Create a Thing of Beauty with Your Backstroke Start

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*This article was updated on 12/8/2017

A great backstroke start is a thing of beauty. I liken it to a dolphin leaping out of the water and piercing the water through a hula-hoop, or David Boudia, scoring a perfect 10 off of the 10-meter tower. You see no splash and hear no splash.

Unlike from the starting block, the backstroker begins the race at a lower height. Gravitational forces are still important, however, so in order to take advantage of them, the backstroker must launch upward, not just backward, to achieve the greatest speed at entry. Further, in order to reach the highest speed on the backstroke start, the swimmer needs to avoid dragging any part of the body through the water. The body needs to go completely airborne during the start.

If you could freeze the backstroker at the very peak height of the start, you would find the feet and hands are very close to the water, yet the bum is a couple of feet above the surface of the water, with the body forming an upside down U shape. In other words, the body is arched way back, and is completely out the water.

If a swimmer is to have any chance of reaching this extraordinary height on the start, he or she must launch from a high position. Taking your mark, the swimmer must elevate the body until the bum is right at the surface or above the water. This is most effectively achieved when the toes are very near the surface and gripping the touch pad. On a flat wall, the feet can be placed slightly above the surface of the water.

Upon elevation of the body, the back should be straight and the chin held upright, rather than looking downward. Some backstrokers prefer to keep the bum further away from the wall than the head, while others are positioned more straight up and down. Just like doing a pull up, it requires a lot of strength to reach this high position. With the additional weight from the body leaving the water, there is also more risk of the feet slipping down the wall. World-class backstrokers Missy Franklin and David Plummer know what that feels like, as that mishap occurred to them in the Olympic Games and World Championships, respectively.

Much of the risk of the feet slipping has been mitigated by the introduction of the backstroke wedge, an adjustable plate that sits against the wall under the surface, helping prevent the feet from slipping down. This device is now approved by FINA for all major swimming championships.

When given the option of a vertical or horizontal bar on the starting block to grasp to elevate the body for the start, most elite backstrokers at the World Championships chose the vertical over the horizontal bar. Those that chose the horizontal bar, always selected the higher bar, not the lower one.

Once elevated, with the sound of the beep, the swimmer throws the arms more or less straight back overhead, and extends the head backward, as if looking upside down to the end of the pool. The energy of the arm swing and the head snapping backward are both coupling motions that augment the force of the feet pushing the body upward and backward. With the back fully arched, the swimmer avoids contact with the water until the hands enter first, and with the high launch, reaches a greater speed at entry. The hands should be wrapped together wrist over wrist at entry in a tight streamline.

A third potential coupling motion on the backstroke start is the kick up of the feet and legs just prior to entry. This motion ranges from very little movement or energy up to a huge kick, such as is being done by world class backstroker, Luca Spinazzola, whom we video’d at The Race Club. Luca’s unique backstroke start will be featured in an upcoming webisode.

Just before the hands enter the water, the head begins to come up and the back begins to straighten to avoid going too deep with an overly arched body position. Since the heel of the foot is the first part of the foot to reach the water, the foot actually relaxes from its plantar-flexed (pointed) position to create the least amount of drag at entry.

Once the body is underwater, the real backstroke race begins with the dolphin kicks. In fact, in short course races, more of the race is swum underwater dolphin kicking rather than on the surface backstroking. The faster the kicker, the better the start becomes. Since the swimmer usually goes deeper with a backstroke start than with a freestyle start, the minimum number of dolphin kicks to reach the breakout is usually 5 or 6, with the maximum to reach 15 meters usually 10 to 12 kicks. The right number of kicks to reach the surface for each swimmer depends entirely on the speed of the kicker.

Both Missy Franklin and Tyler Clary have convinced me that wearing a nose clip in backstroke makes perfect sense…unless you have one of those upper lips that can occlude your nose. The reason is that with the nose clip, the air can be retained in the lungs, keeping the body weight at zero right up to the break out. With much of the air expired out of the lungs, the body weighs about 8 lbs by the time the swimmer is ready to break out. Another advantage of the nose clip is that the swimmer can burst exhale right before breaking out and does not need to take a gaspingly deep first breath to refill the lungs. The quicker first breath enables the swimmer to explode out of the breakout with less delay and a faster stroke rate.

The best way to improve your starts is by practicing starting. But first, watch the amazing start of World Champion backstroker, Junya Koga.  At The Race Club, we often do backstroke sets by beginning with a start, rather than a push off the wall, just to get that extra practice in.

Yours in swimming,

Gary Sr.

7 Responses to Create a Thing of Beauty with Your Backstroke Start

  1. barb uible

    These Race Club stroke and technique “tips” you send out are fantastic! I get excited when they show up in my e-mail. I teach private swim lessons as well as compete myself so this information is invaluable. Thank you! B

  2. Craig Johnson

    I broke some vertebrae and had a incomplete spinal cord cut. I can’t get my back to arch for a start because it get very stiff. What are some relaxation stretches for the back. My physical therapist has me doing some but not good enough.

    • Gary Hall Sr.

      What is meant by a burst exhale is keeping the air in the lung as long as possible (neutral buoyancy) and then just before surfacing, exhale with force (valsalva maneuver) to force the air out of the lung quickly. The first breath taken out of the breakout is shorter and not so deep, enabling the swimmer to jump into a high stroke rate right away.

    • Gary Hall Sr.

      I love the yoga scapula stretch. Lie on your back and try to get into the streamlined position. Use a roller or block on your lower back and extend the scapula together on the ground. These will all be helpful!

  3. Paul


    Great article. Can you expand a bit on the “burst exhale” & how it’s done?



    • garyhallsr


      The exhale is quick and taken while the head is turning, so that by the time it is rotated, the inhale can be taken quickly. Remember that these are relatively small volumes of air that are being exhaled and inhaled. Quickness of the breath is very important to maintain the stroke rate.

      • garyhallsr

        Sorry, I meant to say the exhale is taken just as the head is surfacing, so the inhale can be taken immediately.


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