How to Master the Butterfly Stroke

December 11, 2020

Butterfly is known as the “mental mountain” of the strokes — quite the intimidating nickname. However, according to CA swim coach Carl Barr, if you like to dance, you can learn to like the butterfly! 

The key? Learning to find the rhythm with two kicks to every one stroke, as well as a few other essentials. 

Let’s dive right into the stroke mechanics. 


Body Position 

No matter what stroke you’re setting up for, proper body position is everything. In butterfly, your body will make a wave-like motion. Here’s a quick breakdown: 

  • Keep your head in a neutral, facedown position.
  • This head position will allow you to keep you hips high.
  • The crown of your head will lead this wave-like motion, followed by your chest, hips and finally your feet.
  • Essentially, when your head is just under the water, your hips will lift. When your head is on the surface of the water, your hips will dip.

Arms & Hands

  • Start with your arms extended above your head, shoulder width apart. 
  • Pull your hands toward your body in a semicircular motion. During this motion, be sure to keep your elbows higher than your hands to get a stronger pull. 
  • To finish the pull underwater, push your palms backwards through the water past your hips. Both arms should then recover out of the water simultaneously around to the starting position next to the head. 

“As your arms leave the water, think about reaching around the side toward the lanelines and then out toward the wall in front of you. There can be a bend in the arm under the water during the pull, but arms should be straight during the recovery over top of the water slightly above the surface,” said Columbia Clippers coach Kelsey Lord.

Watch out for: Large arm circles! This puts a tremendous amount of stress on the shoulders.

A young swimmer swims the butterfly at Columbia Swim Center

Legs & Feet 

It is best to start by mastering body motion (sometimes called body rock) and kick for butterfly. 

To create the most powerful kick, both legs should move simultaneously and stay together so that the body makes a see-saw or wave-like motion. When the chest is pressed down, the hips should pop up. When the hips go down, the chest should rise up. The legs should follow behind this motion with a flick from the legs. 

We kick when we enter the water, and when we want to exit. Barr emphasized that the exit kick is the one that most swimmers miss. However, it’s vital in aiding our breath and ease of recovery. Like with the breaststroke, both legs work together and the arms also move symmetrically. 

“To pull yourself forward, aim your fingertips aim towards the floor and propel forward with both arms at the same time. Accelerate your arms through that pull and with that big kick. As you finish, bring your arms over the surface and return them out in front of you for another pull. Breathe right when you begin your pull so that your head can get back into the water, face down, before your arms reach back in front of you. Kick in, kick out!” -Carl Barr

Watch out for: Kicking from the knees! It will make it harder to get your arms out of the water and maintain a high body position. A proper kick involves all of the muscles, from the rib cage to the toes.


Timing Is Key

The timing of the butterfly stroke, kick and breathing is vital. If the rhythm is out of sync, you’ll create extra unneeded resistance. Remember, each stroke cycle of the butterfly should involve two kicks: One as the arms are pulling underwater, and the other toward the end of the stroke recovery over the water. 

The breath should also be taken as the arms pull underwater. The breath should be quick, and the head should return back to the water by the time the arms begin to leave the water to come around for the over-water recovery.


Master the Butterfly With CA

Like any skill, the butterfly gets easier with practice…and CA’s coaches and swim lesson instructors are here to help! CA offers one-on-one swim lessons for all ages and skill levels. Learn more here.

Share this post