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by Dustin Poe

October 3, 2014

Your hips, hands, and head make or break your backstroke

In high school, I ran track and field, and my coach once told my team that in running, there were three H’s to remember: hips, hands, and knees (insert chuckle). However, in swimming backstroke, there really are three H’s to remember.


Have you ever heard your coach mention that you need to use your core when you swim backstroke, or that you have a disconnect? This can be a confusing concept to learn.

When your arms and your legs are moving independently of each other, there is a disconnect. You can get across the pool this way, but you lose a lot of efficiency. What your coach would like to see is you using your core to help you pull and kick, because when you get everything working together, you’ll find a much stronger pull and other pieces fall into place.

“How do I achieve this?” you ask. Hips! An easy way to think about this is to focus on the timing of your hip rotation. If your shoulders rotate before your hips do, you will have a disconnect. But when you focus on rotating your hips first, you’ll find your shoulders don’t actually follow, but they move at the same time. Just remember the words of the wise Shakira, “Your Hips Don’t Lie.” Lead with the hips, and your arms and legs will be working together! (Rotating your hips does not mean moving them side-to-side, which is a common misconception. Keep your torso tall. Read Step 3 “Head” to avoid swinging your hips like a snake in the water.)


It’s amazing how many people just move their hands through the water without thinking about how or why they’re doing it. Swimming is simply defined as anchoring your hand in the water, and pulling yourself past it (similar to pulling on the lane line, but nobody does that, right?). If the palms of your hands aren’t facing your feet, chances are you’re not anchoring your hand well, and are sacrificing how far you can pull yourself through the water.

When you enter your hand above your head to catch the water (the beginning of your arm pull) you need to think, “Is my palm facing the lane rope or my feet?” If your palm is facing the lane rope, you will be directing water towards the lane rope, which won’t get you very far. If you point your palm towards your feet, you have taken your first step to an efficient pull.

The next step is pulling. A lot of people get the first step down but as they pull, their hand doesn’t change, and they end up losing the water they caught because now their fingers are pointing toward their feet. They have made their wrist too rigid.

To avoid this, stand in front of a mirror and brag about “your three nephews.” Your first nephew is the tallest “He is this tall” (arm extended above head and palm facing floor). Your second nephew is only this tall (arm level with shoulder, elbow pointing backward, palm facing floor). And your third nephew is this tall (arm extended straight down at side, palm facing floor). This is a good example of how you can have a strong wrist, while adapting to where you are in your stroke.


The third step is the hardest for new swimmers. A good head position will lead to a good body position. A bad head position, such as swimming with your chin tucked, can cause your hips to drop and throw off your whole body position. (If you can see your feet, you’re tucking your chin.) Swim backstroke lying flat on your back with head and neck extended—this is known as “swimming tall.”

Did you ever stand back to back with a sibling or friend and see who was taller? Can you remember how you stretched your body and neck to get every last inch? (This is after one of you was called out for standing on your tippy toes.) That’s how you need to feel when you swim backstroke. A flat bodyline will reduce drag and help you with Step 1, hip rotation.

Once you’re able to put all three of these steps together, you’ll be swimming backstroke more efficiently and you’ll take some of the stress off your shoulders.


  • Technique and Training


  • Backstroke
  • Stroke Technique