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Butterfly vs Breaststroke Swimming

Different swimming styles are used for different purposes given their primary differences. Among the most popular ones are the butterfly and breaststroke which have a few similarities and differences.

These swimming strokes differ and share aspects in terms of the start of the stroke, kicks (leg movements), the movement of the arms, the muscles involved, the energy spent (calories burned), the speed attained, the form and position of the body, their history, the ease of learning, and the breathing technique.

If you’re venturing into one of these swimming styles, you’ll need to learn its specifics to make the most of it. For both strokes, you’ll need to know the basics of swimming such as floating, breathing and the alignment of the body relative to the horizontal and vertical axes.

With most people starting out with the freestyle stroke, these two are offer different challenges and learning curves.


1. The Start of the Stroke

The start of both strokes is the same. When used in competitions, swimmers face the water, jump in then glide for a while before starting the strokes.

For the best results, the swimmers glide under the surface of the water either straight or with a kick in the legs such as the flutter kick or the dolphin kick to gain speed before starting the stroke.

Regulations are that you’re only allowed to glide for up to 15 meters before starting to stroke.

2. Kicks (Leg Movements)

For the butterfly kick, the main leg movement is a dolphin kick. Basically, the legs are held together as they move up and down with the feet almost straight out. You ensure the legs work as one large fin for the best propulsion.

For the breaststroke, the main leg movement is the whip kick. After gliding, the legs start off extended backwards and together. During the recovery phase, the legs move towards your bottom as the knees pull downwards and outwards.

In the propulsion phase, the the feet move downwards and outwards as the knees move inwards. The last position should be with the legs straight again as in the starting position.

3. The Movement of the Arms

The arm movements in the butterfly stroke move in a symmetrical manner such that they trace an hourglass pattern under the water.

Butterfly arms
Butterfly swimming arms

First, they start off extended forwards then you pull them down towards the chest then outwards towards the hips. You then move them from the hip area above the water to the extended position forwards.

For the breaststroke, the arm movements are also symmetrical as they’re pulled back towards your chest during the recovery phase and immediately after the glide phase.

Breaststroke arms
Breaststroke arms

As they pull downwards, they propel the body forward then recover by meeting below the chest and moving together to the flat and extended position again.

4. The Muscles Involved

Given the movements of each stroke, most of the muscles involved are the same. However, there are differences primarily in the movements of the legs.

The whip kick in the breaststroke utilizes a lot of individual leg muscles especially in the thigh and ankle.

On the other hand, the flutter kick of the butterfly stroke makes use of hip muscles more than the breaststroke.

Both utilize shoulder muscles and the muscles below your arms since one of the main motions of propulsion is the movement of the arms above and below the water.

5. The Energy Spent (Calories Burned)

Of the two swimming styles, the butterfly is the tougher one. While it’s faster than the breaststroke, it requires a lot of energy to pull it off.

As such, the butterfly stroke burns around 774 calories per hour for an individual weighing 155 pounds. On the other hand, the breastwork burns about 704 calories for the same period of time and body weight.

6. The Speed Attained

The butterfly style is second only to the freestyle stroke in terms of speed. The breaststroke, however, is the slowest of all swimming styles.

While actual figures haven’t been taken, the butterfly stroke’s peak speed often surpasses that of the freestyle stroke.

However, this speed drops significantly during the recovery phase of the stroke leading to an average speed slower than that of the freestyle.

7. The Form and Position of the Body

The body moves in a wave-like motion during the butterfly stroke as this motion allows for power generation and the streamlining of the body.

The wave motion starts at the head followed by the chest region, the hips and the legs which finish off with the dolphin kick. It starts at the head again downwards.

For the breaststroke, the prone position assumed requires the body to move from a horizontal position to a periodic glide and back to the horizontal position.

8. Their History

The breaststroke is among the oldest swimming styles as it’s traced as far back as the stone age where the early man painted swimmers on cave walls doing this style. On the other hand, the butterfly stroke was originated in the 1930s by the Australian swimmer Sydney Cavill.

9. The Ease of Learning

The butterfly stroke, while one of the fastest, is also one of the hardest to learn. The reason for this is that you have to learn the undulation of the body which is a wave-like motion. This hinders a lot of people from mastering it to attain the maximum speed.

Besides that, the dolphin kick is a harder kick than the other types of kicks in swimming like the flutter or whip kicks. These aspects make it tough to learn and perform at the peak. 

On the other hand, the breaststroke is slow but quite easy to grasp the basics and perform better with it. Give the same period of time, a swimmer will master the breaststroke faster than they would the butterfly stroke.

10. Breathing Technique

For the butterfly stroke, the breathing occurs during the recovery phase of the arms as the chest and head come out of the water in preparation for the next phase.

Given that you’ll need more energy to lift the head and chest above the water, you’re better off alternating the breathing cycles with non-breathing ones to move faster.

For advanced swimmers, the breathing for the breaststroke is almost similar to that of the butterfly as they entail almost similar hand motions. As the hands reach their lowest point, the head will be lifted above the water for breathing.

For both strokes, the breathing out should occur continuously and under the water. This makes it easy to focus on the strokes rather than holding your breath and getting distracted.

For beginners, that is in breaststroke, the head is always high to ease breathing. Breathing underwater comes in once you’ve mastered the stroke.

Which Style is Better?

There isn’t one specific swimming style you can say is the best. You then must consider the aspects above to determine what works and doesn’t work for you. In terms of the difficulty, the butterfly stroke is the more difficult of the two.

However, if you’re going for speed, you’ll need to learn the butterfly stroke. On the other hand, if you’re a rookie in swimming and you just mastered the basics, you’re better off starting with the breaststroke style.

It’s much easier to learn and provides the best opportunity at putting into practice the basics of swimming such as breathing and others

Further Reading

Following is a list of articles with more swimming information and other water sports

Swimming Strokes/Styles

Swimming FAQs & Ideas

Swimming Accessories

Pool Exercises

Other Water Sports