Butterfly is both one of the most beautiful strokes and one of the most challenging, because it is all about setting up and maintaining a steady rhythm. When done properly, swimmers move incredibly fast and smooth through the water. But if that rhythm is interrupted or even slightly out of whack, your whole stroke will be off, and you may find yourself breathing at the wrong time and getting a lungful of water!
Because of the stroke’s complexity, we’ve chosen to break it down into several different motions that, when each motion and position is mastered, you can combine together in a fluid stroke. Do not get discouraged if you do not get this stroke right away, or if it takes you longer to learn than the others. Once you do get it, you will feel like the fastest swimmer in the world!
Unlike some other strokes, Butterfly does not require any body rotation. You keep your head and spine in a straight line, with your arms moving at your sides and your legs kicking behind. Because of this, getting the body position can be a challenge, if only because you’re not used to this kind of position. But once you master this portion of the stroke, the rest comes far more easily.
To get a feel for the proper body position, take a pull buoy and put it between your legs. While floating, focus your eyes directly below you on the bottom of the pool. Keep your hands over your head and just outside the width of your shoulders, palms down and fingertips just below your wrists. Imagine your arms making a “Y” shape in the water.
This is the position you will return to time and again as you practice this stroke, as it is the most neutral of positions. If you can feel comfortable in this position, you are well on your way to mastering the butterfly.
The arm motion of the butterfly stroke can be broken up into three parts:
Let’s break each one down.
Start with your arms extended over your head, just about shoulder width apart, in the Y-shape described above. From here, pull your hands toward your body in a semicircular motion, palms out. Your elbows should remain higher than your hands as you do this.
Think of your palms working like a paddle to propel you through the water. You slide them through the water toward your midline. You will move through the water with ease!
After completing the pull, you push your arms backward through the water, up to and along your sides and past your hips. This is the push, and it is the fastest part of the arm movement and is necessary to provide momentum to keep moving in the water.
You can think of the push and pull sequence as creating a keyhole. The pull, with your arms out at your sides, forms the top portion of the keyhole, the widest and roundest part. The push, then, forms the base, the narrow part.
The final part of the arm movement for butterfly is the recovery, which is the motion that gets your arms back to where they are at the start of the pull. To begin, your arms must reach your thighs. To ensure you are performing this portion correctly, drag your thumbs on your thighs as you are finishing the stroke. Next, raise both arms out of the water at the same time and “throw” them to the starting position, palms out. Your thumbs should enter the water first, ready to sweep out for the next pull.
Make sure that the distance when your arms enter the water is no greater than shoulder width apart! More than that will result in less water to pull and a slowly stroke!
Phew! That was just one part of the stroke. Now, we’re going to talk about the leg motions you should maintain when swimming this stroke. When you’ve seen this stroke before, you might have thought the swimmers’ motions resembled that of a dolphin or mermaid! You would be right! That is the type of kick you want to maintain when doing this stroke. But there is more to it than just swimming like your favorite marine animal.
When performing this kick, both of your legs are locked together and they move simultaneously for maximum efficiency. You should strive for two kicks for each arm stroke, but the kicks are not the same. You will need one small kick and one big one. The small kick is when you make the keyhole shape with your arms, described above. The big kick is during the recovery, since you will trying to propel you further in the water and you won’t have your arms help you keep moving.
The most common mistake is to make the kicks uniform. This will result in an awkward stroke and loss of efficiency.
Move Your Body Like a Snake
Once you get those motions down (no small feat) your body needs to move along with the rest of the motions. Your body will move in a snake-like, or S motion, in the water, to help propel you through.
When you chest rises, your hips should be at their lowest position, and when your chest falls, your hips should be at the highest position, with your rear breaking the surface of the water. Alternate between these two positions until you are comfortable doing so, and then try to match them with the rest of movements described above. Once you get this timing right, you will find butterfly much easier to maintain, and you will be able to swim faster and grow less tired. You’ll start to resemble the swimmers you’ve seen who have perfected this stroke!
With many other strokes, the time to breathe is a bit flexible. For example, when swimming freestyle, do you breathe every third stroke? Every fifth? When it comes to butterfly, your window to breathe is much smaller, and if your rhythm is not maintained, can vanish entirely.
You should take a breath on your stroke when your arms just coming out of water at the beginning of the recovery phase. You will be near the surface of the water at this point, and you just need to raise your head to take a breath. Do not turn your head to the side, keep it straight. It is possible to breathe from the side, but it can slow you down.
As your arms recover, drop your head back into the water and tuck your chin. Your face will be submerged and you can resume the stroke.
Try to avoid breathing on every stroke, once you get the motion down, as doing so will slow you in the water. Try to keep an even rhythm of every other stroke if you can, or even more, if you want to push yourself.
Put It All Together
Phew! That was a lot to consider to learn a new stroke, huh? There are a lot of different parts and they all need to work in tandem. It can seem like a lot!
Fortunately, you don’t need to start doing all the parts at once. You can break it down into individual pieces. For example, first you can work on your arm motion. Once you get that down, you can move on to the leg motion and so on. When you feel comfortable with the individual pieces, you can put them together. Don’t get discouraged if it takes a long time to master--the butterfly is one of the hardest strokes to learn!
Keep at it, and before you know it, you’ll be swimming faster than ever!