Hydro Power: The Allure of Water Workouts

From shaking your mermaid tail to doing burpees on a floating platform, new water fitness programs offer something for athletes of every age, ability and fitness level.

by Shirley Archer, JD, MA


Because of the unique properties of water, aquatic fitness programs challenge muscles differently and reduce impact on joints.

Step up to the pool deck and take note: The swimming pool has been transformed into an all-purpose fitness center with new programming, and manufacturers are embracing the opportunity by providing new tools for every interest and ability level. With Speedo USA rolling out aquatic fitness programs in partnership with Life Time®, it's clear that interest in water fitness is on the rise. And this curiosity is not limited to elite athletes and watersport enthusiasts. Aquatic fitness programs for families, older adults, dance fitness fans, and devotees of mind-body fusion are also gaining global popularity.  Today's water exercise programs are effective for weekly workouts, cross-training, performance enhancement, rehab and recovery, and they also offer much-needed variety and fun for members in search of something new. 

If you haven't yet tested the waters, now is the perfect time to learn more. Whether you're a fitness professional who wants to catch the water fitness wave, or a facility owner or manager interested in optimizing pool use and offering new programming, it's good business to be aware of some of the trends that are making a splash with exercisers. But first, let's take a look at the unique perks of aquatic exercise.

Why Work Out in Water?
To understand the special appeal of aquatic training, it helps to examine the science of water and how it relates to exercise. Specifically, four water-related properties have been shown to enhance athletic performance and improve physical function. These are buoyancy, hydrostatic pressure, viscosity and thermodynamics.

Buoyancy. This is the upward thrust of water acting on immersed bodies; it reduces the effects of gravity. In water at xiphoid level, gravity decreases approximately 60%. In neck-deep water, total body weight may be reduced by 90%. For exercisers, buoyancy means less impact on joints. It also provides resistance opposite that of gravity, which can lead to more-balanced total-body conditioning.

Hydrostatic pressure. This is the pressure that water exerts on all surface areas beneath the water. This multidirectional pressure compresses the chest, making breathing more difficult. This is one reason why people need to adapt to water-based training; even if they are already fit, they will need to develop stronger assistive breathing muscles before increasing intensity over time. In addition, the compressive forces of water result in a lower heart rate (irrespective of breathing) because the water "massages" the body, which assists circulation. This means that the heart does not have to work as hard in water to pump blood at a level equivalent in intensity on land. Therefore, a land-based training heart rate does not translate into equal training intensity in water. Instead, using the rating of perceived exertion to monitor intensity during water fitness workouts is reliable and recommended. The "massage" of water also stimulates the lymphatic system, which may be one reason why water workouts are so often used during recovery.

Viscosity. This refers to water's density. Water is approximately 800 times denser than air, and any movement in water generates resistance in all directions. Movement speed and surface area both affect the degree of resistance. These variables can be manipulated during water workouts to modify training intensities for progression or regression.

Thermodynamics. This property involves the flow of heat. Water transfers heat away from the body 25 times faster than air. This affects heart rate and oxygen consumption. For higher-intensity workouts, cool water temperatures (64.4–77 degrees Fahrenheit) result in lower heart rates than do warmer temperatures in the 86–95.9 F range (Nagle, Sanders & Franklin 2015). This is another reason to use RPE, not heart rate, to gauge intensity.

It's important for fitness professionals to educate new participants about the differences and challenges of exercising in water. Exercisers will need to build endurance as they adapt to water-based conditioning activities. Also, they should understand RPE and how it helps measure intensity. And, of course, you'll want to explain the advantages of water workouts; see "How Aquatic Training Boosts Sports Performance" for specifics.

Water Workouts Serving Niche Markets
As in health club and studio programs, the trend in pool-based fitness offerings reflects diversity. Various levels of classes serve a wide range of participants, including elite and recreational athletes, healthy people who are new to training, fit individuals who want to stay in shape, and people who have health concerns or are in rehab. Age groups served include everyone from kids to teens, families, and middle-aged and older adults of all ability levels. And manufacturers are stepping up to the opportunity by providing new tools for every aquatic interest. Read on for some expert insights into a few popular and emerging programs.

