How to swim the butterfly stroke

How to swim the butterfly stroke

The butterfly swim stroke is truly magnificent when you see it done well. Unfortunately, those incidences are few and far between. The butterfly stroke is infamous for being hard to learn, and even harder to master. Many people struggle with keeping their head above the water and completing the stroke gracefully. It also requires a great deal of strength and impeccable timing in order to do right.

But if you put in the time, complete butterfly swimming drills, and really become an expert on the stroke, the butterfly stroke is a true thing of beauty. Besides being the most beautiful stroke, it’s also faster than many strokes, including the breaststroke and backstroke. And above all else, the butterfly stroke is fun. Once you’ve nailed the steps, you’ll love moving through the water like a dolphin at sea.

If you’re ready to learn how to do the butterfly swim stroke, check out our guide below.

History of the Butterfly Stroke

The history of this stroke is a bit hazy, but most people credit Australian amateur swimming champion Sydney Cavill as the creator. The son of a swimming professor, Cavill eventually came to America to coach prominent swimmers at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. He invented the stroke sometime in his youth, in the early 1900s.

Swimmer Henry Myers brought the stroke to greater public awareness when he swam the stroke in a competition at the Brooklyn Central YMCA in 1933. University of Iowa swimming coach David Armbruster independently created the butterfly stroke in 1934, as a way to reduce the drag of the breaststroke. He coined this stroke as the butterfly stroke. University of Iowa swimmer Jack Sieg developed a kick to go along with the arm movement just one year later. Armbruster and Sieg combined these techniques to create the style we know today as the butterfly stroke.

The International Swimming Federation (FINA) recognized the stroke as its own swimming style in 1952, and the stroke was first used in the Olympics in 1956.

Steps to the Butterfly Swim Stroke

The butterfly stroke is an undulating motion that combines arm movement and a dolphin kick. The arm movement includes a pull, push, and recovery, while the dolphin kick involves a small kick followed by a bigger kick. You’ll take a breath at the end of the recovery phase, every few strokes. Here’s how to do the butterfly stroke:

Arm Movement

  1. Extend your arms above your head. Pull hands toward your body in a semicircle, with palms outward.
  2. Push your palms backward. Pull your arms along your sides and past your hips. Do this move quickly to complete the arm release.
  3. Recover. Finish the pull by dragging thumbs on your thighs as you finish the stroke. Then sweep arms out of the water at the same time and throw them forward to the starting position.

Dolphin Kick

  1. Do the initial small kick. While making the signature keyhole shape with your arms, perform a small kick.
  2. Complete the motion with a big kick. During the recovery phase with your arms, make a big kick.

Butterfly Stroke Drills

As we mentioned before, the butterfly stroke is one of the most difficult to master, but is also one of the most rewarding and beautiful strokes known in swimming today. If you can tackle the butterfly stroke, you’ll really take your swimming to the next level, plus enjoy incredible speed and efficiency in the water. Here are some butterfly swimming drills to help you perfect the technique:

  1. One-Arm Only Drill: Swim the butterfly stroke using one arm, which will build strength and improve your technique evenly on both sides.
  2. 3+1 Drill: Do three dolphin kicks and 1 arm pull, keeping arms parallel to the surface of the water.
  3. Blind Drill: Close your eyes and limit your breathing while you do the butterfly stroke, which will help you see how straight you swim.
  4. Three-Stroke Drill: Extend the left arm straight in front of you, hold it there, and take three strokes with the right arm. Then extend your right arm and take three strokes with the left arm. This will help with balance and strengthen the butterfly stroke, or any of the other common swim strokes .

Master Your Skills

Need help mastering the butterfly stroke or other swim techniques? Hire an experienced swim instructor and start improving your skills today by contacting the experts at Swim Jim .

Of the four competition strokes, the butterfly stroke may be the most difficult to master. This swimming style has three important components: arms, which move synchronously; legs, which employ a “dolphin” kick; and body, which should conduct a wave-like movement throughout the stroke. Division I swim coach Marc Christian shares his butterfly stroke tips to help you get moving in the water.


