How to Swim Perfect Backstroke: The Ultimate Guide
If you’ve ever cast your eye upon a swimmer with great backstroke, you’ll know how graceful it is.
The effortless glide, the smooth rhythm, the fluid hip rotations all working in tune to power the swimmer through the water.
But the problem is that backstroke is one of the most misunderstood strokes in the pool.
Too often, we see swimmers making the same simple errors again and again.
So, today we’re going to break down step-by-step and show you how to master your backstroke technique.
By the end, you’ll have the tips, tricks, and know-how to stand head and shoulders above most swimmers and join the elite ranks of backstrokers.
Sounds good? Let’s jump in.
What is Backstroke?
Backstroke, as the name suggests, is swum on your back, looking up towards the ceiling (or sky) using opposite arm movements to propel you through the water.
One arm pulls through the water, the other arm moves out of the water, in front of the body, and extends until it’s overhead.
Simultaneously, a shallow flutter kick keeps the body horizontal in the water and assists with the body’s rotation from side to side to reduce frontal drag.
Backstroke is known as a ‘long-axis stroke’ and shares many similar characteristics and technical aspects with the other long-axis stroke, front crawl.
From a speed perspective, backstroke ranks in the middle of the pack. At an elite level, the backstroke world record is slower than the butterfly world record over 100m.
However, for many swimmers, especially recreational ones, backstroke ranks ahead of both butterfly and breaststroke in terms of speed.
Why You Need to Swim Backstroke Regularly
Lots of swimmers shun backstroke.
But here’s the thing. Because it’s swum on your back, backstroke offers all swimmers a myriad of benefits other strokes don’t.
Here are four reasons to swim more backstroke:
1. Backstroke Improves Your Posture
Swimming is one of the healthiest things you can do.
But if you’re pounding out thousands of lengths exclusively on your front, then muscular imbalances are sure to have an impact.
Backstroke fixes this. It takes you out of shoulder flexion and into shoulder extension, improves your shoulder mobility, and opens up overly-tight chest muscles.
And, if you’re spending your day hunched over a computer (like most folks), backstroke is the antidote to keep your shoulders from rounding forward.
2. Backstroke is the Perfect Recovery Stroke
After finishing a challenging training set, a few lengths of relaxed backstroke is the best way to bring your heart rate back down gradually.
Think about it: when you’re on your back, you can breathe freely. At the same time, you’re using slightly different muscles than freestyle, which allows your body to get ready for the next set.
Zooming out and looking at your training on a macro-level – backstroke-based sessions allow you to train your heart and lungs while also changing the muscles involved.
The result? You can train more often with a lower risk of overtraining and injury.
3. Backstroke Breaks Up Boring Sessions
Even the most passionate swimmer can get bored with just swimming the same stroke day-in, day-out.
Throwing in the odd backstroke set can mix up your training and give your body a new challenge.
Backstroke adds variety to your training and keeps things interesting – an often overlooked component in training plan design.
4. Backstroke Makes You a Better Front Crawl Swimmer
Lastly, (and possibly most importantly for you triathletes) backstroke makes you a stronger freestyler.
Seriously, ask any great freestyler to swim backcrawl, and you can bet they’ll have a great stroke.
The reason? The skills required are highly transferable between the strokes – the body posture, the rotation, the timing, and the kick are remarkably similar.
So, the more you master a skill on one stroke, the better you’ll become at the other one.
How to Swim Backstroke in 5 Easy Steps
Okay, with the benefits out of the way, let’s unpack how to improve your backstroke starting with…
1. Start With The Proper Backstroke Body Position
The reason? Because the way you hold your body while swimming affects every other aspect of your stroke.
As alluded to above, the backstroke body position is quite similar to the freestyle position (just you’re facing the opposite direction.)
All great backstrokers position themselves as flat as possible in the water like this:
Achieving a ‘horizontal’ body position like this makes swimming backstroke effortless. You’ll experience minimal frontal drag and zip through the water like a hot knife through butter.
So, how to do it? Well, here are a few tips:
- Start by hugging a kickboard: If you’re just getting started, being unable to see where you’re going can be nerve-wracking. Hugging a kickboard, lying on your back and gently kicking gets you in the groove for more advanced backstroke skills.
- Keep looking straight up: Our natural tendency is to avoid getting water up our noses (no surprise). As a result, you may be angling your face toward your feet. This causes your hips to sink and slows you down. Ideally, you want your face framed by the water, with your ears submerged.
- ‘Lean’ into the water with your upper back: Imagine you’re trying to keep a beach ball under the water with your upper back. This gives you good balance to the heavier muscles and bones in your hips and upper legs, which are prone to sinking.
- Keep your belly button dry: Hips dropping is one of the most common backstroke faults – trying to keep your belly button out of the water will bring them to the surface and streamline your body position.
