There are few pieces of swim equipment that seem are more synonymous with swimming than a kickboard. Perhaps goggles. But kickboards have actually been around longer, about 20 years longer, as they were first introduced as a swim aid in the late 1940s.
So what do kickboards accomplish, and why do swimmers like them?
Technically, kickboards allow swimmers to isolate and focus on their kick, without having to worry about their arms or breathing. But realistically, swimmers like kickboards because it makes kicking much faster by significantly reducing friction (by elevating the upper body and introducing a smooth surface as the interface with the water), allowing the swimmer to breathe whenever they want, and allowing them to chat with others. So, of course they like it!
So what do I have against kickboards? Well, for the last 4 years I’ve firmly believed that they promote the wrong body alignment when kicking hard. And I believe this carries over into a bad alignment when swimming Free and Fly hard. On the other hand, I think a kickboard is actually good for breaststroke kick, but we aren’t using it properly.
Freestyle and Butterfly Kick
A swimmer’s body should be roughly in a straight line in order to minimize drag, or water resistance. For various reasons this straight line may angled very slightly upward, but the concept is still that the body should be relatively straight. This drawing is a rough approximation of what it should look like. I’ve superimposed three spots on the body to highlight the body alignment. These spots are the base of the neck, middle of the hips, and middle of the knees.
Now, as any swimmer or coach knows, kicking with a board involves holding the board with outstretched arms, the head out of the water, and the upper body much higher than in a normal swimming position. The drawing below roughly shows this body position. You can see from our superimposed spots that there is a definite bent body alignment when kicking with a board. Check this out for yourself next time you watch swimmers kick with a kickboard. It’s pretty obvious.
So here’s the problem. When all or almost all hard kicking is done with a kickboard, the body’s muscles will associate hard kicking with this bent body alignment. This means that during any swimming with hard kicking, the body will want to bend away from the straight line, putting the feet in a higher position in the water.
Notice that even a small bend in the body will position the feet much higher, resulting in kicking more air and less water. If you doubt this, ask yourself why swimmers who are sprinting often start producing far more splashing with their kick. And yet splashy kicking, i.e. kicking air, doesn’t help them at all. So, the question is why is this happening?
I think its because of the kickboards.
I’ve only addressed the freestyle kick so far. Butterfly, being a short axis stroke, is far more complicated as the hips drive up and down during the stroke. In general, using a kickboard which places the upper body into a fixed, high position is a very poor proxy for the highly fluid butterfly body position.
The Breaststroke Kick Problem
To me, breaststroke kicking with a board makes perfect sense, as the elevated upper body position actually mimics the natural high body position prior to a kick. But practically every swimmer I’ve seen do breaststroke kick with a board does it all wrong.
Most kickers will start the kick with their body in the normal slightly elevated position, and then allow the kick to move the upper body slightly higher up onto the kickboard. This is exactly the opposite of a normal breaststroke motion.
In order to properly mimic breaststroke body position, the upper body should be high at the start of the kick, and then shoot down lower (simulating the arms recovering forward) by the end of the kick. Here’s what that should look like.
Video of a better BR kick with a board
Doesn’t this make more sense?
The Social Kick Exception
Social kicks are just long, easy kicks where kids can kick together, chat and basically relax while doing light exericse. They are very useful on an infrequent basis, especially after a weekend meet. Kickboards are necessary for this. I just don’t do it very often, and I don’t have them kick hard. I don’t want their body to associate this bad alignment with any type of racing.
The Long Course Exception
There is one other time when we use boards for Free and Fly kicking. And my swimmers are not really fond of it.
If the swimmers hold the board fully submerged and turned to present the most resistance, then kicking becomes very hard. This can be good for developing power. And it can also be useful for training for long course. A single 25m length of kicking like this can involve as many kicks as they would take to do 50m of normal kicking. This makes it an ideal training aid to help the swimmers manage to conversion to the long course season. Notice also that since the swimmers aren’t resting on the board, the body position is a little more natural.
Swimmers certainly don’t thank me when I take away their kickboards, but I’m convinced that the traditional way we use kickboards is counterproductive to effective kicking in a race.
I’d love to hear from you about what you think of kickboards.
6 thoughts on “The Case Against KickBoards”
I really like your swim blog. This is 2016, and I saw a new kickboard called “the Brick” that helps in aligning people to swim and kick the right way. I was wondering if you had any experience with this kickboard. Thanks
Hi Scott, I hadn’t seen The Brick until you mentioned it, and so I have no practical experience with it. I like the general idea of a kickboard that provides no flotation. It will certainly provide a better body position than the regular kickboards. To me the key is ensuring that kicking with power with or without a board should involve the same body position. This is better, but still not natural.
For instance, 2 arms in front of the prone body isn’t natural. That body position never exists in swimming (you are usually rotated in Free, and have a non-flat body in Fly). And regular boards are better for Breast as they provide the buoyancy that simulates the start of the BR kick. Also, when you breathe with a board, you almost inevitably breathe forward. Again, not natural. However, as I said, I have no experience with it. So in practice, it may be fantastic.
If anyone out there has experience with The Brick, I’m quite happy to hear about it.
I DO NOT LIKE MY SWIMMERS USING KICKBOARDS!!!! I agree with the misjudgment for body alignment – especially young swimmers. They do not learn as quickly where their balance is when using what I call “artificial aids” in swimming. I have a great deal of success with all my swimmers and you will not see kickboards in any of my practices.
It’s a welcome change to read a swimming article that does more than regurgitate conventional wisdom. I agree with the body position analysis. Kickboards impede the development of proper head-neck-spine alignment. Proper alignment is one of those underlying, non-negotiable principles required in all effective human movement.
