Backstroke is the only stroke that is swum on the back and while it is one of the easiest strokes to learn, it is also one the most difficult to master. There are some essential elements and key concepts of backstroke that swimmers need to perfect if they want to swim an efficient and fast backstroke.
What are the Essential Elements of Backstroke?
1. Body Position
The body position in the backstroke should be flat and high to allow the hips and shoulders to ride high in the water. Ideally, the ears, shoulders, and hips should form a horizontal line which is needed for minimal resistance and maximum breathing capacity.
2. Head Position
The correct head position in backstroke is essential for achieving the correct body position. The head needs to be flat and completely steady with the eyes looking directly upwards. If the head is too high, it causes the spine to bend and lowers the hips and the legs. If the head is too far back, the spine arches and pushes the head into the water, and creates resistance.
3. Arm Action
The arm action in backstroke works with the kick to propel the body through the water. The hand enters the water with a firm wrist and sweeps outwards to catch the water in a downward pattern. The hand sweeps up and down again at 90 degrees to the body in a pushing action. The hand releases the water and the recovery begins with a relaxed wrist and forearm.
4. The Kick
The backstroke kick is generated from the hips and upper legs with flexible, “floppy” ankles and the feet below the surface. A continuous six-beat kick action is recommended in backstroke to keep the hips high and maintain the correct body position. A strong core and back are important for a powerful backstroke kick.
5. Hand Entry
The hand entry is important in backstroke as the hand needs to enter the water directly in front of the shoulder with the little finger first and a fully extended arm.
The hand needs to enter the water directly in front of the shoulder. U.S. Air Force Capt. Christy Wise swims backstroke during the 2016 Invictus Games in Orlando.
The leading hand creates propulsion and the trailing hand releases propulsion.
7. Hip and Shoulder Rotation
This is a vital part of the stroke as it generates power and helps the body slip through the water in a smooth, streamlined position. The natural stroking sequence doesn’t generate enough propulsion for optimal performance, so an exaggerated rotation (roll of the shoulders) is needed for added power.
Specific drills to enhance these elements of backstroke need to be included in your swimming training session to improve and perfect your overall stroke and performance in the water.
What is a Swimming Drill?
A swimming drill is a stroke-specific exercise that has been designed to focus on one or two particular aspects of that stroke. Drills are done to change or improve a part of a stroke such as breathing, arm position, kicking, and rotation. Improvements in stroke technique can have a major impact on how efficiently you move through the water, so drills are a vital part of your swim training session.
Tips for Getting the Best Out of Your Backstroke Swimming Drills
Balance Drills with Regular Swimming
Balance backstroke drills with regular swimming to transfer what you are working on into your regular stroke. For example, alternate between swimming and drills for each length – 25m drill, 25m swim. Drills are only effective if they are being incorporated into your stroke to help you swim better.
Drills are designed to improve technique and skill so take your time when doing drills and concentrate on each part of the exercise. Drills are supposed to be technical so take enough rest to do them properly.
Get Feedback from a Coach
Getting feedback is vital to ensure you are doing the drills correctly. If you don’t swim with a coach, video yourself doing the drill to see if you are doing it correctly.
Drills are designed to improve technique and skill.
Backstroke Drills for Swimmers
1. One-Arm Backstroke Drill
The One-Arm Backstroke Drill is a good exercise for concentrating on working on the catch, pull, and recovery of one arm at a time. Focus on the hand entering the water and sweeping outwards to catch the water. Focus on the upward and downward sweep at 90 degrees to the body and the release of the water with the hand before the recovery.
Alternate the arms during the drill, for example, do 10 strokes with the left arm followed by 10 strokes with the right arm or 25m with the right, 25m with the left, 25m full stroke working on all the elements of the arm action.
Best for: Working on the catch, pull, and recovery of the arms.
2. Double-Arm Backstroke Drill
The next progression from the One-Arm Backstroke Drill is to work both arms together. This is a challenging drill and requires good flexibility on the shoulders but has numerous benefits.
The Double-Arm Backstroke Drill is an excellent drill for preventing overreaching because if you overreach while working both arms together, your arms will overlap. This drill also works on the kicking action which is essential for keeping the body afloat and in the correct position.
Best for: Preventing overreaching.
3. Backstroke Sculling
Sculling is a fantastic all-around drill that can be used for all four strokes. Sculling involves moving your hands in a quick figure-eight pattern underwater with slightly bent elbows, using your hands and forearms for propulsion and power. You can scull with a pull buoy between your legs or with a slight flutter kick.
Sculling for backstroke is done on your back with your arms at your sides and your hands just beneath your hips. As with other sculling drills, move the hands in a quick figure-eight pattern to stay afloat and work the forearms. It also helps you get a better feel for the water with your hands.
A typical sculling drill for the backstroke is to lay on your back and have your hands down under your hips. Move your hands in a quick figure-eight pattern underwater to keep you afloat. A flutter kick can supplement your buoyancy.
You can integrate sculling with regular pulling by doing 4-5 sculling actions followed by two full arm strokes and repeat for the length.
Best for: Working on the catch phase.
