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by Cokie Lepinski

May 5, 2021

Use this five-drill sequence to tune up and smooth out your backstroke

Backstroke doesn’t come easy to everyone and it sure didn’t come easy to me. For my first two decades as a Masters swimmer, I struggled with it and believed I would never embrace it. But that’s changed for me and now I love swimming and racing backstroke.

Why can it be such a difficult stroke to master? Well, for one, it’s the only stroke you swim on your back and spin your arms in the opposite direction from all the other strokes. This alone can set you up for a host of coordination issues that can be a bit humorous from a coach’s point of view: swimmers snaking all over the lane, crashing into lane lines, teammates, and (ouch!), the wall. They see feet dangling too deep under the surface, knees popping into the air, arms not in sync, heads too high or too low, and bodies that seem to have split in half at the waist with the upper body going in one direction and the lower half in the opposite direction. It can get pretty dicey.

There are, however, fixes to these problems. But first, let’s establish what backstroke should look like.

An efficient backstroke is smooth and rhythmical and involves your entire body. A horizonal line just under the water’s surface is the foundational position with your head in a neutral alignment and kept very still. There’s a slight curve to your body as you press down into the water between your shoulder blades, allowing your thighs and feet to ride near the surface. Your arms and legs are in constant motion—there’s no pause in the stroke or the kick. Your hands accelerate through the pull while the kick fires your hips, enabling you to rock from side to side. In other words, there’s a heck of a lot going on in backstroke. So how do you get there? Drills. Lots of drills.

Here is a five-drill sequence to put all these elements together in your backstroke. There’s a big emphasis on kicking as it’s fundamental to good backstroke. Your kick helps drive the rotation of your body and aids in the power you can achieve out of each pull.

Flutter Kick Cross

Kicking is essential to an efficient backstroke. This drill changes your balance point and causes you to work a little harder at finding your horizontal line. Kick on your back with palms resting on opposite shoulders. Find your horizonal line with a neutral head position where just your face is clear from water. Minimize or eliminate any big arch in your low back to allow your hips and feet to remain near the surface. Focus on “shaking” your thighs vigorously to generate your kick and think about turning your feet slightly inward (pigeon-toe).

Quarter-Arm Lifts

This drill aids in finding the proper timing of the arm lift in the recovery and requires that all-important steady kick. Start by kicking on your back while resting your hands on your thighs and rotating hip to hip as you kick. Drive your rotation from where your hands rest on your thighs. Connect your shoulder, hips, and heels in your rotation and hold the rotation to about 30–45 degrees. Each time you rotate, lift your upper arm about a quarter lift, roughly 10–15 inches off your hip, and then return it to rest on your thigh. Rotate from hip to hip and avoid stopping in the position where you’d be flat on your back. Time your arm lift with the rotation of your shoulders, hips, and heels.

Arm-Lead Balance with Rotation

Kick on your back, slightly balancing on one hip at about 45 degrees, with your lower arm extended in the water over your head as if you just entered your hand to start the underwater pull. The other arm rests on your thigh. Kick and count to 10, then execute a single stroke to rotate to the other side. Work to find your balance quickly and aim to hold a good horizontal line. Continue the length in that fashion and keep your kick going strong. This drill teaches you to have a long body line, working the rotation all the way down your body and not just using your arms or upper body. Stay long and taut.

L and Switching L Drill

Work from the same starting position of the Arm-Lead Balance drill above with one small change. Instead of resting the one arm on your thigh, it now points straight up to the sky. You should be able to visualize an “L” in your silhouette, with the one arm back and one arm up. At first, just try kicking in this position, remembering to balance slightly on the opposite hip of the arm reaching to the sky. Once you’ve established good balance in this position, move to the Switching L Drill, where you count to 10 and switch sides with a single stroke and rotation. Like Flutter Kick Cross, this drill changes your balance point, and you have to work harder to return to a good horizontal line with each arm switch. This requires you, once again, to work those legs steadily. You can do multiple lengths of this and begin to reduce the count from 10 to 8, 6, 4, and 2.

3-6-3 Backstroke

Swim three strokes of backstroke and end in the Arm-Lead Balance position, remembering to balance slightly onto one hip. Continue kicking, count to 10 and do three more strokes, again ending up in the Arm-Lead Balance position. Continue the length in this fashion. Just like all the drills above, you need to keep that kick steady without a pause. This drill reinforces that backstroke is swum hip-to-hip and not flat on your back.

This sequence of backstroke drills is a great way to reset your backstroke. Take the time to work through the drills. Don’t race through them, but really think about what you are doing and why. Awareness is critical for your stroke development. Keep at it and you’ll soon establish a smooth, rhythmical backstroke.


  • Technique and Training


  • Backstroke