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by Terry Heggy

April 20, 2020

Try these drills for a better backstroke

The term “recovery” has two distinct meanings in swimming:

  1. The phase of a stroke that repositions body parts after the power (propulsion) phase to establish proper position to begin the next stroke
  2. The time allowed for the body to replenish and rebuild itself after exercise

This discussion focuses on the first definition. In backstroke, the power phase for your arms ends and recovery begins when your hand exits the water near your hip. The subsequent entry and catch are considered part of the recovery, with the power phase beginning only when your hand begins to generate thrust.

Although swimmers are encouraged to meticulously avoid expending unnecessary energy by relaxing muscles that aren’t in use, it’s important to understand that the time between propulsive arm strokes isn’t simply a rest period. The goal is to get in a great position for your next stroke as quickly as possible.

Backstroke kick is cyclical, meaning you could designate a “starting point” for each cycle, but because both the up- and down-motions are intended to provide propulsion we’re going to treat it as a continual effort, meaning there’s no recovery. Therefore, we’ll focus on what to do to improve arm recovery.

Backstroke recovery drills should emphasize these elements:

  • Exit—The entire power phase should be pressing against the water in the direction of your feet, the same way a rocket’s thrust is directly opposite the direction of travel. Eliminate motions that push water up toward the surface or inward toward the thigh and exit quickly to avoid letting your hand get stuck motionless against your leg.
  • Rotational speed—The quicker your recovering hand gets back to the catch position, the faster your overall stroke will be. Swimmers must understand how core rotation contributes to a faster cadence.
  • Recovery path—Proper rotation and entry position drastically reduce drag. You won’t be able to see your hand in catch position, so your coach must help you develop learning how it feels to properly move from exit to catch position.
  • Catch position alignment—Getting your hand into the water at the right spot mustn’t distort your bodyline. Learn to think of your body as a unit rather than just focusing on one hand at a time.

Be creative in thinking of drills to help with these concepts. Because drills isolate specific stroke elements for improvement, other parts of the drill don’t emulate good swimming technique. For example, kicking with one arm extended might be great for establishing proper rotation, alignment, and entry, but it could lead to the very bad habit of leaving the trailing hand beside your leg at the end of each pull. Emphasize what the drill is designed to accomplish and ensure that you also know what parts of the drill to ignore. Here are some suggestions to build upon.

Double-arm backstroke

Pulling with both arms at once allows you to focus on hand and forearm orientation for maximum thrust.

What’s good? You focus on finishing your stroke with your hand pushing against the water toward your feet and then immediately popping out into the recovery. Visualize it as a “shot put” toward your soles with your hand instantly rebounding into the air for the recovery.

What’s bad? There’s no rotation, so you stay flat in the water, which affects your kick and timing, as well as the angle and depth of your pull. Your focus should be on the finish of your stroke followed by an immediate exit from the water.

Back-pat one arm swim

Reach straight up with one arm, and then bend at the elbow to bring the palm of that hand to touch the center of your upper back (or your neck or the back of your head, depending on flexibility.) Your bicep will be near your ear and your elbow near the top of your head. Hold your arm in that position while swimming regular backstroke with only your opposite arm. Use fins to help maintain momentum between strokes.

What’s good? The back-pat hand position enables you to perform normal body rotation without developing the habit of getting your hand stuck next to your thigh. Use the same drill to isolate and focus on separate critical recovery elements:

  • Quickness—The moment propulsion ceases, your hand should release the water and return to the catch position as rapidly as possible. Maintaining speed through the recovery arc while driving body rotation from your core keeps your stroke long and maintains momentum. Focus on tempo while giving feedback regarding entry, paying special attention to eliminating deceleration as your hand nears the entry point.
  • Narrowness—Lifting your shoulder out of the water so that it passes near your cheek minimizes drag by shrinking your body width in contact with the water. Keeping your arm straight throughout the arc reduces the likelihood of sideways movement (fishtailing).
  • Precision—There is no glide phase in backstroke, yet the catch is still a critical element. As your hand enters the water at the end of your recovery, it must be fully submerged to enable full hand/forearm engagement to begin the pull. It must also be aligned correctly (neither overreaching nor out too far to the side) to avoid extraneous lateral movement. Swimmers often misjudge both the depth and alignment of their entry position, so it’s up to their coach to provide repeated feedback until the corrections become ingrained as habits.

The three-strokes, 12-kicks drill can also be used to work on these elements. One useful variant is to wiggle your fingers while in the catch position for kinesthetic confirmation that your hand is engaged in the water.

What’s bad? Some swimmers may bend their neck to keep their head near the back-patting arm or lift their head/tuck the chin to distort body position. Without feedback from a coach, you could reinforce poor form (especially over-reaching or misjudging catch depth) while thinking your performing the drill correctly. To stay in line, use the ceiling or an object on deck to sight.

Don’t overwhelm yourself by trying to pay attention to 15 different things within a single drill set. Focus on a single element each time you do a drill, with the goal of having it coalesce over the course of the season.


  • Technique and Training


  • Backstroke