Butterfly Swimming: 6 Tips for Mastering the Stroke

A swimmer doing the butterfly stroke.

The butterfly stroke is arguably the most difficult style of swimming stroke. It uses muscles in the upper body to propel yourself through the water while the lower body dolphin kicks to keep your momentum going.

Each part of the body has a specific job to do to make the butterfly stroke successful.

Your arms will push you through the water; your legs will help keep your momentum going; your torso will glide through the water, and your head will stay level and above the water to keep you swimming in a straight line while breathing at the right time.

Butterfly swimming does not have to be a dreaded stroke to learn. Knowing the right tips and tricks can help this swimming style become more enjoyable and easier to execute, which is why we have put together these 6 tips for mastering the butterfly stroke.

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Tip #1: Keep Your Head Forward

A male swimmer doing the butterfly stroke as seen from behind.

It is not uncommon for swimmers to bob up-and-down when butterfly swimming. This happens when swimmers try to lift their heads high to breathe, thinking that this is the correct technique when it actually makes swimmers more fatigued.

To prevent yourself from bobbing up-and-down and tiring yourself, you should keep your head forward.

To do this, you will lead your body with the crown of your head. This will keep your eyes pointed down to the bottom of the pool, which will help you stay in your lane and follow a straight line.

To breathe, you will raise your head above the water just enough for your mouth to come up to take a deep breath. When you submerge your head back in the water, keep your head forward and continue to lead with the crown of your head.

Exhale the air through your nose and repeat as necessary, making sure to take deep breaths while you swim. Deep breaths will help maximize the amount of oxygen your body receives while swimming. Oxygen is important for the muscles in the body because it helps keep them energized and healthy.

Tip #2: Two Dolphin Kicks per Pull

A male swimmer doing butterfly strokes and dolphin kicks.

A pull is when your arms are extended in front of your head and pulled down to your sides while pushing the water back. This is the movement that propels you through the water to give you momentum.

Oftentimes, butterfly swimming gets a bad reputation because of the pull. Many swimmers mistake the difficulty of the butterfly stroke being in the pull when it is other movements that make butterfly swimming difficult.

If you do not lead with the crown of your head or kick correctly while pulling, you are bound to fail. This is why the dolphin kicks are so important during the butterfly stroke.

Each pull will require two dolphin kicks. This means that each time your arms move from the front of your body to the sides of your body during a pull, you will need to do two dolphin kicks.

A dolphin kick is when you keep your legs together, and your toes pointed, moving them at the same time in unison to create a “fin.” To do a dolphin kick, you will push your hips down then kick your knees and feet out. It is one big hip dip followed by a kick with your knees and feet.

You will do this two times for each pull. This will push your momentum further and make your arms less tired while using as much of your legs as possible with this upper body dominant stroke.

Tip #3: Make Waves with the Glide

A swimmer making waves with the glide of his butterfly strokes.

One of the key components of any swimming stroke is the glide. This is when your body goes through the water completely submerged and is the result of a pull, kick, or both. This occurs in the butterfly stroke when you pull and begin to go into a kick.

To maximize your speed without tiring yourself, you should move your body like a wave. This occurs when you do dolphin kicks, but it takes the dolphin kicks to the next level by maximizing your speed without wasting extra energy.

To move your body like a wave, you will need to counteract your upper body with your lower body. This means when your upper body is moving down, your lower body needs to be moving up. This will create a wave-like motion and help you glide through the water easier.

Tip #4: Stay Near the Surface

A swimmer staying near the surface of the water while doing butterfly strokes.

Staying near the surface of the water during the butterfly stroke will help you move forward without losing momentum. This will keep you from doing the bobbing motion that you sometimes see in swimmers who have not learned to perfect the butterfly swimming technique.

When you have to take a breath, your head will not have to come up out of the water as high. This prevents you from raising your head out of the water, as this will slow you down and cause you to exert too much energy. Skimming your chin just above the surface of the water will give you enough height to take a breath without raising your head too high out of the water to slow you down or tire you out.

Coming up out of the water too high is what causes the butterfly stroke to fail and seem harder than it is. When you come up out of the water too high, you lose both speed and energy, which ultimately slows you down. Staying near the surface and leading with the crown of your head while making waves and pushing forward will help you master the butterfly stroke.

Tip #5: Master the Arm Movements

A swimmer doing the specific hand movements of a butterfly stroke.

Arm movements are an important element of the butterfly stroke as this is where you will gain the momentum that will propel you throughout the stroke. Doing incorrect arm movements while butterfly swimming will both tire you and slow you down.

How to Master the Arm Movements of the Butterfly Stroke

Step One: You will extend your arms out in front of your head with your palms facing down. When your arms enter the water, you will turn the palms of your hands to face outward as you pull your arms to the sides of your body.

Step Two: Pull your arms down to the sides of your body as your palms face outward. Do this motion quickly so that you can push through the water fast before your arms return to the recovery position.

Step Three: Drag your thumbs alongside your outer thighs to ensure you follow the full range of motion for the stroke. After your thumbs have slide along your thighs, raise your arms out of the water at the same time and return them to the position in which they started.

Tip #6: Practice Drills

A swimmer doing drills to master the butterfly stroke.

The only way to get better is to practice, and there are many drills you can perform to master the butterfly stroke. These drills will help you learn the mechanics of the stroke as well as increase your speed and save your energy.

Four Different Practice Drills to Help Master the Butterfly Stroke

  1. One-Arm Only Drill. This drill requires you to swim the butterfly stroke using just one arm. When you perform this drill, you will need to alternate arms so that both arms can be conditioned to learn the skill. If you find you are weaker in one arm than the other, focus on building that arm up by butterfly swimming with the weaker arm.
  2. 3 & 1 Drill. This drill requires you to do three dolphin kicks for every one arm pull of the butterfly stroke. This helps you learn the technique of the dolphin kicks to help maximize your momentum and propulsion through the water by kicking.
  3. Blind Drill. This drill is intended to keep you on track in a straight line. Not swimming a straight line can cause a swimmer to use time and energy to get back into position. The blind drill will help you stay straight. To do this, you will blindfold yourself when butterfly swimming. Do not use racing lane ropes for this exercise as you will be able to feel them and get back on track. The purpose of this exercise is to see how straight you swam without having lane lines to guide you. Swimming in a straight line will help save time and energy on your butterfly stroke race.
  4. Three Stroke Drill. This drill requires you to take three strokes with one arm while the other arm stays extended. Start by extending your left arm in front of you and take three strokes with your right arm. At the end of the three strokes, take your right arm and extend it out in front of you and take three strokes with your left arm. The goal of this exercise is to help you learn how to balance the arm movements of each stroke so that you have equally strong arm movements in both arms of the pull.
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