Are you up for the challenge of swimming the butterfly stroke?
Elite swimmers make it seem as though swimming butterfly is natural and effortless. However, it takes a lot of foundational learning (aka baby steps), and LOTS of practice to become fluent, much like learning a new language.
As a swim coach and swim instructor, my advice in learning butterfly is to start small, and to add each new step as it feels more natural to you.
Horizontal Body Position
The most important part of building an efficient butterfly stroke is learning proper body position: holding your body horizontal in the water, with a neutral head position (not up or chin tucked).
(Neutral Head Position)
Butterfly Stroke Drill #1-Horizontal Float Position
→Put arms out in front of you in a superman position.
→Float completely horizontally, with hands, shoulders, head, back, legs and feet all on the surface of the water. You might want to lightly scull your hands (move them slowly from side to side) to help hold the position.
→ Try to avoid kicking at all.
→A useful (but not mandatory) piece of swim equipment for this drill is a small pull buoy, placed between the thighs.
→A snorkel might also be helpful.
You will want to make sure that you have completely mastered this swim skill before moving on to the next one, since horizontal body position is the foundation of the entire butterfly stroke.
Now that your body is used to being horizontal, you are ready to begin “swimming downhill”. Movement in this part of the stroke generates from the hips, and is pushed through the shoulders in a small downward trajectory.
Butterfly is known as a short axis stroke; rotation and forward movement generates across the hips.
→To get a feel for this rotation, stand on land, hands on hips.
→Bend at the waist slightly (about 45 degrees), and then return to vertical, repeatedly. You will see that you are rotating from the hips.
Next, try a similar drill in the pool.
Butterfly Stroke Drill #2 – Swim Downhill
→Start with your body in the Horizontal Float Position (see Drill #1, above).
→Next, lift your hips while pushing shoulders forward and slightly downward. You should maintain neutral head position.
→Stretch arms forward and “flatten” your armpits while pushing forward.
→Notice that the push from your hips helps drive shoulders and arms forward.
→Your hands should sink a few inches under the water, but at this point, no further. Keep hands flat and relaxed, with fingers touching or close to touching.
→Repeat until you are super-comfortable with moving forward and slightly down, using only your hips to drive your shoulders further (no kicking just yet!).
Ease into Dolphin Kick
Congratulations!! You are now ready to learn the dolphin kick.
Dolphin kick is an undulating motion that starts from the hips, and ripples through the feet and toes to propel you forward.
When you do dolphin kick, you should exert equal amounts of force as you kick down and then kick up.
This kick is used in every competitive stroke. Learning dolphin kick in the context of butterfly stroke swimming and its timing will help you to master the stroke more quickly.
How to Improve Your Butterfly Stroke: Power Up!
In butterfly, all of your kicking power comes from your hips, similar to how you would kick a soccer ball from the hip. Feet are kept together on equal planes and must never cross, as in a flutter kick.
You have mastered Horizontal Float Position, and Swim Downhill, and now you will add the dolphin kick - and learn when to do it!
Butterfly Stroke Technique Tip: Timing Is Everything
For every stroke cycle of butterfly, there are two dolphin kicks. (And note that in proper butterfly, dolphin kick is the ONLY kick permitted.)
Drill for Butterfly #3 – Adding Dolphin Kick
→Short swim fins and swim snorkel are recommended.
→You will initiate your first kick as you push shoulders forward in the Swim Downhill Drill.
→After each lift of the hips, powerfully push the kick through your thighs, calves, and feet. (Push your feet down with power, just a few inches, then snap them back up to the surface of the water.)
→This is kick #1 in the cycle – it is a big and powerful kick!
→After you finish the first dolphin kick, execute a smaller one, about half that size. Your shoulders will still push forward, but not as much.
→This is kick #2 in the stroke cycle.
→Continue to make your way down the pool doing the large powerful kick (#1) and then the smaller Kick (#2). Hands stay out on front for this drill.
Butterfly arms, or pull, is similar to both breaststroke and freestyle. They are simultaneous and synchronized like breaststroke, and the underwater track of the pull is like freestyle.
To pull in butterfly, try it on land, standing, first. Stretch arms above your head. Bend wrists slightly. Then push arms and hands down together, as if you are pushing a basketball down for a big bounce.
During this push, keep hands and arms in front of your body, elbows bent until your arms end up fully extended, at your sides.
Drill #4 – Part 1 – Butterfly Underwater Pull
→Using a pull buoy to keep your body horizontal, try the exercise that you just practiced on land. Only worry about the underwater part of the pull. Practice until you feel very comfortable with it.
Drill #4 – Part 2 – Pull and Kick Timing with the Underwater Pull
→Let’s revisit Drill #3 – Adding Dolphin Kick. Execute the first, big kick right as you start your underwater pull. Do the pull, and execute the second, smaller kick as your hands pass your hips.
→After this underwater pull, you should notice that you have moved a few feet forward.
→Move hands back to starting position. Keep practicing, making sure that you are horizontal on the start of the pull, and that you are pressing shoulders and chest downhill at the initiation of each pull.
(Beginning of the Pull)
Putting It All Together
Be patient with yourself if it seems to be taking a long time to get the position, kicks, and timing for butterfly technique!
Once you are comfortable with Drills 1 through 4, you have a foundation on which to execute the “recovery” (aka over-water return) of the hands, and the breathing.
→The recovery comes at the end of the second, smaller kick. Hands come out of the water at the hips. That kick will help propel arms forward.
→Stay horizontal in the water.
→After the second kick, reach arms wide out of the water, leading with your wrists. Relax the hands. Quickly return to horizontal body position.
→To breathe in butterfly, simply slide the chin forward and up slightly when you start your underwater pull. You can visualize your body as a Pez dispenser! Try to stay horizontal, hips up.
→After getting your quick breath, tuck your head back to neutral before you move arms out for the recovery.
I started competitive swimming at age six, but did not truly master my timing for butterfly until age thirteen! It is complex. I suggest watching some swim videos of butterfly online before, during, and after your attempts to master the stroke. Or, hire a private swim instructor to learn butterfly stroke and master your other swim stroke technique.
Katie Jenkins’s bio:
Sunsational Swim School instructor in Baltimore, MD
Katie swam from age six to age twenty-four, and continues to participate in open water races. She has been teaching with Sunsational for a year, and has been a competitive swim coach for over thirty years. She loves being with kids and helping them master new skills!