Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

If an alien walked through the book stores and magazine racks in the airports around the Earth, the creature may think that the entire human race consisted of individuals with 6-pack abs and incredible levels of fitness.

The cover articles of Shape, Fitness, Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Cosmopolitan and endless other magazines show off beautiful women and handsome men showing off their curves and angles.

From broad shoulders tapering down to small waists; from hard stomachs as flat as kick boards, with only minimal body fat percentages the envy of their neighbors and friends, many swimmers also are healthy examples of some of the best physical forms of humanity. Swimmers may not appear on magazine covers with frequency, but they are frequently seen by many as the epitome of health and wellness.

They are not overly muscular like body builders and professional (land-based) athletes or rail-thin like elite marathon runners, cyclists or triathletes, but they tend to be well-balanced humans with high levels of aerobic fitness and muscular strength enhanced with low percentages of body fat and, most enjoyable, blessed with sunny dispositions. From Duke Kahamamoku to Annette Kellerman, Don Schollander to Esther Williams, Mark Spitz to Dawn Fraser, Ryan Lochte to Natalie Coughlin, Julien Sauvage to Keri-Anne Payne, swimmers of all ages and abilities have been seen as babes and hunks.

So how does a regular swimmer – an amateur, a non-elite – obtain that kind of shape? How does a soft(er) body become hard(er)? How do you flatten those abs, shed inches off your waist, and create curves without spending hours doing ab work or buying expensive machines or useless gimmicks?

Those is no guaranteed easy way, but there is certainly one proven way.

It is not easy, but open water swimmers know that nothing great is easy.

It may be intense and it takes work and commitment, but you are only one word away from having flat abs and fitness. It is the dreaded B word. It is a three-syllable stroke that strikes fear in every swimmer and in every pool workout. It is a double-arm monster, the shoulder-stressing style, aerobically-challenge, toughest technique in the tank.

Butterfly.

Properly executed or even sub-optimally performed, butterfly is a total body workout. Even more so than any infomercial or fitness club class or toughman workout, doing butterfly works on every part of the body at a level that is as intense as it is beneficial to strength-building, core toning, and aerobic conditioning. Butterfly burns more calories than any other aquatic exercise in the water. The undulation of the stroke places a unique stress on the front abdominals as well as the back.

Done slowly or done quickly, butterfly works the body like nothing else. There are good reasons why swimmers, even the hardest core, dread butterfly sets. Only after 10 seconds or 10 meters, it is clear why butterfly is the least practiced and least favorite stroke in the aquatic kingdom.

But open water butterflyers take the the stroke to a level unlike other swimmers. Tom Boettcher, who regularly takes about 90 minutes to do the Big Shoulders 5K all butterfly, or Dan Projansky who has done butterfly for 11 hours and 27 miles. Other famous flyers in the open water world include Vicki Keith, Julie Bradshaw, Brenton Williams, Kathryn Mason, Graham Barratt, Héctor Ramírez Ballesteros, Paolo Eros Cerizzi, Brian Suddeth, and Gail Rice.

Photos by 1996 Olympic butterflyer Dan Kutler.

Copyright © 2014 by World Open Water Swimming Association