Improving Your Butterfly: Part 4 of a 4-Part Stroke Improvement Series By Wallen Swim Schools in Roseville & El Dorado Hills

Improving Your Butterfly: Part 4 of a 4-Part Stroke Improvement Series By Wallen Swim Schools in Roseville & El Dorado Hills

If your goal is to improve your butterfly technique, here are some tips to take your swim to the next level. The butterfly stroke is arguably the most impressive stroke to watch, with the upper body rising out of the water, the powerful sweep of the arms, and the athletic dolphin kick. As a workout, swimming butterfly is as intense as it gets. It is also one of the most challenging swim strokes to learn. This stroke not only requires coordinated movement, but it also involves numerous muscles working hard at the same time. Beginners often feel like a drowning moth. While this stroke is not for the faint of heart, it does offer a great workout, it is a critical stroke for competitive swimming, and it can come in handy during water rescues. Pros make it look easy, but several complex components need to be done well; the results are an impressive and powerful “fly”.

Get Back To the Basics

As a beginning swimmer, developing the basic components of breathing, dolphin kick, body position, and arm pull without learning bad habits will allow for a strong butterfly. At this stage, it’s all about drills where each component is practiced and perfected on its own. You may find that unlike backstroke or freestyle, and like breaststroke, butterfly draws heavily on your chest, back, and core muscles. Some find the dolphin kick difficult to learn as many lack the coordination required and the flexibility and range of motion needed through the hips and pelvis. However, with practice and solid instruction from a qualified swimming instructor, this stroke can be learned and mastered.

If you have been doing butterfly for a while and your stroke isn’t as effective as you would like, it’s time to shed those bad habits and return to the basics. Some of the more common negative habits may be slowing you down. It’s important to remember that butterfly is arguably the most physically exhausting stroke, so aim for quality rather than quantity. While it is easier to practice stroke technique over several pool lengths with other strokes, while learning butterfly your goal may be to get a half-length of quality action.

Let’s break down the stroke into its main parts with some tips for both beginner and experienced swimmers.

For Beginner Butterfliers:

This is the time to develop consistently accurate butterfly components before tying them together into the full butterfly swim. Like breaststroke, the most challenging aspect of the butterfly is the timing; it is critical to have the stroke components done in the correct sequence in order to develop a smooth, rhythmic stroke. This means doing lots of drills focusing on each element individually thereby building competence in each part. Only then can the elements be tied together into the full stroke. For young or beginner swimmers, time spent focusing on perfecting the basics is key to future success with the stroke. Don’t rush the stroke; take the time to get each component dialed in, and then a beautiful butterfly will emerge!


Getting the breathing down to a rhythmic, natural in and out without any breaks is important. Practice breathing by just doing the breathing, or “bobs” where you simply slowly submerge and breath out, surface and breath in, submerge and breath out, surface and breath in………bobbing up and down and just focusing on your breath.

Avoid trying to bring your head really high out of the water, which will cause your lower body to sink, increasing drag and negatively impacting your arm pull.

One of the most common techniques is to breathe after every two strokes. You will likely feel the need to breathe quickly as this stroke is so physically taxing. Overall fitness (strong body, strong cardiovascular system)  is a perfect platform for learning butterfly.

Unlike freestyle, there is no need for complicated breathing styles such as bilateral breathing, and the head position is similar to that of breaststroke. Breathe in as the arms just come out of the water, while keeping your chin just above the surface of the water.

Dolphin Kick

Like flutter kick, dolphin kick comes from the hips. Here is the chance to channel your inner dolphin or mermaid! Keep your legs squeezed together, and move your legs as one, like a dolphin or mermaid tail. Remember that there are actually two kicks for each stroke of your arms: a small kick while your arms pull through the water, and a big kick while your arms recover out of the water. This pattern of small/big kick is key and can be practiced on its own to develop the needed two kick system.

Body Position

Skim through the water just below the surface…. don’t let your head or legs hang down toward the pool bottom.

Your body needs to move in a wave fashion and this involves the entire body which is why the butterfly is such a great workout. This is also why it can be a difficult stroke to learn if you don’t have overall strength and solid cardiovascular endurance. If you become tired quickly, it’s harder to master the technique.

Think of your body moving through an S patterned wave, but it also needs to be as stretched out as possible so that you remain hydrodynamic and streamlined.


Think of the arm action as having three distinct parts, which follow one another smoothly and quickly: pull, push, and recovery.

For Experienced Butterfliers

If you have been swimming butterfly for years, it may be that you have developed some inefficiencies in your stroke. Even an advanced swimmer can benefit from breaking their stroke down, focusing on the fundamentals, and having some constructive criticism from a swimming instructor.


Develop an even rhythmic cycle; avoid pausing for double or triple breaths in or out. In this stroke, there isn’t a lot of time to take your breath in. Concentrate on going forward at all times, rather than trying to force yourself to go upwards to take your breath. If your breath is late, be prepared for your entire stroke to fall apart!

Breathe in as your arms are just exiting the water (this is the beginning of the recovery phase). When the arms are just coming out of the water, raise your head (not too high, your chin is at the surface) and breathe in. Keep your head straight.

Remember, you are exhaling against the resistance of the water, which takes force, especially when you are working your cardiovascular system hard, so breath control is vital.

Body Position

Engage your core muscles to improve your body position and stabilize your torso for the pull and kick actions. Your head should be in line with your spine. Avoid looking forward which will force your hips downward.

As you move through the water, imagine that S pattern as your body undulates just below the water’s surface. There is a slight angle to your body beneath the water, concentrate on your head pressing down with your eyes looking toward the bottom of the pool. Stay as close to the surface of the water to reduce drag.

Dolphin Kick

Your kick will be it’s most powerful if you engage your core muscles and begin the kick there. Most of your power and propulsion will come from a strong core and strong hips. Remember to not bend your knees too much.

Avoid practicing dolphin kick with a flutter board or kickboard which will move your body out of the correct position. It is beneficial to do a kick only drill, but try it with sculling instead of a kickboard. Remember it’s your entire body propelling you through the water, not just your kick. Kicking too big will wear you out very quickly.


There is no need to bring your arms up and out of the water as high as you can. In fact, this will shift your body from a horizontal position to one that is more vertical. Instead, shoot for having your hands just an inch or so above the surface of the water during the recovery phase. Aim your thumbs downward, which will let your elbows lock in the way they need to.

Imagine a keyhole and trace this shape with your hands. This is where the first two parts of the stroke come into play; pull yourself through the water by drawing the wide part of the top of the keyhole, and then push yourself through the water as you draw the narrow part of the keyhole’s bottom. Your hands should reach your thighs to finish fully. The third part of the stroke is the recovery phase when you sweep the arms above the water’s surface toward your front.

Improve Your Butterfly With Real-Time “In the Water” Feedback

Improving Your Butterfly: Part 4 of a 4-Part Stroke Improvement Series By Wallen Swim Schools in Roseville & El Dorado Hills

There is no better way to improve your swim technique than eyes on feedback. You can get this real-time “in the water” input from one of the highly skilled swimming instructors at Steve Wallen Swim School. This will give you the ability to implement what you have learned and make gains in your stroke performance. Take part in a swim clinic or sign up for a private swim lesson. Interested in having your stroke recorded and then reviewed with a swimming instructor? By reviewing your butterfly via video analysis you will see where your skills can be improved. Seeing your stroke with your own eyes is an innovative approach to retooling and developing your stroke.

Coming up next: Drowning Awareness and Prevention

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *