Backstroke Made Easy

By Bob McAdams

As an acknowledged novice in butterfly, I’d thought nothing of devoting an entire month to fundamentals. But I zipped through the backstroke drills because I already "knew" backstroke. I wondered what would happen if I did them as if I were trying to learn backstroke from scratch. And, as I did, I discovered that my prior "knowledge" actually made backstroke harder to improve because of faulty muscle memory.

If you'd asked me two years ago what my worst stroke was, I would, without hesitation, have replied "Backstroke." I was fastest in freestyle, with butterfly a close second, but my backstroke was no faster than my breaststroke (not that my breaststroke set a lofty standard). In fact, when I was working on starts during the summer of 2001, I didn't even bother with backstroke starts because I didn't see any possibility of swimming it in competition.

I found this puzzling because backstroke was one of the two strokes I’d been doing longest. I learned freestyle at the Y at age
7 and backstroke two years later, but only began doing butterfly and breaststroke in the last five years, with only the TI
Butterfly and Breaststroke
video for guidance.

Of course, the backstroke training I
received as a kid wasn’t remotely like TI. The Y instructors just told us to float on
our backs, kick, and move our arms alternately. No mention of head position, balance, stream-lining, or body roll. So I spent years “practicing struggle” on my back.

When I attended a TI freestyle workshop in February 1999, Terry showed several of us a drill that he said would help our backstroke. I experienced no epiphanies when I tried it, so I decided I'd wait for the TI Freestyle and Backstroke video, which was coming soon. When the video arrived, I eagerly began doing the backstroke drills, hoping for dramatic improvements in my times. But my improvements were just incremental. Later that year, the Butterfly and Breaststroke video (now combined with the Freestyle and Backstroke video in the Four Strokes Made Easy DVD) arrived, and I largely ignored backstroke while learning these new strokes.

It was a bit of a shock when, early in 2001, I realized that my butterfly was nearly as fast as my freestyle, and a lot faster than my backstroke. I wondered how this could be, since I was a butterfly novice with only the TI video to guide me. Because the TI Butterfly and Breaststroke video had been so helpful, I wondered why the Freestyle and Backstroke video hadn't done much for my backstroke, where I felt I had much less to learn.

And then it occurred to me – perhaps that was the difference. I’d been trying to learn butterfly, but had only been trying to improve my backstroke. As an acknowledged novice in butterfly, I’d thought nothing of devoting an entire month to body dolphins and similar fundamentals. But I zipped through the backstroke drills rapidly because I already "knew" backstroke. I wondered what would happen if I did the backstroke drills as if I were trying to learn it from scratch. And, as I did, I discovered that my prior "knowledge" actually made backstroke harder to improve upon because of faulty muscle memory.

Muscles Have Memories?
Ponder, for a moment, some of your familiar daily routines, like using a fork to move food to your mouth. If you consider the coordination required for multiple muscle groups to work together, it's pretty staggering! If you attempted to consciously control all of these movements with each mouthful, you’d be overwhelmed. It would be like the president of a Fortune 500 corporation trying to issue detailed individual instructions for each of several thousand underlings.

Instead, large companies employ a hierarchy of managers. The CEO gives broad direction – “increase widget production by 10 percent” – to several vice presidents, who pass appropriate instructions to department heads, and so on down with each level providing ever more specific direction to a manageable group of subordinates.

Your nervous system works similarly. Whenever your brain recognizes you doing an oft-repeated set of motor functions, it encodes them into a neural subroutine called a muscle memory. Muscle memories allow your conscious mind to operate like a CEO, giving a general instruction like "stab that carrot" without having to think about all of the individual movements of arm, wrist, hand, and fingers. Muscle memories allow us to conduct routine activities without conscious thought, freeing brain cells for things like dinner conversation.

The downside to such encoding is that an oft-repeated flawed routine becomes resistant to change – precisely because it no longer occurs at the conscious level. Suppose our CEO gave an order to increase widget production by 10%, but the manufacturing process was so flawed that production went up by only 2%. It’s unlikely he’d have personal knowledge of where the breakdown occurred, since production details were familiar only to subordinates. That's more or less what happens when we try to correct faulty muscle memories.

Why “Muscle Amnesia” can be a Virtue

In teaching hundreds of workshops, Terry and the other TI coaches discovered that their toughest challenge was not in identifying their students’ stroke errors, but helping them to break habits developed through years, sometimes decades, of flawed practice. Years ago, Terry intuited that drills could break down this resistance because they’re sufficiently different from regular swimming that our minds don’t interpret them as a memorized routine. In effect, drills produce “muscle amnesia” allowing us to replace flawed patterns with better ones.

