The Beginner’s Guide to Swimming Backstroke

A favorite stroke among swimmers of every level is the backstroke. And while it’s popular because it’s easier to breathe while swimming, it’s not without its challenges. 

The biggest challenge most face when swimming backstroke is that it’s swum on the back (hence the name!). This makes it difficult for people to know where they’re going in addition to the already technically challenging aspects of the stroke.

In this guide, we break down the many parts of the backstroke, along with providing some tips, and how to avoid some common mistakes.

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Backstroke vs. Elementary Backstroke: Is there a Difference?

If you’re new to swimming, you may have heard of both the backstroke and the elementary backstroke. Despite the somewhat similar names, these are two different strokes! 

The two biggest differences are the way you swim each stroke and the legalness of the stroke when it comes to competitive swimming.

  • Backstroke: A legal stroke used in competitive swimming where a swimmer is on their back, and moves their arms alternatively over the head and the legs kick with a flutter kick. (source) In rare cases, you may hear backstroke referred to as ‘back crawl’.
  • Elementary Backstroke: Not a legal stroke used in competitive swimming but can be used for non-competitive swimming (such as lap swimming). The stroke is completed on the back with the arms coming up to the armpits, extending outwards like the letter ‘T’, and then coming back to the hips. The legs perform an inverted breaststroke kick

As described above, they’ve very different despite the somewhat similar name. For this article, we’ll be overviewing the backstroke only.

Overview of Swimming Backstroke

The backstroke is a favorite among swimmers because it’s the only stroke that you can breathe whenever you want. Whereas the remaining three strokes (butterfly, breaststroke, and freestyle) have some element of holding your breath.

Related article: Overview of the 6 Common Swimming Strokes

Because of this, backstroke is one of the go-to strokes for competitive swimmers after races or hard sets during a workout. It’s easier to catch your breath when your face isn’t in the water 🙂

It’s also a relatively easy stroke for most swimmers to swim. Aside from learning to swim in a straight line and not run into the wall! 

And in some ways, it’s incredibly similar to the front crawl (aka, freestyle). Backstroke is one of the faster strokes, especially with less effort for new swimmers.

Below is a quick overview of the stroke. Each section will be covered in more detail. 

  1. The backstroke is swum with the body horizontal in the water and facing up so you’re looking at the ceiling/sky
  2. Your arms move up and over your head, and move opposite of each other (like freestyle) so that when one arm is under the water, the other is above the water
  3. The torso and hips rotate with each stroke that you take. When rotating, the arm that’s coming out of the water should rotate enough that the shoulder also comes out of the water. The rotation of the hips can help drive the kick.
  4. Because your face isn’t in the water, you can breathe as you like. However, breathing should be done through the mouth, not the nose, to avoid choking on water
  5. The legs are also horizontal in the water and move in an up-down motion that’s opposite of each other. When one leg moves up in the water, the other moves down. The legs should have a slight bend in the knees

And that’s it! Five pieces make up the backstroke and are what you need to swim backstroke. Of course, it’s easier said than done.  One of the reasons swimming is so hard is due to the technical nature of the sport/workout.

But you shouldn’t let that stop you or keep you from trying! 

How to Swim Backstroke without Hitting the Wall

One of the biggest things that keep most people from swimming backstroke is the fear of hitting their head on the wall, running into something (or someone), or both!

And it’s an honest fear to have, no matter what your experience is in swimming. Even as a competitive swimmer, I worry about miscounting in the backstroke flags and running into the wall.

If you’re concerned about hitting your head and/or trying to swim a straight line, we cover this more in our companion article:  How to Avoid Hitting Your Head When Swimming Backstroke. Below are some brief suggestions.

  1. If your pool has them, use the backstroke flags to know when you’re approaching the wall. Once you see them, you can roll over onto your stomach to spot the wall or glide into the wall with your arm extended forward so it touches the wall first
  2. Watch the lane lines. As you approach the wall, the lane lines will change from alternating colors to a single color. If your pool has backstroke flags, these will typically line up with them. 
  3. To help with your spacial awareness of where you are in the pool, watch the ceiling. Some pools have exposed beams, lights, or other identifying features to help you gauge where you’re at while swimming backstroke 
  4. When swimming outside, you may need to utilize the lane lines and tilt your head to the side and back to watch the lane line as you swim. Or, see if the pool has another identifying feature, such as a ladder or lifeguard stand.

Beginner’s Guide to the Backstroke Technique

Body Position

When swimming backstroke, your body is in a horizontal position in the water and faces up towards the ceiling. Or the sky, if you’re swimming outside.

And while you’re horizontal in the water, your body shouldn’t be straight/flat. Instead, you should have the slightest crunch in your abs so that your body has the smallest curve to it. Most coaches will reference that you should look like a frozen banana!

Related article: A Quick Guide to Body Position in Backstroke

Your head should be lying back in the water so that it rests naturally and you’re looking upwards. You shouldn’t have your head tilted forward and looking down your body or at your toes. Nor should you press it back so that the water covers your eyes or face.

