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Many swimmers think that if you recover with a straight arm, you should also pull with a straight arm. This can get you into a lot of trouble.

Common Error
Here’s something that I see quite a lot when I watch age-group swimmers or people who are just learning the backstroke. They send the arm in nice and straight…but then they keep it straight and send the hand way down below the body. They almost make a circle in the water with their pull.

This kind of a big pull may feel powerful, but it can actually slow you down. See how the swimmer is almost bobbing up and down with each armstroke? How she’s not rotating? How he’s not rotating? This adds distance and time to every length. It’s as if she were trying too hard to pull herself through the water. It’s as if he were trying too hard to pull himself through the water.

In backstroke, you want to recover with a straight arm, and pull with a bent arm. It’s all about physics. A straight arm is the quickest way to recover your arm from the exit point to the entry point. A bent arm allows you all kinds of opportunities to hold on to the water and maximize the power of your pull.

I do a lot of different things with my hand and elbow during the pull, and I do them really fast -- as you can see in this side view -- so let’s slow this way down.

Let’s start at the top. I enter pinky first. I drive my hand deep into the water for the catch. And now I’m holding on to the water, ready to start the pull.

The hand stays anchored – don’t let it slip – and my elbow bends and rotates toward the bottom of the pool.

This is important, so let’s watch another cycle. It may look like I’m collapsing my elbow, but what I’m really doing is anchoring my hand and moving my elbow and my body past the hand.

You can see what I mean if you look at my hand in relation to the mark on the side of the pool. My hand enters, anchors, and seems to stay in one spot…but my body ends up past that spot.

OK, let’s keep going. Once my hips reach the point where my hand is anchored, I actually straighten my arm and send my hand deep into the water. It’s a quick, whip-like action that drives the hand DOWN, then sends it UP again to exit the water.

Common Error
Here’s something that I see a lot with young swimmers, and even with more experienced swimmers. They let their hand get caught at the hip. They pause at the hip and lose all their acceleration and rhythm.

You want to move the hand right past the hip and straight into the recovery. A quick downward thrust at the end of your pull can help you do this. The downward motion turns into incredible acceleration when your hand comes back UP. It can feel like you’re ripping your hand out of the water.

Here’s a side view at full speed. The downward and upward movement happens so fast that you can barely see it.

Here it is again in slow motion. The arm is bent until it’s just opposite the hip. Then the hand shoots down and up again, with the thumb exiting first.

This down and up sweep of the hand is more of an advanced skill, but you can learn it by doing a lot of single-arm drills and sculling.