Teaching Backstroke

close up of young girl doing backstroke in a public pool 

Backstroke can be taught once students have developed confidence in gliding on their backs in a streamlined position. The stroke developed from the basic back float, as people sought mobility while floating on their backs. Backstroke allows swimmers to be mobile without the need to learn complex breathing techniques or timing. This stroke doesn’t allow vision in the direction of travel so teaching students to focus on a point above them is important to keep them heading in a straight line.

The basics of any stroke can be broken down into Body position, Legs, Arms, Breathing (BLAB).

Body position

In backstroke, the body is stretched on the back in a streamlined position, keeping the hips close to the surface. The depth of the head determines the position of the body so ensure students’ ears are submerged just under the water’s surface. Tilting of the head will affect the body position. Ensure students keep their head steady allowing the body to roll naturally about its long axis as the arms recover.

Leg action

The legs and feet play a crucial role in backstroke by supporting the body as the torso rotates to gain optimal power and speed. The up-beat of the backstroke kick provides the most drive as the thigh muscles contract to create force. Pointing the feet ensures that movement will be efficient. The feet also angle in towards the body’s midline – a movement called inversion. The forces of the water allow inversion to occur naturally, if the surrounding muscles are relaxed.

Students should keep a continuous kicking action throughout the whole stroke. When kicking the toes, break the water slightly, while the knees remain below. The feet should not be too stiff as ankle flexibility is very important. The toes should be pointed away from the shin and turned naturally inwards, creating a low splash kick. The knees flex very slightly on the down-beat and straighten on the up-beat. 

Arm action

Entry into the water by the arms is led by the little finger, with palms facing outwards, and should be smooth with minimal turbulence created. While performing the arm stroke, the body should not be rigid but rather rotate smoothly and naturally from side to side to assist the entry and recovery of the hands and arms. Following entry, the arm remains straight and sweeps downward and outward. The hand rotates slightly downward as the elbow begins to flex and pressure is applied to the palm of the hand. ‘Catching’ the water is considered to be the most important aspect of the stroke.

The elbow continues to flex throughout the pulling action until it is bent to approximately a 90-degree angle, with the forearm rotating so the fingertips are relatively close to the surface of the water. During this upward and inward movement, the hand should begin to accelerate. Once the shoulder is level with the hand, the palm begins a downward and outward movement until the hip passes the hand. The palm finishes the propulsive phase by facing the bottom of the pool. 
The shoulder lifts followed by the arm and then the hand. When the recovery arm reaches the vertical position, the palm faces outward slightly, ready for a smooth, turbulence-free re-entry with the hand entering little finger first.


Students should avoid holding their breath and maintain a natural breathing action that is as normal as possible.

More information on the backstroke technique and accompanying drills/progressions can be found in Royal Life Saving's Swimming and Lifesaving manual, Austswim Teaching Swimming & Water Safety manual and the Swimming Drill Book.

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