Swimming Kick Speed Determines Baseline Swim Speed

I have often heard the question, what contributes more to a swimmer’s overall speed, the swimming kick or pull? Of course, the answer depends on the strength and technique of each component, but for most reasonably good swimmers, I would say that the swim kick makes a bigger contribution to overall swim speed than the pull.

How can that be, particularly if one can pull 50 meters in 35 seconds and kick it in 40 seconds? Let’s analyze the two.

First, one must realize that from both the swimming kick and the swim pulling motion, there is a contribution toward propulsion and another toward frontal drag (there is also one toward lift, but we will ignore that for the moment). Even with a very strong kick, few would dispute that the propulsion power is greater from the pulling motion than from the kick. However, when the kick is done properly (tight and fast), the pulling motion is also a much greater contributor to frontal drag, the forces that slow a swimmer down.

The two major factors that determine the amount of frontal drag that is imposed on a swimmer moving through the water are the shape of the object and the speed of the object. Our shape is certainly influenced by our pulling and kicking technique, but let’s assume that we have already figured out that kicking tighter and faster and pulling with a high elbow will reduce frontal drag as much as possible. The only factor really left then is speed and, because of the high density of water, even small increases in speed result in large increases in frontal drag for a given non-streamlined shape, like a swimmer doing freestyle.

When we add the swimming kick to the pull to create the entire swimming motion, the increase in speed (even if slightly greater than our pulling speed) is enough to add significantly to the frontal drag imposed by our pulling motion (mostly from the upper arm). The net effect is that for a reasonably good kicker, the net speed of the swim kick is actually greater than the net speed of the pull, when both are used together.

Let’s look at an example.

I am currently training a swimmer from Ireland, Andy Hunter, who is trying to qualify for the Commonwealth Games in 2014. A few weeks ago, he swam in a 50 meter sprint at Ft. Lauderdale in the same heat as Cesar Cielo.  Both were unshaved, but neither swimmer has a lot of body hair. Cesar swam 22.0 and Andy swam 25.7 and finished over 8 meters behind him.

When he got out of the pool, Andy, who is over 30 years old and very strong upper body, asked me, “How can he beat me by 8 meters in a 50 meter race?” Here is how I explained it.

Andy kicks a 50 meters with a board all out in 45 seconds (baseline speed of 1.1 m/sec), while Cesar kicks 50 meters in 30 seconds (baseline speed of 1.66 m/sec). Assuming that in the 50 both swimmers are kicking at maximum speed, when you add the net speed from propulsion and frontal drag of the pull to Cesar’s kick speed, it adds .64 m/sec to reach 2.3 m/sec. For Andy, because his baseline speed is slower, the pull actually contributes more net speed to his overall speed than Cesar, adding .83 m/sec to reach 1.9 m/sec. Even so, his overall speed is about .4 m/sec slower than Cesar’s, all because of the difference in kicking speed. By the time Cesar finishes his 22 seconds of swimming, gaining .4 meters every second, he is now 8.8 meters ahead of Andy. The difference in swimming kick speed is what separated them.

It is no surprise that Andy has been working very hard on his swim kick using kick sets, stretching and dryland/strength sets. As of last month, he had gotten his 50 kick time with a board down to 38 seconds or 1.3 m/sec and not surprisingly, he swam a shaved 50 meter in 23.3 seconds…a huge improvement.

Most coaches and swimmers do not understand nor appreciate how important the swimming kick speed is to the overall swim speed. Nor do they work the legs enough in practice. The legs really don’t get a recovery period during the race and they are moving at 3 times (or arguably 6 times, if one considers the upkick) the rate of the arms. The legs are essentially working constantly, kicking in both directions. The arms get a few important tenths of a second of recovery on each cycle. Relative to the arms, the legs must be much fitter in order to sustain their fast motion throughout the race.

When swimmers or parents ask me what it is that makes Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, Missy Franklin or Cesar Cielo so fast, the answer is in their swimming kick. Work your legs in practice and get yourself a faster swim kick and a faster swim.

-Gary Hall Sr.

