Swim Basics: A Beginner’s Guide to the Butterfly

While the butterfly is the most dynamic stroke, it is difficult to learn. Learning the basics is imperative and will help tremendously in the long run.

The butterfly. It is arguably the most beautiful stroke, and the most difficult to learn of the bunch.

In previous articles we looked at the basics of learning to freestyle, backstroke, and breaststroke. In this piece we’ll do the same for the fly. Much like the other strokes, learning the butterfly centers around some core concepts – namely, body position and the rhythm between the pull and the kick. Let’s dive in!

Body Position

The beauty of the butterfly is that mastering body position first sets you up nicely for learning the elements to follow. It is a little more intuitive than the rest of the strokes in this regard. No rotation to deal with here!

To get started:

  • Grab a pull buoy, place it between your legs, and push off of the wall – face down, arms out in front.
  • Focus your eyes directly below you with a neutral neck position. Your hands should be just outside of your shoulders, with palms down and fingertips below the wrists. Imagine your arms making the shape of a Y instead of an H. This is the position you will go back to at the end of each recovery phase.

“Much like the other strokes, learning the butterfly centers around some core concepts – namely, body position and the rhythm between the pull and the kick.”

To dial it in further, remove the pull buoy and do the same drill, only this time concentrate on what your hips and feet are doing. Without the buoy you become wholly responsible for staying streamlined, and will have to apply downward pressure with the head and chest to remain level. Once you feel confident with your starting position, it’s time to move on to the pull phase.

The Pull

Swimmers learning the butterfly often get carried away with the kick aspect of the stroke, creating too much of an up-and-down action in the water. That’s why we’ll start by focusing on the pull instead. Sculling is a great drill to improve your pull, as it teaches the idea of keeping your fingertips down. It also establishes the feel for grabbing the water and creating propulsion.

  • In the fly, the pull starts from your beginning position with the hands extended and outside of the shoulders (the Y).
  • From here, much like in sculling, the fingertips drop to grab the water like a paddle just before the forearms move to a vertical position.
  • While this is happening, the hands push back and towards your midline. This drives you forward and up powerfully to grab your breath and start your recovery.
  • Aim to keep your chin as close to the surface as possible when grabbing your breath.

The Recovery

Here’s how to be smooth in your recovery:

  • Bring the arms up barely above the water and out to the sides. Do not try to explode upward with your arms. Smooth and efficient are the name of the game.
  • Imagine your fingertips dragging along the surface before returning back to your starting position.
  • Your legs will be lower in the water at this point, and all you need to do is relax and let them rise as your chest position changes your body position.

The Kick

The kick is the trickiest part of the fly. It demands core strength and coordination. In essence, the fly consists of two dolphin kicks, a big one and a little one. For the time being, we’ll just focus on the core skill behind the big kick.

Dolphin kicking is an excellent tool to have in your arsenal. Done correctly it is powerful and streamlined. To drill dolphin kicking:

  • Push off the wall like you did when working on body position, only this time bring the hands together out in front of you.
  • Push your head and chest down to start the caterpillar-like motion. The knees will bend a bit, which is fine.
  • Once your hips and feet rise towards the surface, kick them down and together, extending the legs and pointing the feet. This will bring your chest back up and start the whole cycle again.

As you’re doing this drill, imagine how the pull and recovery phases will fit in. Your kick brings your torso upward, allowing the arms to recover. On the flip side, when your hands are fully extended in front, the chest and head are low while the legs are high, ready to fire together with the pull to create explosive propulsion.

“Ultimately, it is about developing a rhythm and timing that create synergy throughout your body and the stroke.”

Feel good about all that? Break it down further and work on the double kick, as shown in this video.

Putting It All Together

Once you master the individual parts, work on putting them together:

  • Start with the body position and the pull. While pulling, bring the chest and head up to start the dolphin kick and grab your breath.
  • Return your head back down. Let the arms recover and enter in front of you while the legs rise.

This is the beginning of finding the rhythm that defines a successful and beautiful butterfly. It will take some practice, but the pieces will come together eventually, crafting a stroke you can do for more than just a length. Ultimately, it is about developing a rhythm and timing that create synergy throughout your body and the stroke.

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Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.

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