Why the One Arm Backstroke Drill Matters

Courtesy of Gary Hall Sr., 10-time World Record Holder, 3-time Olympian, 1976 Olympic Games US Flagbearer and The Race Club co-founder.

Two of the most important ways of getting a faster backstroke is by reducing frontal drag and by increasing propulsive power. The one arm backstroke drill accomplishes both tasks. Rarely do I ever find a drill that can teach a swimmer more than one fundamental at a time, but this drill does just that.


The propulsive power of the underwater pull is increased by the coupling motion of the rotating body and the mechanical strength of the shoulder in the rotated position (avoiding a negative angle). Frontal drag is reduced in backstroke by bending the elbow, rather than pulling with a straighter arm.

In my experience, swimmers like to take the easy route, rather than the harder path, even if the latter leads to a faster swim. Rotating the body quickly from one side to the other and sustaining that motion over and over again, either in the backstroke or freestyle, requires a lot of core strength and fitness. Instead, swimmers often opt for little rotation in backstroke, a much easier choice. In doing so, if they bend their arms properly in order to reduce frontal drag, they will likely encounter a big gulp of air with the hand midway through the pulling motion. The hand leaving the water in the propulsive part of the pull leads to a big loss of power.

To fix the problem, the swimmer’s solution is to pull with a straight arm, hoping to avoid the hand breaking the surface. That compounds the problem. Less power from little body rotation and more drag from the straight pulling arm are the result. It’s a bad combination.


The one arm backstroke drill, as in the freestyle drill, enables the swimmer to really think about what is going on with the body and the pulling arm. By having the swimmer keep the non-pulling arm at the side, by emphasizing the body rotation, having the swimmer bring the upper shoulder to meet the chin, and by having the swimmer bend the elbow to 120-140 degrees under water, a coach can kill two birds with one stone. Create more propulsive power and reduce frontal drag. When a swimmer comes to train with us, we combine this drill with many others, depending on the swimmer, to allow them to reach their potential speed. Now, all the swimmer needs is lots of core dryland exercises to get the core ready to keep those motions going throughout the backstroke race. Oh yes, and lots of good backstroke training.

Yours in swimming,

Gary Sr.

Gary Hall, Sr., Technical Director and Head Coach of The Race Club (courtesy of TRC)

Gary Hall, Sr., Technical Director and Head Coach of The Race Club (courtesy of TRC)

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Timing question
5 years ago

Is Junya’s rotation timing off? Would it not be better to pull with the rotation, rather than pull then rotate right afterward?

Reply to  Timing question
5 years ago

Good observation! While swimming, we want the maximum kinetic energy of the body rotation to occur at the same time as the maximum arm propulsion. In this drill, Junya rotates after that because he is emphasizing the extreme rotation. When swimming, he would not rotate back to the other side so late, as the other arm is recovering and getting ready for entry, forcing him to get back sooner to that side. One can get coupling energy at any point after the propulsive force occurs, so long as the body is still moving forward (consider the long jumper in track)…but the ideal is to match the two motions at the same time.

5 years ago

Could you please explain how this reduces drag to me? I know that a bent elbow will increase pulling power on your back, that much makes sense. But how does simply changing your arm’s orientation change the drag forces being applied? Isn’t it still the same amount of surface area being pushed in the same direction as you move through the water whether your arm is bent or straight? Your arm isn’t gaining or losing surface area as it gets bent is it?

Reply to  Swimmer1
5 years ago

Yes, actually the key to reducing frontal drag with the pulling arm is the orientation of the upper arm, responsible for most of the frontal drag. By keeping the elbow pointed toward the end of the pool after the hand entry, bending the elbow, the upper arm will not protrude out from the line of motion as much. Then, when it does protrude out later in the pulling cycle, its net forward velocity is reduced when compared to a straight arm pulling motion. Hope that helps your understanding.
One can also reduce frontal drag by altering the shape of an object with the exact same surface area. For example, a pole bent at 90 degrees in the middle will… Read more »

About Gold Medal Mel Stewart

Gold Medal Mel Stewart

MEL STEWART Jr., aka Gold Medal Mel, won three Olympic medals at the 1992 Olympic Games. Mel's best event was the 200 butterfly. He is a former World, American, and NCAA Record holder in the 200 butterfly. As a writer/producer and sports columnist, Mel has contributed to Yahoo Sports, Universal Sports, …

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