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One of several different strokes used in swimming, particularly competitive swimming, the butterfly stroke is a variant of the breaststroke and is one of the more powerful strokes to observe and quite physically demanding. The butterfly stroke is essentially a synchronous movement of both the arms and the legs. Swimming coaches break down this stroke into three separate parts – the push, the pull, and the recovery. During the butterfly stroke, the arms move simultaneously and the legs engage in the dolphin kick. Breathing is another important component of the butterfly stroke, as there is only a small window for catching a breath.
During the butterfly stroke, the arms are constantly moving together. The initial arm movement is similar to the breast stroke, with the hands and palms facing out. The arms then move into a Y position in front of the body to “catch” the water and set up the pull. The push comes when the palms are turned facing backward as the arms move underneath. The arms basically complete a semicircle, rising slightly out of the water in front of the body and ending underneath and to the side of the body.
The leg movement involved in the butterfly stroke is also synchronous. With the feet touching one another, the legs move together, bending at the knee to point up and then again at the waist to point down. The kicking motion helps propel the swimmer, adding the right amount of push at the right time.
The breathing technique used during the butterfly stroke requires the same synchronicity as the arm and leg movements. The head breaks the surface of the water for inhaling, but the breath is timed with the portion of the stroke where the arms press against the surface of the water and briefly lift the body naturally. Competitive swimmers typically breathe every other stroke to keep momentum and capitalize on speed.
The butterfly stroke can be difficult to learn and even more difficult to master, but for recreational swimmers, it is a great full-body workout. Recreational swimmers don’t need to worry about their speed or form, and therefore can generally benefit from the mere physical performance without the need to perfect the stroke and synchronous body movements.
For competitive swimmers, swimming coaches have their own individual way of teaching the stroke and helping the swimmer perfect it. There are of course slight variations of this stroke, depending on a swimmer’s natural strengths and abilities, that can help the swimmer conserve energy and build speed. For the recreational swimmer, an advanced swim class will teach the basics of the butterfly stroke for use in a lap pool as a source of exercise.
As a swimmer and a coach, I think it's important to note that the dolphin kick is not just a leg movement, it's actually a full body movement that starts in the chest - like a full-body wave.
Simply kicking with the legs is a common mistake many new and beginning swimmers make when learning the butterfly stoke. Without the full-body motion, the kick is not strong enough to propel the swimmer forward though the water and also allow for the head to lift. Without the head lift, the swimmer cannot breathe at the proper moment during the stroke, which leads to a labored and exhausting "flopping" motion though the water.
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