How to Swim the Elementary Backstroke

Senior woman swimmer holding kickboard

The elementary backstroke allows a swimmer to move through the water while keeping his face relatively dry. It’s considered a relaxation stroke, meaning that it’s a slower stroke that doesn’t use up much energy. It’s suitable for someone who wants to move through the water without submerging his face, or for people who need to slow down after swimming vigorously. The elementary backstroke is not the same as the back crawl or plain “backstroke.” Rather, the elementary backstroke is like an upside-down version of the breaststroke.

Move into a back-floating position. Keep your face out of the water and place your arms as close to your sides as you can without sinking. Keep your legs and feet extended. Do this in the shallow end of the pool when no one is near you -- avoid collisions -- and hold onto the side of the pool if needed to steady yourself. You can also wear a flotation device to help keep you from sinking.

Turn your palms inward, so they’re facing your hips.

Bend your elbows so that your hands sweep up past your sides and toward your armpits. Move your elbows as close to your shoulders as you can while keeping the movement comfortable. Don’t force them to go higher than your shoulders. At the same time, bend your knees slightly and start to separate your feet and ankles. Your ankles and heels should start to lead your feet in a slight circle as if the heels were trying to get on top.

Extend your elbows and bring your arms to an almost straight position. Your palms should face toward your feet. At the same time, sweep both your feet down and out in a curve, again leading with your heels. Try to point your knees toward each other. Make this a gentle motion; don’t place painful stress on your legs.

Push the water with both your arms as you bring them both back down to your sides, keeping your elbows straight. Your palms should end up facing your hips again. Your feet should complete the circle they’ve been trying to make by sweeping up toward the surface of the water -- keep the legs underwater, though, and continue to lead with your ankle bone. Straighten your knees as you do this. The result should be that you’ve just propelled yourself a bit through the water.

Repeat steps 3 to 5 again as soon as you can to avoid sinking. Your body should not come to a stop, but continue moving forward with this stroke.


Practice kicking while holding onto the edge of the pool or while holding a kickboard or flotation device. To practice the arm movements, either have someone hold you by balancing you on their arms in the water, or hold onto the side of the pool and practice moving one arm at a time.

This is a slow, halting stroke. It might feel awkward at first, but once you get your arms and legs coordinated, it should feel relatively comfortable.


Ensure you have enough clearance behind you to move a few feet without hitting other people or the side of the pool. Look for landmarks or things like pool flags to help you gauge your distance. If you practice the stroke and don’t keep track of where you are, you could hit your head or injure someone else.