How to swim the butterfly stroke

Most swimmers agree: Butterfly is the toughest stroke. It uses every muscle in the body, and requires a high level of strength, technique and timing to get it right. It may feel impossible at times — but it doesn’t have to be!

If you’re learning to swim butterfly or if you want to refine your technique, you’ve come to the right place. Perfect your form at each of 4 checkpoints (head and body position, pull, kick and breathing) to swim faster and more efficiently.

How to swim the butterfly stroke

Your head has a huge impact on the rest of your stroke, so focus on keeping it in a neutral position throughout your workouts. Your body (most importantly, your hips) follow your head, meaning that if your eyes look forward rather than down, your hips will sink. This creates a ton of extra drag

2. The Pull

Now let’s talk about the pull. Your hands should enter the water slightly wider than your shoulders — think 11 and 1 on a clock!

How to swim the butterfly stroke

Underwater, you’re essentially doing 2 freestyle strokes at the same time. Keep your elbows high to maintain early vertical forearm throughout the pull. Try to keep your hands shoulder width apart and pull straight back. No S-pull here!

How to swim the butterfly stroke

Your arms should be fully extended as they exit the water to begin the recovery phase. Keep them straight and sweep them out and around, entering the water again in front of your shoulders.

Try This Training Tool to Improve Your Pull

How to swim the butterfly stroke

We’ve been loving Aqua Knuckles’ finger separators to enhance the power of our pulls in all 4 strokes! Aqua Knuckles slide onto your middle and index fingers, creating a 5-10mm separation between your fingers to encourage you to swim with a more relaxed hand position.

How to swim the butterfly stroke

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3. The Kick

Butterfly kick is also known as dolphin kick. This undulating motion drives the stroke forward. You’ll do 2 kicks for every arm stroke: 1 kick helps propel your arms out of the water, and the second kick helps you drive forward as your hands re-enter the water.

How to swim the butterfly stroke

Keep your legs squeezed together and your toes pointed, with a slight bend in the knee. Similar to freestyle kick, butterfly kick should be initiated at the hips rather than at the knee.

It’s common for swimmers to only focus on the “down” portion of the dolphin kick. They’re doing themselves a disservice! Work on the “up” phase as well to get the most power out of your kick.

4. Breathing

When you breathe in butterfly, you only need to lift your head high enough to take a quick breath. Your chin should be right at the surface of the water — no need to lift any higher!

How to swim the butterfly stroke

Lifting your head too high or holding your head out of the water for too long will cause your hips to sink and slow you down.

As your arms recover and re-enter the water, lower your chin and face back under the surface and press your chest forward to raise your hips back up. Your head should return to the neutral position, with eyes looking down.

Try These Butterfly Drills

Add one (or all) of these butterfly swim drills to your next workout!

Flow Drill

The FLOW drill will help you perfect the dolphin motion in butterfly. We recommend wearing fins for this drill if you have them!

The butterfly stroke is quite a distinctive swimming stroke. It looks spectacular, but is also difficult to learn and quite exhausting, even for accomplished swimmers.

For these reasons, many swimmers never bother to learn this stroke. However, in my opinion, they are missing out because once you have mastered it, swimming a few laps of butterfly can be a lot of fun, thanks to its peculiar and energetic movements.

How to swim the butterfly stroke

Butterfly is a spectacular swimming stroke!

Butterfly Stroke Video

Here is a video showing the butterfly stroke movements above and underwater:

Swimming Stroke Phases

Let us now analyze the different phases of the butterfly stroke. We imagine the swimmer is in the following initial position:

  1. The body floats in a prone position.
  2. The head is in a neutral position, face down.
  3. The arms are extended forward and shoulder-width apart. The palms are facing down.
  4. The legs are straight and held together.
  5. The feet are extended.

Now the stroke cycle begins:

  1. The body undulation is initiated by pressing the chest down in the water.
  2. The arm stroke begins when the chest is being released.
  3. The arms move apart and bend at the elbows so that the undersides of the forearms and the palms of the hands move into a backward-facing position called the catch.
  4. Once the arms are in the catch position, they move backward and inward toward the chest.
  5. At the same time, the hips are pushed down, and the legs bend at the knees.
  6. Once the hands meet below the chest, they change their direction to move toward the hips.
  7. As the hands move toward the hips, a first dolphin kick is performed.
  8. Shortly after that, the chest and shoulders peak above the water surface.
  9. As soon as the hands reach the hips, the arms leave the water and are swung forward sideways over the water.
  10. Once the arms are in front of the body, about shoulder-width apart, they enter the water and fully extend below the water surface.
  11. A second dolphin kick is performed as the arms extend under the water surface.
  12. The next stroke cycle begins.

Swimming Technique

The following articles cover the butterfly stroke technique in more detail:

Body Movement

How to swim the butterfly stroke

The undulating movements of the body drive the butterfly stroke.

Body Movement: The undulating movement of the body drives the butterfly stroke. This article explains how to perform this body undulation.

Arm Stroke

How to swim the butterfly stroke

In the butterfly, the arms recover simultaneously.

Arm Stroke: This article explains the different phases of the arm stroke and how to perform them correctly.

Dolphin Kick

How to swim the butterfly stroke

In the butterfly, the legs move as one unit, like a dolphin’s tail.

The Dolphin Kick: In the butterfly stroke, the legs move as one unit, similar to how a dolphin moves its tail, hence the name “dolphin kick.” In this article, we discuss the dolphin kick technique in more detail.

Breathing Technique

How to swim the butterfly stroke

Look downward and slightly forward while breathing in.

Breathing Technique: In this article, we discuss various aspects of breathing while swimming butterfly: when to breathe in, when to breathe out, how often to breathe, breathing to the side, etc.

Learn How to Swim

How to swim the butterfly stroke

The butterfly stroke is challenging but also fun to learn.

Learn How to Swim Butterfly: This article introduces you to our series of swimming drills to learn the butterfly stroke. This series can be divided into the following steps:

  1. First, you learn the body undulation and dolphin kick, which are the techniques that drive this swimming stroke.
  2. Next, you practice the underwater arm stroke.
  3. After that, you practice the above-water arm recovery.
  4. Finally, you combine all those techniques and gradually move on to swimming butterfly.


Maglischo, E. (2003). Swimming Fastest. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, pp. 145–180.

Related Pages

You may also be interested in the following articles that cover the butterfly stroke’s swimming technique:

Monday 7th of September 2020

To say I love your website would be an understatement! As for the butterfly I think it would be great if you can add to the pictures the water line mark and also what to do with legs after each kick so to be ready for the next one.

Many Thanks in advance.

Saturday 13th of July 2019

I am a female in my sixties. I never learned butterfly but I have been endeavouring to teach myself this stroke over the last few months since I went back to swimming a few times a week to try to get an exercise routine in the pool.

I have the gist of the undulating movement and two kicks in the stroke but I can’t recover over the water and I don’t expect I will be able to master it as I doubt I have the upper body strength or the correct body position/kick.

What I would like to know is how I could do a modified version with an underwater recovery primarily for the exercise. I am presently pulling to the hips and then just recovering as best I can underwater to start stroke again.

Work through these basic butterfly stroke swimming steps and master the most difficult of the four basic swimming strokes.

Dive in and get started.

