This swimming stroke evokes more social and political questions than the other three combined. Questions like – Who invented this thing? What were they thinking? And, Do I really have to swim this?

Even after years of seeing a Spitz, Meagher or Phelps swim so effortlessly, butterfly for most mortals is still the hardest stroke to master. TITW (Time in the Water) refining it in segments is the key to success. Arguably the most elegant stroke when done properly, butterstruggle in its worst form is a sight to be unseen.

Butterfly, like Breaststroke, is a rhythm related stroke, built on fundamentals of skill and strength. In this article, we’re going to highlight one incorrect element within each of the following 5 stroke elements and then accompany it with a correction photo. Brad, our swimmer model, is an accomplished Masters Butterflier but with just a few sessions of really bad coaching he was able to learn how to show off the parts of the stroke we really don’t like to see.

Body Position – lack of undulation

Arm Pull – straight, wide and abbreviated

Leg Kick – over bent knees

Breathing – head lift too late in the cycle

Timing – 2 kicks, both done while arms are in front (catch-up fly), rather than ‘kick hands in, kick hands out’.

BODY POSITION:  A simple key to good undulation on Butterfly is head down, hips up on entry. Over-undulating causes too slow a tempo and too deep a catch. Simply making sure that a) the eyes and nose are pointed to the bottom for an instant on entry and b) that the hips are at or near the surface is sufficient to capture the basic beginning of good from. The goal here is to keep energy moving forwards. Having supple hips and lower back are extra ingredients as well.


In this photo, his swim cap (head) is still visible prior to full entry. Because it’s not submerged at this point, he’ll lack the proper timing needed to get his hips at the surface.







Here, Brad, at full extension, is placing his arms directly in front of his shoulders with thumbs down and pinkies up, is looking straight down to the bottom (keeping his head neutral – in front of his spine), is keeping his hips at the surface of the water and is also completing the first of his two downbeat kicks per cycle.              





ARM PULL: Most fly propulsion comes from the arms. We still advocate a basic ‘keyhole’ pattern with two separate power phases. The first is the anchor that occurs in front of or at the shoulder plane. The second is the release that continues until fingers are behind wrists, which are behind elbows, that are in back of the shoulders. Following a simple mantra of “11 – Diamond – Angel Wings” is an easy way to break the arm motion into easy basics of pulling and pushing.


Brad’s hands and elbows, having entered too wide and moved too far outside of the entry position, will not have enough time to return under his shoulders. This denies him the chance to maximize his forward propulsion.




CORRECT - 1st Position ‘11’

In this photo, Brad has stopped his circular arm recovery in the position of the numeral ‘11’, and is softly placing his fingertips into the water straight ahead of his shoulders. With a sharp pause of his arms at this moment he not only sets them with proper placement, but also begins transferring the momentum of his horizontal swing into the vertical lift of his hips. From this entry he will initiate the catch by pressing down with his fingertips and leave his shoulders and elbows near the surface. Notice how his feet are timed to finish their downbeat with the completion of his arm extension.

CORRECT – 2nd Position ‘Diamond’

In this photo, Brad is halfway through the keyhole and into his ‘Diamond’ position. The diamond we’re describing has its top at the chin, its corners at the elbows and its bottom at the fingertips. The larger you can make the diamond with your hands, forearms and upper arms, the more vertical surfaces you create to provide forward propulsion. (Notice that by sticking his thumbs out and angling his fingertips towards each other, Brad is making a ‘Diamond within a Diamond’. This is moment in the stroke when you’ve gathered the most water. But it’s the moment after this when you fling it back and out to the side that you create the most forward velocity.

CORRECT – 3rd Position ‘Angel Wings’

Here, Brad is doing 3 really good things all at once. As this is when he’s moving fastest lets see how. First, his almost completely horizontal body is cutting through the water with minimal resistance. (Notice how his armpits are closed and his upper arms are parallel to the direction of travel.) Second, his feet are adding to his total forward energy by completing their second kick at exactly the same time he’s finishing his arm motion. And, Third, he’s simultaneously extending his elbows backwards as he rounds off his exit out to the sides creating, what all of you snow people know as, ‘Angel Wings’.

LEG KICK: The legs provide about 20% propulsion on good fly, but should never be overused with too much bend. Let the knees lock on the downbeat to allow for the propulsive ‘toe snap’, and then immediately think ‘Upbeat’, to get them back into position for the next cycle. More time straighter than bent is a good rule of thumb here.

                                                                                       INCORRECT –

Here Brad is over bending too much which can create a reverse eddy in the trough above his buttocks. That not only inhibits propulsion but also delays his timing by adding unnecessary motion.




CORRECT – No photo necessary. Because all of you readers know that any degree of less knee bend than this is going to be closer to perfection.

BREATHING: For the hips and head to fall back into place on time, the fly breath should be taken early in the arm motion. The inhalation should be finished before the hands exit the water and the skull should be submerged before the hands complete their recovery.


In this photo, Brad started his inhalation way too late and it has left his head up too long for proper timing of entry, catch and hip lift. He’ll have to compensate by diving too deep on his catch and then wait for his hands to resurface. Most fliers who make this breathing/timing mistake end up with a kick-kick-pull type stroke.          




Here Brad has completed his inhalation and is returning his head to an in-line-with-spine position as his recovering arms are passing in front of his shoulders. His exhalation begins as soon as his face submerges and it is forceful, noisy and complete. Only in empty lungs is there always room for more air. Breathing patterns in Butterfly are usually race-length dependant. That is, the longer the race, the more you need air. For purposes of Masters training and racing, if you’re swimming anything longer than a 25 – Breathe Early and Breathe Often.


TIMING – Take a close look underwater at the bubble trails following Brad’s hands. Notice the continuous, semi-circular paths they follow as he transitions from Catch to Anchor to Release. Now look above the water during his recovery at the similar droplet paths leaving his fingers. These two flowing arcs are unappreciated examples of proper timing and rhythm.




Body Position -   Lunge forwards on entry and land with soft hands. Avoid diving hands below shoulders as this increases resistance and retards timing.

Arm Pull – Keep your shoulders above your elbows and your elbows above your hands. After the catch, avoid pushing backwards too soon as this causes the elbow to lead the pull instead of the hand and forearm.

Leg Kick – In order for a full and fast motion, be sure to think of the ‘upbeat’ of the feet in addition to the more propulsive ‘downbeat’. Learn the timing of ‘kick your hands into the water, and kick your hands out of the water’. Avoid becoming a One-Beat (or worse-yet) a No-Beat Butterfly swimmer.

Breathing – Keep your chin close to the surface and look only about 6 inches in front of your face. Avoid lifting your entire shoulder girdle.

Timing – Find new ways to ‘feel your fly’ when you swim. Try using long fins and short fins for both swimming and kicking sets. Try using fist swimming or spread fingers swimming when practicing, in case your newly discovered technique is more advanced than your strength. Try only swimming with excellent technique for 3-5 cycles per lap before switching to easy free. Try taking a risk. Leave the struggle behind and start flying.