Butterfly is one of the most difficult strokes to master. Swimming it correctly requires extra energy and advanced technique knowledge.
If you’re new to butterfly, it might feel impossible! But trust us, it’s not. We’re breaking down the basics of butterfly and sharing our favorite drills to help you perfect your technique and swim faster!
Veteran swimmers: you should stick around too! Everyone can improve some aspect of their stroke technique. Even the best swimmers in the world like Caeleb Dressel and Sarah Sjostrom continue to drop time and take seconds off the world records by refining their stroke mechanics.
The History of Butterfly
Butterfly is a relatively new stroke. It was first introduced as a variation of breaststroke in the 1920’s-30’s. According to the International Swimming Hall of Fame, Australian swimmer Sydney Cavill was the first to swim butterfly, and American coach David Armbruster is credited with adding the dolphin kick to the stroke.
FINA didn’t officially recognize butterfly as a stroke until 1952, and it wasn’t added to the Olympics until 1956!
What Makes Butterfly Different?
Why is butterfly so hard? There are 3 key reasons:
- Short Axis Stroke: Fly is a short axis stroke, like breaststroke. Rather than rotating along an axis like you do in freestyle and backstroke, you bob up and down in butterfly, which requires different stroke mechanics.
- Requires Total Body Coordination: A huge key to good butterfly is your stroke rhythm and coordination. New swimmers don’t typically learn butterfly until they are much more experienced and have better body awareness in the water. In freestyle, you can get away with minimal kicking and still swim pretty fast. You can’t do that with fly!
- Need Baseline Strength: Butterfly works every muscle in the body, and requires a base level of strength to perform it properly. You don’t need to be super strong, but proper mechanics will help you leverage the strength you do have to move through the water faster.
Elements of Perfect Butterfly
Ready to improve your butterfly? Let’s break the stroke down into 5 key components:
1. Body Position
Proper body position is essential for all 4 strokes. When assessing your body position, look at your head position and hip position in the water. Your head should be neutral and looking straight down, and your hips should be high, near the surface of the water.
A common mistake in butterfly is focusing on the undulating, up and down motion rather than forward momentum. When you keep your body position in line, you’ll actually move more forward and up and down. This allows you to swim more quickly — and create less drag — than if you were to exaggerate the dolphin-like movement.
In the butterfly pull, your hands should enter the water slightly wider than your shoulders — think about placing your hands at 11:00 and 1:00 on a clock! Your hands should hit the water flat with minimal splash.
Your catch is similar to freestyle: engage the Early Vertical Forearm and pull straight down! As you move through the pull, your hands may move in a little bit closer to each other and that’s completely ok. Avoid the old school “s curve” pull, though. That’s not efficient!
Related: What is Early Vertical Forearm?
After finishing your pull, take your arms out wide and bring them back to the starting position. During this controlled recovery phase, think about having relaxed, “angel hands.” your hands should be very close to the surface of the water, your thumbs almost brushing the surface.
Butterfly kick, or dolphin kick, is often misunderstood. When kicking in butterfly, your legs are together, your toes are pointed, and you’ll complete 2 kicks per 1 arm cycle.
The first kick helps to propel your arms out of the water, and the second keeps you moving forward while you initiate your catch. You may have heard that one kick should be more powerful than the other, but we recommend striving for equally powerful kicks.
Each kick has an up and down motion. Oftentimes swimmers neglect the “up” kick, which impacts their speed. Strengthening the “up” kick can help you get to the powerful “down” kick more quickly.
4. Breathing Pattern
Breathing in butterfly is a challenge! We see lots of swimmers lifting their head too high, which causes the hips to drop. Instead, think about tilting your head forward immediately after the catch. Lift your head just enough for you to get your breath and drop your head back down.
Your breathing pattern plays a major role in your stroke tempo as well. When you compare the 100 and 200 butterfly, you’ll see what we mean here. The 100 is short and powerful, and you’ll likely see less breathing because athletes want to maximize their power in the stroke. The 200, however, provides more room for breathing due to longer distance.
Related: How to Do a Butterfly Turn
When you start swimming butterfly, you may need to breathe every stroke, and that’s ok. As you get stronger, you can work up to breathing every other stroke, or even every 3 strokes!
5. Underwater Dolphin Kick
Underwater dolphin kick is considered the 5th stroke in swimming, and it’s actually the fastest stroke! That means that it’s important to maximize your start and turns to take advantage of the extra speed in races.
Just like your butterfly kick, it’s important to kick in both directions — up and down — to maximize power. Rather than bending your knees excessively to initiate the kick, drive from your hips.
Ensure your upper body stays in a tight streamline to reduce drag as well. Think about pressing your biceps to your ears!
6. Consistent Training
When it comes to training butterfly, there are 3 components to consider:
- Specificity: Break apart the stroke to focus on timing, kick, catch, etc. in your workouts Or, focus your training on a specific race, such as the 100 butterfly.
- Progression: Take your time working on technique over short distances and slowly build up to longer swims. Once you can swim a 25 butterfly with near perfect technique, move on to a 50, and so on. Continue challenging yourself to see ongoing improvements.
- Technique: The first 2 components don’t matter if your technique isn’t on point. The worst thing you can do in butterfly is try to power through a set with poor technique. In the end, all that does is reduce your full potential.
Let’s take a look at Michael Phelps as an example. He is arguably the king of butterfly! And while the 200 butterfly was one of his specialties, Phelps didn’t train 200s fly on repeat each workout.
Instead, he’s focusing on quality, race pace sets. Rather than 6×200 butterfly, he may have done 12×100 butterfly, with every other 50 race pace, holding his stroke count and hitting each turn as he would in the 200 fly.
Drills To Improve Butterfly
Now, let’s put all that information into practice! These are our top 3 drills to improve butterfly technique.
- 360 Degree Kicking: During your kick sets, make an effort to kick in all 4 planes of motion: on your front, back and both sides.
- Single Arm Butterfly: In this drill, you can breathe either forward or to the side. Forward breathing helps you work on breath timing. In contrast, breathing to the side encourages you to press your chest forward, rather than down, as your hand initiates the catch. Side breathing also keeps your body lower in the water, simulating proper body position and making it harder to fall into less efficient, dolphin-like movement.
- Freestyle Kick, Butterfly Arms: This drill is a bit more advanced, and focuses on the power of your pull. The freestyle kick flattens out the stroke a lot, giving you the opportunity to feel the power in your pull and relaxed arms on the recovery. Fins are a great tool for this drill!
Tell us your thoughts on butterfly! Is it a perpetual challenge or one of your favorites? For more technique tips and personalized training plans, download the MySwimPro app! Start a free trial of ELITE COACH to unlock all of our swimming and dryland resources.