Improving Your Backstroke: Part 2 of a Four-Part Stroke Improvement Series - Wallen Swim School in Roseville and El Dorado Hills, California

Improving Your Backstroke: Part 2 of a Four-Part Stroke Improvement Series

If your goal is to improve your backstroke, here are some tips to refine your technique.

Backstroke, or back crawl, is a great option for working different muscles than those used in freestyle. While freestyle targets the chest muscles, backstroke targets the upper back. Backstroke also provides for a break from the technical aspects of breathing involved in freestyle and is a wise choice to add some variety to your laps. Backstroke is powerful, and when done right, offers a great workout. Pros make it look easy, but several complex elements need to be done well; the results are a solid backstroke

As a beginning swimmer, developing the basic backstroke components of kick, head and body position, body roll, and arm mechanics without developing bad habits will allow for an efficient backstroke. At this early stage, it’s all about drills where each component is practiced and perfected on its own. This is the perfect time to take part in swimming lessons, either small group, semi-private, or private. In this ideal learning environment, you will learn stroke mechanics and essential drills which will be the building blocks for your backstroke.

If you have been doing backstroke for a while and your stroke isn’t as effective as you would like, it’s time to shed those bad habits and return to the basics. Some of the more common negative habits may be slowing you down. For example, an arm crossover and tucked head are common culprits.

Let’s break down the stroke into its main parts with some tips for both beginner and experienced swimmers.

For Beginner Backstrokers

If you have your back float perfect, and you can comfortably do a back glide with a basic flutter kick, you may be ready to start learning backstroke!

Your swimming instructor will know if you are ready. At first, swimming on your back can seem intimidating. There is a lot of space between your face and the pool’s ceiling! Even though you can’t see the pool edges while on your back, you will soon learn to trust your intuition and become more than comfortable swimming backstroke.

This is the time to develop consistently accurate backstroke components before tying them together into the full stroke. This means lots of drills focusing on each element individually. For young or beginner swimmers, time spent focusing on perfecting the basics is key to future success with the stroke. This is the time to really get the stroke right before developing habits that slow you down in the water.

Don’t rush the stroke; take the time to get each component dialed in, and then an effective backstroke will emerge!


  • Your breathing should be rhythmic and controlled. Don’t hold your breath and don’t force yourself to breathe in a way that doesn’t feel natural.
  • There will be splashing as you move your arms, which means water may enter your mouth and nose. Once you have your body position and your stroke mechanics down, the splashing will lessen. In the meantime, notice where your arms are when the splashing is at its worst, and time your inhale accordingly.

Flutter Kick

  • Kick like you are kicking your socks off, long legs, quick snap at your feet.
  • Remember to kick with your whole leg. Your legs begin at your hips and go down to the tip of your toes. Your kick should begin at your hips and move through to your feet.
  • It is called flutter kick because it is just that, a quick flutter of nearly straight legs, fast and small. Your kick is continuous, driving you through the water. If you let your kick stall, your legs and hips will drop, create more resistance and slow you down.
  • Only your toes should break the surface of the water, so keep your knees below the surface. If your knees are coming out of the water, it is likely that you are bending your knees too much. This will slow your swim down quite a bit.

Body Position

  • Stretch! A long body will move through the water more easily! Reach for one end of the pool with your hands and the other end of the pool with your feet.
  • Skim through the water just below the surface…. don’t let your head or legs hang down toward the pool bottom.
  • Head position is key to maintaining an ideal body position. If your chin is pulled too far down toward your chest, it will cause your hips and legs to drop toward the pool bottom. This head position also makes it more difficult to move your arms properly, and it negatively impacts your body roll as well.
  • Your head remains in the same position as your body rolls from side to side. This rolling action allows for your arms to have a free and full range of motion and will allow you to move through the water with greater ease. Think of a knife blade on its side, cutting through the water.


  • A common mistake is to reach across too far (crossover) when your hand enters the water for your pull. Think about entering the water in line with your shoulder. If you reach too far over, this will cause your body to snake or sway, resulting in less efficiency. An arm crossover may also lead to a shoulder injury.
  • As you get ready for the “recovery” phase which is when your arm moves through the air consider your hand position which will aid in how to move your arm. The phrase “thumb out, pinky in” on repeat will coach your hand to pivot, and thus your arm to move in the correct way. This means that as your arm lifts out of the water, your thumb leads, and as your hand enters the water behind your head, your pinky finger leads the way.
  • Grab the water with a slightly cupped hand and PULL yourself through the water, each stroke should be a strong, powerful pull finishing with a big push right down to your fingertips.

For Experienced Backstrokers

If you have been swimming backstroke for years, it may be that you have developed some inefficiencies in your stroke.

Even an advanced swimmer can benefit from breaking their stroke down, focusing on the fundamentals, and having some constructive criticism from a swim instructor. Some of the more common backstroke errors include having a flawed catch or bringing your shoulders out of the water.


  • Your body will be working hard and will need lots of oxygen to function well. Try inhaling while recovering one arm, then exhaling while recovering the other arm.
  • Just as a rhythmic arm and body roll action is your goal, so should a rhythmic breathing pattern. Breathing should coincide with your strokes. It is in this steady tempo that one can focus on their power and speed.

Body Position

  • Swim on edge, like a knife moving through hot butter. Avoid having a flat body that is plowing through the water rather than cutting through it. Think about how wide a frontal surface area is presented by your shoulders and upper back. If you stay flat on your back, this large surface area forms a massive plow, which will require tremendous effort to pull you through the water.
  • “Reducing drag is the surest way to improve swimming” (Friel 177). Think about how your body may be creating drag by letting your legs drop, by lifting your head, and by plowing through the water with a flat body. Bringing your head and shoulders up and out of the water will also create unwanted drag.

Flutter Kick

  • Quick flutter action for the feet, from hips to toes, long and fluid. A fast-compact kick keeps your lower body from snaking through the water, which creates drag.
  • Dropping your legs by kicking weakly increases the drag, and kicking with legs wide apart thinking that will give you more propulsion actually increases drag and is a waste of power.
  • Watch for an excessive bend in your knees. Your legs should remain straight as bent knees will increase drag. If your knees are breaking the surface of the water, you are bending your knees too much.


  • Finish your pull! Your arm should reach a full extension with your hand passing your hip on every single pull, fingertips pointing straight down toward your toes.
  • “A long stroke and low cadence produce the most economical stroke” (Friel 177). This is easily measured by counting how many stroke pulls it takes for one length, then try to reduce that count to your next length by making each pull count.
  • Break your backstroke down, and work on drills to improve each element. For example, keep your arms locked to your sides, and practice your body roll while flutter kicking.

Improve your backstroke with swimming lessons no matter your age!

There is no better way to improve your swim technique than having a qualified swimming instructor to evaluate your stroke and provide you with specific, constructive criticism.

You can get this real-time “in the water” input from one of the highly skilled swim instructors at Steve Wallen Swim School. This will give you the ability to implement what you have learned and make gains in your stroke performance.

Take part in a swim clinic or sign up for a private lesson. Have your stroke recorded, then reviewed with your swim instructor. Video analysis will allow you to see exactly where your skills can be improved. A video recording will reveal inefficiencies in your stroke that you may not even be aware of!

Seeing your stroke with your own eyes is an innovative approach to learning and developing your stroke.

Coming up next: Improving Your Breaststroke: Part 3

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