Swimmer and Coach

Backstroke: Rocking or Rolling?

Image Courtesy of Peter Bick

Ever since the Japanese backstroker Ryosuke Irie broke the world record in the 200 backstroke, there has been talk about whether we should be teaching his style of backstroke. Though his record of 1:52.86 was subsequently rejected by FINA, there is no doubt that he is one of the world’s top backstrokers, especially in the 200 distance. His stroke, which I call the “rocking” stroke because thats what it feels like to me, is characterized by a shallow, wide catch and pull and limited vertical movement of the shoulders.

On the other side, we have the other two men who have held the 200m record in the past 9 years; Aaron Peirsol and Ryan Lochte. They show a “rolling” style backstroke that is closer to the way most of us have been taught. It is characterized by a deeper catch and a downsweep at the end of each pull. This is also the style of backstroke that is taught by telling swimmers to initiate the arm recovery with a shoulder roll.

I have tried and trained both strategies and though I have my personal preferences, I will try to leave those out and discuss the main points of each strategy. As with many of the small technique tweaks in swimming, it is best to stay informed and try some of these out, but the style you settle on is of course dependent on your personal preferences and what works best for you.

Rocking Backstroke

One of the goals of the rocking backstroke is a dry armpit, as demonstrated by Irie in the following video:

Notice how in the preceding video, Irie’s armpit remains above water from the finish of the arm’s pull until he enters the water with his hand at the top of the stroke. This is achieved through a very strong kick and by exerting a powerful pressure downward through the shoulderblades.

Another feature to this stroke that allows Irie and fellow rocker backstroker, Nick Thoman to achieve such speed is the shallow catch demonstrated by Irie below. Note the angle of his elbow bend during the pull phase. It is a bit difficult to see from the angle in the video, but it should be between 135º and 150º.

The shallow catch limits vertical slide in the backstroke pull, and is a direct response to the late 90s movement to remove the s-curve or scull in the freestyle pull. The idea is that since its been proven in freestyle that a straight back pull is more powerful than an s-curve, the same should be true in backstroke. Another way to think of this is that you should set the catch, grabbing a column of water the height and width of your hand, and push that column straight back. Any movement away from that column, and you are no longer exerting the maximum force on your volume of water.

For more on the shallow catch, see David Marsh discussing and Thoman demonstrating in this video, originally on USA Swimming’s website.

Rolling Backstroke

A Rolling, or traditional style backstroke is characterized by the use of a rolling motion to slip through the water, rather than the rocker solution of surfing on top of it. Body position is used to set up a pull that allows the swimmer to use their biggest muscles in the most effective way possible.

As you watch the video below, notice how Lochte bends his elbow at close to a 90º angle during the power phase of his pull, resulting in a deeper pull that is closer to his body.

Another big difference in this stroke is during the finish of each pull. Lochte and Peirsol both execute a strong downsweep at

Piersol, it seems, had figured out a different way to stay in the same column of water without sacrificing his roll. He sets his catch at the beginning of his stroke, then moves his body around his hand as he pulls back on the water.

Irie does it too:

My Observations

I have spent a lot of time experimenting with the rocking stroke, and I have found a few things:

It allows me to speed up my turnover. Through my career, I have always struggled to find ways to speed up my very slow backstroke turnover, and the rocker stroke allows me to execute a smaller body movement, and gain more arm speed.

It tires me out pretty quickly. A wide catch does not allow me to use the maximum amount of mechanical advantage in my arms. I have noticed that adherents to the rocker stroke tend to be those with a bit less upper body muscle mass. It is possible that those who are a bit larger tire more quickly (maybe due to the increased turnover?).

I don’t have a strong enough kick to stay flat. The rocker stroke is much flatter, and when I stay flat, my shoulders just drag in the water instead of riding on top. Picture a motorboat: once it gets enough power to the motor, the front lifts up and it hydroplanes. The ideal rocker backstroke would be similar.

While experimenting with this stroke, I did manage to ride it to an unrested best time in the 100m back, but I could not hold the stroke long enough to match my time in the 200 back, and it did not help me in my IMs.

At this point, I am still incorporating elements of this stroke, namely the removal or at least the toning down of the downsweep at the end of the pull. However, I am still keeping my shoulder roll as it is, as I believe this will be a more “relaxed” or comfortable stroke that will allow me to finish my IMs just that little bit stronger.

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One response

  1. Notice he’s wearing the now banned suit which helps buoy him in the water allowing him to stroke more like a kayak. When the body sinks in the water more, a roll serves the purpose of keeping the swimmer in top of the water as well as propelling him horizontally. Anyways I think it’s based on the body composition of the swimmer and their individual buoyancy

    October 13, 2011 at 8:35 pm

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