shoulder swimming kickboard

The Definitive Defense of Why Swimmers Should Never Use a Kickboard for Training

admin Blog, Dr. John Mullen, Injuries, Latest&Greatest, Training 31 Comments

Glad the title got you to click. Now, before you dismiss this notion, please keep an open mind. I know many of you will mark this article as nonsense or will assume you know all this information before reading further. If swimmers never use a kickboard again, they could:

  • Become faster surface swimmers
  • Become faster dolphin kickers
  • Reduce their risk of shoulder injuries
  • Cut down their risks of low back injuries
  • Improve streamline and body alignment
  • Improve the dreaded “swimmer’s posture”
  • Increase toe point ability
  • Maximize starts
  • Optimize turns
  • Reduce neck injuries

The list of benefits could go on and on. What it boils down to is, removing kickboards will:

  1. Improve performance
  2. Reduce injuries

What else could you want ???!?!?!?!? Now, let my definitive detailed defense of why swimmers should never use a kickboard during training begin:

10 Reasons Swimmers Should Never Use a Kickboard

1. Become Faster Surface Swimmers

Kicking with a board is used to improve leg kicking endurance. Unfortunately, it also places you out of the essential streamline position for performance. Kicking without a board will improve the swimmer’s streamline in the water. Also, recent research shows board kicking and free kicking result in different motor patterns. This difference likely doesn’t allow transference of skill. Why place swimmers in a poor position that doesn’t transfer to the actual skill? Sounds like there should be a better way. Read: 

2. Become Faster Dolphin Kickers

Many refer to dolphin kicking as the 5th stroke, but one could argue it is the #1 stroke, as it is the most used skill in the pool. In every stroke –even in breaststroke – dolphin kicking occurs. In short-course swimming, the crucial importance of dolphin kicking is obvious, as it can contribute 60% or more to a race. Even in long-course swimming, dolphin kicking can contribute up to 30%! These are huge percentages for something that is completely ignored with kickboard kicking. If you are not an elite dolphin kicker, your only shot at greatness is the 50 free. I see this changing drastically over the years, as dolphin kicking is the fastest water action. With elite dolphin-kicking sprinters on the rise (e.g. Caleb Dressel and Ryan Hoffer), the old surface swimmer Anthony Ervin won’t be able to keep up. I think in Tokyo all 50-m swimmers will surface at 15-m and we’ll see an entire heat of 21.5 or better [I guess Anthony could still get into the finals and prove me wrong at 39…I’m rooting for you man!]. Read:

3. Reduce Risk of Shoulder Injuries

Swimming overstresses the shoulder, resulting in ~80% of swimmers experiencing pain and injury in their career. End ranges of motion place the shoulder under the highest stress. An external force pressing on a joint at end range is the worst for the joint. End range of motion at the shoulder occurs during swimming with:

  1. End range of shoulder internal rotation during the catch
  2. End range of shoulder flexion during streamline
  3. End range of shoulder flexion during board holding

Of these three elements, which one isn’t a crucial element during a race? Moreover, which one places an external force on the joint? The buoyant kickboard places vertical stress, jamming the head of the humerus into the shoulder joint. This further wears out the labrum, overuses the rotator cuff muscles to stabilize the joint in place, and causes more stress, damage, and injury! Read:

4. Cut Down Risk of Low Back Injuries

The second most injured body part in swimming is the low back. Many low back injuries are described as non-specific low back pain due to the complexity of the low back and many things causing low back stress. The spine being extended for long periods is extremely damaging to its structures. With the buoyancy of the board causing vertical stress on the arms, most swimmers backs are often extended while they are holding a board. Having the board closer to the body worsens the stress. This idea is not novel for many, therefore swimmers are instructed to kick with the board fully extended and have their head in the water. Unfortunately, this places the shoulder further into shoulder flexion, causing more issues for #3.

5. Improve Streamline and Body Alignment

When swimmers are using a kickboard, they’re in poor body alignment. Their heads are up, their low backs are extended and they are simply being taught poor habits. If a swimmer did more leg-driven swimming [more below] or streamline kicking, they would be able to focus more on streamline and body alignment, areas many swimmers have much room for improvement. Read:

6. Drastically Reduce the Dreaded “Swimmer’s Posture”

Piggybacking off #5, being out of a kickboard position improves the dreaded “swimmer’s posture”. Think of all the hours swimmers spend with the board and replace them with proper alignment. It will do wonders! This in-water poor posture will transfer to posture on land and improve their overall resting position. Reducing excess time in this position also lowers overall stress and improves “spine hygiene” and “shoulder hygiene”, fun terms we throw around at COR to teach about daily small stressors adding up. Read:

