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Swimming Backstroke – Arm Technique and Movements

In backstroke, the arms perform opposite alternating movements.

While one arm is brought forward from the hip above water, the other arm pulls back from the front to the hip under water, creating propulsion.

In the following article, we take a closer look at the backstroke arm technique.

Female backstroke swimmer during the arm recovery
Backstroke uses alternating arm movements that require good coordination.

Video: Ryan Lochte’s Backstroke

First, let’s have a look at a video featuring Ryan Lochte swimming backstroke:

Ryan Lochte’s amazing backstroke technique

Arm Stroke Phases

In backstroke, the arm stroke movements can be divided into the following phases:

  1. Entry and extension forward.
  2. First downsweep.
  3. Catch.
  4. First upsweep.
  5. Second downsweep.
  6. Second upsweep.
  7. Release.
  8. Recovery.

These phases are explained further below.

Entry and Extension Forward

To begin our discussion of the arm stroke phases, we will focus on the arm about to end its recovery.

The arm is fully extended, and the palm is facing outward.

The upper arm enters the water, then the elbow, forearm, and hand follow along.

The hand enters the water in front of the shoulder and with the pinky finger first.

The arm extends forward for a short time before starting the first downsweep.

The entry should be gentle to avoid pushing water downward and forward with the arm, which would increase drag.

First Downsweep

The first downsweep is non-propulsive and prepares the arm for the catch.

The arm moves downward and outward.

The elbow bends gradually.

The palm and forearm are kept aligned and move into a backward and outward facing position.


The catch is the phase of the arm stroke where the swimmer starts to apply propulsive force.

The catch occurs at the end of the first downsweep when the arm is bent about 90°, and the forearm and palm are facing outward and backward.

The upper arm, lower arm, and hand will keep their relative position over the next two phases of the stroke cycle and move as one big paddle.

First Upsweep

While swimming backstroke, the first upsweep is the first propulsive phase of the arm stroke.

During this phase, the whole arm moves backward, upward and inward as a unit.

The arm also rotates so that the forearm and palm change from a backward, downward and outward facing position to a backward, upward and inward facing position.

The first upsweep ends when the hand is near the water surface and at the level of the shoulder.

Upper arm and forearm are still angled at 90°, and the upper arm maintains a certain distance from the rib cage.

Second Downsweep

The second downsweep is the second propulsive phase of the arm stroke.

The arm extends and moves downward, backward and outward.

The hand moves from a position near the surface at the end of the first upsweep to a position much deeper than and away from the body.

The forearm is facing backward at the beginning of the downsweep and facing downward and outward at the end of the downsweep.

So the forearm only pushes water backward at the beginning of the downsweep.

The wrist flexes during the downsweep, so the palm is facing backward, and the hand is pushing water backward for as long as possible.

At the end of the downsweep, the arm should be extended and the palm is facing downward and outward.

Second Upsweep

Depending on the swimmer’s style, a third propulsive phase may be added at the end of the second downsweep.

To do so, the palm is turned upward and backward, and the arm moves upward, backward and inward toward the hip, pushing water backward and upward.

Finally, the palm is turned inward to prepare for the release.

Swimmers that don’t add a third propulsive phase directly move their arm upward toward the hip and turn the palm inward without pushing against the water.


The most common kind of release is done with the thumb pointing upward and the palm turned inward.

No excessive force should be used during the release. Otherwise, water will be unnecessarily pushed upward, increasing drag.

If you watch Ryan Lochte’s video above carefully, you’ll see that his palm is facing downward and forward instead of inward during the upsweep and release.

This probably is a kind of small propulsive second upsweep, but it also adds some drag during the exit.

During the release, the shoulder of the recovering arm is shrugged forward and upward, and the arm exits the water, first at the shoulder, then the upper arm, forearm and hand follow along.

This is facilitated by the fact that the body has rolled toward the other arm and the shoulder of the arm about to leave the water is already close to the water surface.

Recovery above the water

The recovering arm moves in a half-circle from the hip to an upward-pointing position to the overhead position where it enters the water again.

During the recovery, the arm rotates so that the palm moves from an inward facing position at the beginning of the recovery to an outward facing position at the end of the recovery, before entering the water with the pinky finger first.

During the recovery, the arm should be extended and neither too relaxed nor too tense. It should move forward using the momentum of the exit but also rest a bit after the propulsive underwater phases.

Arm Synchronization

  • The arms move in an alternating fashion.
  • While one arm is recovering above water, the other arm is sweeping backward underwater.
  • The stroking arm leaves the water and becomes the recovering arm during the first downsweep of the other arm.
  • The first half of the recovery continues during the first downsweep and first upsweep of the other stroking arm.
  • The second half of the recovery occurs during the second downsweep of the stroking arm.
  • The recovering arm enters the water at the end of the second downsweep of the stroking arm.
  • The recovering arm extends forward underwater during the second upsweep of the stroking arm.

Additional Tips

1) As explained above, the body rolls toward the side of the recovering arm during the second phase of the recovery.

Rolling from side to side moves the arm in a better starting position to sweep underwater.

In this position, it is easier to engage the chest and back muscles, and less strain is put on the shoulders.

2) Although the body rolls from side to side while swimming backstroke, the head keeps a neutral position, with the back of the head in the water and the face oriented toward the ceiling.

Related Pages

You may also be interested in the following articles that cover the backstroke’s swimming technique:


Saturday 20th of March 2021

Visual aids with your words would be great


Wednesday 3rd of December 2014


I noticed all professional backstrokers like Lochte recover with a pinky-first entry.

When I think about that, the arm is in exactly the same position as a thumb-first entry in freestyle, which might lead to shoulder injury.

Does this mean swimming backstroke is inevitably prone to shoulder injury?


Wednesday 2nd of January 2019

If your hand entry is at 12 o'clock, above your head rather than above the same shoulder, then you are inviting shoulder injury. If you feel discomfort in your shoulder, move your hand entry out to 11 and 1.


Wednesday 3rd of December 2014

Hi Julien,

This is an excellent question. Entering the water pinky-first is the recommended way to create the least amount of drag.

But it makes sense that this position puts more strain on the shoulders than a flat hand entry, palm facing upward.

I don't remember having heard a discussion about this particular aspect of the backstroke arm technique before, and so I can't give you a definite answer for now.

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