Backstroke can be a challenge — how are we supposed to swim confidently when we can’t see where we’re going?! Some days it’s tough to swim without crashing into the lane line!
Well, we’re here to help! We’re breaking down the most common backstroke technique slip-ups and how to fix them, plus a backstroke workout to help you put our advice to the test.
1. Head Position
Proper head position is the foundation of good body position — and good backstroke technique! Many swimmers look down toward their toes while swimming, which is a big no-no. It may be easier to see where you’re going when you lift your head and look at your toes, but it slows you down big time! Your body follows your head, so looking forward causes your hips to drop and increases drag significantly.
Instead, strive to look straight up at the sky or ceiling while swimming backstroke. This encourages your hips to stay high, right at the surface of the water, and will make it much easier for you to swim.
Work on your head position by swimming with a cup on your head! Fill a plastic cup or water bottle with water, place it on your forehead, and try to keep it on from falling while you swim backstroke.
To start, it can be helpful to just float with the cup on your forehead. Then, start to kick and find your balance. Once you’re comfortable with that, add in the arm strokes and you’re off!
2. Hand Entry & Exit
Ideally, your hand will exit the water with your thumb pointing up. Then, as your arm moves above your head, you’ll rotate at the shoulder joint and enter the water pinky-first.
Pinky-first entry sets you up for a strong catch (more on that later!). Your arms should be straight when they’re out of the water, and should enter the water either at shoulder width or slightly wider — think about 11 and 1 on a clock!
It’s common for many swimmers — even some of the pros — to exit the water with the back of their hands facing up. This increases drag and will slow down your stroke tempo!
To work on hand entry and exit, try the 3 strokes + 6 kicks drill. Take 3 strokes, pause on one side, take 6 kicks, and repeat! This drill helps you work on rotating from your hips, too
If you’re more advanced, try single arm backstroke! Try swimming a few 50s with this drill, focusing on the right side for a 25, and the left side for another 25.
3. Straight Arm Pull
If you’re really strong, you might be able to muscle through the water with a straight arm pull. This is extremely inefficient and can put extra strain on your shoulders.
Just like the other 3 strokes, early vertical forearm (EVF) is a must in backstroke. After your hand enters the water pinky first, bend at the elbow and push the water down toward your feet. Maintaining EVF turns your hand and forearm into a massive paddle, allowing you to move a lot more water!
Try double arm backstroke to work on your catch! Moving both arms at the same time will force you to do EVF and pull the water in a shallower position.
4. Slow Tempo
Slow tempo is one of the biggest issues we see in advanced backstrokers. If you want to swim backstroke fast, you need to train fast! Regularly working on stroke tempo will build your speed over time.
The spin drill is a must for improving tempo. Angle your body slightly forward in the water and swim backstroke, spinning your arms as fast as possible for 5-10 strokes. Don’t worry too much about catching lots of water on this drill — it’s more about speed than power!
5. Not Working Your Walls
Water is 800 times more dense than air, so it’s essential that we maximize the points where we’re moving fastest: our walls! When you streamline and dolphin kick off the wall, you’re like a torpedo!
This applies for both competitive and recreational swimmers. For competitive athletes, your walls will make or break your races. If you can maintain a solid dolphin kick off your walls, especially at the end of long races like the 200 backstroke, you’re golden!
For recreational swimmers, strong walls will help you swim faster and increase the total distance you’re able to swim during your workouts.
Many swimmers push off the wall and don’t dolphin kick at all, have a loose streamline or look at their toes. If you do all 3…big no no!
So how do you build your underwater dolphin kick for backstroke? Try the “eyes on the prize” drill. Swim a few 25s or 50s, focusing on keeping your head neutral in streamline. This means that your biceps are squeezing your ears, and your eyes are looking straight up at “the prize:” the sky or the ceiling.
Another strategy to work on dolphin kick is to swim a set of 25s or 50s, adding 1 dolphin kick to each rep. So, if you’re swimming 4x50s backstroke, you’ll take 3 dolphin kicks off each wall for the first 50, 4 kicks off each wall for the second 50, 5 kicks for number 3, and 6 kicks for number 4.
Bonus Mistake: Swimming Without a Plan
Whether your goal is, heading to the pool without a plan — or sitting on the couch and just reading articles — isn’t an efficient use of your valuable time.
Related: The 5 Most Common Freestyle Mistakes
The right swim plan will help you to progress, avoiding plateaus and keeping you moving toward your goals faster. The MySwimPro app has a variety of training plans for swimmers of all levels — from beginners who can only swim a few hundred yards to advanced athletes looking to train for marathon open water swims. Download the app on iPhone or Android!
Backstroke Technique Workout
Distance: 3,200 yards/meters
- 1×500 Free
- 6×50 Kick on back (work underwaters)
- 4×50 IM (work underwaters)
Main Set (4x: Odd rounds no equipment, even rounds with fins)
- 1×200 Free
- 4×75 Backstroke (add 1 dolphin kick per 25, eg. 3, 4, 5 kicks)
1×200 Free Easy
Swim with the MySwimPro App
When you’re training on your own, it can be tough to know how to get the best workout. That’s where the MySwimPro app comes in! We help you make the most of your time in the water with personalized, Guided Workouts and Training Plans designed to help you reach your health and fitness goals.
As you improve, MySwimPro Coach will keep challenging you, to help you get faster and fitter than ever before.
Sync a compatible Apple or Garmin smartwatch for extra tracking, and Set-by-Set guidance. Or, print a PDF of your Workout to bring with you to the pool.
Ready to get started? Download MySwimPro on iPhone or Android, and use code SWIM35 to save $35 on your first year of training with MySwimPro Coach!