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by Terry Heggy

July 15, 2019

Swimmers might tend to shy away from the stroke, but butterfly sets can be valuable

Success in butterfly competition requires swimming butterfly in practice from time to time. But how much? And what about the folks who swim the occasional individual medley but possess no motivation to include better butterfly on their bucket list? How much of it should they swim? Should we force butterfly upon triathletes whose laser focus on open water freestyle can prevent them from even acknowledging the existence of the stroke?

Here are some points to ponder as we consider those questions.


Fact 1: Butterfly done well is among the pinnacles of human achievement. It provides the swimmer a sensual blend of grace, beauty, and satisfaction that rivals the consumption of gourmet mint-chocolate ice cream. Swimming (or even watching) fine butterfly elicits the emotions of seeing art at the Louvre or gazing up in wonder at the northern lights. Countless enduring romances have been sparked by recognition of a suitor’s butterfly prowess.

Fact 2: Mastery of butterfly depends on the swimmer’s body mechanics and kinesthetic senses. In designing butterfly sets, a coach must recognize that each category of butterflier requires its own approach.

  • The Uninitiated—These swimmers have not been properly trained in the stroke and will typically struggle with rhythm and timing.
  • The Brute—Athletes from other sports typically approach butterfly as an opponent to be attacked and rely on shoulder and arm strength to power their way through the stroke. They may or may not have good timing, but their frenetic energy expenditure results in rapid exhaustion.
  • The Tight—Lack of shoulder flexibility inhibits relaxed recovery. Tight swimmers must exert energy to lift themselves higher to clear the water after each pull. Energy spent thrusting upward is not available to provide forward thrust, and the resulting vertical torso position creates additional drag—so speed is reduced while fatigue is amplified. Swimmers from other categories often join this group when they get tired.
  • The Piano Mover—The majority of those who swam as kids fall into this category. Piano movers are those who swim the first 50 or 75 meters of their race with power and rhythm and then suddenly feel as if a piano has dropped from the sky to be carried through the remainder of the race. They know how to do the stroke but can’t maintain it indefinitely. (Less politically correct coaches might refer to them as “The Out of Shape,” but that’s not entirely fair. Avoiding the sky piano requires specific training as well as general fitness.)
  • The Master—People with positive attitudes who train correctly eventually learn to finish their races before the piano falls. (They also tend to wind up standing on the podium.)
  • The Mutant—A few rare individuals are blessed with a combination of physical and mental properties that enable them to swim butterfly with little more effort than they expend in freestyle. These folks maintain good form and cadence for distance butterfly swims that the rest of us can’t even contemplate. If you are lucky enough to coach one of these anomalies, enjoy it; it doesn’t happen often.

The implication of Fact 1 is clear: Everyone should swim butterfly. Fact 2 challenges us coaches to tailor our workouts to each swimmer’s training needs.


Younger swimmers are more likely to progress quickly, and older athletes may struggle more on their journey toward butterfly goals. Set your workout expectations accordingly and consider breaking the practice into smaller groups with tailored sets for each group. The amount of butterfly assigned should:

  • Incentivize participation—Choose butterfly sets that are challenging yet fun. If swimmers are intimidated by the stroke, give them options that won’t crush their spirit or destroy their form.
  • Make people faster—Butterfly training pays dividends in all strokes by increasing overall strength and stamina, improving dolphin kick to enhance starts and turns, and elevating attitudes for mastering challenges. But just as turning on too many appliances overloads a home’s circuit breakers, too much butterfly can blow a swimmer’s “effort fuse” and result in useless piano-toting yardage that achieves no purpose. Worse, they could decide to go home and not return.

Generate enthusiasm by talking about butterfly in positive language. Point out that butterfly events usually feature fewer competitors, and that Brute Squad T-shirts are a coveted enhancement to anyone’s wardrobe. Use terms like “relax,” “rhythm,” and “flow,” and remind people to exhale.


Many essential butterfly sets and drills are great for other strokes, too. These can be performed by each category of butterflier regardless of fitness or experience.

