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by Cokie Lepinski

March 4, 2021

Here are four tips and three drills to help you with this challenging stroke

One of the most common problems you’ll notice in butterfly is too much up and down motion. If you have a big wave or amplitude to your undulation, you’re exerting a lot of unnecessary energy for the wrong motions. That expenditure, which is being used for going up and down instead of forward, can lead to early exhaustion, limiting both your stamina and your speed. Although there are many components to butterfly, this article focuses solely on the arms. There are four tips and three drills to improve your arm recovery and keep you flying low and moving forward, instead of up and down.

Four Tips for Your Arms

Palms Up and Back

Flying low is easier if you press your palms up to the sky as your hands exit the water. Carry this palms-up approach as far forward as you can in the recovery over the top of the water. Your palms will rotate to facing behind you as your hands and arms outstretch to the side of your body, somewhere around the “T” position. Some swimmers can carry this palms-up position even farther, almost to where their hands land out front. Either way is fine, your ability will depend on the flexibility in your shoulders, arms, and torso.

Lead with the Wrist

A classic image of many great butterfly swimmers, including Michael Phelps, shows very relaxed hands, as if he leads his recovery with his wrists. After the palms up on exit, his fingers feather back behind him. His hand entry out front is soft on the water as if he’s gently laying them on the surface. Some of that, of course, also comes from an efficient torso press and proper hip action. How softly can you land your hands out front? Experiment with a wrist-led arm recovery to soften your entry.

Straight-Arm Recovery

Your elbow bends in fly, but only under the water. Once your hands exit the water with palms up, your arm should be straight with your elbow locked throughout the recovery over the top of the water.

Flare Your Exit

To aid in the straight-arm recovery with palms up, try finishing your underwater pull slightly outside your hips instead of right next to them. Flaring out can make it easier to roll your shoulders over the top of the water. Finishing too close to your hips can cause you to begin your recovery with your palms facing down, which can lead to your chest and shoulders being too high, which can increase your amplitude.

Three Drills for Skills

Mimic the Action

Stand tall with your arms at your sides, palms facing back. Leading with your wrists, simply raise your arms straight out from the sides of your body (like you’re going to make a T) and then go all the way up above your head, ending with your arms parallel in an “11” position over your head. This is a good starting point to learn to roll your shoulders and stay low across the water with palms to the sky. Now lean forward, bending slightly at your waist and repeat the action, but this time feel the shoulders roll instead of lift. Try doing this bent-over action standing in the shallow end of the pool and see if you can sweep your arm recovery just over the water’s surface.

Snow Angels

Place a kickboard lengthwise under your torso, leaving your head and neck clear. Find your balance—a light flutter kick can help. If you’ve got a snorkel, wear it in order to concentrate solely on your arm recovery. Place your arms back behind you, palms to the sky, hands a few inches away from your body. As slowly as possible, sweep your arms forward over the water and then back (also over the water) to the starting point at your waist. Your goal is to skim the water, at first with the backs of your hands and later your thumbs as you go past the “T” into the final reach forward. Key to success on this drill is to go slow, slow, slow with that sweep. Think of leading the recovery with your wrists.

Flutterfly into Butterfly

Fins and a snorkel can help with this drill, but you can also do it without any equipment. Essentially, you’re going to swim butterfly with a flutter kick. A flutter kick can help flatten you by stabilizing your hips. This allows you to stay lower in the water and focus your energy on moving forward. If you’re not using a snorkel, your breath should be low and quick, and make sure your head and eyes are looking down before you land your hands out front. Keep your chin low to the surface, extend your neck, and stay forward with your breath. As you get comfortable with this, transition from flutter kick to regular butterfly kick. Stay low!

An efficient butterfly has a smooth, mild undulation. If you work on transitioning to a low recovery, you’re on the right track to begin saving energy by reducing the amplitude of your undulation. Keep your eye on the goal of taking your energy forward, not up and down.


  • Technique and Training


  • Butterfly
  • Drills