Part III: Start Breakdown: A “Butterfly” Versus a “Sling-Shot” Start

Welcome back to Part III of our starts series! Two weeks ago, we discussed what the BEST possible “take your mark” position a swimmer could get in. This week, we are going to dive deeper into the differences between a “butterfly” and a “sling-shot” start—that way you can decide which starting technique (in relation to the arm swing) is best for YOU!

If you missed Part II of this series, [CLICK HERE] or Part I, [CLICK HERE]!

Otherwise, let’s get started!

The reason I chose to talk about the “butterfly” versus a “sling-shot” start is in reality—these two starts are NOT that different. The setup, leg orientation, and “take your mark” position are the same between these two starts—the only difference is what happens with your arms after the “beep” goes off.

Here’s a video to better understand what I mean:

Brad Tandy in Lane 6 performs a “butterfly” start VERSUS Nathan Adrian in Lane 7 with a “slingshot”:

As you can see from the video, the main difference between these two starts is the amount of arm swing involved. Brad takes his arms and swings them behind his body and then throws them forward into a streamline with no elbow bend throughout the entire arm swing. Below is a sickkkk progression of Brad’s “butterfly” start:

Video Analysis of Brad Tandy’s Butterfly Start

Nathan, on the other hand, bends his elbows and brings his hands around the back of his head before reaching into a streamline and hitting the water.

 So which is better– “butterfly” or “sling-shot”?

Well it really depends on who you are talking to. Most stroke technician’s agree at this point it is necessary to activate and utilize the arm muscles for a faster start. Some, more than others, agree it’s necessary to utilize your entire length of your arms to achieve the highest amount of kinetic energy possible before a swimmer hits the water.

My opinion is that it really depends on what you are looking for from the start. Let’s look deeper into the pro’s and con’s of each arm starting technique!

1.) The “Butterfly” start:

With a “butterfly” start a swimmer will need to left their body up HIGHER off the blocks to ensure they are getting through an entire butterfly stroke before their hands hit the water.

Reminder: there’s anywhere from 0.9 to 1.1 seconds from the “beep” and when a swimmer’s hands enter the water. This means a swimmer who is performing a “butterfly” start needs to throw their arms through an entire revolution of butterfly at a stroke rate of 60 strokes per minute or more—60 strokes per minute is actually MUCH faster than what we normally see for stroke rates in fly for non-elite athletes. So in reality, this start is really hard to execute well with the limited amount of time provided for anybody not on the elite level.

Also, many younger swimmers who perform a “butterfly” start will not get into their streamline quick enough and/or may over-shoot and miss locking their top hand into their bottom–which leads them to entering the water at an array of different angles.

Lastly, because a swimmer has more vertical displacement during a “butterfly” start, this extra increase in height has a tendency to make a swimmer enter and breakout very DEEP under the surface of the water. Swimmers who don’t have strong underwater dolphin kicks will want to avoid a “butterfly” start, because they won’t be able to carry their speed they generated off the blocks through their longer breakout–which is created by diving deeper from a “butterfly” start.

Overall, a “butterfly” start is really hard to do and to do well—that’s why we don’t see that many of them. While this start may produce the MOST amount of kinetic energy—it also requires a swimmer to have a quick reaction time, move at a butterfly stroke rate of 60 strokes per minute or higher, and have phenomenal dolphin kicks all in one.

If you have all 3 of these technical aspects down, and/or have the natural ability to do a “butterfly” start–definitely, GO for it. If not, let’s look into a “sling-shot” start instead!

2.) The “Sling-Shot” Start:

In a “sling-shot” start, a swimmer is able to get off the blocks quicker and with less vertical displacement, because it requires less arm movement. Also, a swimmer has more ability to guarantee their entry point and depth, because they have more time to setup their streamline’s in-flight.

What is also great about a “sling-shot” start is you can setup your weight balance either neutrally, back-foot weighted, or front-foot weighted. There are 3 options on how you can distribute your weight in a “sling-shot” start versus a “butterfly” start. Your only option in the “butterfly” start is back foot weighted, so you ensure that you have enough time between the “beep” and entry.

I really like the “sling-shot” start, because it does allow a swimmer to customize their weight distribution, while guaranteeing more consistent entry points. Also, it is applicable to more ages and ability levels (as you don’t have to be an expert at underwater dolphin kicking to do this start well). Lastly, the “sling-shot” start still does increase a swimmer’s kinetic energy, because they are engaging their arms during the start–it’s just NOT as much as you would doing a “butterfly” start. All in all, it seems like a good compromise: a little less speed for a little more accuracy. After all, if you get better at your dolphin kicking and have perfected your “sling-shot” starts–you can always transition into “butterfly” starts later!

Until Next Time,

Abbie Fish

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