Essential Tips To Successful Backstroke

Backstroke is the most efficient stroke swum on the back. It is also the third-fastest stroke of all the swimming strokes.

Backstroke and back crawl are used in the same way to refer to the same stroke.

Roman and Greeks enjoy swimming backstroke since the earliest times but the full stroke development was formed officially later. Elementary backstroke started between the 18th to 19th centuries and gained popularity in Europe.

Elementary backstroke involved good supine floating position, overarm recovery, and a breaststroke leg action.

The modern back crawl or backstroke involves the alternating arm action with an up and down leg action that was invented during the twentieth century.

Unlike elementary backstroke, it is an upper-body dominant stroke. Most of the propulsion is generated by strong wing-like muscles under each arm.

Backstroke produces the majority of the power by alternating arm action, and its streamlined horizontal position gives it its efficiency.

It is a long axis stroke, the body rotates on an imaginary central axis from the head to the toe.

The arm will come out of the water straight and once underneath the water, the hand will bend and pushes the water towards the feet.

The head position stays generally still with the hands moving in opposition continuously. Backstroke kick unlike elementary backstroke uses the flutter kick like front crawl to maintain the body position.

Backstroke is the most preferred stroke in competitive backstroke races. In the 1912 Olympics, Harry Hebner beat his competitors with these revolutionary new ways of swimming on the back shocked the world for the first time.

It even had him winning his opponents by more than three seconds that year.  

Swimming on the back can be useful for helping a pupil to relax in the water. The nature of the floating on the back, with your face up, the supine position gives you a calm and relaxing feeling.

No water should splash onto the face with the front clear of the water. It might be counterproductive initially. These positions give a feel of disorientation and unease.

Students face looking upwards and thus unaware of their surroundings. Therefore students need to be taught how to regain a standing position from being supine in the water

Body Position For Backstroke

backstroke swimming position

The supine body position is flat and horizontal, with the ears slightly below the water surface. 

The head remains throughout the stroke and the eyes looking slightly down.

An effective backstroke does not require you to submerge your head at any time. The head and spine remain centered and head fully supported by the water.  

This action builds confidence for the inexperienced swimmers.

Hips and shoulders remain near or at the water surface, rolling together with the stroke. 

Legs remain with knees closer together to maximize efficiency. 

Leg Action For Backstroke

Leg action in the back crawl is used to provide balance and stability. Even though the back crawl is an arm dominant stroke, the leg still plays two important functions.

Leg action helps to generate 35 percent of overall propulsion, stabilizes the body, provide rhythm and significantly provide forward momentum for backstroke swimming.

Always make sure to point your toes with the ankles relaxed. The upward kick provides propulsion and makes sure the kick comes from the hip. 

The balance of the action of the arms comes from the alternating movement of kicking up and down. 

Legs should be stretched out with the toes pointed (plantar flexion)

Ankles have to be relaxed and loose with toes slight pointing inwards. 

Slight bend of the knee and straighten when the leg starts to kick upwards.

Toes should kick to create a small splash like boiling water but not break the surface. 

There are a few exercises that help to better your leg kicking. I love to call it leg action in swimming backstroke the “leg press”.

“Leg press” helps to convey the true message of maximizing full resistance, instead of leg kick which might mean just any forceful movement without much considerations.

You can start with seated leg press exercise on the poolside to explore leg action.

This exercise will help you discover when to release and when to apply effort, at the same time observe and feel the effectiveness of moving from hips as compared to using the knee.

Arm Action For Backstroke

There are many misconceptions about the backstroke arm stroke; one of the most common is that the arms remain straight throughout the stroke, like a windmill.

Straight arm pull leads to shoulder problems, and it is also challenging to try lifting yourself out of the pool with straight arms. While it is essential to begin and finish the stroke with straight, well-aligned arms, using a high and firm elbow position, in the middle of the stroke, allows the swimmer to access more power and move forward with an accelerating pull and then push action.


There are two kinds of arm actions in the back crawl. Instructors will teach each type of arm actions according to each of the pupil’s abilities and strengths. They are mainly the “bent arm pull” or the “straight arm pull.”

The bent arm pull is more efficient while the straight arm pull is easier to learn. Instructors will usually start with teaching straight arm pull for beginners and easy progressions. 

Always think about your arm action connected to your back. It gives you aid to maintain balance and stability.

Avoid letting your second arm drift too far away from the side when your first arm is stretched backward, this causes over-rotation.

