3 Dry Land Swimming Exercises to Improve Backstroke Legs
The main driver in backstroke is the arms, right?
They’re the big powerhouse, driving through the water, creating that slice and streamline. They perform the big pull, displacing the water so the body can slide through it.
But a quality backstroke is a thing of finesse and rhythm. Above all, it requires balance. The lower body is absolutely key to a good backstroke.
- Legs: Powerful quads, hamstrings and glutes pump them up and down through the water column. This is actually quite difficult—a bit like trying to lift a heavy grocery sack with your arm outstretched.
- Core: Our legs are muscle rich, which makes them dense. A strong core is essential to keep them up at the surface instead of dangling underneath our bodies.
- Back: It is backstroke, after all. A strong lower back helps legs kick fly underwater during push-off and also to rotate during the stroke.
Here are three great dry-side exercises to help whip your lower body into shape for a powerful backstroke. They need little or no equipment.
1. Tour de Stade
Also known as stadium stair running, this workout is having a bit of a moment, thanks to TikTok. But it’s actually an old-school workout. If you have access to stadium stairs or any long stretch of stairs, this is an unbelievably good value workout. First of all, it’s intense cardio. Secondly, it will work your legs like no other. Your quads and glutes will burn, baby. Lastly, it acts as high-intensity training to build explosivity. This means that when you’re in the pool and you need to turn it on, your legs will come through.
Wait, legs don’t power backstroke, arms do. That’s broadly true. But in the crunch, you need big leg power, too.
- Find a long staircase.
- Run up the stairs. Take them two at a time if you can. Stop only when you can’t go anymore. Walk them if you can’t run.
- Gently jog back down to your starting point.
- Repeat up to 25 times. Yes, 25 times.
If you’re lucky enough to be able to run a stadium with coliseum-style seating like Harvard Stadium—the supposed birthplace of the tour de stade—you can run the seats (yowza!) and come down the stairs. Otherwise, we recommend sticking to the stairs for safety.
Make sure you build in a rest day or two after this one. You will notice a difference even after just one go. If you can’t run the stairs, even just walking them will give results.
2. Standing Trunk Rotation with Medicine Ball
This exercise works your core. It strengthens your abs, especially your obliques. It also works the muscles along your spine, adding general strength and stability. So it won’t only help with your backstroke but it will also reduce joint stress all along your back out of the water.
If you let your legs drop, they drag, even if you’re kicking them. That forces you to work your arms very hard, and you get tired fast. If your abs are fit, they help pull your feet up towards the surface, maintaining that long, streamlined position, driving you through the water.
Additionally, the obliques—the muscles along the sides of your torso—are used in rotation. Every time you kick in a backstroke, your hips rotate a little bit to keep you balanced. Every time you throw your arm back for the catch, however, your body should rotate a fair bit—about 30 degrees! Strong obliques work in rhythm with the arms (slow) and legs (fast) to balance that rotation along the length of the body. The result is an efficient stroke.
The standing trunk rotation is a terrific and easy dry land exercise to work the obliques. This exercise strengthens these muscles while also maintaining flexibility.
- Stand with feet shoulder-width apart.
- Hold a medicine ball with both hands. Start by keeping the ball close to your body, near the chest.
- Keeping your posture and feet steady, twist your upper body as far as possible toward the right.
- Return to the centre, and then twist as far as possible to the left.
- Repeat up to 20 times.
If holding the ball close to the body becomes easy, hold it farther from the body, until you are able to do it with your arms fully extended. If the medicine ball is too much, try with no ball, just the twist with your arms up.
3. Pigeon Pose
Don’t neglect flexibility for strength training only. Having supple joints will give a few advantages in the pool. One is that it will of course help reduce injury. Another is that it can help with getting your body streamlined for a fast stroke. And lastly, it will absolutely help with rotation both in the stroke as well as for turns.
Yoga is a great cross-training activity for swimming because it fosters flexibility, strength and breath control. It’s especially good for targeting specific areas. We’ve picked the pigeon pose as one to incorporate into your post-swim cool down or regular yoga routine to help backstroke.
Pigeon pose is what’s known as a “hip opener”. In other words, it works the muscles that support and control the hip’s entire range of movement. As the hip is a ball-and-socket joint, that’s a big range. This is vital for backstrokers, who rely on strong quads and hip flexors to slice their legs up and down through the water. The pose also flexes the lower back muscles, which are key to a good push-off in backstroke.
- Start in a downward-facing dog.
- Step one foot forward as if in a lunge. Instead of placing the foot down, angle the foot under the opposite arm and rest the ankle on the mat behind the opposite hand. Lower the knee down to the mat behind the same arm.
- So if you step the right foot forward, rest the right ankle on the mat behind the left hand. Rest the right knee on the mat behind the right arm.
- Let your back leg come down and let your foot lay flat to the mat.
- Square your hips facing forward.
If this is comfortable, you can lean forward onto your elbows, or even lean further forward and bend your head over your arms. Very Well Fit has a great walkthrough video.
I really hope you have found this article useful and please let us know in the comments if you have any dry land exercises that you swear by!
Want to take your backstroke to the next level? Get in touch, and speak with one of our coaches.