Butterfly Swimming Drills for Swimmers

Loathed by some swimmers and celebrated by others, the butterfly is an elegant and graceful stroke to watch when swum correctly – there is nothing more awe-inspiring than watching the world’s greatest butterfly swimmer, Michael Phelps, powering through a 200m butterfly. However, it can be the most tiring stroke to swim if the technique is incorrect.

The most important aspect of the butterfly stroke is good body position and coordination and when these two elements are perfected, swimmers look as if they are moving through the water in an effortless forward motion.

Even though the body moves through the water in an undulating, wave-like motion, a stable, high-hip floating body position is vital to a good butterfly stroke. Maintaining high hips balances the stroke and combines the actions of the lower and upper body in a smooth and streamlined way.

Common mistakes made by swimmers when swimming the butterfly include trying to achieve the undulating motion of the stroke by moving the hips forward and backward. This lowers the hips, eliminates core stability, and unbalances the stroke.


The butterfly is an elegant and graceful stroke to watch when swum correctly. 40th Swimming Zone and Masters Meeting, Enns, Austria, 2017 by
Isiwal/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

Elements of a Fast Butterfly

The butterfly can be just as fast as freestyle when mastered. The peak speed that butterfliers reach is faster than that of any other stroke because pulling with both arms exerts more power and speed than with one at a time. However, the overall speed slows down during the recovery phase.

The most important elements to concentrate on for improving your speed in butterfly include:

1. A Quick, Early Catch

The catch in butterfly requires a strong, early vertical forearm and this is essential if you want to get the most power out of your pull. Beginner butterfliers make the mistake of pulling straight down to help bring their head out of the water, however, this causes the hips to drop, eliminates core stability, and unbalances the stroke. It can also lead to shoulder injuries.

2. A Relaxed Recovery

Maintaining a relaxed recovery in the butterfly is essential for fighting fatigue when swimming as this causes the stroke to shorten. A relaxed recovery requires good flexibility in the shoulders, chest, and back to move forward through the water instead of up and down. A forward movement in butterfly expends far less energy and is less tiring than a jerky up-and-down movement, which beginner or weak butterfliers tend to do.

3. Keep the Head Low

Keep the head low when breathing to expend the least amount of energy and increase efficiency. A bobbing head when breathing is common with beginner butterfliers or swimmers with an inefficient fly stroke. 

4. Two Kicks for One Pull

The butterfly kick is a vital part of the stroke and has several different functions. The first kick of the stroke cycle creates propulsion and lifts the hips which help the swimmer lift their head to breathe. The second kick of the stroke cycle drives the arms and hands forward into the catch phase of the pull.


Keep the head low when breathing to expend the least amount of energy and increase efficiency. Michael Phelps in the 200m butterfly at the Santa Clara Grand Prix by
JD Lasica / Wiki Commons / CC BY 2.0

Butterfly Drills for Swimmers

Butterfly drills are essential for swimmers to improve and perfect their technique, swim the stroke with minimal effort., and increase their speed.

What is a Swimming Drill?

A swimming drill is a stroke-specific exercise that has been designed to focus on one or two particular aspects of that stroke. Drills are done to change or improve a part of a stroke such as breathing, arm position, kicking, and rotation. Improvements in stroke technique can have a major impact on how efficiently you move through the water, so drills are a vital part of your swim training session.

Tips for Getting the Best Out of Your Butterfly Swimming Drills

Balance Drills with Regular Swimming 

Balance butterfly drills with regular swimming to transfer what you are working on into your regular stroke. For example, alternate between swimming and drills for each length – 25m drill, 25m swim. Drills are only effective if they are being incorporated into your stroke to help you swim better.

Go Slow!

Drills are designed to improve technique and skill so take your time when doing drills and concentrate on each part of the exercise. Drills are supposed to be technical so take enough rest to do them properly.

Get Feedback from a Coach

Getting feedback is vital to ensure you are doing the drills correctly. If you don’t swim with a coach, video yourself doing the drill to see if you are doing it correctly.


Drills are designed to improve technique. Australian swimmer in butterfly event at the Barcelona 1992 Paralympic Games by the Australian Paralympic Committee / WikiCommons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Land-Based Butterfly Drills for Swimmers

Some butterfly drills can be performed on land to master the movement before trying it in the water.

