Why Butterfly should NOT be considered a short-axis stroke

by SwimSwam 9

November 25th, 2017 Britain, Europe, International, Opinion, Training

Courtesy of Gary Hall Sr., 10-time World Record Holder, 3-time Olympian, 1976 Olympic Games US Flagbearer and The Race Club co-founder. 

A short-axis stroke is defined as a stroke where there is desirable rotation of the body along the short axis through the middle of the hip, as opposed to the long axis, along the length of the body.

Breaststroke is a short-axis stroke because the swimmer should extend the lower lumbar spine (arch the back) and elevate the shoulders as much as possible to augment the force of the kick. Freestyle and backstroke are both long-axis strokes as there is clearly body rotation around the axis in the line of motion down the pool with each.

What about butterfly? Where does it fit in?

Butterfly is clearly not a long-axis stroke, but it is not really a short axis stroke, either. Unlike breaststroke, where the kinetic energy of the upper body and head moving angularly forward couples with the kick, augmenting its force, the underwater pull and first down kick of butterfly occur as the upper body and head elevate for the breath, not moving downward, so there is no coupling energy there. While the downward motion of the upper body in fly might couple with the second down kick, any advantage of that is negated by the poor body position caused by elevating the shoulders.

In breaststroke, the elevation of the shoulders occurs right after the underwater pull and before the next kick. In other words, it is a period of deceleration when the body’s speed is slowing and comes nearly to a halt, once the knees are brought forward under the body for the next kick. Since frontal drag is exponentially related to the velocity, putting the body in this poor shape (for frontal drag) during this slow time has less adverse effect than if the body were traveling fast.

In butterfly, the elevation of the shoulders for the breath occurs during the fastest point in the stroke cycle, when both arms have completed the pull, timed with the first propulsive down kick. At this critical fast point, with more elevation of the shoulders (more vertical body position) a detrimental shape will more adversely affect frontal drag forces.

In order to get the head above water for the breath and because the preceding up kick requires some extension of the lumbar spine, there will always be some shoulder elevation for the breath and curvature of the body. However, the shoulder elevation can be minimized by allowing the neck to extend forward as much as possible. Indeed, when watching Michael Phelps take a breath, that is precisely what happens. It is as if he were a giraffe, extending his long neck forward, yet low to the water, to get each breath. By doing so, he minimizes the elevation of the shoulder. With the strong kick, he elevates the entire body to remain flatter and skates over the top of the water. That is the closest we may ever see a human being come to hydroplaning.

In butterfly, use your neck muscles to breathe forward, not upward, develop a strong kick and skate over the top of the water for maximum speed and distance per stroke.

Gary Hall, Sr., Technical Director and Head Coach of The Race Club (courtesy of TRC)

Gary Hall, Sr., Technical Director and Head Coach of The Race Club (courtesy of TRC)

Yours in swimming,

Gary Sr.

Like The Race Club on Facebook
Follow The Race Club on Instagram
Follow The Race Club on Twitter
Connect to The Race Club / Gary Hall Sr. on Linkedin
[email protected]  
See The Race Club HQ here.


The Race Club, logoBecause Life is Worth Swimming, our mission is to promote swimming through sport, lifelong enjoyment, and good health benefits. Our objective is for each member of and each participant in The Race Club to improve his or her swimming performances, health, and self-esteem through our educational programs, services and creativity. We strive to help each member of The Race Club overcome challenges and reach his or her individual life goals.

The Race Club provides facilities, coaching, training, technical instruction, video, fitness and health programs for swimmers of all ages and abilities. Race Club swim camps are designed and tailored to satisfy each swimmer’s needs, whether one is trying to reach the Olympic Games or simply improve one’s fitness. Our programs are suitable for beginner swimmers, pleasure swimmers, fitness swimmers, USA swimming or YMCA swimmers, or triathletes; anyone who wants to improve swimming skills. All of our Race Club members share an enjoyment of being in the water and use swimming to stimulate a more active mind and body.

In This Story

Leave a Reply

Notify of
newest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
5 years ago

So the shoulders elevate during the fastest part of the stroke during butterfly…how does that make it not a short-axis stroke? Isn’t the axis of rotation of the body as a whole still close to being though the hips? Even if you minimize the shoulder elevation by elongating the neck, the axis or rotation doesn’t change, just the amount of movement around that axis changes, if I’m understanding the description correctly.

Reply to  AM
5 years ago

The shoulders do elevate some during the breath no matter what, and there is some rotation on the short axis caused by the lowering of the legs after the first down kick. The problem I have with calling it a ‘short axis stroke’ is that it implies that the rotation on the short axis is desirable, which it is not. For breaststroke it is, but not for fly.

Reply to  Gary Hall Sr.
5 years ago

Ok, I see what you’re saying. I agree that the rotation on the short axis is less desirable than in breaststroke. However, I believe some rotation on the short axis is absolutely necessary, otherwise you just have a really flat fly which is less efficient. For example, the press down with the chest/shoulders right after the hands enter the water helps to lift the hips for a bigger more propulsive kick, which is possible because of the motion around the short axis. I say “press down” but similar to the breath it’s more of a forward motion, elongating to move forward down the lane. But it couldn’t be done without the slight downward component. I would respectfully argue that, biomechanically… Read more »

lane 0
5 years ago

3 meters per second = 16.6 second 50m fly

5 years ago

When I saw the video, I really loved the concept of this drill, but trying it in the pool while wearing fins was a total fail. I have a supple, efficient, whole-body dolphin kick with at least some upbeat. Even so, I couldn’t carry my arms past the “T” position (3 o’clock and 9 o’clock) in the recovery phase. What allows Roland Schoeman to recover his arms without a kick immediately before his recovery? Is it that he still has momentum left from a powerful pull-through kick? Is he much more buoyant than I am? The head and shoulder roll doesn’t seem sufficient to accomplish getting the arms from six o’clock to twelve o’clock. Can six-year-olds actually do this drill.… Read more »