Feel like a upside-down turtle every time you attempt a backstroke? Of the four competitive swimming strokes, it's the only one where you lie on your back and can't see the wall, which definitely adds a level of difficulty. (Design your swim training program.)
The key to a successful backstroke is finding a comfortable body position, where you're able to breathe without distress. The next essential step is learning how to kick and propel yourself forward. After you perfect that, your arms must move like a propeller, working as a single unit, not as separate entities. Finally, backstrokers must coordinate the timing of their legs and arms to maximize propulsion and to maintain a streamlined body position. (To develop a straight back, try Olympic swimmer Mark Gangloff's Streamline Against Wall.)
Let's take a closer look at this progression to make you a master of backstroke technique.
At first glance, the backstroke looks like freestyle flipped. However, the different angle distorts many aspects of swimming, most notably breathing. As with all swimming strokes, relaxation in the water is the first step for improvement. If relaxing on your back is a problem, spend time simply floating on your back until it feels comfortable. Make sure to overemphasize the position; it should feel like you are leaning back, making your body a seesaw, since lying back and pressing your upper back down naturally raises your hips.
People seldom lean too far back when learning backstroke technique. Keep working on this body position until you're floating on your back and your breathing is free and easy.
To achieve the correct body position while kicking, remember to keep your kicks small and initiate from the hips. Streamline is essential, so keep your body as straight as possible. Another important point is that knee flexion provides the most power in your kick. (see Get Instantly Faster by Improving Your Freestyle Swim Kick Technique)
Once you're able to kick in the streamline position, it's critical to make your arms work like a propeller. As one arm enters the water directly above the shoulder, pinky finger first, the other arm should be exiting the water next to the hip, thumb first. To maximize distance per stroke, keep your elbow straight as your arm recovers. Once the arm enters the water, bend the elbow and orient the upper arm, forearm and hand toward your feet.
Putting It All Together
To achieve results with the backstroke, your whole body must work cohesively. If your arms and legs are not coordinated, they will actually work against each other, causing unnecessary drag. Take controlled, methodical arm strokes that work in concert with your legs. Kick toward the surface of the water with one leg as your opposite arm exits the water. As your right arm starts to exit the water, your left leg should be kicking towards the surface of the water.
Timing is the key to success. When you first learn proper coordination, perform less frequent kicks. Once you master the synchronization, your legs should kick approximately six times for each cycle (one stroke for each arm).