Either position will put unneeded pressure and tension on your neck and can cause pain. It’s also hard on your neck muscles and will impact your balance in the water.

It’s best to think of this natural position as if you were lying in a bed on your back. You can also imagine that you’re standing upright and looking straight ahead.

While you swim on your back in backstroke, your hips and torso don’t stay still/flat in the water. Instead, they should rotate with your stroke and kick. So that when the arm goes up over your head, your shoulder should be rotating with that same arm.

Lastly, when swimming backstroke, your body should be on top of the water. If your hips are too low in the water or your shoulders are diving/pressing down into the water, you’re not balanced. 

Try to keep your head, shoulders, torso, and hips close to the surface of the water. Remember that your body isn’t completely straight but you shouldn’t be diving or forcing yourself under the water.

The Backstroke Arm Movement

The stroke piece of the backstroke, is again, very similar to freestyle in that the arms move opposite of each other. Only for backstroke, your arms are straight as they stroke up and over your head, whereas, in freestyle, they’re predominantly bent.

In backstroke, the stroke is a constant movement between the arms. When one arm is under the water, the other is above the water.

The motions of backstroke stroke can be broken up into 6 different pieces or movements. For a more detailed explanation of each motion, please check out our article: All About the Backstroke Arm Movement.

6 Pieces of the Backstroke Stroke

1. Entry: At this piece of the backstroke, the hand is entering the water (pinkie first). Your arm is extended behind you in a straight line. Your shoulder should enter the water first and then the rest of your arm progressing up to the hand (shoulder, upper arm, forearm, and hand)

2. The Catch: The catch in backstroke is long (and one could argue that it can be broken into a few pieces). It starts from the moment the hand enters the water and begins to ‘scoop’ the water and provide the majority of the propulsion for the stroke. 

During this motion, your elbow is serving as an anchor point as your forearm moves down through the water, catching it with the underside.

Your elbow will bend no less than about 90 degrees (but you may find that you bend it more, mine is about a 100-degree angle). Your forearm and palm should be flat and facing your legs.

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3. The Pull: While your arm is moving through the water in the catch, your bent elbow will reach around your ribs. At this point, you’ll begin the pull portion. This is the second propulsive motion in the stroke.

Taking the water that you’ve ‘scooped’ during the catch piece. Your forearm will keep pressing forward with the underside facing towards your feet as it pulls the water. Your forearm will pull the water down towards your hip.

4. Exit: At the end of the pull, your hand is down by your hip and it will leave the water from this position. Your hand should exit the water with your thumb first and your palm facing inward toward your body. 

5. Recovery: The recovery portion happens above the water after the arm exits the water. Your arm will move up and over your body in a semi-circle, going from hip to over your head. While completing the recovery, your shoulder and arm rotate so your palm moves from facing inward to outward. This sets up the entry for a pinkie first entry.

6. Repeat: And now you’re back to where you started! After your recovery stroke, you’re back to the entry piece of backstroke. 

More Content for You: Beginner’s Guide to Swimming Freestyle

Rotation and Swimming Backstroke

Swimming backstroke flat on your back is a common swimming mistake. Even experienced swimmers fall into this habit, especially when they’re tired or not focused. 

When you swim flat backstroke, your hips and shoulders remain still in the water when they should be rotating. Part of the stroke piece in backstroke involves the shoulders coming up slightly out of the water.

If you’re new to swimming or swimming the backstroke, you may not have the strength and coordination to get your shoulders out of the water. And that’s okay! It gives you something to work towards. 

Your rotation in backstroke should feel natural and it should move in time with your stroke. You can also breathe in time with your rotation.

We will note that while your body does rotate, your head should remain still. It shouldn’t rock in motion with your rotation and you shouldn’t nod your head up and down, either.

The Backstroke Kick (aka, The Flutter Kick)

If you’ve done the core workout called ‘flutter kick’ you’ve done some backstroke kicking! Your legs will move opposite of each other so that when one leg is kicking up, the other is kicking down.

The flutter kick in backstroke is the same kick that’s used in freestyle, with the only difference being your legs facing upwards instead of down.

While the core workout requires shorter kicks, the kick in backstroke needs a slightly deeper kick. It’s not so deep that you’re trying to touch the bottom of the pool. But it shouldn’t be so shallow that you’re barely moving your legs.

Related articles:

You should be engaging your glutes and starting the kick from there. Almost like you’re kicking a ball. 

Your knee will have a slight bend on the downward portion of the kick and at the start of the upward motion. 

Following this, the leg will straighten as it becomes fully extended. This part of the kick drives the propulsion and is the most powerful piece of the kick.

When swimming backstroke, the kick piece helps stabilize the backstroke and aids in rotating. Most competitive swimmers will keep a constant six-beat kick. However, newer swimmers may kick less per stroke cycle until they build up some endurance and strength.

Breathing in Backstroke

One of the things that most swimmers like about the backstroke is that your face isn’t in the water, making it easier to breathe. 