As I worked through the TI backstroke drills with this recognition, all went smoothly until I reached the advanced drills that more closely resembled whole-stroke swimming. The "Slide & Glide" (S&G) drill, for instance, is essentially a slow-motion backstroke in which you balance in a sleekly
balanced position for a number of “yoga breaths” on one side, then stroke/recover and try to rotate directly to sleek balance on the other side; remove that pause and you’re swimming backstroke. When I paused for three breaths between strokes, I could maintain effective strokes and good bodylines, but when I cut the pause to two breaths, my stroke length dropped so much that, though I was stroking faster, I was traveling slower!

The problem was that the 2-breath pause brought me close enough to whole-stroke that my brain reactivated deep-seated bad habits. I tried repeatedly to transition from a three-count delay to a two-count delay, but lost control each time. So I accepted that, for the moment, I could swim efficient backstroke only by pausing for three breaths between strokes. It was slow, but no matter; my backstroke wasn’t race-ready in any case.

After several months of practicing
exclusively "3-count S&G" I noticed that my stroke length was starting to get consistently long, so I decided to once again try it with a 2-breath pause. This time, I gained speed! But when I tried it with a 1-breath pause, I lost efficiency again. So I stayed with a two-count delay, happy to be a little faster than before.

Three months later, I noticed that my stroke length was increasing again. But rather than reducing the pause, I did a fistglove practice published in Total Swim, followed by a test set of 50-yard backstroke repeats in my next practice. During that test set, I set a new personal record for 50 backstroke! A week later, I repeated the same sequence – fistglove practice at one session, backstroke test set the next. My 50-yard backstroke time improved a second from the previous week. Two weeks later, I tried it again. This time, I was stunned to improve by another two seconds!

The Drill Sequence
So what was this transforming practice? Before I describe it, let me reiterate that three months of patient consolidation of simple movements preceded it. Other swimmers may find that consolidation happens more quickly – your personal learning curve can be influenced both by how long you’ve been practicing it and how adaptable your nervous system is. The test for proceeding to the next step is that an increase in stroke rate produces more speed with no more effort. My standard practice was five repeats of 100 yards (25 drill, 25 backstroke, 25 drill, and 25 backstroke) all with fistgloves. The drills –illustrated on the Four Strokes Made Easy DVD – are as follows:

Drill for 1st 100:
Active balance Rhythmically rotate from your head-lead sweet spot on one side to your head-lead sweet spot on the other side. Your rhythm should never exceed your ability to maintain a feeling of stability and control.

Drill for 2nd 100:
3-count S&G Maintain sleek balance on one side for three breaths, then stroke to your sleek balance on the other side, pause for three breaths, and so on. Your focus should not be on "swimming backstroke," but on hitting your best balance as soon as you rotate.

Drill for 3rd 100:
2-count S&G Same as above, with two breaths between each stroke.

Drill for 4th 100:
1-arm backstroke Do backstroke, but stroke with one arm, while the other remains at your side. Stroke with your left arm on the first 25, and with your right on the third 25. Concentrate on a stable head position, and rotating until the shoulder on your stroking arm clears the water.

Drill for 5th 100:
Alternating 1-arm backstroke As above, but alternate two rotations with your left arm, then two with your right arm, and so on.

After you completing the five 100s, do the following:
3x50 backstroke (still wearing fistgloves)
3x50 backstroke (without fistgloves)

Minimize delay between the gloved and ungloved sets. The benefit of fistgloves is the flood of sensory input your brain gets from your “naked hands” immediately after removing them. What formerly felt ordinary now feels remarkable – as if you’d exchanged your hands for those of Aaron Peirsol or Natalie Coughlin. You may not realize the stunning increases in speed that I did, but I promise your awareness of small inefficiencies will be strikingly heightened.


Bob McAdams worked for a major software firm for more than five years before founding his own company, Fambright, which markets products and services related to science, health, and technology, in 1991. In the fall of 1996, after years as a fitness swimmer, Bob became interested in competitive swimming, and began actively training toward this end, initially using the traditional paradigm of "stroke a little faster, push a little harder." Then he became acquainted with Total Immersion and attended a TI freestyle workshop in February of 1999. Excited by his success Bob began avid participation in the TI Discussion Board, and underwent formal training as a TI coach in 2002. Bob has since served as a TI Kid's Camp coach, a TI freestyle workshop coach, and offers private TI coaching in all four strokes to swimmers of all ages. Bob continues to compete as a Masters swimmer, and continues to see improvements in his backstroke times. Bob can be reached at

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