7. Increase Toe Point Ability

When swimmers are kicking with a board, they are kicking mainly knee down. When athletes are swimming or doing dolphin kicks, they will use their hips and entire body more, generating extra force. The added force transfers through the ankle, placing a greater ankle plantarflexion (toe point) force on the joint. This increase may be small, but think of all the hours swimmers use a board. Once again, the little things add up over time. Read:

8. Maximize Starts

This may sound far fetched, but there are two reasons working more without a board will improve starts:

  1. The more dolphin kick practice swimmers do, the better their start will be underwater.
  2. The more dolphin kick they perform, the more power work they will do on their legs. Yes, swimmers could do easy dolphin kicks, but most perform aggressive dolphin kicks off the wall, even during long kick sets. I’m not sure why this is. Often, it’s to maximize the fastest swimming style, but the extra power work will improve their power off the block.

9. Optimize Turns

Pretty much, see point 8. Better dolphin kicks, greater power production, improved turns. Read:  3 Tips for Elite Swimming Turns

10. Reduce Neck Injuries

Holding a board with the head looking forward places stress on the back of the neck. This position can create tight muscles in the suboccipital region, leading to issues ranging from muscular imbalances to tension-type headaches. Although the neck is not the primary injury site among swimmers, neck strains do occur. The neck in extended position with a board is a major contributor to this injury. Who knows how many headaches are caused by this poor position! Watch:

So Kickboards are bad…what else is there?

I’m glad you asked and made it this far. If you actually read this entire piece, you would’ve followed my train of thought for these recommendations, good work!

  1. Streamline dolphin kick: Dolphin kicking is the most important stroke. It is used in every stroke and is an essential part of elite swimming. If you replace board kicking with streamline kicking on your back and work 12 – 15 – m of dolphin kicks off each wall, your performance will improve! Moreover, you’ll remove most of the 10 items I listed above.
  2. Leg driven swimming: The best way to transfer a skill is to do it. Removing stroking from the equation minimizes the transference of the kicking to actual swimming kicking. I believe this is why so many good board kickers are not good swimming kickers. Therefore, creating “kick sets” or leg driven swimming sets is a great way to give the arms a break, but emphasize the legs in a more specific manner. For example, have a swimmer swim with relaxed arms, with an 8-beat kick or ditch the kick count and do a maximal kick. This will certainly train the legs, won’t drain the arms (if the swimmer takes the arms easy) and remove the issues listed above.

Yes, kickboards are a staple in the sport and help kids learn how to alternatively move their legs in the pool. They also teach young kids how to breathe and keep their head afloat.

Wake up swimming community!

If you’re reading this, you aren’t in a learn-to-swim program. Don’t do something to follow mindless tradition. Break the trend, be healthier, and get faster at the same time! I know using a board is one of the few social aspects in the sport, particularly when you want social time, chat on the wall, or do a team activity. Take every chance in the pool for improvement opportunities!  Improve with more leg-driven swimming and streamline kicking! Who is with me? Think I’m a fool, leave your comments and we can debate the point! swimmers shouldn't use kickboards

Comments 31

  1. As a Masters swimmer back into training after some years out of the pool i can totally concur with your statements. Im totally out of normal spinal position with the board and this gives me low back and neck strain with tension. I have analysed why and feel the flex in my spine which is not comfortable. Ive reduced kick with the board and the pain reduces. I ll try kick in sstreamline position and fly legs to see if that can provide the leg strength.

  2. I also came to this conclusion awhile back but you nailed it properly and in full detail. It takes wisdom and a progressive mind to improve things rather than sticking to tradition with no thought at all. Unfortunately, the club that I’m currently with (but not for long) has a very one dimensional way of swim training. Thank you!

  3. A great article summarising all my thoughts. I have not prescribed kickboard use for many years, it is not even on my list of equipment for my squad swimmers.
    After learn to swim for young children there is simply no need for them in my opinion. Teach the skills correctly from the start!
    Jason Tait

    1. Post

      Depends on what the athlete is working on. I think the alignment board is a helpful tool (as well as the snorkel) for finding streamline and core stability. However, for an entire set it is likely too much.

  4. While I do agree board kicking is bad, streamline is also terrible for shoulders. We had an orthopedic doctor tell us basically the only way to kick and avoid and added possibilities of added injury is kick with arms by your side.

    1. Post

      Yes, kicking with the arms at the side is the least stressful on the shoulder. I prefer to have them do stroking with an overkick than arms next to their side, as next to the side is a lot of drag and not specific to swimming (in my opinion).

      1. Hey John,
        Jan Olbrecht would totally agree with you on kick transference and relates it back to how aerobic capacity is developed which is probably point #11: The specificity of building aerobic capacity dictates that strong kicks be developed using strong kicks in the full Swim effort.