Many people use deep-water running as part of Ironman® or ultra-endurance event training, according to Melis "Mel" Edwards, MS, group fitness instructor and co-author of Deep End of the Pool Workouts: No-Impact Interval Training and Strength Exercises. "Athletic teams may be using water [training] like a secret weapon," says Edwards. "The 2002 U.S. Olympic women's hockey coach, Maria Hutsick, used the pool to train the women's team [and they] went on to win that year. Some NBA teams are using it…. Years ago, I worked with the San Jose Sharks hockey team. I think deep-water interval training is ready to go mainstream, especially because of the major surge in high-impact, intense sports such as ultrarunning and CrossFit and the uptick of injuries associated with overtraining and high-intensity activities." Deep-water fitness tends to attract men and athletes who are looking for specific cross-training benefits to improve athletic performance on land. 

These classes mimic the exercises and formats found in a traditional gym setting, and they tend to attract a younger crowd. Offerings include deep-water Tabata, aquatic boot camp, and deep-water high-intensity interval training. Irene Lewis-McCormick, MS, head coach at Orangetheory Fitness in Ames, Iowa, and an aqua fitness presenter, teaches Aqua Bootcamp Circuit, or ABC. She explains: "It's a fixed format with options to change movement patterns. It consists of 3–5 minutes of a cardio warm-up…. Next, the class is divided into 3–5 stations with different themes such as noodles suspended, hand buoys grounded, [and] body-weight rebounding. Class members move from station to station, at each for about 3 minutes. Then, we move to the center and do a choreographed cardio song again. This is repeated for 3–5 rounds and concludes with stretching and range-of-motion exercises." 

Like dance-inspired workouts on land, classes like Aqua Barre and Aqua Zumba® are most popular among women and appeal to all ages. One of the newer dance-inspired programs is Acquapole®, created by Monica Spagnuolo and Stefania Manfredi in Italy. The Acquapole program allows participants to enjoy pole dancing with the resistance and the support of the water. Benefits include improvements in toning, flexibility and core control. Acquapole started in Europe, but it is spreading in North America.

The most widely available mermaid program is AquaMermaid, created by Marielle Chartier Hénault, and headquartered in Montreal, Canada. AquaMermaid is a licensed program that includes instructor training, equipment, and business and marketing support. In addition to teaching fitness classes, instructors can provide entertainment at aquariums, resorts and private events, as well as host parties for kids and bachelorettes. For example, AquaMermaid is offered at The Phoenician in Scottsdale, Arizona, as a seasonal draw for resort guests. Though any age and gender can participate, the main demographic is kids 7–13 years and adults 25–35 years.

Nora Kaitis, owner of AquaMermaid Chicago, says, "We incorporate a lot of synchronized swimming and put moves together into a routine. It's a great workout, especially for the core, using a monofin and tail, and the exercises can be adapted for people who can't swim by using noodles and staying in shallow water. Mermaids are having a moment now. Hollywood has three movies slated, so interest is likely to grow." To underscore mermaid popularity, Hénault notes that 50,000 mermaid tails are sold each month in the United States. 

"Classes like flow yoga and ‘dynamic strength and stretch' in the water are increasing," says Manuel Velasquez, an international presenter and the movement lead instructor and department coordinator at Rancho La Puerta resort and spa in Tecate, Baja California, Mexico. "Strength, balance and proprioception training programs are popular right now, with the active-aging segment in mind." Aqua yoga and Pilates classes are being offered in warmer-water pools for those who don't care for cooler-water high-intensity programs. And standup paddleboards made for indoor pools are used for yoga classes like FloYo®, which attract younger to middle-aged participants. See "6 Tips to Get Everyone in the Pool!"

A Closer Look at Aqua Equipment
In addition to the fins and paddleboards mentioned earlier, new equipment and accessories for water workouts are being created and refined using improved technology and materials. Here are a few interesting examples.

The AquaBase. A U.K.-based company called AquaPhysical created this inflatable floating exercise mat. Doing moves on the AquaBase requires core control and concentration. Because it's wider than a surfboard, it can be used with traditional exercises like squats, lunges and burpees. The AquaBase is currently used for FloatFit HIIT and FloatFit YOGA classes, which launched in Europe and are now available in America at the TMPL Gym in New York City.

