How to Swim Butterfly

Teach Yourself to Swim Butterfly

Butterfly swimmer in swimming lane
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Good butterfly swimmers are fun to watch. Swimming butterfly looks like it is very, very hard to do... and butterfly can be hard, but it does not need to be, and it should be a stroke that all swimmers add to their repertoire of swimming strokes, along with freestyle, backstroke, and breaststroke.

One of the secrets of butterfly is to not over kick. If you use a big butterfly kick, you can end up going up and down too much in the water—moving from near the surface to far under the surface, and then up again. This up and down, if excessive, is a lot of work with no good payoff. You want to move forward, not up and down.

You can teach yourself to swim butterfly. Take one step at a time, practice, and have someone watch you and give you feedback. Be sure to tell them what you want them to watch as opposed to them telling you what they feel you should do to be a good butterflier. There's nothing really wrong with someone telling you what is good butterfly, but if it is not what you are working on at the moment, or you are not up to that step in your learning, then it may not be helpful.

This lesson on swimming butterfly is broken down into several steps:

  1. Body Position
  2. Pull
  3. Kick
  4. Whole Stroke
  5. Breathing

Work on each step, them move on to the next. You can do the next step by itself, then add in the old steps as you get better.

1. Butterfly Body Position

Butterfly starts with a prone, floating position with your arms pointing toward your destination, slightly wider than shoulder width. Imagine an American Football referee signaling a touchdown, then move the arms a little bit wider. Your eyes are looking down toward the bottom of the pool, and your hips should be up at or near the surface of the water. Practice by pushing off of the pool wall and getting into the butterfly body position and holding it for as long as you can. When you can no longer hold it, stand up, return to the wall, and go for it again.

2. Butterfly Pull

Once the body position is good, time to add in the pull. Some people do the kick first, but we want to minimize the odds of the extra large kick, so we are going to work on the butterfly pull first.

  1. Enter - Start with the hands at the entry position.
  2. Sweep - Sweep them down and in under your chest, almost touching your thumbs and index fingers together as your hands reach mid-chest.
  3. Push - Push them back toward your feet and apart, like you are trying to push the water from the middle of your chest over and down each leg.
  4. Chop - As your hands and arms reach an almost full extension as they move past your waist, throw your hands up (out of the water) and out to the side; throw hard enough that your arms almost automatically swing over the surface of the water toward the entry position. If you imagine a board across the front of your legs, just below your waist, you are trying to karate chop that board as your hands leave the water.
  5. Swing - The recovering arms only need to be high enough above the water to not splash as they swing forward toward the entry. During this phase - the swing - relax your neck and look at the bottom of the pool. A low, relaxed head position will make the swing much easier.
  6. Enter - Enter the hands into the water.

Remember - no dolphin motions, no kick yet, just the body position and the pull.

3. Butterfly Kick

Now comes the kick, or the body dolphin: First with the arms and hands along the side of the body, leading with the head, have the body follow. Small body wiggles, not giant body whips! Next with the arms in front; keep the movements small, no over-emphasis on up and down/serpentine motions; the hips go up and down, but never drop too deep or rise too high.

4. Put the Pieces Together - Swim Butterfly

Now, put the float, the arms, and the body motion together. Start in the float position, then pull, and as the hands enter the water at the start of the float, the hips go up and then back down, one little body wiggle. Repeat! A second way to put the stroke together is to do the float, then the hips up and down, then the pull, then repeat.

5. Butterfly Breathing

Breathing comes next, with the breath starting as the pull starts, moving the top of the head out, push the chin forward, take in air, and then lay the face back in the water eyes looking down. Be sure to exhale under water so you do not waste time and effort trying to exhale when your face is above the water, when you should be inhaling.

That's it! You are swimming butterfly. Add some to your next workout. I suggest doing little bits at a time as you build butterfly fitness. Do 3 or 4 strokes, then swim a different stroke for the remainder of the length of the pool, then repeat. Add more strokes as you gain fitness, and work up to full lengths of the pool swimming butterfly. You can repeat the above steps as a butterfly refresher once in a while, and you can mix in other butterfly drills to help you focus on improving your technique.