How Tom Shields Developed His Insane Underwater Dolphin Kick

Tom Shields and his underwater dolphin kick were dominant throughout his NCAA and international swimming career.

Particularly in the short course yards format, which heavily favored the explosive dolphin kicker from Cal-Berkeley, powering him to multiple individual titles in the 100 fly, 100 back, and 200 fly and several relay first-place finishes.

He has extended his prowess to the short course metres pool as well, becoming the fastest American ever in the 50—and 100-metre butterfly.

More recently, however, Shields has jumped to the long course pool, winning the 200m butterfly at the 2014 US Nationals in a time of 1:55.09.

The time so far has made him the 3rd fastest man in the world for the event this year, half a second behind 2012 London Olympic gold medalist Chad Le Clos of South Africa.

See also: How to Develop an Awesome Underwater Dolphin Kick

During an interview with the MSS Shields’ shared some of the “secrets” for what had led him to developing such a standout dolphin kick.

Shields’ admitted that it was largely as a result of making the underwater work habitual. It wasn’t necessarily a secret technical tip, or some secret dryland exercise, it was that he had made his underwater work part of his daily swimming.

The secret to Shields’ massive underwater dolphin kick was simply this: Time spent.

From an early age Shields had been dolphin kicks while he was out body-boarding on the shores of Florida and Southern California. More recently, he had watched video of himself underwater so that he could adjust the technical aspects, while also seeking out to improve core flexibility.

Shields’ advice for those who want to improve their own dolphin kick is to make underwaters part of the practice, starting with the warm-up:

I’ve been doing the same warm-up…every day of my life. For warm-up we’ll do 400, 4×100, and 4×50…I’ll do open turns and do 15 [underwater] easy and slow…That’s the secret right there, just doing it in warm up.

He recognizes that there isn’t a secret bullet, a secret exercise or tip that will instantly give you a powerful kick. It’s boring, routine, and exactly why most people will never do it.

How to Make Your Dolphin Kicks Part of Your Daily Swimming

Start small. Depending on where you currently are at, doing 15 yards or metres of underwater kicks off of every single wall isn’t feasible. Start with 5, 7, or even 10 yards or metres.

Alternate 25’s. Another way to ease into the hypoxic demand that extended underwaters require is to do 15y/m underwater off every second, or even third or fourth wall. As you acclimatize, increase the frequency.

Incorporate it into your speed work. As you progress, start incorporating the underwaters into your main sets. This is where the dividends will really start to pay off, as you perform the kicks at as close to race-pace velocity as possible.

Shields’ Underwaters At Work

Here is video of Shields’ 200 butterfly win at the 2013 NCAA Div 1 Championships, where he takes the lead off the start with his underwater dolphin kicks and never relinquishes the lead. In this race, Shields would tie Michael Phelps’ American record of 1:39.65.


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Olivier Poirier-Leroy Olivier Poirier-Leroy is the founder of He is an author, former national level swimmer, two-time Olympic Trials qualifier, and swim coach.

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