The Butterfly Stroke: 4 Tips for Mastering the “Butterdie”

The butterfly stroke is the physically challenging of the four swimming strokes. Tough to learn, and tough to do, but once you master the timing and achieve some of the conditioning necessary to perform the stroke correctly, it’s one of the most satisfying ways to train in the water.

Here are some pieces of advice for how to swim the butterfly stroke a little bit better.

1. Swim forwards, not up and down.

One of the big “ah-ha!” moments swimmers have when learning the butterfly stroke is realizing that they should be pulling and kicking forwards across the pool, and not up and down. This is a difficult thing to grasp when we are feeling like we are simply struggling to breathe and get our arms out of the water. Once the shoulder flexibility gets there, and your shoulder and back conditioning gets to a point where you can get your arms to clear the water somewhat comfortably for the course of a length, begin focusing on the concept of butterflying across the pool with a slimmer profile.

2. Your chin should just break the surface of the water.

One of my favorite cues when helping swimmers work on their butterfly is to have them focus on having their chin rest just above the surface of the water when breathing. This will do a couple things—first, it will encourage what we discussed in the previous point, a forward-thinking butterfly stroke. And secondly, and perhaps most noticeably, it will eliminate a lot of the excess up-and-down actions within the stroke cycle, making the profile of the stroke slimmer and more hydrodynamic. Combined, breathing with your chin just out of the water will reduce wasted energy and make you more efficient. Win-wins don’t come much more win-ny then that!

3. Pull backwards with your hands, not down.

The temptation for beginner swimmers is to push down when their hands enter the water at the top of the pulling motion. This is understandable, and I would reason that it’s also instinctual—at this point of the stroke all they want to do is insure that they will be able to get their head out of the water for the next stroke cycle. However, if you want to swim faster, you need to focus on pulling your body across the water, instead of up and out of it.

The catch (the beginning of the pull motion), is where almost all of the propulsion is generated in the stroke. As you progress with this stroke, and get more comfortable with it, you will come to understand just how critical having an early vertical forearm and palms facing backwards at this point of the pull is to generating velocity. It’s an unnatural feeling the first few times you do it—elbows bent above your head, fingers pointed at the bottom of the pool, with your elbows bent so that your forearm is vertical.

4. Choose a breathing pattern that works best for you.

This is for you intermediate and advanced butterfliers out there. When breathing, don’t forget to use your second kick to set up your breath, to stay low on the surface of the water, and to breathe forward, not up. Aim to breathe late in the stroke cycle before burying your arms above you into the water. How much you breathe doesn’t really matter—Michael Phelps, easily the greatest butterfly specialist of all time, breathed almost every stroke during the course of the 100m butterfly at the 2012 London Olympic. Chad Le Clos, who would win the 200m butterfly at those same games, would breathe every stroke for 98% of the race in winning gold. At the end of the day, the breathing pattern doesn’t really matter. Simply pick one that that works for you.

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