Swimming the butterfly step by step guide to the stroke as well as tips and hints about how you can improve

Swimming the butterfly/ introduction

Butterfly is the most recent developed stroke of the four strokes. Swimming the butterfly became a recognized stroke in 1953. It is the second fastest stroke of all the strokes. It is mainly used for competitions rather than a recreational stroke. It is swum the least and taught the least. Swimming the butterfly can be very physically demanding doing the full stroke but learning and some practices can be done without too much physical exertion. What makes this stroke more difficult in comparison to the other strokes is that the recovery of the arms has to clear the surface of the water at the same time. You need good timing of the arms and legs, flexibility, grace and power are needed. You are basically imitating the action of a dolphin and have to totally forget the idea of pushing and pulling like the other three stroke. There is a basic check list of the requirements needed if you are thinking of swimming the butterfly:

You can easily do an underwater push and glide. (This means that you start on the side of the pool and on your front go under the water. Then put both of your feet against the wall of the pool. With arms out infront of you push and glide without kicking legs or using arms.)

You can do the front crawl flutter kick.

You can successfully swim front crawl arms

Swimming the butterfly/ click here to see my page about freestyle swimming technique/ front crawl

You can successfully swim breastroke arms Click here to see my page about breastroke swimming

Swimming the butterfly/ description of the stroke

You should be swimming in a prone position when swimming the butterfly, face down as well as horizontal. Your arms and legs should be moving in a continuous action. The arms in this stroke recover over the surface of the water with the legs kicking upwards and downwards in a vertical plane. The body moves in an undulating like a dolphin from your head to your toes. (undulating just means that the body varies throughout the stroke). The head then rises above the water to breathe at the end of your underwater arm pull. The hands move in a series of sculling actions in the water. You sweep outwards, downwards, inwards, and outwards again to exit the water by the thighs.

Swimming the butterfly in more detail/ body position

You should be in a prone, face down, horizontal, and streamlined position. Making sure that the crown of your head is leading the shoulders are level as well as your body undulating from head to toe. You create an undulating body action by the movements of your head, the up and down movements of your legs as well as the under and over arm action. The hips will rise and fall and the feet will break the surface.

So the main points to consider when swimming the butterfly is your body is in a prone position with face down and the crown leading. Your body is undulating (dolphin like) with your shoulders level.

Swimming the butterfly/ leg action

The legs offer a great deal of propulsion when swimming the butterfly and gives good forward propulsion when there is little or no propulsion from the arms. As well as propulsion the legs offer balance as the arms recover so the timing of the kick is vital to the butterfly swimmer.

The leg kick is made up of simultaneous movement upwards and downwards on a vertical plane. You must keep your legs together and plantarflexed. The kick is quite similar to front crawl flutter kick but with legs remaining together the difference being that the legs move at the same time and there is a greater degree of knee bend. The movement of the leg initiates at the hips and can be seen as an upbeat and downbeat.

Upbeat (recovery phase)

Your legs will begin the upbeat in an extended position, the feet are plantarflexed this is their lowest point. This basically means that the feet as well as the lower legs will be outside the normal the body range. The depth of you feet will depend on the overall size of the swimmer, the length of your limbs as well as the force of your previous downbeat. The deepest point of your legs will be when your legs are totally straight with toes pointing. When you start to begin the upbeat your hips will lift. This will allow your legs to move upward to the surface of the water. Your legs will remain straight as well as relaxed with your toes pointed for most of this phase, when you get to towards the end of the upbeat your knees will be slightly bent. At the end of your upbeat your hips will have lowered in the water.

Downbeat (recovery phase)

The downbeat begins as your hips lower, your upper leg will then follow your hip with the knee continuing to bend. The bend is usually about 90 degrees. Your lower legs will then push down with your shin, the pressure should now be a combination of downwards and backwards. Any propulsion that you acheve from the leg action is from the leg accelerating downwards. The last phase of the downbeat is straightening of the legs at your knees ready to place your legs in the position to start the upbeat. When accelerating the downbeat it will have the effect of lifting your hips close to the surface of the water.

So to conclude the leg action before we move on to the arm action you muse ensure that the legs kick in a simultaneous action. Remembering that the downbeat kick is the kick that provides you with propulsion, meaning that the upbeat is the recovery. Both down and upbeat is initiated at the hip. Your legs are straight at the start of your upbeat with a slight bend at the end of the upbeat. Your knees will bend and straighten in the downbeat and your lower legs will accelerate on the downbeat. Your toes will be pointed and in toeing, about 30 percent of the overall propulsion is contributed by your legs.

