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by Kerry O Brien

July 27, 2020

Swimmers can learn a lot about efficiency from rowing

During the Summer Games, you have a chance to watch athletic events not usually on your radar. You should pay attention to the rowing competitions, because of what they can teach you about moving your vessel (your body) through the water.

Imagine the top of your head as the bow of a boat. Anything that moves your head off a straight line is going to create “chatter,” or inefficient changes of direction, and dramatically reduce your efficiency and speed.

While doing backstroke, you have a challenge not always seen in other strokes: your line of sight. Because you can only see what’s above you, your on-board guidance system is dramatically impaired. You don’t have the visual cues to make the necessary corrections to keep you moving forward with the least amount of drag possible.

So everything you do in backstroke leaves you trying to control your speed and direction without the advantage of seeing where you’re going. Keeping your vessel moving forward in a straight line requires precise placement of your oars (your arms and hands) into the water.

Sink "Oar" Swim

Arm Recovery

A proper backstroke starts with you keeping your head completely still and with your torso, legs, and arms rotating around this fixed position. Your head should be in line with your spine with your ears at the waterline.

For a proper arm recovery, your shoulder should roll up first—helping bring your hand out of the water thumb first—and be followed by a straight-arm recovery with your thumb leading. Your arm should stay straight throughout your recovery, keeping your elbow from relaxing and your hand falling in behind your head.

About halfway through your recovery, rotate your hand so that you enter the water pinky first in front of your shoulder. A good hand entry leaves your fingers pointing directly forward or slightly to the side of the pool but never toward the centerline of your body. Drive your hips to stretch your arm farther in front of you for reduced drag.


The mechanics of a proper backstroke catch is similar to freestyle’s (see “Freestyle for the Pool and Open Water,” March-April 2020). The purpose is also the same: to quickly and effectively position your arm to redirect force backward to move you forward.

A proper hand entry allows for the same “hinge and anchor” scenario you have in your freestyle and avoids a lateral push from shoulder to fingertips that steers your body off its course of a straight line. Bend your elbow early, without flexing at your wrist, and keep your hand and forearm on the same propulsive plane. This is referred to as “squaring the blade” in rowing and “early vertical forearm” in swimming. Your goal is to have your blade extend from your fingertips to elbow to maximize the surface area pushing against the water. More surface area means more power.

A proper catch allows for the opposite hip to become engaged and recruit more power throughout your core. This can only happen when you have a straight bodyline and your hips at the surface.

Increase your hand speed throughout your stroke, keeping water pressure against your palm as long as possible as it makes its way to your hip and the end of your stroke. Your stroke should be a straight line, pulling you directly forward. Your recovering arm should be at its highest point when the pulling arm is at its peak in the power phase of your stroke.

Kick it in Gear

A common misconception is that backstroke flutter kick was simply freestyle flutter kick rolled over. But your backstroke flutter kick should go farther up and down than your freestyle flutter kick.

Here are a few other differences you should keep in mind.

Your knee should be bent slightly more on the up-kick than on the freestyle down-kick. And whereas freestylers will do a two-, four-, six-, or even eight-beat flutter kick, backstrokers should have the same kick tempo across all race distances.

Think of your backstroke flutter kick not only as a propulsive force but also the rudder that steadies your vessel. This, plus the fact that your kick should be consistent throughout your stroke and not pause while you’re rotating, means fast, efficient backstroke requires good leg conditioning.

One of the best ways to truly improve your backstroke is to take advantage of all the freestyle you train in practice. Don’t let up on your kick during swim sets to focus on building your upper body strength. Instead, focus on your kick more, and you’ll improve your backstroke conditioning without needing to increase your yardage or pool time.

At the Core of a Good Backstroke

Your core muscles connect the movements of your upper and lower body, keeping them in sync. It’s important that they stay engaged and in the rhythm of your stroke.

Fully engaging your core muscles is crucial to maintaining an even distribution of energy throughout your race. A lack of concentration or conditioning that leads to having your top or bottom half out of sync creates a misfire in stroke timing that could slow you down.

"Air" on the Side of More is Better

With your face above the surface of the water, you can breathe much more easily in backstroke than the other three strokes. And because oxygen feeds your muscles, it’s important that it’s taken in, absorbed, and delivered in a timely manner. You might develop a tendency to not inhale or exhale deep enough to allow for a proper amount of oxygen to get to your muscles because of your exertion level. Don’t hold your breath.

While at moderate speed, try timing your inhales and exhales to each stroke you take, and try to resist the temptation to take shallow breaths. As your proficiency grows, with shorter races and faster stroke tempos, you might choose to experiment with different breathing scenarios, but always breathe deeply.


  • Technique and Training


  • Backstroke