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Ramp Up Your Freestyle Kick The Race Club Way

By Gary Hall Sr. | March 15, 2016, 2:07 p.m. (ET)

swim school

Go back to school! Erase the smelly, crowded hallways of your high school from your mind and imagine yourself under the Islamorada sun in a clear pool ready to absorb knowledge that will enable you to swim faster. Swim School from Gary Hall Sr. of The Race Club is about lifelong enjoyment of the sport. It’s always more fun to swim to your potential.

The propulsive power that one derives from the freestyle kick depends on pushing a large surface area backward in the water quickly. The backward movement of the kick occurs in the down kick and depends on the strong muscles of the quadriceps and the hip flexors to drive the foot back with speed, along with the core muscles. The fastest kickers in the world have developed these specific muscles into very powerful ones in order to achieve this goal.

To build maximal power in the kicking motions, some of the muscle development will come from doing lots of kicking in the pool. The rest must come from doing dry land or strength training, where the resistance to motion can become much greater than that produced by the water.

One of my favorite exercises for the down kick is leg extensions in the gym. Enough weight should be placed on the machine while in the sitting position to make 50 reps manageable, yet the last 10 reps need to feel as if the legs will fall off at any moment. The muscles must scream with pain. Doing three sets of those, while allowing only about 30 degrees of knee bend, will simulate the motion of the down kick. Remember that in the water, too much knee bend results in too much frontal drag.

To work the hip flexors and core, at The Race Club we do lots of dry land kicking. My favorite is three sets of one-minute flutter kicks on shoulders (vertically), elbows (horizontally) and what I call flick kicks, which are extremely fast-motion kicks with the ankles loose and a modest amount of knee bend. The last ones are the most difficult. We repeat these three-minute exercises three times, the last two using 3-5 lb. ankle weights secured with Velcro straps.

To develop the up kick, we use the leg flexion machine lying face down, but instead of bending the knees, we recommend lifting the legs straight, using lower back, hamstring and calf muscles. Since the muscles used in this motion are not as strong as the quads, 30 reps are recommended. The straight leg motion is closer to the actual up kick motion in the water. On dry land, we recommend alternating leg and arm lifts from the prone position, keeping both arms and legs off the ground for one minute.

Traditional leg squats and leg presses are a good way to help your starts and turns, but don’t do much to help the actual kicking motion.

You can find some of these recommended exercises on the following Race Club Swimisode:

Yours in swimming,
Gary Hall Sr.

gary hall srGary Hall Sr., M.D. is a three-time Olympic swimmer (‘68, ‘72, ‘76) who earned a medal in each of the three Olympic Games. At one time he held 10 world records in all strokes except breaststroke and was the World Swimmer of the year in 1969 and 1970.

Gary Sr. serves as president and technical director of The Race Club Inc. based in Islamorada, Florida. He is the current president of the United States Olympians and Paralympians Association and co-founder of World Fit, a non-profit organization promoting childhood exercise and sports. He has six children, the oldest of whom, Gary Jr., also swam in three Olympic Games (‘96, ‘00, ‘04) and earned 10 Olympic medals. Two other children, Richard and Amy, and his wife, Mary, work with Gary Sr. at The Race Club. In 2006, Gary Sr. retired from ophthalmology to dedicate his remaining professional career to teaching advanced swimming techniques for competitive swimmers and triathletes. 

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.