The wave-like motion of your body throughout the butterfly is called body undulation. Once you master this technique, it can also help your butterfly arm stroke, as well as your kick. Begin by floating on your chest with your body straight and arms extended forward. Your head should face down, looking toward the bottom of the pool.

The wave should begin at your shoulders and move down to your hips, ultimately ending at your feet. At the point where your chest naturally rises, you will take a breath.

“Butterfly requires timing and strength, but also relaxation,” Christian says. “It is important to remain relaxed when swimming butterfly. It is essential to have a flow through your body undulations.”


Begin with your arms extended and shoulder width apart. Your chest should be pushing down into the water. Next, move into the “catch” position, which creates your propulsion.

  • Bend your arms at the elbow, this is the catch position.
  • Pull your arms back and up through to your hips. At this point, your chest should press forward and raise your arms.
  • Throw your arms outward, perpendicular to your body.
  • Bring your arms up and over your head, ultimately ending in their initial starting position.

Remember to breathe as your arms are pushed behind you.


“For every good butterflyer, you have a great butterfly kick,” Christian says. “We call that kick the dolphin kick. The dolphin kick is an extension of your body undulations that you start when you’re using your pull.”


The butterfly kick originates from your hips. This should also be the largest portion of the kick. Make sure you’re keeping your feet and legs together throughout the motion. Drive your hips down into the water and let your legs bend slightly at the knee. Your thighs should follow your hips downward while the lower portion of your legs rise. As your hips come up, straighten out your legs to execute a whipping motion.

You need to generate power from your hips and core muscles to extend the kick through to your legs and toes.


When performing the butterfly stroke, you only get one pull to every two kicks. Therefore, it is important to understand when to take these kicks. The first kick should be taken as you begin your pull. Meanwhile, the second kick should be taken as your hands are coming through the catch position and about to exit near your hips.

The second kick should be a strong, small kick to help your arms recover forward.


A helpful drill for learning how to swim butterfly is the “dolphin dive drill”. This training technique can help you work on your body undulation, as well as your kick.

The dolphin dive drill is completed by using a lane with two lane lines. You should push off the wall and try to kick from lane line to lane line. The goal is to find a strong flow that allows you to kick evenly to both sides.

With these tips, your butterfly stroke technique can be as smooth as butter. For more swim tips, check out our Pro Tips guides on the freestyle stroke, breaststroke and backstroke.

. and a Free Butterfly Technique Book.

Work through these basic butterfly stroke swimming steps and master the most difficult of the four basic swimming strokes.

Pick up a free copy of my Butterfly Technique book as you go and keep it for some added help and support.

Dive in and get started.

How to swim the butterfly stroke

Step 1: Body Movement

The best starting point for learning butterfly stroke is the undulating body movement. The whole stroke is centred around the up and down dolphin-like movement and in one of the most important butterfly stroke swimming steps. A push from the side is the best place to start.

  1. Start by holding the poolside behind you, take a deep breath, submerge your face and spring away from the wall, across the water surface.
  2. Keep your arms stretched out in front with hands and feet together.
  3. Begin moving your head by dipping your chin towards your chest and then pushing it forward and up.
  4. Repeat this up and down movement of the head and allow it transmit through your shoulders and chest.
  5. Keep the head movement going, allowing the wave-like ripples to flow right through your hips and down to your legs.

How to swim the butterfly stroke

  • face is in the water
  • legs are together
  • hands are together

Pick up a Free Butterfly Technique eBook

Step 2: Butterfly Stroke Kick

The leg kick for butterfly is a powerful, simultaneous movement that comes from the knees. An excellent way to develop this is to add it onto the ‘push and glide’ exercise above.

  1. Set yourself up on the side of the pool as you did above, tucked up ready to push away.
  2. Push off and begin the undulating, up and down movement, leading from your head.
  3. Keeping your legs together, bend your knees so that your feet rise up towards the water surface.
  4. Kick both feet downwards in a powerful whip-like action.
  5. Repeat this kicking action, keeping it in sync with the undulating body movement.
  • legs are together and move simultaneously
  • knees should not bend excessively
  • legs should whip down like a dolphin tail

Step 3: Arm Movement

The arm action for butterfly stroke is a very large and simultaneous, accelerating movement that has to be coordinated with the undulating body action. This is the next most important of the butterfly stroke swimming steps.

