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by Bo Hickey

January 20, 2020

Improve your range of motion and strength for an efficient butterfly stroke

To swim an effective butterfly, you need a combination of mobility and strength. If you're deficient in one of these categories, your body will struggle to produce the most efficient stroke. This leads to frustration, exhaustion, and a feeling of defeat.

Here’s how you can improve your mobility and strength to fly like an eagle.

Range of Motion

The butterfly stroke is going to challenge range of motion throughout your entire body, but three areas stand out as the main limiters: ankles, thoracic spine, and shoulders.

Let's start with your ankles. A 2009 study completed by engineers at George Washington University found that over 75 percent of the propulsion during a dolphin kick came from your ankles and feet. If your ankle is locked up and immobile, you're missing out on valuable propulsion during your kick.

One of the simplest drills you can do to assist with this is the ankle circle. Try to draw as big of a circle as you can with your foot while maintaining heel contact with the floor. You might struggle with this movement at first. Stick with it and try to gradually increase the size of your circles over time.

Your thoracic spine region is the critical portion of your back involved in the undulation of a butterfly stroke. Masters swimmers often develop overly tight thoracic spine regions (mid-back). This usually comes with a mobile lumbar spine region (low-back), which results in the dreaded lower back pain. The brettzel drill below is a great way to work on restoring movement to your mid-back. Focus on rotating with control and not forcing the range of motion. Aim for gradual improvements over time.

Combined with a tight mid-back, tight shoulders can limit the effectiveness of your butterfly pull. This can lead to compensations that can result in pain or discomfort while in the overhead position. Prone arm-lifts will awaken movement through your shoulder girdle and help break up any tense points that you’ve developed. I recommend adding a 2- or 3-second hold during each repetition to allow change to occur faster.

Butterfly Range of Motion Routine

Complete three sets of the following exercises three times a week.

Baseline Strength

Often forgotten is the need for engagement of your lats during a butterfly pull. The stroke is so fast-paced that your arms might slip through the water without maximizing your bigger muscles for force generation.

Butterfly pulling with a band allows you to slow your stroke down and focus on your lat tension. I'll have swimmers complete a set of butterfly pulls on land right before they go into a butterfly drill in the water. This allows for a heightened focus on lat engagement without overthinking. When you complete the butterfly pull, think about driving your shoulder blades together as you drive your hands toward your hips.

The swing is driven by the lower body in a movement that mimics the hip drive you’re trying to achieve during a dolphin kick. I like adding weight in each hand to further practice coordination between the upper and lower body. For this movement, your arms are just there to hang on to the weights. Your hips are the main driver of this movement.

The final strength movement for the butterfly stroke is a hip drive from a bridge position. This is going to load your shoulders in a modified overhead position and challenge your trunk stability. Don’t rush this movement, but make it fluid. Think about exaggerating your core tension throughout this movement.

Butterfly Strength Routine

Complete four sets of the following exercises two times a week.


  • Technique and Training


  • Drylands
  • Butterfly