For a swimmer, stroking on the back should be easy because, with the face above water, there is no issue with breathing.
Elementary Backstroke is a good one with which to start. Not only is it relaxing, but the arms and legs stroke together and recover together. Thus, it illustrates best those two phases common to every stroke.
From a glide position with head back and hands along the thighs, recover the hands-arms and feet-legs together to anchor them against non-moving water. Then create a surge that propels the body. Easy and comfortable.
Inverted Breaststroke combines the same kick with underwater arm recovery past the shoulders to an extended glide.
Another backstroke uses either this whip kick action or a flutter kick with both arms recovering out of the water and stroking together. Some Masters swimmers prefer this double-arm action to the more frequently used alternating arms of competitive backstrokers.
That backstroke (Back Crawl) uses glide positions on either side, one arm up with the other hand at the thigh, thus swimming not so much on the back as through the back.
Being on the side reduces resistance and keeps the hand and bent-elbow arm closer to the body’s midline, while catching water and “throwing” it toward the feet for propulsion. It’s the stroke you see in televised swim competition.
However, backstroke rules don’t specify anything more than that the stroke be swum on the back. Elementary back, inverted breast, and double-arm back are slower, but legal in competition.
Drills, designed to focus on just one aspect of a stroke, can improve a swimmer’s backstroke. The kicks and the arm strokes can be swum separately. They can also be combined in several ways. One-arm stroking while flutter kicking can be done with the non-stroking arm either up or down.
Another drill alternates two or three single-arm strokes on each side. Michael Phelps’s favorite starts with both arms at the sides, using just one arm at a time from recovery through stroke, then the other.
Some people never swim because they are afraid to put their face in the water. Others stick to crawl or breaststroke, regardless of whatever struggles these might cause. All of them would do well to consider swimming on their back.
Dr. Bob Colyer of Bluffton is an actively retired college professor, coach and author of “Swim Better: A Guide to Greater Efficiency for Swimmers & Instructors,” directed primarily to non-competitors. firstname.lastname@example.org