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by Scott Bay

August 29, 2016

Backstroke starts depend on timing

We’ve all seen it—the slow backstroke start. There are a few common varieties and some are adaptations based on ability, a limited range of motion, or some other factor. Regardless of why they’re happening, slow starts typically come in a variety of flavors.

  • There’s the pancake start, where you push off and smack your back on the water. In fairness you have to be pretty athletic to do this, but the water absorbs a lot of the energy with the splash.
  • Then, there’s the plow start, where you gently push back from the wall, lying down into the water before submerging. During this type of start, your posture is far from streamlined until after you’ve wasted a lot of energy getting going.
  • Lastly, there’s the tush push, in which you push your backside into the water and ease back. In this start, your goggles don’t even get wet.

All of these starts are legal, of course, but if you’re looking to get a little more out of your start, here are a few things that will help.

The 5 Elements

There’s much debate about whether the flat back start or the curl back start is best. These tips will work for both styles.

  1. Stance on the wall. How wide your feet are apart both horizontally and vertically makes a huge difference in the quality of your start. Your feet should be about as wide as your shoulders and as close to the top of the water as possible. If you’re using a backstroke starting wedge, remember that your toes must be touching the wall.
  2. Hips at the wall. Once your feet are set and you’re comfortable, figure out where your hips are going to rest in relation to your ankles. If your hips are sitting on your ankles, that’s analogous to trying to do squats from the same position—not efficient. Your knees should be bent at around 90 degrees, give or take. Getting into the correct position on the wall will help you generate a lot more explosive power a lot more quickly.
  3. The set. When you take your mark, pull up slightly, lifting the hips close to the surface of the water. Keep your neck relaxed.
  4. The launch. Once the horn goes off, instead of throwing your head back, focus on your shoulders. Your upper body must be moving to the opposite end of the pool before you drive with the legs. Your arms can go over or out in a back-dive fashion to the streamline position and you can also tilt your head back, but it’s best to avoid leading with the head. Instead, drive the hips up, then down the pool to generate a little lift. This will provide some depth on entry and maximum velocity.
  5. The entry. Once you have your shoulders down the pool and head back, arch your back as your hands, head, hips, and feet all go through the same hole in the water. Not everyone has the strength or athletic ability to flip their feet out of the water, but aim for that arched form, and you’ll achieve your maximum velocity down the pool. Your entry should provide enough upward motion to get enough depth to set you up for a good underwater streamline.

Streamlines and dolphin kicking underwater are also critically important in backstroke races, along with a good transitions and breakouts. Practice these elements.

Starts should be practiced under the supervision of a knowledgeable coach. If you don’t have one, check with pool management about using the blocks—many pools don’t allow it unless a coach or lifeguard is present. If your facility has no starting blocks, check with staff to find out if it’s OK to practice starts from the wall.

Once you’ve secured permission to practice starts from the block or the wall, ask a friend or coach to video you so that you can track your improvement.


  • Technique and Training


  • Breaststroke
  • Starts
  • Stroke Technique
  • Tips