You’re here because you want to improve your swimming – but it’s tough, we know. It’s even tougher when things just don’t feel right. You feel like you’re forcing it, leaving you gasping for air sooner than you’d like or with shoulders and legs feeling like lead. Effortless, easy swimming is an art form and requires loads of commitment to the basics. Avoid those bad habits. Resist the temptation of following the path of least resistance (which inevitably ends in spinning, with very little catch anyway – this distance per stroke article will help correct this). Instead, focus on doing the basics right. 

To improve your swimming is a process…

You’re either new to the pool or you’ve been working on your stroke for a while now, but you feel like you have plateaued. It’s getting increasingly harder to make your way from one end of the pool to the other. Working with the clock is a nightmare, as it seems to be the competitor that never lets you win.

The 12-year-old cruising in the lane next to you doesn’t help matters at all and you resist the temptation to hold onto his foot to get you across the pool or switch watches with him to bag your 300 Vitality points – although, his heart rate is probably way lower than yours, so probably not the best idea at this point.

Don’t stress. Not all is lost. Each time you show up you’ve won. Now that I have inspired you with that cliche, let’s get to work on your swimming and see if we can generate some easy speed with a renewed focus on shoulder rotation in backstroke and freestyle. I’ll throw in some drills that can help break down your stroke so you can focus on the fundamentals while stabilising your core. Let’s dive in:

Get your whole body involved by rotating and undulating

The four swimming strokes can be grouped into two broad categories: long- and short-axis strokes. Backstroke and freestyle are long axis strokes, while butterfly and breaststroke are short axis strokes. An important aspect of timing in long-axis strokes is shoulder rotation, while the undulation of the head and hips is key in the short axis strokes.

All about shoulder rotation in backstroke and freestyle

Get those shoulders rotating in backstroke and freestyle – think of a metronome (TICK-TOCK) in a steady rhythm and not a Hawaiian, belly dancer

Like a tennis player working his forehand or a golfer driving through her swing, shoulder rotation is a critical part of transferring power from your core into your limbs. Shoulder rotation in backstroke and freestyle does exactly this. Not only does it increase the amount of water you can catch, but it also gets the bigger muscles on board to execute a stronger pull.

Think about rolling your shoulders around a fixed vertical axis, which is your head, neck and spine. Your head remains in a fixed position:

  • In freestyle, considering the floor is 6 o’clock and the sky is 12 o’clock, your head should look towards 8 o’clock. Your head remains fixed even when you breathe to the side during which your head rolls to the side with your rotating shoulder, rather than you actively turning your neck to breathe.
  • In backstroke, fix your head looking at 10 o’clock, and roll your shoulders around your neck. Your head should never move. Even during the turn, your head should roll with your shoulder as you turn onto your stomach.

This is a tricky thing to get right, but so important when it comes to proper body position in backstroke and freestyle. Before trying to do it straight away in the full stroke, let’s isolate the shoulder rotation using drills. Grab a pair of Spurt’s high-quality fins to help maintain a good, streamlined body position at the water’s surface. Don’t forget your goggles and cap.

Drill 1: Arms down backstroke and freestyle kicking driving shoulder rotation

This drill is technically very difficult and should be built up slowly – in other words, quality over quantity. One 25m length done at 80% proficiency is way better than four 25m done at 50% proficiency. So don’t load your workout with this drill, rather use it as bridge between your warm-up and main set.

With a beautifully balanced body position at the surface of the water on your back or front, maintained with a consistent six-beat kick working the water, deliberately rotate your shoulders. Each stroke should involve your shoulders breaking the surface of the water, while your head, neck and spine remain totally still.

Even when breathing in freestyle, your head should roll to the side with your shoulder rather than you actively turning your head. Depending on your preference between bilateral and unilateral breathing, focus on breathing every three or four strokes

To maintain a good rhythm (TICK-TOCK), count ONE-TWO-ONE-TWO – counting each time a shoulder breaks the surface. This will feel weird initially, but you’ll slowly get the hang of it and your swimming will drastically improve.

Drill 2: Single-arm back and free with your stationary arm at your side

Single-arm backstroke and freestyle drills are old favourites. Remember to alternate arms by length and maintain a solid body position at the surface using your kick. Spurt’s high-quality fins will help ease the burden on your legs with this.

Single-arm backstroke

Backstroke is as you’ve always remembered it, with one arm down and the other arm moving. Concentrate on the following:

  1. Exit with your thumb first
  2. Drive the stroke with your shoulder breaking the surface
  3. Reach for the sky without your arm crossing your vertical axis (head, neck and spine)
  4. Swivel from thumb up to pinky down
  5. Brush your ear with your shoulder
  6. Maintain a stationary head positioned at 10 o’clock
  7. Enter with your pinky as if you’re pointing to the corner of a doorway
  8. Catch the water nice and strong, with a high elbow
  9. Swish the pull to end strongly at your hip, while holding lots of water
  10. Fix your arm at your side
  11. Drive your shoulder without your arm moving

I know, I know, lots to think about here. The main thing is that your head is stable and you are driving the stroke from your shoulders. Remember that your shoulders should break the surface with each stroke.

Note: never try single-arm backstroke with the stationary arm above your head rather than at your side as this makes it impossible to rotate your shoulders.

Single-arm freestyle (with your stationary arm down)

This is such a nice drill, but not many swimmers know about it. Sure, we’ve all done the single-arm freestyle drill where our stationary arm is stretched out ahead of us, which is great for soft entry and smooth stretch before the catch practice.

Remember, we’re focusing on shoulder rotation now, and a stretched out arm limits your ability to drive from your shoulders. So, let’s switch it up by dropping the stationary arm to our side – this will feel really weird at first, but you’ll see how much easier it is to rotate your shoulder, transferring power from your core into your arms.

When doing this drill, really concentrate on driving yourself forward using your shoulder rotation – even your stationary arm’s shoulder should be rotating. Your head remains stationary looking at 8 o’clock.  Try not to breathe every stroke, rather breathe every two to three strokes (depending on your lung capacity). And really importantly, remember to breathe under your moving arm. Again, just so I’m sure you know: remember to breathe under your moving arm.

I reckon that’s more than enough to go with for now and you’re well on your way to improve your swimming…

Good body position, especially shoulder (and slight hip rotation) in backstroke and freestyle will work to drastically improve your swimming in these strokes. Guaranteed. But only if you commit to perfect practice.

Remember, I can only guide you. The execution is up to you.