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Can't Coach It II- Dolphin Kicking Part II

The premise of the ‘Can’t Coach It’ series is that there are some skills that aren’t going to be impacted by words. You can’t really describe what to do. You have to make sure that swimmers have the physical tools to execute the skills, and then they need to be place in learning environments where they can figure it out for themselves.

Dolphin kicking is one of those skills.

In part I, we examined the fundamental skills that comprise great dolphin kicking.

1. Maintain a Stable Platform

2. Create as Much Propulsion as Possible

3. Maintain Equal Propulsion and Tempo in Both Directions

4. Maintain a Posture that Reduces Drag

5. Appreciate Trade-Offs

If swimmers can execute these skills, their dolphin kicking will be fast. We also addressed how certain physical abilities make dolphin kicking more effectively. These attributes can and should be developed on land in conjunction with working on dolphin kicking in the pool.

1. Ankle Flexibility

2. Spinal Mobility

3. Torso Stability and Control

4. Knee Flexibility

For the details, check out part I.

With an understanding of what needs to get done, as well as what is physically required to do so, let’s take a look at what we can do in the pool to enhance speed underwater.

Getting Faster

When training in the pool, we need to target all of the skills that comprise dolphin kicking, perform that across a range of intensities, and then transfer those skills into regular swim training. If we’re going to optimally improve dolphin kicking, we need to work on the specific skills.

However, these skills are best learned within the context of the full dolphin kick. We want to overload certain components without isolating them. As much as possible, full dolphin kicking should be used. We want to work on specific subskills without breaking dolphin kicking down so ONLY those skills are being performed.

ALL of these activities can be performed in various contexts. They can be performed as sprints, they can be formed as ‘race pace’ activities, or they can be performed aerobically. They can be performed as standalone sets, they can be performed in combination with other dolphin kicking activities, they can be incorporated in kick sets, or they can be incorporated within swimming sets of any type.

How you choose to use them is secondary to whether they adequately serve the purpose you intend. Just do it!

All of these activities serve the purpose of exaggerating a sensation required for fast dolphin kicking so that swimmers can become aware of what that skill FEELS like. As such swimmers should be focused on tuning into what they’re feeling, as well as executing the targeting skill as well as possible.

These activities are particularly useful when resisted, as the resistance exaggerates the feedback AND develops the strength required to execute these skills at high velocity. It’s win-win.

Create a Base of Stability

In many cases, swimmers struggle to learn new skills because they don’t know what effective movement FEELS like. Effective learning environments make it easier to experience those sensations. The following exercises help swimmers feel a sense of stability, while still performing the full dolphin kicking action.

Vertical kicking w/ arms across the chest. This drill is one most are familiar drill with. However, the intention is different here. In this case, the head doesn’t move AT ALL. The goal of the swimmer is to make it look like they are just floating in the water with the head stable, leaving no clues as to what is happening under the surface.

By doing so, swimmers are learning what it FEELS like to create a base stability. If the head is still, stability has been created.

Vertical kicking in streamline while holding a pool buoy. This build upon the previous drill by extending the line of stability through the hands and into a streamline. In this case, the object is to keep the buoy absolutely still. The observer should see minimal movement from the buoy. When done, stability has been created.

Underwater kicking while holding a pool buoy. Have executed the skill of stabilizing the buoy vertically, it’s time to do it underwater. Whatever sensations the swimmer feels in the vertical drill, they attempt to carry underwater. Don’t let the buoy move!

Underwater kicking while holding a light weight. Swimmers can hold a light dumbbell, a weight belt, a brick, or anything you can think of. It’s the same drill as before except with added weight. This added weight is more difficult to control and it provides more feedback when it moves. Swimmers develop strength to hold position, while simultaneously becoming more aware of what they are feeling.

Kick Through the Center

Swimmers need to feel how to kick through the center. Here’s how.

Flipper. This is my favorite way to help swimmers learn to kick through the center line as swimmers can SEE if they’re being effective. Swimmers push off on their back at the surface with their hands by their side. They then sit up a bit and look at their feet. They dolphin kick FAST, trying to create a lot of bubbles at the surface.

The goal is to create A LOT of bubbles and sustain that level of turbulence. The only way to accomplish this is by kicking through the surface (and thus kicking through the centerline) and by kicking with a high tempo. If swimmers don’t get it, simply tell them to make more bubbles. They almost always get it.