Related Videos:

Secret Tip Legs: Propulsion

Secret Tip Legs: Lift

Secret Tip Legs: Stabilizing Force

Secret Tip Legs: Inertia

Fast Swimming Techniques: Butterfly Kick

60 Responses to Swimming Kick Speed Determines Baseline Swim Speed

  1. Stanley Shechter

    Hi Gary,

    A very perceptive and interesting article on the contribution of kick speed to overall speed. I’m beginning to believe strongly that the way to improve my backstroke speed would be to work heavily on my kick, which, if stronger, would lift me higher in the water and reduce drag. Anyway, thanks for the article. I’ve saved it and will read it through again.



    • Gary Hall Sr.

      I agree with you, Stanley. I have always preached that the three most important things in backstroke are: 1) stroke rate 2) stroke rate and 3) stroke rate…but kick is next on the list. The two are not unrelated. A higher pulling stroke rate also requires a higher kicking stroke rate. The uniqueness of the backstroke kick is that the down kick, using lower back, hamstring and gastrocnemius muscles, is key to provide more lift. That is the less strong of our kicking motions so must be worked on to develop a good backstroke.

  2. mish

    awesome article……. but there is one thing i would like to ask…. i am not too bad a kicker. i kicked 50 meters(short course,without a flip turn) with a board in 34.9 or something but my 50 freestyle was still a crappy 25 something……. whats wrong with me then ? is it that i haven’t put on enough practice to combine my kick and pull or is it that my board kicking speed doesn’t have any transfer to my kick at all ?

  3. Gary Hall Sr.

    34.9 is a decent SC Meters kick time…but not great. It should still enable you to swim faster than 25 something. The next thing I would look at is your pull stroke rate followed by your body (shoulder) rotation, followed by your underwater pull, followed by your head position. Any or all of them could be contributing to a less than stellar 50 time.

  4. MARIO

    Greetings! I discovered terrific information ! Continue the good work!

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  6. Kyle

    Very interesting article. I obviously need to work on my kick. I have one question though, what were Andy and Caesars 50m pull times?

    • Gary Hall Sr.

      I do not know what their pull times would be. I would be guessing. Cesar would still be faster than Andy…but the difference would be much smaller than their kick times and likely less than their swim times.

  7. Wilson Carlos da Silva

    Hi! I’m a triathlete age grouper seeking for better times at swimming pool competitions…

    My best time in 1500m freestyle is terrible: 0:24:25 (doing all flip turns), 400m (0:05:58) and 0:12:22 (using pullbuoy) for 800m….

    According to my Garmin Forerunner 910 XT (swim metrics), I use 20 strokes lenght (25m lenght pool).. I can perform better only when I use pullbuoy, unfortunately, this is ilegal!

    My question is….should I spend more time in developing a stronger propulsion from my legs??? I can do best in open water swimming! but I wish I was faster in swimming pool as well! my goals are: 0:05:00 for 400m, 0:10:30 for 800 m and 0:21:30 for 1500m freestyle…should I keep trying or Should I born again???

  8. Gary Hall Sr.

    It is a great question and not easy to answer. For most triathletes, there are far more gains to be made by developing a better kick. However, it is a long-term project that requires working on plantar flexibility of the ankle, leg power and leg fitness. Stretching, dryland strength training and LOTS of kicking in the water are all required Without working more on kick, one must increase stroke rate, improve pulling motion, and improve body position and rotation. Hope this helps.

  9. George Bleasdell

    I have been working relentlessly on strengthening my legs to try to improve my kick, but nothing seems to be getting better. I still kick the same speed I always have, which is pretty much terrible, about 50 seconds a 50 in a 25 yard pool. Could this be because my technique is incorrect? Also, I’m not very flexible in my legs and ankles. Would working on getting more flexible improve my kick?

  10. Sam

    First off I want to say this article was extrenely eye opening. Only now I realize how much time I can drop by improving my horrible kick.
    I still have a few questions;
    Are the times mentioned in this article LCM or SCM?
    How good of an arm pull do I have if I can pull 50 SCM (with flip turn) in 31s with a buoy?

    • Gary hall sr

      It takes 3 skills to kick fast. Proper technique with a lot of plantar flexibility of the ankle, great strength in the lower bask , quads, hamstrings and calf muscles, and tremendously fitness to be able to sustain the necessary motions. Sounds like you need flexibility at a miniimum

  11. Luis

    Great article. But the most important thing is to improve the flexibility of the ankle?
    What kind of drills are better for someone who need to improve their time in freestyle?
    Should be with a kickboard? Training other swim styles?
    Very fast or try to start with less velocity to understand the movement of plantar flexibility of the ankle.
    Thanks one more time for your knowledge!!

