Personal training has branched into numerous subspecialties, extending its reach to include a wider audience. The diversification is good for the industry, but there are still many paths waiting to be discovered. Personal training in the water is one of them.

Norma Shechtman, MEd, MS, Pilates coordinator at the Sports Club/LA–
Orange County in Irvine, California, learned firsthand how training a client in the water could make all the difference. “I was working with a woman who had many ailments, including Sjogren’s syndrome (a chronic disease in which white blood cells attack moisture-producing glands). We tried walking, resistance training and many other exercise modes. Training in the water was the only thing that worked and made her feel better. So, we went into the pool three times a week and her comfort level improved. The movements were gentle and easy on her body, and she felt more alive.”

Shechtman’s experience reflects two growth trends—personal training and aquatic exercise. One-on-one, small-group and specialty personal training continues to push fitness industry growth. At the same time, aquatic exercise is increasing steadily. Merge these two trends and the result is a strong career opportunity.

Participation in aquatic exercise increased from just over 900,000 in 2000 to approximately 1.8 million in 2002, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association/American Sports Data Inc. (IHRSA/ASD) Health Club Trend Report 2002. According to the same report, 41% of aquatic exercise participants are 55 years and older, 25% are between the ages of 35 and 54 and 29% fall in the 18–34 age range. Health clubs are raking in dollars with aquatics programs—24% of clubs surveyed by IHRSA named aquatic exercise among their five most profitable programs or services.

Personal trainers who are willing to commit time and energy to water-based training can ride the earliest waves and capture profits. Learn what you need to do to start training in the water, and then ready yourself for a stream of professional growth.

Opportunity Snapshot

Maureen Hagan, vice president of operations at GoodLife Fitness Clubs in London, Ontario, says personal training in the water fills a distinct need. “There is a huge opportunity for personal trainers to help bridge the gap in services provided by rehabilitation therapists and other fitness professionals,” Hagan says.

Demographics and the changing face of sports and recreation are two forces fueling the increase in interest. Many athletes now want to cross-train in the water, and Baby Boomers see the pool as a comfortable way to maintain functional living. Ruth Sova, MS, of Port Washington, Wisconsin, has 15 years’ experience in aquatic rehabilitation. “The Baby Boomers are coming,” she says. “They have injuries from other sports or activities, surgeries to recover from and aging to deal with. The market is huge.”

Hagan sees people being drawn to the water’s welcoming environment. “With the growing population and percentage of deconditioned people rising, this form of supervised training will increase because it is so much more accommodating for those with health considerations,” she says. “Athletes will get in the water to cross-train . . . as a way to preserve their bodies and enhance performance. Runners and golfers also see the benefits of training in the water.”

Bethany Diamond, a personal fitness trainer who provides both land- and water-based training programs in Marietta, Georgia, thinks the desire for better sports performance will fuel demand among athletes of all ages. “There is so much emphasis on attaining prowess early, but the stress on athletes’ growing joints leads to injury,” she says. “The pool is a great place to train because there is less gravitational stress to the joints.”

Ready, Set, . . . Learn

Even though the water is full of promise, it’s important to gauge its depth before jumping in. Learn as much as you can about the market first. Take advantage of conventions and conferences to polish your talents, learn new skills and network with others. Take a chance and introduce yourself to professionals who are already involved in aquatic training. Most people are more than happy to give advice about the type of training that is most comprehensive and beneficial to your chosen path. Don’t forget to thank them for their time.

Find out if any clubs or pools in your community offer personal training services. If you find one, check it out and try to arrange a meeting with the manager. Find out if he or she needs new trainers. Keep in mind, however, that your first step is simply to learn. Once you have acquired the right skills and your business plan is in place, you can approach the manager with a proposal to offer pool-based personal training.

Ken Baldwin, a personal fitness trainer and the owner of Betterbodiez Personal Training studio in Brisbane, Australia, has more than 20 years’ experience in fitness. He has served as a physical training instructor in the military, coached competitive athletes and worked with clients who have disabilities or are in postrehabilitation. He recommends that personal trainers get an aquatic fitness certification. “But before doing that, get in the water and play,” Baldwin says. “Experience how different the properties of water are compared with land. Learn how to use drag, buoyancy and resistance. Know how to change these things by lever length or speed.”

Baldwin says it’s frustrating to see an untrained aquatics instructor doing land moves on the side of the pool twice as fast as a person can actually do them in the water. This is why it’s important to understand how the water affects body movement. “Find a mentor and ask for ideas and information,” he says. “You can never learn too much in our industry, as things are always changing.”

Before you sign up for your first training course, take a look at your existing skills and talents (see “Skills and Talent Inventory,” left). This time spent in personal assessment helps you focus on all the skills you have, instead of what you lack. By zeroing in on what makes you special, you are more likely to identify your niche. You will smooth your path to success if you focus on what type of training services you want to offer, from athletic or postrehabilitation, to kids or teens, to Baby Boomers who want to diversify their exercise routine.

Get Training

Industry experts advise that training—not only initial training, but continuing education—is the key to professional success. “Take aquatic certification and be willing to teach group aquatic classes so you’re able to promote yourself as a personal trainer or as an aquatic instructor,” Hagan advises. “Take a basic personal training certification and then build a client base from your ‘pool’ of dedicated group exercise participants.”

Linda LaRue, RN, MEd, ATC, based in Pacific Palisades, California, has been training clients in the water for more than 15 years and trains, among others, members of the Los Angeles Lakers. LaRue believes in training specificity. “You should have a working knowledge of the properties of land-based training and water—what is integrative and what is not,” she says. “It makes me crazy to see someone putting a land program in the water when it has no water-based application whatsoever. I believe we as water experts have not even begun to tap into the potential of water fitness.”

