December 15, 2021
Ask swimmers what their fastest stroke is, and they have the standard four to choose from: fly, back, breast and free. The fastest moving stroke in the world, however, isn’t really a stroke at all. It’s more of a secret weapon. The best swimmers in the world know the fifth stroke: the underwater dolphin kick. If you aren’t using it, then you aren’t taking advantage of the most explosive moments of your swims.
Underwater dolphin kicking has completely transformed the sport. Swimmers are moving at the highest velocity at the starts and turns of their races. The force from jumping off the blocks and pushing off the wall provides momentum into the streamline and breakout. The fastest swimmers accelerate off the walls into a tight streamline and push their underwater dolphin kicks to the full fifteen meters allotted. Three-time Olympian Kara Lynn Joyce explained that serious swimmers must learn to develop their underwater dolphin kicking: “It’s an essential part of training. It’s been integrated into all four strokes now. It’s a skill that I didn’t learn until later in my career, but kids are learning it a much younger age now. It’s making them faster than ever.”
Underwater dolphin kicking is responsible for an evolution in the sport of swimming. Olympic Champion Mark Gangloff said that “It’s fun to see this young generation that has embraced it at an early age because they’re even better at it than people of my generation…Now, the club coaches have invested in doing these amazing things underwater.” This has caused the times to get faster and faster.
The best swimmers consistently take full advantage of their walls, but underwater dolphin kicking isn’t a skill that develops overnight. Like everything else in this grueling sport, it takes thoughtfulness and practice.
Key technique points:
• While I believe that hip movement is important, the propulsion is definitely coming from the extension of the legs.
• The knees must bend and drive forward in order to set up the kick. From that, the legs then whip forward to a complete extension. This movement is powered by the quadriceps. Just like kicking a soccer ball or football.
• It should be a forward kick, meaning that the toes should be in front of the body at the finish of the kick. See images below.
• For the duration of the leg whip, the core should be tense and locked in. With this core tension, the hips move backwards in a controlled manner…like it’s resisting the leg movement.
• The hip movement / core tension does two things: (1) provides stability for the leg motion and (2) makes sure the kick moves the swimmer forward (as opposed to up or down).
• Many swimmers move the hips back too much because that’s their focus. Too much hip movement prevents the legs from catching and whipping as much water as possible.
• Upper body movement varies among the best kickers. Sometimes it can help a swimmer get the legs and hips right. A swimmer can definitely bend the upper body forward too much, which is often caused by lifting the hips up too much to set up the kick.