Cardio Series: Swimming - The Butterfly!

Everybody who has tried to swim the butterfly stroke for the first time learns, usually the hard way, that butterfly takes tremendous coordination and strength. See what has to be done to do it properly.

Everybody who has tried to swim the butterfly stroke for the first time learns, usually the hard way, that butterfly takes tremendous coordination and strength. Trying to make the arms move together, in the water and above the water, while trying to make the legs move together seems tough enough. And somewhere in that sequence you still have to find the strength to breathe.

But we know that swimming a "natural" butterfly can be done, because we have all seen people who can do it with seemingly no special effort. We have seen them at the Olympics on television, at swim meets, and even in our own pools. For the 95 percent of us whose worst stroke is the butterfly, we look upon those other five percent as some sort of elite group of swimmers gifted with supernatural talent.

We are convinced that there is only one Mary T. Meagher (a.k.a. Madame Butterfly) in the world, and few swimmers like her. On the outside, we mere earthbound mortals look upon the natural butterflyers with awe. On the inside, we can not figure out how anybody could be so talented enough to swim butterfly so gracefully. If each of us only had an ounce of envy in ourselves, it would be reserved for butterflyers.

The reality is that, after taking that first big gulp of water learning to swim butterfly, the "elite" five percent learned that butterfly did not really require tremendous coordination and strength after all. It does require good, efficient technique more than any other stroke. That is why swimming a natural butterfly is not the kingdom of the elite swimmer, but rather a swimmer's final frontier.

There are many other reasons for trying to perfect your own butterfly stroke. First, it just looks good, smooth and rhythmic. More importantly for most of us, it is a good calorie (fat) burner, yea! It also is a great way to strengthen the leg, chest, shoulder and abdominal muscles.

There are many good, detailed sources about learning to swim a natural butterfly, from books to coaches. Meanwhile, here are some quick tips to remember.

Secrets Of The Elite Butterfly Swimmer

The Hips Go Up As The Hands Go In

This is THE NUMBER ONE law of butterfly. If the timing and rhythm of the stroke is wrong, the stroke becomes difficult; arms and legs begin applying force at the wrong times and in the wrong directions. The timing mechanism can be simply learned by remembering that the hips go up as the hands go in.

Apply T-pressure

Pressing the "T" refers to the action of applying downward pressure through your chest (The "T" being the intersection of the long axis of your body with a line from armpit to armpit). This pressure is used for balancing the body. Your body naturally will pivot about the hips, like a teeter-toter pivots (or balances) at the middle of the board. Applying T-pressure releases your hips to go up (as the hands go in, of course).

Use Your Head

Your body naturally follows where your head is going. No kidding! Remember, though, that your skull matter comes with a certain amount of mass (weight) and drag. If you attempt to raise your head up real high in order to breathe, your body will naturally attempt to achieve airborne flight. However, more appropriate movements of this "throw weight" will help maintain body balance like T-pressure.

Put The Arms In The Right Place

When starting the armstroke, the hands should land in front of you at, or barely wider than, shoulder width. A wider "catch" doesn't hold much water (literally), while having the hands meet in front of you requires extra energy.

Keep Elbows High

The dreaded "dropped elbow" can easily occur during the butterfly stroke. Elbows are most likely to fall below the wrists (and well below the water surface) early in the pull when the hands are widest from the body. By concentrating on keeping the elbows near the surface, above the wrists, and pointed outward, you will keep your arms energized by leading with the mass of your arms instead of leading by the elbows.

Kick From The Chest Down, & Kick The Bottom Of The Pool

The kick in butterfly should not originate from the knees, or be limited to the lower legs. When you see dolphins or a whales swimming, their movement in the water looks like one big body undulation from the head area through the body to a powerful kick motion. Natural butterfly looks similar. Trying to picture yourself kicking from the chest down is another way to focus on body balance.

There are two principles you should consider when practicing the butterfly stroke. The first is to build the stroke in the proper sequence. That sequence is:

  • Balance
  • Body position with the head/chest
  • Hip movement, and finally
  • Arm propulsion.

Some drills you may try for body position include single-arm butterfly swimming and a "short-axis combo" (swimming a few strokes of fly, then immediately switching to a few strokes of breaststroke).

The second principle is to start small with the distance. If you are just learning the butterfly, start out by just taking a few strokes in the shallow end. As you get more proficient in maintaining your stroke, you can build your interval distance up, one length at a time. Then pretty soon, people will be calling you a "natural" swimmer.

Also Remember These 5 Tips For A More Effective Butterfly!!

Tip 1

Enter the Water with your hands shoulder width apart, palms facing outward rather than down. Drive your chest forward as your hands drop below the surface. This should drive your hips up and create a "swimming downhill" effect.

Tip 2

Breathe every other cycle. This will help you maintain a better body position by preventing your legs from dropping and causing you to swim uphill. Do not lift your neck to breathe, simply lean forward with your shoulders, eyes still focus downward on the water.

Tip 3

Recover with your arms straight but relaxed. This will keep you in a long rhythm for the stroke cycle and help you pull more effectively without tightening up.