  • Stretching—Your program should include gentle shoulder warm-ups before each practice, as well as assignments for swimmers to do at home. Homework such as ankle/hip/quad stretches, shoulder blade squeezes, back-muscle exercises (lat pulldown, dumbbell fly), and pec stretches (doorway lean) counteract the chest-tightening effects of driving cars and working at computers.
  • Dolphin kick and core work—Dolphin kick (including vertical kicking) is great for butterfly rhythm, as well as for general core strength and fitness. For best results, always require proper streamline, two-hand touches, and good butterfly turn mechanics at each wall.
  • Mechanics—Provide regular feedback to each swimmer regarding arm/kick timing, breathing, relaxed recovery, and undulation amplitude. Be patient; timing and amplitude issues may require breaking down the stroke into focused drills, including one-arm butterfly, dolphin on the side, breaststroke pull with dolphin kick, head-motion only drills, and butterfly with fins.

Butterfly sets are best when accompanied by the coach’s feedback. Assigning long butterfly swims without your oversight is a recipe for habituating poor form.


Use full-stroke butterfly sets to increase speed, endurance, and mental toughness to prepare for racing. Build the distances and number of repeats throughout the season as swimmers adapt.

  • Reduce drag—Watch for common mistakes such as forward splash on entry, egregious kick depth, and the ever-popular I-wonder-how-high-I-can-lift-my-head breathing technique. Make corrections by describing the correct movement rather than pointing out the error.
  • Relax—Emphasize the factors that reduce butterfly effort, such as rhythmic exhalation, recovery using back muscles rather than shoulders, visualization of forward motion, core engagement, etc. Focus on the beauty of the stroke rather than its difficulty.
  • Recognize progress—Help your swimmers track their improvement by moving to faster sendoff intervals when appropriate. Measure how far they can swim before the piano drops and urge them to make it one stroke farther each week. Compliment swimmers on any improvements and share your confidence in their ability to achieve mastery.

Fast racing

Although there are people who can successfully race butterfly without swimming the stroke in practice, most competitive butterfliers need to train specifically for it. Serious racers not only need to practice fundamentals and fine tuning, but also must stress themselves in practice.

This is where knowing the category of your swimmer really comes into play. The mutants can simply substitute butterfly for any freestyle set. Piano movers might include a butterfly swim during the first repeat of each set, every third swim, or the fourth length of each 100. ALL categories can benefit from ultra-short race pace training such as all-out sprint 25s with a lot of rest.

Of all the strokes, butterfly seems to have the largest variance in how the stroke feels at the beginning versus how it feels at the end. Therefore, racers will benefit from swimming high-effort butterfly when already fatigued.

  • 6 x 100s—first 75 strong breaststroke, last 25 all-out butterfly. Rest 30 seconds.
  • 4 x 200s—first 150 moderate freestyle, last 50 hard butterfly. Rest one minute.
  • 1 x 500—first 425 moderate freestyle, last 75 butterfly.

Watch for blown fuses and be prepared to add extra rest if strokes become habitually sloppy. But don’t be afraid to challenge your swimmers to push themselves beyond their comfort zone!


Your knowledge of your team will ultimately determine the amount of butterfly you assign in practice. But here’s a breakdown you can modify to suit your situation.


Stretching and core work should become daily habits for every single swimmer. Specific dolphin kick and core development swim sets should be written into your workouts at least once a week. Provide butterfly mechanics work (with feedback) every week or 10 days, depending on how your team’s uninitiated respond to the idea. Some teams find it works well to designate specific days to focus on butterfly, though I’d discourage that as people might skip those practices.

Fine tuning and fast racing

For casual butterfliers (and those who still resist the idea), one butterfly set every two weeks is probably plenty. For the more serious butterfliers, you can always split the workout to allow them to focus on form and speed. And any “your choice” stroke sets are always opportunities for the butterfly enthusiasts to indulge in their passion for the stroke.

As coach, you set the tone. You are the one who teaches that butterfly is a blessing rather than a punishment. By sharing your love for the stroke and explaining its pleasures and benefits, you set the stage for your swimmers to love it, too!


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