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by Terry Heggy

July 30, 2020

Try these stretches and technique tips for a better butterfly

On my age-group swim team, we called it “carrying a piano on your back.”

You know what I’m talking about: It’s that horrible phase of a race where you cannot get your arms out of the water, struggle with breathing, and seriously question if you’ll make it to the wall alive. For many, this proverbial piano drops from the sky at about 75 yards into a 100 butterfly. Perhaps sooner.

And yet some folks seem to be able to endlessly swim piano-free butterfly. What’s their secret? They have an efficient recovery. While some butterflyers are clearly mutants blessed with well-lubricated shoulder joints, there are ways us regular folks can improve our odds of getting to the wall without a baby-grand backpack. Let’s review terminology:

The term “recovery” has two distinct meanings in swimming:

  1. The phase of a stroke that repositions body parts after the power (propulsion) phase to establish proper position to begin the next stroke, and
  2. The time allowed for the body to replenish and rebuild itself after exercise.

Both are critical considerations for butterflyers. For most swimmers, the butterfly contains the most difficult recovery motion of any stroke, resulting in rapid fatigue. Training must focus both on reducing the effort and on increasing endurance for the specific movements required.

Starting on Dry Land

The butterfly recovery motion requires both arms to simultaneously move forward. To do this without dragging your hands and arms through the water (which costs forward momentum), your torso must elevate to a level where your arms can clear the surface.

  • The less your torso elevates, the more forward momentum is maintained.
  • Shoulder flexibility determines the amount of torso elevation required.

Routine behaviors (driving, typing, eating) draw your shoulders forward, as do many common exercises (push-ups, bench press, swimming breaststroke). Over time, these activities tighten your chest and limit the shoulder flexibility required for fluid butterfly recovery. Dryland work can counteract these influences.

Recovery enhancement exercises

Approach stretching with caution and patience; flexibility takes time and commitment rather than macho aggression. Payoffs come from gentle, consistent work (every day, multiple times per day). Stretching should be done within warm-up, cool-down, and during breaks in work sets, as well as at mealtimes, bedtimes, and breaktimes. Stretch everything, but for butterfly, these two are especially helpful:

  • Hanging stretches (dangle from an overhead horizontal bar)
  • Door stretches (lean into a doorway to open up your chest)

Strengthen the muscles involved in butterfly recovery with exercises that draw your shoulder blades together and work the rear deltoids and back muscles. These include:

  • Bent over rowing and flies
  • Cable rows
  • Face-down “Y” dumbbell lifts on a balance ball.
  • Bend to a horizontal torso and use light dumbbells to duplicate the entire butterfly recovery motion.

The key is to focus on the movement that draws your shoulder blades together rather than on the amount of weight lifted. The exercise should not only build your muscles for the recovery motion, but also train your brain to engage those muscles for a relaxed, low-to-the-water recovery.

Momentum enhancement exercises

It’s easier to elevate your torso for the arm recovery at faster speeds, so it helps to increase forward drive. Finishing your pull with good acceleration is essential, but during your arm recovery, your kick becomes the driver. Add dryland exercises to increase core and leg contributions.

  • Ankle stretches
  • Lunges
  • Planks, V-ups, leg lifts, etc.

Fine Tuning in the Pool

There are as many butterfly variants as there are swimmers. Customize the time and effort spent on fine-tuning activities depending on individual capabilities.


The first goal of butterfly recovery practice is to find the relaxation groove, where the recovery feels easy and infinitely repeatable.

  • Floating face-down in the water, squeeze your shoulder blades together to initiate your arm recovery. With only gentle flutter kicking, slowly swing your arms forward to re-enter the water at shoulder width. This teaches that high elevation isn’t required for recovery if your shoulders are loose and your back muscles contribute to lifting your arms.
  • Practice push-offs and breakouts with just a few full butterfly strokes to find your breathing and stroke vs. kick rhythm. Remember to exhale fully, and to keep your shoulders and neck as relaxed as possible. Try to keep your torso low during your breath, while feeling your kick as a whip-crack snap from your core all the way to your toes. Make sure your head leads your arms into the water and drives forward rather than downward. Do only perfect strokes; stop and start over if anything feels out of sync.
  • Butterfly can and should be an experience of glorious beauty. Each butterfly set or drill should begin with this reminder.


Using a breaststroke kick during butterfly is legal in USMS meets. Determine whether dolphin kick or breaststroke kick will be the most effective. This may change with aging, injury, level of fitness, or even the distance to be swum. Some athletes may benefit from experimentation to find the most efficient pull and kick combination. Use the clock to make the determination, as one combo may feel faster when evidence indicates the contrary.

Enhance abdominal thrust and leg tempo by isolating your legs with specific dolphin or breaststroke kick sets. Avoid kickboards (use a snorkel instead) to ensure full-body muscle participation during your kick sets and try these kick drills:

  • Rapid vertical kicking with core engagement (20 seconds on, 40 seconds rest)
  • 10-meter underwater kick sprints (easy recovery to the opposite end of the pool)
  • 25s kick sprints with minimal breaststroke arm pulls (1 minute rest)


The appropriate amount of butterfly training varies by individual. In general, I believe that every stroke of butterfly taken should be a good one; swimming with poor form from exhaustion simply trains us to swim with poor form. That said, it’s also a fact that building strength and endurance requires asking the body to do more than it has done in the past. It’s up to you to find the line where additional work becomes counterproductive.

Remember to allow depleted muscles to rest and grow after they’ve been abused. But as long as you retain your love for the stroke and your ability to perform it well when it counts, there’s nothing wrong with occasionally carrying that invisible piano through part of the workout.


  • Technique and Training


  • Butterfly