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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.

Initial Position & Glide Phase

We will now analyze the swimming technique of elementary backstroke. Let’s begin with the initial position:

  • Push off the wall backwards and get into a horizontal position, gliding on your back.
  • Your head is in line with your trunk.
  • Your face clears the water and you stare directly at the ceiling.
  • Your arms rest at your sides.
  • Your palms are turned inwards.
  • Your legs are extended and squeezed together.

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


First Active Phase

  • Bend your elbows and draw your hands up towards your armpits, as if to tickle yourself.
  • At the same time, bend your knees and bring your feet towards your buttocks. Still keep your legs together while bending your knees.
  • If you are teaching children how to swim, you can call this position chicken or monkey to make learning more fun.

Second Active Phase

  • Extend your arms sideways so as to form a T with the rest of your body. Your palms are facing backwards.
  • Spread your legs apart while keeping them bent.
  • You can call this position eagle or airplane with children.

Third Active Phase

Now comes the propulsive phase of the swim stroke:

  • Sweep your extended arms backwards and inwards so that they simultaneously push against the water and are brought back at your sides to their initial position.
  • Also extend your legs backwards then squeeze them together once they are fully extended. This also provides propulsion and brings your legs back into their initial position.
  • 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 backwards and then while you glide for a few moments.


Advantages of Elementary Backstroke

  • It is a very relaxing swim stroke once you have mastered it.
  • 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.
  • The arm movements are basic, synchronous and symmetrical and therefore easy to learn. But they are also very effective.
  • The leg movements are also synchronous and symmetrical and relatively easy to learn. The legs movements are in fact a form of breaststroke kick.
  • 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

  • Elementary backstroke is slower than regular backstroke.
  • You must have attained a certain level of balance on your back in the water before learning the stroke.
  • 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.

Swimming Tips

  • Practice this swim stroke in shallow water where you can quickly regain your feet if you are a novice swimmer.
  • 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.
  • As described above, children have more fun if you use the chicken!eagle!rocket! names during the respective swim stroke phases.
  • It can be interesting to practice the head-lead supine balance drill before learning elementary backstroke.
  • It can be interesting to practice the arm and leg movements on dry land first.
  • It can be interesting to separately practice the arm movements and leg movements in the water using respectively a pull buoy and a kick board.
  • You will be more relaxed if you wear swimming goggles and a nose clip because they keep water out of your eyes and nose.
  • You can use a water noodle to support your back while swimming elementary backstroke.

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