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by Scott Bay

June 30, 2016

Refine your stroke first, and worry about time and distance later

Why is butterfly the hardest stroke? Masters swimmers frequently ask this question, but the answer is: it doesn’t have to be.

If you’ve ever watched some of the great butterflyers in history, such as Mary T. Meagher, Michael Phelps, or Jenny Thompson, they seem to effortlessly float across the water. For most of us mere mortals, it’s more of an up-and-down struggle. We apply brute force to the water to generate propulsion, but usually end up tired and not getting anywhere fast. But, this is fixable; the following few tips can help you find the rhythm and balance you need for good butterfly.

Take it Apart

At its heart, butterfly is really about balance and rhythm. For most people, your center of buoyancy (balance) is in the center of your chest. This is where the lungs are, and because they’re full of air, they float. Seems simple enough, but figuring out how to find your specific balance point how to put some force to it requires some patience and a methodical approach to taking apart and rebuilding your stroke.

Many swimmers have been successful breaking things down into these five progression points:

  • Lie face down in the water with your hands out in front of you. Keep a long spine and neck.
  • Push your chest down and your hips up with a gentle dolphin kick.
  • Push your hips down and your chest up as your knees flex a bit, using an upkick.
  • Pitch your fingers down and your elbows up in almost the same motion you would use to push yourself up out of the pool.
  • Pull yourself over your hands and accelerate your hands past your hips and recover your arms over the water.

The momentum of your hands and arms pushing back should make the recovery much easier.

About that Entry

As your arms and hands recover, it’s important to think ahead as to how you’re going to start the cycle again. Focus on these key points to get set up for a good next stroke cycle.

  • Place your hands in the water about shoulder-width apart or wider. Make sure you don’t chop at or slap the water.
  • Pay close attention to where your hands are after they enter the water. Remember, the idea is not to dive up and down but rather to stretch forward to get a good next catch.
  • Focus on the upbeat as well as the downbeat of the kick. Kicking is important in butterfly, and you need to put pressure on the bottom of your feet as well as the top. Use the kick to propel your hands into the water on the entry, and use the kick again to propel your hands out of the water by your hips at the completion of the cycle. Kicking like this helps you keep your balance!


Try the following drills to improve your butterfly.

  • The 2+2. This drill starts from the wall. Push off and do two full stroke cycles, and then pause and count in your head “one hippopotamus, two hippopotamus,” as your momentum carries you forward as you pay special attention to your posture in the water. Are you head up or head down? Where are your hands? Are you moving forward? Are your hands, head, shoulders, hips, and heels all at the surface of the water after the second count? Be patient with the movement and use fins to make it easier.
  • The 2 to 50. This drill also starts from the wall. Push off and do two full stroke cycles, and then swim the rest of the length freestyle. Do the same for the second length. At the start of the next length, try three strokes, then four, then five until you are able to swim a full 50 doing only butterfly. The key is to make sure you execute each stroke perfectly, so it could take a while. Be patient and keep trying.

Putting it All Together

Some great stories make up the swimming lore that influenced some of this approach to perfecting the butterfly. In one story, it’s said that Jenny Thompson rarely swam a full 100 of fly in practice prior to setting the American record in the distance. Another says that Alexander Popov would sometimes swim only 200 meters and then get out because he just didn’t “feel it” that day.

Regardless of the actual circumstances around the legends, what we can take away from this is that these great swimmers would rather swim very short distances of perfect butterfly than reinforce or learn any bad habits. When you next head to the pool, remember that breaking a seemingly tough stroke like butterfly down into components that can be practiced in small bits is a great way to develop a perfect stroke and a good rhythm.


  • Technique and Training
  • Coaches Only


  • Butterfly
  • Stroke Technique
  • Drills
  • Tips