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by Cokie Lepinski

October 27, 2020

You can have a beautiful backstroke by first establishing a good foundation

Backstroke looks so beautiful when elite swimmers do it. If yours doesn’t look like theirs, here are five tips to smooth yours out.

Tip 1: Establish a Solid Foundation

A good body position is the foundation of backstroke. You should be parallel to the surface of the water. If your chest is too high and your legs too low, you’ll face a lot of drag and waste your energy. Keep your head, shoulders, thighs, and feet on the same plane. Press into the water with the back of your head and your shoulder blades while keeping your core engaged by imagining that you’re pulling your belly button toward your spine. This will help elevate your legs.

Do kicking drills on your back to find the proper body position. Try 25s with your arms at your sides and then some 25s with your arms in streamlined position. Your feet should be near the surface, with your kick bringing them up to the surface.

Tip 2: Lock Your Head Down

Your bodyline is impacted by your head position, so it’s essential to keep it still. Avoid putting your head too far back. Your chin should be slightly tucked, with water just touching your chin but not entering your mouth. Don’t let your head rock back and forth with your shoulders.

A good test is to try to balance a Dixie cup filled with water on your forehead, just above your goggles. Try kicking with it first, and then add your arms into the mix. You should be able to do an entire length without the cup falling off. If not, you are moving your head or tilting it too far back or forward.

Tip 3: Arms Always in Motion

Your arms should always be moving during backstroke. As one finishes a stroke, your other should be ready to start the next. Focus on your catch and the path of your pull.

After your arm enters the water ahead of your shoulder, catch the water by pressing your palm downward. You should hinge at your elbow, keeping your palm flat and connected to your forearm as one big paddle. Your fingers should be shallow in the first half of your pull.

Imagine you’re signaling the height of two brothers during your catch. The tallest brother is at your catch, and the middle brother is in the middle of your pull, as your elbow hinges and your fingers are just under the surface while you have a flat palm. To go from first brother to second brother, slide your hand down while keeping your elbow pointed back behind you with your hand ending up parallel to your ribs and palm facing down (or to your feet). Push the water past your hip, and have your arm exit the water. Do some slow one-arm backstroke (with your other arm at your side) to practice this.

Tip 4: Kick baby kick!

A steady, compact kick is critical to backstroke. You can get away with almost no kick in freestyle, but a lack of kick in backstroke will cause serious problems. You won’t be able to create the lift you need to make it easier to move through the water at the surface instead of tilting uphill. As with your stroke, you shouldn’t pause during your kick.

During your kick, your thighs should be high at the surface and feet just under the surface. Rotate your shoulders, hips, and legs side-to-side while keeping your head still. Think of tipping from one side to the other but don’t overdo this action. Keep it between 30 to 45 degrees or so of rotation.

One of my favorite drills for this is washing machine kick, which is done on your back, with your hands at your sides. Kick from side to side, lifting one shoulder above the waterline and then rotating your body until the other breaks the surface. Be sure to rotate just 30 to 45 degrees or so.

Tip 5: Find Your Rhythm

Work to make your stroke as synchronized as possible. Many swimmers find it helpful to engage a pattern that involves counting your arm strokes in short segments such as 1-2-3-4 (and then start over with your count as you continue the length). Establish your own counting pattern, and see if it doesn’t make you a bit more rhythmical.

Final Thoughts

Backstroke is a beautiful stroke, but it takes some work to find that seemingly effortless, smooth look. Establish your foundation, and then tackle the various components of your arms, legs, and timing one at a time. The smoothness will come.


  • Technique and Training


  • Backstroke