Encouraging More Adults to Swim
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Technique and Training

Backstroke Pointers

Tips for your reluctant backstrokers

Lisa Wolf | December 21, 2012

Love it or hate it: backstroke.

Humans are land-based, vertical mammals. So asking a swimmer to get wet, go horizontal, upside down, and then swim backwards? Well heck, no wonder backstroke sets can set some swimmers groaning.

Here are a few ideas that might cultivate a bit more enjoyment for swimming backwards and upside down.

Horizontal is Best

The biggest issue most coaches see is the lack of horizontal body position. Start with the swimmers’ head positions first and ensure sure they’re looking up at the sky or ceiling instead of at the coach standing on deck. Their chins should not be tucked on their chests.

A quick test of correct position is to have the swimmers make an L shape with their thumbs and forefingers. Then they place the finger under the chin and the thumb in the indentation between the collarbones. This is a general guide for correct head position. A good practice drill is to have your swimmers hold that L in place and just kick, so they can concentrate solely on head position.

Ear and Head Movement

Most swimmers do not have their heads back in the water enough. Their ears should be IN the water and their heads still. There should be no rocking back and forth as the arms churn through the water.

Keep Moving

Though the head remains still, the arms do need to move and they need to move in a continuous motion, like windmill blades going round and round. They should not pause between the pull phase and the recovery phase of each arm.


Backstroke is a long-axis stroke and rotation of the shoulders and core is crucial to an efficient stroke. Shoulders need to rotate out of the water with hand entry—generally at 11 and 1 on the clock, with pinkies entering first. Most swimmers that have problems with backstroke tend to swim flat in the water. Adding a bit of rotation can make a world of difference. The key is just a slight rotation—something along the lines of 45 degrees.


Toes should be pointed slightly in and they should flick water up AND down. Instruct them to “boil the water,” so the water bubbles up over the water line, but not their entire foot. The kick drives from the hip and only a slight bend of the knees is needed.

USMS Wave Seperator

About the Author—Lisa Wolf

Lisa Wolf is a Masters coach with the Montgomery Ancient Mariners and the District of Columbia of Aquatics Club in the Washington, DC area. She’s also a USA-S age group coach with the Rockville-Montgomery Swim Club and works with several other local swim programs. She’s  a certified USA Triathlon coach to better serve the growing triathlon community within USMS. Coach Wolf is a regular contributor to USMS publications, USAT Multisport Zone newsletter and local club newsletters. As current Potomac Valley Fitness Chair, she’s an avid recruiter to USMS, with the belief that “everyone is a swimmer, some of us just haven’t started yet.”

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