Swimming the butterfly/ arm action, introduction

Your arm action will be simultaneous and continuous and contributes the main propulsion when swimming the butterfly. When the arms are under the water they follow a keyhole shaped action because the arms follow a path similar to the shape of a key hole. The out, down and insweep is similar to the breastroke action and the un and outsweep which follows on is similar to the front crawl action. The entry and recovery can also be likened to the front crawl as well.


Your hand will enter the water with thumb and first finger first like front crawl with the hands in line with the shoulders, this enables the hands to be pitched into the water at a 45 degree angle to the surface of the water. When your hands enter the water your elbows will be slightly bent. Once the hands have entered the water you straighten your elbows and your hands will then travel slightly outwards.

Outsweep/ catch

From your entry position your arms will then extend forwards, downwards and a little outwards this is where the point of the catch is found. The catch will occur outside of your shoulder width. This is the point where the pitch as well as the angle of attack will change to downwards as well as backwards. This will enable you to gain a purchase upon the water and gain catch Your hands are at their maximum with at this initial outsweep and your hands are then pitched outwards. The elbows are also kept in a high position at this point as the pull begins.


After you initial catch your hands will travel downwards with a downward and outward pitch. Your elbow will then bend so to maintain the strongest force using a mid range of movement. When your hands reach the end of your downsweep your elbows should be in a high position with about a 90 degree bend in your elbow. Your hand will press momentarily backwards before changing your pitch to inwards and backwards.


The pitch of your hands is now inwards and backwards as they sweep inwards under your abdomen. Your hand will almost meet under your body between your chest and stomach. The pitch of your hands will change now backwards before changing pitch to upwards and outwards.

Up/ outsweep

Your hand will now sweep outwards and also upwards both at the same time. This is the point where your hand is at the greatest speed because it has been increasing in speed all throughout the propulsive phase. Your hands will continue until your arms are almost extended and have gone past your hips. At this point your wrists will rotate with your palms inward leaving your little finger uppermost as well as the palms of your hand facing your thighs.


This will begin in the water with your elbows slightly bent. Your shoulders are rotated so permitting your elbows and your little fingers to exit the water first. When you recover the arms over the water they should be low and almost straight with your hands relaxed. Your elbow will increase in bend getting towards the end of recovery so that you can enter the water thumb first ready for re-entry.

Swimming the butterfly/ breathing

Like with any stroke breathing can disrupt the streamlining of the body if it is not done correctly. Swimming the butterfly with the breathing is no exception. So it is quite essential that a good breathing technique is employed to permit effective over arm recovery.

You take an in breath when the arms complete the up/outsweep. This is where the butterfly swimmer's mouth clears the water bearing in mind that that you must begin your head movement much earlier in the propulsive phase of the arms. Your head movement will begin during your downsweep and insweep. When swimming the butterfly you can either take a breath in front of you as your head rises of to the side as your head rises, as long as your shoulders are level. If you choose to breathe to the front then you should be extending your chin forwards rather than lifted. This will help you to keep streamlined. If you decide that you would rather breathe to the side then you will have the extra advantage of being more streamlined in the water. This is because you can breathe in the trough of the bow wave, just like you would in front crawl. So you are taking a breath below the natural water surface. When you have taken your breath you must make sure that you put your head back in the water because with head up position will make recovery of the arms more difficult.

When swimming the butterfly is normal for you to breathe out explosively meaning all at once. Because there is not much time to take a breath if you have breathed out explosively then the lungs will be empty of air enabling you to take in more air at a time when a breath is taken.

Swimming the butterfly/ co-ordination

When swimming the butterfly is essential that arm, leg and breathing are timed correctly if you want to swim effective butterfly. Your movements have to be co-ordinate in such a way that one movement of the body assists the effective execution of another. This co-ordination is what is mostly done incorrectly when swimming the butterfly.

Leg action timing

When swimming butterfly it is swum in a two beat leg action. Kick on the way in kick on the way out this being the timing for legs when the arms are not proving much or any propulsion then the legs will kick and keep the body moving forward and balanced as the arms are moving out of the water.

First downbeat

The first downbeat happens on hand entry and outsweep and as the catch occurs the downbeat is completed at this point you beat down your legs it causes your hips to rise. This will cause your head, shoulders and hands being pushed into the water.

Second downbeat

This takes place when your hands are sweeping up and out top the water. Your legs beat down which causes your hips to rise. This will lift the hands closer to the surface of the water making it easier for you to lift your hands out of the water.

