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by Scott Bay

August 9, 2016

A strong lateral upper-body line can improve your backstroke

The lateral upper-body line is an imaginary line running from elbow to elbow through the collarbones or clavicles when the arms are extended straight out to the sides. If it helps, think of making a ‘T’ with your arms and body. Our shoulder blades (scapulas) reduce our ability to reach behind us; therefore, when it comes to applying upper-body force to anything, most of our power is at or in front of this lateral line.

Think about when you get out of the pool—you place your hands about shoulder-width apart, rotate the elbows out, and push. Notice that at this point, you could draw a straight line between the elbows through the collarbones. Flexible people can sometimes reach back farther than the rest of us, but if you want to put some pressure on the water in a meaningful way, you should never go behind that line. Need an example? Consider how difficult it would be to would put your back against the wall and try to push yourself up out of the pool. (Don’t do it!)

The Lateral Line in Backstroke

Many swimmers tend to swim flat in backstroke, which means they’re reaching back behind them to catch and pull. This limits their range of motion and you’ll see their hands go out to the sides or their finger skip across the top of the water. This means they are not getting a deep and effective pull.

How to Get a Good Backstroke Pull

During the catch and pull in backstroke, the key is to use your body to get more leverage on the water.

  • After the hand enters the water, think about where your hips are. If they’re flat on the water, chances are your shoulders will be, too, which means reaching back. Roll the opposite hip of the stroking arm towards the sky. Your shoulders will follow and you’ll get a better catch.
  • Think about grabbing an armful of water and throwing it to your feet.
  • Rotate your whole body as one piece.
  • Pay attention to where your hand finishes. If it’s palm down under your buttocks, then you’re using your hand to make the rotation happen and not your body.
  • Dip the little finger towards the bottom of the pool before you initiate the catch and pull. Make sure you’re deep enough so that your fingers don’t break the surface on the pull.
  • If you feel ‘snaky’ hips, rotate over more, and bend the elbow on the catch and pull.
  • The Okee-Dokee drill is great for helping with rotation. To do it, make the OK sign with your thumb and index finger and rotate the hand and body over when swimming backstroke so that the circle part or the O goes in first. This means rotating your little finger out. You’ll naturally rotate over. If this is too hard, try it with fins!
  • The Reach for the Sky drill is great for keeping focus on your lateral line. As you swim backstroke, pause in mid-stroke and reach the recovering arm and fingers as high above the water as they will go. This helps the body rotate and makes you aware of that lateral line of the upper body.
  • Hands in Fists drill seems silly for backstroke, but it forces you to rotate and not reach back.

Suggested Drills

Is This Right?

How do you know if you’re doing it right? The answer can be the feedback you get from your own body. If you feel the effort in the triceps and the lats (the flying squirrel muscles) then you’re most likely doing it right. The same is true in freestyle and butterfly—if you feel it in the front part of the shoulder, you’re most likely not rotating over enough.


  • Technique and Training


  • Backstroke
  • Pulling
  • Stroke Technique
  • Drills