Do you get stuck in a rut when designing resistance training programs? It’s not always easy to come up with fun ideas that also get results. If you are like a lot of personal trainers, you may be overlooking a significant exercise tool in your health club and, in some cases, your clients’ homes. That tool is the swimming pool (otherwise known as “the giant resistance machine”). As personal trainers seek to branch out, the swimming pool joins the strength and conditioning room as a viable place to train. Water exercise is a great way to diversify your services while introducing a safe, fun and effective program.

Why Water?

Exercising in the water is becoming more popular as our population ages and participants seek nonintimidating, nonimpact environments. “A majority of Americans are now facing the challenges of poor health compounded by the effects of aging,” says Mary Sanders, MS, adjunct professor at the University of Nevada in Reno. “As more people experience disability or functional limitations, based on poor habits over time, they will seek help from both the medical and fitness fields. A personal trainer who is prepared to ‘catch’ these people and effectively bridge with the medical community will change their lives. Water . . . broadens both the range of intensities available and the options available to make exercise more comfortable. Water can encompass a lifetime of activity as the body changes.”

Research shows that both water and traditional resistance equipment provide muscle overload (Takeshima et al. 2002). The weight room’s variable resistance machines adjust to muscle’s force-generating capabilities to provide not only maximal overload throughout the total range of motion but also a better training stimulus. The pool uses the water’s viscosity (or the friction between molecules), as well as other properties, to provide overload. Both options train the body for improved muscular strength and endurance; so why not use both?

Buoyant Benefits

As we move from aesthetic fitness to functional fitness, water will likely be used more. To name just one of its benefits, water provides specific resistance in an upright, functional position. Personal trainers can therefore teach skills that enhance proper posture, leading to improved daily living. For example, performing supine curl-ups on land does not prepare the abdominals to be strong in a functional, upright position. On land, the abdominals are strengthened in a forward-flexed position. In water, the abdominals are
targeted in an upright position. Simply walking against water’s natural resistance strengthens the abdominals, thus improving daily function (Kennedy & Sanders 1995). Performing even basic locomotor patterns (i.e., walking and running) against the water’s resistance enhances functionality as the body stabilizes itself.

Another of water’s benefits is buoyancy. Gravity is king on land, but buoyancy rules in water, pushing the body and limbs upward. Buoyancy is kind to women (Brown 1997), who genetically tend to store more body fat. In water this actually works in their favor. The more body fat a client has, the more buoyant she will be. The less body fat she has, the more she will need the assistance of buoyancy devices during deep-water exercise.

A third benefit is that many people gravitate toward water exercise when injured. In fact, the shift to water exercise can be a training bonus that helps protect muscles, ligaments and joints from impact training, particularly in sports like running. A 1997 study showed that fitness levels did not decrease in competitive runners who exercised only in the water for 4 weeks (Bushman 1997). The subjects ran a 5K on a treadmill to establish a race time, trained only in the water for 4 weeks and then were posttested running a 5K again on land. Not only did their fitness levels not suffer but, in fact, they “felt stronger.”

Physiological Differences: Land and Water

One reason exercising in the water is comfortable and relatively pain-free is that, without using equipment, there is very little eccentric muscle contraction. Eccentric muscle contractions are often associated with greater amounts of muscle damage and delayed-onset muscle soreness (Byrnes 1985). Water’s nonimpact nature, coupled with predominantly concentric muscle contractions, makes the pool a more relaxed environment.

To be an effective trainer, you need to understand that there are different physiological implications in water than on land. For example, the table above shows how muscle contractions differ between water and land for standing hip flexion and extension.

Progressive Training

Because water is more viscous than air, it provides more resistance to motion. When a client walks forward in the water for a few feet, the viscosity (cohesion and adhesion) allows him to move a “block” of water. This block of water, called a “drag force,” adds overload and increases energy expenditure.

As a trainer, you can develop progressive resistance by varying speed, surface area, travel and downward work against buoyancy. To achieve a training effect, you can create overload by effectively using the water’s resistance against the body. Water’s varying planes of movement are an important benefit that is difficult to achieve in a traditional strength and conditioning area. For example, when a client performs a basic pectoral press (horizontal adduction) standing on land holding a weight, gravity forces the deltoid muscles to be the prime movers. The client has to perform a bench press on her back for the movement to be effective. However, when she performs the same exercise standing in the water, the pectorals are the prime movers,
since the deltoids are assisted by buoyancy. Because there is no gravity to affect the resistance direction, you can vary the movements and planes while working in an upright functional position, thus allowing more options.

Let’s take this same exercise through a 6-week progression:

Warm-Up. Have the client stand in place and horizontally adduct the shoulder joints in a relaxed fashion. Check for functional range of motion before moving to the next step.

Weeks 1-2. Increase the speed/force, which will push the client’s body backwards.

Week 3. To increase the surface area, have the client put on webbed gloves. Increase the speed.

Weeks 4-5. Cue the client to jog forward, traveling against the current while horizontally adducting the shoulder joints. Increase the speed.

Week 6. Have the client lift the feet off the bottom, to mimic being in deep water, while performing a pectoral press. As the body is “dragged” through the water, the trunk stabilizers contract and the body’s surface area provides overload.

This progression applies to all muscle groups and doesn’t necessarily have to be done in the above order. If the client’s skills readily improve, the movements can be put together in one training session.

Aquatic Equipment

Once a client has been doing water exercises for 6 to 8 weeks, he has likely adapted to the water’s resistance and is ready to use equipment for overload purposes. The numerous pieces of water equipment available to a personal trainer fall into two categories: surface area devices and buoyancy devices. Surface area devices, such as webbed gloves and hand paddles, are useful in both deep and shallow water. You would use them predominantly to work on concentric muscle contractions of agonist-antagonist muscle groups. For example, you could work the biceps and triceps with webbed gloves in this way. When the elbow is flexed in deep water, the biceps works concentrically; and when the elbow is extended, the triceps works concentrically. Balancing opposing muscles is easier in water, but if an arm floats up to the surface (owing to the environment), one phase is not trained.

Buoyancy devices, such as Styrofoam dumbbells, are treated a little differently. Encourage slow speeds to resist buoyancy or the equipment will bounce right out of the water in the same way that a traditional dumbbell will fall to the ground if it is not lowered slowly. Buoyancy devices allow eccentric muscle contractions to occur in the water and are best used in shallow water. Stabilizing the core is crucial, as these contractions serve as the foundation for many exercises. When buoyancy equipment is used for long periods in deep water and for full-body support (without a belt), it can be detrimental to the shoulders, because buoyancy can pull on the joints.

Ready for Water

Water training adds variety to programming, leading to results and increased enjoyment. Once you take the initial plunge, focus on making the movements similar to those your client already does on land. You can then progress and overload as necessary. As our population ages and personal trainers need more nonimpact exercise choices, our concept of resistance training expands and water’s benefits become more evident. Personal training in the water offers another way to reach an ever-evolving client base.