kick board’em to the kerb!

It’s time to bust the kick board out of storage and discover how, with a smart approach, it can be a truly effective training tool.


Long before aqua tools like dumbbells and noodles were available to use in classes, there existed only one floatation aid that was a staple in every pool – the kick board. Used to assist swimmers with technique and to develop lower body power, the kick board made its way into the aqua class as instructors looked for ways to aid suspension exercises and create resistance in the water.

The number of exercises was somewhat limited, as the kick board did not have handles, required considerable strength to be pushed through the water, and caused shoulders and fingers to fatigue quickly with both suspended and resisted exercises. New tools became available that were much more flexible with movement in water and provided options that the kick board couldn’t, and so it was increasingly left in the store room during classes.

I believe that it’s time to bust the kick board out of storage and discover how, with a smart approach, it can be a truly effective training tool.

Different grips

To use the kick board effectively in an aqua class, it has to be employed differently than other tools. Firstly, it can’t be held underwater like a dumbbell or noodle, and should be gripped with the fingers only sparingly. Instead, movements like skimming and surfing are used, in which the palms and wrist are placed on the board and fingers spread wide to control the movement.

Several leg movements can be used with this position and, depending on whether the legs are suspended or touching the bottom of the pool, the intensity of the exercise can increase or decrease. For example, when performing a straight leg kick to the back with a surfing action with feet touching the bottom of the pool, the upper body and torso muscles work to control the kick board. When performed without touching the bottom of the pool, the focus on the torso/abdominal area is far greater.

It is also possible to sit on the kick board, but the exercises that can be performed are limited, as the legs can’t move much, which in turn restricts what the arms can do without throwing the body off balance. When held in the hands, movements like book holding (holding like a book in one hand) are effective for upper body strength. While one hand holds the kick board as a book, the other braces the board against the opposite forearm. This encourages the whole arm to move the kick board through the water and takes the pressure away from holding the kick board in the fingers.

Another way to hold the kick board is to grip one side of it with both hands. Position the board against the body and grip the opposite side with both hands, bracing it against the torso. Pushing the kick board down into the water will engage the triceps, and this can be performed with a range of different lower body actions. This is also an effective position to hold the board during suspended exercises in the prone position.

Holding either side of the kick board (the width of the board) and pushing through the water can be very challenging and hard to grip. Angling the board to a 45 degree angle or less allows the movements to be quick enough to raise heart rate, while still making it achievable for most clients to perform.

Torso training

Interestingly, most participants will feel the exercises most in their torso when using the kick board. In fact, it is recommended to encourage participants to exercise in shallower water, as the buoyant properties of the kick board will make it difficult for participants to keep their feet on the bottom of the pool to stay stable while the upper body muscles work against the resistance of the board. Stabilising the board’s movement through the water and maintaining control, means that the torso muscles are working consistently against a resistance that is constantly changing in both intensity and direction. This makes for great functional training and anterior and posterior muscle activation. Skimming movements across the water are the easiest actions to perform, and the surfing actions, with their greater tilt and depth, the most challenging. Once participants have become familiar with the board’s instability in the water, they are able to apply more force and pressure during the open handed movements in which the palms rest on the board rather than grip the edges.

Get real, get wet

As always with aqua class planning, get into the pool to work out which kick board exercises you want to do. It is not possible to know how an exercise will feel, or even if it is achievable, without getting wet. For example, sitting on the kick board, the arms can perform a number of exercises, but once any leg action is included, it becomes impossible. A double knee extension is possible, but it really only challenges balance and not the muscles of the legs as it is not possible to kick hard enough to feel the quadriceps working and stay on the board. An alternating knee extension, meanwhile, is not even possible. None of this information would be apparent, however, unless you were to experiment with each move in the pool.

The most important skill for the clients to learn is how to manage and move the board with an open palm. There are a variety of exercises that use the surfing and skimming actions with the kick board and these require good control over the board without actually holding onto it. It is good to cue participants to place their wrists on the board, as this assists with control. However, watch out for the little fingers on each hand curling around the edges of the board, as this can cause wrist and forearm discomfort and fatigue: it usually happens when the participant feels that they will be unable to control the board. It needs a little practice, but the open palm technique is quickly learnt and once the participant can appreciate how much effort to place on the board to get the required resistance, and how the board behaves in the water, they will feel confident about performing a number of exercises with this technique.

Setting the pace

The speed of movement in the pool is dependent on the angle and depth of the kickboard. Instruct the class on the difference between a skim and a surf, and demonstrate how the difference in depth can also add more intensity. Once the participants are familiar with the subtleties then coach them to move at your speed and change the angle and depth to cater for their own individual strengths and abilities. This way of empowering your participants encourages them to make choices that are appropriate for their own specific needs.

Something different

A workout using the kickboard changes everything, even with traditional exercises that your clients are already familiar with. Some will find it effective straight away, while others may need a couple of workouts to get used to it. Learning to control the board requires constant concentration – there is no opportunity to mentally check out, as the turbulence continually changes the direction of the board. This gives the kick board the additional benefit of mental exercise for your clients – yet another reason to set it free from the store room!

Marietta Mehanni is an award-winning presenter, highly respected instructor mentor, Pelvic Floor First Ambassador and Australian Fitness Network Ambassador with over 20 years’ experience teaching and presenting group exercise.