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A few years ago, I was on vacation in Arizona, visiting my parents. My mom and I went to her neighborhood women’s league, affectionately known as the Women Who Wine. After learning I was a swim instructor, I had several women ask me, “how do you do the butterfly?!” Well…..

Butterfly is the toughest stroke to master; there is simultaneously very little mechanics to it and a whole lotta technique, finesse, and rhythm. When you think about butterfly, there’s really only two motions–your arms swinging around in a circle and your legs kicking like a dolphin; however, this seemingly simplicity sits on a throne of LIES! 

A short history of the butterfly

Butterfly is the newest stroke. It was originally developed in the 1930s as a style of breaststroke, but with an out of water arm recovery so swimmers could go faster. 1936 Olympic 200 breaststroke American swimming coach David Armbruster is credited with developing the butterfly that we know and (not) love today.

1936 Olympic 200 Breaststroke

This was first used by Jack Sieg in an Iowa University swim meet in 1935, but the dolphin kick was specifically outlawed by FINA (the International Olympic Committee), and Sieg was DQed. Fly officially became an Olympic Sport in 1956, and it has been torturing inexperienced swimmers since.

The Evolution of Butterfly on The Morning Swim Show


There are 3 stages to the arm motion for butterfly: catch, pull, and recovery. At Swim-in Zone, we call it diamond, angel, swing, because that is the motion your arms are making. While your hands are catching the water (or starting to make a diamond shape), your feet are undulating under the water in a dolphin kick to help propel you forward. As your hands exit the water to make the recovery back to the top (swing around), there is another dolphin kick to help propel your arms out of the water. The hardest part about the dolphin kick is it is not just a down kick; it is both an up and down kick. This means that you not only need to kick both feet down, it is imperative to also kick up with both feet together.  All this energy is coming from your core and your hips–not the legs. It’s the up kick that young or inexperienced swimmers miss. Butterfly is a short axis stroke, meaning that the energy is from the up/down motion of your core (the shortest way across your body). It also means that there is a certain rhythm to butterfly.

Michael Phelps PERFECT Butterfly Technique Analysis

Butterfly has a 1-2 rhythm. There’s a method of teaching butterfly called Maskan (Swedish for “the worm”), that teaches this rhythm by tapping your collar bone and your belt/hip area while moving your hips forward and back. Some of our teachers use this method to help kids get the basic motions of fly.  All of this technique and rhythm hasn’t even taken into consideration breathing! You need energy to swim fly, and you definitely need to breathe! Watching Michael Phelps, you’ll see him breathing every stroke. Some swimmers, depending on the distance, will breathe every other stroke. Breathing is all about timing. Most people will try to breathe as their arms are coming out of the water during the recovery period. This is a huge mistake! Breathing should actually be done when your arms are pulling and pressing down on the water, thus enabling you to pick your head up and take a breath. Your head should be down and in the water as your arms recover. 

If you can’t tell, I am so not a butterflier. My problem with fly (and with life) is that I have no rhythm! I cannot keep a beat to save my life. But, there are many 5 and 6 year olds who can! The craziest part about butterfly is that it doesn’t take a lot of strength to do it, and honestly, muscle-ing your way through butterfly is the fastest way to tire yourself out. Butterfly is a rhythm stroke. So, if you can keep the beat, try fluttering on by.