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by Terry Heggy

February 5, 2018

Conquer what may be the most difficult stroke with these four tips

The undulating motion of butterfly can provide a swimming experience of sublime beauty and pleasure. But the stroke’s above-water, double-arm recovery introduces opportunities for fatigue that can quickly turn that pleasure into pain.

Here are some suggestions for prolonging the pleasure by maximizing the efficiency of your arms.

Refine the Recovery

Eliminating drag and wasted motion adds far more speed than merely working harder. Most of the waste in butterfly comes from energy spent in moving vertically (up and down) rather than forward. Here are a few suggestions for reducing that waste.

Loosen up

Tight shoulders force you to lift your body higher to get your arms back around. Focus dryland work on your range of motion to stretch tight pectoral muscles that restrict shoulder rotation. For every push-up or bench press, do an equal amount of exercise to strengthen the muscles of your back to prevent your shoulders from being permanently pulled forward. Sit and stand with good posture.

Start with a squeeze

As you initiate your arm recovery, squeeze your shoulder blades together to lift the arms, rather than forcing your shoulders to do all the work.

  • Drill—Float face-down in the water with both arms at your hips and then squeeze your back to slowly swing your arms across the water into the forward catch position (without kicking). You’ll find that a good shoulder blade squeeze will enable a relaxed recovery without forcing you to levitate out of the water.

Swing low

Swing your arms through the recovery just barely above the surface. Individual geometries differ, but most people maximize shoulder relaxation by keeping pinkies high and thumbs low (palms outward) rather than having the palms face the water. Try different hand orientations to find which requires the least effort.

It takes a lot of energy to lift your head, and there’s just as much air right at the surface as there is a foot higher up. Keep your head low as you breathe.

Enhance the Entry

Moving water in any direction other than backward (i.e., opposite the direction you want to move) wastes energy and creates drag. Eliminate butterfly entry mistakes such as splashing, swinging the hands all the way together, or plunging the hands deep in the water and then angling them back upwards for the catch. Cut in cleanly and establish your catch immediately upon entry.

Drop your face back in the water slightly before the hands enter. If the hands are already in the water while your head is still lifted, your hips won’t be able to follow the wave pattern for an effective kick.

Rock the Rhythm

Practice makes perfect—but only when you’re practicing correctly. Maintain your rhythm and kick timing, adjusting your stroke as required. Some adaptations include the following:

  • Two-stroke breathing pattern—You may find it easier to hold form if you don’t breathe as frequently.
  • Shorter pull motion—Rather than pulling all the way back to your legs, you may find that initiating the recovery earlier lets you stay in rhythm and maintain speed.

If you become too fatigued to swim the full stroke in proper rhythm, switch to practicing drills.

  • One-arm butterfly, breathing to the side—Perfect the timing between the arms and legs while developing awareness of your body’s drag profile throughout the wave motion.
  • Alternating pull patterns—Do a few strokes of perfect butterfly, then swim easy with one-arm fly, breaststroke, or freestyle to recover before returning to perfect butterfly. As your strength and rhythm improve, lengthen each full-stroke fly segment. One way to accomplish this is to do perfect butterfly off every wall until it isn’t perfect anymore, then switch to freestyle until the next wall. For many swimmers just learning proper butterfly, this can be only three or four strokes, but that will gradually increase.

Whenever you nail a smooth dolphin motion, savor that glorious feeling and lock it into your kinesthetic memory. Recall those memories when you visualize perfect form in anticipation of your next butterfly swim.

Pump Up the Power

While minimizing drag and maximizing flexibility are the primary keys to fast butterfly, there’s no denying that it also requires strength and fitness.

  • Join the gym—In addition to dryland stretching, work on your core and all the muscles in your back.
  • Balance the breathing—If you feel you can’t get enough air when swimming fly, you may not be exhaling fully. Try exhaling in a burst, and experiment with the timing until you find an inhale/exhale pattern that provides the oxygen you need to perform with power.
  • Swim the stroke—Commit to increasing the butterfly yardage you swim in practice. The more you swim fly with the proper recovery, entry, and rhythm, the stronger you’ll get. And the stronger you get, the more fun it becomes.

Regardless how much butterfly you swim, it’s hard to keep track of all the elements at once. If you don’t have a coach to watch and suggest corrections, have someone take a cellphone video. Watch your own stroke to reveal timing issues, splashing, and excess vertical motion. Adjust as necessary, then watch yourself again. Keep at it, enjoy yourself, and you’ll soon be stroking to butterfly success.


  • Technique and Training


  • Butterfly
  • Stroke Technique
  • Drills