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by Matt Donovan

February 8, 2021

Working backstroke the way you do freestyle will help you balance your body

It’s very likely that your swim training regimen has been adversely affected by the coronavirus pandemic. When you reenter the pool for training, be sure to take your time building back to your training volume gradually to avoid injury.

And because every cloud has a silver lining, this might be the perfect opportunity to learn to go long on your back and balance out some the disparity in muscle strength and flexibility that occurs from high-volume training done primarily in freestyle. Said another way, adding significant backstroke yardage may help you alleviate the swimmer’s slouch that comes from overdeveloped lats and underdeveloped pecs.

If you’ve historically avoided the upside-down stroke, doing more of it will give you a new set of skills and event goals. Even if you don’t intend to race backstroke, adding backstroke sets will give your shoulders the balanced strength training they need to prevent shoulder injury, and it will increase the effectiveness of your body rotation in both backstroke and freestyle.

More backstroke for skill development

Backstroke can be disorienting. In the water you have limited use of your five senses as compared to on land, and when you flip on your back, it becomes even more difficult. Hand-eye coordination is almost nonexistent in backstroke. You must learn how to use the ceiling as a guide. Know that the ceiling is different in almost every pool (and in some cases different by lane within the same pool).

Your peripheral vision becomes very important in circle swimming and even more so if you train outdoors. There’s no getting around it—at some point you’ll jam your finger on a lane line, slam wrists with a lanemate, and misjudge the flags and knock your head on the wall. However, the more you swim backstroke, the better you’ll get at avoiding these scenarios, and the more skills you’ll acquire.

High volume for cardio

In most training groups, freestyle is the primary stroke used to build strength and cardio. But if you want to get better at backstroke, simply do more of it. Tune up your backstroke first with a few backstroke drills, and then put some yardage in. To start, I would suggest that your warm-up, recovery sets, and cool-down should all be primarily backstroke. If you’re a true novice in the stroke, start with 60 percent freestyle and 40 percent backstroke or 50/50. Then, increase the backstroke volume gradually.

Get creative! Try 3 x 800s back (with 4 x 50 recovery between). The first one negative split by 400, the second negative split by 200, and the third easy/fast by 100. Use gear and take rest as needed. If this distance is a bit too long for you try it with 600s, 400s, or 200s. What’s important is to add backstroke volume to your set work and get faster as you go. You can even use the first 800 as your warm-up.

When possible, have a coach or fellow swimmer video your swims. After practice, watch the video and observe your body position throughout the whole set. Are you rotating the same start to finish? Are your legs on top of the water in the middle and final laps of the 800s in the same way that they are in the beginning of your set? Are you approaching the wall with the same distance into the turn each time? Are your underwaters still long and powerful late in the set? The idea is to be successful and consistent from the first length to the last.


Kick on your back. Do this a LOT more! Throw away the kickboard. It’s absolutely the worst invention in the history of swimming. Kickboards do nothing but teach you poor body position and wreck your shoulders. Kick on your back, with and without fins. Keep your hands at your sides and think about rotation from the hips. Just remember to pay attention to the flags so you don’t hit your head. You’ll gain a new appreciation for your walls when you come in and out of your turns from an unfamiliar position.

Whether your goal is to become a better backstroker, to be a stronger all-around swimmer, or balance your musculature and prevent injury, increasing your backstroke yardage is the best way to do it.


  • Technique and Training


  • Backstroke