Backstroke Breakthrough: How to Prevent the “Dead Arm”

Congratulations!  You’ve taken up an interest in learning to swim a better backstroke. At first glance, it might seem a lot easier to swim on your back and breathe whenever you feel like it.

However, one of the most challenge technique points to master in backstroke is directing your arms through the full stroke cycle.

When you watch a good backstroke arm recovery, the arm is straight and relaxed as it moves in an arc.  It also rotates at the shoulder from a thumb led swing or lift to a pinky lead hand entry.

Now that your arm is straight on the entry, it can be very counter intuitive to now bend the arm properly for a catch and then maintain that awareness during the pull while an arm entry is happening on the other side of your body.

What happens for most people is that the arm stays straight after entry and stays completely straight during the catch phase. In this case, the arm is contributing nothing to the stroke and it’s adding more drag as you move through the water.

It’s a dead arm.

Not only is this a major stroke flaw but it also can put lots of torque on the shoulder as you try to swim faster.

If you’re also swimming too flat with a straight arm catch, you will move your arm wide of your body and quite often you’ll risk scratching your lane mates or even getting you fingers jammed in the lane rope.

The other dead arm scenario – yes, let’s call it that, sounds like an international caper – comes when you intuitively sense that this habit is bad for your shoulder. So then you protect your shoulder joint by letting the catch collapse with the elbow bending well past 90 degrees. The hand just slides on past, literally slipping through the water.

There are two ways to fix this issue:

Wall Scraping Drill:

Stand about a foot in front of the wall. Rotate your hips and shoulders until you can put your elbow against the wall. Bend your elbow so that your forearm also is in contact with it. Now move your arm up and down to explore the range of motion there.

These are the arm positions you’re trying to replicate and exaggerate a bit:

And as your forearm slides down the wall:

To simulate a full catch and pull: Start in that rotated position, pinky and forearm against the wall and then scrape gently all the way down to waist level. Once you get there, rotate your hips and shoulders to the other side.

While this is an exaggerated degree of rotate and catch, it tends to work really well for correcting a flat body position and a straight arm catch.

When we catch and pull correctly, we’re looking to form a rough “W” shape with the arm, not this extreme degree of rotation and bent elbow.

But for many, this is a great drill to realize how to correct the “dead arm” problem.


Single Arm Catch, Pull and Roll

Now go to the water and perform the exact same movement. Stick with one arm the whole way down the lane.

Perform the catch slowly and even take a look at you arm position as you start to move it. A nose plug or mask can be useful here if you get a nose full of water.

Start in the backstroke streamline and then begin to bend your elbow, your fingers should be aimed at the wall, not up to the ceiling:

Do this smoothly and in control. You can always turn your head down into the water to see the position of your catching arm.

Then start pulling as you begin to roll your body:

You should feel the same wall scraping drill feeling as you perform this drill.

And finish with your arm by your side and body rolled onto the other side. Lift your arm in the regular recovery and start back in full backstroke streamline.


Putting it all together

Okay, so you’ve spent some time retraining your catch & pull for the backstroke, but when you swim full stroke the straight arm muscle memory obliterates your new technique.

Throw on some fins and slow it down. As you lift the recovering arm off your hip, catch “down” under your shoulder. Then as your recovering arm begins to turn for a pinky first entry and you initiate the body roll, that’s the time to catch with that the bent arm.

Do as many lengths as it takes to get a feel for hooking your arm into solid water pressure without slipping or binding up your shoulder.

Try switches in this manner and then also work on rhythmic strokes. Both will help you fill in the blanks and develop this technique.

Once you have a good catch and pull for backstroke, you’ll swim with less effort, better speed and your lane mates will stop wearing chainmail!

Happy Laps!

One Response to “Backstroke Breakthrough: How to Prevent the “Dead Arm””

  1. susan huber October 12, 2017 at 10:10 am #

    wall scraping worked for me because I would say “I am doing the catch”…lol…..I stay very close to the wall and drag the fingers against it and yes, fins are great for learning new skills and slowing down and doing them perfectly. Many ask if fins are fine…I say…yes they are…for skills, not for racing….as they do affect balance a bit.

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