The Backstroke: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know

Michael Butler
Written by
Last update:

The History of the Backstroke

The backstroke was named and first introduced in the 1930s but the actual origins of this swimming stroke are shrouded in history. Two different continents, the United States and India, claim the backstroke as their own “ with the former insisting that its origins lie in “American Indians rolling with the current” and the latter maintaining that the stroke was actually invented in India.

Of course, there may be truth and merit in both claims. It’s possible that the American Indians who swam across the treacherous Missouri River did, at some point, face a backstroke or backwards-facing stroke when the current was too strong to swim against it. The Indians, experts at perfecting the art of swimming, may have developed the stroke as a way to keep afloat.

On the other hand, it’s just as possible that the backstroke originated in India which many historians believe gave birth to the sport of swimming itself. One of the earliest recorded accounts of swimming actually comes from an Indian emperor who swam a pool every morning before his courtly duties commenced. And in the eighth century, a famous Indian artist depicted a “waterbird” “ swimming in a pool with a backwards-facing stroke.

The Backstroke Start: Here Comes the Wedge

The start of the backstroke can be the most intimidating part of the stroke. If you’re unfamiliar with swimming, you might not know what to do, and if you’re familiar with swimming, you might find yourself having to relearn the backstroke start.

Part of the difficulty of learning the backstroke start comes because freestyle and backstroke start differently. In freestyle, you take a position at the back of the starting block and push off forward. In backstroke, you take a position at the side of the starting block and push off backward, creating a backward-facing “W”-shape body position.

Before you begin, find your wedge. Get comfortable with it the wedge—not the freestyle wedge, the backstroke wedge. The wedge in backstroke has greater depth than the wedge in freestyle. In freestyle, the wedge is designed for a “catch-up” stroke. It’s a glass-bottomed, deep area of the pool where you can get a feel for the water.

Who are some of the best backstrokers of all time?

Backstroke is one of two official styles used along with freestyle to compete in the sport of swimming. Backstroke emerged in an attempt to address the dangers of rapid turnover and choking in freestyle.

The rules of the backstroke were devised and enforced at the 1878 Paris swimming championship, where an attempt to disguise a very quick underwater kick in freestyle had led to a brawl among the competitors. To avoid something like this from happening again, the backstroke was soon introduced as an alternative style of swimming.

While backstrokers adhere to the basic tenet of “no arms, no feet,” they do kick both their legs and their arms while under water, though the body position and the swimmer’s face are maintained constantly.

Olympic golds. Shaunae Miller was the most recent winner of the women’s 50m backstroke (along with the 4x100m medley relay), taking golds at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. Her time of 30.12 seconds smashed the old world record of 30.22, set by Russian Evgeniya Logunova in 2014.

Olympics. The events that comprise the backstroke include the 50m, 100m, 200m, and 400 individual medley, and the 4x100m medley relay.

How to Swim Backstroke


The backstroke is an effective way to train for stroke work while on vacation or at a specialized practice facility. It’s extremely comfortable for the new swimmer as it’s one of the more forgiving swimming strokes.

It’s also great for long-distance pool swimmers, as it gives a slightly slower pace to the swim.

Backstroke is a four-beat kick. Kicking every arm cycle, kicks are slightly deeper on the ‶‬from the leg kick and can feel like you’re pushing off from your knees. To get into a good backstroke rhythm, try drafting your kick pattern off of the swimmer in front of you. That’s one of the easiest ways to develop a good backstroke tempo.

Because of the asymmetrical nature of the stroke, most swimmers have a dominant side – either left or right. To determine which side your dominant side is, put your arm all the way out in front of you, with your thumb down. Point your thumb at the bottom of the pool, then rotate it to point at the top of the pool.

Backstroke Resources

If you’re looking for more information about backstroke techniques, check out the Swimming World backstroke online video.

The video includes backstroke start and turn techniques, and the posture you should have during the stroke.