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by Andrew Sheaff

April 11, 2022

Breaking butterfly into its critical components

The first article in this series, The Three Ways to Swim Faster, outlined the three requirements for fast swimming: increased propulsion, reduced resistance, and great timing. The major components of successful butterfly are:

  1. Establish a strong catch and propulsive arm action
  2. Optimize undulation
  3. Effectively time the leg and arm actions
  4. Use the arm recovery to sync the stroke

Strong Catch and Propulsive Arm Action

Swimming butterfly requires a lot of force to create the necessary propulsion for fast swimming. Because of these high forces, it’s critical for you to use your arms in a way that ensures all the force you create is helping you move forward. That’s where great skills come in.

Calibrate your entry

Enter around shoulder width. Upon entry, there can be some slight outward lateral movement to begin setting up the stroke, which we’ll discuss next. The shorter the event, the less time there is for this lateral movement, and you’ll want to start setting up the stroke almost immediately. In addition, you don’t want your hands coming together upon entry, as they’ll have to slide back out. It’s wasted time and energy.

Set up the stroke

As with freestyle, setting up the stroke is about bending the elbows and getting your hands deep. You want your hands inside your elbows and elbows above your hands. If you’re swimming short events, your hands can be deeper and your arms can be straighter, whereas a shallower hand and more bent elbow is better suited for long events. With short events, this set-up needs to occur quickly, whereas you have more time in the longer swims.

Pull back hard

Once you’ve set up the stroke, pull back hard. There’s no need to try to move your hands in or out in any sort of pattern. While your hands might move laterally as you pull back, it’s not something to try to create. Feel as if you’re pulling straight back with the goal of having your hands end up right by your hips.

Optimize Undulation

The more you undulate, the more resistance you create and the longer it takes to complete each stroke. But if you eliminate undulation, you compromise your power and make it impossible to get both arms out of the water at the same time. Most swimmers, however, tend to undulate too much, especially as they try to swim fast.

Stay low

The more you can keep your breath low, the more you’ll optimize your undulation. Taking a big breath is going to lift your shoulders and your torso and drop your hips. As what goes up must come down, a high head will make you dive beneath the surface after the breath. Keeping your breath low is the most straightforward and powerful strategy to optimize your undulation.

Stay shallow

Following your breath, press your chest to get your hips back up. Stay shallow with your press. If you press too much, you’ll have to dig yourself out of that position. Not only is this physically difficult, but you also won’t be using your arms to perform their main task, which is creating propulsion. Furthermore, as your arms tend to follow your body, they may end up much lower than preferred if you press the chest too much. Stay shallow.

Calibrate for speed

With long events, you’ll be moving slower and breathing more often. As a result, you can afford to undulate more, and doing so may be beneficial as it can be easier to get your arms out of the water for longer periods. In long events, you’ll often press your chest more. You must, however, ensure that your arms remain at the surface while pressing your chest. In contrast, shorter events require high stroke rates and fatigue is less of an issue. A shallower undulation may work best. Experiment to see what works for you.

Effectively Time Your Kick and Stroke

Most successful butterflyers exhibit a strong, consistent kicking action, even during 200s. There’s a strong kick in both the front and the back of the stroke cycle. It’s critical to time your arm and leg actions to keep your stroke moving from phase to phase. If these movements are out of sync, your rhythm is going to be impaired.

Here’s how to do it.

Kick in the front

The simplest way to focus on the timing of your kick is to couple your first kick with the entry of your arms. You want to kick your arms forward as they enter. Kicking upon entry helps to extend your body forward and place your hips in a streamlined position. This position also facilitates the initiation of your pull.

Kick in the back

Time your second kick with the exit of your arms. By kicking as your hands exit, your hips and torso will be elevated, allowing you to breathe and swing your arms over the surface with less effort. Otherwise, you’ll have to lift your arms out of the water, which will make you very tired, very fast.

Flick the kick

Don’t overbend your knees and execute a really big, powerful kick. This slows your stroke rate and increases drag. Instead, try to keep your kicks tight and snappy, focusing on getting the timing right to ensure your kick is optimized. Flick the kick.

Long legs

As an extension of the point above, try to keep your legs relatively long as opposed to bending your knees to kick. It might feel like you’re kicking with straight legs, and it might feel less powerful. You might be creating less force, but you’re also creating less drag. It’s a net win.

Use Your Arm Recovery to Sync Your Stroke

This is where it all comes together. One of the biggest challenges is for swimmers to get their hips back up after breathing. If you’ve watched the 200 butterfly, I’m sure you’ve seen swimmers “going vertical.” These swimmers lose their body position as their hips drop lower and lower. It’s not a pretty sight. To avoid that situation, use your arm recovery to help sync your stroke to ensure your timing remains on point.

Swing the arms

When you swing your arms forward, they have momentum. The more you can swing them, the more momentum they’ll have. When you enter the water and stop your arms from diving down, that momentum will be transferred to your chest, and your chest will dive down. This will help pop your hips up. Use this to your advantage.

Press the chest

Capitalize on the momentum of your chest and shoulders by pressing into the water as much as you need to get your body back in alignment, which is when your hips are level at the surface. If you struggle to get in alignment, try pressing harder. If it’s relatively easy for you, a light press might be all you need.

Kick forward

When your hands are entering, simultaneously kick your hands forward in a lengthening movement. Elevate your hips and press your chest, further magnifying the effect of the arms described above. Everything is happening at the same time. You’re not necessarily looking to get your chest lower; you’re looking to make the whole process easier. The easier it is, the more likely you’ll be able to do it when you’re tired.

If you’re able to swing your arms and press your chest while kicking your arms forward upon entry, you’ll be doing everything you can to avoid going vertical. Once those skills are locked in, all you have to do is pull back and execute your second kick. It makes butterfly simple.

Putting it All Together

Butterfly is perceived to be the most difficult stroke, and it’s thought to require the most strength. However, strength is only required when butterfly is executed poorly. By performing relatively simple and direct actions of your arms and legs with impeccable timing, butterfly can be performed by anyone. The key is to optimize your undulation while timing your kick with key points of the arm action. If you can accomplish this, you’ll be able to swim butterfly in a manner envied by your peers.

See all the articles in this series:

Swimming Technique: Breaking swimming into its critical components
Backstroke Technique: Breaking backstroke into its critical components
Breaststroke Technique: Breaking breaststroke into its critical components
Freestyle Technique: Breaking freestyle into its critical components
Underwater Kicking Technique: Breaking underwater kicking into its critical components


  • Technique and Training


  • Butterfly