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The Dolphin Kick Technique in the Butterfly Stroke

Butterfly stroke swimmers execute a dolphin kick. Both legs do a simultaneous whipping motion with feet pointed. This technique looks a bit like the tail movements a dolphin uses to move forward, hence the name.

A butterfly stroke swimmer seen from underwater

The dolphin kick is a simultaneous whipping motion of both legs

The following video shows Michael Phelps’ dolphin kick in slow motion:

Kicking Technique

The movements of the legs are rather simple. However, it takes practice to integrate them with undulation of the body that is at the heart of the butterfly stroke.

This undulation is initiated by your head and chest, travels down your torso, hips and then into your legs, where it ends in the dolphin kick. To explain the movements, let’s imagine that you are in the following initial position:

  • You are floating in a horizontal position in the water and on your chest.
  • Your head is in line with your torso.
  • Your arms are either extended forward or at your sides.
  • Your legs are close together and your feet are pointed.


Now here’s how to do the kick:

  • Push your chest a few inches downwards in the water, then release it.
  • As you release your chest, push your hips down in the water, then release them.
  • As your hips drive downward, let your thighs follow behind in the downward movement, your legs bend slightly at the knees.
  • Then, as your hips move upward, straighten your legs to execute a whipping movement.
  • Then let your upper legs follow along the hips upward.
  • Start the next cycle. Press your hips downward again. Your legs will follow along with some inertia and your knees will bend slightly again during the downward movement of the hips.

As discussed above, both your legs move synchronously, unlike in front crawl or backstroke for example.

Feet Movements

During the downbeat, you should actively keep your feet in a pointed position to properly execute the whipping movement. Then, as your lower legs moves upward, you can relax your feet. The water pressure will cause them to move them into a neutral half-extended position.

Propulsive Phase of the Kick

The propulsive phase of the kick occurs during the downbeat, when your feet are pointed and you extend your legs. During that phase, there’s a short amount of time where the top of your feet are facing backwards. Because you are moving your feet downward, water will then be pushed backwards and provide propulsion.


The more flexible your ankles are, the better the propulsion of your feet is as you can keep the top of your feet facing backwards for a longer amount of time. For example, in the video above, you can see that Michael Phelps has extremely flexible ankles.

Number of Kicks per Stroke Cycle

While swimming butterfly there are in fact two dolphin kicks per stroke cycle:

  • The downbeat of the first kick occurs during the entry of the arms in the water and extension forward.
  • The upbeat of the first kick occurs during the insweep of the arms towards the chest.
  • The downbeat of the second kick occurs during the outsweep and upsweep of the arms.
  • The upbeat of the second kick occurs during the release of the arms from the water and recovery forward. This upbeat helps moving the head and shoulders above the water surface.

Additional Tips

  • If you have particularly stiff ankles, the regular practice of ankle stretching exercises or use of short swim fins while swimming can help loosen up your ankles and improve your propulsion.
  • We have swimming drills to learn or improve the dolphin kick.
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