Some of the reasons today's backstrokers are swimming faster include flatter body position, quicker arm tempo, and more powerful kicking. Underwater, we're seeing a shallower pull/push pattern and the hand positioned higher than the elbow throughout the propulsive phases. Together, these factors help create increased hand forces directly related to increased swimming velocity.
Although backstroke is a discipline with only one style - alternate arms and flutter kick - the stroke is currently undergoing a remarkable number of changes. From body position and hip rotation to catching and holding water, many of the current top backstrokers are swimming more like each other and less like their predecessors.
All of the following technical recommendations are for race-pace swimming.
VIEW 1: Head and Body Position
In backstroke, as in all strokes, keeping your head firmly situated on top of your spine ensures your body advances in the least resistive cross-sectional profile. Excessive head movement creates unwanted lateral or vertical motion in the body. Streamline your head and body into a horizonal position.
Your face, chest, hips, and even your thighs should all be at the surface of the water at various times during each stroke cycle. In this position, your face is framed by the water, eyes are looking directly upwards, ears are submerged, and waves often flow from the top of your head over your face.
Your body should not be relaxed in a hammock - or canoe-like position as was once taught. Nor should your back be arched; pull your stomach in - belly button to the spine. The postural link between your head and hips should be firm along the spinal axis.
At racing speeds, your body rotation is dependent on the distance; the shorter the event, the flatter and more stable your body position should be. Currently, many top backstroke swimmers rotate their shoulders less than 30 degrees to each side, and some of them rotate their hips even less. Swimmers who overemphasize body rotation in a downward direction sacrafice tempo, balance, and proper timing. When to rotate is actually much more important than how much to rotate. One suggestion here is to place a greater emphasis on rotating or snapping your hips upward rather than downward.
VIEW 2: Entry, Catch, Hold, and Finish
Your hand should enter the water directly above or, better still, wider and slightly outside your shoulder in recovery and extension. Hands should enter the water at "11:00 and 1:00," though "10:00 and 2:00" works just as well as a learning mantra. The pinky edge of your hand enters first, with the palm and fingertips facing away from the midline of your body.
At entry, downward momentum from the arcing recovery should forecefully drive your hand and forearm through the water surface in a karate-chopping motion that results in an audible kerplunking sound. This requires your elbows to be in a straight and locked position. Any time spent overreaching behind the head followed by elbow and/or wrist straightening is wasted and unrecoverable. Swimmers make more detrimental errors during the entry phase of backstroke than in any other phase. The most common errors on entry are overreaching, underreaching, and smashing the flat part of the back of the hand into the water.
The hands should have a catch depth of 10 to 16 inches under the surface and, in a move similar to rowing, "square their blades" as soon as possible. This means tilting the vertical palms toward the feet and initiating the anchored position against which propulsive energy is expended. No matter which direction the submerged palm is moving, there is always water pressure against it, but it's only during the moments when the palm is angled backward, toward the feet, that the resultant body motion is forward. The impact of this quick-catching, vertical palm position increases the duration of propulsive forces.
Following the catch, current trends in backstroke point toward a shallower palm path than has been previously taught. You can achieve this position by simply keeping your hand pitched vertically (oriented backward) and closer to the surface than your elbow. Too many novice backstrokers slide through this phase with the thumb leading, little finger trailing, and palm pointing toward the bottom. Throughout the pull and push phases, your elbow should point toward the bottom. At the moment your arm passes the shoulder plane, because of the combined surface area of the palm, forearm, and upper arm, propulsive forces are at their peak. At this point, with your shoulder roll at its greatest, the angle of elbow bend should be nearly 90 degrees. This position brings the hand above the frontal plane of the chest for increased muscular advantage. If there is only one item to take away from this entire article, this right-angle elbow bend is the most important element of a new and improved backstroke. The elite swimmers in this stroke are distancing themselves from those with deep, straight-arm pulls.
As your elbow extends your palm toward your thigh, your entire arm should move closer to your torso. As with freestyle and butterfly, you should place more emphasis on forceful extension of your elbow, which places high demands on your triceps during the final segment of the propulsive phase. Backstrokers with an intuitive feel for the water are often seen hyperextending their wrists at this point to avoid prematurely diminishing hand forces.
VIEW 3: Timing or Alternating Arms
In backstroke, your arms alternate in a continuous motion - each arm moves in opposition to the other. During the airborn phase - from the hand exit through reentry - the vertical semicircles of each arm should remain parallel and equidistant. Because there are no overlap or catch-up-like phases in backstroke, your arms, much like a propeller, work as a single unit, not as separate entities. Backstroke swimmers should also emphasize underwater hand speeds equal to the speed of the recovery arms. Compared to freestyle, this leads to what appears to be a reduced distance per stroke and the appearance that fast backstrokers are just spinning. Good backstrokers reach a balance point during the arm exchange where a letter "L" is formed by the recovery arm pointing straight up as the submerged arm passes the shoulder plane at the exact exchange between the pull and the push.
Your elbow should remain locked starting with the underwater extension at the end of the push phase, continuing up through the surface of the water, during the entire recovery arc, and as your arm enters back into the water to begin the catch. Your shoulders should lead the arm recovery and always exit the water before your hands.
VIEW 4: Kick
Backstrokers need a contributory kick to maintain surface speed, good aquatic posture, and help keep drag to a minimum. Most backstrokers today display a constant, steady kick, which, when combined with a reduced hip roll, is more vertical than horizontal.
During each independent kicking motion, the knee flexes on the downbeat and extends on the upbeat, with the majority of propulsive forces created during the upbeat. These upward motions, where the toes nearly break the surface of the water, provide a stable platform for the trunk muscles to assist the arms in creating propulsive forces. Recent studies have shown that ankle flexibility creates more propulsive forces than thigh strength. Therefore, many coaches recommend adding dryland exercises to increase range of motion and flexibility in the pointed (plantar) range of the ankle.
Again, concepts and technical recommendations presented here are basesd on what is currently observed in many top backstrokers. If your goal is becoming a better swimmer, practice these skill suggestions at a moderate speed and, after acquisition, incorporate them into you race-pace training. Don't just train; train to improve and train with intensity.
Remember, the secret to success in our sport is very simple: you just need to think about it.