team logo
   article archive

Kick Bored
by Terry Laughlin

It's a sure-fire applause winner in every adult swim camp I hold. We're talking about training aids--fins, paddles, buoys and the like--and I've just declared that most people would be better off if they never picked up a kickboard. Next thing I know, I'm looking into the kind of happy faces that must have greeted the Allies at Dunkirk. The liberation of the weak kickers, many of them triathletes and fitness swimmers.

Kickboards, those tombstone-shaped foam slabs, are a common torture device self-inflicted by people willing to endure kicking laps like medicine in the mistaken belief that it will help them swim better. Their poor kick is holding them back, they reason, and they suppose that they need to strengthen their legs with those mind-numbing laps on the board. No matter that when they grip the board and churn away they go nowhere--except for a few who travel backwards. They keep plugging grimly along, clinging to the hope that clinging to the board will eventually do them some good.

It probably won't, for two reasons. First, whether you swim every day or just when the weather's too lousy for running or cycling, chances are your kick isn't what's holding you back. Your hips and legs are dragging, and that's no good, but it's not your kick that's letting them sag. That's from poor balance, probably the most common and most easily corrected stroke error of them all. Instead of hours on the board, it's effectively fixed by redistributing your weight, making the front end of the body "heavier" by leaning on your chest ("pressing the T") while swimming. Like a seesaw, your rear end will ride up where it belongs. Even a weak kick, my students are delighted to discover, can't hold back a balanced body.

Where a stronger kick does come in handy is in gaining speed after you've improved your balance. This means not just muscle strength, but flexibility, something we all can use, whatever our sport. Many elite swimmers can sit on the deck, legs out in front and knees straight, and touch their toes to the floor in front of them. Most novice swimmers are lucky if they go half that far. Hyper-mobility (unusual ranges of flexibility) in any joint comes at the cost of diminished joint stability, and a highly flexible ankle on a runner is a sprain waiting to happen. So even though step one to kicking better is ankle stretching, don't overdo it if you run or play squash or tennis or basketball.

But what if you're concerned with leg strength in or out of the pool? That's step two, but again kick sets gripping the board aren't the answer even if swimming is your prime sport. For one thing, they throw your balance off. How can you lean on your chest and kick correctly while your arms are propped up on a board?

Second, gripping the board freezes your hips. You can't rotate them and rhythmic hip and trunk rotation integrated with your arm stroke are where the power comes from in each stroke cycle. The kick is an integral part of that rolling action since it both provides the external torque for hip roll and acts to counter- balance trunk rotation. Kick on a board with hips locked in place and you lose the whole dynamic. The interaction of hip and leg muscles is changed enough that whatever leg strength you do gain is different from that which helps you swim faster.

The best way to put muscle in a weak kick? Fins, for two reasons. First, ankle flexibility. The extra pressure created by the blade as you kick down on each beat stretches the foot more than a "naked" kick. Second, improved leg strength. Again the blade gets the credit. The increased surface area of the blade puts a greater load on your leg muscles like a wet weight workout. Drilling with fins can work even better, since drills force you to use your legs more than you do when swimming. They'll not only get stronger but it will be strength you can use when swimming because the drill closely mimics the way the body moves in swimming. And you'll kill two birds with one stone because you'll be improving your stroke efficiency while strengthening your legs.

Try kicking on your side with one arm extended out front. Roll and change arms several times each length. When kicking on your side, neither fin blade will break the surface, giving your legs a higher quality workout. You can get a similar effect by kicking underwater. The increased water pressure adds load to your leg muscles.

Finally, wear fins on some of your swimming sets. Most of us don't kick very much when we swim, and the farther we swim the less we kick. But when you wear fins, your kick improves enough to make kicking worth the effort and you end up using use your legs more. Naturally this gives the highest transfer of strength because you're strengthening your legs exactly as you use them.

And what kind of fins should you use? Many new swimmers and cross-trainers have been attracted to the new cut-off, so called "speed" fins or Zoomers. This fin works best for those who already have good ankle flexibility and a strong kick. Less skilled and less experienced swimmers and those who need to develop ankle flexibility and a stronger kick will do so much faster using a bladed fin. The extra surface area of a full blade is valuable. Of the bladed fins, my favorite is the Slim Fin. It gives your legs more of a boost, while reducing leg fatigue. They're hard to find.

So, if all you want for your time today is a good leg workout, you'd be better off on an exercise bike. But if you're looking for strength that could help move you down the lane smoothly, where do kickboards fit in? In the pile on the deck.
 back to top

Terry Laughlin is director of Total Immersion Adult Swim Camps, and columnist for Inside Triathlon and for SWIM magazine. Terry is also a technique coach for United States Swimming's Olympic Development Camps.

Taken from WebSwim
Copyright © 1999 by Total Immersion, Inc