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Backstroke Basics

Why learn backstroke? Most elements of backstroke are identical to freestyle. These two strokes are called the long-axis strokes, because to perform both strokes you rotate around an axis that runs down your centerline, from head to toes. Learning backstroke allows you to focus on many elements of freestyle without having to deal with the disruption of freestyle breathing and the difficulty of the asymmetrical timing of the freestyle arm movements. It helps you to learn correct body position because for both strokes you need to maintain your front-to-back balance at the surface. For many people, backstroke is much easier than freestyle. When you are able to swim both strokes, you should always swim a bit of backstroke during your workout. Swimming backstroke (or any other stroke) for just a short period of time allows you to return to freestyle with a refreshed awareness.

Freestyle and Backstroke Similarities

  • Posture: Belly in, neck tall, chin back
  • Rotation: Hips and core rotate around the long axis
  • Kicking: Six-beat kick (three kicks for each arm stroke)
  • Catch: Anchor hand/forearm early, using the elbow
  • Pull: Pull body forward by pressing back on the anchor

Freestyle and Backstroke Differences

Head PositionAbsolutely still, straight upStraight down, but must rotate to breathe
BreathingNaturalDisrupts posture and balance
Arm TimingSymmetrical
(no glide)
Asymmetrical, front-quadrant emphasis
Arm RecoveryStraightHigh elbow

Backstroke Arms on the Deck

Learn the arm movements out of the water first. Begin in standing swimming posture: belly in, neck tall, chin back. Maintain good posture - eyes forward and feet planted - while rotating your core during this exercise.

  • Thumb Out: Begin with arms at sides, thumbs forward. Without bending your elbow, begin raising one arm overhead, leading with the thumb.
  • Pinky In: As your arm goes past horizontal, begin turning your arm so that your pinky finger is leading at full extension overhead. In the water you will be thinking thumb out, pinky in.
  • Catch: Keeping your head still and feet planted, twist your core to the side as the extended arm reaches its highest point. Continue moving your elbow in the same arc it was moving in, and continue twisting your core. While keeping your wrist straight, allow your hand and forearm to drop. When your wrist and forearm are parallel to the floor, you have maximized the surface of your arm that is perpendicular to your direction of travel. There is no glide in backstroke - your elbow keeps moving until it is in this catch position - and then the pull - or press, as we prefer to call it - begins.
  • Press: Press your hand/forearm towards the floor, applying pressure on your wrist and the heel of your hand (not on your fingers).
  • Snap: When you can no longer press your forearm and hand as a unit, accelerate your hand towards your leg to snap the finish. This provides minimal propulsion, but helps to get your arm out of the water and back out front. Without a little zing at the end of the stroke, your arm tends to stall and get "stuck" fully extended back towards your feet.

Begin slowly. Learn this movement pattern with one arm, then with the other. Then have somebody hold a kickboard under your hand/forearm at the catch position to provide slight resistance. Then try this motion alternating arms - in backstroke the arms never stop moving. At home, perform this exercise in front of a mirror.

Learning Progression (Focus Points)

Use fins initially. Kick very gently focusing on keeping your feet at the surface. For the One-Arm Backstroke and Backstroke sets, use the following focus points for at least a couple lengths each:

    • Thumb out, pinkie in
    • Full extension with shoulder and arm close to head
    • Elbow goes directly to the catch
    • Alternating dry shoulders
    • Snappy finish
  • One-Arm Backstroke:Begin in extended back balance position. The extended arm is the one you will stroke with for the entire length. Start every length with good posture and use swimming breathing (out through the nose, in through the mouth). Use the focus points above.
  • Backstroke: Now use both arms, repeating focus points above.
  • 4 Back 3 Free: After the fourth stroke of backstroke, pivot and perform three freestyle strokes (no breathing). Then after the third freestyle stroke pivot back onto your back to begin the next 4/3 cycle.
  • Fingertip Drag: Use open turns at the far wall.
  • 4 Back 3 Free: To get refocused on balance at the surface
  • Underwater Recovery Freestyle: Use open turns at the far wall.

See the Video Clips - Backstroke page.


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