2 Great Ways to Test your Breaststroke Kick

by SwimSwam 10

December 21st, 2017 International, Opinion, Training

Courtesy of Gary Hall Sr., 10-time World Record Holder, 3-time Olympian, 1976 Olympic Games US Flagbearer and The Race Club co-founder.

Flexibility is a huge part of a swimmer’s ability. In freestyle, backstroke and fly, there are two joints that require extraordinary flexibility in order to excel, the shoulders (particularly extension) and plantar flexion of the ankle. Obviously, the former helps in the pulling motion and recovery, while the latter helps in the kicking speed.

In breaststroke, the two most important areas of mobility are in the lower (lumbar) spine and the hip, particularly with external rotation. A flexible lower back enables the swimmer to elevate higher during the pulling motion and create more coupling energy both for the pull and the following kick. The external rotation of the hip enables a swimmer to create more surface area of the instep during the propulsion of the kicking motion.

At The Race Club we often say that swimming is a sport of tenths of seconds, millimeters and degrees. What is meant by that is that there is a small margin of error between getting it right or not. There is neither a lot of forgiveness nor mercy in the water. Breaststroke kick is a good example of that.

For every additional degree of external rotation in the hip, I would estimate that the propulsion from the kick increases by 5 -10 %. In other words, if one were to increase the external rotation of the hip by 5 degrees, one would achieve 25 to 50% more propulsive force with the same amount of effort, just by increasing the surface area of the instep pushing backward. To me, that seems worth fighting for.

There are two very simple tests to evaluate your swimmers’ mobility and potential to kick breaststroke fast.

The first is the hip test.

Have the swimmer sit on a chair or bench and cross the legs with one ankle on top of the thigh of the other leg. Flex the foot of the bent leg to protect the knee. Then, with arms stretched straight overhead, have the swimmer bend forward at the waist with a straight back, allowing the arms and hands to fall toward the ground. A good breaststroker (or at least potentially) will be able to put the palms of their hands all the way to the ground. A swimmer with limited external rotation in the hip will not even come close.

For those with limited hip flexibility, the same stretch can be used daily, holding the position for a minute or longer on each side, in order to improve the breaststroke kicking propulsion. There are many modifications of this hip stretch and just like in swimming technique, some work better based on the individual. When I was at Indiana University, I was an IMer with a very poor breaststroke (an extinct breed of IMer). My coach, Doc Counsilman, had me walk around for hours with what he called ‘alligator shoes’ on. These were a pair of high top Converse All-Stars nailed to a board angled at 45 degrees to the ground. The hope was to increase my ankle dorsi-flexion by lengthening the gastrocnemius muscle and tendon (calf and Achilles tendon). Unfortunately, that is like stretching a Trans-Atlantic cable….and I never did get much faster. We were just focused on the wrong place. The hip, which is a ball and socket joint, is a much easier place to increase mobility than stretching the Achilles tendon and gastrocnemius muscle.

The other test I use for breaststroke is to evaluate the flexibility of the lower back.

First allow a proper warm up to loosen the low back and strengthen the core. Then, hold down the ankles of a prone swimmer and have them arch upwards with the upper body as far as they can. Olympian Rebecca Soni, can bend her body to nearly a 90 degree angle. Or one can do a back pushup, which requires considerable spinal flexibility and arm strength. The closer the swimmer can bring their hands toward the feet on the ground, the more flexibility is present in the lower back. There are modifications to begin increasing low back flexibility to slowly work up to these back bending exercises.

A strong kick is a key to swim fast breaststroke. As much as 80% of a swimmer’s propulsion in breaststroke comes from the kick. The power of the kick depends on having a large surface area of the instep accelerating quickly backward, coupled with the energy of the upper body pressing forward and the head snapping downward. To do well, both motions require extraordinary flexibility in the back and hip, plus strong legs and core.

Do these two simple mobility tests for each of your swimmers. If your swimmers don’t have enough hip mobility, either develop a stretching/dryland program whereby they can develop more, or don’t focus on the IM or breaststroke. Either option is acceptable. Just don’t expect them to swim fast breaststroke without having this type of flexibility.

Yours in swimming,

Gary Sr.


Gary Hall, Sr., Technical Director and Head Coach of The Race Club (courtesy of TRC)

Gary Hall, Sr., Technical Director and Head Coach of The Race Club (courtesy of TRC)

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CJ Flatley
4 years ago

So for the hip-flex test you are doing one leg at a time and the other leg remains straight?

5 years ago

The problem with accelerating the insteps backward quickly is that this motion puts excessive stress on the knees. Forcing the knees to bend along the frontal plane leads to hyperextension of the knees. The breaststroke kick has to be performed so that the hips receive most of the stress. And yes, I’ve seen your video of Rebecca Soni breaststroke kicking into the wall but no matter how fast she performs the drill, its still a drill.

Sherlock Holmes
7 years ago

@Pasty OT Qualifier — it’s probably your glutes, but I don’t think that affects you that much. Where does it kill you? Maybe your proportions are favourable for breast.

I could genuinely write an essay on this.

If you think about it, working at external rotation of the hip stretches the internal rotators — that is, the muscles that turn your knees inwards, as well as your glutes, and the insides of your legs. The particularly test Gary mentions (as I interpret it) also is killer on your glutes. The internal rotators go from outside hip to inside knee (e.g. look up Sartorius muscle) on the front side. Try doing the second test Gary mentions whilst having the insides of… Read more »

Pasty OT Qualifier
7 years ago

Gary plz i need this

Børge Mørk
Reply to  Pasty OT Qualifier
6 years ago

A while since this was posted, but couldn’t hurt to elaborate in this.

I agree with most of the points made by Sherlock below, but want to emphasize that your question regarding internal rotation is spot on and would be the missing piece that makes all the other excellent advice on this page complete.

I would suggest that it is primarily the Piriformis and Obtural Internus muscles that are relevant to stretch and have both flexible and strong for the critical phase of the initial positioning of the feet and rotation of the femur before you start the backward kick (quadriceps) and propulsion of the hip muscles (glutes.

A good exercise is at 2:30 in this video:
… Read more »

past OT Qualifier
7 years ago

Gary, I have always been under the impression that the internal rotation of the hip is much more important in breaststroke. I qualified for Olympic Trials in 2012 for both the 100 and 200 breaststrokes and cannot do the first test to save my life. Any idea on why this is?

Gary Hall Sr.
7 years ago

We currently don’t have a video of these stretches/exercises but plan to shoot in the future.

Geoff Wells
Reply to  Gary Hall Sr.
7 years ago

Thanks for the reply. I look forward to your future posts.

7 years ago

Could you provide an image or a short video on these two stretching tests?


7 years ago

Wrong clip attached.