Breathing timing

I have already mentioned that you will breathe at the end of the up/ outsweep and at the beginning of the recovery. You would have just finished your second downbeat at this point. you can either breathe at every stroke or every second stroke. this all depends how good you are at swimming the butterfly and the distance you are swimming. If you are swimming a long distance then it would be advisable to breathe on every stroke. If you are doing a fast short sprint or just a short distance then it may be better to breathe on every other stroke. There are advantages and disadvantages of the two different types of breathing. When breathing on every stroke allows your body to take in more oxygen but can affect your timing in a negative way. Breathing on every other stroke gives the body less oxygen in your body but keeps you in a more streamlined position.

I have already mentioned that you will breathe at the end of the up/ outsweep and at the beginning of the recovery. You would have just finished your second downbeat at this point. you can either breathe at every stroke or every second stroke. this all depends how good you are at swimming the butterfly and the distance you are swimming. If you are swimming a long distance then it would be advisable to breathe on every stroke. If you are doing a fast short sprint or just a short distance then it may be better to breathe on every other stroke. There are advantages and disadvantages of the two different types of breathing. When breathing on every stroke allows your body to take in more oxygen but can affect your timing in a negative way. Breathing on every other stroke gives the body less oxygen in your body but keeps you in a more streamlined position.

There are variations in the leg kick it can all come down to personal style and technique. There is the major/minor kick which is a big kick and little kick. The first kick offers propulsion and the second acts as balance without any propulsion. This technique is only recommended for very skilled butterfly swimmers who can maintain a good body position.

Single beat kicking, this is good for learners only doing one kick on hand entry. Not to maintained as how the stroke should be done because it does not promote a streamlined position.

Even beat kicking (recommended), is the technique of kicking the legs even strengths a kick for entry of the hands and a kick for the exit of the hands. This offers propulsion when there is no propulsion given by the arms and the strong kick assists the exit of the arms with the over the water recovery.

The V-pull, if you are lacking in strength, flexibility, or arm and shoulder flexibility you may find it easier to pull the arms in a simple V shape rather than the keyhole. This simple form of arm technique allows a wider arm entry. It also help people who have little upper body strength because it shortens the propulsive phase. This way of using the arms is not as effective as the keyhole technique but it is good for teaching and learning of the stroke.

Swimming the butterfly/ faults, causes and the corrective practices

When swimming the butterfly you will always have a fault or two no matter how good you think you are. Have a look at my fault chapter before you move on. When looking at corrective practices then you may need to use kick boards or floats etc to improve your stroke.

Fault, Excessive undulation.

Cause, kicking from the knees and/ or too much knee bend

Corrective practice, try legs on the back keep your knees under water and whip up with your feet. This can be done with or without a float or kick board.

Click here to look at my page about butterfly drills to improve your technique using easy to do practices

Click here to look at my page about swimming equipment including kick boards and floats Fault, alternating leg kick

Cause, legs not being kept together

Corrective practice, practice legs on their own keeping legs together, try legs only and sculling with your arms. This will allow to place an emphasis on the leg action and still able to allow undulation.

Click here to find the fun swim shop to get kick boards, floats and any other swimmnig equipment

Fault, too small and too shallow kicking.

Cause, this could be a one of two causes firstly not enough movement at the hips or not enough bend at the knees

Corrective practice, practice the leg on their own by sculling with the arms in front of you and kicking the butterfly legs with an emphasis placed on your leg action whilst still allowing undulation Fault, Pulling your arms too wide of your body this will cause loss of power.

Cause, could be due to lack of strength or flexibility in arm and/or shoulders pulling a V shaped action. Entry could be wide of shoulders.

Corrective practice, practice arm pull using pull buoy but not too long at a time due to stress on the spine. Try one arm at a time with a kick board. Practice upper body strength. Also practice the key-hole sculling pattern with thumbs almost touching If your problem is that you have a wide arm pull because lack of flexibility in arms or shoulders then just use what you have got and use to the best of your ability. Don't worry if it is not perfect, don't push yourself and cause injury to yourself swimming the butterfly. Fault, arms not clearing the water.

cause, your body may not being streamlined in the water or you may have a weak out/upsweep.

Corrective practice, concentrate on your leg action, use a kick board for short periods at a time, also practice arm action practices, you could stand in the water going over and over the arm action. Then put it together remembering to kick on arm entry then kick on arm exit (kick your arms in kick your arms out). Fault, excessive undulation.

Cause, too high recovery.

Corrective practice, try full stroke without breathing think about fingertips to just trail the surface of the water.

Thank you for reading my page about swimming the butterfly I do hope that this information has been useful and interesting. I hope you enjoyed this page as much as I have enjoyed writing it. I have plenty more pages about swimming if you want to take a look.

Thanks for reading, Dale Dudley swimming the butterfly/ click here to return to home page