This works really well with resistance. Flipper can also be performed with the hands held vertical above the body. This adds a different type of resistance and stress the torso more.

Fish kick. Fish kick can work well for kicking through the center line as swimmers must make really large kicks and those kicks necessarily end up well in front of the body. However, there is a different rhythm to fish kick than normal dolphin kick, and there is definitely excessive undulation. This needs to be appreciated if fish kick is going to be used in higher volumes. It’s a solid option for lower intensity work, although less effective than flipper from an overall perspective.

Bidirectional Kicking

Great dolphin kicking requires kicking well in both directions, both by creating pressure and by maintaining foot speed. Due to the skeletal anatomy of the body, dolphin kicking will never by symmetrical. However, by trying to be symmetrical, we can overcome our tendencies to some extent, resulting in faster kicking.

Vertical kicking. Vertical kicking is an easy way to help swimmers feel both directions of their kick. Because swimmers are vertical, the water presents equal resistance in both directions. Further, because the feet are deeper than they normally are, the water creates MORE resistance than is normally felt while dolphin kicking. The change in orientation also facilitates change as swimmers have very preconceived notions of what the movement should feel like when vertical.

The objective is simple. Make the kick feel the same in both directions. Swimmers should try to create the same amount of pressure when moving forward and backward. They should try to maintain the same foot speed while moving forward and backward. The better swimmers can do this, the more they’ll be able to transfer that equality to regular dolphin kicking.

Vertical kicking can be performed with the hands in any position, with or without fins, and with or without added resistance.

Side kicking. Have swimmers perform underwater dolphin kicks on their side. Do it fast, do it slow, do it with resistance. This is not fish kick. This is simply dolphin kicking on the side. The range of motion and timing should be the same as if they were on their stomach or back.

As with vertical kicking swimmers are trying to feel equal pressure, foot speed, and body velocity in both directions. By performing in a novel context, as well as with equal water resistance in both directions, swimmers can improve their ability to kick forward and backwards effectively, and relatively symmetrically.

Opposite kicking. It can be helpful to constantly rotate between kicking on the back and kicking on the stomach. The feeling is different and the contrast can help swimmers make their kicks more symmetrical. Some feel it more on their stomach and others feel it more on their back. This is not always dependent on whether they are a butterflyer or a backstroker.

Create Pressure with the Feet

As with all propulsive actions, swimmers must learn how to ‘hold water’ with their limbs, and they must develop the strength to move this water quickly.

Use resistance. Any type of resistance, whether drag sox, chutes, cords, power towers, wall kick, vertical kick, or anything else you can think of. Use it. Using resistance makes the consequences of ineffective kicking actions much more obvious. Swimmer simply won’t move, or they’ll move much slower than their peers.

Even with novice and age group swimmers, using LIGHT resistance can help them learn how to kick more effectively. Heavier resistance can be used for more advanced swimmers to simultaneously develop physical strength and technical conditioning.

Match the level of the resistance with the skill level of the swimmer. Too much resistance will have the opposite effect, and destroy technique. Think optimal, not maximal.

The type of resistance is much less important than the use of appropriately prescribed resistance work. The type of resistance is much less important than the logistics of a practice. It’s use has to flow within a practice. The type of resistance can be determined by what you have access to.

Use Fins. The use of fins has to be selective, especially with younger swimmers. However, it can help swimmers feel what it’s like to hold water, and it can be very helpful to exaggerate whatever they’re feeling. It must be balanced with an appropriate amount of dolphin kicking without fins.

Use resistance in combination with fins. One of the challenges of using resistance training while performing dolphin kicking is that the surface area of the feet is much smaller than the combination of the hands and forearms. Smaller surface area equals less potential to move water, which means less opportunity to create force. That all changes when you use fins.

By adding fins to resistance work to underwater kicking, the required surface area is now present. It becomes much easier to move water with the lower body, which greatly enhances the strength impact. It also greatly enhances the sensation of creating pressure, and does so in both directions. While using fins does detract from the subtlety of force application, it greatly enhances the magnitude of force application. Both are important, and a balanced approach will be a successful one.

Maintain a Posture that Reduces Drag

A swimmer can be the best kicker in the world, capable of creating immense propulsion. However, if their alignment is poor, they’ll move through the water like a barge, not a speed boat. Posture is that important. The challenge with helping swimmers learn great alignment is that it is subtle. Small changes create big differences. It’s something swimmers have to FEEL, and creating that awareness is the challenge that must be met.

