When we learn to swim, many of us get handed a kickboard to give us water confidence or help us work on our technique.
Kickboards are widely accepted as an excellent training aid for both beginner and professional swimmers. However, there is much debate on whether kickboards are good for your swim technique. It is important to know how and when you use a kickboard to improve your technique and avoid injury.
I have a love/hate relationship with kickboards, so I appreciate the debates for and against their use.
From my experience, as long as you understand the principles of kickboard use and do not misuse them, which can cause an injury, you can benefit by including kickboards as part of your swim routine.
In this article, I want to give you the pros and cons of using a kickboard so you can see the full picture and get answers to the following:
- Why do swimmers use kickboards?
- What are the benefits of using a kickboard? (The Pros)
- Are kickboards bad for swimming? (The Cons)
- Do kickboards promote a poor swimming position?
- Is swimming with a kickboard a good workout?
- What Size Kickboard Do I Need?
- What is a good kickboard to use?
Why Do Swimmers Use Kickboards?
As a general rule, swimmers use kickboards to improve their overall swim technique, improve kick speed and improve endurance.
The purpose of the kickboard will vary depending on your swim level.
If you are a beginner swimmer, you may use a kickboard to gain water confidence as it is buoyant or to work on your kicking technique so you can understand what a good kick feels like as you move through the water.
As a beginner, kickboards are usually a helpful tool, as you can work on your leg motion without worrying about incorporating arm movements or breathing.
If you are an advanced or pro swimmer, you may use a kickboard to improve your swim kick technique, improve endurance and work on increasing your speed.
Although only 15% of our power comes from our legs in the water [source], for competitive athletes, it is important to make every aspect of your stroke as efficient as possible and to get the most out of your kick.
Using a kickboard allows you to isolate your legs, so you can work on your kicking technique specifically.
What Are The Benefits Of Using A Kickboard? (The Pros)
There are many benefits to using a kickboard, including a direct leg workout, a great cardiovascular workout and the opportunity to improve your kicking technique.
However, just because I am placing the pros of using a kickboard first in this article, this does not mean that I think they are amazing. There are also some serious disadvantages of using a kickboard which I cover further down in this post, which is important to read in order to avoid injury.
The Pros Of Using A Kickboard
1. Great Leg Workout
One of the major benefits of using a kickboard is that it isolates the legs so you can focus specifically on your leg technique without worrying about using your arms.
As your head is above the water, you will be able to breathe freely. This can be an advantage, as using your legs when you swim can quickly lead to exhaustion and tiredness. Allowing yourself to breathe fully while working on your legs can help you get more legwork done and for longer.
2. Cardiovascular Workout
If you try to use your legs intensely as you swim, you will notice your heart rate rise and you will feel your lungs and heart working hard.
All swimming strokes are a great cardiovascular workout. However, focusing on your legs will get the blood pumping quickly. To use your legs a lot in the water, you need to have a good level of fitness as it can be exhausting.
This is one reason long-distance swimmers do not use too much legwork and focus more on body movement and arm work. Typically, long-distance swimmers will only use a 2-beat kick, which is kicking twice per stroke cycle.
If you want to increase your fitness and stamina, you could use a kickboard and increase your kick to a 6-beat kick, which is kicking six times per stroke cycle. This is the type of kick typically used by competitive swimmers.
Whichever kick pattern you choose, using your legs is a great cardiovascular exercise, and using a kickboard to help you with this can be very rewarding.
3. Good For Breaststroke Kick
If you are struggling to grasp the breaststroke kick, then using a kickboard is a good way to practice.
The breaststroke kick resembles a similar kick pattern to the movements of a swimming frog, with your legs kicking out to the side and circling back in again.
As the upper body is mostly out of the water with the breaststroke, holding onto a kickboard is a fairly comfortable position to practice this stroke without worrying about the hand motion or underwater breathing.
If you use a kickboard to practise your breaststroke kick, ensure you do not strain your back by trying to force your head above the water. Keep your body position relaxed and comfortable.
