Teaching And Training Backstroke by Bob Steele California State University-Bakersfield And Winning Spirit Camps (2003)


Properly swum backstroke places the body at the surface and out of the water from the thighs to the hairline. The shoulders pivot 180 degrees around a stationary head. Each arm sweeps four times during the pull and then recovers. The key phases for each arm are; karate chop (entry), arm wrestle (rotation), shot put (finish), and rifle-barrel (recovery). Hand opposition is essential. Key terms in teaching principles to use regularly are; over-correction, over-learning, elbow rotation, reinforcement, streamlining, and visualization. Remember to follow teaching principles; explanation, demonstration, practice for mastery, evaluation, correction, practice, evaluation, repeat, repeat, repeat.

Catch them doing things right.

Try to have swimmers think about pushing the water, not pulling and pushing. Have swimmers think about the hand moving from 0 to 100 mph while pushing.
Entry-the swimmers hand karate chops into the water, little finger first. The entry is above the shoulder and between the ear and shoulder. The hand downsweeps about 4” to 12” depending upon the swimmer’s size and strength. The opposite shoulder moves to a stationary chin. The other hand is finishing, completing the propulsive phase.
Catch-the catch is made when the outsweeping forearm rotates the hand toward the hip. If properly done the pectoralis muscles of he chest will tighten. The hand is moving at 0 to 15 mph at this point. The shoulder of the other arm leaves the water before the hand.
Upsweep-following the catch the hand sweeps up and pushes over the elbow, which is at 90 degrees. In this arm wrestle position the hand accelerates from 15 to 60 mph. SPRINT backstrokers generally maintain a flatter, straighter PUSH to a point outside the hips
Downsweep-the hand moves down and back toward the hip until the arm is fully extended with acceleration going from 60 to 100 mph. This is the shot put position and it may directed either at the hip or SPRINT backstrokers push wide with a sculling finish.
Finish-upon full arm extension in the downsweep skilled swimmers with strength and control will sweep the heel of the hand upward with the fingers trailing. This lifting effect becomes propulsive and generates an additional small power curve.
Exit- the wrist rolls the hand toward the leg and the thumb leads the exit from the water. If possible try the heel exit too.

The shoulder should exit the water before the hand on the recovery. The arm is kept straight, relaxed, and taken overhead in a riflebarrel position with the wrist pivoting outward as it passes the eyes and drops into the water with a karate chop above the shoulder. The pinky hits the water between the shoulder and the ear. Biceps may hit the ear. One hand completes the finish as the other hand is entering for opposition.

The swimmer performs a six beat kick with greater emphasis as the race progresses until the final ¼ when they are using legs to force the turnover of tired arms. The knees have little bend as in bike riding but instead the entire leg (hip to toes) acts as a large flipper. Emphasize flexible ankles, streamline legs, continuous propulsion, as if keeping a ball on the surface with rapid, shallow fluttering with overlapping toes. Swimmers should be timed on kicking sets, time trials, and over distance and know their times. Knee bend is about 118 degrees.

The body is horizontal and exposed from the thighs to the head. Water rides at the ears with the head tucked slightly for distance races and slightly higher for sprints. Body roll is the same for 100 and 200 backstrokers.

Swimmers should have a breathing pattern just as in freestyle. It is best to inhale on the right arm and exhale on the left arm. Keep head still by following objects on ceiling.


Performing a variety of skill drills not only helps in developing a stroke but it forces the development of athleticism. This is especially important for low skilled swimmers. They must experience a multitude of movements to increase the proprioceptive and presso-receptive sense needed to build the stroke and become an athlete. Youngsters receive the same physiological development doing drills as they do from training because their training effect is limited by inadequate cellular physiology capability. Drills are fun, painless, and create athleticism.

KICKING: demand that all kicking be performed from the hips NOT the knees.
1. Practice kicking on the deck with the toes pointed and the legs straight. Manipulate the legs with overlapping toes if coordination is a problem.
2. Kick in the water with the arms at the side, keeping the hips UP!
3. Kick with the hands folded under the head, hips UP!
4. Kick with one arm straight up above the shoulder and the other elbow bent and the hand holding the other elbow.
5. Kick with both hands above the head one thumb wrapped around the other wrist.
6. Kick on the sides underwater or on the back, neck curled looking over the chest at the belly button.
7. Kick 5 to 12 dolphin kicks underwater (the new 5th stroke) depending upon the swimmers age.
8. Kick with one arm at the side and one in riflebarrel position, straight up from the shoulders.
9. Time breakouts from both a dolphin and flutter kick to the 15 meter mark to determine which is best. Not everyone is fast with dolphins but swimmers must continue to work on improving both speed and breath control.
10. Experiment with both and small fast dolphin and a big slower dolphin to determine which is best.
11. Do vertical kicking in the diving well. Push off the bottom, arms straight. Dolphin to the surface and go into the flutter when they reach the surface. Remain on the surface streamline position for 10+++ seconds.
12. Six kicks on each side emphasizes pivot of shoulders/hips with a stationary head.
13. Kick with arms extended above the chest at 90 degrees.
14. Use pipes to encourage streamlining with dolphin and flutter kicks.

