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The Strokes Simplified II- Backstroke

As with all strokes, great backstroke is the result of the same principles for fast swimming- increased propulsion, reduced resistance, and great rhythm. The major components of successful backstroke include-

  • Create direct propulsive arm actions

  • Accurately time body rotation and arm action

  • Drive rhythm of the stroke through aggressive arm recoveries and rotation

  • Delay rotation through the pull

  • Master the ‘slide’ for advanced backstrokers

  • Maintain body alignment and posture

  • Maintain horizontal and spinal alignment

  • Maintain lateral alignment

Each of these components interact with the others and errors in one area can make it difficult to successfully execute subsequent skills. When these components are executed successfully, backstroke will be fast and efficient. There are a lot of other aspects of the stroke that can be considered; however, these aspects are usually errors that are preventing swimmers from accomplishing the critical tasks. Other aspects of technique can be important, but only in the context of the effect each action has on the four priorities listed above. If a movement is not negatively affecting the main priorities, it’s best left alone.

Create Direct Propulsive Arm Action

In the past, backstrokers have focused on various up and downsweeps during the pulling pattern. Backstrokers have moved toward a direct application of force that greatly resembles the pulling mechanics of the other strokes, only inverted. A large surface area is directed backwards for as long as possible and an open armpit ensures that the strongest muscles of the upper body are involved in the pull action.

There is a notable absence of any sculling action. Instead the focus is on bending the elbow and rotating the forearm to vertical position where force can be applied directly backward. The hand stays close to the surface for the majority of the pulling action.

Different swimmers may exhibit different amounts of elbow bend. As with sprint freestyle, a straighter and wider catch and pull may be advantageous for stronger individuals swimming shorter distances. A greater degree of elbow bend reduces the required force and may be a better option for some individuals. What is important is that the propelling surface retains a backwards orientation for as long as possible.

Accurately Time Body Rotation and Arm Action

Fast and fluid backstroke results from accurate timing of the arm actions and the rotation of the body. Regardless of the distance, backstroke timing remains similar, with the whole process being shortened in the 50m as compared to the 200m distance. This rotation is not constant throughout the stroke cycle, but characterized by rapid changes in position during key positions in the stroke cycle.

Drive Rhythm Trough Aggressive Arm Recoveries and Rotation

The straight arm recoveries used by all backstrokers create a high degree of angular momentum. This momentum can be used to facilitate a quick rotation at the top of the stroke that helps drive the arm into the catch position. The driving of the shoulders back and forth, aided by the torque created by the arm recoveries, helps to set the rhythm of the stroke. The more this process can be aided by the momentum of the arms, the more fluid and rhythmic the stroke will become.

Delayed Rotation Through the Pull

A critical component of backstroke timing is a delay of rotation during the pull until the last phase of the pulling. This action allows swimmers to maximize the amount of time a large surface area can be moved backwards with the strong muscles of the upper body. Once rotation begins in the opposite direction, backstrokers will lose this position and propulsive effectiveness will be reduced.

It is only when the hand approaches the hips that a quick rotation occurs. This rotation coincides with the aggressive rotation that occurs when the opposite hand enters the what. These movements are coupled to utilize moment and preserve rhythm.

Master The ‘Slide’ For Advanced Backstrokers

Elite male backstrokers demonstrate a lateral sway of the upper torso and hips. This subtle sway and stretch allows for an exaggerated range of motion of the pull. When the lateral line shortens, the pulling action is coupled with a strong contraction of all of muscles of the lateral chain, which magnifies the power of the pull. As one side stretches to increase range of motion for the pull, the other side is shortening to increase the power of the pull.

This lateral action is distinct from a loss of lateral alignment that occurs due to poor recoveries or timing. It serves to magnify the impact of each pull. It is subtle and works when timing is right on with the rotation and the pulling action.

Common Timing Errors

The most common error that disrupts backstroke timing is a composite of over entering and late rotation. In the first case, the hand enters behind the head. In the latter case, the torso doesn’t rotate until after the hand as entered, in contrast to the timing described above. Not only does this error disrupt a sense of rhythm, it places the arms in ineffective positions for creating propulsion. These errors almost always occur together, and can be challenging to determine which error is causing the other.

Maintain Body Alignment and Posture

While backstrokers do not have to be concerned with breathing without disrupting body alignment, lying on the back presents unique challenges for maintaining horizontal and lateral alignment.

Maintain Horizontal and Spinal Alignment

Backstroke swimming with the head up will cause the hips to sink. While this can be compensated to some degree by increasing the effort used by the legs, this comes at a significant energetic cost. Others are able to keep the head low in the water, but do so by arching the upper spine, lower spine, or both. An arched spine with force the legs lower in the water, resulting in the problems described earlier.

More importantly, an arched body position will also greatly increase drag because of inferior drag profile. Consider the hull of a boat, shaped to reduce drag. An arched back position represents the opposite position and carries with it a correspondingly poor drag profile. Lastly, an arched spine will impair the ability to smoothly rotate, as well as effectively use the muscles of the lats and chest.

For all of these reasons, maintaining a straight if not rounded body position will enable to backstrokers to move through the water more efficiently and effectively.

Maintain Lateral Alignment

As described above, a common error is to enter behind the head. In addition to creating errors in timing, entering in this manner can also cause the body to move out of lateral alignment. This error is distinct from the ‘slide’ described above in that the loss of alignment is often more significant and there is no accompanying benefit of increased propulsion. In addition, recoveries with excessively lateral motion will cause the body to move out of alignment. In this case, creating more linear, over the top recoveries should help to correct the issue.

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