Step by step: the basics are the same
Unlike any of the other three strokes, modern backstroke is unique in that there are no form variations used by contemporary swimmers. The alternating arm action and continuous kick are so superior that they are the nearly exclusive style used in the sport.
A Steady Head: body position or aquatic posture
In backstroke, as in all strokes, keeping the head firmly situated on top of the spine ensures the body advances in the least resistive cross-sectional profile. Excessive head movement creates unwanted lateral or vertical motion in the body. Backstroke swimmers should also maintain a high chest and high hips in the water, connected to a rhythmic rotation of the shoulders.
Good backstrokers swim as if their spines are BBQ skewers around which their upper torsos rotate. Their faces are stable and nearly dry, and their bodies move through the surface in a horizontal and shallow trough. The water level should pass just under the ears, chin held in a neutral position, and eyes looking upwards. To assist in raising their hips, swimmers can coordinate body position and kick by leaning onto their upper back as if on a seesaw.
- Correction point for head position: “Point nose or chin to sky.”
- Correction point for rocking head: “Reach wider.”
- Correction point for body too low: “Lift up belly button.”
The kick is a critical component of successful backstroke and must take into account the one-way anatomy of the knee. Without a dedicated effort to hold the shins at the surface, an unintentionally relaxed knee allows the knees to over-bend. This common kicking error drops the shins and heels too low and disturbs the laminar flow of water passing underneath the torso and thighs.
A contributory kick is necessary in maintaining surface speed, contributing to good aquatic posture and keeping drag to a minimum. It also gives stability in the water and helps to keep a swimmer on course, since forward sight navigation is not possible. A constant steady kick follows the rotation of the torso and stays within the width of the body.
During each independent motion, the knee flexes on the downbeat and extends on the upbeat, with the majority of propulsive forces created during the upbeat. Recent studies have shown that ankle flexibility is more of an important factor in creating propulsive forces than thigh strength. Given that information, it is recommended that additional out-of-pool time be spent increasing range of motion and flexibility in the pointed (plantar) range of the ankle.
- Correction point for poor kick mechanics: “Kick a soccer ball.”
The length and depth of the stroke is affected by rotation of the torso. The shoulder should roll up out of the water before the hand (on that same side) exits at the side. The shoulders and hips must stay on the same rotational plane. However, recent trends show a flatter backstroke with greater rotation in the shoulders than in hips. Currently many top backstroke swimmers rotate less than 30 degrees to each side. As such, a greater emphasis should be placed on rotating (or snapping) hips upward rather than downward.
Once a hand has made its catch, swimmers should begin immediately thinking of rotating that same side hip to the up position. An emphasis on “hips downward” will sacrifice tempo and balance. When to rotate is actually much more important than how much to rotating. Rotation must be completed before the start of the pull/catch. Rotation should occur quickly and only at the finish and entry of each pull. USAS High Performance Consultant Russell Mark has posted images and additional text in his article “Backstroke: rotation timing is more important than amount.”
- Correction point for body too flat: “Roll shoulder, lift arm to sky.”
The arms alternate in a continuous motion, each arm moving in opposition to the other. In the airborne phase—from the hand exit through re-entry—the vertical semicircles of each arm should remain parallel and equidistant. Underwater, the arms move from a slow to fast rhythm in a sweeping motion and the hands enter the water forcefully above, or outside, the shoulder. As there is no overlap or catch-up phase, the arms, much like a propeller, work as a single unit, not as separate entities.
Backstroke swimmers should also emphasize underwater hand speeds equal to the speed of the recovery. As compared to freestyle, this leads to what appears to be a reduced distance per stroke and the appearance that fast backstrokers are just spinning. Good backstrokers reach a balance point during the arm exchange where, if viewed from the side, a letter “L” is formed by the recovering arm pointing straight up as the submerged arm passes the shoulder plane at the exact exchange between the pull and the push. The elbow is maintained in a locked position from the underwater extension at the end of the push phase, continuing up through surface, along the entire recovery arc, and then back into the water at the entry, and to the catch.
The hand entry is directly above or, better still, slightly outside the shoulder in recovery and extension. Hands should enter the water at “eleven and one o’clock,” though “ten and two” works just as well as a learning mantra. The pinky edge of the hand enters first, with the palm and fingertips facing away from the midline of the body. At entry, downward momentum from the arcing recovery should forcefully drive the hand and forearm through the water surface in a “karate-chopping” motion that results in an audible “kerplunking” sound. This requires elbows to be in a straight and locked position.
Any time spent overreaching behind the head followed by elbow and/or wrist straightening is wasted and unrecoverable. More detrimental errors are made in the entry phase of the backstroke than in any other position. The most common errors on entry are overreaching, underreaching and smashing the hand into the water. Backstrokers should be, and can easily be, filmed often at this position.
- Correction point for arms crossing over the head: “Enter at 10 and 2.”
Depth of Catch
The hands should have a catch depth of 10–16 inches and, in a move similar to rowing, “square their blade” as soon as possible. This is the freestyle equivalent of the Early Vertical Forearm and is of primary importance in effecting backward facing palms and forearms. At entry, swimmers should rotate the hand so that palm faces out, allowing the little finger to enter the water first. The hands must create a leverage point to push against the water, while keeping submerged bubbles to a minimum prior to the pull phase. Following the catch, current trends in backstroke point towards a shallower palm path than in previous years. By maintaining the thumb vertically and the fingertips horizontally for longer durations within a cycle, swimmers maximize propulsive forces opposite their direction of travel.
An overall perspective from a side view gives the hand path the appearance of a shallow square root sign. It begins with a downward entry, followed by a quick upward change of direction, leading to a semi-shallow, straight backward direction. Once submerged, the pitch of the hand remains oriented backward throughout the path of the pull/push motion. Too many novice backstrokers pull with the thumb leading and the little finger trailing too early in the stroke. Care should be given to ensure a vertical palm throughout the propulsive phases of the motion. Throughout the pull and push phases, the elbow should point towards the bottom.
- Correction point for elbow leading the pull: “Imagine pushing a stack of books.”
Unlike the other three strokes, there is no glide time or extension moment in backstroke. All of the arm and leg motions that accompany a stable body position are continuous. The ideal timing is to rotate the hips out of the way of the arm and hand that is finishing the stroke. The hands have an accelerated movement underwater, throughout the range of motion to the finish before recovering out of the water. The hands, regardless of stroke, always move slow-to-fast in a sweeping motion.
When and how to breathe is critical in backstroke, even though the face is exposed. Breathing is done in a pattern or rhythm to sustain endurance and may vary from swimmer to swimmer. The breathing pattern a swimmer chooses must allow for oxygen to fill the lungs and oxygenate the blood. Breathing every stroke or alternating strokes are examples of breathing patterns. Panting, shallow breathing, and pursed lips will prematurely diminish a swimmer’s endurance. It’s recommended that backstroke swimmers relax their cheeks and lips, just as runners do, to assist in a more complete exchange of oxygen.