How to Swim a Faster Backstroke, by Understanding Freestyle

This is a guest post courtesy of Abbie Fish of RITTER Sports Performance. From qualifying for the Olympic Trials to working at USA Swimming’s headquarters, Abbie has been on all sides of swimming. Abbie is a stroke mechanics guru and believes anyone with the heart to train can benefit from technical advice! [CLICK HERE] for a FREE stroke technique lesson from Coach Abbie!

How to Swim a Faster Backstroke, by Understanding Freestyle:

Backstroke can be a challenging stroke, even for those swimmers who have already mastered freestyle. The backstroke stroke is often misleading to a Pro-freestyler due to the fact it’s VERY fundamentally similar to freestyle. Just because you’ve conquered freestyle, doesn’t mean backstroke will come easy. I plan to explain THREE ways these two strokes are fundamentally similar, what you can do to improve your backstroke using these similarities, and lastly, swim a faster backstroke, by understanding the freestyle fundamentals!

Let’s get started…

1.) Both Strokes are Long-Axis Strokes

Just like freestyle, backstroke is a long-axis stroke. Well, what does that mean exactly? Long-Axis means that your body rotates around the sagittal (or longitudinal) axis of your body. The sagittal axis splits the body in half—leaving your right arm and right leg on one side, and your left arm and left leg on the other side.

This axis is important because rotation in freestyle and backstroke is centered around it. Without proper rotation, or a strong core connection—your stroke will look floppy and disconnected while turning your body from side to side.

 

2.) The Horizontal Body Position

Another similarity between these two strokes, is the horizontal body position. When you swim either Free or Back, you want the swimmer’s body to be comfortably floating on the surface. Obviously, things get a little more complicated if you start rotating, pulling, and adding in a kick; BUT the ideal and best position a swimmer can be in is– floating right at the top of the surface with little or no body angle.


I’m sure if you’re a coach or a swimmer, you’ve been told to “put your head down” in freestyle. Well, that same reasoning is applied to backstroke by “tilting your head back.” The reason we like to change your head position in both of these strokes is because it affects your body line (as described above). If a straight line is the best position a swimmer can be in in the pool–then looking forward in freestyle, or looking at your feet in backstroke will ultimately change that positioning.

 

With my swimmers, I like to tell them to “lift their chin up.” This phrase gets away from strictly thinking about moving their head back. Instead, swimmers think about creating space between their chin and chest. I have seen better changes with this verbiage than the regular, “look up towards the sky”, or “lay your head back” phrases.

 

3. The Kick

The last and final way freestyle and backstroke are similar is due to the kick. Fundamentally, the kick movement is the same between both strokes—you’re just on your back for backstroke. Remember: the kick is initiated through the lower abs/hips and finishes out with a good flick from your feet/toes.

The more plantar flexibility you have, the faster your kick will be—in both of these strokes. One main difference with the kick in freestyle and backstroke is the fact your knees are closer to the water’s surface while backstroke kicking.

It becomes pretty evident if a swimmer is kicking using too much knee bend, because their knees will break through the surface while kicking on their back, if so.

Be sure to stay tuned next week where we discuss how to IMPROVE your backstroke stroke, using these similarities to your advantage!

Until Next Time,

A. Fish