How To Swim Butterfly Stroke

Last Updated on August 1st, 2023

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Spectators often comment on the spectacular show of watching others compete in the butterfly stroke. Still, under the surface, the swimmers are working furiously to perform this physically and technically challenging swimming stroke.

This is why, despite being touted as one of the fastest swimming strokes, not many swimmers use this method in competitions. 

While it is a great stroke, in theory, it is difficult to perform right, even with practice. Keep reading to learn more about this stroke and how to perform it properly. 


How to Swim Butterfly Strokes Properly?

The butterfly stroke builds on many of the core concepts of the other swimming strokes and demands more from the swimmer. To swim the butterfly, you should practice these four main areas:


Body positioning

Usually, the most important thing to consider when swimming any stroke is proper positioning of the head and body. Goes a long way to reducing drag and maximizing the efforts of the other three areas. 

The hips should be close to the water’s surface while the head points at a downward angle that points almost to where the poolside meets the pool bottom. This neutral position keeps drag at a minimum and reduces neck strain injuries.


Dolphin kicks

The dolphin kick originates from the hips and keeps the feet together as they go up and down in the water. The proper dolphin kick technique dictates that you do two kicks for every cycle of the arms. 

The first kick helps lift the arms up and out of the water, while the second assists the forward entry of the hands back into the water. Realize that every dolphin kick has an “up” and a “down” phase, both should be utilized for an optimum butterfly stroke.


The pull phase of the arms

The entry of the arms into the water is what gives the butterfly stroke its signature “Y” shape. If you’re experienced in the front crawl, you can think of the pull phase of the butterfly stroke as two front crawl pull phases executed at the same time.


Breathing timing and technique

A quick lift of the head is all that is needed to take a breath before the arms recover. Breathing once every two arm cycles is standard practice by many swimmers, but there are other patterns possible to experiment with. 

Lateral breathing, like in the front crawl, is also possible but not usually recommended for a good, traditional butterfly stroke.


What Should You Focus on Doing with Your Body in Butterfly Stroke?

The power of the arms in the butterfly stroke is a little less important than during the front crawl, but many people still fixate on using their arms and hoping the body will follow along when it should be the opposite that swimmers strive for.

Focus first on having a constant up-down dolphin kick that is shallow in the water, and keep your head pointed towards the bottom of the pool. Anything else, and you’ll be losing time because of drag that could otherwise be reduced.


What’s the Best Way to Breathe with a Butterfly Stroke?

The best way to breathe with the butterfly stroke is to tilt your chin forward until it is in front of your forehead. 

You do this near the end of your pull phase and inhale through your mouth before returning your head to the correct position and sinking below the water again. If you’re pulling your chin out of the water, you’re lifting your head too high.

It is usually a good idea to breathe every second stroke so that you have a sufficient supply of oxygen for your muscles and brain without performing the slowest motion of the entire stroke every single cycle.

Oddly enough, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps opts to breathe every stroke during the butterfly, and this is certainly an option once you have perfected your form and body position so that this breathing pattern doesn’t significantly impact your times.


How Fast Should You Swim Starting Out?

You will instinctively want to try and swim at a slower pace so that you can get all of your individual movements to synchronize for a smooth cycle of butterfly strokes. But, unfortunately, there is no such thing as a “slow” butterfly stroke.

While you can’t swim the butterfly slowly, you should still try to focus on bringing everything that you have learned about the stroke individually through drills together as a cohesive set of motions.

This doesn’t mean that you should be trying to rush or swim as fast as possible right out of the gate when learning the butterfly stroke because timing and consistency are key to further improvements overall.


How to Prevent Getting Tired so Fast with a Butterfly Stroke?

The butterfly stroke uses the most muscles simultaneously of any swimming stroke in the competitive swimming scene, so if you find yourself getting tired quickly when doing the butterfly stroke, you’re not alone.

The best thing you can do to extend how long you can swim using the butterfly stroke is to improve your streamlined body position and form so that you aren’t unnecessarily wasting even the smallest amounts of energy to combat the extra drag that poor form causes.

If you find that you are still struggling to have the energy to complete a lap or two of the butterfly stroke, you should consider hitting the gym to increase the strength of your muscles, especially the ones in your legs.

The arms are typically what become fatigued first when swimming the butterfly stroke, so having a powerful but balanced dolphin kick worked into your stroke means that a good amount of strain is removed from the work the arms have to perform.

You can’t completely ignore working out and using your arms, though, because propulsion still comes primarily from the pull phase of the arms.

Regular breathing patterns will also help you have the oxygen for producing energy and reduce fatigue related to the buildup of lactic acid in the muscles.


Final Thoughts on How To Swim Butterfly Stroke

It’s clear to see that body positioning makes up the majority of properly swimming the butterfly stroke, but it is just one aspect of this complex swimming technique that takes years of practice and patience to master.