Butterfly Drills that Save the Shoulders

This is a guest post courtesy of Pat Windschitl of Ellis Aquatics. Pat is one of the founding coaches of the program and has had much success coaching swimmers of all ages. He has coached athletes to top finishes at Junior Olympics and to nation top-10 time performances.

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I’m a huge fan of butterfly and an advocate for teaching it to age groupers early in their development cycle. I believe kids can develop the rhythm and the stroke quicker than breaststroke if approached in the least threatening way possible.

With my swimmers we focus on drills, drills, and… drills! Our goal is to develop a rhythm for the stroke, work on your form and really focus on improving your kick off the walls.

Because Butterfly can be an incredibly strenuous stroke, almost all my favorite drills are designed to avoid shoulder stress when possible. Instead on straining the shoulders, I like to place emphasis on the kick. The focus of all your drills should center around breathing and head placement, hip position, and arm recovery. Most of these can be done at a decent pace.

Kicking Drills

  • Iron-Man Butterfly/Body Dolphin kick: Swimmers keep their arms at their sides (the visual we use is try to look like Iron-Man flying) and butterfly kick across the surface of the water. Their head is positioned so they look directly at the bottom of the pool.

With this drill they emphasize properly undulating through the water letting their hips break the surface first followed by their upper back with each kick. When swimmers breath they push their chin forward and let it rest on the surface without coming higher. This drill is not done fast or sloppily. The primary goal is to breath without interrupting the motion of the stroke.

  • Superman Butterfly: An advanced form of Iron-Man Butterfly. Swimmers keep their arms extended in front of them, higher than head (like how Superman flies) as they butterfly kick across the surface. Goal is to alternate upper back and hips to break the water. When you breath you don’t let your arms drop or move and you just focus on pushing your chin forward to get a low breath, rather than lift your head.

Breathing Drills

  • Under Water Recovery Butterfly: Swimmers start in Superman form. When they need a breath they perform one strong butterfly stroke where their arms stop at their hips. This stroke forces a swimmer up across the surface and emphasizes a quick breath and lowering your head before your arms make it across the surface. Arms recover slowly underwater like in a pulldown.
  • Monster Butterfly: A fun, fin drill where swimmers launch themselves as high as they can across the top of the water and then drop as far as they can below the surface. This is usually with fins. This teaches an over-exaggerated form where athletes work to get their arms to clear the surface without resistance.

Stroke Drills

  • 1-Arm Butterfly: This drill is like normal butterfly stroke with one arm held always in front of you. Breathing is forward, just like with the normal stroke, and swimmers emphasize a straight arm recovery rather than the bent elbow they have with freestyle. Swimmers do 3 strokes on one side before switching the other, and only breath on their 3rd/last stroke. This is one of our favorite alternatives to butterfly in most practice sets as it incorporates every aspect of the stroke but greatly reduces shoulder stress.
  • 1/1/1 or 2/2/2 (etc): Swimmers do one left arm pull, one right arm pull, then a stroke with both arms. This can be repeated with 2 left, 2 right, 2 both, or more. Breathing is only done with both arms recovering. It teaches form a little better than 1-arm but I find it can’t be done at the same speed or distances.
  • 6 Kick Drill: Swimmers perform six streamline kicks off the wall before coming up for 3 or 2 full strokes then dive down to do 6 more kicks. This is a great drill for improving the kick and getting them used to getting 3 cycles of kicks in between breaths.

Breathing Goals

  • 50 yards or meters: 2 strokes down, 1 breath up with a goal of 6 solid, fast kicks off each wall.
  • 100 yards or meters: 1 stroke down, 1 breath up with a goal of 3-6 fast strong kicks off each wall.
  • 200 yards or meters: 1 stroke down, 2 breaths up with a goal of 3-6 solid kicks off each wall.

Target Tempo Rate

I’m not against teaching or talking about temp rates with 10-12 year old swimmers. But you do want to make sure it’s always taught in conjunction with stroke count and working to emphasize distance per stroke. We try to emphasize 1.0 per cycle in the 50, and 1.0-1.2 in the 100 and 200.

  • 50 yards or meters: .90-1.1 seconds per cycle.
  • 100 yards or meters: .90-1.19 seconds per cycle.
  • 200 yards or meters: 1.0-1.19 seconds per cycle.

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