Tip 4

Two Kicks for each stroke. The critical kick is timed to occur just before your arms exit the water (palms facing inward). You need the combined momentum of the arm push and the quick kick to get your arms out of the water and through the recovery phase. The second larger kick occurs as your hands enter the water.

Tip 5

Head should enter the water slightly before your hands. Relax your head and neck during all phases of your arm cycle.

Here Are Some Drills That Will Help You To Develop Your Fly.

Position Kicks

Kick butterfly either on sides, on front or on back. Various positions will develop fly kick in slightly different ways. Kick fly with or without board and with or without fins. Improves leg strength for fly kick.

Vertical Kicking

May be used for flutter, breast or fly kicks. In deep water, kick with body in a vertical position, remaining stationary (no forward or backward movement). For fly, kick front to back evenly with no pauses during kicks. Improves continuous rhythm of dolphin kick.

4 Kicks, 1 Pull

Take a "break" after each stroke by pausing with hands in front while taking four kicks. Take a breath with each stroke. Allows arms to rest and good for working on timing of breath.

One-Arm Fly

A great way to learn butterfly, swim 1-arm fly with inactive arm out front. Breathe to the side of active arm on 1-arm fly. Maintain stroke rhythm with two kicks one pull timing the first kick as your hand enters the water and the second kick as your hands comes out of the water.

An alternate way of swimming the 1-arm fly drill is to leave the nonworking arm at your side. This drill works on connecting the finish of the butterfly stroke with the recovery. You will have the feeling of "throwing your arm away." Always concentrate on "getting in front" for an effortless butterfly stroke.


Take 3 strokes with left arm, 3 strokes right, 3 complete swim. Excellent drill for warming up fly. Improves stroke coordination.

Swim With Fins

Drive the legs with each kick and feel the body lift more easily out of the water. Entry of hands should be in front of shoulders. Allows struggling flyers to feel the "correct" stroke and proper entry.

Underwater Recovery

Halfway through underwater stroke, begin moving chin forward for breath. At end of underwater stroke, stop arms, get breath and recover arms underwater while kicking. Hands stay underwater at all times. Allows for correct timing in breath and work on follow-through.

4-Stroke Fly

After leaving wall, take only four strokes of fly, then swim easy free. No breathing on the four strokes and keep strokes as long as possible. Follow through with hands nearly touching under stomach. Improves overall stroke efficiency, especially ability to follow through at end of underwater stroke.


I thought I would include a section in this article to just the butterfly kick. I remember that this was one of the places I had the most trouble with when learning the butterfly, so I figured it might also be helpful to you.

Timing The Two Kicks

Each butterfly arm cycle should be accompanied by two kicks, which serve different but important functions. The downbeat of the first kick begins just as the hands are about to enter the water.

This leg action helps bring the hips back to a higher position on the surface and provides propulsion until the hands reach the "catch" phase. The upbeat of the kick helps streamline the body and reduce drag as the hands enter their propulsive phase.

The first kick is longer in duration than the second kick. The second kick is executed as the arms are completing their propulsive phase and beginning a slightly upward movement toward the recovery.

Compared to the first kick, the second kick is more concentrated from the knees down. The second kick generates propulsion that helps drive the shoulders forward and upward over the water to assist in the arm recovery.

Unlike freestyle and backstroke, which use rotation or shoulder roll, butterfly relies on this propulsion to lift the shoulders out of the water. Also, proper timing of the second kick helps support the hips, keeping them from being pulled underwater.

Many beginning butterflyers make the mistake of completing both kicks before the start of the arm cycle what I call a "kick-kick-pull" butterfly. Here the swimmer extends the arms forward after the entry until the finish of the second kick, then uses the end of the second kick as a trigger to begin underwater arm movements.

As a result, when the pull is completed there is no thrust generated from the legs to elevate the shoulders and to help raise the head for a breath. Consequently, the swimmer must arch the back and lift the head and feet at the same time. In addition, this timing results in a lack of forward propulsion during the arm recovery.

Rhythm & Roll

The butterfly body motion is one of rhythm and continuous roll. When swimming any stroke, the body will always want to follow the direction of the head. During freestyle and backstroke, the goal is to keep the head still as the rest of the body rotates on its axis.

This minimizes lateral and vertical movements that would inevitably reduce speed. In butterfly, a nod of the chin initiates the undulation that triggers the incorporation of the hips that continues all the way down to the snap of the ankles.

This undulatory movement means that the hips can begin the next kick as the ankles and feet complete the push of the previous kick.

A common fault in butterfly is to avoid using the hips and to kick solely from the knees down. This results in a tendency to exaggerate the bend in the knee and to draw the feet up too high, that is, toward the suit.

Consequently, the hips remain flat and the kick is directed straight back. Although this may sound like an acceptable stroke technique, the body needs to travel in a somewhat upward direction during the second kick, as mentioned earlier.

Competence Levels

When learning the butterfly, it is important to concentrate on the timing of the two kicks in relation to the arm cycle rather than to emphasize the relative strength of the two kicks. "Feeling" the involvement of the hips and "rolling" the kicks together will help one obtain a sense of stroke rhythm.

I hope that reading this article encourages you to get in the water and tackle this difficult stroke. It's may be hard at first but keep trying and before you know it, you will have added a powerful fat-burning workout to you cardio arsenal! Go out and get cut!