- ‘Fuse’ your neck to your upper spine: Moving your head from side to side will cause your body to ‘snake’ through the water. Imagine you’re wearing a neck brace that locks your head into a stiff position and keeps it there.
Note: If your feet constantly come above the surface of the water while kicking, you may be swimming too flat on the water. It’s rare among adults (more common in kids), but if it happens to you, sink your hips ever so slightly to stop kicking the air and start kicking water.
2. Master The Backstroke Kick
If the above tips didn’t help you instantly improve your backstroke swimming technique, you might have an underpowered backstroke kick.
A good backstroke kick helps you maintain an efficient body position, minimises drag, and contributes to your forward propulsion.
Here’s X tips for ironing out any flaws in your kick:
- Keep it shallow: just like front crawl, your feet should never be more than about 8 inches apart. Any wider than that and your legs will start to act as breaks, slowing your down via increased drag.
- Kick from the hip: flexing at the knees is a one-way ticket to drag city. Focus on kicking with relatively straight legs (a slight bend should occur naturally)
- Point your toes: Pointing your toes helps streamline your entire body. But don’t keep your ankles stiff. Instead, relax your feet and allow them to ‘whip’ for maximum flipper-like propulsion.
- Stay beneath the surface: In a perfect backstroke kick, you want your foot to graze the surface of the water while keeping your knees submerged.
- Emphasise the ‘up-kick’: While both phases of the kick are necessary, put your energy into kicking up (with a relaxed ankle, of course) to generate the most force.
To see a masterful backstroke kick in action, check out this excellent video from TYR:
3. Add Rotation Into the Mix
The name says ‘Back-stroke.’ But great swimmers know that for much of the stroke, backstroke is swum on your side.
Just check out this elite-level swimmer’s body position from the Race Club high-performance team in Florida:
See how far his body is rotated?
Yup, It’s so much rotation that if he turned his head, it would almost be freestyle!
The reasons why top-level swimmers rotate like this is because it:
- Allows them to engage the big muscles of the back & chest
- The counter-rotation gives the pulling arm more power
- Reduces drag by enabling them to get more of their opposite shoulder out of the water
- Places less stress on their shoulder joint (minimise the risk of shoulder impingement)
So, here are some tips to help you incorporate body roll into your backstroke:
- Initiate the roll from the hips: Practice kicking on one side like the guy in the picture above. Using your hips and kick, rotate over to the other side and extend your opposite arm out. You want to be able to do this without any assistance from your pull.
- Hips and shoulders rotate together: To stay in the most hydrodynamic position and generate maximum power, ensure your shoulders and hips are moving in sync.
- Keep your head dead-center: Don’t allow your head to roll with your body. From the neck up, you don’t budge – keep your head straight. Try to get your shoulder in line with your chin.
This video contains some excellent examples of how to hone and refine your rotation:
4. It’s Backstroke Arm Action Time
Now that you understand how body position, kick, and body roll lay your backstroke foundation, it’s time to bring your arms into the equation.
Your arms are your primary source of propulsion, so it’s essential to use them effectively. Here’s an overview of the basic arm movement pattern:
To break this down, here are some key coaching points to remember next time you’re in the pool:
- Thumb leaves, pinky enters: The pull begins with your thumb exiting the water beside your hip. As you recover your outstretched arm, smoothly rotate your palm outward so that your pinky enters the water above your head (that way, it’s locked and loaded to initiate the pull)
- Enter at 11 am and 1 pm: Imagine your head is at 12 noon – you want your left arm to enter the water at 11 am and your right arm at 1 pm.
- Initiate the first ‘sweep’: the first sweep involves dropping your elbow down to put your arm in a good mechanical position to initiate the pull’s power phase (see first two arm movements in the diagram). This occurs as you rotate from one side to the other.
- Fix your arm in the water: From your low-elbow power position (forearm at 90deg), initiate the second sweep. Imagine fixing your bent-elbow arm in the water and using it to drive your body past it.
- Finish with the final down sweep: Drive your hand downwards to finish the stroke. Think about pushing water down to the bottom of the pool past your hip. As you complete this, you should be already rotating to the other side to start your next arm stroke.
Given its complexity, wrapping your head around the backstroke arm action can be tricky. So, here’s an excellent video from Swim England to help you visualise how everything works together:
5. Backstroke Breathing & Tempo
Unlike the other strokes, your face is out of the water during backstroke, making breathing relatively straightforward.
However, many people swim backcrawl using an erratic breathing pattern.
This ends with them alternating between holding their breath and gasping for air – making swimming more stressful than it needs to be.
Instead, breathe in as your right arm passes your ear and exhale as your left arm passes the other ear.
Maintaining one full breath per stroke cycle will act as a metronome – keeping your strokes even and making your session much more enjoyable.
Essential Backstroke Drills to Make You Better Swimmer
Consciously implementing the tips above will no doubt improve your backstroke.
However, understanding how to swim backstroke from a theoretical perspective and actually swimming that way are two different things.
