Swimming Backstroke: Technique: Arm Movements

While swimming backstroke, it is important that the technique of your arm movements is correct. This avoids strain on your shoulders and allows you to swim more efficiently. This article explains the correct movements during the different phases of the arm stroke: catch, pull, push and recovery.

For demonstration purposes, let's have a look again at Ryan Lochte swimming backstroke:

Initial position

To start the discussion, we imagine that the swimmer is lying on his back in the water, with one arm straight and extended forward. The palm is rotated outwards. The other arm is extended at the side of the swimmer, with the palm turned inwards. The flutter kick is used for propulsion.

Underwater catch

The arm extended forward starts the under water phase with the catch:

  • The elbow bends, and the arm starts to move towards the swimmer's feet.
  • The palm rotates in direction of the swimmer's feet.

This phase serves to correctly set up the arm for the propulsive pull phase.

Underwater pull and push

The underwater pull and push phase of the stroke starts once the elbow is bent about 90° and the palm is turned in the direction of the swimmer's feet. It's in this phase that the swimmer applies propulsive force to the arm:

  • The forearm and palm are aligned and parallel to the end of the pool.
  • They move backwards as a unit.
  • The elbow is kept bent at 90°.
  • Once the elbow can no longer move further backwards, it extends, the hand moves further backwards until the arm is completely extended.
  • Finally the hand brushes past the hip and starts the recovery above the water.

Recovery above the water

While one arm moves backwards under water, the other one simultaneously recovers above the water:

  • The recovering arm stays extended, rises and executes a semi-circular motion above the water.
  • During the recovering arm's semi-circular motion, the hand rotates so that when the arm is about to enter the water in front of the swimmer, the palm is now turned outwards and the hand will enter the water with the pinky finger first.
  • As the arm splashes into the water, the swimmer's body rotates towards that arm. The opposite shoulder clears the water.

At this point, the arms exchange their roles: the recovering arm becomes the stroking arm and the stroking arm becomes the recovering arm.

Some tips

  • In the past, swimming backstroke was taught with the arm kept straight during the whole under water phase. However this puts more strain on the shoulder and should be avoided, as it could lead to swimmer's shoulder.
  • As explained above, the body should rotate between 30 and 45° towards the stroking arm when it enters the water. This puts less strain on the shoulder, allows to apply more force and lets the other shoulder clear the water, effectively reducing drag.
  • Although the body rotates from side to side while swimming backstroke, the head should always stay perfectly still.


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