How to swim the butterfly stroke

Step 1: Body Movement

The best starting point for learning butterfly stroke is the undulating body movement. The whole stroke is centred around the up and down dolphin-like movement and in one of the most important butterfly stroke swimming steps.  A push from the side is the best place to start. 

  1. Start by holding the poolside behind you, take a deep breath, submerge your face and spring away from the wall, across the water surface. 
  2. Keep your arms stretched out in front with hands and feet together.
  3. Begin moving your head by dipping your chin towards your chest and then pushing it forward and up.
  4. Repeat this up and down movement of the head and allow it transmit through your shoulders and chest.
  5. Keep the head movement going, allowing the wave-like ripples to flow right through your hips and down to your legs.

How to swim the butterfly stroke

  • face is in the water
  • legs are together
  • hands are together

Pick up a Free Butterfly Technique eBook

How to swim the butterfly stroke

Step 2: Butterfly Stroke Kick

The leg kick for butterfly is a powerful, simultaneous movement that comes from the knees. An excellent way to develop this is to add it onto the ‘push and glide’  exercise above.  

  1. Set yourself up on the side of the pool as you did above, tucked up ready to push away.
  2. Push off and begin the undulating, up and down movement, leading from your head.
  3. Keeping your legs together, bend your knees so that your feet rise up towards the water surface.
  4. Kick both feet downwards in a powerful whip-like action.
  5. Repeat this kicking action, keeping it in sync with the undulating body movement.
  • legs are together and move simultaneously 
  • knees should not bend excessively
  • legs should whip down like a dolphin tail

Step 3: Arm Movement

The arm action for butterfly stroke is a very large and simultaneous, accelerating movement that has to be coordinated with the undulating body action. This is the next most important of the butterfly stroke swimming steps.

The best way to learn this is to perform it over a short distance.

  1. Begin as before, against the poolside ready to push away.
  2. Push off with arms and hands stretched out in front and begin the undulating body movement.
  3. With both arms at the same time, pull under your body in a ‘key hole’ shape, pulling around, inwards and then outwards towards the thighs.
  4. Your arms then exit the water and recover over the surface, entering with finger and thumb first, inline with your shoulders.

How to swim the butterfly stroke

  • elbows remain higher than the hands
  • hands accelerate through the water
  • arms are straight as they recover low over the water surface

Step 4: Breathing Technique

The breathing for butterfly stroke is explosive and happens the arms pull through and the head raises.  Try walking through the water, performing slow arm pull, so that you can practice timing the breath inwards with the arm pull back.

To practice the explosive breathing technique, try adding it onto the leg kick practice outline above.

  1. Push away from the poolside and begin the undulating body movement.
  2. Add the leg kicks, counting groups of 4 kicks.
  3. Lift your head, exhaling as you do so after each group of 4 kicks. 
  4. Inhale as your chin clears the water surface and dive your head back down again for another 4 kicks.
  • exhalation takes place as the head begins to rise
  • inhalation is short and sharp

Step 5: Timing and Coordination

The timing cycle of butterfly stroke usually includes 2 legs kicks to each arm pull cycle with the first, stronger kick occurring as the arms enter and begin to pull.  The second kick occurs as the arms complete their pull phase and begin to exit and recover. The best way to practice this is using the whole stroke.

  1. push away from the poolside and use your head to initiate the whole movement.
  2. perform a leg kick followed immediately by a simultaneous arm pull. 
  3. perform another leg kick as your arms recover over the water surface.
  4. continue the patter, using a ‘kick-pull-kick-recover’ sequence.

How to swim the butterfly stroke

If you find this part of the butterfly stroke swimming steps tricky, try a push and glide and perform one single stroke cycle.  As you begin to find a rhythm with the sequence, then add on more strokes. 

Need more butterfly stroke swimming steps?

Look no further. My popular guide book How To Swim Butterfly’ contains many tried and tested drill and exercises that all beginners and improvers will find easy to access. 

I have taken butterfly swimming technique and broken it down into its  separate parts . That way, you will have a clear picture of what each part of your body should be doing at each point during the stroke. 

Butterfly Stroke Swimming Technique Video

The butterfly technique video below explains each part of the stroke and what your body should be doing as you swim.  

How to swim the butterfly stroke

FREE EBOOK:  all of the technique tips here can be found in my ‘Butterfly Stroke Technique‘ book, along with a couple of bonus drills to help you perfect some essential parts of the stroke.

How To Do Butterfly Stroke – 12 Essential Parts

1.   As the body undulates, the swimmer maintains a stretched and streamlined position, led by the head.

2.   The shoulders remain horizontal as the movement flows smoothly.

How to swim the butterfly stroke

3.   The kick is simultaneous, rhythmical and powerful, remaining within the body width.

4.   The knees bend and provide a powerful downbeat whip-like action, with toes pointed and ankles relaxed.

5.   The simultaneous arm action begins with the hands entering the water, thumb and index finger first. 

6.   The hands press outwards and downwards in a powerful S shape pathway towards the hips, where they exit the water.

7.   The arms then recover over the water, ready to enter again, gaining maximum reach per stroke as they do so.

How to swim the butterfly stroke

8.   Breathing should take place every stroke or every other stroke, depending on the swimmer’s ability.

9.   The swimmer exhales explosively as the head rises and then inhales quickly as the arms exit and the chin is clear of the water. 

10.   The timing and coordination follow a ‘kick, pull, kick, recover’ sequence. 

11.   One kick supports the upward movement as the swimmer’s arms pull and the head rises to breathe.

12.  The second kick assists the undulation and propulsion as the arms recover.

How to swim the butterfly stroke

Get more from your butterfly stroke.

Do you need more butterfly technique tips and drills? Everything you need is right here in my popular book ‘How To Swim Butterfly’. 

Swimming butterfly is no joke. Unlike other strokes, you can’t get away with putting in minimal effort in butterfly, even when you’re doing an easy set.

This sometimes makes it challenging to train for speed because fatigue is quick to set in. But, with proper technique and consistent practice , working to improve your butterfly will be less daunting.

Here are a few components to focus on to swim butterfly faster:

Underwater Kicks

A fast butterfly starts underwater – tight streamline combined with powerful dolphin kicks allows you to sustain more speed from the push-off or dive and set up for a strong breakout. Putting in the effort to optimize time underwater guarantees a faster swim.

Body position

Undulation is a term often associated with butterfly. If done properly, it helps increase the propulsion of each stroke by setting up the arms for a stronger catch and enabling better utilization of the core and hips for more powerful kicks.

The key is to use this motion to drive forward, instead of simply going up and down. Lead with the chest in the forward motion, not the head, and use the core to power the kicks.

Time your breath right, stay low and make sure you’re not tilting your head up or lifting too high out of the water. Otherwise, body alignment will be compromised – legs and hips will drop and your arms will not be in a good position for the recovery.

The pull

Start the catch early. Once the hands enter the water (palms facing down, around shoulder width), keep your elbows high and pull the water back, all the way past the hips before bringing them out.

Aim for controlled, but relaxed recovery. This is more efficient than muscling through the recovery, which expends unnecessary energy and adds strain to the shoulders.

During the pull, avoid the temptation of pushing down to get your head up for a breath, as this will only increase drag.

And, always finish your pull to really maximize each stroke. You will lose out on a good amount of propulsion if your arms exit the water too early.