Since training in the water is not simply a matter of transferring land programs to the swimming pool, many managers and directors look for people who have prior experience in the water. Lisa Garrity, MA, education specialist at Fitness Express, a large personal and group exercise fitness service provider based in San Diego, says most of her aquatic personal trainers have extensive knowledge in water-based exercise. “Some are WSI swim instructors, and others are simply water fitness specialists,” she says. “Personal trainers who want to train in the water need to have a higher level of knowledge than those who train on land. This is because of the medical issues surrounding most water participants. Some people exercise in the pool because they cannot function effectively on land. The trainer needs to know how to communicate with them and how to effectively program for their medical issues.”

Many industry leaders in aquatic fitness offer both land- and water-based training services. Carol Argo, Aquatic Exercise Association training specialist, aquatic instructor and personal trainer in Palos Verdes, California, sums it up: “All experience is helpful, including group aquatic instruction and personal training on land. It’s very important to understand individual needs and to be familiar with common physical problems such as back, rotator cuff, hip, knee and obesity issues.”

Regardless of the market opportunities, client safety comes first. Always stay within your scope of practice as a fitness professional. Get medical clearance before designing a program and make sure all clients are adequately screened for preexisting conditions.

Baldwin has a list of things he considers before hiring personal trainers to work in the pool with clients. “They must first have the certification required for an aquatics module,” he says. “They must also have a good working knowledge of biomechanics and anatomy, as well as a sports background. All of our classes are based on functionality and on simulating exercises clients do in everyday life or in sport-specific exercises. From here, they need good group communication skills, motivation and rapport. They must be able to think outside the square to make the session challenging and fun to all participant levels. Only then will they be considered.”

Scout Prospective Venues

After you have some training under your belt, you need to find a swimming pool. This is easier said than done in some cases. Sandra Starrett, owner of Physical Expressions Fitness Training in Vancouver, British Columbia, offers both land- and water-based group exercise and personal training services. “Find a pool that is sensitive to your needs,” she says. “This means [the facility] has adequate pool space for you to work in, has a lower noise volume and is in general open to the idea.

“Most pools in Canada are municipal and have heavy programming needs for the general public. Sometimes it’s difficult because their programming isn’t always conducive to personal training. For example, it’s hard to train a client during a busy public swim. Pools can be noisy and very distracting. I like a more personal, intimate setting. You need space for clients to travel their moves, and if you are given a tiny space, it limits the workout. Take the time to find the right fit; it’s worth the effort.”

Training in a client’s home pool may be an option. Have an emergency plan in place before the first session. Before you agree to train a client at his or her home, ask if there is a shower available for you to use afterward. If the pool is large enough, it might also accommodate a small group of friends for a combined training session.

Pool temperature is another issue. Pools maintained for lap swimmers are kept at cooler temperatures and may not be ideal for vertical water fitness activities. Ideal temperature for moderate-to-vigorous activity is 83–86 degrees Fahrenheit, or 28–30 degrees Celsius. You can, however, conduct higher-intensity training in cooler temperatures.

Create a Business Plan

Many personal trainers love the training, but not the business aspect. If business skills aren’t among your strengths, find resources to supplement your lack of knowledge. There’s a wealth of information available from books, articles and friends. Think about how you want to position yourself. You can be an employee, an independent contractor, a sole proprietor, or a partner, or you can own your own corporation. If you choose to become incorporated, consider doing it as the business grows, so you can protect your personal assets and limit liability.

Develop sound policies and procedures from the start. In addition to all the land-based guidelines, aquatic trainers need to have emergency plans specific to pool settings. Stay updated on the various forms for client recordkeeping, billing and accounting.

Your business won’t grow unless you attract clients. Acquiring clients might involve some creative thinking because aquatic personal training is relatively new and few facilities have well-
developed marketing strategies. However, this can be an opportunity for you to get in on the ground floor with organizations and build a program yourself.

Start with self-promotion. “People can’t know about you if you don’t tell them what you do and how you do it,” says Baldwin. “Use the local news, talk at local businesses and generate word of mouth and testimonials. Never be afraid to sound too good. It’s all about selling yourself and your services the best you can. But you can’t sell your services if you’re not confident. Always keep a portfolio of everything you do. Most of our clients come from our group fitness classes. We talk to them after the classes and tell them how we can improve what they are doing by taking them to the next level.”

Once you get your business rolling, word of mouth is a great client builder. Hagan observes that the growth GoodLife has seen in its aquatic personal training program is from referral and word of mouth. “It all begins with one good aquatic personal trainer and client success story to get the ball rolling,” she says.

Catch the Wave

Carol Clifton is a personal trainer in both land and aquatic fitness training in Midge Point, Australia. She has developed her own golf cross-training program that includes land and water elements. She offers these final words of wisdom: “Going into business on your own is a daunting task, and usually the first year is the worst. Don’t feel discouraged if all does not go as planned. If you’re strong enough in your convictions and believe that you have a good product, you will succeed. The beauty of working in the water is that you can work with any age or population, which is good, both for your clientele and for you as you age! It happens to us all.”

As you embark on your own path to personal training in the pool, keep in mind the many people to whom you can offer useful, effective and comfortable training. Working in the water has a lower risk of injury than land training and will make a genuine difference in a client’s life, whether the client is a millionaire pro athlete or a grandmother who wants to enjoy her grandchildren. Set yourself up for success by doing the proper research, getting the right training and putting positive energy into your business. Don’t wait—catch the wave today.