5 Tips for a Better Backstroke Start

Two women swimming backstroke underwater.
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Unlike other swimming races, the backstroke is the only one that starts from the water. The swimmer faces the wall and grabs part of the start block or the wall with their hands. Often, there are touchpads in the water and hand grips on the bars to prevent slipping. The legs are placed shoulder width apart on the wall with both heels slightly off the wall. When the started announces, "take your mark" the swimmer pulls their chest closer to the start block while keeping the knees bent at a 90-degree angle. Some swimmers prefer to keep one foot slightly lower than the other during the start.​

On September 21, 2005, FINA modified the backstroke start rule regarding toes below the water line. The feet can now be above the water, but not above or curled over the lip of the pool gutter.

The backstroke start set-up may sound simple but is more complex than it seems.

01
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Explode off the wall with hip and knee extension

Male swimmer diving into swimming pool backwards.
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When beginning the backstroke start, it is crucial to have an explosive leg drive, as a powerful leg drive will impact all the other activities below. Make sure you are extending your hips and knees, getting the strongest push-off possible. Think about pushing doing a squat jump, you want to drive from your hips and knees, not just one or the other.

02
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Push with the arms

Maria Lenk in backstroke start position for the Rio 2016 Olympics
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Many people forget the arms are two points of contact for pushing the body out of the water. As you hear the starter's beep, push as hard as you can with your arms, facilitating the explosion of the hips and legs from step one. 

03
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Aggressively Throw the Head Back

Woman starting backstroke race.
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It may sound too simple, but the body follows the head. This is a saying I've heard many times in physical therapy school but applies to the backstroke start as well. When leaving the block, make sure you are throwing your head aggressively in the direction you want your body to move. When you're on the block, aggressively throw your head backwards, arching the neck. 

04
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Clean entry

Woman doing backstroke dive in water.
Mike Comer / Getty Images

A clean entry reduces the surface drag of the entry, preventing drag which can slow a swimmer. The clean entry is a combination of multiple factors: streamlined arms, arched back, high hips, and pointed toes. As you arch your back, you're allowing yourself to transfer the energy created from the powerful start into your dolphin kicking. Remember, the start is the fastest point of any swimming race, don't lose this speed when you enter the water. 

05
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Powerful dolphin kicks

Swimmer underwater in pool.
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The fastest way for maintaining the speed from the clean entry is by utilizing powerful dolphin kicks. For these kicks, make sure to generate power from your core musculature, but remember kicking tempo is crucial. Try to find the balance of maximizing kicking power with having a fast kicking tempo. Many try to generate power from the core but move the whole body. This is not the goal, instead, move powerfully from the bellybutton down and create fast, powerful kicks!  

Summary

Now, knowing the steps of a powerful backstroke start is far different from being able to perform a powerful backstroke start. This makes getting in the pool and practicing these starts essential for skill acquisition. Remember, perfect practice creates perfect performance!