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by Kerry O Brien

July 27, 2020

Butterfly is a beautiful stroke—when done properly

Butterfly is to swimming what the Fosbury Flop is to track and field and the triple axel is to figure skating: the quintessential weaving of both power and style, with its difficulty overshadowed by its grace when viewed in its purest form.

Butterfly shares many of the same challenges as its short-axis cousin, breaststroke. The most important is being able to keep your body in forward motion by eliminating excessive up and down movements that create inefficiencies and speed-killing drag. With the physical demands required, you must have a workable balanced ratio of energy output to energy effectively transferred to forward propulsion. In other words, efficiency begets speed. This is never truer than in butterfly.

Here is a look at butterfly in its purest form.

Go With the Flow

Because of how difficult it can be to swim butterfly, you should isolate certain aspects of the stroke to get a better understanding of their purpose and then integrate them with the next piece. This gives you a working knowledge of how the mechanics interact and complement each other toward the goal of a more efficient and fluid technique.

Flow and rhythm are all-important for proper butterfly. Body dolphining helps set up your flow and rhythm. Your legs shouldn’t be the only things involved in this motion; your torso is important in setting into motion the necessary movements to create this rhythmic flow that builds power and quickness and delivers it to your legs and down to the snap of your feet at the end of your kick. Just as in any land-based sport, you generate power in your core, and it goes to your limbs.

As your arms complete the recovery phase, press your chest (the most buoyant part of your body because of the air in your lungs) into the water to help lift your pelvis. Throughout this movement, your hips should never venture far from the surface. This is the key to the idea of “directional momentum.” Keep things moving in the direction you want to travel: forward, not up and down.

Timing is Everything

Your hands should enter directly in front of your shoulders and stay at or near the surface of the water. Think of your entry as lunging forward, not plunging down.

If you drive your hands below your head and chest down into the water, you’ll have issues syncing your pull to the timing of your two kicks. Your kicks should be timed so that the first happens when your hands enter the water and the second should be when your hands come out of the water.

If you’re driving your hands too deep, you experience a momentary pause that will often lead to an early second kick. If this happens, you won’t have any force to drive your shoulders forward to clear the surface of the water at the beginning of the recovery phase of your stroke. Your default will be to press down on the water with your hands and to arch your back to lift your head, shoulders, and chest, all of which is inefficient.

There’s Always a Catch

Setting up a proper catch in swimming, regardless of what stroke you’re doing, is as important as the construction of a proper foundation for a building. The success of everything that follows rests upon it. Because of the symmetrical nature of the arm stroke in butterfly, the execution of your catch is twice as important.

Keep your elbows at the surface of the water at the start of your stroke, bringing your hands and forearms underneath them with your fingers pointed toward the bottom of the pool. Being able to delay your stroke until you’ve hinged at the elbow, (early vertical forearm), takes concentration and focus, but it’s important. This is why many butterflyers take the time to isolate this portion of their stroke in drill sets. Doing so allows them to give this effort the attention it deserves.

The Key to a Proper Pull

Once you’ve performed a proper catch, you’re now in position to recruit the larger muscle groups in your chest, shoulders, and back to do the heavy lifting of propelling your body over your hands. Based upon your strength and preferences, the pattern of your hands through the pull may vary from pressing in toward your navel, historically referred to as the keyhole pattern, to more of a straight line from catch to hips.

As your elbows begin exiting the water to initiate the recovery phase, your hands should keep accelerating through the finish of your pull, keeping propulsive pressure on your palms until you pass your hips. Once you get there, your pull and second kick finish in unison, with your body in an alignment that creates the least amount of drag.

The Recovery

Your arm recovery is a low, swinging, circular motion in which your hands stay close to the water’s surface. Don’t let your elbows hinge and cause your hands to get ahead of your elbows. Keep everything in a straight line.

An important key to butterfly recovery is having the ability to transfer momentum from a circular orbit to one that has your hands, upon entry, landing in front of your shoulders and moving in the direction you want to travel: forward, not down or crashing toward the centerline. Proper hand entry sets up the next stroke cycle.


Because of the strength and energy demands that butterfly requires, oxygen is always a hot commodity. And as world records continue to drop, more and more 100 and 200 butterflyers are breathing every stroke to meet these demands.

But without proper mechanics, every breath is potentially slowing you down. It’s the last piece of the puzzle in terms of syncing everything to the rhythmic flow of the stroke.

When top butterflyers set up a breathing stroke, as soon as they feel any pressure on their palms, they begin to exhale through their nose. You should move your chin forward slightly, as your upper body rides the wave back toward the surface to get a breath of air.

Keeping in mind that your body will always follow your head, from above the water, you can see the importance of keeping your chin skimming closely over the surface. Doing this keeps your momentum moving forward, not up and down.

The completion of your inhale should be in sync with both the finish of your pull and your second kick. From there, it’s a race between your eyes and your hands to get back into the water first, but your eyes should get back into the water right before your hands.


  • Technique and Training


  • Butterfly