American swimmer Ryan Murphy makes backstroke look easy! The 3-time Olympic gold medalist holds the world record in the men’s 100m long course backstroke, and most recently crushed the competition as part of the LA Current International Swimming League team.
From his powerful starts and turns to his solid body position, we broke down Ryan Murphy’s backstroke technique to help you perfect your stroke.
Bodyline & Head Position
In all 4 strokes, head position plays a major role in overall technique and bodyline. But in backstroke, your head position can be the difference between swimming smoothly, right down the middle of your lane, or crashing into the lane line!
Perfect body position in backstroke is as follows:
- Head looking straight up to the sky. Most of your swim cap should be under the water!
- Hips & feet are high, close to surface of the water
It’s really common for swimmers to look more toward their toes, which causes the hips to drop. When your hips are too low, you won’t be able to pick up speed because your body is creating too much drag.
Related: How to Swim Backstroke with Perfect Technique
Ryan’s body position is great — he rotates around an invisible axis that runs from the top of his head through his toes, and his hips stay nice and high.
His head position is pretty good, too. Ideally, he’d be looking straight up to the sky — in the clips we watched, his head is tilted forward just a bit, which isn’t quite as efficient. If his head was tilted back a few inches, he’d have an easier time of maintaining a good bodyline and wouldn’t have to power through the water so much. Ideally, he’d be able to balance a glass of water right in the middle of his forehead!
Hand Entry & Pull
Just like in freestyle, we want the arms to enter the water at shoulder width in backstroke. It’s helpful to think about your arms like the arms of a clock: You want them to enter the water at 11 and 1!
When you first practice this, proper positioning will feel more like 10 and 2 — but that’s ok! You want to get a feel for this position in order to increase your stroke tempo over time.
Ryan is a great lesson in proper hand entry. While his arms occasionally enter a bit narrow, he’s able to maintain an 11 and 1 entry most of the time. Notice that his hand enters the water pinky first, setting him up to initiate an early vertical forearm catch (EVF).
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When he bends his elbow, Ryan is essentially turning his hand and forearm into a huge paddle, which allows him to push even more water!
As his arm bends and he finishes his pull, he rotates and his opposite shoulder pops out of the water. The opposite arm exits the water thumb-first and rotates in the air to enter pinky first, starting the pull all over again.
Ryan’s kick is short and fast, with a small amplitude to reduce drag. Think about it – if each kick was huge, he’d be very powerful, but not quite as fast.
Related: How to Improve Your Backstroke Rotation
He points his toes, turning his feet into paddles, and bends his knees only slightly. Most of his kick originates from his hips.
The backstroke start is one of the most challenging aspects of the stroke — and Ryan’s starts are incredible! We took a look at one of his starts to break down the basics:
In this clip, Ryan has a wedge to support his feet, which helps his toes grip the wall better. Some part of the foot must remain under the water, and we can see that Ryan’s heels are still submerged.
Ryan’s hands grip the starting block with his thumbs pointing up. This hand position allows him to get his arms into streamline position as fast as possible when the starting gun goes off.
You’ll notice that Ryan is looking straight forward, not down. When he starts, he will throw his head back, so keeping his head straight reduces the distance he’ll have to move his head when the time comes.
Ideally, the torso will be as vertical as possible, to allow for a speedy explosion off the blocks. Ryan is angled slightly forward, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but means that he has more ground to cover to get to the water than he would if he was vertical.
Ryan creates an arch with his body, entering the water in one clean motion, almost like he is diving through a small ring on the water’s surface. This reduces water displacement and helps him retain as much momentum as possible.
There’s no denying that Ryan is jacked. He has put in a lot of hard work, and it shows! We checked out a few clips from his dryland training, and he’s incorporating a variety of workouts to get stronger and prevent injuries.
- Weighted pull ups to strengthen his lats. The extra weight ensures he continues to challenge himself as he gets stronger.
- The clean & jerk and other Olympic lifts build full-body strength and power.
- Core work using a physioball builds rotational strength and stability
Ryan has seen some incredible improvements over the course of his career. In high school, he clocked a 45.3 in the 100-yard backstroke. That’s insane for a teenager! He upped his game in college, going a 43.49 in the same event during his senior year as a Cal Bear.
After watching race footage, we can say that most of his improvement came on his turns and underwaters, especially during the final turn of the race. Improving his technique and building strength in the gym contributed to his success, too!
Ryan Murphy is proof that hard work and dedication yield results. We hope you can incorporate these tips into your own training! Which swimmer would you like us to analyze next? Let us know in the comments!
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