This was also my reason for wanting to swim backstroke when I first started swimming! Knowing that I could breathe whenever I wanted was a major draw to the stroke compared to others.

And while it’s true that you can breathe whenever you want because your face is above the water, it’s not always that simple.

Depending on how smooth your backstroke is, you may or may not get water splashed on your face during the recovery. Just as someone swimming or splashing nearby can get water on your face.

And if your body position or balance isn’t good, you may submerge your head and get water up your nose. Or in your mouth.

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For this reason, it’s beneficial to get into a breathing pattern when swimming backstroke. One example is to inhale with one stroke/arm and exhale with the other. 

This works for me when I’m doing backstroke technique or drill work. But when I’m sprinting or racing, I tend to breathe with every stroke to get the air that I need. 

And realistically, I don’t think about it when I’m swimming. I just swim and breathe in whichever manner is more relaxing for me. As you build up your backstroke, you’ll start to fall naturally into a breathing pattern that works best for you 🙂

I’ve also found that during the portion of the stroke where I’m not breathing, I exhale with both my nose and my mouth. This helps keep water from going up my nose.

If you’re scared of getting water up your nose when swimming backstroke, we recommend using a nose clip. This will pinch your nose for you to keep the water from entering your nose. 

My preferred nose plug is Arena’s Nose Clip Pro but I used Speedo’s Competition Nose Clip during my college swimming years.

Common Mistakes When Swimming Backstroke

Even though it seems easy, swimming backstroke is based on a lot of techniques and it’s easy to make mistakes. Even experienced competitive swimmers can make mistakes in their stroke!

The biggest mistake that most swimmers (new and experienced) can make though is giving up. While swimming can be difficult and frustrating to learn detailed techniques, it’s not impossible. Mistakes can be corrected over time and as you learn 🙂

Arms too Tight

When swimming backstroke, your arms should enter the water at about the 11 and 1 position on a clock. If not just a bit wider. A common misconception is that your arms should be close to your head when swimming backstroke.

However, a tight stroke makes it harder to rotate and can cause your muscles to pinch while swimming. Instead, it’s better to keep a wider stroke so you can catch more water and not strain your muscles as much. 

Knee Kicking

Like with freestyle, it’s easy to kick with your knees in backstroke. Just as it’s tempting to kick from just your knees and down. 

Kicking this way makes your hips sink and causes a lot of drag while you’re swimming. In turn, this makes it more difficult to swim. 

Related article: Avoid These 6 Common Mistakes in the Backstroke Kick

Your knees shouldn’t come out of the water when you’re kicking during backstroke. If you’re trying to bring your knees or legs up to your chest, you’re making things much more difficult.

Instead, keep your legs straight out behind you as you’re swimming. Your knees should only have the smallest bend to them as your leg kicks down and begins to kick back up again.

Head Isn’t in a Neutral Position

It’s tempting to lift your head up and out of the water when swimming backstroke, as it can help you see where you’re at in the pool. Doing this though makes your hips sink. You’ve taken your body from mostly straight to more of an angled line.

And holding your head up while swimming can hurt your muscles and your neck if you do it long enough. 

Your head should remain in the water, just at the surface level. Not pushing down into it. 

Backstroke Tips to Swim Faster and Easier

It’s not always easy to learn how to swim backstroke. To make it a bit easier for you, here are some tips for swimming backstroke that we’ve found along the way. 

  1. Every swimmer is different: While the motions of backstroke and the look of it are the same, every swimmer has just a bit different technique that works for them. Some may rotate more than others, just as others may kick less. The tip here is to remember that what works for one swimmer may not work for you and to not give up because your stroke isn’t ‘perfect’
  2. Start slow: And start with the basics. It’s tempting to try swimming as fast as you can with what you know. But you’ll find that swimming backstroke is easier if you start slow and work the basics before adding speed into your workouts.
  3. Relax: It’s hard to swim when you’re tense. This can make your neck muscles tighten, which will raise your head and lower your hips. Try to keep yourself as relaxed as possible when swimming and take a moment to start over when you feel yourself becoming frustrated
  4. Use gear/equipment: While it’s not needed to swim backstroke, swim gear such as swim paddles and swim fins can help you learn the basics by making you focus on your stroke and kick. 
  5. Ask for help: Swimming is complex and complicated. If you know someone who swims or you have access to a coach, ask for some help or guidance. Most swimmers are happy to give out a few pointers if you ask nicely 🙂

In Closing

Swimming backstroke seems easy on the surface because your face isn’t in the water and you can breathe when you want. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t without its challenges, either. 

Learning to swim backstroke takes time and it’s important to practice your technique. Try to stay patient as best you can and keep practicing.

As always, happy swimming!


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Chevron is a current competitive swimmer with almost 20 years of experience in the pool. And although she fell into the sport by accident in her high school years, she still trains daily and competes throughout the year. She’s committed to providing guidance to all levels of swimmers and believes that everyone should know how to swim.