The Boring “Secret” to Improving Your Underwater Dolphin Kick

Looking to improve your underwater dolphin kick?

Here’s why adding one dolphin kick per wall, is the fastest way to get there.

Often when swimmers talk about improving their underwaters it’s after watching someone like Michael Phelps, Florent Manaudou, Tom Shields or Caeleb Dressel decimate the competition with their dolphin kicking.

It’s awe-inspiring to watch, and hard not to feel fired up to want to go to the pool and pound away at that dolphin kick like a salmon in its death throes.

What will often happen next is this: Our example swimmer will go to the pool, try to push their underwaters all the way to 15m for a few hundred meters, or maybe half the practice. As soon as exhaustion and the realization that they are still faster above the water for a majority of the time they are underwater sinks in, they return to their old dolphin kicking habits.

While good intentioned, the secret to developing a thunderous underwater dolphin kick isn’t to go from 5m breakouts to 15m breakouts overnight. Not only will this kind of breath-holding be difficult for a swimmer who isn’t used to it, but it’s likely that your underwater dolphin kick from 5-15m isn’t presently faster than your swimming speed. (See: How Far Underwater Should You Be Dolphin Kicking?)

How to Improve Your Dolphin Kick Sustainably

The free-range and sustainable way to improve that dolphin kick is through the boring (and proven) method of marginal gains. It’s making small jumps and improvements, which are doable in the short term, and viable over the long term.

That’s why if you want to improve your dolphin kick you need to start by adding one kick per wall for an entire practice.

No more, no less.

Look, I get it–the problem with “one kick” is that it doesn’t feel substantial enough.

But it can add up exceptionally quickly when you stick to it.

Let’s say that your swim practices average 4,000 meters (or yards). Swum short course this would give you 160 push-offs and breakouts. That’s 160 extra dolphin kicks…per practice.

Now, if you train 6 days a week, with a couple early morning workouts in there as well, for a total of 8 workouts, we are looking at an additional 1,280 dolphin kicks per week.

You think you’ll start to see some improvement pretty quickly doing that much dolphin kicking?

You bet your butt.

And definitely more than if you tried to hold an unrealistic standard before quickly burning out on it.

More importantly, you will be working it at all speeds if you do it from the beginning to end of your workouts. You’ll be doing that one kick during the intense race pace stuff, during your drill work, during your lactate threshold work, and so on.

Michael Phelps, in his 2009 autobiography No Limits detailed how Bowman and Phelps realized in 2002 how much of a weapon the underwater dolphin kick could become.

Coach and swimmer began to progressively include more and more of it in their training:

“The rules say you’re allowed to kick underwater off the turn for a full 15 meters. During the summer of 2002, Bob and I resolved to work that dolphin kick into my training, into my IM sets. If we did ten 400 IMs, for instance, I would dolphin kick (to 15m) on the last two, from breast to free; then work my way up to four, six, eight, and finally, ten.”

Start with one kick, and then in a week, add another. And another.

The key to improving that dolphin kick of yours is consistency, not showing up and doing 15m walls for one workout and then getting frustrated you aren’t seeing results fast enough.


Olivier Poirier-Leroy is a former national level swimmer. He’s the publisher of YourSwimBook, a ten-month log book for competitive swimmers.

Conquer the Pool Mental Training Book for SwimmersHe’s also the author of the recently published mental training workbook for competitive swimmers, Conquer the Pool: The Swimmer’s Ultimate Guide to a High Performance Mindset.

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  1. CBswims says:

    This is a great point, and I could even see doing an incremental set, i.e. first 100 2 kicks on up to 7 kicks off each wall. What I do know from my own training is to be more patient – for example, take the time for pronounced six beat kick and stick to whatever speed I can maintain that.

  2. pwb says:

    Spot on. I just made the rookie mistake you described at the beginning of May when I started my resolution to do more SDKs. I’ve backed down to aiming for 5 off each wall – which is about 2-3 more than I used to do – and this is hard, but sustainable over a workout.

  3. Mikeh says:

    Bob Bowman said in a talk that by 2002 Phelps eventually built up to dolphin kicking 15m off every wall, every lap, at every practice. It got to a point that Bob was worried Phelps wasn’t getting enough upper body stimulation, and started limiting his kicks. What a great problem to have!

  4. Roberto Figueroa says:

    Sorry Olivier but what you write here:

    That’s 160 extra dolphin kicks…per practice.
    Now, if you train 6 days a week, with a couple early morning workouts in there as well, for a total of 8 workouts, we are looking at an additional 1,280 dolphin kicks per week.

    is just another form of old school mindset that more volume will get your results. It is the quality of the kick that matters, at the same intensity as in the chosen races, and it is not doing 1290 dolphin kicks per week that will get you there. A much more gradual, athletic development approach will be required.

    • swimswammy says:

      Agreed. This is a pretty basic way to work towards kicking out during distance races, hammering the last wall in a 400 IM, etc. (and that’s really what Phelps pioneered, he wasn’t the FASTEST underwater kicker he could just do it at the end of a 200 free/400 IM/200 fly in a way nobody else could).

      It’s not necessarily the best way to get your kicks faster though. Just like doing 1 extra push-up every day isn’t the best way to build a strong bench press.

  5. phelps swims 200 breast rio says:

    If you haven’t already seen it, check out Lochte’s amazing underwater at the 100 in the 4×200 Shanghai 2011.


      His underwaters in 2011 were unbelievable !!! Ricky Berens , Stravius , Le Clos and Dressel ones are probably among the best i have seen as well .

    • Skoorbnagol says:

      The GREATEST turn in history.
      Why ?
      Well what no one ever likes to mention is he destroyed Phelps under water as he was superior that year and under water in general.
      Phelps wasn’t fast under water , he just used it when other people were slow and was ahead of his game in using it (2007). But sooooo many people before and after we’re faster than Phelps at fly kick underwater , it’s how u perceive it to be fast.

      • Steve Nolan says:

        Eeh his free turn in the 400 free relay in Rio was pretty boss.

        He was also apparently squattin’ huge weight then, which I can confirm, helps like crazy on your walls.

        (I can do nothing else but turn REAL FAST now.)

        • ERVINFORTHEWIN says:

          Steve , i was exactly about to mention that ” Insane ” turn and underwater – he was ahead on that second leg after that – he managed to push the French behind him just over 65 meters !!! In my view – the best Phelps 400 free relay split

      • Eagleswim says:

        Watch phelps’ turn at the 50 leading off the 4×100 in 2016. Then tell me he wasn’t fast underwater

        • Skoorbnagol says:

          Well he was next to Fabien Gilot who is poor underwater and born 1984, anyone half decent in the 20’s he wouldn’t of had any impact. if he was next to stravius it wouldn’t of had any impact. Again it’s how u perceive it.
          Was his turn any good in 100fly when it needed to be, well for Phelps yes, did he have any impact ? No, why because everyone in that race was good at kick or faster.
          Any race Phelps is next to shields it’s clear shields is faster, 2014 national great example when he gets beat.

      • Eagleswim says:

        And when phelps broke out half a body length ahead of the field off the start in the 200 free in 2008 it’s just cuz he was using his underwaters on the last wall

  6. Frost says:

    Just stop doing underwaters all together

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About Olivier Poirier-Leroy

Olivier Poirier-Leroy has been involved in competitive swimming for most of his life. Starting off at the age of 6 he was thrown in the water at the local pool for swim lessons and since then has never wanted to get out. A nationally top ranked age grouper as both a …

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