Elementary Backstroke Swimming Technique

Elementary backstroke is a basic swimming technique that is easy to learn and therefore useful for improving your water confidence as a beginner.

As its name indicates, it is swum on the back and uses a simple arm stroke in conjunction with the breaststroke kick for propulsion.

Swimming Technique

We will now analyze the swimming technique of elementary backstroke.

Initial Position & Glide Phase

Let’s begin with the initial position:

1) Push off the wall backward and get into a horizontal position, gliding on your back.

2) Your head is in line with your trunk.

3) Your face clears the water, and you stare directly at the ceiling.

4) Your arms rest at your sides.

5) Your palms are turned inwards.

6) Your legs are extended and squeezed together.

Glide for a few moments, then start the arm and leg movements:

First Active Phase

1) Bend your elbows and draw your hands up towards your armpits, as if to tickle yourself.

2) At the same time, bend your knees and bring your feet towards your buttocks. Still keep your legs together while bending your knees.

3) If you are teaching children how to swim, you can call this position chicken or monkey to make learning more fun.

Second Active Phase

4) Extend your arms sideways to form a T with the rest of your body. Your palms are facing backward.

5) Spread your legs apart while keeping them bent.

6) You can call this position eagle or airplane with children.

Third Active Phase

Now comes the propulsive phase of the swim stroke:

7) Sweep your extended arms backward and inwards so that they simultaneously push against the water and are brought back at your sides to their initial position.

8) Also, extend your legs back then squeeze them together once they are fully extended. This also provides propulsion and brings your legs back into their initial position.

9) You can call this position soldier or rocket with children.

Start a new stroke cycle after gliding for a few moments like described above.


You should inhale during the first active phase of the stroke, while you draw your arms and legs up respectively to your armpits and buttocks.

You should exhale slowly and continuously for the rest of the stroke cycle, while you sweep your arms and legs back and then while you glide for a few moments.

Advantages of Elementary Backstroke

1) It is a very relaxing swim stroke once you have mastered it.

2) Elementary backstroke is swum on the back. Therefore breathing issues are minimized as the face is always kept above the water surface.

Furthermore, projections of water into the face are avoided as the arms always move under water.

3) The arm movements are simple, symmetrical and synchronous and therefore easy to learn. But they are also quite effective.

4) The leg movements are also synchronous and symmetrical and relatively easy to learn. The legs movements are in fact a form of breaststroke kick.

5) Finally, the arm and leg movements and directions are also coordinated.

The arms and legs move forward during the first active phase, then outward during the second active phase, then backward and inward during the third active phase of the stroke.

Disadvantages of Elementary Backstroke

1) Elementary backstroke is slower than regular backstroke.

2) You must have attained a certain level of balance on your back in the water before learning the stroke.

3) You have to orient yourself while swimming on the back and you have to be careful of not bumping into a wall or another swimmer.

Additional Tips

1) Practice this swimming stroke in shallow water where you can quickly regain your feet if you are a novice swimmer.

2) If you are teaching children that can’t reach the bottom of the pool with their feet, stay close to them and support their head and back with your hands until they become proficient with the stroke.

3) As described above, children have more fun if you use the chicken!eagle!rocket! names during the respective swim stroke phases.

4) It can be interesting to practice the head-lead supine balance drill before learning elementary backstroke.

5) It can be interesting to practice the arm and leg movements on dry land first.

6) It can be interesting to practice the arm and leg movements in the water separately, using respectively a pull buoy and a kickboard.

7) You will be more relaxed if you wear swimming goggles and a nose clip because they keep water out of your eyes and nose.

8) You can use a swimming noodle to support your back while swimming elementary backstroke.

Related Pages

You may also be interested in the following articles that cover basic swimming techniques:

6 thoughts on “Elementary Backstroke Swimming Technique”

  1. Avatar

    Hi Christophe,

    My back pain disappears after I do the following stretching in water exercise originated from elementary backstroke.

    1) Starting the exercise, I lay in the water on my back with both hands in the cruciform position.

    2) I keep my body on the water surface by moving my legs up and down in alternated fashion.

    3) Following your suggestion, I also use a water noodle by placing it under my back.

    4) From this starting position, I move my hands as far as I can above my head, and maintain such ‘surrender’ position 2-3 min.

    5) Then I return to the starting position and repeat stretching again.

    As with all other exercises that I used, the healing effect against back pain is temporary.

    Still, this simple exercise in water deserves to be tried.

    1. Christophe

      Hi Ilia,

      Sounds interesting. I’ll give it a try the next time I’m at the pool.



  2. Avatar

    This article really helped, thank you!

    I love doing this, though I’d forgotten the name.

    I have had a bad injury in my left knee, but the damage is not to the point my orthopedist feels knee replacement should be undertaken.

    So low impact exercise, yay, I love being in the water.

    I was going to do a water aerobics class, but it seemed so slow, that I decided to water walk in a lane. Then got to the deep end and kind of fell into the elementary backstroke.

    I only swim the deep end of an indoor Olympic sized pool, but am now doing 25 laps, going by back and forth.

    Now I’m ready to move to regular backstroke, but have to get the rolling motion in, to keep water from my face and not wind up with sinus and respiratory junk.

    The knee problem is so much better, and overall joy if moving through the water again is beyond description.

    1. Christophe

      Hi Ashleigh,

      This is a nice story which brought a smile to my face. I’m glad to hear that swimming is giving you so much joy and improving your health.



  3. Avatar

    Up, out, together and glide. Love the Elementary Backstroke. No pain on my joints.

    The breaststroke or the crawl kill my joints.

    Hoping to find something on the side stroke. I don’t seem to have pain with this stroke either.

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