The second dolphin kick

The second dolphin kick is a critical component of a fast butterfly. It provides the propulsive force that completes your pull with a strong finish and sets up your arms for a relaxed recovery.

Not only does it generate increased swimming speed , it also reduces drag, helping maintain proper body position by preventing the legs and hips from sinking or the upper body from going too high out of the water.

However, the second kick is often an easily missed step because the legs aren’t properly set up for the down-kick. Remember to actively bend the knees back for the up-kick so you’re in a position to execute a solid second kick.


In butterfly, the rhythm of your strokes is mainly set by the kicks, the arms moving in time with the legs – faster kicks mean faster stroke rate .

The first kick happens after the recovery, as the hands (and face) enter the water. This is immediately followed by the second kick, at which point the arms should be finishing the pull, using the kick to bring your arms (and face) out of the water and your body forward.

Swimming fast means swimming efficiently, and mastering timing is key, especially in butterfly. Without it, body position will be off, and the power of your pulls and kicks will not be properly utilized to gain speed.

How to swim the butterfly stroke

Jasmine Ong

Jasmine has over 13 years of competitive swimming experience and is a marketing professional by trade. Jasmine enjoys merging her swimming history with her natural marketing abilities, to deliver valuable swimming and performance content.

How to swim the butterfly stroke

The fourth and final stroke of our swimming blog series is known by many as the most difficult to complete. Butterfly is a very physically and mentally demanding stroke, but when done properly, it looks and feels incredibly graceful. Butterfly works nearly every muscle in your body, and also works to greatly increase your lung capacity. It burns the most calories of all four strokes, and if you’ve seen pictures of Michael Phelps or any other butterflier in a swimsuit, you would know how much it can tone your muscles. Read on to learn about the butterfly technique and the muscle groups it impacts.

Butterfly Swimming

As with all of the strokes we’ve gone over thus far, it’s important to stay patient when learning how to swim. Even the best swimmers encounter issues completing butterfly, so don’t feel bad if it doesn’t come naturally. Just remember that persistence and practice is key. While it is not quite as timing-sensitive as breaststroke, moving your arms and legs consistently together is very important when trying to demonstrate an energy-efficient butterfly. Check out the videos below for a break down of the stroke.

Swimming Technique

Throughout the blog series, we’ve been posting videos of Phillip Toriello, a competitive swimmer and instructor. To keep consistent with the previous blog posts, here is a video of him breaking down butterfly. In the video, he talks about a 2-step kick cycle and breaks down the arm movements into 3 main components.

For the arm movements, the PULL is when the arms are fully extended, about shoulder-width apart out in front of you. Pull continues when you’re starting to move your arms through the water towards your waist. PUSH is the finishing part of the arm movement, when you push the water back, extending your arms again, but this time your hands are down by your waist as opposed to in front of your head. Finally, the RECOVERY phase is when you’re bringing your arms back over your body, into the original arm extended position. So again, that’s:

  1. Pull
  2. Push
  3. Recovery

The instructor also talks about a two-beat kick. The first kick is a large kick, which happens during the pulling/pushing motions, so basically the entire time your arms are in the water. The second kick happens during the recovery. This is also when you would take a breath. The key to an efficient breath is to use the momentum from your kick to push yourself out of the water. To be most efficient, try and keep your head as close to the water as possible, even keeping your chin in the water if you can.

  1. During the Pull/Push motion
  2. During the Recovery

Muscles Used

You’ll notice in the video below that nearly every muscle seems to be used throughout butterfly. Some of the more dominant muscles used include your abs, quads, pecs, hamstrings, glutes, deltoids, and lats. In other words, butterfly can help strengthen the muscles used in almost any everyday activity: walking, lifting a box, gardening, walking up stairs, or picking up a child. Like I said before, butterfly is very challenging and you’ll most likely “feel the burn” right away, even if you have been swimming freestyle for awhile. Once you get the hang of the stroke, it’s a great exercise to add to your regimen. If you get too tired, try swimming one lap butterfly, one lap freestyle, or mix in other strokes until you build up your endurance.

How to swim the butterfly stroke

How to swim the butterfly stroke

Written by Mckinzie Halkola, Fitness Intern at Elite Sports Club – Brookfield

Nuffield Health Swimming Coordinator Mathew Carter provides expert instruction for learning or improving your butterfly stroke.

The basics of learning to swim can be applied to every stroke that you learn. These simple principles focus on:


Each of these stages can’t be performed effectively without first perfecting the previous stage. I’m going to tell you how to get each of these stages right with the butterfly stroke, which is an advanced swim stroke.

Your body should be flat and horizontal in the water with your shoulders and hips all inline. The undulation of the body is at the heart of the butterfly stroke, and can take some practice to get used to.

Your head and chest lead the movement. As your arms enter the water push down and forwards into the water with your head and chest and let your hips and feet follow. As you pull back with your arms your head and chest will rise allowing you to take a breath. This should create a dolphin-like motion.

In butterfly the movements of the legs are rather simple, both legs do a simultaneous whipping motion with the feet pointed. It is however the undulation of the body that is the heart of the butterfly stroke, and it takes practice to integrate the kick with undulation of the body to get propulsion.

The undulation is initiated by your head and chest before travelling down your torso, hips and then into your legs, where it ends in a dolphin-like kick. To start this your body needs to be in a horizontal position in the water, with your head in line with your torso. Arms can either extend forward or be at your sides, and your legs are close together and your feet are pointed.

  • Push your chest a few inches downwards in the water, then release it.
  • As you release your chest, push your hips down in the water, then release them.
  • As your hips drive downward, let your thighs follow behind in the downward movement, your legs bent slightly at the knees.
  • Then, as your hips move upwards, straighten your legs to execute a whipping movement.

How to swim the butterfly strokeAs with all swim strokes most of your propulsion will come from your arms.

Your hands will enter the water in front of your head, keeping the arms relaxed. From here pull down through the water towards your hips, going slightly outwards and then inwards again.

Keep your arms nice and wide as they exit the water again and keep up the speed.


Now that you have got the stroke developed you can move on to the breathing. This tends to be the part of the stroke where most people struggle.

For butterfly you breathe in as your arms pull backwards in the water. This motion pulls your head and chest out of the water to enable the breath to be taken. Make sure you lift your head to look forward instead of down, but stay as low as you can, trying to get your chin just out of the water. If you go too high your legs will drop increasing your drag and slowing your down. If you stay too low you will not be able to get your breath in. Aim to take a breath every one or two strokes.

Never attempt a swimming stroke for the first time on your own. Expert instruction is available at all Nuffield Health swimming pools.

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When an amateur swimmer tries to learn the butterfly, a couple of questions might come to mind in between gasps for air: Who invented this flummoxing stroke, and why? Professionals such as Michael Phelps make the butterfly looks effortless, an act of coördination, grace, and endurance; for beginners, it can look and feel like a wild, flailing doggy paddle. But these questions are as difficult to answer as the stroke is to master. As with other paradigm-shifting inventions, like jazz music and the croissant, the butterfly stroke is the result of a series of small innovations rather than of any single big one. Because of that, tracing the stroke’s origin is difficult, an exercise in weighing disparate accounts.