  12. Gary Hall Sr.

    One must start with plantar flexibilty of the ankle, then develop strong Quad and Hip flexor muscles, then be fit enough to sustain a relentless up kick and down kick. That takes stretching drills (available on our dryland website series), lots of kicking and some strength training.

  13. jason


    Does the same math work for Breast?

  14. Kent

    How about Laure Manaudou from France with two beats kick to have world record in Olympics 2004? Was that because of long distance swimming (400 meters)?

  15. Gary Hall Sr.

    The kick provides 70-90% of the propulsion in breaststroke, depending on the technique. Laure Manadou, like Brooke Bennett, Shirley Babashoff and others had success with a two beat kick because of a high and efficient pulling stroke rate (near 100/min). That is the only way a 2 beat kick will work very well. Their baseline kick speed was near zero…but the pulling is what worked for them.

    • Kent

      Thanks for your reply. Means, even for sprinting, as long as we have really high and efficient pulling stroke rate, we still can swim very fast with two beat kick?

      Anyway, thanks again.

  16. Gary Hall Sr.

    No one will ever win a significant sprint race (elite swimmers) using a two beat kick. However, there are still some world class distance swimmers that use a two beat kick….though not as common as once used.

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  18. Gareth

    Very interesting article. As a competitive swimmer I am aware of how important it is to incorporate kick into swim sets.
    I would say my kick is average and the majority of my power and speed comes from my upper body and pull.
    I have a two beat leg kick when racing. When I try to kick at a faster rate I don’t swim faster and sometimes it feels a little uncoordinated. How can I increase my kick rate when racing without it feeling uncoordinated?

  19. Gary Hall Sr.

    If your kick is poor, it is acceptable to use a 2 beat kick for distance races (over 400 meters). For anything less, you should try to develop a six-beat kick, as all elite swimmers use for these distances. Try doing fifties by 25 kick (hard) transitioning into a swim, concentrating on keeping the kick steady. Building a kick is a long term project, requiring plantar flexibility, leg strength and fitness. It can be done, but requires commitment.

  20. Pierre

    Building on Gareth’s comment, for an open water swimmer (and for distances from 400m to 6k), and granted that you would be willing to invest the time and effort, would you still recommend to build a strong kick? I am not a triathlete so I don’t need to save my legs, I simply do open water swimming. I have a light flutter kick, but would it still make a big difference on longer distance to be able to kick harder? Any kicking routine you would recommend to build that kick in the pool (I am not exactly Cesar Cielo…), I swim 3 to 4 times a week around 3k per session). Last question (I know I am asking a lot here!). For a very average swimmer like me, when you say building a kick is a long term investment, are we rather talking in weeks, months or years? Thanks in advance for you help!

    • Gary Hall Sr.

      A stronger kick helps at any distance. No one can sustain a very hard 6 beat kick for more than 400 meters. Longer than that and the kick gets softer (less propulsive) with emphasis on the down kick when the opposite hand enters the water. Or one uses a 2 beat kick where with plantar flexibility one can gain some propulsion on the down kick. There are some anomalies, such as Sun Yang, who uses 3 hard kicks, followed by 3 minimal kicks…or a few who alternate between 6 beat and 2 beat kicks. Gains from working the kick on all fronts (flexibility, strength and fitness) can be seen within weeks. Big gains take months or years.

  21. Adam


    If my LCM 50 Freestyle is 24.17 and my kick for the same distance LCM is at best 49 seconds, would you say that this is the main factor slowing me down in my swimming? I struggle quite a bit with flexibility…

    • Gary Hall Sr.

      Yes. Yes. Yes. Work on plantar flexibility, leg strength particularly in the hip flexors, and do lots of kicking in practice. I trained a swimmer from Ireland who kicked about the same time as you do. He dropped his 50 kick time from 50 seconds to 38 seconds and his 50 free improved from 24.6 to 23.2. Kicking speed is your baseline speed. You cannot afford to give up that much on your competitors and expect to win.

  22. Jacob

    What are some specific stretches to improve flexibility, particularly in the ankle. I also can’t seem to get very good endurance in kicking. These are my times from a PUSH.
    Kick Swim
    25 Y Free 17.9 12.4
    50 Y Free 41.6 27.7
    100Y Free 1:34.2 57.7
    200Y Free 3:21.9 2:06.4


    • Gary Hall Sr.

