Swimming Basics: A Beginners' Guide to the Backstroke

Shawn Gerber

Guest Contributor

Endurance Sports, Triathlon, Running, Swimming, Cycling


Like the spoiled youngest child in the family, the freestyle swim stroke gets a lot of attention despite having some pretty awesome siblings. Let’s be honest, it is a powerful yet graceful stroke that almost everyone is familiar with, so it is somewhat deserving of all the attention.


Here’s the thing, though, those other siblings in the family? They deserve some loving, too, especially from you - the guy or gal who just bangs out freestyle sets day in and day out. (Full disclosure: I have been completely guilty of this in the past.)



Why should you give other stokes a chance? Integrating different strokes into your workouts not only adds much needed variety, but also helps to reduce overuse injuries. For the competitive open water bunch out there, it gives you options if you ever need to mix it up out on the field of battle.


Where Should You Start?

The easiest, and arguably most practical stroke to introduce into your daily swim routine is the backstroke.


What does it have going for it? For starters you can skip the whole complicated breathing thing and just breathe whenever you feel like it. Big plus!


Along those same lines, if you get in a bind and need to catch your breath or fix your goggles, the backstroke is perfect for that. This is so helpful out in the open water. Needless to say, the backstroke is a handy tool to have in the arsenal, so where do you start?


If you are familiar with the basics of freestyle, you will find many similarities with its supine counterpart, creating an easier transition. Just like in freestyle, or any stroke for that matter, body position is the foundation upon which the rest of the stroke mechanics rest.



Body Position/Balance

Water, being denser than air, punishes inefficiencies and magnifies any extra drag.



The best way to battle drag as a swimmer is to minimize your frontal surface area with a sleek, slippery body position. To best develop this skill, athletes must hone their proprioceptive senses with drills that focus on establishing streamlined balance in the water.


"Integrating different strokes into your workouts not only adds much needed variety, but also helps to reduce overuse injuries."


Much like the drill you would do with freestyle to develop a sense for balance, the backstroke drill is simply kicking from a supine position with or without a kickboard, with the arms fully extended.


The key is to focus on keeping the hips and legs high in the water with the rest of the body, which will require some experimentation with head and torso position. Master this and you can move on to the next piece of the puzzle - the kick.



I don’t say this often, but for the kick we can take some advice from Missy Elliot and “flip it and reverse it.” Kicking technique for the backstroke is identical to what you do in freestyle: pointed toes, minimal flexion at the knee, kicking from the hip in sync with your rotation.




Super simple for the freestyler who has already mastered his or her kick, and yet another reason to pick up backstroke as the first stroke you add to the mix.


To work on the kick, you can practice on dry land, on the wall in the pool, or make it the focus of the body position drill mentioned above.



Stroke Mechanics

Last, but not least, come the actual mechanics of the stroke. This is where things begin to differ. The entry looks dramatically different - with the hands entering at an angle, pinky first, directly above and just outside the shoulder.


The arm then extends fully as if reaching for the far wall. Paired with ample body rotation, this allows the entry hand to reach deep into the catch position and set up a great pull phase.



The concept of the catch remains the same: grab as much water as you can and create powerful propulsion through the pull.


This means turning the arms and hands into powerful paddles. The motion itself is much different from freestyle, though, which is where swimming with fists or paddles comes into play. These drills will help to establish this feel for the water during the backstroke.


"I don’t say this often, but for the kick we can take some advice from Missy Elliot and 'flip it and reverse it.'"


A word of caution: Just like in freestyle, straight-arming the water in the catch phase will not only detract from your overall propulsion, but also drive the torso up and the legs down - a big no-no for drag reduction. Try to avoid developing this habit at all costs.


Lastly, the pull extends all the way to the hips before the hand comes out thumb first with arm fully extended. As the body and arm rotate, the hand returns to the pinky first position before repeating it all over again.


Spice of Life

There you have it, a quick hitting guide for mixing the backstroke into your routine. The video below highlights all the drills mentioned so you can get started right away. Your shoulders, and mind, will thank you for adding some variety – trust me.



Up next? An intro to the butterfly - arguably the coolest looking stroke of the bunch.


Continue by reading the other articles of the Swimming Basics series:


You might also like:

See more about: , , , , , ,
Breaking Muscle Newsletter

Breaking Muscle Newsletter

Get updates and special offers delivered directly to your inbox.