3 Ways To Evaluate A Swimmer For Breaststroke Kick

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


I would like to thank Adrien, CrookedDonald and Lizamuch, SwimSwam readers,  for correcting my errors on the previous breaststroke evaluation article. While standing (knees extended) the hip externally rotates to point the toes outward, while with the knees bent or flexed, as in the breaststroke kick, the hip moves opposite (internally rotates) in order to point the toes outward. The test we recommend for external rotation of the hip is still a good one to test with, however, as most fast breaststrokers will have increased flexibility for both internal and external rotation. The following revision suggests a way you can test for both.

Mobility and Rotation

Flexibility is a huge part of a swimmer’s ability. In freestyle, backstroke and butterfly, 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. Flexibility is extremely important in developing a strong breaststroke kick. 

In breaststroke, the two most important areas of mobility are in the lower (lumbar) spine and the hip, particularly with internal 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 breaststroke kick. The internal rotation of the hip enables a swimmer to create more surface area of the instep during the propulsion of the kicking motion, while keeping the knees relatively close together.

The Good Fight

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 internal 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 internal 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.

The Hip Test

There are three very simple tests to evaluate your swimmers’ mobility and potential to have a fast breaststroke kick. The first two are the hip tests, one for internal and the other for external rotation. For internal rotation, we recommend testing the swimmer in the W squat position. We do NOT recommend this position be used for stretching nor exercise, as it can place too much strain on the knee in swimmers with poor internal rotation.

The swimmer squats on a padded mat with the knees on the ground as close together as possible. The knees are bent with the feet behind, near the hip, turned outward rather than backward, simulating the exact position a swimmer will be in prior to initiating the propulsion from the breaststroke kick. If a swimmer is able to get his/her bum on the ground comfortably in this position with no pain, then the swimmer has good internal hip rotation.

To test for external hip rotation, 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. Dorsiflex 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 swimmer with a good external hip rotation 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 external rotation. There are many modifications of this hip stretch and just like in swimming technique, some work better based on the individual. Later, I will describe a good stretch to improve internal rotation, but do not use the W squat for that.

Experimental All-Stars

When I was at Indiana University, I was an IMer with a very poor breaststroke kick (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. While there are various levels of mobility of the ankle and knee which can naturally help breaststrokers, I am not certain how much we can change them. The hip, which is a ball and socket joint, is a much easier place to increase mobility than stretching the Achilles tendon, gastrocnemius muscle or the knee joint.

Back Flex Test

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, keeping the pelvis on the ground. Olympian Rebecca Soni, can bend her body to nearly a 90 degree angle. Or one can do a back pushup (on a padded mat), 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 breaststroke kick is key to swim the stroke fast. 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.

Evaluate a Swimmer for Breaststroke Kick

Do these three 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)

Watch Video: Breaststroke Wall Kick

[email protected]<http://[email protected]
Www.theraceclub.com <http://www.theraceclub.com


The Race Club, logoBecause Life is Worth Swimming, our mission is to promote swimming through sport, lifelong enjoyment, and good health benefits. Our objective is for each member of and each participant in The Race Club to improve his or her swimming performances, health, and self-esteem through our educational programs, services and creativity. We strive to help each member of The Race Club overcome challenges and reach his or her individual life goals.

The Race Club provides facilities, coaching, training, technical instruction, video, fitness and health programs for swimmers of all ages and abilities. Race Club swim camps are designed and tailored to satisfy each swimmer’s needs, whether one is trying to reach the Olympic Games or simply improve one’s fitness. Our programs are suitable for beginner swimmers, pleasure swimmers, fitness swimmers, USA swimming or YMCA swimmers, or triathletes; anyone who wants to improve swimming skills. All of our Race Club members share an enjoyment of being in the water and use swimming to stimulate a more active mind and body.

Press Release courtesy of The Race Club, a SwimSwam partner.

Leave a Reply

Notify of

oldest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
6 years ago


crooked donald
6 years ago

Just do not get the importance of the “hip test” and worry that you may be encouraging something that isn’t really true. What you’re testing is EXternal rotation at the hip. What breastrokers need is INternal rotation at the hip. Perhaps your “hip test” just means they have loose hips in both directions, but emphasizing a test for external rotation may encourage people to work on that, when, in reality, the deficit to be fixed would be in internal rotation.

Reply to  crooked donald
6 years ago

THANK YOU! I love virtually 100% of the stuff that Mr. Hall puts out through the Race Club. The knowledge, expert demonstration, beautiful camera work…all told, it’s one of the most valuable, freely available resources to swimmers and coaches out there on the internet. But yeah, Hall always gotten this point totally backwards about hip rotation in breaststroke (and variations on this article have been shared time again on this website). Just to add on to what you’re saying, for the benefit of others who are confused by this:

Hip rotation is defined by the rotation of the femur along the longitudinal axis (easy terminology for us swimmers, see: long axis strokes!). I’m no physio, so I don’t know… Read more »

crooked donald
Reply to  Adrien
6 years ago

Unfortunately, this is about the third time I’ve seen the same thing from The Race Club here Dr. Hall should correct it or clarify what his point is, or SwimSwam shouldn’t keep publishing it.

Reply to  crooked donald
6 years ago

Thank you. I stand corrected. The confusion (I believe) for me is that most swimmers swim breaststroke with the knees far too wide apart, whereby they are externally rotating at the hips. Virtually all of the elite breaststrokers have the knees inside the hips (to shorten the kicking cycle time) which requires hip internal rotation in order to point the feet outward. There is a strong correlation, however, with the test we do for external rotation of the hip and propulsion in the breaststroke kick, so it may be a good test for both internal and external flexibility of the hip.
The hip is not the only joint involved in creating surface area for the instep pushing backward. The… Read more »

Reply to  garyhallsr
6 years ago

Hi Gary,

I’m a physical therapist and breastroke technique specialist. Wanted to note that the ankle would be in dorsiflexion and pronation (or rather eversion) to bring the toes out. Supination would be turning the bottom of the foot inward, as is done in the other kicks.

One other component often neglected in BR kick is the role of tibial torsion or rotation at the knee. Some individuals have naturally rotated tibia bones that bias the foot to an outward position. Additionally, often what looks like amazing ankle flexibility is actually the biceps femoris muscle rotating the whole tibia externally (outward) relative to the femur as it pulls on the fibula. The nice thing about this component is that… Read more »

Reply to  LizAmuch
6 years ago

Thank you for the correction and additions. Although we tend to think of the knee strictly as a hinge joint, there are various degrees of rotation that we do find in the tibia at the knee joint which can also help a swimmer point the toes outward. I am not certain that this rotation of the tibia is very easily alterable. The ability to dorsiflex (and pronate) the ankle is also quite variable among swimmers.

crooked donald
Reply to  garyhallsr
6 years ago

I think what you’re finding with your test is generalized hip mobility which may correlate both with the internal rotation but also the torquing that happens as one goes from internal rotation with the feet up to neutral as the feet whip around. The hip is basically a shoulder that you sit on, so the ability to create torque at the hip is probably common to all elite breastrokers, just as the ability to torque at the shoulder is common to all elite freestyle sprinters. Thanks for the reply.

Reply to  crooked donald
6 years ago

Another possible factor in hip flexibility is the size of the head of the femur. According to my orthopedic surgeon, there is a classification of hips, based on the size of the head and acetabulum, which could affect the ability of the hip to internally or externally rotate.

Billy Howard
6 years ago

Would you post pictures or better a video of these two tests?