The best way to learn this is to perform it over a short distance.

  1. Begin as before, against the poolside ready to push away.
  2. Push off with arms and hands stretched out in front and begin the undulating body movement.
  3. With both arms at the same time, pull under your body in a ‘key hole’ shape, pulling around, inwards and then outwards towards the thighs.
  4. Your arms then exit the water and recover over the surface, entering with finger and thumb first, inline with your shoulders.

How to swim the butterfly stroke

  • elbows remain higher than the hands
  • hands accelerate through the water
  • arms are straight as they recover low over the water surface

Step 4: Breathing Technique

The breathing for butterfly stroke is explosive and happens the arms pull through and the head raises. Try walking through the water, performing slow arm pull, so that you can practice timing the breath inwards with the arm pull back.

To practice the explosive breathing technique, try adding it onto the leg kick practice outline above.

  1. Push away from the poolside and begin the undulating body movement.
  2. Add the leg kicks, counting groups of 4 kicks.
  3. Lift your head, exhaling as you do so after each group of 4 kicks.
  4. Inhale as your chin clears the water surface and dive your head back down again for another 4 kicks.
  • exhalation takes place as the head begins to rise
  • inhalation is short and sharp

Step 5: Timing and Coordination

The timing cycle of butterfly stroke usually includes 2 legs kicks to each arm pull cycle with the first, stronger kick occurring as the arms enter and begin to pull. The second kick occurs as the arms complete their pull phase and begin to exit and recover. The best way to practice this is using the whole stroke.

  1. push away from the poolside and use your head to initiate the whole movement.
  2. perform a leg kick followed immediately by a simultaneous arm pull.
  3. perform another leg kick as your arms recover over the water surface.
  4. continue the patter, using a ‘kick-pull-kick-recover’ sequence.

How to swim the butterfly stroke

If you find this part of the butterfly stroke swimming steps tricky, try a push and glide and perform one single stroke cycle. As you begin to find a rhythm with the sequence, then add on more strokes.

Need more butterfly stroke swimming steps?

Look no further. My popular guide book How To Swim Butterfly’ contains many tried and tested drill and exercises that all beginners and improvers will find easy to access.

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Always wanted to know how to do butterfly stroke? Maybe you can already but you find butterfly swimming technique exhausting ?

Either way, you have come to the right place!

I have taken butterfly swimming technique and broken it down into its separate parts . That way, you will have a clear picture of what each part of your body should be doing at each point during the stroke.

How to swim the butterfly stroke

Butterfly Stroke Swimming Technique Video

The butterfly technique video below explains each part of the stroke and what your body should be doing as you swim.

How to swim the butterfly stroke

FREE EBOOK: all of the technique tips here can be found in my ‘Butterfly Stroke Technique‘ book, along with a couple of bonus drills to help you perfect some essential parts of the stroke.

How To Do Butterfly Stroke – 12 Essential Parts

1. As the body undulates, the swimmer maintains a stretched and streamlined position, lead by the head.

2. The shoulders remain horizontal as the movement flows smoothly.

How to swim the butterfly stroke

3. The kick is simultaneous, rhythmical and powerful, remaining within the body width.

4. The knees bend and provide a powerful downbeat whip like action, with toes pointed and ankles relaxed.

5. The simultaneous arm action begins with the hands entering the water, thumb and index finger first.

6. The hands press outwards and downwards in a powerful S shape pathway towards the hips where they exit the water.

7. The arms are then thrown over the water ready to enter again, gaining maximum reach per stroke as they do so.

How to swim the butterfly stroke

8. Breathing should take place every stroke or every other stroke depending on the ability of the swimmer.

9. The swimmer exhales explosively as the head rises and then inhales quickly as the arms exit and the chin is clear of the water.

10. The timing and coordination follows a sequence of ‘kick, pull, kick, recover’.

11. One kick supports the upward movement as the swimmers arms pull and the head rises to breathe.

12. The second kick assists the undulation and propulsion as the arms recover.

How to swim the butterfly stroke

Get more from your butterfly stroke.

