As with breaststroke, butterfly is considered a “short-axis” stroke where you use your hips in a forward-backward motion to generate rhythm and kick. Most people try to power through fly, relying predominately on their arms and upper body and a kick that is just too hard with too much knee bend.
Butterfly is often seen as one of the more difficult. Yet, done properly, it is rhythmical and beautiful and the good flyers make it look effortless. They’ve learned how to minimize resistance and finesse the water. That is what we are trying to do with butterfly drills.
The foundation to a relaxed and fluid butterfly is the ability to undulate your body. Instead of relying too much on your arms or legs, you really want to rely on pressing your torso. Minimize the bend in your knee – try to keep it well under 90 degrees – maybe 45-60 degrees at the most. Work to keep yourself from diving down at the front end of your stroke. Keep your arms low and skimming right over the surface of the water.
One way to set muscle memory for your arms in fly is this dryland exercise. Stand in front of a mirror with your hands by your side. Raise your hands straight out from your sides as if you were going to make the letter “T”. Now continue to raise them up to your head. Do this now in one slow movement? Feel how easy and smooth that movement is? That is the same movement you will do in the water.
For the drills this week, I have a few that focus on awakening your torso to the role it plays in swimming quality butterfly.
This drill is designed to help you feel the press and release in fly.
Go face down in the water (no fins) with your hands at your side, and undulate through the water. Press with your head and chest as you undulate lightly through the water. Think of pressing your lungs down into the water. This is not about speed and you are not kicking – simply pressing the water.
A more advanced version is to try this face down in the water (no fins) but this time you will have your arms out in front of you, just outside your shoulders and with your pinkie finger up at the surface (thumb down) while you press your chest between your shoulders. This requires some flexibility, which is a key component to good butterfly. Remember, this is not about kicking, but about working your torso. Done properly, you will feel the shimmy travel down your torso into your legs. If you struggle, try this with fins. If you still struggle, return to the first version above.
Hands Down Dolphin Kick
This drill is also designed to help you feel the press and release in fly.
Wearing a snorkel (a GREAT training tool), kick dolphin kick face down in the water with hands down by your hips. Keep your shoulders and head flat on the surface with very little up and down. Keep your neck long. Kick from your hips. This differs from the above drill in that you are kicking on this drill. But remember to continue pressing your lungs into the water and establish undulation of your body with your kick. Feel the shimmy!
This drill helps develop timing and emphasizes soft hands. Key to all progressions of this drill is to remember that fly is not “up and down”. It is now swum low and flat across the water with just a little undulation of your body and not big dives down–because you just have to crawl back up to the surface!
In this drill, focus on staying as relaxed as possible, keeping your shoulders and head on the surface and your feet in the water. On your first run through of this drill, you will keep one arm down by your side and you breathe to the side of the stroking arm. Keep your shoulders up and hands down on the front end of your stroke. Make your entry soft with your hands. Skim your stroking arm across the top of the water, keeping palms “to the sky” and dropping the thumb in first up front on your entry.
Do this again and pick up the tempo. This is now more like a racing drill. With the increase in speed, you should be even flatter. Remember, keep your recovery low, right across the top of the water instead of trying to power through it. Try to find rhythm in this drill.
For the second version of this drill, leave one arm stationary up front and stroke with one arm. To find your rhythm, you should have a kick on entry and a kick on exit. Both kicks are soft – what you really feel is that chest press and slight undulation in your body.
The next progression is to leave one hand stationary out in front. This will keep your line a little longer and prepares you more for racing. This progression allows for a bit more rhythm, and a more shallow entry. Concentrate on relaxed recovery and rhythmic kicking. You continue to breathe to the side as your stroking arm is back behind you. Get your face back down and eyes looking at the pool bottom before your hand strikes up front. Remember to stay low across the water with your stroking arm. Here’s a link to an example of this approach at GoSwim.
An advanced technique progression is to incorporate front-end breathing. Leaving one arm out front, swim one arm fly and, using proper timing and your shoulders, lift up just enough to sneak a breath in front of you. Don’t use your head to lift for the breath (slide your chin forward across the water) and get your head down before your hands enter up front.