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by Cokie Lepinski

August 2, 2012

Rhythm is key, not power

Butterfly is often seen as one of the more difficult strokes to master. Yet, done properly, it is rhythmical and beautiful and the good flyers make it look effortless. They’ve learned how to minimize resistance and finesse the water instead of trying to power through it. Rhythm is key, not power.

Primary fail points in fly are hip, neck and knee. As a short-axis stroke, fly challenges you to use your hips and core to generate rhythm and kick. Your hips need to stay near the surface throughout the entire stroke. Most swimmers try to power through, relying predominately on their arms and upper body, with a kick applied too hard and with too much knee bend. That causes the hips to drop, which creates enormous resistance. Overcome this by learning and following a “press and release” approach to fly.

Many swimmers breathe too late in butterfly and lift their neck to breathe, which also contributes to dropping hips and an oversized kick. That leads to a vicious cycle as the swimmer fights to regain balance only to lose it again each time they breathe. Learning to breathe “in the line” as your arms meet at the tip of the triangle under your body helps keep the hips high. If you are unable to find a sufficient lift for a large enough pocket of air, try another option, the chin slide. Here you slide your chin forward on the surface of the water for your breath. You are not lifting your head, only sliding your chin.

For some, breathing to the side can be an effective method. If you choose this, as you rotate to the side, keep your ear on the water. If you can feel the water on your ear, you know you are staying low.

However you breathe, in the line, chin slide, or side breathing, it is less important than this key fact: your forehead should be back down in the water before your hands enter at the top of the stroke. Anything less, and your hips drop and start that nasty cycle.

For the Walnut Creek Intensive Training Camp, we are focusing on three aspects of the stroke: core, catch and kick. Work these three and you will absolutely improve your fly!


Butterfly, like all strokes, really needs your core to get in the game. Heighten your awareness of your core, tune into it, and your fly strokes will lengthen and smooth out. Your mantra is “head down, hips up” as well as “press and release.”

A key element to successful fly is keeping your hips near the surface. It is your core work that allows this to take place. Butterfly is low profile, fairly flat with a gentle undulation motion and minimal up and down action. Your core, torso and hips provide primary undulation; your knees and arms are only minor contributors. Learning to press and release is fundamental to proper alignment and movement in fly.

Your goal is to stay low! Low fly sends your energy forward, not up and down. Even as you increase your speed in fly, your shoulders and hips should get a little flatter. Learn to press and release your core and your fly will be much flatter and easier. Only after establishing skill at press and release, should you move into the catch phase.


As your arms recover to the front, keep your hands relaxed and soft. Lunge forward; don’t plunge down. Keep your shoulders above your head during this phase. Press your head and chest down as one unit. Drop your chest between your shoulders during your hand entry. Push your head forward through the water.

Your hands slip into the water straight out from your shoulders (or slightly outside your shoulders). Coach Stu Kahn of the Davis Aquatic Masters calls this the “11” position. Make it a goal to land your hands, shoulders, and head all within the top 4 inches of water.

The hands then slide out toward the catch position, thumbs down, pinkies up at about a 30-45 degree angle. In the catch position, you draw your core toward your hands, dig your fingertips into the water, and draw your body over your arms. (From Coach David Marsh, SwimMAC Caolina.) Isolate your fingertips to your elbow.

On the catch pull-through, Coach Kahn refers to this as a diamond because it takes the shape of one when done properly. Your chin is at the top of the diamond, your elbows form the corners of the diamond and your fingertips form the bottom of the diamond. Your hands should be no more than a few inches from the belly button as you finish the catch pull through.

As noted by Coach Marsh, fly is a “front quadrant” stroke. For freestyle, front quadrant means keeping your hands in front of your armpits. In fly, it means perhaps exiting a little earlier and flaring out on your recovery instead of pressing back to keep your orientation driving forward, and not down. So sweep out, lock your elbow into a straight arm, relaxed hands, palms back recovery. Think about leading your recovery with your wrists. Drive those wrists to the end of the pool, not down on the water. Make sure no part of your arm touches the water before your hand strike.

