Knowing how to tread water is an incredibly important survival skill, more important than knowing the various swim strokes and second only to knowing how to float.
It’s no surprise it’s one of the first things you’ll learn if you or your child(ren) are just getting started with swimming.
Unfortunately, many people never learned how to tread water properly, let alone without using their arms. A common misconception is that you just have to rapidly kick with your legs, but this is extremely tiring and you probably wouldn’t even last 20 seconds.
Normally treading water involves using both your arms and legs, but for the purposes of this article I will exclude any tips involving the latter.
So how do you tread water without using your arms or hands? You can use one of the following kicks: frog kick (breaststroke), flutter kick (freestyle), or rotary kick (eggbeater). The flutter kick is the easiest to perform but is also the most tiring so it is not ideal. The eggbeater kick is the most energy efficient but the most complicated kick to perform. Lastly, the frog kick is somewhere in between them in terms of energy expenditure and technique and is a solid kick to learn.
In this article, I will go over the three kicks you can use to tread water as well as cover some additional tips to help you stay afloat more easily.
Why is treading water without using arms a useful skill?
Before I begin, I want to convince you why treading water without using your arms or hands is a skill you must learn, especially if you like to go to the pool or beach.
First, freeing up your arms so that you can grab or hold onto something can be the difference between life or death in a dangerous situation. You can reach out for a ladder, rescue buoy, or someone’s hand if you are getting rescued.
Another example if you are in distress: sticking your arms out of the water and waving them is the universal sign that you need help and anybody who sees it will come to your aid or call for help.
Second, perhaps you might be the person doing the rescuing. If your child or someone else is struggling to stay afloat, knowing how to stay afloat with only your legs and carrying them with your arms makes it possible for a rescue attempt to be made.
Third, if you ever injure your arm while swimming for whatever reason, you can have peace of mind knowing that you can still stay afloat using only your legs (it can also work vice versa).
Fourth, having your arms free is useful for communication purposes, like the aforementioned waving example. Particularly if you are a scuba diver, you can use your hands to perform hand signals or at the very least point in the direction of danger.
Fifth, for recreational purposes, this skill allows you to play water polo or other water sports activities which require the use of your hands.
This is not intended to be a comprehensive list, but I think the examples provided sufficiently prove my point: knowing how to tread water with just your legs has many advantages.
How to tread water using only your legs
The flutter kick is the same kick you are used to performing when you swim freestyle. You can use it while positioned vertically to tread water.
Though this is a viable option to help you stay afloat using only your legs, it is not energy efficient and you will most likely begin to tire faster compared to the other kicks.
The advantage of the flutter kick is that it’s easy to do and most people intuitively know how to do it, so it’s a good stepping stone to give you the confidence to tread water without using your arms.
Check out the video below to get started:
Written instructions for the flutter kick:
- Assume a vertical position and hold the edge of the pool with your hands. Here, you can safely practice the flutter kick while preventing yourself from sinking since your hands are grabbing the wall. Don’t worry, the training wheels come off soon enough.
- Point your toes downward and slightly bend your knees. You don’t want to keep your legs perfectly straight, nor do you want to bend them too much. Keep your feet and ankles flexible to more easily push the water.
- Start alternating your legs forward and back in a scissor-like motion. Use your hips and thighs to initiate the movement. If done correctly, it should feel less like you are pushing water with your legs (initiating the movement from the knees), but rather the power comes from twisting in your hips.
- Let go of the wall and keep yourself afloat using only the flutter kick. You do not need to kick particularly fast or powerfully. Your body should remain steady with no bouncing. If your flutter kick looks more like you’re pedaling a bike, then you’re raising your knees too high.
The next kick you can practice is the frog kick. This is the same kick you use when you perform a breaststroke, except now you are doing it vertically.
If you aren’t sure how the frog kick is performed, here’s how:
Written instructions for the frog kick:
- Once again, assume a vertical position by the edge of the pool and hold onto it to start.
- Bring your knees up like they’re coming into your armpits, keep some space between your feet, and try to touch your butt with the heels of your foot.
- Point the direction of your feet outwards and flex them (point your toes upwards).
- In one swift motion, kick your legs out until they are fully extended, bring them around to close them, then finish by pointing your feet downwards.
- If you feel comfortable, let go of the wall with your hands and try to tread water using only the frog kick.
Lastly, the eggbeater kick is a variation of the frog kick where, instead of both legs performing the kick at the same time, you stagger them so that one leg completes the kick while the other leg is winding up for the kick, and alternating your legs that way.
Essentially, you need to learn how to do a breaststroke kick with one leg at a time. Check out the video below to get a better visual of what to do:
Written instructions for the eggbeater kick:
- Take one knee up like it’s going into your armpit and try to dig the heel of your foot to the butt.
- Point your foot out to the side and flex (point your toes upwards).
- Kick out and and bring your leg back around, ending with your foot pointing downwards.
- Keep practicing it with one leg, then practice it a few times with the other.
- Let’s try to do the full thing. Here’s the tricky part. You need to do the kicks with a slightly staggered timing. Kicking with both legs at the same time is just a frog kick. Kicking with one leg while the other is winding up is the eggbeater kick.
Additional tips to help you stay afloat
It’s very important that you stay calm and relaxed at all times.
Since you are taking your arms out of the equation, you might think that you need to put in double the effort with your legs to compensate.
You might also panic because you think it’s really difficult to tread water without your arms and hands helping out.
First, a tense body is not going to provide the flexibility to perform these kicks.
Second, if your breathing is irregular, or you are just not thinking straight and performing rapid-fire kicks, you waste precious energy that you need to conserve to increase your chances of survival in an emergency situation.
You will be surprised that you actually don’t need to put in double the effort with your legs; a little more than usual, sure, but nowhere near double.
By practicing treading water using only your legs, you will gain a valuable survival skill that can potentially save your own life or someone else’s in the future.