So is balance. Equipment that alters your natural balance in the water is a problem, in my view. Particularly with new swimmers, whether competitive swimmers or ‘adult onset’ triathletes. Doesn’t matter if you’re riding a bike, attempting a dead lift or shooting a free throw. Proper alignment and balance come first. Prior to the actual movement/sport. We’ve gotten that wrong in swimming for a very long time. I suspect we (meaning coaches) never really considered that this applied to swimmers the way it does to virtually anyone doing any sport. Consider lesson 1 in martial arts, free weight training, baseball/golf, dance, etc. Stance always comes first. “Leave that heavy weight over there. Come here–this is how you position your feet, maintain your posture, shift your weight.”
I’ve been coaching since I was a summer league assistant in 1979. First time I heard the word “balance” with regard to swimming? A USA coaches conference in 1994. Can you imagine doing ANY sport for 15 years and the word balance never came up? Bill Boomer made a roomful of coaches go “who the hell is this guy, and what’s he talking about?” Bill was right, and the coaches who never question what they think to be true were wrong. Swimmers were still being told to have the water line hit them in the forehead. That’s clearly and demonstrably wrong. Year 41 for me, and I’ve discarded nearly everything I “knew” to be true several times over.
I don’t know why it’s so hard to acknowledge that we have to change our minds. EVERYTHING in life is like that, especially for those whose work requires them to be current in their field / knowledge base. I wouldn’t go to a surgeon who told me, “I’ve been doing this procedure for 30 years. You don’t need that newfangled stuff.”
My list of topics I think we are mostly wrong about:
1. The importance of kicking in all but sprint specialists. Most people who swim aspire to 30 minutes or longer without stopping. Recreational lap swimmers. Open water swimmers. Triathletes. Someone whose goal is to swim a mile non-stop. Kicking for them is really a stabilizing act, not a propulsive one. And the energy out is prohibitive.
2. Breathing fréquency. Ask simple questions: Why do we breathe? Answer: To fuel oour bodies. Respond to your built in signaling system. I have’t thought about breathing once as I wrote this post. And I didn’t turn to someone who wasn’t me to ask if I’m doing it right.
3. Bilateral breathing as a fix. Nope. Breathing is ALWAYS a disruptive act. Nothing undermines stroke mechanics like taking a breath in freestyle. It corrupts alignment. It compromises balance. It makes limbs compensate for instability. Breathing is the thing that makes you go crooked. It cannot correct for it.
I have two rules for breathing, and I’m not sure anything else matters: 1) Breathe often enough to give your body the fuel it needs. Far and away the most important consideration. It’s literally the only reason we interrupt face down strokes for breaths. 2) Breathe as skillfully as possible to eliminate the inherent errors breathing induces. Make your breathing strokes as similar to your non-breathing strokes. I’m not sure that’s actually possible, but it’s the most important consideration after adequate respiration.
4. “You’re a sinker. Some people just can’t swim. You’re too lean, etc.” A person who has not learned to swim from prior instructor needs a new instructor. EVERYONE can swim. I coach Neal Anderson, former NFL all pro funning back Solid muscle and as thick from chest to back as most people are wide. Learning to manipulate his body mass was work, but it wasn’t a fools errand. At this point I find it pretty offensive that someone takes money with the promise of learning a new skill, and then blames the student. Really? Blame the STUDENT? Should I apply that excuse to a cooking class? Using Photoshop? Driving a car? It’s an admission of failure by the instructor. Period. Provided a student gives an honest effort (have I had one who hasn’t?), students don’t fail. They are failed.
I could go on. We should be in the business of critically examining everything we do and teach. It’s not personal. It’s not an admission of incompetence. It’s simply striving to be the best we can be, and doing right by those we teach and coach.
StrokeDoctorX – I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed your comment. My mentor coach drilled into me decades ago that I needed to have a reason for everything I did with my swimmers, and that mistakes are inevitable. As a result, I’ve had to think about these issues, tried many things, abandoned ones that didn’t work, and just kept at it. The one comment you made that really resonated with me is the one about balance. I didn’t hear about balance once when swimming during my whole swimming career. In fact, I wasn’t introduced to balance in the water until I took up waterpolo after I retired from swimming. And that lesson made me rethink how to swim. Now, decades later, when we do FR kick with one arm forward, we focus on that forward arm being relaxed and unmoving, even when breathing. That’s balance. If that leading hand sculls when breathing, then that’s exactly what you’re doing when swimming full freestyle. You’re unbalanced, and the underwater video shows them that.
You raise so many great concepts.
Kicking – I like to think of it as our stroke’s metronome. If you want to speed up at the end of a race, your kick better be able to speed up as well. So the purpose of training our kicking is to ensure that we can up the tempo even when tired.
Breathing – SWB has become a necessarily huge thing relatively recently, and was completely unknown back when I swam, even though I witnessed 2 swimmers black out during underwater LC 50 repeats. And that fact alone changes many thoughts about breathing. Instead of no breath 50 races, and 3-4 breaths 100 races, we do as you said. We breathe when we need it. We focus on videos on ensuring that breath is efficient and balanced.
Sinking – this goes along with the way we train our development swimmers. We teach 1) flow 2) narrow 3) quiet. And we start swimmers by asking them to imagine they were born and live in the water. Fish move smoothly, no jerky motions. So we get them to swim smoothly and relaxed before we say anything about where the arms and legs and hips should go. When they’re comfortable and relaxed, then we talk about narrow – trying to slip through the water before the water notices. Quiet is a more advanced concept, and deals with what’s in your head, as opposed to the noise of swimming. Not only is this working wonders, but the lessons become internalized as the swimmers are figuring out what to do, instead of external stroke cues to confused youngsters.
I applaud your attitude towards all the things you mentioned. Thank you for sharing.