Butterfly recovery

Can I get a comment from anyone with some expertise in butterfly. I’m not real proficient at the stroke, and only throw a little bit into my swims just for a bit of variation. I.e. my pool workouts of usually around 3000 meters are just about all free/crawl…I’ll do a 400m IM toward the end just to break things up. So my biggest problem is with the recovery. Maybe I just don’t have the shoulder/arm flexibility, but getting my arms out of the water to throw them forward is difficult. At least with my elbows bent. I get fatigued and then end up “catching crabs” and get sloppy. The thing is, I’ve never really known if my elbows/arms should be straight/horizontal going forward, or should I have them bent and high at the elbow, like you would in a crawl stroke recovery? I look at various graphics depicting the stages of the stroke (two attached)…some show the arm straight. Some so the elbows bent. I think straight would be easier. Is that correct? — Dan


  • IMO, these diagrams are not helpful to understand the nuances of butterfly.  When I was coaching kids, we spent alot of time on a couple of basic butterfly ideas.  Maybe these will help you:

    • Arms should be recovered with the arms straight and relatively close to the surface.  Bending the elbows during the recovery encourages a very poor outsweep at the end of the stroke and is just not a realistic way to swim for most masters swimmers.
    • During the recovery, I like the palms facing backward so the thumbs are down (think drag through the water).  This is a relaxed position that does not require much in the way of shoulder and back strength.  Palm down is not bad either and individual specific.
    • I encourage the swimmer to begin lifting their head to breathe as soon as they initiate the pull.  These diagrams show it far too late in the stroke.  The head is not lifted so much as you push your chin forward.  Keep your head up until your arms are in the recovering phase by your shoulders.  Then, lower you head and let the arms enter in front of your shoulders to begin the next pull.
    • The pulling pattern is such that the first half of the pull is a keyhole/under your body pattern.  Once your hands get past your hips, the arms should start to flare out and away from the body so the recovery does NOT impinge the shoulders..  This is unlike freestyle where you try to touch your thigh with your thumb at the end of each stroke.  Of course, better, faster swimmers push back further before flaring out to the side.
    • The diagrams are pretty good as to your hip position right before you begin the pull - they should be as high or slightly higher than your shoulders. As you initiate the pull, let you hips drop so your shoulder get higher than your hips.  This is crucial and makes it much easier to get your arms around on the recover (the left diagram has this part wrong).
    • Forget about the kick for now.  Focus on two movement.  Before the beginning of the pull, hips at or slightly high than the shoulders.  As you initiate the pull, shoulder lift up and are higher than the hips throughout most of the stroke cycle.

    This is very simplistic with many nuances that depend on a person's physical strength and flexibility.

    Hope this helps.  Saw your post on a mountain bike forum - just bought my first mountain bike for cross training.

  • Wind — Thanks. That all makes sense. I’ll keep it all in mind next pool workout.

    With regard to the bike…it was probably on the Bicycle Forums…but not the mountain bike forum. I’m strictly a road cyclist.


  • As you try these ideas, ask questions or IM me separately.  Stroke technique is individual specific.  I was a road cyclist for 50+ years.  Gonna try mountain biking because the traffic in the Portland (OR) area is so bad it is not safe.

  • Dan,  I realize now it is 67king who I saw on the mountain bike forum.  Slight smile

  • Had a pool workout today. Keeping arms straight does make it much easier. But with regard to the “forget about the kick for now”…I almost can’t get up out of the water enough if I don’t kick. Overall I guess less movement makes it  easier. Improvement continues. — Dan

  • One of the reasons I emphasize the hip-shoulder relationship and let the kick fit in is because many swimmers do not fit the dolphin kick into the stroke cycle at the correct times.  They are told there should be 2 kicks per arm cycle which is correct to a point.  There are really 2 down kicks and 2 upkicks. The upkicks never get any discussion.  So, most swimmers focus on the down kick with too much knee bend thinking this will get their shoulders out of the water when it actually does the opposite by pushing the hips up and the shoulders go down.

    So, when you dolphin kick with a board or streamline, focus on the upkick - this requires more lower back and hamstrings and keeping your toes pointed.  Think kicking towards the ceiling with the bottoms of your feet.  In reality, this is less an aggressive upkick as it is keeping your feet close to the surface and preventing your knees from bending too much.

    When you know you can feel it, do slow motion butterfly.  As you initiate the pull, focus on keeping your feet close to the surface. This action will force the hips downward and your shoulders upward briefly before the downkick results in the hips coming up slightly towards the end of the pull.  This is followed by another slight upkick causing the hip/shoulder  position change which helps the arm recovery.  

    I know - complicated.  Try it though.

    And, BTW - this also works with breaststroke and keeps the hips from dropping during the front half of the pull before the insweep.


  • I highly recommend watching slow motion videos of Michael Phelps swimming butterfly.  His recovery was THE BEST in the business and one I try to emulate.  I also recommend concentrating on initiating your upper back muscles (squeeze your shoulder blades together) to bring your arms around on recovery rather than lifting with your elbows.  This action alone is what I attribute my ability to swim a 2,000 yard non-stop butterfly (as well as a 900, a 1,000, and several 500's over the years).  That was back when I was 50, but at 62, I am still "racing" 200 butterfly-- although, due to dyautonomia, my times are very sloooow. 

  • Yep, took it up when COVID hit and I couldn't get any swimming in.  67Prince is now an avid MTBer, and I'm involved in coaching him.

  • A couple of things I'd say that may or may not help.  Fly is my favorite stroke, but man when it is off a little, it is crushing.  As for the recovery aspect, one drill I'd work on is swimming it with a freestyle kick.  This will help keep your hips higher in the water, so they don't drop when you are recovering, which is when I start bending the elbow a lot.  The other big thing is to focus more on the body undulation, and try to relax your arms during recovery.  Almost like making a big shrug, and just flopping your arms forward.  Like Windrath said, palms back and thumbs down.  Last thing I'd say is that I do much better when I glide just a wee little bit when my arms enter, and slow down the stroke.  It helps relax you, and instead of fighting the water, you glide through it.

    I fought for sheesh, a year, trying to figure out how my fly got so bad.  Starting using weights to improve it (there is a specific exercise, can't recall its name).  The best thign I did for making it all come together, and again, the recovery is where it seems to just fall apart, is add that ever so slight pause/glide.  May be getting the timing of the kicks right with the rest of my body, I'm not sure.  But that's what helped me the most.