PUSHING: The head is a platform and the body pivots around it. The hands make an S pattern between entry and exit at the hips. Work on distance per stroke (DPS) on both pulling and swimming routines.
1. Single arm swims isolate the hand/arm so the swimmer can think about ONE
thing at a time.
2.Single arm swims with the recovering arm/shoulder lifted one-third and then down, one-half up (rifle-barrel) and down and then a complete recovery to a karate chop.
3. Kick six with the arms switching in opposition (right karate/left shot put) and then switch after six kicks emphasizing shoulder/hip pivot.
4. Hip catch-up correction is done by having the swimmer catch-up on the entry.
5. Single arm variations
a. 3 Right/3 Left – 2 Right/2 Left – 3 Right/1 Left – 2 Right/4 Left
b. With trailing arm at rifle-barrel position
c. Closed fists
d. Touch hands to rope stretched 3’ above the surface.
e. Touching lanelines or poolside at arm wrestle position.
6. Head still with stone or penny on forehead. DON’T LOSE IT!
7. Any drills with fins (Solotar Swim Club study).
8. Spin drill to increase turnover with a high body position.
9. Shot put drill to work on finish and transition to recovery. Keep elbows at the hips.
10. Double arm recovery.

TURNING: Practice the turns on every swim to know exactly how many strokes to take prior to turning over. Always practice with the pennants in place. Rig them over one lane with PVC and rope if diving interferes with pennants.
1. Count 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 strokes after the pennants depending upon the size, strength, and technique of the swimmer.
2. On the final stroke twist onto the stomach by throwing the hand across the body ending up in a free-turn position. DO NOT GLIDE OR KICK INTO THE WALL ONCE ON THE STOMACH. Senior swimmers attempt to twist one stroke after the flags. Keep the pulling hand pulling until the head is ready to drop.
3. At the wall perform a freestyle turn with “fast feet” by attempting to get the toes out of the water before the heels. When the feet are over the water slap the top of the head with both hands by bringing the hands up from the hips hard and fast.
4. Bounce off the wall when the feet are in place. If the swimmer is always deep have the feet lower on the wall and if too shallow have the feet higher on the wall when the bounce is made.
5. Streamline with overlapped hands, biceps pinching the head behind the ears, and if too deep curl the wrists or if really deep curl the chest as the dolphin kicks are made to the 15 meter mark for a heads up breakout.
6. Breakout by taking one pull and breaking out on the catch of the second pull.
7. Swimmers must be required to kickout past the flags (4 kicks) initially with emphasis on mid-pool (8 kicks) and then 15 meters (11 kicks). Structure training sets to include enough rest to reinforce this 5th stroke (UNDERWATER DOLPHIN).
8. The head drop to push-off should take less than ONE second.

1. Whole method: if they know the freestyle turn have them count strokes, turn –over and perform the push-off on the back.
2. Part method: for people having trouble.
a. Jump off the bottom and into the wall on the stomach and perform the turn, push-off and breakout.
b. Jump into the wall further out and turn to the stomach as before.
c. Have swimmers back up to the wall, feet hip width and work on dolphin push-offs/breakouts.
d. Have the swimmers perform 5 turns per 25 on distance swims or training sets. Use a PVC barbell with noodle ends.
e. Helper turns- coach (in the water) takes the swimmers wrist about 6’ out and manipulates the swimmer through the turn.
f. Jump turn the swimmer jumps off the bottom to turn.
g. Single Arm turns-jump into the turn with one hand back and one forward.
h. Experiment with turns from a streamline position both arms above the head and a big twist and pull into the turn. Use when kicking.

1.Ready: Grasp the backstroke bar thumbs up, about shoulder width. Hand relaxed with feet on wall with the foot of the jumping leg 2” higher to prevent slipping.
2.Take Your Mark: Pull body and head closer to hands. Knees at 90 degrees with body out of water in stopped position ready to react with the horn.
3. Start: On the signal, pull slightly and then push the hands away from the starting block/bar, throwing the head back. The hands should move over the shoulders ro ears and create and imaginary hole in the water above the head. Some swimmers may be better off throwing the arms out to the side and then arching. The legs straighten, driving a streamlined body through the hole made be the hands. The legs drive the hips up, the back arches and the legs pop up high (18”) over the surface.
4. Flight: The body stretches to its full length above the water as it arches into the water through the hole made by the hands for a smooth entry.
5. Entry: Streamline the body, gliding motionless at least about 3’ to 4’ deep. Snap legs down to get the body moving forward paralleling the bottom.
6. Breakout: Start dolphin kick as the body assumes swimming speed and race to the surface. Perform between 5 and 11 kicks depending upon swimmer ability. Breakout as the body nears the surface by pulling with a normal stroke, breaking and breathing on the second pull. If the body is too deep, increase the angle of the hands or arms as the kicking progresses. The 15 meter breakout should take less than 8-9 seconds depending on swimmer. Have different colored laneline floats at 15 meters. Practice SUPERVISED breakouts from under a tarp stretched between two lanelincs at distance appropriate to the swimmer.