      Your kick times are consistent with your swim times. Try doing freestyle squats on the tops of your feet for 3 mins each day, lifting the knees off the ground. Also, you will need to kick at least 30% of each workout…and hard in order to get the legs fit.

  23. Danny

    Are the kick times in this article from a LCM or SCM pool? Also, what are some good kicking sets that I can do to improve my kicking?

    • Gary Hall Sr.

      LCM. Try vertical kicking flutter or dolphin with hands held above your head, with or without fins. 5 sets of :45 second kicks and :15 secs rest. It is a tough set but will help you kick faster.

  24. David

    Is this applicable to fly as well? About how much of the fly stroke comes from the legs?

  25. garyhallsr

    That is a great question. The percentage of the total propulsion coming from the dolphin kick in fly, of course, depends on the strength of the kick. I would guess that in elite flyers, the kick is providing more than 60% of the propulsion.
    The reason that I don’t look at fly kick speed as a baseline speed (though one could) is that with only two down kicks (which provide about 80% of the kick propulsion) the body speed derived from the kick is quite variable, whereas in flutter kick it is more stable.
    In all four strokes, the kick is very important, but in the fly and breaststroke, it is the MOST important.

    • David

      I see, so in the other strokes there is even more to be gained from improving the kick… That is great info to know!

  26. Janet Beemer

    I had an injured HS girl last season who kicked 80% of our workouts. She could make most of the swim intervals the rest of the team was doing. By the end of her high school season she swam a 23.9 50 free. 6th in d1 Michigan State. I am a firm believer in kicking! My question is how to get someone to stop crossover kicking! Any ideas?

    • garyhallsr

      I have found the best way to eliminate a cross over or scissors kick is by using fins. Swimmers will go right to a 6 beat kick with the fins on…then wean them off of them using the same kicking motion.

  27. Tyler

    Is it worthwhile developing the kick with kick sets, technique, etc if one intends on racing with a 2 beat kick?

    • garyhallsr

      Few swimmers today use a 2 beat kick, but those that do have very high stroke rates…95 or above on endurance events. The 2 beat will not work in much less than a 400 swim. A two beat kick still provides lift and some propulsion…so it is still worth working on the kick. But concentrate on high stroke rate, if you insist on using it.

  28. Thomas

    It seems my daughter has the reverse issue, when doing kickboard sets of any length she far out paces her teammates..but take away the kickboard add her pulls, and voila…her speed decreases rapidly and her kick that was once awesome disappears. Any suggestions on how to sync her arms and kickboard kicks?


    • garyhallsr

      The important point is when you have a strength, you must use it. When swimmers have the kicking capability, then they need to learn to use it while swimming….and be fit enough to use it. I like the drill of kicking 25 fast with arms extended in front, followed by 25 swim, maintaining the same kick intensity. That will get her to focus on kicking hard while swimming.

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  30. John Stockton

    Hello Gary,

    Thanks for sharing this information. It’s a great article.

    Your post reminds me of a presentation by Joanne Malar a couple of years ago. The key factor in her dropping her times to set world records was the incredible amount work she had to do on her kicking.


    • Gary Hall Sr.

      I remember Joanne very well. An incredible IM’er and a beautiful woman…hope she is doing well. Faster kick generally means faster swim…in almost every case.

  31. Gary Hall Sr.

    I remember Joanne very well. An incredible IM’er and a beautiful woman…hope she is doing well. Faster kick generally means faster swim…in almost every case.

  32. Andrew De

    Hello, Gary, I was just wondering if you had any page where we can see if you are credible or had any information behind your studies etc. The motive behind this is because I need to cite the websites I use for a research paper and I would like to use this one as one of them and to do that I have to make sure my source is credible.

    • garyhallsr

      You can find a short bio of me on our website, but if you want a complete CV, I can email that to you. Send us your request at info@theraceclub.com.
      Much of what I have learned about the physics of drag and propulsion comes from my undergraduate physics studies and data collected from the velocity meter from many swimmers.

  33. Daniel lotano

    You mention 30% of each workout be devoted to legs but as an alternative could you do 2-3 days/week exclusively kicking and still get good results?ip if so, what % of normal practice yardage should I strive to complete?