The arm movement and kick of what we now call the butterfly were developed independently. The dramatic arm stroke can be traced back to around 1930, when most competitive swimmers still used the traditional breaststroke. The International Swimming Hall of Fame credits an Australian, Sydney Cavill, as the inventor of the butterfly armstroke, while others credit a German, Erich Rademacher, and still others say it was an American, Henry Myers. What we can say is that, at around the same time, these swimmers were all experimenting with recovering their arms out of water instead of in it. (During roughly the same period, others were experimenting with a different out-of-water motion: the front crawl.) The butterfly arm motion expended more energy than the breaststroke and required considerable coördination, but it paid off with faster times. Rademacher tried out the arm motion, paired with the traditional breaststroke kick, in races as early as 1927, during a visit to the United States. He insisted that he was still operating within the rules of breaststroke swimming. In 1933, Myers used the new arm stroke at a Brooklyn Y.M.C.A. swim meet, where he beat the American medley champion Wallace Spence. According to the swimming coach and historian Cecil Colwin’s 2002 book, “Breakthrough Swimming,” race officials were surprised by Myers’s technique, but they didn’t disqualify him.

During the same years that Rademacher, Myers, and Cavill were experimenting with their arms, a young physicist named Volney Wilson was spending much of his free time gazing through the glass at the Shedd Aquarium, in Chicago. Later a collaborator on the Manhattan Project, Wilson, whom most people called Bill, was an avid swimmer. In the summer of 1934, he began to seriously think about the different ways that animals propelled themselves through water. At the aquarium, he noticed that fish moved their tails from side to side, while mammalian aquatic animals, such as whales and dolphins, moved their tails up and down. In the pool at the Chicago Athletic Club, he began to experiment with a new kind of leg movement for human swimmers: the dolphin kick. He quickly mastered it, pairing the sine-wave legs with the traditional arm movement of the breaststroke. Wilson then tried to popularize his new kick through demonstrations at swim meets, and even won an Olympic trial, in 1938, before being disqualified for using an illegal technique, an anecdote noted in passing in Richard Rhodes’s seminal 1986 book, “The Making of the Atomic Bomb.” But, in his day, Wilson’s contribution to the sport was mostly overlooked. He remained an avid swimmer until his death, in 2006, at the age of ninety-six. “When Bill was in his nineties, I took him to the Y.M.C.A. to demonstrate the stroke to me,” David Schrader, Wilson’s biographer, told me some time ago. “He couldn’t do it then, and neither could I.”

Instead of Wilson, credit for the dolphin kick usually goes to David Armbruster, who coached swimming at the University of Iowa from 1917 to 1958. The story, according to the International Swimming Hall of Fame, is that Armbruster’s interest in the dolphin kick had been piqued as early as 1911, after he witnessed a demonstration of the movement by George Corsan, the man credited with popularizing swimming on a mass scale through his work as the head instructor for the Y.M.C.A. In the nineteen-thirties, Armbruster, with his swimmer Jack Sieg, began to experiment with a dolphin-like kick. Before long, Armbruster had encouraged all of his swimmers to use it in place of the breaststroke’s traditional frog kick.

It was only a matter of time before arms met legs—but when exactly it occurred is difficult to say. The International Swimming Hall of Fame considers the Japanese swimmer Jiro Nagasawa among the first to combine the butterfly arm stroke with the dolphin leg kick, and he’s given credit for helping to popularize the stroke. In 1945, Nagasawa set a world record using the butterfly. By 1954, the stroke was officially recognized as the “butterfly” by the International Swimming Federation. Two years after that, the stroke was accepted into the Olympics as a separate category for competition.

In recent years, Michael Phelps’s mastery of the underwater dolphin kick has helped attract renewed attention to the hydrodynamics of the movement. In 2003, Rajat Mittal, now a mechanical-engineering professor at Johns Hopkins University, began working with a graduate student, Alfred von Loebbecke, and others to apply their research—analyzing the physics of complex flows using numerical simulations—to human swimmers. “We contacted U.S.A. Swimming to see if they were interested, and the timing was good,” Mittal told me. “The dolphin kick was a big deal at that time, around the 2004 Olympics. Phelps and [Natalie] Coughlin were rising up the ranks, and they were doing that partially because they were very good at the dolphin kick. The idea was to understand more about that kick.”

Hearing Mittal tell it, the kick’s effectiveness is directly tied to its visual beauty. “It’s a tough kick to master because it works really well if you can pass that wave down your body very smoothly—the smoother that wave is as it passes down your body, the faster you will cut through water,” Mittal said. “Everything has to operate in unison in order to do this properly.” Perhaps not surprisingly, the secret to a good dolphin kick lies not only in technique but in physiology. “We looked at a number of underwater videos of Natalie Coughlin and Michael Phelps, and they had an incredible amount of fluidity in the way they were essentially able to flip and flop their legs back and forth in the dolphin kick,” Mittal said.

Many swimmers and coaches agree that the butterfly is the hardest stroke to learn, an act of coördination that calls to mind the grade-school challenge of simultaneously rubbing your stomach and patting your head. Once mastered, however, that changes. To watch Olympic swimmers do the butterfly is to witness a metamorphosis: half-human, half-fish, wholly mesmerizing.

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.

The butterfly stroke is an impressive swimming technique, both visually as well as physically. The main difficulty of learning the technique comes from its “athletic” aspect. Indeed, the butterfly stroke requires muscle strength, synchronisation of movements and flexibility.


The butterfly stroke originated from the separation of traditional breaststroke with the butterfly breaststroke where the arms return through the air. It is known as the fastest swimming stroke after the crawl.

This technique is usually taught last during swimming training because of its demanding nature. Indeed, it requires excellent fitness, relaxation and perfect coordination.
Breathing is also very important, whether from the front or side. In any case, it has to be stable.


As odd as it may seem, the butterfly stroke is similar to the swimming of dolphins because the legs perform undulating movements, as opposed to the scissor movements of the crawl, for example.

For beginners, the most common difficulty is in returning the arms forward through the air. This requires coordination between the return of the arms and the second undulation of the legs.

And the legs themselves must be held together during the entire stroke. They must undulate, extending the movement of the upper body.

The upper body is also very much in demand, starting with the arms. Indeed, it is essential since it is the arms that exert the traction and thrust which propels the body forward.

Finally, breathing is the most important point. It can be done with each arm movement for distance or with every two or three strokes of the arms for speed, which requires even more relaxation and coordination. The hardest part for the beginner is to perform correct undulations in order to balance arm movements with breathing.

I can swim crawl, breaststroke and backstroke for an hour or more without shaming myself, but one length of butterfly leaves me utterly spent and breathless. Not to mention creating a tidal wave almost large enough to displace the pool’s population. And yet … even in my ineptitude, I get a glimpse of the power and grace behind butterfly’s ceaseless undulation, and I have a strong desire to master it.

According to Dr Julie “Madfish” Bradshaw MBE, butterfly is “the hardest stroke in the book. You need to be strong, but it all comes down to correct technique.” Bradshaw should know. She has held the world record for swimming the Channel butterfly since 2002 and in 2011 set a new “fly” world record by swimming around Manhattan Island – 28.5 miles in nine hours and 28 minutes.

Steven Shaw, creator of the Shaw Method of Swimming, which takes the principles of Alexander technique to water, calls fly the “four-wheel drive” of strokes, requiring equal propulsion from the upper and lower body. “The leg action moves you forward and down, the arm action moves you forward and up,” he explains. But it’s the undulation or “wave action” that is at the heart of the stroke. “It provides the foundation for both the arm and leg actions and mobilises the spine,” says Shaw. “There’s something almost primal about the wave action. Once you get the rhythm going, it’s meditative.”