- Closed-Fist Backstroke Drill
Closed-fist backstroke is one of the most simple and effective backstroke drills to increase the feel for the water with your forearm and encourage an efficient catch. It is as easy as it sounds – simply ball your hands into fists and swim backstroke as you normally would.
When your hand is in a fist there is less surface area to catch the water, and this leads to you becoming more aware of the placement of your forearm in the water and catching the water correctly. This drill reminds you that you should be catching the water with both your forearm and hand, encouraging an efficient catch, and an increase of stroke rate due to less catch area.
Best for: Working on the catch phase.
6. Front Crossover Backstroke Drill
Front Crossovers are a good drill for focusing on an extended reach of the arm, the catch, and the recovery phase of the arm.
Swim three full arm strokes and when the third arm is extended after the recovery, complete two complete semicircles in front of your body crossing your arms over in front of your face in opposite directions. Follow with three full arm strokes and repeat the semicircles.
Best for: Working on the reach, catch, and recovery phases of the arm action.
7. The Cup Challenge Backstroke Drill
This is a fun drill for focusing on the head position in the backstroke. When you tuck your chin into your chest and lift your head in the backstroke, this causes the hips and legs to drop, shifting the body position into a sloping form instead of a flat form and reducing the efficiency of the kick. It can also put a severe strain on your neck.
It is important to keep your head and neck relaxed and keep your eyes looking upwards at the ceiling or the sky. Your head should stay completely still while your body rotates with each stroke. To do this, place a half-full plastic cup of water on your forehead and swim 25m backstroke without it falling off.
Best for: Working on the reach, catch, and recovery phases of the arm action.
8. Head-Lead Side Balance Backstroke Drill
The Head-Lead Side Balance Backstroke Drill focuses on the rotation or the roll of the body in backstroke. Push off the wall in a head-lead supine position on your back, keeping your arms at your side and your head still, looking straight up towards the ceiling or sky. Use a flutter kick for propulsion.
Roll from the shoulders to toes into a side position so that the body is at an approximately 45° angle compared to the water surface but keep the head straight with the eyes looking straight up. To execute the rotation, kick harder with one leg than the other and use your core, but don’t use your arms.
Practice this drill on each side, changing sides each length, until you are comfortable and can keep the balance on one side without much effort.
Best for: Rotation
9. Seated Backstroke Drill
The Seated Backstroke Drill works on improving the arm cadence and stroke rate. Swim backstroke in a seated position using your abdominal muscles and core to maintain a high body position. Move your arms as fast as possible with a very high cadence, keeping your head high and kicking hard.
Perform this drill for a few seconds and then recover with a few strokes of easy backstroke or double arm backstroke. Repeat.
Best for: Increasing arm cadence and overall stroke rate.
10. Corkscrew Backstroke Drill
The Corkscrew Backstroke Drill is another fun drill for all levels of backstrokers to work on feeling the rotation that begins with the arms stroke, achieving a depth to begin the stroke, and focusing on an early vertical catch.
Push off the wall for the backstroke with your arms extended and swim two arm strokes on your back. Using the rotation of the third backstroke arm stroke, roll onto your front and swim two freestyle arm strokes. Then using the catch of the third freestyle arm stroke, roll onto your back and repeat the drill.
Maintain a relaxed neck and head and good flutter kicking action throughout to keep the body in the correct position for both backstroke and freestyle. Focus on feeling the depth that your arm achieves to begin each stroke on your back and the similarity of the bent elbow position in both backstroke and freestyle during the mid-pull. Take note of how the rotation creates more power for the stroke.
Best for: Rotation and a powerful catch
11. One Arm Rope Climb Backstroke Drill
This is a great drill for learning how to anchor the reaching arm, feeling the high elbow position, and experiencing your body moving past your hand. This drill should only be performed by swimmers with conditioned shoulders.
String a rope fairly tightly from one end of the pool to the other so that it is floating just below the surface of the water. Lay in the water on your back next to the rope with one arm extended over your head just outside the rope. Keep your spine straight and head still.
Grasp the rope with the hand of your extended arm and pull your body past your hand with a straight arm. Take note of how your legs swing towards the rope and how your shoulder feels as it is doing all the work.
Now, extend your arm again and grasp the rope. This time, as you pull your body past your hand, drop your elbow down and lower it into your ribs. Take note of how difficult it is to move your body forward with a low elbow.
Once again, grab the rope with an extended arm as before. Now pull your body upwards until your shoulder is in line with your hand and your elbow is parallel to your arm and shoulder at a right angle. From here, straighten your arm and take note of how much easier it is to pull and how much more efficient and powerful it feels.
Now, using the same catch and pull movement, “climb” the rope to the end of the pool keeping a high, firm elbow and accelerated arm action. Switch sides at the end of the pool and repeat.
Best for: Extended arm, high, stable elbow, and efficient and powerful catch.
Mia Russell is currently the head swim coach at Aquasharks Swimming Academy in South Africa. She has worked as the head swim guide at SwimQuest Open Water Swimming Holidays in London and was previously a Swim Coach at Cybersmart Aquatics. She has a AIDA International Level 3 Freediving Certification, PADI Open Water Advanced Certificate, SSI Level 1 Free Diver Certificate and RYA Beach Lifeguard Certificate.