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by Andrew Sheaff

April 18, 2022

Breaking backstroke into its critical components

The first article in this series, The Three Ways to Swim Faster, outlined the three requirements for fast swimming: increased propulsion, reduced resistance, and great timing. The major components of successful backstroke are:

  1. Create direct propulsive arm actions
  2. Accurately time body rotation and arm action
  3. Maintain body alignment and posture
  4. Maintain an effective kick

Create Direct Propulsive Arm Actions

In the past, backstrokers have focused on various up-sweeps and down-sweeps during the pulling pattern. Now backstrokers have moved toward a direct application of force that greatly resembles the pulling mechanics of the other strokes, only inverted.

Here are some simple tips for how to do it.

Create a hook

Upon entering the water with a straight arm, your hand will be driven down a bit. Without pulling, bend your elbow and rotate your hand up to the surface, with the top of your forearms facing directly behind you. When making your hook, make sure your hand is above and outside your elbow and close to the surface. Providing these requirements are respected, your hook can have a big bend or small one. A greater degree of elbow bend reduces the required force and may be a better option for swimmers with less strength.

Pull directly

With your hook in place, a large surface area is set up to move a lot of water toward your feet for a long time. Simply pull hard. Your hand should stay close to the surface for most of the pulling action and there should be no sculling action.

Accurately Time Body Rotation and Arm Action

For great backstroke, you need great timing between your arm actions and body rotation. Rotation is not constant throughout the stroke cycle. Instead, create rapid changes in position during key points in the stroke cycle. These critical timing issues are rarely discussed but represent a significant opportunity for improvement.

Couple aggressive recoveries with shoulder rotation

Backstroke’s straight-arm recovery creates a lot of momentum. This can be used to facilitate a quick rotation as your hands are entering, which helps drive your arm into the catch position. Use your recoveries to help facilitate shoulder rotation. This rotation is what sets the rhythm of the stroke. Rather than pulling your arms faster, pick up your tempo by picking up the rate of shoulder rotation. When your hand enters, your shoulders should snap to the same side. This rotation should be aggressive but executed as smoothly as possible.

Delayed rotation through the pull

A critical component of backstroke timing is a delay of rotation during your pull. Avoid rotating until the last phase of the pull, right before you finish your stroke. Then rotate fast. This will coincide with the rotation of the opposite shoulder as your opposite hand enters. By delaying your rotation until most of the pull is complete, you can increase the amount of time you can pull straight back. Once you start rotating, it becomes very difficult to pull back. This concept might seem strange, but you can see it in all the great backstrokers.

Avoid common timing errors

The most common error that disrupts backstroke timing is the duo of over-entering and late rotation, which almost always show up together. Over-entering is when your hand enters behind your head, and late rotation is when your shoulders don’t rotate until after your hand has entered. This disrupts the flow of the stroke and places your arms in ineffective positions for creating propulsion. To avoid these errors, enter shoulder-width apart and rotate as your hand enters the water.

Maintain Body Alignment and Posture

Although backstrokers don’t have to be concerned with breathing without disrupting body alignment, lying on your back presents unique challenges for maintaining great posture in the water. Here’s how to overcome those challenges.

Create a hull

Backstroke swimming with your head up will cause your hips to sink. It’s critical to lay back in the water, as if laying your head on a pillow. Be careful, however, not to press into the water as this can cause your back to arch, which is not a streamlined position. Rather than arching, round your back a bit, which will also help with laying back in the water. Imagine you’re creating the hull of a boat with your back.

Clean arm recoveries

A common error is to enter behind your head. If you enter in this manner, it can cause your body to move out of lateral alignment. When this happens, you’ll wiggle down the lane. This can also happen if you recover your arms wide and to the side. The solution is to recover your arms straight over the top and enter in line with your shoulders. This will keep your body straight as you move through the water.

Maintain an Effective Kick

Maintaining an effective kick is critical for backstroke. Unfortunately, there aren’t many tricks that make backstroke kicking more effective. Simply keep your kick moving while using a tight and fast action with relatively straight legs. Compared to the other strokes, there are hardly ever errors in kick timing while swimming backstroke. Simply keep kicking.

Putting it All Together

Besides the obvious difference of being on your back, great backstroke exhibits the same principles as the other strokes. It’s critical to create direct pulling actions for as long as possible, using your forearm and your hand to move water backward. Effective timing comes from timing your hand entry with the rotation of your body to maintain rhythm and facilitate changes in position. Lastly, streamlined body positions must be maintained to minimize the impact of drag on reducing speed. By applying these simple principles, you can significantly upgrade your backstroke.

See all the articles in this series:

Swimming Technique: Breaking swimming into its critical components
Butterfly Technique: Breaking butterfly into its critical components
Breaststroke Technique: Breaking breaststroke into its critical components
Freestyle Technique: Breaking freestyle into its critical components
Underwater Kicking Technique: Breaking underwater kicking into its critical components


  • Technique and Training


  • Backstroke