Article image

by Terry Heggy

May 20, 2019

These sets can challenge your swimmers and make practice fun

You can count on every sports movie to contain a montage sequence showing the brutal training the athlete goes through to prepare for the championship. The one that ends with Rocky Balboa triumphantly raising his arms atop the art museum stairway is particularly iconic. Before charging up the steps, the poor guy ate raw eggs, hopped around with a log on his shoulders, did one-arm push-ups, and developed the dexterity to finally catch Mickey’s manic chicken. Grueling challenges, indeed, but ultimately worthy of celebration when the training pays off.

Here are a few ideas for sets to challenge the stallions on your team.

Establish the Stairway

Introduce the concept with a bit of flair. Coaches who completely commit to the role can show up for practice in gray sweats (stuffed with newspaper “muscles” as needed) and a woolen cap. Bring a boombox with inspiring theme music, and use phrases like “eye of the tiger” and “gonna fly now” and explain the specific requirements of what it will take to enable the arms-up leap that will indicate successful completion of your montage-worthy training set.


A “Rocky Steps” set can be anything that’s both measurable and achievable, yet difficult enough to make its termination a highly-prized goal. In other words, the set should have specific performance targets that involve enough suffering to motivate swimmers to finish as soon as possible. Ideas include the following:

  • 10 x 50s swimming with fins, counting only the 50s that equal or beat your finless best time
  • A total of 1,000 yards with 100 pushups
  • 500 butterfly with zero illegal strokes or one-handed touches
  • 6 x 100s descend, starting over each time you fail to descend
  • Two minutes of vertical kicking with an empty soda can balanced on your head, resetting the clock each time the can falls off

If the goal is based on a total amount (1,000 yards + 100 pushups), modify each lane’s required distance or number of repeats based on ability. If the target is a count of successful repetitions (such as the 6 x 100s descend), you can require everyone to get there or call it good if a certain percentage of swimmers succeeds. You can choose whether a mistake resets everything (start over) or if it just nullifies that single repeat, such as not counting the butterfly 50 where a swimmer made a one-hand touch.

As the grizzled veteran trainer, you have the right to change the rules as you go, but it’s not a bad idea to run the set into the next practice if it hasn’t been completed when practice ends.


If the challenge is odious enough, the conclusion of the set is reward enough. Encourage those who complete it to leap out onto the deck and proudly raise their arms and pump their fists. You may also incentivize them by promising something relaxing afterward (social kicking, enjoying the water slide) or providing coffee and breakfast burritos (no raw eggs, please!) upon successful completion.

You can withhold the reward until the entire team has completed the challenge, or you can release your successful athletes as they summit their individual stairway. Be sure to congratulate all swimmers as they finish.

Safety is always the top priority, so consider each athlete’s health and fitness when tailoring the challenges for individuals. Don’t ask your swimmers to do anything that might cause joint damage, hypoxia, or debilitating soreness.

Use the Rocky Steps idea to add excitement when practices have become stale and routine, or as an interim goal on the team’s journey to championship competition. Enjoy your role as mentor (or tormentor) and let them know you’re proud to be in their corner.


  • Technique and Training


  • Writing Workouts