Dolphin Kick Is Really, Really Hard

Dolphin Kick Is Really, Really Hard
Photo: © Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports
Last time, we discussed how you can easily double (or triple) your velocity in any of the three strokes -- besides breaststroke. For the most part, this post was unanimously accepted; however, a few questions arose from some of our readers. Let's address them.

First off, just because you aren't "good" at something doesn't mean you should totally negate it. A few readers responded saying, "dolphin kick is easy -- yeah, right." If that is what you took away from the post, that was certainly not the intended message.

Let's be clear: dolphin kick is hard, really hard. 

But once again, just because something is hard doesn't mean you shouldn't try to do it or get better at it.

There are three main factors that make up a great dolphin kick:

1) A great push-off from the wall

2) Minimizing your drag components by pointing your toes, having a tight streamline, and keeping an awesome horizontal body alignment

3) Having small, tight, and fast kicks (this includes leg strength and ankle flexibility)

If you look at those three main factors, two out of the three actually have nothing to do with whether you are good at dolphin kicking or not.

After all, we are not trying to create more speed by dolphin kicking -- we are simply trying to maintain the high speed produced from the push-off for as long as we can!

So, if you can perfect factors one and two -- your velocity generated underwater will still be faster for a few brief seconds than any velocity you can generate on the surface. You just need to find how long (time wise) your velocity is higher underwater before it decelerates too much and you'd be better off swimming.

Not sure about your velocity? Our team at Ritter Sports Performance offers 1:1 stroke analysis and race analysis packages. If you have a video taken from a swim meet, we can analyze the video and give you all the metrics you need to figure out how long you should hold your streamline (i.e., velocity UW, velocity on the surface, stroke rate, etc.). For more information on these packages, email

Let's get back to the dolphin kick.

The dolphin kick is a bidirectional kick that requires abdominal, hip, lower back, and leg strength. Also, it requires an amazing amount of ankle flexibility and anaerobic conditioning.

In order to have a fast dolphin kick, you must be efficient with each of these four components. Let's discuss each individual component in greater detail...

Bidirectional = two directions

The dolphin kick is composed of an "up kick" and a "down kick." A swimmer must kick in both directions to have a fast dolphin kick.

Think of it like a bow and arrow. When you're on your stomach, the "up kick" is when the arrow is being pulled back, and the "down kick" is when the arrow is released. Both actions are needed to get the arrow to fly a long distance and with a high speed.

Lastly, complete both the "up kick" and the "down kick" in front of your body. Why?

We want your quads engaged. Your quads are the biggest muscle group in your legs. They are capable of producing the most power (due to size), and they are on the same side as the tops of the feet. When you complete your dolphin kick in front of your body, you engage your quads more versus in a straight body line.

Think of it like kicking a soccer ball. Do you ever finish your kick and make contact with the ball when your leg kicking is directly below your body? No! The contact happens when the leg is in front of the body.

Abdominal, hip, lower back, and leg strength

For a successful dolphin kick, the swimmer must be strong. The dolphin kick starts from the core/back and is translated through the hips, legs, knees, and feet. That is why most coaches describe the dolphin kick as a wave. You create an undulation, which starts at the swimmer's midsection and translates down to the swimmer's feet.

Speaking of the feet, they are the only components of a swimmer that create any propulsion during a dolphin kick. This is a common error made by coaches and swimmers. All the other muscle groups (stated) simply aid in how much propulsion can be generated by the feet with each kick.

Remember: it is only the feet that push a swimmer forward in the pool. Try not to kick from your knees, hips, back, or core. They are all a necessary part of the wave, but you only move forward with help from your feet.

Ankle Flexibility

Everyone's favorite topic of discussion. There is no doubt that ankle flexibility is needed for a successful dolphin kick. The more ankle flexibility you have, the better off your kick will be and vice versa. But, just because you may not have as much ankle flexibility as Michael Phelps doesn't mean you automatically are bad at dolphin kicking. Let's discuss.

It is universally known that when you dolphin kick, you must plantar flex your feet. By plantar flexing your feet, you are increasing the surface area on the tops of your feet. This increase in surface area gives you more area to kick down with, which means you are able to generate more propulsion.

Secondly, when you dolphin kick you want to make sure you have a smooth and fast transition from "up kick" to "down kick" back to "up kick." If you focus on minimizing the time and minimizing drag between kick phases, you will generate a faster dolphin kick.

Thirdly, curl your toes. Has anyone ever told you to do that? If you curl your toes at the point when you finish your up kick and are starting your "down kick," you are essentially increasing the surface area of your feet just like you did by plantar flexing.

Lastly, think about kicking backwards and not down. This will naturally help you plantar flex your feet and achieve an early vertical ankle. The goal is to move forward in the pool, not up.

Just like at the beginning of this post, three out of the four components of ankle flexibility are achievable by swimmers who don't have a lot of plantar flexion. Perfect those components while working on increasing your ankle flexibility, and over time your dolphin kick will show some major improvements.

Anaerobic conditioning

Our last component of a dolphin kick. I hope all of you know what anaerobic means, especially because you read the breathing series, right?

If you don't, anaerobic means without the presence of oxygen. When you are dolphin kicking, you are requiring your body to work with a depleting oxygen supply. Therefore, you must be in great shape and frequently train your body in this environment in order to have a successful dolphin kick.

Overall, there are many components that make up a successful dolphin kick. There is no fast pass or easy way to becoming a successful dolphin kicker. All of you should take advantage of your high velocity coming off the walls and starts, so I urge you to maximize that time by improving your dolphin kick. After all, the goal is to be faster right?

No more excuses -- get to work.
Abbie Fish has been in the competitive swimming realm for over 20 years. After capping off a successful career at University of Georgia, Abbie soon found herself back on the deck as a coach.

Currently, Abbie is a Technique Swim Coach at Ritter Sports Performance. She spends her time analyzing race videos and studying different style of stroke technique. If you'd like your stroke analyzed, or a swimmer of yours -- visit their website: for more information or email Abbie at

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