1.Taking a Bow

Having a strong core is essential if you want to be fast and powerful in the butterfly. Taking a Bow is a drill that focuses on isolating upper body motion, using the abdominal muscles to maintain a straight spine, and stabilizing the motion of the upper body using the abdominals.

Stand with your head, back, and legs against a wall with your arms at your sides. There should be a small space between your lower back and the wall. Pull your belly button back toward your spine, tighten your abdominal muscles, and straighten your spine to eliminate this space at the small of your back.

Keeping your spine straight with contracted abdominals and your hips and lower back on the wall, press your chest forward away from the wall about six inches as if you are slowly taking a bow. Hold this position for five seconds, using your abdominal muscles to stabilize your position. Then, slowly return to the standing position against the wall with a straight spine. 

Repeat the bow several times, ensuring you are using your abdominal muscles to maintain a straight spine, stabilizing your upper body, and keeping your hips stable throughout the entire range of motion. Then try the same movement without the support of a wall while keeping the lower body still and using your abdominal muscles to control the movement of your upper body.

Water-Based Butterfly Drills for Swimmers

1. Weight Shifting

Weight-shifting is a fantastic drill for developing effective core tension and stability, learning to shift your weight forward in the stroke, and learning to shift from a natural to a downhill body position.

When swimming the butterfly, during every single stroke you need to actively change from your natural body position to a downhill position by shifting your weight forward so your chest is lower than your hips. This is done by keeping your core and upper body firm from your neck down to your hips.

Lay in the water in a natural floating position and activate your abdominal muscles and your core to press your chest down into the water. As your chest dips lower than your hips, you should feel your weight shift forward. Once you have felt this happen, release your chest press and allow your body to return to its natural floating position.

Repeat this movement several times in a row with a gentle, rhythmic action and maintain a firm core in both directions. Take note of how your hips feel in the water – they should be stable throughout the movement. This is the most important position in the butterfly – a strong core and upper body and stable hips.

Now take the drill one step further and push off the wall in a streamlined position with your arms extended over your head. Take note of how the natural floating position feels and then your weight forward by pressing your chest into the water using your core. Keep the hips high and stable throughout the movement.

You should produce a gentle wave with the alternating movement as you shift from a natural floating position to a downhill position by moving weight from the upper body.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bkj09zgrHcc

Butterfly Kicking Drills

The type of kick used when swimming the butterfly is known as the dolphin kick, so named because the legs move up and down simultaneously in a movement similar to that of a dolphin’s tail. The body follows the leg movement in an undulating motion and can be one of the most powerful movements in swimming when done correctly. The goal of practicing butterfly kicking drills is to develop an effective, efficient, and rhythmic dolphin action that creates a powerful and strong stroke overall.

1. Deep-to-Shallow Dolphin

Following on from the Weight Shifting drill, the Deep-to-Shallow Dolphin drill is a good way to practice a full-body dolphin movement, achieve a full compact dolphin wave, and experience the forward line of the dolphin movement.

Lay face down in the water at a depth of about six feet with your arms at your sides. Bow your head forward and use your abdominal muscles while keeping your hips stable and spine straight and let your head lead your body down toward the bottom of the pool. Allow your legs and feet to follow.

When you reach the bottom of the pool, lift your head and raise your upper body, allowing your legs and feet to follow the same path as you rise to the surface of the water again. When your head breaks the surface, grab a breath and repeat the drill.

Repeat this extreme dolphin action several times, alternating between shallow and deeper depths, all the while concentrating on feeling the wave-like dolphin movement with your whole body.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bu1SVg2zW_k

2. Dolphin Dives

Dolphin Dives are loved by all swimmers of all ages as they are super fun to perform. They help you to understand the full-body action of the dolphin and experience the line of the dolphin movement, as well as feel the transfer of power to the feet.

To execute this drill, stand in water hip-deep with your arms firmly at your sides. Bend your knees slightly and bow forward about twelve inches, keeping your hips in a stable position and spine straight from your hips through your neck.

Now jump off the bottom of the pool with force, increasing the bow of the body as you rise into the air. Your head will lead your body into the water in an arch with your hips higher than your head. As you move towards the bottom of the move in a headfirst position, keep your eyes open and just before you reach the bottom, raise your head and upper body out of your bow. This will change the line of your dolphin dive to return to the surface of the water.