  5. Well that was so informative and I guess the board usage explains my shoulder problem , and I’m getting a sway back from the kick board .im giving up the board !!!!!
    When I’m kicking on my front where should my arms go ? Same for back ?

    Thank you so much , I’m looking forward to my new way of swimming

    1. Post
  6. I totally agree with you.
    I underwent shoulder capsulitis surgery years ago and since the recovery I never used a traditional kickboard again (except for the FINIS alignment kickboard while having fun with a monofin).
    I use a frontal snorkel while training the kick: streamline position is OK and my shoulders are not stressed.
    You newsletter is very very full of useful information!!!

  7. I absolutely agree with your view. I’ve always been concerned with nullifying the functionality of the slings while using a board. Secondly, most races at a school level are won underwater, what do I mean.. in a 25m pool kids who start and tumble well have the upper hand.

  8. This was the BEST ARTICLE I have ever read about kickboards. You put it out there and told the truth. No fear! Yay! I have been telling my swim students this for years….we do not use kickboards. When I was teaching coaching the young kids on the swim team I never used a kickboard. NEVER. The kids were always using my tag line “Head out, butt sinks”. Hey, at last they understood the concept of streamline 🙂 . I have written a couple of articles about ‘why I hate kickboards’ on my blog. Maybe someone read them. LOL. I often see the lifeguards at the pool handing out kickboards to the newbie lap swimmers – ‘they are trying to help them. Imagine the horror’. Thank you for this wonderful article.

  9. When tutoring courses over many years, it was always in the teaching manuals re the benefit of using a board,etc, to develop the legs action and so on. I always pointed out the fact that a very small percentage of non-swimmers,beginners, improver’s and most adults were not interested in competitive swimming and came for safety reasons, fitness, company, part of a school curriculum and so on.
    When coaching swimmers to this present day, I always put the emphasis on whole body action, timing,streamlining to reduce resistance,good breathing technique. I would only use a board for a short time with non-swimmers when encouraging the basic push/glide practice to help focus on a streamlined body position and then discard for full stroke practice.

  10. Great article. My age group swimmer has a very fast kick using a kickboard but as you mentioned this doesn’t seem to transfer to a particularly strong kick in racing. She has a great streamline and dolphin kick though and I attribute that to her first swim teacher who did not use kickboards and instead they spent most of their lessons doing torpedoes – kicking in perfect streamline position. She is currently using a speedo very buoyant heavy kickboard in her squad training but tempted to swap it out for a less buoyant one like that finis alignment kickboard and encouraging her to use a snorkel as she has mentioned that her shoulders hurt during kick sets. I realise you don’t like kickboards at all but as they use them in her squad I would be interested as to the best of the worst! Thanks

    1. Post
    2. Hmm
      Think what this could do injury wise later in life. Currently researching whether swimming is the reason for spinal injuries – fractures, early degeneration of discs etc. have just heard that kickboard may be the reason. There was a study on use of kickboards with dolphin kick which I’m interested in but cannot find!!!

      1. Post
  11. The Breaststroke specialists excepted?
    Using a board with them puts their bodies in perfect alignment to maximise their leg drive.

  12. We have been kicking without boards
    especially in the warm up area.
    great article for the younger coaches.
    kicking elevates the body and proper position is especially helpful. Younger swimmers tend to drop their hips during long distance sets. You nailed it with this article thanks

  13. Whilst all points are valid and excellently put across, somethings will always work.
    Ian Thorpe kicked 5.06, Hackett 5.02, Phelps 4.56 and Vendt 4.54 all long course 400free kick with a board.
    Clearly worked for some of the greatest, never heard of anyone having shoulder issues from kick.
    Needs to be a blend and happy medium, I would guess a lot of People who hate kick struggle to make 1.45 per 100 and have never felt what a good kick feels like (10×100 @2 just making it is poor as an example) never mind looking to break 1.20 (Male) or 1.25 (female) for upto 2k set.
    I’m not totally against streamlined kick or removing the board, just the kick board sure does get a butchering on this article.
    Fly kick and free kick are massively different with regard the feeling and gains.
    Great article though, raises an interesting debate.

  14. Glad you wrote this, as I was wondering who else than me thought board kicking was a complete waste of time … (not had my swimmers do it for the last 3 years, amazingly they can still compete very successfully …)

  15. As a 35-year coach who never used boards the last 20 years, I can attest to all the truth in this article. Boards create many limits and have zero advantages.

  16. You ar like the good student reminding the teacher we need our homework assignment. Great analysis as always.
    Perhaps you can come up with a new way to socialize during practice since you totally ruined this one.

  17. wow I have just written this exact same article for swim school owners, my perception is the reason Swim school teachers use this archaic technique is because they are mindlessly following the coaches LOL either way there are so many better options we need to flip this myth that kick boards held in front is the way to learn and train kick on front 🙂

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