4. A Break For Your Arms
As a regular swimmer, you might be in the pool every day. Although this is fun and exciting, if you do not mix up your swim strokes, or if you have a poor technique, you might suffer from an injury such as repetitive strain injury.
In addition, should injury can be a common problem for regular swimmers, particularly competitive swimmers.
Using a kickboard as part of your practice can give your arms a rest.
By taking the pressure off your arms, you can still get in the pool and allow your arms to heal.
However, if you decide to use a kickboard to recover from a shoulder injury, take great care to position the kickboard in a way that will not further damage your shoulders.
For example, a lot of shoulder swimming injuries are aggravated by placing your arms out in front of you or above your head. If this is the case, do not hold the kickboard out in front of you, as this will make your shoulder injury worse.
Granted, you may give your shoulders a rest because they are not moving, but if the injury is aggravated by holding your arms in front of you, then holding the kickboard in this position will keep you injured for longer. Ensure you place the kickboard in a safe position that really gives your arms a break.
5. A Good Learning Aid
Your first experience with a kickboard might have been as a beginner swimmer.
As kickboards are buoyant, they can be useful to teach beginners how to swim and how to feel more comfortable in the water as the swimmers have something to hold on to.
We should note that kickboards are not buoyancy aids, so you cannot keep yourself afloat with them, but they do give beginners something to hold on to in order to move around the pool until they get their arms and breathing working properly.
Plus, they help a beginner build their stamina and swim technique while being able to breathe naturally.
Personally, I hated using a kickboard as a beginner. If you don’t know how to do a good swim kick, or what is involved, swimming with a kickboard can be hellish.
Once I learned about ankle flexibility and what was involved in a good swim kick as an adult swimmer, suddenly I saw the benefit of using a kickboard and bought one for myself.
If you currently struggle with using a kickboard and find yourself kicking like crazy but going nowhere, check out the following article that covers the art of kicking in swimming in much greater depth, including How Should You Kick When Swimming?
Are Kickboards Bad For Swimming? (The Cons)
There are some major downsides to using a kickboard. It is important to understand these disadvantages of using a kickboard before you incorporate it as part of your daily swim.
1. Bad For Shoulder Recovery
As mentioned in the pros of using a kickboard, using one can give your shoulders a rest. However, it has been shown that with specific swimming shoulder injuries, using a kickboard can damage your shoulder even further.
A lot of swimmers place their kickboard out in front of them as they swim. If you have a swimming shoulder injury, this position can aggravate the injury and make it worse.
If you are planning to use a kickboard to give your shoulders a rest or to aid in recovery, take care not to place the kickboard in a position that will slow down your recovery.
2. Neck Strain
Often when beginners (or more experienced swimmers) use a kickboard, their legs might sink or they might want to put their heads back to prevent their face from going into the water.
Craning your head back as you swim could lead to neck strain.
If you are using a kickboard, pay attention to what body position you are holding, as you might place your neck or lower back under strain by trying to stay afloat.
3. Flat Hips & Poor Roll Technique
This is one area of using a kickboard that many coaches argue about.
Some coaches say that using a kickboard can help technique, while many argue that using a kickboard promotes poor body movement in the water, with flat hips and no body roll.
In order to swim fast and well, rolling your body from side to side helps with propulsion.
If you are using a kickboard to learn to swim, you may maintain a flat hip position in the water and forget to roll your hips and body from side to side.
Personally, I have to agree with this argument, as when I was learning to swim, no coach told me to roll my hips. I was swimming flat in the water, and it felt like I was swimming through mud most of the time and not clean pool water.
With a kickboard, I just felt embarrassed as I just did not move very far or quickly. Once I let go of the kickboard and worked out the art of rolling my hips from side to side and engaging my ankles to push forward, suddenly swimming made sense.
If someone hands you a kickboard and you hardly move forward at all, my advice is to work on your ankles and roll your hips.
To increase ankle flexibility or to understand how a good kick feels in the water, I recommend training fins as this will help you feel what your ankles are doing and what a hip roll and good body positions should feel like in the water.