“Bent arm pull”

The arm will exit the water, brush past the ear, and enter the water with the little finger first. 

Swimmers will then pull from above the head, pushes past the hip to simulate the bent arm pull action. 

As the arm pull-through underwater to completion, the overall path should look like an ‘S’ shape.


Entry is identical to the straight arm pull with little finger entering first, palm facing out and the arm will remain close to the shoulder line. 

Downward Sweep

The palm should always be facing the direction of the travel

Shoulders roll, and the elbow bends slightly as the arm sweeps downward and outwards. 

Upward Sweep

As the hand sweeps inline with the shoulder, the palm will changes its to sweep upwards in inwards to the hips.

The elbow should then bend 90 degrees pointing to the pool floor. 

Second Down Sweep

The arm action will then sweeps inwards towards the thigh with the palm facing downwards. 

The bending arm action will complete with the arm fully extended and hand pushing downwards to counterbalance the shoulder roll. 


Thumb will exit the water first with the back of the hand facing your body. 

The shoulder will roll again with the shoulder of the recovering arm rolling upwards. 

Arm rotation occurring through 180 degrees over the shoulder 

Palm will turn outwards when the hand is 12′ O clock straight to ensure that the hand enters the water with little finger first during recovery. 

“Straight arm pull”


The arm will remain straight and stay inline with the shoulder as much as possible. Hands will turn with the palm facing outwards to make sure the little finger will enter the water first. 


The arm will sweep through underwater in a semi-circle, pulling with force under the water surface, pushing to the side of the thigh.


Regular breathing is encouraged to prevent any breath-holding. 

Breathing can be in time with the recovery of each arm, breathing in with one arm recovery and then out with the other. 


A typical scenario of backstroke will be one arm exiting the water and the other beginning to pull while the leg kicks remain continuous throughout. 

This may vary with the swimmer’s ability to coordinate; ideally, it should be six-leg kicks to one arm cycle. 

Always make sure that the arm pulls are continuous, for example: when one arm enters and begins to pull, the other will have to begin its recovery phase. 

Backstroke Swimming “BLABT” Drill

Body Position Drill

  • Floating supine supported by floats
  • Static supine position and holding a single float
  • Push and gliding holding a single float
  • Pushing and gliding from the poolside independently (with no floatation devices)

Backstroke Leg Action Drill

  • Static practice, sitting on the poolside
  • Woggle held under each arm
  • Float held under each arm
  • Float held on the chest
  • Float held behind the head.
  • Float held over the knees.
  • Float held overhead with the arms straight
  • Kicking with arm by the side doing sculling

Backstroke Arm Action Drill

  • Land drill and practicing static by the poolside
  • Single-arm pull with one hand holding a float held on the chest
  • Lane rope practice with single arm pull
  • Single-arm pull independent with the other arm held by the side
  • Arms practice only, isolation of legs using pull buoys

Backstroke Breathing

  • Practice full stroke with breathing

Backstroke Timing

  • Pushing and gliding adding arms and legs together with 3 seconds arm pull switch
  • Full stroke drills

Teaching Backstroke With “Cues”

There are different kinds of cues used to guide students in acquiring backstroke skills. All the cues are categorized based on their proficiency and the cognitive level of the students.

You can use all these cues to better help them better understand what is required of them at every specific levels.

Novice Level (Cues)

  • Chin above water.
  • Big arms

Intermediate Level (Cues)

  • Move your hand like a pole going through your body from your head to the toes.
  • Thumb comes out first, with your pinky into the water
  • Little knees give more power at flutter kicking.

Advanced Level (Cues)

  • Rotate your shoulders
  • Hips up and body roll


Every student is unique, here are some of the differentiation techniques you can apply when teaching backstroke.

  • Provide physical or floating assistance as and when needed if necessary
  • Provide written, pictorial videos style tutorials per direction as needed.
  • Some students with propulsions issues can use fins for better propulsion, you may also provide physical guidance for the arm strokes.

Benefits of Swimming Backstroke

Backstroke strengthens our back core muscles. It tones the legs and arms without putting the strain on the spine, increases the hip and shoulder mobility.

Many people like the feeling of the expansion along the sides of their body, resulted from the rotational movements. The rotation movements build a good foundation for freestyle swimming and the development of an efficient front crawl.

Backcrawl arm action also helps to complement the forward movement of the front crawl.

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