When your hands leave the water, your palms should exit facing the sky. Keep your palms back until your hands reach your head on the recovery, then rotate them forward and down. Turning your palms over too early can make your chest rise, which causes your hips to drop, requiring more energy to fight the resistance you just created.


Your kick should stay just under the surface of the water. Maintain your dolphin kick while you begin your arm strokes. Stick your stroke right into the rhythm of your kick.

A good mantra for timing on your kick is: kick hands in, kick hands out. Kick your hands into the entry of the catch as they enter the water. Kick as your hands exit into the recovery (out of the water). Focus on your body dolphin motion more than your legs or knees. Generate the kick from your abs and hips. Work that body motion down to your feet like the crack of a whip. Point your toes and keep your feet on the same plane.

Apply equal pressure to the tops and bottoms of your feet. Work both the up kick and the down kick equally. On the up kick, keep the knee bend to a minimum. The closer your feet come to your butt, the more drag you create and the more undulation you lose.

Your downbeat kick occurs as your hands enter the water. As you pull through, you set up again for your second kick. That second kick is kicking you into your recovery.

On your breakout (from a start or turn), the number of kicks leading into the breakout can vary greatly between swimmers. Strong dolphin kickers can take eight-12 kicks off a turn. From a start this might be reduced to six as the momentum of the start and just a few kicks might get you to the 15-meter mark. The most important thing is transferring momentum into your first stroke. Also, your first few kicks (like your first three) coming off the wall should be smaller than the subsequent kicks. If your first few kicks are too big, you will lose momentum.

Butterfly Core and Kick Drills

Chest Press

  • Go face down in the water, no fins, with hands at your side. Press and release your head and chest together to undulate lightly through the water. You shouldn’t feel a dolphin kick, but you may feel your body undulation carry down to your feet. Think of pressing your lungs into the water. Press and release. Once you have mastered this, try it with your arms extended in front, pinkies up near the surface. Then advance to allowing yourself to work the undulation just a little more vigorously and add some effort into your kick.

Streamline Dolphin Kick

  • Try this first on your back, arms extended behind you, hands locked. Keep a tight line with just a little undulation. Work the kick from your core and your abs. Equally work the upbeat of the kick and the downbeat of the kick.
  • Now add a pull buoy held between your knees. This forces you to really generate that kick from your core and abs, because if you try it from your knees, you will lose the pull buoy. This is a great abs exercise!
  • Now try this as a sideways dolphin kick – on your side with the arm under you extended straight out from your head and the other arm tucked at your side. Limit the undulation as much as you can. Kick from your core. Hold the water on both the top and bottom of your feet and don’t let that lead arm waver on the water. Lock the shoulders, head and arm as one unit.

Vertical Kicks

  • You’ll need some deep water for this drill. The goal is to do 25 vertical dolphin kicks in 10 seconds. Start with your arms crossed on your shoulders. Focus on keeping your shoulders, chest, and head relaxed in this drill. Start your undulation with your abs and think of that as one end of the whip, with the other end being your toes. Crack the whip and keep your upper body still. Success comes when you create circles around you. If you create waves, you are using too much of your upper body. Tighten your core, keep the upper body locked and engage from the hips down. An advanced version is to do this vertically in a streamline position.

Butterfly Catch Drills

Wide Y Scull to Combination

  • Fins are okay for this drill but only for balance. A snorkel is great for this drill. You can support yourself with a very light flutter kick. Go face down in the water and scull with your hands out in front of you. You scull to a “wide y” which is where you would begin your catch if we were following through on the stroke. Here we just want you to scull in and out from your hands together (you are in a streamline), out to the wide y and immediately back to center. There should be very little bend in the elbow; all of the power comes from your hands and your forearms. If you kick, use only the slightest flutter kick to keep you level and on top of the water. Your head and eyes are pointed down. If not wearing a snorkel, breathe when you can and then immediately return to the face down position.
  • Once you have that down, now replace the flutter kick with a light dolphin kick. Apply the dolphin kick (press and release) as you separate your arms and press your chest (lungs) into the water. Adding the dolphin kick will help in developing your timing and a rhythm component.
  • Part three of this drill has you doing three sculls with a dolphin kick and then 1 full fly stroke. Work to land in the catch position, dig your fingers in, and start over with the three sculls. Be sure and accelerate your hand speed through the pull.

