Robert is a former teacher and travel buff, and has spent the last 30 years travelling to different parts of the world including all over North America, South America, Africa, and Europe. He loves trying new cultural cuisine, zip-lining through the Amazon jungle, and his cat, Twyla-Mae.
If you’re a swimmer, you know that it’s partly about enjoyment, partly about exercise, but also very much about water safety.
Learning to perform a new stroke in the water isn’t just to increase your enjoyment of being in the water, but it’s going to make you a more effective swimmer overall. Nothing wrong with that!
And so, today, we’re going to be looking at the world famous “backstroke”.
In this article, we’re going to talk about how to do the backstroke, including tons of tips, techniques, videos, and diagrams to convey the proper movements to you.
Use our table of contents below to navigate the article.
Table of contents
- What is the backstroke?
- Learning to swim the backstroke (for beginners)
- How to improve your backstroke?
- Why do my legs sink when I try to float in the water?
- How do you swim straight while doing the backstroke?
- Various movements of the body involved in doing the backstroke (includes diagrams)
- How do you keep water out of your nose while swimming?
Let’s dive in! (pun intended)
What is the Backstroke?
The backstroke, also called the back crawl, is one of the four main swimming strokes that also including the freestyle, butterfly, and breaststroke. It is also the only one stroke where the swimmer is floating on their back.
The backstroke is used competitively, but also for recreation, and it is popular around the world.
As to the speed of the stroke, in terms of how fast the swimmer moves through the water, the backstroke is slower than a butterfly or a front crawl, but quicker than breaststroke.
Overall, it’s not a slow way to swim, but there are certainly much faster ways if you’re set on moving quickly through the water.
It is, perhaps, the most comfortable stroke that comes to mind for many people, mainly due to the fact that you are able to breath the whole time that you are doing it.
Your nose and mouth remain above the water at all times, even though will always be water splashing around you.
Learning to swim the backstroke (For Beginners)
So how do you do it? We’ll go into detail about that, but, in a nutshell, the arms carry out alternating movements: your left arm travels in a counter-clockwise motion from your hip, following its natural movement up and past your ear, then submerges into the water, where it sweeps around back to your hip.
The same thing happens with your right arm, except it is, relative to you, traveling in a clockwise motion.
Meanwhile, your legs execute a flutter kick. All of this moves enough water away from you that you are propelled in the direction away from where you are facing, so you stop and tread water, you will have moved away from the direction your feet were pointed.
Still can’t picture it? Here’s a video explaining it.
As this video shows, there are several small movements and positions you will need to get into before the backstroke can be performed effectively.
It all begins with floating on your back. If your first thought is that you can’t just “float” on your back, because you’d sink, this isn’t true. Humans, luckily, do have some buoyancy in the water, since we are always breathing in and out.
Also, our bodies are composed of materials that do float naturally, such as our body fat.
This is why babies can float so effectively, but first they must be taught to relax and not thrash around. The same can be said for adults.
Specifically for beginner swimmers, or beginners to the backstroke, there are a few things that beginners will need to learn that more experienced swimmers already know.
Watch this video to get some great tips for beginners who are attempting to perform this stroke.
Now that we have the basics, what about making it even better!
How do you improve your backstroke
With the backstroke, you swim on your back in the water, with your body held in a horizontal pose. But your body is swaying the entire time, as you pitch your arms back.
Essentially, you want to be straight as an arrow, and yet flexible. Beginners often have difficulty maintaining or getting into this horizontal position, because it takes some core strength to hold it. At the same time, the water is there to support you.
The key to moving quickly with the backstroke is keeping your body compact, in terms of not letting your arms or legs splay as you move along. If you can find a way to kick faster with your feet, in the most economical way that allows you to quickly kick and not lose energy, that will be key.
If you really are serious about improving your backstroke, watch the following video, discussing better and faster backstroke techniques, courtesy of Olympic swimmer and national champ, Chloe Sutton.
Keeping these tips in mind, take a look at this race from Rio 2016. These men are like fish in the water, and you can begin to see the little things that make them faster than your average swimmer.
Up next: a common question.
Why do my legs sink when I try to float in the water?
Before you can enter the olympics for the backstroke, you need to first master the art of not letting your legs sink in the water!
Having your legs and hips sink while swimming the backstroke is likely because you aren’t allowing yourself to be horizontal enough in the water.
As your lungs are the most buoyant part of the body, being basically a pair of internal airbags, breathing in brings everything up a little bit.
So, it’s not just about arching your back, but it’s about your breathing as well.
In addition, once you start moving, the small kicks your feet should be performing should keep your legs busy and locked into place. If your kicks thrash around too much and use too much of your knees, the movement could become tiring and your legs will start to sink.
Watch this video showing how to fix your backstroke from Phlex Swim. It should help you clear up any glaring inconsistencies in your movements.
Here next is a common question!
How do you swim straight while doing the backstroke?
While swimming the backstroke, your body will sway from side to side, with the rolling of your shoulders, and sometimes, if not done properly, your body can shift in direction.
This back and forth sway in your body is natural, and the fact that you are performing essentially the same movement on both sides should keep you from turning away from a straight line trajectory.
The reason for your body drifting of course is because of an overall imbalance in your movements, and also possibly because you can quickly become disoriented because you aren’t looking in the direction you are going.
To keep going in a straight line, it is crucial to have some sense of where you are. This means, watch what’s above you, such as a ceiling.
If you are looking at a ceiling, there are often lines you can follow there. Even if you are looking straight up into space, there’s often a cloud or something to keep you oriented and travelling in a due course.
At the same time, you can see the course from which you came. If there are ripples in the water indicating any kind of zig zagging, watch the water to make sure the line stays straight.
Again, too much thrashing about is inefficient and leads not only to slower speeds, but a change in trajectory, and can even lead to drowning in some rare cases, as it depletes your energy quickly.
A smooth roll in your shoulders from side to side also reduces strain, making them less likely to weaken as you go along.
Please keep in mind that backstroke swimmers who excel at swimming never overdo the movement. The more you exaggerate the movement, the more tired you will get.
That said, to gain speed, you must move quickly, and perform each repeating motion effectively.
Various movements of the body during a backstroke
Take a look at these diagrams explaining the various positions of your arms, legs, body, and head during the backstroke.
Here is another way to look at it, specifically the arms:
Let’s move on!
How do you keep water out of your nose while swimming?
Swimming backstroke causes many people a few different breathing challenges.
You have to keep your face above the water at all times in order to breathe, and splashing too much water can also be an issue as your arms churn the water around you.
To avoid this, breathe out at the moment your one hand comes out of the water, then inhale once it passes your mouth and face, and get ready to do it again when your opposite hand does the same thing.
Also, try not to breath through your mouth, which will quickly take in water, leading to more problems.
Breathing while doing the backstroke takes time, but with time it becomes second nature, like swimming itself.
Aside from proper technique, a nose plug or clip is probably the best way to keep water out of your nose.
Watch this review of the Sinus Saver Nose Plug to see one very effective way to do it.
The backstroke can be challenging to learn at first, because there are so many positions to learn, from floating on your back, the movement of your arms and feet, to not getting water up your nose, and so forth.
At the same time, learning the backstroke is a fun and rewarding thing to do, giving you another option for swimming when you’re in the water. If you are aiming to be in the Olympics or not, this is a valuable skill to learn no matter what!