Butterfly Stroke Kick and Leg Movement

Last Updated on August 1st, 2023

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The butterfly stroke is incredibly difficult to learn and do properly. However, if you can master it, you can feel pride in knowing that you have learned and mastered one of the hardest swimming techniques out there. 

However, in order to master the stroke, you must first be able to perfect the individual parts. One of those parts is the legs and the kick. Keep reading to learn more about the butterfly stroke kick, including how important it is to the stroke and how to do it properly. 


Do You Use Legs in Butterfly Stroke?

Yes, your legs are used in the butterfly stroke. This is because the legs are an essential part of propulsion. They provide the force behind your swim and give you the bursts of speed you need to complete the butterfly stroke fully. 

Unlike some other swims, the legs stay together during this stroke. Instead of moving at opposite times, they move as one, similar to a dolphin’s tail. 

This allows you to increase your propulsion by delivering a forceful kick through the water. However, it takes a lot more energy and strength to perform, which is one reason the butterfly stroke can be so difficult. 


What Leg Movement and Kick Does the Butterfly Stroke Use?

The kick that the butterfly stroke uses is known as the dolphin kick. This is because it relies on the whole body’s movement to help propel the body forward. 

During the kick, your legs move in sync, delivering double the force in order to help propel your body forward. 

As with other swimming strokes, the movement should come from your hips. This kick is your main propulsion. While it depends heavily on the flow and timing of the arms, getting the kick incorrect involves moving the hips in coordinated movements. 


What Are the Kick Cycles in Butterfly Stroke?

There are two kick cycles in the butterfly stroke. They have vastly different jobs from each other, with one providing propulsion, reducing drag, and getting the legs ready again for the next phase. 

However, both are equally important to get right, or else you might find your breaststroke isn’t flowing as well as it should. You may also find your timing is not synced between your legs and arms without proper kick cycles. 


The Downbeat

In the downbeat phase, you get the majority of your propulsion. It consists of four steps. 


  1. Push the hips down, with the thighs close behind and the knees flexed.
  2. The legs begin to move up, and knees and hips are flexed
  3. The knees are extended, and the legs move down quickly
  4. Legs are fully extended, and feet are below the body’s level


This ends the downbeat. This part of the movement is propulsive. 


The Upbeat

Immediately after the downbeat begins the upbeat. 


  1. The hips begin to move up in response to the last movement of the downbeat
  2. The hips extend, and the thighs begin to move up
  3. Pressure against the lower legs extends the knees, and the knees are neutral
  4. Legs are extended and move up until the feet are above the body


Then the downbeat begins again. The upbeat isn’t propulsive but reduces drag for movement. Using too much force during this time can create drag since the feet and legs will not be in the correct position. 

Generally, you want to get two kicks per stroke cycle, so two upbeats and two downbeats. Getting both down per stroke is critical as the first kick tends to be more propulsive and lasts longer, while the second helps mostly to reduce drag and carry on the movement. 

Many beginners manage only one kick per cycle. This can be hard for people first learning the movement, as they are actually increasing the effort and reducing the efficiency of their swimming by not managing to complete two kicks per stroke. 

For kicking as well, having flexible ankles can make a difference. With ankles that can move a bit more, you are able to get extra propulsion and keep your feet in the best place to reduce drag. 

Thankfully, if your ankles aren’t very flexible, that doesn’t mean you are stuck with what you have. Plenty of drills and exercises are specifically dedicated to flexing the ankles and allowing for movement. 

These stretches can not only help to improve your breaststroke but backstroke and front crawl as well. 


How Important is Leg Movement and Kicking in the Butterfly Stroke?

The leg movement is one of the most important parts of the butterfly stroke. It provides propulsion and increases the efficiency of the stroke. 

If you cannot do the correct amount of kicks per stroke or can’t get the movement right, you will find yourself unable to move the way you would like. 

This can be a particularly large issue with the butterfly stroke, as it can prevent you from having enough upward movement to be able to get a breath. The movement of the hips and thighs pushes the body either up or down. 

If the kick isn’t done at the right time, you may find it difficult to get a breath when you need one. This is because you will have to push harder with your arms and disrupt your leg kicks in order to move up to get a breath. 

Your drag will also be much higher, and your efficiency much lower. Therefore, while all parts of the breaststroke must be done well and at similar times, the legs are pretty important to get right and drive the swim’s forward and upward movement. 


Final Thoughts on Butterfly Stroke Kick and Leg Movement

The butterfly stroke’s leg movements are essential to get the whole swim right. They don’t require as much muscle and endurance as the rest of the swim, but if not done right, you will find yourself struggling to get your timing right and be exhausted at the end of the lap. 

Therefore, practicing the correct movement and breaking the cycles down into individual steps can be useful to ensure you are doing the kick correctly.