Are you needing more butterfly technique tips and drills? Everything you need is right here in my popular book ‘How To Swim Butterfly’.

Posted on Last updated: March 13, 2021 By: Author Christophe Keller

The butterfly stroke has a special place among the competitive swimming strokes.

It has a reputation for being hard to learn. It is quickly exhausting.

Yet when you have mastered this stroke, swimming a few lengths of butterfly can be a lot of fun because of its unusual and spectacular movements.

Butterfly Stroke Video

Here is a video that shows above water and underwater action of the butterfly stroke:

Swim Phases

Initial Position

Let’s analyze the different phases of the butterfly stroke. We imagine that the swimmer is in the following initial position:

1) He floats horizontally on his chest.

2) The head is in line with the torso, the face is turned downwards.

3) The arms are extended forward and shoulder-width apart. The palms are facing downwards.

4) The legs are extended and together, the knees are slightly bent.

5) The feet are pointed.

Stroke Cycle

Now the swimmer begins the stroke cycle:

1) The chest is pressed downwards, then released.

2) The arms move a little bit outwards, then bend at the elbows and the forearms and palms are brought into a backward-facing position.

3) The chest starts to rise.

4) The hands move backward and inwards towards the chest.

5) Simultaneously, the hips drive down and the knees bend.

6) The hands arrive below the chest and change directions to move towards the hips.

7) As the hands move from below the chest towards the hips, a first dolphin kick occurs.

8) Shortly after the chest and shoulders are at their highest point and clear the water.

9) The hands exit the water close to the hips with the palms facing inwards and the recovery of the arms start.

10) The arms hover above the water surface and return to their initial position. Simultaneously the palms rotate so that at the end of the recovery they are turned downwards again.

11) When the arms are fully extended forward and shoulder-width apart, they enter the water.

12) A second dolphin kick occurs.

13) The next stroke cycle begins.

Swimming Technique

The following articles cover the butterfly stroke technique in more detail:

Body Movements

How to swim the butterfly stroke

Body Movements: The wave-like body movements are at the heart of the butterfly stroke. This article explains how to generate this body undulation.

Arm Stroke

How to swim the butterfly stroke

Arm Stroke: This article discusses the different phases of the arm stroke and how to properly execute each phase.

Dolphin Kick

How to swim the butterfly stroke

The Dolphin Kick: Explains and demonstrates the dolphin kick. Covers technique, number of kicks per stroke cycle, propulsive phases plus some additional tips.

Breathing Technique

How to swim the butterfly stroke

Breathing Technique: Explains when and how to breathe while swimming butterfly. Also covers breathing to the side and breathing frequency.

Learn How To Swim

How to swim the butterfly stroke

Learn How To Swim Butterfly: This article gives an overview of our swimming lessons to learn the butterfly stroke.

1) At first, you learn the body undulation and dolphin kick which are the foundations of the stroke.

2) The next step is to practice the underwater arm sweep.

3) Afterward, you learn the recovery of the arms above the water.

4) Finally, you combine all the movements practiced in the previous swimming drills until you actually swim butterfly.

Related Pages

You may also be interested in the following articles that cover the butterfly stroke’s swimming technique:

How to swim the butterfly stroke

Hi, I’m Christophe! I’m the owner of and main contributor to

I’m an avid swimmer and I have been running this website since 2010 to share my passion for swimming.

So, where do you start? Everyone knows the freestyle stroke, the backstroke and, to a lesser, extent, the breaststroke. The butterfly stands alone as the most challenging of the four major swim strokes—but we think you’re up for it, so let’s get started.

Body Position

This will vary greatly throughout your butterfly stroke. Your head should stay low and face down as consistently as possible, even when breathing, as the undulation of your body should raise your head out of water. Hips and shoulders should move in a dolphin like motion, as you flow forward.

The Pull

Your arms will initially reach out in front of you, taking care to enter the water at shoulder’s width. The palms of your hands should face outward and sweep downward until they pull back towards the sides of your chest. When your hands reach this point, pull them out of the water, and windmill both arms at once back in front of you to re-enter and repeat your stroke.

