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by Terry Heggy

October 26, 2018

Find and eliminate pauses in the propulsion phase of these two strokes

The double-arm recoveries of breaststroke and butterfly produce built-in gaps in arm propulsion, and the breaststroke kick features a nonpropulsive recovery phase. Our challenge is to ensure that no additional dead spots sneak into these strokes.



Butterfly—Dead zones in dolphin kick are common when you have a momentary pause in your kicking rhythm. This can be caused by the following:

  • Fatigue—The energy demands of fly make it tempting to let your legs drift while you focus on the effort required to accomplish the arm recovery.
  • Timing—If the breathing, catch phase, or pull motion take too long, your legs lose rhythm and get out of sync with the stroke cadence.
  • Amplitude and body position—If your knees bend too much, your feet drive too deep, or your hips consistently remain low in the water, the effort put into the kick can create additional drag rather than providing propulsion. A kick that only thrusts down (neglecting the upward effort from the hamstrings and glutes) also has a dead zone as your feet fall idle in a nonpropulsive “recovery” phase.

Breaststroke—The duration of the brief glide after your legs come together on the breaststroke kick depends on race distance, (i.e., a faster cadence for sprints). Watch for other dead zones, though, including those caused by dropped or overly widespread knees, scissor kick (toes pointed in the wrong direction), and failure to accelerate through to the finish of the kick.

Dead zones can also occur as you push off the wall. If you’re still kicking (or gliding) underwater when you’ve slowed down to your swimming speed, you went too deep. Dial in the proper exit angle, depth, and kick duration by practicing off the walls at race pace for each of your events.


  • Just as in freestyle and backstroke, always perform breaststroke and dolphin kick sets with focus and purpose. Drive the kick from your core and use the pace clock to track your progress, just as you do on swim and pull sets.
  • Do your dryland core work, including squats, burpees, lunges, planks, and TRX. Fly and breaststroke depend heavily on the lower half of your body, so core and leg fitness are the only way to defeat the fatigue that causes dead zones.
  • Do dolphin kick without a kickboard, maintaining consistent force in both up and down directions to learn continuous propulsion. The more you train for fast leg cadence, the quicker you’ll be able to perform the full stroke when you add arms. For some swimmers, it might even be better to shorten your arm stroke to maintain rhythm rather than letting your legs drift down into the drag plane while your arms slog through an exhausted and non-productive pull.
  • You can’t see your own legs as you swim, so it’s easy to let bad habits creep in. Get feedback from your coach to ensure that your arm and kick timing is correct, and that your feet are moving through the proper motions.
  • Improve your breaststroke kick by holding a kickboard between yourself and another swimmer as you try to push your rival backward. Think about your arm timing and undulation as you accelerate through to the finish of each kick.



The most common dead zone in the butterfly stroke happens when your entry goes awry, either dipping too deep and rising again before the pull begins, or having your hands come completely together as they enter, requiring a side thrust before you can achieve vertical forearm orientation. And as with all strokes, you lose thrust if your elbows pull back before your hands, causing slippage throughout the stroke.

Though it’s not technically a dead zone, butterfly also presents the risk of thrust-killing drag if your hands splash water forward during the recovery or if your head rises too high during the breath.

The top dead zone for breaststroke arms occurs when the hands come back too far under your chest or get stuck in a pause under your chin.


  • Train your fly rhythm by always performing the stroke correctly. Pay attention to your depth as you undulate, ensuring that your energy is directed toward forward motion rather than wasted in vertical “gasp and dive” efforts. If you become too fatigued to do the stroke right, consider switching to one-arm fly or freestyle to avoid developing poor stroke habits.
  • Minimize the work you do during the fly recovery. Flexibility mitigates fatigue by reducing the effort it takes to get your arms out of the water. Keep your shoulders loose and strengthen the back muscles that pull your shoulder blades together at the start of the recovery. Stay low and in line; barely clearing the surface is all that’s necessary.
  • Think of your breaststroke pull as a circle with recovery in the full glide position. Your hands should not stop at all underneath your body; they pull back and shoot forward with continuous acceleration from streamline to streamline. It’s easy to misjudge the exact path your hands take, so get some feedback from your coach until your hands complete a propulsive round trip through the pull in time for the kick to fire for a streamlined surge.

The undulation of butterfly and breaststroke can lull you into thinking only of rhythm while forgetting to monitor your propulsion. Focus your attention on the pressures you generate with your hands and legs to ensure that you push through every phase of the stroke to achieve maximum thrust.


  • Technique and Training


  • Drills
  • Butterfly
  • Breaststroke
  • Stroke Technique