Fins. This is where fins really shine. They help you go FAST. The faster you go, the more drag you create. This magnifies the effects of poor body alignment. Go back to when you were young and you would put your hand out of the car window. The faster the car goes, the more you can feel the impact of changes in hand position. The same applies with fast speeds and dolphin kicking.

By performing overspeed work with fins, the subtleties of body position become much less subtle. You can feel where alignment issues exist, and these issues are opportunities for change. The more swimmers can pay attention and feel what is happening, the more likely they are to create change.

Wear clothing. Maintaining a great posture is all about awareness of drag. For many, they’re simply not paying attention and getting their attention is a priority. Wearing t-shirts, shorts, or other types of clothing on the body can help to create awareness of the impact of drag. Swimmers can feel where they get caught up and they can feel what it’s likely to have the flow of the water over the body disrupted.

The other major effect if when the clothing is removed. When this happens, swimmers tend to have a much greater awareness of how the water is moving over their body. Because the flow was removed, the contrast in sensation when it returns is magnified. They’re now more aware, and this awareness facilitates changes that matter.

Bottom jumps. Bottom jumps with dolphin kicks in a medium depth pool is a great way to help swimmers highlight the drag they are creating. The push off the bottom creates a lot of speed, and the swimmers are able to quickly execute their kicks at high speed. While the same task could be performed pushing off the wall, the real value is that pushing off the bottom changes the context. Swimmers have pushed off the wall countless times, and they expect a certain feeling. This is not true for bottom jumps. There is a relatively clean slate to work with.

The rush of water exaggerates the drag they feel over their body. They can feel the pressure points, whether on their head, their shoulders, or their head. These pressure points are opportunities for better streamlining. These can be performed in deep water as well, which would allow for more dolphin kicks. The trade-off is that you get a little bit less speed. Both approaches are valuable.

Dolphin Kicking during Training Sets

As described in Under the Sea, dolphin kicking is going to be transferred to racing situations when it can be performed in all training sets. While doing all the isolated dolphin kicking in the world may improve your swimmer’ skills, it won’t improve their performance in races until they learn to dolphin kick during all of their swim sets.

Whether it’s aerobic training, recovery training, sprint training, or race specific work, swimmers need to be incorporating their dolphin kicking. Performing various dolphin kicking tasks will improve their potential; using their dolphin kick in all aspects of practice will allow them to realize their potential.

The best way to integrate dolphin kicking is to establish minimal kick counts that swimmers must abide by. The number of kicks should be different for different individuals, as well as for different types of training. It makes sense to start with what swimmers can perform well, then slowly increase that number as they get more comfortable. Start with success and build upon it. Swimmers will be capable of performing more kicks for higher speed work with longer rests as opposed to longer duration aerobic training.


Underwater dolphin kicking is a difference maker. Fast underwater kickers win races. It should be every swimmer’s goal to be a master of this skills. It should be every coach’s goal to help swimmers master the required skills.

Doing so requires a systematic approach. We need to understand the components of effective dolphin kicking.

1. Maintain a Stable Platform

2. Create as Much Propulsion as Possible

3. Maintain Equal Propulsion and Tempo in Both Directions

4. Maintain a Posture that Reduces Drag

We need to appreciate and develop the physical prerequisites for fast dolphin kicking.

1. Ankle Flexibility

2. Spinal Mobility

3. Torso Stability and Control

4. Knee Flexibility

Finally, we need to implement training tasks that allow swimmers to FEEL the critical skills, while simultaneously developing the physical fitness required to achieve and sustain high speeds.

1. Maintain a Stable Platform (vertical kicking w/ arms across the chest, vertical kicking in streamline while holding a pool buoy, underwater kicking while holding a pool buoy, underwater kicking while holding a light weight)

2. Create as Much Propulsion as Possible (use resistance, fins, fins and resistance)

2a. Kick Through the Center (flipper, fish kick)

3. Maintain Equal Propulsion and Tempo in Both Directions (vertical kicking, side kicking, opposite kicking)

4. Maintain a Posture that Reduces Drag (fins, wearing clothing, bottom jumps)

If we can accomplish those tasks, swimmers are going to LEARN how to go fast underwater, even if we can’t coach it.

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