If that’s the case, I’m definitely missing something. A quick appraisal from Shaw reveals a common mistake (and the cause of that antisocial tidal wave). “You’re putting too much emphasis on getting the arms out and over the top,” he tells me. “But it is wasted effort – when the arms are out of the water, they provide no propulsion – the emphasis should be on what’s going on under the water.”

That makes sense when you consider that butterfly derived from breaststroke. The slowest phase of breaststroke is the underwater recovery of the arms. Back in the 1930s, some swimmers in the United States realised they could go quicker if they took their arms over the surface instead. Then they added the characteristic dolphin-kick to further reduce drag. Butterfly was born. But it only became a bona fide separate stroke according to FINA (the International Swimming Federation) in 1952. In world-record terms it is now second only to front crawl, but even when swum efficiently, energy cost is high. The most recent compendium of physical activities’ energy cost rates butterfly swimming at 13.8 Mets, meaning that the amount of energy required is almost 14 times greater than at rest. It makes Bradshaw’s feat all the more remarkable. Why fly?

“I had set various front crawl records in the 1980s but I’d always been fascinated by butterfly,” says Bradshaw, who is a swimming coach, teacher, counsellor and speaker. “When I heard about Vicki Keith, a Canadian swimmer who, in 1989, became the first person to swim the Channel butterfly, I had an inkling to try butterfly and see where I could take it. I enjoy the movement, it’s so graceful. And swimming in open water, it’s good to be able to see forward – you don’t have to keep lifting the head. I can go into my own world.” Bradshaw is planning another fly world record attempt next month: swimming the length of the river Humber.

Michael Phelps of the US competing in the 200m butterfly at the 2012 Olympic Games. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/NOPP

While few of us would have the will, let alone the shoulders, to follow in her wake, Bradshaw says she has seen an increased interest in butterfly since her exploits began. “It’s something people seem to really want to learn,” she says. Shaw agrees – and surprisingly, finds it one of the easiest strokes to teach. “Very few people have bad habits to unlearn because they have little or no experience of it,” he says.

“Kick, pull, recover” is Shaw’s mantra for me during our lesson. I can’t quite get the timing right. I keep beginning my arm pull too early, while I’m still too low in the water, and I realise it’s because my brain is rushing to get to what it perceives to be the “important bit” where I can fling my arms out, a la Phelps.

In true Alexander technique fashion, though, you “lead” the stroke with the head in Shaw method fly. As the head rises, the hips drop and the knees bend, ready to unleash the power of the kick. Then you press the head and chest down, the hips moving up as the legs extend. “What I like about butterfly is that you have to work with the water, not impose yourself on it. It’s a really three-dimensional stroke,” says Shaw.

To begin with, I feel as if I’m trying to do that trick when you pat your head and rub your tummy simultaneously – but gradually it starts to make more sense and on the rare occasions that it all comes together, I’m amazed at how far I travel per stroke. Even more amazingly, I’m not out of breath. Maybe I can fly after all.

Of the four competition strokes, the butterfly stroke may be the most difficult to master. This swimming style has three important components: arms, which move synchronously; legs, which employ a “dolphin” kick; and body, which should conduct a wave-like movement throughout the stroke. Division I swim coach Marc Christian shares his butterfly stroke tips to help you get moving in the water.


The wave-like motion of your body throughout the butterfly is called body undulation. Once you master this technique, it can also help your butterfly arm stroke, as well as your kick. Begin by floating on your chest with your body straight and arms extended forward. Your head should face down, looking toward the bottom of the pool.

The wave should begin at your shoulders and move down to your hips, ultimately ending at your feet. At the point where your chest naturally rises, you will take a breath.

“Butterfly requires timing and strength, but also relaxation,” Christian says. “It is important to remain relaxed when swimming butterfly. It is essential to have a flow through your body undulations.”


Begin with your arms extended and shoulder width apart. Your chest should be pushing down into the water. Next, move into the “catch” position, which creates your propulsion.

  • Bend your arms at the elbow, this is the catch position.
  • Pull your arms back and up through to your hips. At this point, your chest should press forward and raise your arms.
  • Throw your arms outward, perpendicular to your body.
  • Bring your arms up and over your head, ultimately ending in their initial starting position.

Remember to breathe as your arms are pushed behind you.


“For every good butterflyer, you have a great butterfly kick,” Christian says. “We call that kick the dolphin kick. The dolphin kick is an extension of your body undulations that you start when you’re using your pull.”


The butterfly kick originates from your hips. This should also be the largest portion of the kick. Make sure you’re keeping your feet and legs together throughout the motion. Drive your hips down into the water and let your legs bend slightly at the knee. Your thighs should follow your hips downward while the lower portion of your legs rise. As your hips come up, straighten out your legs to execute a whipping motion.

You need to generate power from your hips and core muscles to extend the kick through to your legs and toes.


When performing the butterfly stroke, you only get one pull to every two kicks. Therefore, it is important to understand when to take these kicks. The first kick should be taken as you begin your pull. Meanwhile, the second kick should be taken as your hands are coming through the catch position and about to exit near your hips.

The second kick should be a strong, small kick to help your arms recover forward.


A helpful drill for learning how to swim butterfly is the “dolphin dive drill”. This training technique can help you work on your body undulation, as well as your kick.

The dolphin dive drill is completed by using a lane with two lane lines. You should push off the wall and try to kick from lane line to lane line. The goal is to find a strong flow that allows you to kick evenly to both sides.

With these tips, your butterfly stroke technique can be as smooth as butter. For more swim tips, check out our Pro Tips guides on the freestyle stroke, breaststroke and backstroke.

How to swim the butterfly stroke

Below you will find information on the most common swim strokes. Please know that this information does not serve to take the place of proper swimming lessons by a certified instructor and is for informational purposes only.

Treading Water

Treading water should be mastered before moving on to learning swim strokes. Learning how to tread water is one of the most important parts of swimming, helping prevent accidents and helping people keep afloat. You can use kickboards to help you tread water and learn swim strokes.

Treading water is the motion of your arms and legs moving at the same time but in an efficient method. Your right arm should push out and away from your body and in a clockwise motion pull back to the chest. Your left arm should be in sync and perform the same motion but in a counter-clockwise direction. Your back should be straight with legs bent, and your legs should be making the same clockwise and counter-clockwise movements.

Freestyle/Front Crawl Stroke

The most common and most natural to perform of all the swimming strokes is the freestyle or front crawl stroke. The freestyle stroke allows you to swim straight on your stomach by kicking your legs and rotating your arms over your head. It is extremely important to become comfortable with the breathing technique, as your face will stay submerged for a few strokes.

Body position is important to the freestyle swim. Your back, neck and head should be relaxed and in line with each other in order to reduce any resistance. Reach forward with your right arm and extend it as far as you can. As you place your right palm into the water, your left hand should be in motion reaching up and forward. Your right arm will be pushing through the water as your left arm is stretched out and swinging above your head.

When rotating arms to reach forward, your body will rotate with the arm reaching out of the water. Your body will pivot with each stroke allowing you to push harder through the water and extend your arm further.