The Acquapole accessories. The Acqua-pole doesn't always stand alone. It can be equipped with a boxing bag, T-bar, or resistance strap. These add-ons enable participants to do aquatic boxing and kickboxing exercises, additional upper-body exercises such as pullups, and tethered drills for high-intensity training.

The Hydrorider® aquabike. Indoor aquatic cycling classes are growing in popularity at resorts and fitness facilities. The Hydrorider® company, based in Italy, makes its products using high-grade marine stainless steel. Hydrorider also markets treadmills, training poles and other water fitness equipment.

Ready to Catch the Wave?
With so many new and fun water fitness programs, it can be challenging to decide where to invest training and equipment dollars. Check out new options at conferences and trade shows, and survey your club members for interest. Consider starting with a few pieces of different equipment, and offer circuit training to see what participants prefer. Also, schedule programming to maximize pool usage and appeal to interested members at times that are convenient for them. Today, it's easier than ever to exercise your creativity and provide exciting water-fitness options. So, go ahead and grab a towel, jump in and get your feet wet!

How Aquatic Training Boosts Sports Performance
Many elite athletes are using the pool to complement land training. Mark Verstegen, president and founder of EXOS and a developer of the Speedo Fit aquatic training programs, notes the following benefits of aquatic training for those interested in improving sports performance: 

  • Less impact on muscles and joints due to reduced gravity
  • Slower movement with more precision and improved coordination due to water's resistance
  • Consistent resistance with all ranges of motion
  • Maximization of every contraction while reducing eccentric load
  • Less soreness
  • Compression for better circulation and faster recovery

6 Tips to Get Everyone in the Pool!
How to attract new participants to your water fitness programs. An increasing number of people are trying aquatic training for the first time and finding that they like it. Here are some expert tips on how to introduce participants to the benefits of water-fitness programs and increase participation.

  1. Share stories and testimonials from members who have found that water training improved their running or ultra-endurance performance.
  2. Use Instagram and Facebook to promote programs, feature pictures, and explain how water training improves strength, endurance, power, recovery and other training aspects.
  3. Offer land-and-water promotional classes such as a fitness club "tri-challenge" that includes yoga, indoor cycling and a water fitness class.
  4. Integrate a water fitness component into a specialty training class for an upcoming 10k, marathon, mud run or other event.
  5. Combine land and water training, as in the EXOS-designed Speedo Fit classes, where half of the participants stay on deck to do moves like squats and pushups, while the other half jumps into the pool to do high-intensity aquatic moves, then the groups switch.
  6. Educate, educate, educate. People don't realize the benefits of water training. Share the latest research highlights on how water training can enhance daily life, overall fitness and sports performance.
Deep-water fitness attracts more men and athletes who are looking to impact athletic performance on land. Aquatic fitness classes tend to attract a younger crowd.


Edwards, M. & Wight, K. 2017. Deep End of the Pool Workouts: No-Impact Interval Training and Strength Exercises. Berkeley, CA: Ulysses Press.

Layne, M. 2015. Water Exercise. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Nagle, E.F., Sanders, M.E., & Franklin, B.A. 2015. Aquatic high intensity interval training for cardiometabolic health: Benefits and training design. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, 11 (1), 64–76. 

Pinto, S.S., et al. 2015. Rating of perceived exertion and physiological responses in water-based exercise. Journal of Human Kinetics, 49 (1), 1846–54.

Sanders, M.E., et al. 2016. Aquatic exercise for better living on land: Impact of shallow-water exercise on older Japanese women for performance of activities of daily living (ADL). International Journal of Aquatic Research and Education, 10 (1), 1–22. 

Meet our experts

AFM_author_Archer Shirley Archer, JD, MA, Shirley Archer, JD, MA, award-winning certified trainer and author of 15 books, taught water fitness for 20+ years. Reach Shirley at www.shirleyarcher.com, @shirleyarcher (Twitter), @shirleyarcher (Instagram) and @shirley_archer (Pinterest).

The information provided is without warranty or guarantee and NASM disclaims any liability for decisions you make based on the information. Learn more