    • garyhallsr

      I think doing two complete kicking workouts per week out of at least 5 or 6 is a good idea, coupled with some swim recovery between hard kick sets.
      I would also recommend doing stretching of ankles and dryland strength training to get even better results.

  34. Connor

    Obviously improving your kick will improve in any format, but would you say that a similar improvement can be seen in SCY or does the turn affect things to much?

    • garyhallsr

      The biggest differentiating quality among swimmers on the turns is the underwater kicking part. A good kicker will do better against his/her competition with more, not less turns.

  35. George H.

    1. Phelps and his coach promote special fins for kick training – how important is this? or can one train just as well without them.. And 2nd question: Sun Yang in 1,500m/London-2012 barely uses any kick, vs 400m- kick is still used – so- from 50m sprint to 100 to 200 etc- can we quantify the declining ‘impact’ of the kick in some way? Thanks.

    • garyhallsr

      We believe it is important to train with and without fins. As we near competition, we take the fins off for most all of training. Of all the fins we have tried, we like the DMC fins the best…you can find them in our store.
      Sun Yang actually uses a strong surge kick (down kick) twice on each stroke cycle during the majority of the 1500 and then would convert into a massive 6 beat kick for the final 100…most of it in the final 50 meters.
      No one can sustain a hard 6 beat kick for over 400 meters, so the options are to use a 2 beat or a soft 6 beat kick for longer than 400 meters. The fitter the legs, the higher the baseline speed is from the kick.

    • garyhallsr

      Also, the longer the event, the lower is the relative contribution of propulsion from the kick. It would go from around 60% in the 50 m sprint (I estimate) to a range of 5-20% in the 1500, depending on the technique and strength of the kick.

  36. filipe

    hi gary

    in one hand, its very hard for me to believe this kicking theory

    in other hand, this weekend i finaly improved absurdely from 25.30 to 24.58 (50 meters free) and im still trying to figure out the reason. It was my first time wearing a tech swimsuit, which made me feel kicking better. is this the reason why?

    my kick was (and still is) shameful

    if your theory is right, what explains the fact that absolutely no one gives the kicking the importance it really has?

    thanks and dont take me wrong for doubting you hahah

    • Gary Hall Sr

      I would say that more and more
      Coaches are emphasizing the kick today in training. It is not the only factor in your sprint time, however. Wearing the tech suit undoubtedly reduced frontal drag and your stroke rate or coupling energy could have improved.

  37. Justin

    Hi Gary,
    I have an adequate pull time of 30s in LCM, but my kick is extremely lacking as I barely get 45s all-out. My coach says to work on my ankle flexibility – do you have any good exercises I could perform to improve them?

    Also, on a side note, the amount of distance I cover on the pull seems to decrease dramatically when I sprint a 50 or 100, but returns to normal when I do distance swims. Why is this?

    • Gary Hall Sr.

      Yes, sit on the tops of your feet with your knees in the air for 2 minutes every day. if you cannot do that without help then support yourself with hands on the ground behind you. Otherwise, hands in the lap.
      It is not unusual to get more distance per stroke with a slower stroke rate. That is due to increased coupling energy of the body rotation and/or holding the streamlined position with one hand in front longer.
      Velocity is most important and that is stroke rate x distance per stroke…so they both count equally. No one can win a 50 using a hip driven or hybrid freestyle..you need high stroke rate for ultimate speed.

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  39. Cameron

    I have a small question unrelated to this article… I have a problem where if I sprint and go all-out in a 50, I use up all my energy and am unable to produce any sort of speed.

    To put this into context, an example would be a final set of 4×50 at race pace.

    I am able to get a good time in my first 50, but my times increase significantly in the 2nd one. The other swimmers on my team are able to finish all 4 with the same speed… I am very frustrated by this. Is it a lack of endurance? I don’t think this is the case as I am able to last much longer than them when doing medium pace sets…

    Also, my arms and legs feel very much like jello – I am unable to move them at all after a sprint.

    It would be great if you could answer this question!

    • Gary Hall Sr

      My guess is that you are equipped with a higher percentage of slow twitch fibers. When you do your endurance sets you are relying mostly on those and so you do just fine using mostly aerobic energy. When you sprint you recruit your fast twitch fibers and your anaerobic energy system which produces lots of lactate. What you describe are the ill fated effects of lactate production. To counter that you need to train more sprinting, but I hat may not be your calling. Hope this helps.


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