A Complete Guide to 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.