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by Scott Bay

August 11, 2021

Which of these turns is best for you?

For the IM, there’s one transition that can really make or break a race and that’s the backstroke-to-breaststroke transition. Why is it so important? If done poorly, it not only has an impact on overall time, but also can affect two of the four legs and could get you disqualified. Nobody, especially anyone swimming the 400 IM, wants to have all that effort erased with a DQ.

Here are the four back-to-breast transitions, how to do them, and the advantages and disadvantages of each. Find which one is fastest for you.

Open Turn

This is the most basic and easy to learn, and it’s been around a long time.  It’s especially easy to do if there are gutters to grab. You simply touch the wall on your back, grab the wall, and drive your knees to your chest to crunch into the wall, then push off past vertical toward your breast.

  • Advantages. This is a great turn if you’re exhausted or just getting started because it gives you ample opportunity to breathe. For novices this is the easiest one to learn and you can experiment with your own style.
  • Disadvantages. Of the four turns, this is the slowest as it doesn’t take advantage of momentum into the wall as much as the other transitions. You’ll be slow going in and slow going out, with a stop in between, so it affects two strokes and a turn.
  • Careful! In shallow pools especially, be careful to bring your knees into your chest so you don’t accidentally touch the bottom.

Bucket Turn

Before the backstroke rule changes in 1991, this was the go-to turn for backstroke events. Before then, you couldn’t roll to your front and flip like you can in backstroke races now—you had to finish each length on your back. You still must finish the backstroke leg of an IM on your back.

To do it, take the last stroke into the wall on your back, preferably with your dominant arm, and when your palm hits the wall under the water, push away from your head while throwing your feet in the air to spin on your back, rotating 180 degrees. The feet come back down and plant on the wall below the waterline for the push-off. Many who grew up with this turn practiced it on the pool deck using boards with wheels on them from elementary PE classes.

  • Advantages. You still plenty of time to breathe and, done properly, it’s faster than the touch turn.
  • Disadvantages. You must carry a lot of momentum into the wall since you’re relying on that for your grip on the wall. If your hand slips or your timing is off, you may end up pushing off at an angle.
  • Careful! It’s hard to get DQd using this turn when transitioning to breaststroke UNLESS you don’t push off on your front. If you grew up doing this turn for backstroke, remember you must push off toward the breast during an IM.

Backflip Turn

As you swim into the wall, look back and reach back with your final stroke. Place your palm on the wall with fingers pointing down to the bottom of the pool. Once you make contact, push away from the surface while driving your knees into your chest and do a backward somersault in the water.

  • Advantages. This is a very fast turn. You have your feet on the wall right away and are ready to push off on your front, so no weird twisting or spinning motions required.
  • Disadvantages. You need both good timing and a good set of lungs for this transition. Your face is in the water more than it is during the previous two turns, so you won’t get a breath during the turn. This may make you need to get through the breaststroke pullout a little faster than normal if you have an urgent need to breathe after the turn.
  • Careful! There’s very little chance of getting DQd with this, but because of the lack of breath, it’s a difficult turn to do, especially on longer IMs.

Crossover Turn

This is arguably the fastest turn and is a combination of the bucket and the backflip turns. As you take the last stroke into the wall, look back underwater for the wall and slightly away from the arm reaching for the wall. Once you contact the wall with your hand, throw your feet up and to the opposite side of your touching arm, keeping your upper arm behind your ear. The momentum carries you over past vertical so you can push off on your front.

  • Advantages. This is the fastest turn. You see it across the elite race pool all the time.
  • Disadvantages. Just like the backflip, it requires great timing and big lungs as well as some velocity coming into the wall.
  • Careful! In terms of DQ risk, this is the most dangerous of the turns. The rules say you must finish on your back and push off past vertical toward your breast. Keeping your upper arm behind your ear is critical to prevent a DQ.

Which is Best?

Learn all of them! Strength, fitness, experience, and speed contribute to success for each type of transition, but each one can be learned. Learning a new skill takes both patience and practice, so don’t dismiss a more advanced transition just because it’s difficult at first. That’s part of the learning process so don’t give up on it. This transition affects the backstroke and the breaststroke, so experiment and figure out what’s best for you. 


  • Technique and Training


  • Backstroke
  • Breaststroke
  • Turns