Draw your legs beneath you and come up into a standing position. Repeat the drill several times, doing several dolphin dives in a row with smooth, well-executed movements.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vMmI2C8PhE4

3. Vertical Dolphin Kick Drill

This might be a fairly difficult drill to master, but is a great exercise for developing strong, continuous dolphin kicks, and a fluid, full-body dolphin movement. This drill needs to be done in deep water where you can’t stand. Float in a vertical position, using a gentle sculling action underwater to maintain your body position.

Keeping your legs together, engage your core and begin the dolphin movement with your body, and the dolphin kick with your legs, creating a rhythmic wave. You can keep your hands extended to balance the body while you master the drill. Advanced and stronger swimmers can lift their arms in a streamlined position above the head while maintaining a strong, continuous kick. You can also wear fins for added power.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fXIlaCzXfuE

4. Back Dolphin Kick Drill

Back Dolphin Kick Drill is a good drill for working the abdominal muscles, developing power in the lower body movement, and avoiding an over-bend in the knees.

Push off the wall in a streamlined position with your arms extended above your head as if you are going to do backstroke kicking. Using your abdominal muscles, kick with a gentle dolphin action without bending the knees too much. Use the entire length of your legs and your trunk for dolphin kicking on your back and keep your head still.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vm9tA8q1gOk

5.  Five-Up, Five-Dive Drill

The Five-Up, Five-Dive drill works on increasing lung power and strengthening the core. The drill is done with fins and a kickboard. Using the kickboard, do five dolphin kicks on the surface of the water and then dive down with the board and do five dolphin kicks under the water, holding the board in a straight and streamlined position.

This fun drill works on strengthening the core by using the abdominal muscles to dive beneath the surface of the water with the kickboard as it creates a lot of resistance. Working with fins also works the abdominal muscles and strengthens the core.

6. Fish Kicks Drill

The Fish Kicks drill works on increasing lung power and strengthening the core. Using fins, extend the right arm out in front and keep your left arm at your side and do butterfly kicking on your side for one length. Swap arms and repeat the exercise.

The drill can be done on the surface of the water with the head resting on the extended arm and the mouth out the water, making it easy to breathe for the length. For an extra challenge and building lung power, do as many fish kicks as you can on your side under the water. Come up for a breath, staying on your side, before diving back under and kicking as far as you can again.  

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VtadiHtIU6A

Butterfly Arms Drills

The underwater arm stroke in butterfly is similar to the underwater freestyle arm stroke, except that it is done with both arms simultaneously. It requires an early strong vertical catch with both arms and a full extension and can be an extremely powerful arm stroke.

The goal of performing butterfly arm stroke drills is to develop an efficient and powerful arm stroke that uses minimal amounts of energy. 

1. Pitch-to-Press Drill

The Pitch-to-Press works towards developing and using the correct hand pitch to maintain pressure on the water, feeling the path of the butterfly arm stroke, and learning to press backward and not downwards in the water.

Stand in waist-deep water and bow forward so your face is in the water. Extend your arms forward with your hands slightly wider than your shoulders. Keep your palms facing down and position your thumbs slightly lower than your pinkies.

Stretch your arms forward with locked elbows and position your hands slightly farther apart. As you reach the furthest extension point with your arms, bend your wrists slightly so that your palms and fingertips are pitched outward and are lower than your wrists. As you sweep your palms around, make sure you are pressing back on the water, not pushing down. Keep your elbows firm and high, allow your forearms to follow your hands, and watch your hands pressing back and sweeping slightly inward. Your hands should also sweep by your elbows.

When your hands pass beneath your belly, they should be at their closest point together while still keeping firm pressure on the water with your hands. Adjust the pitch of your hands, continue pressing back, and extend the arms until straight.

Go back to the starting position and repeat the arm stroke several times until you can do several arm strokes at a high stroke rate in a row. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OS109mk8TZ8

2. Sweeping Question Marks

This drill works on the arm sweep from deep to shallow and wide to narrow, as well as feeling the path of the butterfly arm stroke.

Push off the wall in a streamlined position with your arms extended in front of your shoulders. As you are gliding off the wall, perform a single butterfly stroke with arms sweeping in a wide to narrow line, inward toward your belly and pressing back quickly past your waist. Your arms would have traced a shape in the form of two question marks mirroring each other. 

Stand up and breathe and perform the push-off and the arm stroke again several times.