What our brains consciously know and what our nervous system can perform are often two different things.
That’s where backstroke drills come in.
Drills help your nervous system embed the movement patterns necessary for excellent swimming.
Here’s five of the best drills to improve your backstroke:
Pro Tip: Wearing fins when performing drills makes it easier to stay afloat and focus on practicing the relevant skill. Throw them on until you’ve mastered the drill.
1. The Backstroke Rotation drill
Rotation is one of the essential elements of backstroke swimming technique.
This simple progression taught by Garry Hall senior will teach you how to properly rotate your body while keeping your head nice and straight.
2. The Backstroke Cup Drill
Remember we talked about how important keeping a steady head position?
The backstroke cup drill from Olympian Elizabeth Biesel,l will train your body to maintain a neutral head posture in time at all.
Here’s how to do it:
3. Lane Rope Pull Drill
Mastering the correct arm position on your strokes is challenging for many swimmers.
The lane rope pull drill teaches your body to maintain the bent elbow position through your stroke for faster swimming.
Watch how Speedo break it down here:
4. One Arm Backstroke Drill
When you’re trying to learn something new, it’s essential to break down the skill into manageable chunks.
One of the best ways to learn how to pull properly is to focus on just one arm at a time.
Gary Hall explains how to perform this drill correctly here:
How to Master Backstroke Turns
Backstroke turns freak lots of swimmers out.
That’s totally understandable. It goes against pretty much every survival instinct you have to blindly swim at wall head first.
But backstroke turns aren’t that difficult if you know what you’re doing. And if you’re going to race backstroke (or just want to rack up more lengths) you’ll have to learn how to do them.
Funnily enough, backstroke turns are actually performed on your front. Here’s an excellent video overview of how to master them:
Some additional tips for excellent backstroke turn:
- Learn how to flip & tumble first: Go to the pool when it’s quiet and grab a lane to yourself. In the middle of the pool, take six strokes; on your last stroke, over-rotate and flip onto your front before immediately performing a forward tumble.
- Use the backstroke flags: The backstroke flags are there to alert you that a wall is coming up. You’ll have figured out how many strokes you take, from sighting the flags to flipping onto your front before the wall.
- Blow out through your nose: Water up the nose is no fun! When flipping onto your back and pushing off the wall, slowly exhale through your nose to keep pool water out of your sinuses – a nose clip can also be helpful here.
Pro Tip: Have a friend or coach stand at the wall the first few times to make sure you don’t hit your head off the wall. You’ll slowly build up the confidence to have a go at the full turn!
How to Swim Backstroke Faster
The 100m backstroke world record is held by Ryan Murphy and stands at an eye-watering 51.85. The 50 meter backstroke world record is even more impressive at a blistering 24 seconds flat.
While holding the backstroke world record might be out of reach for most of us mere mortals, once you’ve got a handle on the basics, there are several things you can do to get faster at backstroke:
1. Power your recovering arm into the water
When you’re starting, it’s wise to place your arm into the water gently. But as you become more competent, you can begin to accelerate your arm-entry.
This will help drive more effective body rotation and maintain forward momentum at what is typically the slowest part of the stroke.
2. Become an underwater powerhouse
The best backstroke swimmers travel a great distance underwater.
The reason? Mastering underwater butterfly kicks on your back allows you to move faster than swimming on the surface (that’s why swimmers are not permitted to travel more than 15m off each wall in competitive races).
3. Work Your Down Kick
For novice back crawlers it’s crucial to put the emphasis on the ‘upbeat’ of the kick.
But for more advanced swimmers with a refined flutter kick, working the downbeat of the backcrawl kick is a great way to increase speed.
It allows you to capitalise on the vortex created by the more powerful upbeat kicking motion.
This idea applies to both underwater dolphin kicks and kicking while swimming backcrawl on the surface.
4. Practice, practice, practice
There’s no shortcut to success in the pool.
The more time you can spend practicing backcrawl, the better you’ll become.
If you’re serious about improving, dedicate at least one session per week to training different aspects of your backstroke.
If you’re patient and consistent over several weeks and months, you’ll see measurable progress and leave others wondering how you got such a nice backstroke.
5. Work with a Coach
You can make a lot of progress on your own.
But working with a coach is the best way to fast-track your progress and avoid developing bad habits.
Booking a few private swimming lessons is an investment that pays enormous dividends in the long run.
Go Forth & Start Swimming Backstroke!
Mastering the backstroke isn’t easy. But then again, nothing worth doing ever is.
Becoming good at any stroke requires patience, determination, and grit to keep going even when a particular part of the skill seems to evade you.
As the old joke goes…
“Waiter, what’s this fly doing in my soup?”
“It appears to be doing the backstroke, sir.”
Hopefully this guide has shown how to be like the fly in the soup (only hopefully a little more graceful).
From all of us here at Swim Now, best of luck!