Produced, edited, and copyrighted by
Professor Brent S. Rushall, San Diego State University
Volume 2, Number 6: February 14, 1996


Butterfly swimming is starting to change in the way it is performed because of an alteration in the way the rules for its swimming are interpreted. It is a symmetrical stroke, which means that what one side of the body did, the other had to mirror. This affected the technique of breathing. That symmetrical interpretation was accommodated by the head being raised and looking straight ahead, the "traditional" forward breathing action. Throughout the last 30 years there have been occasional swimmers who breathed to the side. In the 1960s it was Ross Wales of the USA who employed one-side breathing. Since he was a very good swimmer, but not the greatest, nothing was said. In the middle 1980s, Melvin Stewart of the USA set world records using side breathing and that was tolerated by officials. More swimmers than usual adopted Stewart's breathing action and so even more officials became tolerant of the asymmetrical breathing style, even though it did not fully accommodate the rules of butterfly swimming. The world's current best butterflier, Dennis Pankratov breathes to the side. Scott Miller is very enthusiastic about one-side breathing as opposed to his "old" forward breathing. It is now becoming obvious that side breathing has advantages over the out-dated forward breathing.

However, one-side breathing is the precursor to bi-lateral breathing.

Forward Breathing

While this form of breathing did fulfill the exact letter of the swimming rules it had some inherent drawbacks that made butterfly swimming "tiring" and difficult for persons with low strength. It was not a stroke embraced by recreational or fitness-oriented swimmers.

The following are some drawbacks to breathing forward.

There is no doubt that the inefficiencies inherent in forward breathing can be improved on. One-side and bi-lateral breathing are viable options.

One-side Breathing

This action produces the same benefits that result from one-side breathing in crawl stroke. In crawl, if the head is raised forward to breathe, as is done in rescue swimming when approaching a victim, the extra effort required is obvious. When the head is rotated to the side on a horizontal axis the effort required to breathe is greatly reduced. Because of the shape of the head, a bow wave develops resulting in inspiration through the mouth usually being accomplished below the water-line. This is an economical movement. When it is done in butterfly the following benefits result:

The net effect of one-side breathing is that the swimmer is more streamlined for more of the race than when executing forward breathing. Less energy will be required to go at a comparable speed or alternatively, the "released" energy can be applied to swimming faster.

Drawbacks. There are drawbacks to one-side breathing. It produces an uneven stroke and swimmers are "blind" to one side of the pool in a race.

On the whole though, the benefits resulting from one-side breathing far outweigh the drawbacks and exceed those of forward breathing. Swimmers who adopt one-side breathing, reduce the vertical movements of the torso and head, and swim flatter throughout races, will improve their times by adopting the action.

Bi-lateral Breathing

A possibility exists to improve on one-side breathing in butterfly. It involves breathing both sides. By doing that, swimmers will generally develop a more even stroke, in the manner that results from bi-lateral breathing in crawl stroke. The principle in biomechanics that demands this be done is as follows:

In bilateral organisms (e.g., humans, most, if not all, mammals), it is of advantage to have both sides of the body function equally (in a symmetrical manner). If this does not occur, then inefficiencies creep into movement.

Bi-lateral butterfly breathing incorporates the benefits of one-side breathing (e.g., increased streamlining, less energy wastage, greater swimming economy) and corrects its drawbacks.


For swimmers wishing to swim faster in butterfly races, there are biomechanical and mechanical benefits from swimming with a bi-lateral breathing action as long as vertical movements of the head and torso are minimized. This can usually be achieved by coaching swimmers to breathe below the water-line. For swimmers who perform bi-lateral breathing in crawl stroke, the adoption of this technique in butterfly should not be difficult.

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