Swimming Butterfly – Part 1

Butterfly swimming

How to fly like Phelps!

Butterfly is known amongst swimmers as being notoriously hard. Whilst learning and perfecting the technique may seem gruelling, the rewards are worth it. Not only is butterfly the second fastest stroke, when swam correctly, it also provides an excellent workout. Swimming Butterfly is exceedingly fun and looks really impressive.

Benefits of Swimming Butterfly

  • Core StrengthSwimming Butterfly Part 1
    The movement of the body through the water when swimming butterfly requires the whole body to move in perfect timing. This is known as an undulation. To create this rhythmic movement, all the major muscle groups are engaged so the stroke is smooth and flows naturally. This makes butterfly the ideal stroke for a full body workout.
  • Stamina
    Butterfly is also great for building anaerobic stamina. By swimming short sharp bursts training can become high intensity. Combine this with longer distances swims on breaststroke or front crawl for a more varied training plan. Involving different energy systems will help to achieve an all-round body workout.

Key Features of Swimming Butterfly – The Arm Stroke

The arm stroke can be broken down into 3 distinguishable movements; Push, Pull and Recovery.

The push and pull sections are most important for creating propulsion, whereas the recovery aids breathing. Combined together the Push and Pull should make the shape of a large old fashioned key hole

How to perform a butterfly arm stroke?

1. Push

Start with your arms fully extended out in front of you, angling your hands slightly out to the side to catch the water, sweep outwards with your arms until shoulder width apart.

2. Pull

Perform a semi-circle shape pull so to meet your hands below your chest. Turn your hands to face out and back. With a powerful, explosive, push extend your arms so your hands are down by your thighs. This is the fastest part of the stroke and provides the forwards momentum.

3. Recovery

After the propulsive phase of the arm stroke, the goal is to get the arms back into position for another pull. Bring the arms over the water keeping them low, extended and relaxed. Hands should enter the water about shoulder width apart.

All three movements should fit together smoothly to create a rhythmic motion which aids the body undulation used for butterfly kick.

Swimming Butterfly – The Leg Kick

The mistake a lot of swimmers make with butterfly kick is to make all the kicks the same size and strength. This quickly becomes tiring and is hard to maintain. To achieve a comfortable rhythm which is easier to maintain over a longer period, kicking sizes should be adapted to fit each part of the stroke.

How to perform a butterfly leg kick?

Butterfly swam correctly has a rhythm of 2 kicks to 1 arm pull.

The first kick is deep and strong, creating large amounts of propulsion, which aids the recovery of the arms.

The second kick however, is a much smaller, creating balance. Timing is crucial, just at the start of the pull as the hands enter the water.

Two kicks of different sizes gives smooth movement through the water and allows for constant propulsion during recovery and breathing.


Breathing on butterfly is similar to Breaststroke in that the head comes up to front rather than to the side as with front crawl. It is important to keep the chin low and on the water if possible to avoid dropping the hips. The higher your head is, the lower your hips will be, ultimately causing extra resistance and slowing you down.


Some Olympic athletes prefer to breathe to the side on butterfly as they feel it allows for more natural position without needing to lift the head too much. It is a legal technique, however, neither method has been proven to be more efficient than the other and the general consensus is to breathe to the front.

Try breathing both to the front and to the side when you practise and see which way you find most comfortable.

Here’s 4 of our favourite stroke drills to help you master swimming butterfly

1. Dolphin Kick

Practising butterfly kick with arms down by the sides is a good way of learning how to create the vital wave/ undulation action. As you press down with your head and shoulders you should feel your hips rise creating the wave through your body. Let your arms float by your side to get a sense of the power needed to help propel you through the water. Develop further by advancing to streamlined position dolphin kick.

2. Dolphin Kick (on back)

Butterfly kick on your back has more than one advantage. Its a great way to to practise the undulating action required in butterfly stroke, with the added benefit of working your core, hence swimmers strong abdominal muscles.

Try kicking with your hands by your side first. Push down with your head slightly to start the wave, feel the core muscles working hard to create the undulation and push the power down through the legs.

A common mistake is to move the upper body too much. Keep a strong upper body position and use the hips to undulate, thus creating a powerful, dolphin like action.

3. One Arm Fly

Leave one arm stretched out in front for balance and use your other arm to pull. Concentrate on the keyhole shape and work on getting the last pull section as powerful as you can. Your hand should be entering back into the water shoulder width apart, however, your hands should never touch.

Breathing to the side, as if swimming front crawl, will make it easier to concentrate on your pull without having to worry about getting your breathing right to the front, although head movement should be minimised.

4. Easy Butterfly

Once you feel comfortable with the technique above, why not focus on building up your full stroke stamina?

Swim half a length (or as far as you are able) of perfect butterfly technique before switching to another stroke. Finish the length at an easy pace. This allows you to practise your butterfly without getting too tired and letting your technique falter. You will find the more you practise this, the easier you will find it to maintain your technique. Because gradually increasing the butterfly portion of the length is the best way to maintain efficiency.

Alistair Mills
by Alistair Mills

In 2016 I saw an opportunity for a new swimming company that did things a little bit differently and here we are almost 4 years later, having built a family of teachers and clients that we are all really proud of.

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