3. One-Arm Butterfly

The One-Arm Butterfly drill is a great drill for practicing the path of the arm stroke, feeling the press back on the water, and feeling the rhythm of the full butterfly arm stroke.

Swim a length of the butterfly using one arm only, while the other is extended out the front. Concentrate on executing a strong, vertical catch with both forearms, maintaining pressure on the water with your hands, and feeling the path of the arm through the stroke. Focus on accelerating your stroke to the rear and extending the arm to its full length.

Breathe toward the moving arm, and do an over-the-water, freestyle-like arm recovery with a dolphin kick. It’s a good idea to place fins on for the drill as they give you extra speed and buoyancy, allowing you to concentrate on the butterfly arm stroke. Swim one length with the right arm only and one length with the left arm only for several lengths.  

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Bmheo8A7BI

4. Left Arm, Right Arm, Two Arms Fly

The Left Arm, Right Arm, Two Arms Fly drill is a continuation of the one-arm butterfly drill that works on perfecting the line of the stroke, the acceleration of the hand towards the back, and the overall rhythm of the stroke.

Swim one length with the right arm only, one length with the left arm only, breathing to the side, and swim the third length with both arms in a full stroke butterfly breathing to the front.

Concentrate on executing a strong, vertical catch with both forearms, maintaining pressure on the water with your hands, and feeling the path of the arm through the stroke. Focus on accelerating your stroke to the rear and extending the arm to its full length.

It’s a good idea to place fins on for the drill as they give you extra speed and buoyancy, allowing you to concentrate on the butterfly arm stroke.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xovfQWjn7FQ

Recovery Butterfly Drills

The recovery phase in butterfly sees both arms sweeping in a wing-like position over the water before the hands enter the water and come together to begin a new stroke. Flexibility in the shoulders plays a major role in the recovery phase as the more flexible the shoulders, the wider and lower the arms can sweep over the water, minimizing effort and maximizing efficiency.

The goal of butterfly recovery drills is to achieve a wide, low, relaxed, and well-aligned recovery for a better overall stroke.

1. Dragonfly Butterfly Drill 

This dragonfly drill aims to develop a more balanced stroke technique. Swim butterfly with freestyle kicking – this will cause you to speed up your butterfly arm rate and have a quicker recovery phase. This drill can be done with fins for added power and speed.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=42EyrvULq9M

2. Pinkies-Up Butterfly Drill

The Pinkies-up drill is a great exercise for practicing and perfecting an arch over the water with the arms and relaxed recovery. It is also a great way to maintain a pinkie-up position while swimming. Practice this drill on dryland in front of the mirror before trying it in the pool.

Stand in front of a mirror and bow forward so your upper body is horizontal. Do a full butterfly arm stroke in the air watching that you keep your pinkies above your hand. Keep your arms relaxed and low on the sweep, round, and recovery phases of the arm stroke.

Now try it in the water, tracing a wide to narrow sweep of the arms with the pinkies above the hand as practiced.


The Pinkies-up drill is a great exercise for maintaining a pinkie-up position. Schwimm-Mehrkampf 2018 by Martin Rulsch / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Butterfly Breathing Drills

The breathing phase in the butterfly occurs within the line of the stroke. The swimmer inhales when the upper body is at its highest point, however, no independent head action is required to take a breath if the timing of the stroke is correct.

To swim a relaxed, sustainable, and efficient stroke, regular, rhythmic breathing is essential. Butterfly swimmers can decide whether they want to breathe every stroke, or every two or three strokes.

The goal of butterfly breathing drills is to perfect the timing of the stroke and to achieve a natural rhythm.

1. Flying Dolphin Dives

Flying Dolphin Dives are a great way to practice and perfect the timing of the butterfly breathing, breathing within the line of the stroke, and feeling the wave of the stroke.

To execute this drill, stand in water hip-deep with your arms firmly at your sides. Bend your knees slightly and bow forward about twelve inches, keeping your hips in a stable position and spine straight from your hips through your neck.

Now jump off the bottom of the pool with force, increasing the bow of the body as you rise into the air. Swing your arms around and forward like a butterfly recovery. As your body begins to descend, your arms should be finishing their recovery.

When your face enters the water, your arms should be extended and aiming downward toward the bottom of the pool. Draw your legs beneath you and come up into a standing position. Repeat the drill several times, doing several dolphin dives in a row with smooth, well-executed movements.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nbZacn76RUc