Butterfly Swimming With A Personalized Approach

Nate Boyle
butterfly swimming
Photo credit: jdlasica on Best Running / CC BY

When an amateur attempts butterfly swimming, a few frustrations quickly emerge. But these athletic enigmas are not nearly as challenging to answer as the stroke is to personalize.

Because while born out of a frustration with the breaststroke’s traditional frog kick, the butterfly stroke has emerged from a series of small innovations. Not just any particular big epiphany, making it difficult to trace the origin of stroke.  And it continues to evolve with personal styles, anthropometrics, and strategies.

And while most swimmers and coaches agree that butterfly technique is the hardest stroke to maintain over longer races. Once individually tailored, that impression shifts. Watching Olympic-level butterfly swimming is to witness a complex combination of movements at work with the water.

With butterfly swimming we develop the following:

  • High elbow catch with a focus on proper entry placement of the palms to maximize propulsion.
  • Correct breath timing at the water surface during the recovery phase.
  • The coordination of the leg actions with the finish of the arm pull.

It is centered around developing an efficient, long cycle to maintain forward motion-a strategy best utilized for both 100 yd-200 m and the beginning of IMs. The butterfly stroke we develop affords athletes the ability to control their performance as required by a specific race.

Thirty-four male competitive swimmers were recruited with an average age of 19.3 years. We registered a significant relationship between body mass, lean body mass and sprint surface butterfly swimming (VSBF) The temporal entry-kick index (the time ratio between the first kick and arm entry) significantly influenced VSBF.

Marek Strzała, et al

In managing stroke length and efficiency, the ability to vary tempo during a cycle or phase comes with altering how long the hands stay in front of the shoulders before moving backward.

Subsequently, this changes the overall hip undulation of the stroke (driven by the chest), adding another facet to tempo change that also increases gliding.

Butterfly Body Position

The swimmer specializing in sprint butterfly swimming (as opposed to both fly events) often has a much flatter stroke with a smaller amplitude than the 200yd/m butterfly swimmer.

With that, it is worth noticing, if done correctly, increasing amplitude, although theoretically slower, teaches swimmers to connect more efficient energy from their core muscles, relieving strain from the arms.

The balance of body undulation and arm stroke tempo/speed is evaluated when selecting an event structure for the swimmer. And is always something to consider when using practice to simulate a race.

Butterfly Breath Timing

Ideally, a butterfly swimmer synchronizes breathing technique with the wave like motion.

The finish of the pull and snap of kick. For most swimmers, the term ‘recovery’ is not appropriate in the butterfly stroke cycle. Instead, researchers have used“Fly-arm – cycle percentage of the air arm recovery phase (between the hand water release and entry).”

The entry-kick temporal index indicates that an appropriately timed initial kick, when compared to arm entry (LP1), results in a longer arm propulsion phase, a longer first kick in the cycle and minimizing the most resistive gliding phases, which, in turn, enables relatively longer and less resistive air arm recovery (higher value of the fly-arm index).

Marek Strzała, et al

Athletes who time the finish of their pull and snap of kick correctly can relax their arms and shoulders on the recovery part of the stroke. This strength allows swimmers to create a breathing pattern and maintain velocity through proper technique.

Non-breath cycles were executed with a significantly higher rate (SR), relatively longer LP1 and longer fly-arm which was beneficial.

Marek Strzała, et al

Butterfly Stroke Technique

Although much less common than in freestyle swimming, achieving a high elbow catch in butterfly is as essential as it is in freestyle. The same principles apply.

Palm entry at or slightly inside the shoulder because too wide an entry loses velocity into the next phase. While if the hands actually touch, it will waste energy.

The more flexible the shoulder, the more narrow they can enter and still be effective.

Study limitations and conclusions Based on the presented data, butterfly performance may depend less on anthropometrics (in comparison to freestyle), and more on technical variables (mainly motor coordination).

Marek Strzała, et al

Butterfly Kicking

Like most swimming at a high level, great kick technique is a prerequisite. Fortunately for butterfly swimmers, it is relatively easy to learn world-class butterfly kicking techniques.

The first down-beat should begin as a swimmer’s hands enter the water, and the second down-beat should occur as a swimmer’s fingertips are at peak velocity through the arm movement.

And while there are ‘genetic’ advantages to hyperextension in a swimmer’s knees or flexion from ‘flexible ankles,’ a well-taught technique can overcome almost any preconceived competitive advantage.

Perhaps more importantly, the underwater dolphin kick has become a major component of competitive swimming. Michael Phelps’ (and others) mastery of the underwater dolphin kick has helped attract renewed attention to the underwater movement’s hydrodynamics.

The secret to great dolphin kicks is selecting an initial position to allow overall body movement to coordinate with the snapping leg movement. Like an underwater whip or pulse starting at the hands, the chest, or the hips.

Butterfly Tip and Drills

Elite swimmers and coaches break down a butterfly race into variables to improve overall power from swimming performance. With any training variation, give yourself at least a month to acclimate and acquire the new skill.

Resistance training can help maintain momentum during the ‘arm recovery’ phase. Extra resistance can then be applied to create more velocity during competition.

Significant correlations were also observed between the predicted maximum load and the 50 m time as well as the race velocity (r=- 0.624 and 0.556, respectively, both p<0.05), which imply that an ability to achieve a large tethered swimming force is associated with 50 m butterfly performance.

Gonjo et al

Always consider shoulder flexibility and leg strength when determining fly swimming technique and event choice.

Dry-land maximal power test

Of unique note for those training on land, researchers performed the counter movement jump (CMJ) test with the use of a force plate. Hands were placed on the hips throughout the test to eliminate them from contributing to the generation of power.

Work generated in the concentric muscle contraction phase of the jump was taken as an indicator of force production of leg extensor muscles.

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