how to do breaststroke kick
Originally published on U.S. Masters Swimming on July 15, 2021 by Cokie Lepinski
Tips and drills to fix your breaststroke kick
It’s not uncommon to see a breaststroke kick that’s ineffective or even illegal. It might be that the legs aren’t working together simultaneously, or there’s a dolphin-like action in the kick. When the legs aren’t moving properly in breaststroke, it can severely impact the ability for breaststroke to be rhythmical and efficient.
The 2021 USMS Rule Book defines a legal breaststroke kick in 101.2.3:
“The feet must be turned outwards during the propulsive part of the kick. Scissors, alternating movements, or downward butterfly (dolphin) kicks are not permitted except as provided herein. Breaking the surface of the water with the feet is allowed unless followed by a downward butterfly (dolphin) kick.”
The legs play a huge role in breaststroke, providing the bulk of the propulsion and it is essential to establish solid kick mechanics. Finding the proper path and timing of your kick will help make breaststroke easier to swim.
Breaststroke has more drag points than any other stroke and you need to chip away at those drag points to find efficiency. Good breaststroke “respects the line.” The fastest you are in this stroke is when you complete the pull-kick cycle in a near streamline, slipping horizontally just under the surface of the water. The line of your body is critical. If you begin your kick by lifting your thigh or knee forward of your body, you’re creating drag. If you lift your feet to the center of your butt instead of the outside of your hips, your knees pop out wide of your body creating more drag.
Here’s how to repair a wonky breaststroke kick by going back to a solid foundation, beginning on land.
- Hinge at the knees. A fundamental element to breaststroke kick is that you hinge at the knees and not at your hips. Try this: Stand and face a wall and press your body up against the wall, getting everything as close to the wall as you can. Using just one leg, lift the heel of that leg, bending at the knee and pressing the heel close to the outside of your hip. Because you’re hugging the wall, your thigh shouldn’t move. This is the same action you want to take to the water.
- Heel lift and spread your toes. When lifting your heel, lift it to the outside of your hip and not the centerline of your butt. As you lift heel to hip, turn your ankle out. Some find it helpful to spread their toes with the lift of the heel to prompt that ankle to turn out. The goal is to have your feet outside of your knees at the top of the draw. The feet swing around in an arc carrying much-needed propulsion that pulls water from the inside line of your legs and feet.
- Narrow knees. A second land-based approach reinforces the hinge at the knees while showing that keeping the knees narrow is beneficial. How narrow? Everyone is different, so there’s some wiggle room in this but, as a general rule, keep your knees about the width of your hips or your shoulders. Sit on the edge of a sturdy chair and scoot as close to the edge as you can. Hold firmly to the sides of the chair with legs extended straight out. Once again, hinge at the knees, draw both heels back and aim for the outside of your hips. Play a little bit with the width of your knees and keep those thighs fairly stationary, don’t let them lift up. You can also try this sitting on the edge of the pool with feet dangling over the water.
- Finish your kick. Squeeze every bit of propulsion out of your kick by properly finishing it. Some swimmers like to nest one foot just slightly under the instep of the other foot as they finish the kick, getting those legs into a great streamline. Swimmers with super foot flexibility can actually finish their kick with the bottoms of their fit clapping together. Although that’s difficult for most swimmers, do try to finish your feet touching or almost touching.
Now that you’ve established your foundation, head to the water and try some drills:
- Wall kicks. This drill works if you have a pool that’s deeper than you are tall. If you don’t, skip forward to the next drill. Position yourself facing the wall and hug the gutter or deck to get as close to the wall as you can, pressing your chest, hips and thighs up against the wall. At first, try drawing just one heel up at a time. If your knee is bumping against the wall or your hips pop off the wall, you’re not hinging at the knees and you’re trying to lift your thighs to start the kick action. Once you can execute with one leg, then try doing a regular breaststroke kick on the wall. It is virtually impossible to keep your hips glued to the wall so allow yourself a little leeway here. Simply work to minimize how far your hips pop off the wall. Once you finish the kick, it should be easy to quickly line yourself back up against the wall. Don’t do a bunch of these wall kicks, just a few to get the feel for the proper action.
- Kick on your back, hands down. Try breaststroke kick on your back with hands down and resting on the sides of your legs. Remember to hinge at the knees, draw the heels to the outside of your hips and spread your toes on the heel draw. Can you touch your fingertips to your calves, ankles or heels when the heels come up? That is a good marker for executing the kick correctly.
- Kick on your front, hands down. This is a little tougher than kicking on your back because you need to find the timing of your breath (which starts a microsecond before you draw the heels up). If you struggle with that timing, simply don a snorkel, but leave your hands at your sides. Same concept as above, hinge at the knee, lift heels to outside of hips, turn the ankles out, and push the legs and feet together at the end of the kick, trying to touch your calf, ankle or heel at the top of the draw. Do your heels break the surface? Correct that with two small changes: Press your upper body into the water for a good horizontal line and minimize the arch of your back by visualizing pulling your bellybutton to your spine as you lift your heels.
- Pull buoy or band kicking. If after all the above you still struggle with knees too wide, you can try kicking while wearing a pull buoy (wear it high up). Like the wall kicks, don’t do much, just a length or two is all you need. Then try kicking without the aid and see if you can replicate that narrower pathway. Alternately, you can wear a rubberized flexible band just above your knees. Find one that has some give to it. The pull buoy really locks you in, but the band (my preference) has some give and allows you to flex a bit more. Either buoy or band almost always fixes the issue of wide knees.
- Snorkel kicking thumb lock. Once you’ve trimmed the width of your kick or fixed errors such as a downward dolphin-like action, then spend some time improving your mechanics. One of my favorite ways to do breaststroke kick is to don a snorkel, extend my arms straight out in front of me, locking together just the thumbs. I like this for two reasons: it puts us in a great horizontal line, and the thumb lock is more realistic to the finish of the pull than either a streamlining of the arms or holding a superman pose. Take your time and remind yourself of the core fundamentals when kicking.
You’ll definitely improve your kick with these tips and drills and make a huge difference in your breaststroke. Not only will you be more efficient and faster, but you’ll gain a newfound appreciation of this awesome stroke!