Swim Backstroke With Gold Medal Technique

Nate Boyle
backstroke
Photo credit: jdlasica on Best Running / CC BY

The best technique to swim backstroke with is an increasingly difficult question to answer without great context. Because while many successful backstroke swimmers have a ‘traditional’ tempo, several current Olympic backstrokers’ world record rates are much slower than even their peers on the podium.

And this distance per stroke dominant swimming has enormous potential for an athlete’s range. Swimming performances centered around ‘connecting’ the hand to the body’s core immediately upon entry are adaptable to any race strategy.

They enable very strong athletes to lock onto the water and directionally push through as if they were lifting weights with ground reaction forces.

What is Backstroke Swimming?

Swimming on the back has the unique benefit of easy, rhythmic breathing that comes from never taking a stroke underwater. But the flipside for the swimmer is not being able to see where they are going, kind of like driving in reverse.

Generally, the backstroke we are looking to develop has the following movements:

  • High elbow catch during the underwater phase
  • Proper hand entry allows for a similar scenario to freestyle and butterfly that promotes forces from the hands that also directionally stabilize the entire body hull. 
  • A bent elbow, without breaking the wrist, all while keeping hand and forearm on the same propulsive plane to create an “early vertical forearm” in swimming.
  • Consistent kick, which is a little smaller than the freestyle kicking motion
  • Fluid and correctly timed rotation through propulsive phases
  • Increase hand speed throughout a stroke cycle and maintain constant palm pressure with the water for as long as possible.

Training the Modern Backstroke 

A study has examined the aerobic demand of backstroke swimming and its correlation to anthropometrics, biomechanics, or performance. The purpose of this study was an attempt to understand:

  1. the aerobic demand of backstroke swimming in proficient swimmers at high velocities;
  2. the effects of body size and stroke technique on submaximal and maximal O2 costs, and;
  3. any relationship between submaximal O2 costs and maximal performance.

Results showed that VO2 increased linearly with velocity. And VO2 was also related to the subjects’ body mass, height, and wingspan. Moreover, a longer distance per stroke was associated with lower overall O2 costs and better peak performances.

Backstroke Technique from Rate

Looking from a biomechanical perspective, because the arms are straight during recovery, the hand appears to move faster than freestyle, as it’s further away from the shoulder.

Perceptively this results in a much quicker looking tempo compared to freestyle. Despite that appearance, excellent backstroke swimming is still, in most cases, done through sufficient stroke length.

Another study was to investigate biomechanical variables in backstroke technique at different distance specializations.

Swimming velocity, stroke length, stroke rate, duration of different arm stroke phases, and selected kinematic variables were assessed in both cases. In the 50-m distance swimmers, the duration of the propulsive phase at Vmax…increased significantly with increasing swimming velocity…both the pull and push phases were fundamental in the increase of duration of the propulsive phase.

Matteo Cortesi et al

Compared to 200-meters event specialists, sprint backstrokers appear more capable of controlling stroke tempos to increase their overall velocity.

Regardless of the desired or appropriate tempo for each athlete, the following components are still universal:

Backstroke Kicking to Success

Great legs. Small steady kick. And whip the kick through the toes to let the water feel like a roller coaster ride.

Backstroke kicking is not the same as a freestyle kick; so if a swimmer wants to improve technique, they need to learn both. While freestyle swimmers have between a two to eight-beat flutter kick; backstrokers keep the same kick rate.

Legs in backstroke are not only a propulsive force but also the rudder that steadies the vessel upon the water’s surface. They keep swimmers from dropping their hips and ultimately sinking the ship. And with no pause to rotate, athletes require good leg conditioning for fast, efficient backstroke.

A High Catch with Powerful Hands

More flexible swimmers can achieve this even above their heads. Swimmers with average flexibility should enter their hands above the shoulder.

The stronger the swimmer is, the wider their hand can travel and still lock into the ‘core.’ The depth of pull varies by opinion (slower tempo is usually deeper). Due to muscle strength considerations, many use the more shallow arm path.

But the ‘unfair’ exchange is when backstrokers improve their entry phase, it ‘feels’ weaker because they are maintaining speed instead of inefficiently speeding up and slowing down through the cycle.

And with stroke corrections, many swimmers ‘overreach’ because they feel like they pull more water. Just because it feels more powerful doesn’t mean the motion is more productive initiating the pull phase.

A strong finish to the propulsive phase creates timely hip rotation as a closed-loop system. The shoulder roll into/over the water then encourages an excellent catch for the beginning of the next stroke cycle.

Excellent Body Position

For great hip rotation/timing, keep the ‘dry’ alternating stroke arm perpendicular to the body as long as possible. And make sure to accelerate the other arm through the finish of the pull.

A swimmer’s core muscles connect catch and legs, to ensure a synchronous summation of velocities. Fully engaged with core muscles around great body position is crucial to maintaining a distributed energy output throughout a swimming race or practice. A lack of concentration or conditioning leads to asynchronous misfires in stroke timing that slow a swimmer down.

Lastly, due to many athletes’ ability to ‘tie’ their hand to their core while swimming backstroke, many can generate more power in backstroke than in the other three strokes. Anecdotally, this is evidenced by how much weight they can lift in backstroke compared to different strokes using equipment like the ‘power tower.’

Backstroke Swimming Drills and Tips

And yet another study found that swimming backstroke with paddles compared to without allowed for greater overall efficiency at maximum but not sub-maximal velocity.

Swim paddles appear to be useful at submaximal efforts when one needs to reduce the stroking frequency and increase the stroke length without shifts in energy demands. And like the other strokes, the stroke length is critical in world-class backstroke swimming.

In comparison, picture how much quicker an athlete moves their arms in a ‘spin drill.’ And when for other swimming drills to improve technique

  1. 6-3-6 Drill is great for the rolling motion
  2. Lift and Drop for optimal timing
  3. 2x Touch backstroke swimming for working the recovery phase
  4. Double Arm Pull for the stroke propulsion phase
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