. Hayley

    Could you please provide me with the link to the other two issues so I could read up about the dry land exercises and the good kick sets to try in the pool please.

  8. David

    Hey Gary, I think my ankle flexibility is already pretty good since I can do the ankle squat push up without the help of my hands, and i cant point my feet to make an angle slightly higher than 180 with my legs.
    I noticed, however, that most fast kickers on my team have forward-facing or slightly pigeon toed feet whereas mine face outwards when standing comfortably. Is this hindering my kicking ability? And is there anything I can do to fix that?

  9. Greg T

    Late to the party, but let me ask anyway:. I have a duck foot stance. My feet point outward with an oblique rotation when I stand. My feet make a 45° angle and are not parallel. Do I need to pronate them inward when I kick? I may have noticed a 1sec/50m improvement when I do, but I’m not quite sure.

    • Gary Hall Sr

      To maximize the foot surface area in the down kick requires extreme simultaneous plantar flexion and supination of the ankle resulting in the pigeon toed position. Breaststroke kick requires dorsiflexion and pronation (simultaneously) as well as external rotation of the hip. If you walk or stand with your feet pointing outward it likely indicates you have more external rotation in the hip.

  10. Guy

    Hi, I was born with bilateral talipes, also known as club feet (shortened Achilles’ tendon) so have reduced plantar and dorsiflexion naturally. My kick is very slow, think I’ve only ever managed to go under 50 seconds for a 50 kick LCM once or twice. Do you have any advice for kicking when plantar flexion isn’t great and can’t be changed. If you could email me that’d be great.

    • Peter

      I have very stiff ankles from decades of soccer, running, and skateboarding. Also small fee and short toes. Alas this is the final frontier for me regarding improvement of my stroke and it is extremely frustrating. I perform ankle exercises constantly and there are micro improvements but suffice to say that others with much poorer technique are able to keep up with me because of the flexibility in the ankles.

      Equally important to the propulsion provided by the kick (during kicking drills others are literally going twice as fast; that has to translate into the stroke) is the fact that these little initial flutters of the foot additionally keep the legs raised behind the body in the ideal position further reducing drag making the stroke even faster.

      In my case, my foot is a literal anchor and flexing it to the point where it’s out of the way creates too much tension in the calf and prohibits overall leg flutter. Not only am I not seeing the benefits of improved body position or propulsion I’m actually fighting drag and getting zero propulsion.

      Solution? Depends. If you are trying to get faster in shorter sprint type distances (800m or less) I personally have not found anything that would allow one to be competitive. It’s just a limitation.

      For longer distances the best you can do is actually to eliminate the kick altogether. Just forget about it. But not in the sense of just letting your legs dangle, you have to very slightly point your toes as far as you can while still feeling relaxed and switching to a hip driven 2 beat kick that will promote lower body rotation to reduce drag, improve body position slightly, and dictate a nice stroke rhythm. Watch the Shelly Taylor Smith’s 2 beat kick here (mind you she has extremely flexible ankles but she’s barely using them for propulsion and more for lift, rotation, rhythm):

      starting at around 2:50 but watch the whole thing afterwards:


      • garyhallsr

        In the freestyle events, the relative propulsion contribution from the kick vs pull depends on the event and the technique. In shorter events, 50 and 100 for example, the kick is extremely important. Yet in longer events, 800 and up, the kick varies from soft 6 beat kickers to 2 beat, or in the case of Olympic champion, Gregorio Paltrinieri, almost no kick at all in the 1500. Yet he has a fast (95 stroke per minute) hybrid technique with low drag. Katie Ledecky will use a steady soft 6 beat kick on the 800 and turn it up at the end.
        You are right in that if you cannot develop much propulsion from the feet, you may be much better off focusing on other ways of getting faster, such as stroke rate and body rotation. A stronger kick will always make a swimmer faster…but at what price?

  11. haren

    Does a person’s ankle flexibility reduce if he stops stretching?

    • garyhallsr

      In my experience, once you have developed plantar flexibility, it doesn’t go away. The kicking motion itself will help to maintain that flexibility, also. Leg fitness to sustain a strong kick requires consistent and arduous training.

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  13. Jack

    Hey Gary,
    I’ve been reading your articles on ankle flexibility and kicking and they are very helpful. I’ve noticed a great change in how far I’m able to stretch my ankles over the past few months (2-3x a day, pushing it really hard, for at least 30 seconds up to 2 minutes per “rep”) and its limit, but soon after stretching it goes back to its normal, inflexible state and I would have to re-stretch/warm back up to it. What can I do to make it a more permanent stretch? Thanks in advance

    • Gary Hall Sr.

      Hi Jack,

      Keep stretching and over time the flexibility will remain. Plantar flexibility is important for the down kick, the strongest motion, where degrees make a huge difference. It also takes leg strength and fitness to be a strong kicker.


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