1. Every swimmer should learn to use the blocks.
2. Beginners should learn with their feet in the gutter.
3. Practice leaving the wall and doing pike (V) seat drops pushing from the gutter. Hold the sides of the block platform and gradually drop to the bar.
4. Practice starting from the gutter and then the water and arching over a “noodle”.
5. Practice starting feet under water over the noodle with a big feet-lift.
6. Practice proper starts with times to 15 meter mark under 8-9 seconds.
7. Some kids are better getting up and swimming rather than using the 5th stroke.
8. Throw pull buoy overhead to help with arch.

1. Count strokes to wall
2. Overkick going onto wall with lunging throw for the finish.
3. Arch body and throw head back actually seeing the wall and hand touch.

1.Dolphin: Head first-Arms above head-Outsweep with straight arms 6” to 12”rotate and insweep with elbows bent slightly-Hands tilted upward on insweep.
2.Torpedo: Feet first-Arms above head-Hands tilted downward-Outsweep 6-12”.
3.Standard: On back-Head first-Arms at sides-Hands tilted upward on insweep about 6-12”

4 x 25@10sr scull with buoy between ankles
2 x 50 @ 60 arms only double arm
4 x 25 @ 10sr same as first set
2 x 50 @ 60 r arm/l arm by length with buoy
4 x 25 @ 10sr scull with buoy between ankles
2 x 50 @60 6/6 layout drill w scull at top of pull buoy between ankles
4 x 25 @10sr scull with kick
8 x 50 @ 50 scull down and build back OR shifting gears from a scull

SWIMMING SETS These senior swimmer set should be adapted for younger swimmers remember you’re not coaching an adult in a small body. Perform a set regularly focusing on the weakest link, either kicking or pulling.
Warm up: 300 mixed/4 x 100 IM (Any)@NR/4×100(4 HELP drills)@2
Aerobic sets- 4 x 800 @ 1 MR
4 x 300 @4 SO
20 x 100 (e3BO)@1:30
40 x 25 (1/2 BO)@ 30
Anaerobic sets 5 x 100 @ 3 for 200 predictor
6 x 50 @ 2 for 100 predictor
8 x 100 @ 8
4 (10 x 50@ 1) 5 MR
8 x 200 (B/S) @ 8
Speed sets 3 x 100 (10/25) @ 4
D 3 x 50 @ A4
D 4 x 25 @ Any
6 x L 25 @ 40
6 x 50 @ 2 for 100
To maximize “transfer of training” from the dryland program to swimming backstroke keep in mind that; 1) exercises should duplicate backstroke mechanics which are used in competition, 2) exercises should be performed at competition speeds, and 3) principles of overload and progression should be applied so that the resistance must be greater than that encountered in competition and there must be provision for increasing resistance as power improves. (Monpetite and O’Shea). Our dryland program utilizes specificity with tubing and swim benches along with major muscle groups being challenged with resistance greater than water on varying protocols of;
15:45, 36:45, and 53:60. The program changes every month with emphasis on transfer of training and dryland after practice so as not to interfer with performance.

Important long course performance times for World Class swimmers helps reinforce learning and the most important word in coaching “TRY”.
Swimmer Race Velocity Stroke Rate(3 entries)Stroke Cycles Dist/Stroke
Krayzelburg 50 1.64 m/s 1.27 47.3 2.08
100 1.77 m/s 1.21 49.5 2.15
50 1.74 m/s 1.40 42.8 2.44
100 1.65 m/s 1.38 43.5 2.28
150 1.64 m/s 1.43 41.8 2.35
200 1.63 m/s 1.30 46.1 2.11
Neil Walker 50 1.70 m/s 1.23 48.6 2.09
100 1.71 m/s 1.28 46.9 2.19
Josh Davis 50 1.68 m/s 1.19 50.4 2.00
100 1.64 m/s 1.24 48.2 2.04

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Sponsorship & Partnerships

Official Sponsors and Partners of the American Swimming Coaches Association

Join Our Mailing List

Subscribe and get the latest Swimming Coach news