Butterfly is considered the most difficult stroke to master. If it’s swum with improper form, the stroke is extremely tiring and inefficiently slow. If you’re struggling to improve your butterfly, this article is designed for you!
Butterfly was first introduced as a variation of breaststroke in the 1930’s. Originally, the stroke used today’s butterfly arm movement with a breaststroke kick. Today, this isn’t the case, and it’s one of the reasons people can be resistant to working on improving it.
Butterfly is hard, but it doesn’t have to be. Below are the fundamental elements of a proper butterfly stroke:
Timing is the most important part of the stroke. Every other component is an extension of the stroke’s timing:
1) The Catch:
- Move the body forward to push water back
- Fingers should be pointing down, with palms facing back
- Think about bending the elbows so forearm angles vertically
- Arms should go wide after the entry and extension
2) The Press:
- Drive body forward with chin and chest
- Chin should not be tucked or diving down
- Pressing too deep can compromise the catch
- 3 actions happen together:
- Press body forward
- Hands enter/extend forward
- Kick your press and entry forward!
- Two kicks, equal in power and size
- 2nd kick (at exit) is the kick most often missed because the knees never bend to set it up
- Drive knee downward (otherwise feet exit water)
- Kick hands forward and press forward
- Kick breathe forward
Breathing too high or at the wrong time will kill a good stroke. The key is to stay low and breathe forward. Having a late breath is key. You need to focus on pulling forward to breathe. If you watch the best swimmers in the world (Michael Phelps below), you can see his chin just barely grazes over the surface of the water to catch air on the breath. The second kick is critical to drive the body forward.
Hand Entry, Pull Pattern, Recovery
The hand entry should be at shoulder width or just wider. The palms are downward facing and the thumbs should come in first or at the same time as the rest of the fingers. The most important part of the hand entry is being controlled so that you don’t create a lot of splash upon entering the water.
Next you need to focus on pushing the water back and initiating an early vertical forearm with your palms, forearm and rest of your arms. The pull pattern is dictated by how deep someone presses their chest and body. The pull’s finish sets the arms up for the recovery. This sweeping recovery should be controlled.
Generally I believe in breathing every other stroke. If a swimmer has a strong underwater presence (12-15 meters underwater consistently) then it makes sense to breathe every stroke to prepare to go back underwater. Breathing every stroke should never compromise rhythm and mechanics.
Underwater Dolphin Kicks
The underwater dolphin kick has become a major component of swimming butterfly. Even if you do not race in competition, having a good kick technique applies to the overall stroke mechanics in keeping rhythm and tempo. In competition, the world’s best swimmers can spend up to 60% of a race under water (Short Course).
Even in long course competition like at the Olympics, the best swimmers are spending a considerable amount of time underwater. The best way to do this in a race is to work on it in training every single day.
It’s critical to learn the proper stroke technique before applying heaving training to your butterfly. This is true for all strokes, but most for the short axis strokes like butterfly and breaststroke. Because you’re already so inefficiently low in the water, it’s even more important to have the right technique and body position.
It’s important to reinforce proper technique. Butterfly is a rhythmic stroke. It’s not about power, it’s about mastering efficiency. The longer the distance, the more the stroke depends on posture, line, balance and rhythm.
Butterfly is a stroke that should be trained at speed. You need to focus on maintaining a higher body position with perfect form. Shorter distances of higher repeats are better than doing continuous butterfly. It’s also good to mix freestyle and butterfly within a distance.
For example, doing 10 x 100s (25 Butterfly, 25 Butterfly Drill, 25 Freestyle, 25 Butterfly), is a good way to break apart the stroke and be aerobically challenging.
These technique insights were gathered from a presentation given by Russell Mark, USA Swimming’s National Team High Performance Consultant . You can watch the full presentation, plus more interviews with other coaches here.