Butterfly Recovery

  • A snorkel is also good on this drill. You’ll be doing a flutter kick and an underwater recovery of the fly stroke. Dig your hands in with a high catch, pull through and as your hands come together under you they should form a triangular pattern under your body. Your hands push through at the tip of the triangle, then flare out by your hips. You then recover your hands back underneath you like you would in breaststroke recovery. Your focus on this drill is the high catch and the acceleration through the mid-part of your body.
  • The next level of this drill is to use dolphin kick with the same underwater recovery. This helps us work on the timing. The kick is the initiation at the top of the stroke and the acceleration point under the body.
  • For the third level of this drill we add in breathing so put the snorkel up. When you breathe in butterfly, you should not lift your head up off the line of your spine to see where you are going. So this drill is a sequence drill: we go from flat, to goggles up, to breathing. Continue to recover underwater. On stroke one do not breathe, stay flat. On stroke two raise yourself up with your shoulders high enough to expose your goggles just off the water line. On the third stroke, raise slightly higher to bring your goggles and your mouth out to get a breath. Catch your breath when your hands sweep under your mid section, as this raises you up just enough to get a pocket of air. Don’t lift your head—raise your shoulders to find the air pocket. As your arms come up to the surface, prepare to start the cycle again.
  • For the final level of this drill, drop the sequence and try breathing on every stroke. Start with a streamlined push off the wall underwater. As you begin to surface, do a pull underwater with your hands, and then flick them back behind you as if you are going to recover them. Try to stop them by your thighs without leaving the water. Remember to lift your shoulders to catch a breath as your hands are pushing through. You are taking that breath at the same time you are flicking back. The goal is to get your head back down before your hands separate at the base of your triangle.  Generate a powerful kick and recover your arms underneath your body. Once you complete the kick, push your head back down into the water. This is where your hips should rise. Recover your hands underwater returning to a streamlined position and repeat the process.

Single-Arm Swimming

  • In this drill, focus on staying as relaxed as possible, keeping your shoulders and head on the surface and your feet in the water. One arm down by your side. Breathe to the stroking side. Keep your shoulders up and hands down on the front end of your stroke. Make your entry soft with your hands. Do this again and pick up the tempo. This is now more like a racing drill. With the increase in speed, you should be even flatter. Keep your recovery low, right across the top of the water.
  • The next progression is to leave one hand out in front. This will keep your line to be a little longer and prepares you more for racing. This progression allows for a bit more rhythm, and a more shallow entry. Concentrate on relaxed recovery and rhythmic kicking. You continue to breathe to the side.
  • An advanced progression is to incorporate front-end breathing. Leaving one arm out front, swim one arm fly and, using proper timing and with your shoulders, lift up just enough to sneak a breath in front of you. Don’t use your head to lift for the breath, and get your head down before your hands enter up front.


  • Swim fly with two strokes to the left, two strokes to the right, and two strokes to the front. Only breathe on the one-arm strokes and breathe to the stroking side. Do not breathe on the two front strokes. Concentrate on pressing your chest, relaxing your recovery and a holding a fairly flat bodyline.
  • Now, pick up the pace and this time, breathe on the two forward strokes. Breathe by sliding the chin on the surface of the water. Get your head back down before your hands strike out front. Keep low and relaxed. Concentrate on trying to land with your hands, shoulders and head within the top 4 inches of water.

Four Kicks Per Arm Cycle

  • Wearing fins, slip just under the waterline into a streamline, do four dolphin kicks followed by one full stroke of regular fly. The first two kicks help establish the catch position. Initiate your arms with the third kick, and use the fourth kick to push through the underwater recovery. It is important that you do not stop your kick to add your stroke in or you lose momentum. It is ok to breathe on every stroke in this drill as long as it is a low breath. With the stroke, think about pulling yourself forward, keeping your chin low (right on top of the water) and your hips high. Exhale as you establish your catch (before you lift your shoulders to breathe).
  • You can make this more challenging by doing the sequence as five kicks one stroke or six kicks one stroke.


  • Technique and Training


  • Butterfly
  • Kicking
  • Stroke Technique
  • Drills
  • Catch
  • Core