The progression: moving forward
The short-axis strokes (butterfly and breaststroke) are rhythmic. When identifying the key components to developing efficiency, both strokes must have simultaneous movements of the arms and legs. The coaching goal is to establish proper body posture, limb coordination, correctly timed breathing, and a kick that contributes to both stabilization and power. This should be done in a way that keeps the body moving forward, rather than up and down.
With the axis line running through the hips and perpendicular to the spine, the body will have more of an undulating motion than a rotational one. However, as with the long-axis strokes (freestyle and backstroke) one of the primary goals of body position still remains the same: to keep the hips at or near the surface at all times. This is achieved by developing a sense of how and when to press the chest into the water to buoy the hips in a way that keeps energy moving forward.
This sensation is accomplished by leading the head and shoulders in front of the hips at levels slightly higher and lower than the water surface. Contrary to the notion of relaxing the body on butterfly, a good stroke maintains a continuous soft tension between the chest and hips. When the hips are at the surface of the water, then the shoulders are submerged and vice versa. This continuously alternating motion between upper and lower torso creates the basic undulation responsible for a correctly timed butterfly stroke. One simple key to good undulation in butterfly is head down, hips up on entry.
The dolphin-like motion of the body is one of constant flow that creates a wave action beginning at the shoulders and torso and extending to the toes at the snap of the second kick. To keep the energy and momentum in a forward moving direction, the swimmer should feel the stroke lunging forward, not plunging downward.
Overundulation causes too slow a tempo and too deep a catch. Simply making sure that the eyes and nose are pointed to the bottom for an instant on entry and the hips are at or near the surface is sufficient to capture the basic beginning of good form. One of the biggest deterrents to good body flow is crashing the arms and face into the water at entry. Care here should be give to placement rather than power at this phase of the stroke.
- Key correction point for body posture: Place the hands lightly on the surface as the chest and chin continue submerging.
The limb coordination for butterfly is two kicks to every arm cycle: kick-pull-kick. The placement of those two kicks is critical to stroke rhythm, breathing, and continued forward progress. The first kick is synched to the entry of the hands, and the second to their exit at the beginning of the recovery.
The first kick is more of a balancing motion, arising mainly from the upward lift of the hips. It’s also timed with the extension of the hands and the downward pressure of the chest. The second kick, when timed with the finishing forces of the hands, combines to create the most propulsive phase of the entire stroke. Additional ways to search for correct timing include using long and short fins and utilizing one-arm and alternate-arm drills.
- Key correction point for kick-kick-pull: Having both kicks initiated before the catch does not allow for the second kick to aid in recovery and breathing. In this situation, the back is forced to arch or an excessive downward push with the hands is needed to get recovery and breathing clearance. As a correction tool, think of a one-kick fly and then patiently wait for the second small kick to occur naturally, at the end of the undulation, as the hands are exiting.
During the recovery, as the arms move simultaneously and create a balanced energy release on both sides, they can recover wide and low to the water without imparting lateral swing to the torso. During the first half of the recovery, the palms should be pointed backward. As the hands pass the shoulders with the elbows locked and palms rotating downward, the new objective is to land the hands on the surface as opposed to diving them into the water below the head and chest. This, again, keeps everything moving forward rather than up and down. Note: The forehead must enter the water prior to the hands.
Upon entry, the arms should stretch or extend forward into parallel positioning in front of the shoulders. With a sharp pause of the arms at this moment, swimmers achieve proper hand placement, but also benefit from a transfer of horizontal recovery momentum to vertical lift of the hips. A high elbow catch is then created with hands anchored just outside the shoulders. As backward pressure is exerted, the elbows stay high and are in wait for the hands to pull beneath them, before the chest and shoulders fully engage to help move the body past the hands.
After the catch, pushing backward too soon will cause the elbow to lead the pull instead of the hand and forearm, resulting in the dreaded dropped elbow syndrome. The basic path of the hands from catch to exit is roughly along an hourglass pattern. Overexaggerated in-and-out motions are more cosmetic than anything else and contribute little to forward velocity. The pitch of the hands as they follow their path should be as backward facing as possible.
Due to the strength factor involved, a common fault is to begin a backward press on a lateral plane before the elbows are correctly placed. This only allows for backward pressure to be put on the palms without the forearms being part of the paddle, drastically reducing the effective pulling surface. This creates a dropped elbow scenario that sacrifices a tremendous amount of leverage. If the arms begin the pull phase before a high elbow position can be established, the elbow will lead, or pull, through the water before the hands. The forearms will be pulled along in a lateral plane, with the palms facing downward. This position sacrifices a tremendous amount of leverage, drastically reducing an effective pull.
Keep in mind that, anatomically, any motion from in front of the shoulders to the shoulder plane itself is a pull, and any motion behind the shoulder plane is a push. Hand forces and pressure on the water should increase inside of each arm cycle. An additional benefit of accelerated hand speed is that momentum is carried into the recovery and helps contribute to proper body flow and timing.
- Key correction point for dropped elbow: Forward propulsion comes from backward facing limbs. Fingertips should be pointed down, palms and forearms pitched backward and shoulders rolled forward.
The typical kicks in a butterfly stoke cycle will vary in amplitude and power. The first kick, as the hands enter, is really a byproduct of the chest press that elevates the hips. The resultant kick that follows also helps to lift the hips, creating a larger kick that breaks the plane of the body. The second kick occurs as the hands are accelerating through the pull phase. This kick, a quick snap originating from the knees, is in line with the rest of the body and helps to push the shoulders and head forward for arm recovery and breathing.
For full and fast motion, swimmers should think of the upbeat of the feet in addition to the more propulsive downbeat. A mantra for learning where to place the two kicks is “kick your hands into the water and kick your hands out of the water.”
- Key correction point for loss of undulation: Overbending of the knees will expose the shins to frontal forward drag as the feet are brought toward the suit. The result is a backward powered kick that flattens the undulation and flow from kick to kick. This creates an arched back when attempting to recover the arms and breathe. Instead of a focus on the kick, place the focus on lifting and keeping the hips at the surface of the water.
A butterfly breath cannot happen outside of the stroke rhythm. That is to say, a swimmer should not stop stroking to breath. Exhaling begins as pressure is placed on the hands in the catch phase. Inhaling begins as soon as the mouth clears the surface. Chin is kept near the waterline so as to not add any upward motion that would result in loss of forward momentum. The breathing pattern on butterfly can be determined by the length of the event, but is most closely tied to the effect your technique has on the integrity of your body posture. Maximizing the amount of oxygenated blood, without slowing forward progress, will enhance the swimmers performance.
- Key correction point for late breathing: Initiating the breathing at the very end of the “pull to recovery phase” creates a lock-up, or kink, in the neck and shoulders which is very difficult to swim through effectively. Breathe early, breathe often, and get the head back in the water quickly before the hands. Concentrate on timing the lift of the head with the beginning of the pull.