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Butterfly vs Breaststroke: What’s The Difference?

On the surface, the breaststroke and butterfly look like they have similar mechanics.

Both strokes require the bringing forward of the arms in an arcing motion and a flexed knee kick of the legs.

They’re also based on forward propulsion and require the lifting of the head out of the water at a specific point in the stroke cycle.

However, these are similarities only as the breaststroke is the easiest of all swimming strokes to learn as a beginner, while the butterfly is the most difficult and advanced stroke a swimmer can learn.

Here’s a look at the difference in breaststroke and butterfly:

Understanding the Mechanics of the Breaststroke


The breaststroke is easy to master as it’s something that comes almost naturally to anyone who gets into the water.

It’s simple to figure out and get the body to perform the separate movements without a lot of effort.

The stroke cycle begins with a push off the wall with arms stretched out and hands together, then spread apart with palms out to push rearwards.

The legs are bent at the knees with feet turned side-to-side as best as possible, then a thrusting kick that starts at the hips and straightens the knees is made.

The head and upper body are thrust upwards so the swimmer can take a breath before returning the arms and legs to position and start another stroke. 

The breaststroke consists of two separate motions with the hands and legs.

Both motions are performed in concert with one another, but the arms do the pulling while the legs do the kicking. 

How to do the breaststroke pull:

  • Straighten your arms out in front of you and form a Y. 
  • Turn your hands so their backs are touching and are perpendicular to the water.
  • Pull your hands and arms straight out to either side so your hands are drawing you through the water.
  • Bring your hands underneath your body and press your palms together while you glide.
  • Straighten your arms in front of you to prepare for the next stroke.

How to do the breaststroke kick:

The breaststroke kick begins after the pull.

  • Align your legs together.
  • Flex your feet so toes are pointing away from your body and turn them into a V.
  • Bend both knees and bring heels with feet still flexed towards your buttocks.
  • Move your legs out, but keep the kick no wider than your shoulders.
  • Straighten your legs, then bring them back together.
  • Glide, then start the kick again as you lose momentum. 

As you start the stroke with your arms, your head can come up out of the water for a breath.

Raise your head as far as you need to take a breath; you’ll be able to keep it lower as you improve your breaststroke. 

Performing the Butterfly Stroke

The butterfly stroke is more complex than the breaststroke as it requires more body coordination and practicing a series of strokes that help you build up to the complete butterfly stroke.

In order to become proficient at the stroke, you want to work on the separate parts of the stroke before putting them all together.

Here’s how:

Dolphin kicking

The dolphin kick resembles the movement of a dolphin’s tail as it propels itself through the water.

This kick can be learned either by holding onto the edge of the pool, going from end to end, or using one arm for propulsion to stay on one side of your body from end to end of the pool. 

  • Begin by putting your arms out in front of you and keeping your thumbs together.
  • Keep your legs together from hips to heels.
  • Start an undulating movement with your head and continue it through your hips to your toes..
  • Bring your head above the water at the beginning of the stroke to breathe. 
  • Relax your shoulders as you undulate through your torso.
  • Follow the movement through to your feet.
  • Bring your feet above the water to finish the kick and aid in propulsion.

Arm stroke and upper body movement

  • Bring your arms above your head and keep them shoulder width apart.
  • Bring your hands back with palms facing outwards towards your body.
  • Keep your elbows higher than hands during the pull.
  • Push your palms back away from your head and towards your hips.
  • Keep pushing your palms past your hips.
  • Bring both arms out of the water at the same time, then bring them forward again to the starting position.
  • Breathe at the point when your arms are coming out of the water.

Practicing the butterfly stroke

Mastering the butterfly stroke takes time and practice, but you don’t have to try to master all the movements at once.

Practice exercises allow you to break down each movement into separate parts, then bring them all together once you’re ready to try the complete butterfly stroke.

  • Put both arms out in front of you, shoulder-width apart.
  • Start with a dolphin kick.
  • After every two or four kicks, do a single stroke with one arm while the other arm remains straight.
  • Breathe to the side when lifting an arm for a stroke. 
  • Repeat the stroke while using the other side of your body on the return length.

A variation on the practice stroke include doing two strokes on each side, then alternating. 

Learning Breaststroke and Butterfly Helps You be an Effective Swimmer

The butterfly stroke requires hip strength to help propel the body through the dolphin kick.

In contrast, the hardest part of the breaststroke is turning the feet outwards for effective propulsion.

They’re similar in that they use a sweeping motion of the arms and flexing of the knees for kicking, but they’re very different in their performance and overall use of the body.

Ultimately, every swimmer has their limits in terms of how much effort they want to put into their swim routine.

Some may find it more difficult to put together the motions needed for the butterfly and prefer to stick with the breaststroke.

Other swimmers may want to push themselves to learn every last possible stroke for variation and interest during a swim routine.

All swimmers should make an effort to learn the basics of these strokes in order to be an effective swimmer along with increasing their overall physical conditioning.