While you are rotating, it will feel natural to tilt your head and breathe. You don’t want to take a breath every stroke but find a comfortable pattern and breathe every four strokes or so. Your feet should be kicking in a fluttering manner or a slower smooth pattern.

Butterfly Stroke

The butterfly stroke is one of the most difficult swim strokes to master, but because of its high level of technique and skill, it’s also very fulfilling to learn. Follow these steps to learn the butterfly stroke:

The Pull

The pull part of the butterfly stroke is focused on body positioning and propulsion. The hands should be kept straight to make a paddle. Make a semicircle with the elbow higher than the hand and the hand pointing towards the center of the body and downward. Shoot your fingers downward and forward into the water to create the most propulsion.

The Push

The push is created by pushing the palms of your hands back through the water underneath the body at the beginning and at the side of the body. The movement increases speed throughout the transition phase, of the pull and push. The speed at the end of the push is used to help with the recovery.

The Recovery

The recovery is all about keeping your body in a straight line. Keeping your elbows straight, bring the arms sideways across the water to the front. Squeeze and shrug shoulders during the transition between the recovery and pull stages.

Leg Movement

Move your legs simultaneously in a dolphin kicking motion. Keep feet together and pointing downwards and pressing down the head.


After you know the arm movements for treading water, the breaststroke will come easily. This style of swimming allows you to propel yourself forward while keeping your head above the water.

For a fluid breaststroke, you should start in a prayer position with palms together and thumbs up. While keeping your hands together, push your arms forward away from your body. As you stretch your arms straight, release your hands and turn your palms out. Push your arms to your sides and back up to your chest in the starting prayer position. These motions should be done in one fluid action.

Your legs are equally important in swimming the breaststroke. Together with your arms, draw your knees up to your chest and kick your legs out to each side as wide as you can. Bring your legs together, straight back behind you and start the motion over again.


Swimming the backstroke is the same movements as the freestyle but you’re on your back! This is a very comfortable swim stroke and easy to learn.

Make sure your body is straight and inline, and your face looking up skyward. Float on your back in the water and extend your right arm above your head. Reach out as far as you can above and behind you. As your right arm enters the water, bend your elbow and draw your arm under, pushing through the water, and back to the surface. Your left arm will follow this same motion but at the opposite time: when your right arm is submerged, your left arm is extended above you. Your legs should be helping you propel yourself with your feet butterfly kicking.

In the early 1930s, a University of Iowa swimming coach helped developed what is known as the butterfly stroke.

How to swim the butterfly stroke

Iowa’s Meghan Hackett swims in the Women’s 100-meter fly during the Iowa-Northwestern meet at the Campus Recreation and Wellness Center on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017. Hackett finished in first with a time of 57.47. The Hawkeyes defeated the Wildcats, 156-144.

Tanner DesPlanque, Sports Reporter
October 11, 2018

The University of Iowa is the birthplace of the butterfly — the butterfly stroke that is.

The swimming stroke was not exactly invented at Iowa, but it was certainly perfected in Iowa City in the early 1930s. The butterfly technique started to develop as people were looking for a more efficient way to do the breaststroke.

“We are all proud that is something we can hold to our program,” Iowa head coach Marc Long said. “I know it is something we certainly started to embrace when we built this pool, even with the bronze statue. I think if you are a butterflier here, it gives it a big special meaning.”

David Armbruster, a former Iowa swimming coach, was interested on how to fix the problem of drag because of the underwater recovery in the breaststroke. Armbruster realized in 1934 that bringing the arms forward over the water in a breaststroke was more efficient. He would later call this style the butterfly.

A year later, Armbruster worked with one of his swimmers, Jack Sieg, to develop a kicking technique that uses the legs in unison. The style is now known as the dolphin fishtail kick.

The swimmer and coach quickly realized by combining these two techniques, it created a very fast swimming style. Currently, both styles used together is now known as the butterfly.

The new style of swimming was faster than the regular breaststroke, and people quickly switched. The move was illegal for more than a decade, because the dolphin fishtail kick violated the breaststroke rules set by the International Swimming Federation.

Many swimmers worked around this rule by using the butterfly arms with breaststroke kick. The swimmers who did this competed in breaststroke competitions, because the style was a variant of the stroke. The butterfly was finally recognized as its own style with its own set of rules in 1952.

The history of the butterfly is evident, and the history in the program helps with recruiting.

“It is something we show, and now we still show if we can, the old Field House pool,” Long said. “It is still up and running for another year or so, we hope. That thing oozes history, and it’s just fun to be a part of that. We try selling it with the university, and that is certainly a big discovery and development that happened at our school.”

The history wasn’t the main reason women’s swimmer Kelsey Drake came to Iowa, saying she loved the way she bonded with the team on her recruiting visit, but it didn’t hurt.

“Well I am a butterflier, and coming here is kind of special since it was invented here,” Drake said. “It just makes it a little extra special and fun coming here.”

Now long after the stroke has been in play, the Hawkeyes started the season with a 1-0 record on both the men’s and women’s side with wins over Michigan State on Sept. 28.

The women will be back in action this weekend against SMU, starting Friday, while the men have some time, competing next against Minnesota on Oct. 27.

The stroke gets its name from its sweeping arm action reminiscent of a butterfly’s wings. It is the most spectacular to watch and also the hardest to swim: this striking but also intimidating stroke seems to be beyond the capabilities of “beginners”, but with enough practice and the right amount of power and coordination you will soon be swimming the butterfly.

The butterfly is the most recently developed of all competitive strokes and was swum for the first time in a race in 1933, when Henry Mayers used an arms-out-of-the-water recovery stroke during a breaststroke race.


Keep your body in line with the surface of the water in a facedown position. This stroke involves a more vertical movement than other swim strokes due to the undulation resulting from the arms pressing downwards, the action of the legs as they push your hips upwards, and the inertia deriving from the arm recovery as it pushes the head and shoulders downwards again.


At the beginning of the stroke your hands are extended forwards with your thumbs pointing downwards due to a slight rotation of the wrists. At the same time you push downwards and outwards with both arms until your hands are much wider apart than your shoulders at a depth of approximately 60 cm in the water by bending your elbows. Once you have a good catch with your hands, pull along the sagittal plane towards the centre of your body until your hands almost meet before completing the recovery phase. This happens out of the water in a sweeping motion until your hands are once again extended beyond your head.


Lift your head to breathe as you complete the push phase and then let it drop beneath the surface again as your hands re-enter the water at the end of the recovery phase. Look straight ahead while breathing (your chin must not be raised above the surface of the water) and look down again as you drop your head underwater.


Make two leg kicks for every complete arm stroke, moving them simultaneously up-and-down along the vertical plane. Make the first kick as soon as your arms enter the water (this counteracts the braking effect of entering the water) and then the second at the end of the catch-pull phase of the arm stroke (as your hips are pushed upwards).

“No matter what activity or practice we are pursuing, there isn’t anything that isn’t made easier through constant familiarity and training. Through training, we can change; we can transform ourselves.” [Dalai Lama]

Butterfly – the swimming stroke – is bad. We are allowed to forget this for three of every four years, but since we’re all in Rio now and we can once again care about sports which don’t involve balls or alcohol sponsorship deals, it’s time to talk.

Incredibly, butterfly stroke was not invented by Tyson O’Brien from primary school so that he could go home from the swimming carnival with another blue ribbon. The bastard. The stroke was actually invented by a series of stupid 20th century men, including Australian Sydney Cavill, who started using the technique while experimenting with breaststroke.

