How to do the Butterfly Swim Stroke

How to do the Butterfly Swim Stroke

Butterfly is a beautiful stroke but is also very challenging. Mastering butterfly stroke, also known as “Fly” brings joy to many swimmers. Even if you do not intend on making butterfly swimming your main event, understanding this stroke and being able to perform it well will make you a more well-rounded swimmer.

Butterfly Stroke Swimming - 5 main pieces.

If you are new to the butterfly technique, this article will help you learn and begin to master the stroke. If you are getting the stroke down, but still struggling take a look at the drills at the end of this article. Still having a hard time? Our instructors can help you improve your stroke based on your specific strengths and weaknesses.

Alright, let’s break down each piece.

Good Butterfly Body Position:

While swimming butterfly it is key to keep the body fairly level in the water with trunk and shoulders parallel to the surface of the water. There is a lot of movement happening, however it is key to note there is no body rotation like you will notice in freestyle.

The hips will drop slightly but not nearly as much as the hips drop and shoulders rise in the breaststroke.

Key Point: Body level to surface of water.

Performing the Butterfly Stroke:

Now let’s add in the arm movement. Begin from a streamlined position off of the wall, from here the arms will begin:

  1. Keep wrists straight and dig fingers down into the water keep elbows high
  2. Hands will fan down from in front of the body to under the shoulders
  3. Elbows will bend and enter into the Catch
  4. From the catch continue to grab the water, with hands flat, pull the arms back into full extension behind you. Your arms will be fully extended and straight with palms facing the surface of the water.
  5. Being the recovery phase of resting the arms momentarily before beginning the next stroke. The arms will exit the water with elbows up, arms straight and thumbs clearing the water the arms will extend over the water and return to the entry point again.
  6. Hands will enter the water no more than 12” apart.

View the above video with Michael Phelps at the :10 second mark to see this in action.

Some swimmers will have their hands into the water touching and directly in front of their face. Others will have hands shoulder width apart. Once you master the basics, begin to modify your hand entry into the water for best results based on your skill and strength.

When coaching my swimmers I will use the cues of “arms straight” meaning when you arms exit the water and enter the water they are straight. I also want to see the shoulder, arm and hands out of the water on the recovery. If you drag you arms through the water you will be working too hard and not flying over the water.

Dolphin Kick:

Now is the time to channel your inner mermaid for the kick. Just as in Freestyle you will need to “kick from your hips.”

To master the dolphin kick technique:

1) Keep legs together- yes your entire leg from hips to knees to ankles

2) Hips will rise as the knees straighten and the feet kick down

3) Hips will sink a tad as hamstrings rise, knees bend and rise to prepare for the kick

Mistakes I often see are swimmers keeping knees locked and others who bend their knees too much. This results in no movement and feet sinking too far under the surface, respectively.

For the kick, imagine you are swimming through a tunnel. You do not want your feet to rise too far over the water or for the feet to kick too deep and hit the imaginary tunnel you are swimming through.

The majority of the kick movement will originate in your hips so you can channel the energy down through your toes into a short, powerful kick.

Don’t beat yourself up, the videos in this article are from world-class athletes. Butterfly is incredibly challenging but will take time and practice and you too will excel!

Arm Stroke & Butterfly Kicking Timing:

The timing and rhythm of your stroke and kick will ensure you have the flying feeling over the water also allowing you a chance to breathe.

For each stroke you make, you will have two kicks. We’ll refer to the entry of your hands into the water as the “top” of your stroke and when you arms extend behind you and hands leave the water as the “bottom”.

At the top of your stroke you will kick. With beginners I refer to this as the little kick. As you progress you can keep this kick less powerful than the second or increase your power. It’s okay to begin with a little kick to learn the rhythm.

At the bottom of your stroke is the big kick. This is the powerful kick that will help you lift the arms and shoulders over the water and fly into your next stroke.

Practice practice practice! Mastering the timing will help you progress in the butterfly.


Ah, the fun part-being able to breathe and sustain the stroke across the pool!

Now that you have the stroke and kick down it’s time to take a breath.

Need a visual? Check out this short video,

Here you’ll see Phelps swimming fly with a frontal view. You’ll notice when swimming fly, the head remains in the water and only comes out when you need a breath, not every stroke.

In order to get a good breath it is key you are able to have a powerful kick at the bottom of your stroke to ensure enough momentum to fly over the water through the recovery before beginning another stroke. With a weak stroke you’ll attempt to take a breath but the hips will sink too deep, the shoulders will be submerged and this will force you to lift your head to take a breath.

We want to see the opposite. When breathing it is key to maintain high hip position, shoulders elevated over the water and only slightly tilt the head over the water for a breath. This may sound and feel simple but may still struggle. That is okay, remember this is a very challenging stroke. Let’s head to the last point.

How to Improve Out of the Pool:

Beyond butterfly requiring skill, technique, timing and practice it also requires more strength from the chest, back and shoulders than other strokes. A way to help your fly is to incorporate training out of the pool.

Here are a few of my favorite weight lifting exercises to help master the fly. While these are not required to learn this stroke, they will help you improve.

  1. Lat Pull Downs- The lat machine will help develop your back muscles to pull yourself through and over the water
  2. Plank – Balance your body on your forearms (or palms, arms straight) and toes. Keep hips in line with shoulders. No sagging hips or booty higher than your shoulders. This will help your core and shoulders.
  3. Push Ups- A simple, at home exercise to build the pecs and pull your through the water faster.
  4. Overhead Press- Grab a set of dumbbells and with controlled effort and hands over shoulders send the weight up and back down to build the upper body.

I said it before and will say it again, butterfly is hard. Even for swimmers who’ve been swimming for years this can be challenging. If you are stuck on a particular point or just need to talk through the stroke, our Sunsational swimming coaches are here for you and travel to your home or community pool, get started today!

Amanda Girton’s bio:

Swim instructor in Tampa, FL

Hi! I’m Amanda. I’ve been teaching swim lessons for over 7 years now. I teach infants and up, including adults who are experienced triathletes. I have experience teaching children with a wide variety of experiences. It brings me so much joy to see my students accomplish their swim goals.

Call Us at 1-888-788-2140 to book your Swimming Lessons Today


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