Backstroke Kick. Has specificity been overlooked?

It may surprize you but I think that 99% of coaches do not have their swimmers train backstroke kick correctly.  Most coaches have their swimmers train freestyle kick on their back. Backstroke kick is not Freestyle kick.  It is different.

What is different about Backstroke kick?  It is easy to see if you observe a swimmer doing backstroke underwater that the kicking is not simply ‘up and down’ like a Freestyle kick. It is up, down, outwards, crossover (to left), up, down, outwards, crossover (to right).  A coach might say ‘close enough’.  I say this is wrong.  I believe that it is very different and if you intend on following the principle of specificity then simply kicking Freestyle on your back is not exact enough.

A drill I have developed is fairly basic.  We started with a few experiments to get it right but basically if a swimmer rolls their shoulders from side to side with their arms at their side, as fast as they would in their backstroke tempo (ie continuously), then they would cause the legs to include the crossover portion of the kick.  To maintain the correct head position we included the top (the lid) of the their water bottle and balance it on their forehead.  A coach can quickly see that this is exactly like the Backstroke kick.  In this drill it is ok to let the arms slightly exit the water as if they were about to bring the arms around for the recovery action.  Unfortunately we haven’t found an interesting name yet for this drill…maybe you can help?  Your comments are welcome.

Why does the Backstroke kick switch from up & down to crossover?  It is for the same reason that the Freestyle kick slightly opens from up and down to outwards…balance. As the swimmer is on their back the crossover kick crosses the legs overtop of the other leg to counterbalance the entry of the hand at the top of the arm stroke.  This must happen because the knees don’t bend backwards.  So when the left arm enters into the water the right heel drives downwards and outwards.  If you didn’t you would not go in a straight line.  After the leg sweeps outwards it crosses over and then straightens out for the next arm entry and then the other leg sweeps outwards.  The action repeats over and over in a very interesting pattern. (There is a video link at the end of this article to help you visualize it).

Another drill which includes the arms up in a stream-lined position is to flick water from one side alternately.  The swimmer tries to keep to the same pattern as the normal Backstroke kick without adding extra up & down kicks between flicks.

I tried this shoulder-twisting kick drill in a vertical position and this was also effective in getting swimmers to replicate the correct backstroke kicking motion.

Have a look on Youtube and look at some backstroke underwater.  If you get a clip of a swimmer in slow motion you can see what I am talking about and it will make more sense to you. This Youtube clip is of Ryan Lochte underwater.

I looked around and found some video examples.  It was interesting that many of the videos I found said that Backstroke was Freestyle upside down!  It is not.  A video I found showing a 100m of full backstroke underwater then had a link at the end to show the correct backstroke kick.  Although the backstroke video was useful it was interesting that lit linked to the backstroke kick and it was exactly the point I am trying to make.  Backstroke kick done ‘normally’ is totally different from what I had just watched in the first video.  None of the comments confronted this issue.

I think this is an issue that has been so long overlooked that backstroke kick is basically never done except when it is done in full stroke.  Maybe a way to get an advantage over the competition?  Specificity is important because what you practice is what you get good at, but if you don’t believe me maybe you’ll believe an Exercise Physiologist:

Definition: Specificity is the principle of training that states that sports training should be relevant and appropriate to the sport for which the individual is training in order to produce a training effect.

The Specificity Principle simply states that training must go from highly general training to highly specific training. The principle of Specificity also implies that to become better at a particular exercise or skill, you must perform that exercise or skill.

Principle of Specificity – Definition.  By Elizabeth Quinn

The last time I found that what exercise physiology has proven was not used in swimming, it was an epiphany for me.  I found that a work to rest ratio in sprint training should be 1:16 using inactive rest.  That blew my mind because I didn’t remember getting any more that 10 seconds rest on anything I trained and certainly never had inactive rest.  This epiphany brought Alison Sheppard’s training into a new sphere and over the course of 5 years from 112th in the world to #1 in 2002.  I am a strong advocate of exercise physiology!

About Coach Gary

I competed in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul representing Canada and coached in the 2000 and 2004 Olympics for Great Britain. I have a degree in History and a minor degree in Psychology from University of Calgary. I have travelled extensively and have been very lucky to see so much of the world while representing Canada and Great Britain at swimming competitions. I am very proud of the fact that I coached a swimmer to become number one in the world in the fastest swimming race in 2002. I pride myself in my ability to find new and interesting ways to teach swimming. I am an accomplished artist specialising in sculpture, I have another blog called 'swimmingart' where I publish some of my swimming drawings. I have three young children; all boys. I have recently taken up painting and yoga....but not at the same time. You can see my new paintings at:
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4 Responses to Backstroke Kick. Has specificity been overlooked?

  1. That last fly-by was the best! 1:16 ratio. Wow. I was taught by exercises physiologists like Rick Sharp that 1:4 or 1:6 was sufficient. It’s what I teach too. And how I coach. Theone thing that changed when I learned that was the stress levels of all-out 25’s is higher than the stress levels of 90% efforts for 100’s with relatively short rest. That blewme away and I would have never seen it if we hadn’t designed Cool Coach software int he 90’s to measure the effects of each practice set. I also believe I blew it as a coach by not having sprints near the front of practice. As many coaches I always pushed them to the end. I wanted to get my 2.5 hours of work into them. 1 to sixteen passive rest. That changes everything, right? We might have to actually talk to our swimmers 🙂
    Seriously though I know for certain we get a lot out of endurance practices. I just don’t do any unless they are purposeful and measured. Keep up the great work Gary. I am joining you as a blogger and hope we can collaborate in “selling” the next generation of intelligent swimming and coaching.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Chris Harris says:

    Hi, we like to call that back stroke luck drill ‘Rock n Roll’ the bottle keeps the head stay add a rock while the shoulders roll…. hope this helps


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