The Kick

Two legs become one during the butterfly stroke. It’s a flexible, undulating motion that starts in your hips and flows through your knees. Roll your legs down, and then snap your feet back up. Don’t get carried away, however—think of the motion as a strong wiggle, rather than a lashing whip.


You’ll be able to breathe naturally as the top of your head moves out of the water. Take care not to lift your head too far, but just enough to take a breath. Then re-enter the water face down. Your exhale should take place underwater so that you are not wasting time on a full inhale/exhale above.


Don’t expect immediate perfection and don’t be discouraged. The butterfly can take time to perfect, and mastery requires optimal synchronization of arm recovery and leg kick. Much like with any challenge, the more time you invest, the quicker you will develop.

Posted on Last updated: March 13, 2021 By: Author Christophe Keller

In the butterfly stroke, swimmers execute a technique with their legs called the dolphin kick.

In the dolphin kick, both legs do a simultaneous whipping movement, with the feet pointed.

This looks a bit like the up and down movements of a dolphin’s tail, which explains the name of this swimming technique.

Dolphin Kick Video

The following slow-motion video shows how Michael Phelps executes the dolphin kick:

What is noticeable among others in his technique is his snake-like body undulation and the extreme flexibility of his ankles.

Kicking Technique

The movements of the legs are rather simple. However, it takes practice to connect them with the undulation of the body, which is at the heart of the butterfly stroke.

This undulation is initiated by the head and chest, travels down the torso, hips and then into the legs, where it ends with a dolphin kick.

To explain the movements, let’s imagine that you are in the following initial position:

  • You are floating in a horizontal position in the water and on your chest.
  • Your head is in line with your torso.
  • Your arms are either extended forward or at your sides.
  • Your legs are close together, and your feet are pointed.

Now here’s how to do the kick:

1) Push your chest a few inches downwards in the water, then release it.

2) As you release your chest, push your hips down in the water, then release them.

3) As your hips drive downward, let your thighs follow behind in the downward movement, your legs bend slightly at the knees.

4) Then, as your hips move upward, straighten your legs to execute a whipping movement.

5) Then let your upper legs follow along with the hips upward.

6) Start the next cycle. Press your hips downward again. Your legs will follow along with some inertia, and your knees will bend slightly again during the downward movement of the hips.

As discussed above, both legs move synchronously in butterfly, unlike in front crawl or backstroke for example.

Feet Movements

During the downbeat, you should keep your feet pointed to properly execute the whipping movement.

Then, when your lower legs move back upward, you relax your feet.

The water pressure will cause them to move into a neutral half-extended position.

Propulsive Phase of the Kick

The propulsive phase of the kick occurs during the downbeat, when your feet are pointed, and you straighten your legs.

During that phase, there’s a short amount of time where the tops of your feet are facing backward.

Because you are moving your feet downward, water will then be pushed backward and provide propulsion.

The more flexible your ankles are, the better the propulsion of your feet is as you can keep the top of your feet facing backward for a more extended amount of time.

So Michael Phelps’ flexible ankles are a clear advantage.

Number of Kicks per Stroke Cycle

There are in fact two dolphin kicks per stroke cycle in the butterfly:

1) The downbeat of the first kick occurs during the entry of the arms in the water and their extension forward.

2) The upbeat of the first kick occurs during the insweep of the arms towards the chest.

3) The downbeat of the second kick occurs during the outsweep and upsweep of the arms.

4) The upbeat of the second kick occurs during the release of the arms from the water and their recovery forward.

This upbeat helps to move the head and shoulders above the water surface.

Additional Tips

1) If you have particularly stiff ankles, the regular practice of ankle stretching exercises and the use of short swim fins while swimming can help loosen up your ankles and improve your propulsion.

Related Pages

You may also be interested in the following articles that cover the butterfly stroke’s swimming technique:

How to swim the butterfly stroke

Hi, I’m Christophe! I’m the owner of and main contributor to

I’m an avid swimmer and I have been running this website since 2010 to share my passion for swimming.

Teach Yourself to Swim Butterfly

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How to swim the butterfly stroke

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.