Backstroke can be a challenge. It’s the only stroke that requires you to be entirely on your back, which raises a few questions — how are you supposed to swim straight? What’s the best way to stay afloat?
We’re breaking down 6 key aspects of backstroke technique to help every swimmer — from beginner to elite — feel more confident on their backs and swim faster with less energy!
What Makes Backstroke Different?
- Long-Axis Stroke: Like freestyle, backstroke is a long-axis stroke, meaning you’re rotating along an invisible axis that runs from the tip of your head down through your toes. If you’re good at breaststroke, you may find that backstroke feels more challenging for you.
- Pinky Finger Entry: The optimal backstroke catch involves entering the water “pinky first.” This key mechanical difference sets backstroke apart from the 3 other strokes.
- Breathing: Perhaps the most obvious is breathing! In backstroke, you’re able to breathe 100% of the time.
Elements of Perfect Backstroke
Ready to swim your best backstroke ever? Keep these 6 factors in mind during your next workout.
1. Body Position
Proper body position involves keeping your head and your hips in alignment, and as high in the water as possible. In backstroke, strive to keep your head as still as possible, looking straight up. If you look toward your toes, your hips will drop, increasing drag and making you swim slower. Thinking about keeping your belly button “dry” will encourage your hips to stay high, too.
To keep your head in alignment, try the backstroke cup drill! Simply fill a plastic cup with water, place it on your forehead, and swim backstroke without letting the cup fall. It’s a challenge!
We know many swimmers like to use fins, but we recommend laying off of them until you have proper body position down, especially for backstroke. Fins allow you to slack on proper posture, which can cause your hips to sink. The fins help propel you through the water, so you may not notice the issue.
The backstroke pull begins with your hand exiting the water thumb-first. Keeping your arm straight, lift it out of the water, slowly rotating your hand so that your pinky enters first when your arm reaches the water again.
As you lift your arm, rotate your body away from the lifted arm so your shoulder comes out of the water. When your hand re-enters the water, rotate toward that arm to reduce drag created by your shoulders.
This pinky-first entry is key to setting up a proper Early Vertical Forearm catch. From this point, the pull will feel similar to a high-elbow freestyle pull.
Backstroke kick is a flutter kick, just like freestyle. It’s short and fast, and your toes should be pointed. Your kick shouldn’t be super wide — no more than 12 to 18 inches. The smaller and faster your kick, the faster you will go!
The kick should be driven from your hip flexors rather than from your knees. Your legs should be pretty straight, with just a slight bend at the knee.
4. Rotational Momentum
When it comes to backstroke rotation, there are 2 schools of thought that can work for swimmers:
- Hip-Driven Backstroke: Backstroke rotation isn’t quite as hip driven as freestyle, but swimmers with really powerful kicks can drive their stroke mainly with their hips.
- Shoulder-Driven Backstroke: For swimmers with a weaker kick, driving the rotation from the shoulders can be more effective for increasing stroke tempo and speed.
Whichever rotation philosophy resonates with you, don’t over-rotate in backstroke — it’ll slow you down! It’s not about switching completely from one side to the other, but rather about reducing resistance
Underwaters, also known as the 5th stroke in swimming, are a huge component of backstroke. You want to work your underwater both off the start and the turns, ensuring you have a tight streamline and a strong dolphin kick.
In streamline, stack your hands on top of each other and squeeze your biceps by your ears.
Maintaining this arm position, make sure your underwater dolphin kick has a strong up and down component. Often we neglect the “up” kick and lose out on extra power! To strengthen the “up” kick, work on strengthening your hamstrings, glutes and lower back with dryland training.
Fast backstroke tempo comes down to arm speed. But it can be challenging to get your arms going fast while swimming on your back! Spin drill can help.
In spin drill, you’ll swim backstroke and try to move your arms as fast as possible, not worrying about catching water, rotating or keeping your hips up. Practicing spin drill can teach your arms to move more quickly when it comes time to race!
Improper rotation and kicking can interfere with your tempo. If you over-rotate and kick too much or too big, your tempo can slow. There’s no one rotation or kicking sweet spot for good tempo, though. Each swimmer is different!
Drills To Improve Your Backstroke
Improve Power: Dolphin Kick, Backstroke Arms
Improve Rotation: Single Arm Backstroke 2,2,2
We recommend using fins for this drill!
Fix Over-Rotation: Double Arm Backstroke