At first the butterfly arm was used alongside a breaststroke kick. But then US competitors started to adopt the horizontal torso writhe which now accompanies the stroke.

Actual transcript from change room of a 1930’s Iowa public pool:

Man 1: “Gee, I like swimming breaststroke.”

Man 2: “Me too, and not just for the innuendo.” [the room guffaws]

Man 1: “But, you know what would make it better?”

Man 1: “If I could just thrust my dick at the pool as I did it.”[1]

The resulting stroke is the only way to make wearing a hat made out of the same material as a washing-up glove more embarrassing than it already is. Let’s face it, butterfly looks like the aquatic technique of a 22-year-old farm boy who decided it would be funny to swim in the dam after drinking a case of VB. People try to justify butterfly’s existence by saying it is the fastest stroke. But, this is only half-true. And, by half-true, we mean literally not true at all.

The underwater movement of butterfly is faster than any other stroke (although, it should be said, not as fast as a “fish kick”, which is essentially a butterfly kick attempted on one’s side by a few rogue competitors after hitting a tumble turn – resulting in disqualification if you turn entirely onto your stomach in backstroke, or entirely onto your back in any other event), but you lose speed throwing your body out of the water. The world record time for the men’s 50m butterfly is 22.43 seconds, 1.52 seconds slower than the world record for freestyle. For the women’s event, the difference in time is 0.7 seconds.

While butterfly might be quick if you have gills, there’s a reason why no one’s ever thought to work on their keyhole-arm technique while trying to escape a shark attack: it’s not very fast.

Put simply, there is no reason for the farce of competitive butterfly swimming to continue. No one has ever used butterfly to rescue their drowning child or cross to the other side of your local pool on a 40 degree day.

It is the only stroke that can be said to be a wholly human invention. While breaststroke originated when Stone Age men mimicked the movements of frogs and “freestyle” (front crawl) and backstroke have been observed in nature for centuries, the same cannot be said for this piss poor method of aquatic passage.

No animal does butterfly. You can’t just name a stroke after an animal to try to make it seem like a natural method of water passage. Least of all one that doesn’t. Even. Fucking. Swim. In fact, if you so much as wet a butterfly’s wing, it is incapacitated forever.

So why are we still swimming butterfly? You can’t butterfly in budgie smugglers or a bikini without losing your swimmers and dignity in one grotesque heave of your tired shoulder muscles. A coincidence? No. Big Swimwear has to sell those ultra-tight and hi-tech suits with shark skin patterns and the easiest way to do so is promoting butterfly with your International Olympic Committee cronies. And has anyone ever stopped to consider the role which flippers manufacturers may play in this farce? Find us an under 10s coach who isn’t making their charges practice “dolphin kick” while wearing them.

In sum, butterfly is a capitalist ploy, and also cooked. Let’s end this madness, ban the stroke and make Phelps return his medals.

[1] Seriously. The swimming pool at Rio has been getting so much action, the diving pool’s turned green with envy.

The butterfly is a swimming stroke swum on the chest, with both arms moving symmetrically, accompanied by the butterfly kick, also known dolphin kick. While other styles like the breaststroke, front crawl, or backstroke can be swum adequately by beginners, the butterfly stroke in particular is one of the hardest strokes to learn. It requires strength, stamina and a precise technique. The main difficulty for beginners is the synchronous over-water recovery, especially when combined with breathing, since both arms, the head, shoulders and part of the chest have to be lifted out of the water for these tasks. Once efficient technique has been developed, it becomes a smooth, fast stroke. It goes without saying that the key to learning the butterfly is practice, practice, practice! This goes for learning any kind of swimming stroke or skill.

Dolphin Kick

How to swim the butterfly stroke

The kick used to swim butterfly is the dolphin kick, it’s a bit more difficult in comparison to the flutter kick and the whip kick as the power and thrust comes from the hips and requires a streamlined body position in the water. Coupling the dolphin kick with the butterfly stroke arms makes it that much harder as you need to focus on correct timing and breathing. Don’t worry! Practicing your kick and your stroke individually from one another before you put them together you will find that once you do combine your kick with your stroke to swim butterfly, you’ll do very well.

A good way to practice the butterfly kick is by holding on the the pool’s edge or by using a flutter board. Have your arms extended out in front of you with your face in the water. Stare at the pool floor. To make the learning experience more comfortable, wear swimming goggles and a centre snorkel. Once you get the motion down, try the kick using the freestyle stroke.

Keep your legs as close together as possible with your toes pointed. When you do the dolphin kick it should be a smooth synchronous undulating motion. The shoulders are brought above the surface by a strong up and medium down kick, and back below the surface by a strong down and up kick.

Body Position for Butterfly Stroke

How to swim the butterfly stroke

Keep your head in a neutral face down position, directing your eyes to the bottom of the pool. This will help straighten your body while positioning it high in the water. Flatten your back and keep your body as flat as possible. Maintain a facedown position, keeping your head still unless lifting it to breathe. You can use a centre snorkel to practice keeping your head in the correct position as you learn how to do the butterfly stroke.

To maintain an efficient body position as you swim this stroke, keep your chin as close to the water line as possible when you go up for a breath.

Butterfly Stroke

How to swim the butterfly stroke

Practice both outside and inside of the pool. Getting the arm motion correct is the first step. When you’re in the water do the arm motion while standing in one spot.

The butterfly stroke has three major parts, the pull, the push, and the recovery. At the beginning the hands sink a little bit down with the palms facing outwards and slightly down at shoulder width. Then the hands move out to create a Y. This is called catching the water. The pull movement follows a semicircle with the elbow higher than the hand. The hand pointing towards the centre of the body and downward.

The push pushes the palm backward through the water underneath the body at the beginning and at the side of the body at the end of the push. The swimmer only pushes the arms 1/3 of the way to the hips, making it easier to enter into the recovery and making the recovery shorter and making the breathing window shorter. Both arms should come out of the water at the same time on every stroke.

The recovery swings the arms sideways across the water surface to the front, with the elbows straight. The arms should be swung forward from the end of the underwater movement. The arms enter the water with the thumbs first at shoulder width. A wider entry loses movement in the next pull phase, and a smaller entry, where the hands touch, wastes energy.

Breathing Technique

How to swim the butterfly stroke

Breathing is extremely important in swimming. Having a good breathing technique delivers oxygen to your muscles and helps you swim more comfortably and efficiently. As your arms begin to pull down through the stroke, breathe out through your nose as you begin to lift your head to take a breath. Practice breathing while you practice the stroke standing in place. This will better prepare you for when you combine the dolphin kick with the butterfly stroke.

Altogether Now!

After you’ve practiced hard and nailed the dolphin kick and the butterfly stroke individually, it’s time to add them together. Don’t forget your breathing technique!

Find a Coach or Swimming Instructor

At the end of the day you can practice and practice but you’ll need someone who knows how to execute the butterfly stroke. A coach will help you identify what you’re doing wrong so that it’s easier to correct! Finding a coach or a swimming instructor can also help you learn the stroke quicker so that you can move onto mastering the stroke. Learning the stroke is one thing but mastering the stroke improves efficiency. The benefit of an efficient stroke is that it is less tiring to execute. AquaMobile swimming instructors come to you! Lessons are given in the comfort of your own home and on your schedule. You even get to choose your swimming instructor! Most of our instructors are or have been competitive swimmers on the regional or national scale. Our swimming instructors have been swimming anywhere from 3 – 50 years!