4. Bad Idea With Dolphin Kick Practice
This is another area of kickboard use that is widely debated.
You might find lots of YouTube videos online showing you how to practice a dolphin kick using a kickboard.
The dolphin kick uses an undulating body movement to glide through the water. The body needs to move up and down like a sine wave.
Some pros start their dolphin kick from the arms, while others will keep a relatively steady arm position and focus most of the undulation from the torso downwards.
Whatever your school of thought on how to do the dolphin kick, ensure you do not hinder your movements by using a kickboard or cause a lower back injury because of restricted movements.
To fully appreciate the dolphin kick and how you can maximise your efficiency, I believe you need your arms free.
If you try to force an unnatural undulating movement by holding onto a kickboard, you could strain your back muscles, so take care.
Do Kickboards Promote A Poor Swimming Position?
The use of kickboards is widely debated with some coaches going so far as to call them “evil”.
As a general rule, if you rely heavily on a kickboard while learning to swim, it can promote a poor swimming position by encouraging your legs to go higher in the water, until the point that they are kicking more air than water and splashing.
When you learn to kick with a kickboard, your upper body is high in the water, which forces your legs downwards, creating drag.
To compensate, beginner swimmers will raise their legs higher in the water, which is a good idea as higher legs means faster swimming.
However, once the kickboard is removed, there is the argument that this learnt muscle memory from using a kickboard will remain, so when you dip your upper body into the water, your legs will be so high in the water (learnt from using the kickboard) that your kick will cause splashing and kicking more air than water.
Personally, I believe that kickboards have their place in your swim bag as long as they are used correctly and for the right thing, but I agree with coaches who think that using a kickboard is a bad idea for beginners.
For me, a kickboard held me back when I was learning to swim. I was so focused on getting from one end of the pool to the other quickly using my legs only, that I missed out on understanding fundamental principles of learning to swim such as rolling your hips and optimum leg position.
Whatever side of the argument you are on regarding kickboards, if you overuse kickboards when learning to swim, you might learn a swimming technique that may have to be unlearnt in order to progress your swimming as you get more advanced.
A little kickboard use for a beginner is fine, but too much could create a problem.
Is Swimming With A Kickboard A Good Workout?
Swimming with a kickboard is an excellent workout and can help promote a higher level of fitness, stamina and endurance.
In addition, although all swimming works your core muscles, you may find that your abs also get a great workout.
As you use your kickboard, you will work your heart and lungs hard, as the constant leg kicking motion is a tough exercise to do.
This will cause you to burn a lot of calories and you will find that you are out of breath faster.
What Size Kickboard Do I Need?
With a standard tombstone shaped kickboard, the kickboard size should be shoulder width. In addition, holding the kickboard at the top, the bottom of the kickboard should sit at the mid-way point of your bicep.
There are many types of kickboards on the market including:
Here is a great video showing a good variety of kickboards that are on the market and which one is good for your swimming style.
What Type Of Kickboard To Use?
Kickboards come in many shapes and sizes and it is important to get the right type of kickboard for your training needs.
Below are the main kickboards and what we typically use them for.
1. Regular Kickboard (Often Tombstone shaped)
This is one of the most common kickboards out there and is often used by beginners to learn how to swim or by pro athletes to work on their leg power and endurance.
It is great for stability in the water, which is good for beginners.
2. Pull Kickboard
This is designed to improve upper body muscles.
This design can be used as both a kickboard by holding onto the indented hand grips on the kickboard or as a pull buoy, by placing the kickboard between your legs to use the arms only.
This is great to work both arms and legs from just one piece of equipment.
3. Sprint Kickboard
These are streamlined in shape to allow you to swim through the water as quickly as possible.
Different designs will have handholds in different positions so you can experiment with what is most comfortable for you. The better designs will have multiple hand positions to help you enhance your sprinting.
4. Alignment Kickboard
These kickboards are designed to enhance your body position in the water by maintaining a well-aligned body position.
The nice thing about this design is that the board is small enough so that it will slightly submerge beneath the water, giving you a more natural body position.