The Simplest and Most Advanced Backstroke Drill Ever

by SwimSwam 4

August 14th, 2015 Club, Training

Courtesy of Bridger Bell

Demonstrated by Johnna Hock, graduate of St. Paul’s School for Girls and entering freshman to Gettysburg College Women’s Swimming.

WARNING: DO NOT ATTEMPT THIS AT HOME, unless you have a backyard competition pool.


Step right up, ladies and gentlemen! It’s simple! It’s challenging! No…it’s extremely challenging! You may start off drowning, but if you master it, you’ll be on your way to becoming a great backstroker!


Aaron Peirsol -  - BinningThis drill was inspired by Aaron Peirsol, who has always been a positive presence in the Austin swimming community where I grew up. He’d come train with us at Circle C Swimming in the summers and raced in the annual charity fundraiser of a downhill swimming race, the Capital 2k ( He’s also arguably the greatest backstroker of all time.

Aaron did something subtle, nuanced, enigmatic and spectacular in his backstroke pull: a deep, radial finish-scull that passed through a fingertips-to-the-bottom-of-the-pool hand position. This kind of idiosyncratic finesse-move only appears in the stroke of a true swimming genius: someone who has mastered every minute detail of the textbook elite stroke and then innovates beyond that to show the world something it’s never seen, and in so doing, shatters world records.


Now, just because a world record holder does it, that doesn’t mean we should all do it. But Aaron’s finish-scull has an irresistible allure. Once you see it, you might be hard pressed to resist exploring it. I couldn’t resist. I had to determine whether this finish-scull – first pointed out to me by Coach Doak Finch at Mark Bernardino’s Swim Camps – really helped Aaron’s speed, or, more importantly, could help others’ backstroke speed.

Aaron’s finish-scull happens in less than the blink of an eye, so careful video analysis was not possible: I didn’t have slow-motion, high frame-rate video captures of it. So, instead, I turned to playing around in the water until I felt I could wrap my head around it.

I played with some seated sculling, back-first across the pool, where I passed through that fingers-to-the-bottom-of-the-pool hand position during the scull and then tapped the tops of my thighs after following through the finish. This began to give me a sense of it. I then went into the diving well and tried some double-arm backstroke vertical swimming up from the very bottom of the pool to the surface. This helped me better feel how the finish scull fit into the full pull and how it could give a little extra umph to the finish of the pull, a little extra surge toward the surface above me. This double-arm vertical backstroke up from the bottom of the diving well also gave me a feel for the in-out, back-forth, wide-narrow oscillations of the hands relative to the body through the backstroke pull pattern that are normally hidden from notice by the rotation of the body during backstroke swimming. I don’t feel these oscillations with double-arm horizontal backstroke across the surface UNLESS I dip my head back deep underwater watching my hands enter above my head.

Thinking about these oscillations of hand placement relative to the torso and the contrast between how they happen organically and unnoticed when swimming but are so glaring when flat for double-arm led me to try something that would exaggerate my rotation and isolate my pull: single-arm backstroke with legs crossed. BOOM! That did it. In order not to drown, in order for my legs not to sink, I had to adapt my pull to effect: (1) forward propulsion across the pool, (2) good body position and (3) cutting a straight path through the water. Without any deliberate adjustment, but with only those three goals in mind, I found a pull that effected those outcomes. That pull happened to feature Peirsol’s finish-scull.


So there it is: one-arm backstroke with legs crossed (if pulling with right arm, cross right foot over/on top of/in front of left).




Most swimmers who I’ve seen try this for the first time sink. But! once they are swimming single-arm backstroke, legs crossed without sinking, with good body position, forward propulsion and a straight path, their pull patterns are transformed into paragons of efficiency, which sometimes also feature Aaron Peirsol’s finish-scull.


It’s the simplest – and most advanced – backstroke drill ever.

Simple to explain: one-arm backstroke with legs crossed. Whichever arm is pulling, cross that same foot over in front of the other.

Extremely challenging to execute at all and requiring advanced skill to execute well.



I would recommend saving this drill for more advanced swimmers (senior group) and preternaturally skilled, kinesthetically precocious age groupers.




Bridger Bell is the Head Coach of Donner Swim Club and Columbus North High School in Columbus, Indiana. He was previously an assistant at Johns Hopkins University while head-coaching the St. Paul’s Schools in Brooklandville, Maryland. Prior to that, he coached with Pete Higgins at The Westminster Schools in Atlanta when the boys and girls teams each won Georgia High School State Championships. Bell served for six years as the National Director of Collegiate Club Swimming for the American Swimming Association while also representing collegiate club swimming to the CSCAA. A competitive swimmer all his life, Bell was a USMS National Champion and All-American in the 2-mile cable swim. He was featured as a coach in the July ’14, August ’14 and June ’15 issues of Swimming World Magazine and has written articles for SwimSwam, Swimming World Magazine and Swimming Science.

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5 years ago

So, this is your interpretation of what happens on the end of the propulsive phase in Aaron Peirsol’s backstroke that you assume is a good thing? Do other backstrokers do this as well? Is this possibly just an end result of the entire pull pattern and is set up from the beginning and merely a result of him rotating into his recovery? I ask because I feel like by saying finish scull it’s a real active part of the stroke versus a result of his pull and the natural movement he goes through as he exits. i know you spoke of this not being deliberate, but do you at all worry about the unintended concession we of putting extra emphasis… Read more »

Reply to  coacherik
5 years ago

unintended consequences of putting…

Sorry for any weird typos, autocorrect…

5 years ago

Here it is in slow motion from the man himself:

Bridger Bell
Reply to  swimdoc
5 years ago

great views of it! thanks!