How to Swim the Backstroke
By Ryan Wood
While freestyle is by far the most popular and most effective swimming stroke, the backstroke is another method of getting from point A to point B in the pool. The good news is the backstroke has a lot of similarities to freestyle.
Of all the things swim coach Alex Kostich could compare a sound backstroke to, he pictures a pig on a spit, perhaps with an apple in its mouth.
"It's like you have an iron rod running through the center of your body, and you're rotating your body along that rod, but you can't wiggle off of that," Kostich says.
It's just one visualization technique that helps swimmers learn the backstroke.
"Learning any stroke and even perfecting an existing stroke is never easy," Kostich says. "But I'd say probably the easiest stroke to master after freestyle would be the backstroke."
Jeff Pease, a longtime swim coach and head of North Coast Aquatics in Carlsbad, California, says that when teaching adults the backstroke, first and foremost he looks at their body position in the water.
"The most important starting point for me is to assess body position and get them to learn how to hold themselves in a proper body position," Pease says. "Where the head is supposed to be, where the hips are supposed to be, and how they line up on top of the water."
The pig-on-a-spit analogy is a way of making sure the entire body is working together, that the head is aligned with the spine, hips with the shoulders and so on. Without that harmony, you will constantly be fighting yourself in the water.
"The building blocks of learning how to swim freestyle can be applied to backstroke," Kostich says. "For instance, keep your center axis. Rotate your shoulders but you keep your body parallel to the bottom of the pool, then pivot around this axis."
Once your body is trained to be a pig on a spit, you're ready to tackle the backstroke in greater depth.
Swimmers use their arms in different ways, but a few fundamentals are unbreakable rules.
One is that your hand needs to enter the water pinky-first, with your arm extended as far out in front of you as possible. Next, when you're "pulling" underwater — which ultimately is what propels you — it helps to not move your arm in a straight line, but rather in an "S" shape underneath you.
"Everyone knows the shortest distance between two points is a straight line," Kostich says. "But when you're pulling underneath the water, you don't want the shortest distance. You want to pull the maximum amount of water."
Like freestyle, it's also important to make sure your hand is cupped to maximize pulling.
Beyond that, different coaches recommend different things. Some coaches will teach bringing the hand out of the water thumb-first, though that's not crucial. Coaches also vary on how deep your hand should be during the pull.
It's easy to breathe in the backstroke, but don't get lazy.
Since your face is out of the water the whole time, you're free to breathe whenever you like, but don't. Your entire stroke will work better if you work your breathing into the rhythm of it.
"Definitely breathe in on one stroke, breathe out on the other," Pease says. "You want to be cognizant of your breathing. You're not holding your breath, but you're not randomly breathing either. Many swimmers don't pay attention. But it's good to be in a breathing pattern."
Kicking for the backstroke is identical to kicking in freestyle. The flutter kick involves keeping your feet submerged and quickly kicking in an up-and-down motion, alternating feet.
Often, swimmers don't pay attention to their kicking while they work on their stroke, and it leads to ineffective kicks like the dolphin kick, the breaststroke kick, or a combination of any number of kicks. The more relaxed and comfortable you get, the more likely your flutter kick will be fundamentally sound.
The one unique aspect of the backstroke is that you're essentially swimming blind. You can't see exactly where you're going. For rookies, it's easy to swim crooked instead of straight.
A swimmer with great form and strong mechanics won't have this problem because the stroke done perfectly will force you to swim straight as an arrow. Until you get to that point, many swim coaches recommend swimming somewhat close to one side of the lane and watching the lane divider out of the corner of your eye to make sure you're staying at a consistent distance.
Another issue is approaching the wall. Since you're looking up, you can't see it. Running into the wall is an unpleasant experience, and it does happen.
Most pools help with this by hanging flags over the pool a few yards from the edge. When you're first practicing the backstroke in a pool, find the flags and count how many strokes it takes you to get from the flags to the wall.
"Let's say it takes you four strokes," Kostich says. "Give yourself three strokes, and then glide. That way, you can make sure you don't hit your head."
Every successful swimmer is a relaxed one. A tense and anxiety-filled swimmer will not be mechanically sound.
"People tend to tense up and get rigid in the water when they're uncomfortable," Kostich says. "They don't relax and their breathing and their heart rate increases. Then a slow little panic sets in. One of the really important things to remember in any stroke is to relax. Be fluid and loose in the water."
Put all these guidelines together, and you've got the backstroke figured out — which can really help boost your fitness.
"Backstroke is something you can swim for a longer distance, unlike fly or breast," Pease says. "You can also build some endurance. I think it's a great stroke to do aerobic work in."
Ryan Wood is a writer and editor for Active.com in San Diego, California.