What is the Butterfly stroke, and how does it differ among other strokes? How does one compete in a speed competition? Get ready to learn the rules and the common features of the Butterfly stroke.

Table of Contents

The Butterfly

The Butterfly is a type of stroke found in competitive and non-competitive swimming, along with the freestyle, backstroke, and the breaststroke.

Defining Features

The two primary features of the Butterfly are the double over-the-arm recovery and the dolphin kick.

  1. The dolphin kick, rather than the feet alternating its kick, involves the feet kicking in a synchronized order.
  2. The over-the-arm recovery is about making circular strokes with both arms above the water. When a swimmer is making these circular strokes, they can raise their head to breathe.

Competing for the Butterfly

When competitors are swimming this stroke, they often must prioritize speed and accuracy of the stroke. The races begin with a forward-facing dive.

To finish a lap, swimmers must touch the wall of the other side of the pool. If there are multiple laps, they must use the wall of the other side of the pool to tumble and kick off to begin the next lap. For example, if there are four laps, that means a swimmer will dive once and then kick off the wall three times.

Once the swimmer dives and begins kicking, they must not let their head raise beyond the surface of the water until they have completed 15 meters.

The first swimmer to reach the other side of the pool wins the race. There is often a timer for each swimmer to break any potential ties between swimmers.

What Makes a Good Butterfly Stroke?

A common technique to swim faster is to have kicks with larger strides. The longer a stride is, the more distance is often covered. It also means a swimmer may be able to breathe less.

When doing the over-the-arm recovery, swimmers do not typically raise their arms too high. It is often exhausting to raise the arms too high, so they should opt to keep their arms low.

Swimmers also cannot spend too long (even if it’s just a few seconds) to breathe. Taking too long to breathe will slow the swimmer down. Instead, they’re encouraged to breathe forward or as they’re lowering their head.

When doing the over-the-arm recovery, fingers should be pointing down with palms facing back. This ensures that the swimmer won’t strain themselves while swimming.

A swimmer’s breathing pattern is also key to swimming fast. Generally speaking, most swimmers like to breathe at every other stroke during the Butterfly, perhaps to cover more distance. However, some expert swimmers will breathe at every stroke. But the breathing pattern should never affect rhythm nor speed.

Butterfly Strokes

For this stroke, it is important for the swimmer to lead with the crown of their head. Their body should be close to the top of the water and their arms and legs should be fully horizontal. The swimmer’s leg power comes from the hips and should come from a full body motion. Additionally, the legs should be kept together and the ankles should be relaxed.


For breathing in the butterfly stroke, the first thing to know is to breathe toward the front. Considering, the swimmer should lead with their head out of the water, the head will rise to allow for an efficient and natural breath. The exhale is taken immediately when the head submerges back into the water. Some swimmers choose to take a breath on their side, however, this could uncomfortable for the neck. It is imperative for competitive swimmers to find the most comfortable and efficient breathing technique specifically for them.

What Not To Do

Although the head should be positioned forward, it is important to not look forward while swimming in this stroke. What this means is, the swimmer must make sure they are facing down for ultimate efficiency and to avoid drag in a race. Furthermore, swimmers should make sure their kick is not too big. This will cause the swimmers to get tired quickly and cause them to solely rely on their legs motion instead of focusing on the collaboration of the arms and legs together.

Good butterfly swimmers are fun to watch. Swimming butterfly looks like it is very, very hard to do. and butterfly can be hard, but it does not need to be, and it should be a stroke that all swimmers add to their repertoire of swimming strokes, along with freestyle, backstroke, and breaststroke.

One of the secrets of butterfly is to not over kick. If you use a big butterfly kick, you can end up going up and down too much in the water—moving from near the surface to far under the surface, and then up again. This up and down, if excessive, is a lot of work with no good payoff. You want to move forward, not up and down.

You can teach yourself to swim butterfly. Take one step at a time, practice, and have someone watch you and give you feedback. Be sure to tell them what you want them to watch as opposed to them telling you what they feel you should do to be a good butterflier. There's nothing really wrong with someone telling you what is good butterfly, but if it is not what you are working on at the moment, or you are not up to that step in your learning, then it may not be helpful.

This lesson on swimming butterfly is broken down into several steps:

Work on each step, them move on to the next. You can do the next step by itself, then add in the old steps as you get better.

1. Butterfly Body Position

Butterfly starts with a prone, floating position with your arms pointing toward your destination, slightly wider than shoulder width. Imagine an American Football referee signaling a touchdown, then move the arms a little bit wider. Your eyes are looking down toward the bottom of the pool, and your hips should be up at or near the surface of the water. Practice by pushing off of the pool wall and getting into the butterfly body position and holding it for as long as you can. When you can no longer hold it, stand up, return to the wall, and go for it again.

2. Butterfly Pull

Once the body position is good, time to add in the pull. Some people do the kick first, but we want to minimize the odds of the extra large kick, so we are going to work on the butterfly pull first.

  1. Enter – Start with the hands at the entry position.
  2. Sweep – Sweep them down and in under your chest, almost touching your thumbs and index fingers together as your hands reach mid-chest.
  3. Push – Push them back toward your feet and apart, like you are trying to push the water from the middle of your chest over and down each leg.
  4. Chop – As your hands and arms reach an almost full extension as they move past your waist, throw your hands up (out of the water) and out to the side; throw hard enough that your arms almost automatically swing over the surface of the water toward the entry position. If you imagine a board across the front of your legs, just below your waist, you are trying to karate chop that board as your hands leave the water.
  5. Swing – The recovering arms only need to be high enough above the water to not splash as they swing forward toward the entry. During this phase – the swing – relax your neck and look at the bottom of the pool. A low, relaxed head position will make the swing much easier.
  6. Enter – Enter the hands into the water.

Remember – no dolphin motions, no kick yet, just the body position and the pull.

3. Butterfly Kick

Now comes the kick, or the body dolphin: First with the arms and hands along the side of the body, leading with the head, have the body follow. Small body wiggles, not giant body whips! Next with the arms in front; keep the movements small, no over-emphasis on up and down/serpentine motions; the hips go up and down, but never drop too deep or rise too high.

4. Put the Pieces Together – Swim Butterfly

Now, put the float, the arms, and the body motion together. Start in the float position, then pull, and as the hands enter the water at the start of the float, the hips go up and then back down, one little body wiggle. Repeat! A second way to put the stroke together is to do the float, then the hips up and down, then the pull, then repeat.

5. Butterfly Breathing

Breathing comes next, with the breath starting as the pull starts, moving the top of the head out, push the chin forward, take in air, and then lay the face back in the water eyes looking down. Be sure to exhale under water so you do not waste time and effort trying to exhale when your face is above the water, when you should be inhaling.

That’s it! You are swimming butterfly. Add some to your next workout. I suggest doing little bits at a time as you build butterfly fitness. Do 3 or 4 strokes, then swim a different stroke for the remainder of the length of the pool, then repeat. Add more strokes as you gain fitness, and work up to full lengths of the pool swimming butterfly. You can repeat the above steps as a butterfly refresher once in a while, and you can mix in other butterfly drills to help you focus on improving your technique.