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by Matt Donovan

February 4, 2019

Butterfly doesn’t have to be the hardest stroke to do

Butterfly doesn’t have to be the hardest stroke to do, but there are elements of the stroke that make it challenging to learn at times. Follow these four points of emphasis to make learning and mastering butterfly as easy as any of the other three strokes.

Breathe When You Should

Coaches tell swimmers they shouldn’t breathe every stroke—and you shouldn’t, unless you’re Michael Phelps—but it’s not like they don’t want you to breathe. It’s that they want you to have a proper body position.

When beginners breathe, they tend to bring their head too high out of the water. This lowers their hips and legs and makes an effective pull very difficult to perform. To prevent this, you should use a center-mount snorkel, which eliminates the need to lift your head to breathe and keeps your body in line while you work on your stroke.

Another common mistake swimmers make is unintentional breath-holding.

You’ve probably found that it’s “easier” to hold your stroke when your head is down. But when first learning butterfly, many swimmers keep their face in the water for extended periods to get in as many strokes as possible. Not only is this breath-holding very dangerous, but it’s impractical and inefficient. Not breathing decreases the amount of oxygenated blood going to muscles, which will lead to muscle failure earlier. In no other sport do we ask athletes to not breathe, and there’s no difference in swimming. All athletes need oxygen, so breathe often and on a set pattern. The snorkel, regardless of your skill level, will help teach you a more consistent breathing pattern.

Don’t See Your Hands

Another big mistake that swimmers make is breathing too late. If you see your hands or forearms, you know that the timing of your breath is late.

Your breath should be initiated by picking your head up out of the water the instant your hands have entered the water. Your breath should be taken at the surface during the catch (the small out-sweep just before the pull) and into the start of the power phase of your stroke. Your head should go back into the water by the time your hands reach the midpoint of the recovery (straight out from your shoulders).

Build Your Core

If your shoulders are killing you after a long butterfly set, that’s an indication that you’re not using your core enough while swimming the stroke. You should add more core work into your dryland workouts.

Also, when doing kick sets, lose the kickboard and add a front scull. This is a body position much more in line with what you’ll actually look like when doing a full stroke.

Try This Drill

The most common reason swimmers stop training butterfly is because of physical taxation on the body. It takes a great deal of energy to perform even a few strokes, and that level of effort is magnified when the stroke is done inefficiently. So, swimmers should try performing a few strokes perfectly to improve at the stroke.

One drill that’s extremely helpful when trying to learn how to swim butterfly over extended distances (especially in a 50-meter pool) is the breaststroke-butterfly drill. Swim two strokes butterfly followed immediately by two strokes breaststroke. This will allow you to keep your head down for both butterfly strokes before breathing normally during the breaststroke portion.

The number of butterfly and breaststroke strokes can go up or down relative to where you are in your training. Even butterfly superstars can add this in for a few 25s to extend their butterfly training set without adding time onto the interval.

It’s also a great way to help you think about and focus on body undulation throughout the set.

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  • Technique and Training


  • Butterfly