There are plenty of reasons why your personal training clients should be exercising in the water. Whether your client experiences an injury that precludes any impact or weight-bearing activities, or they are looking for a new challenge, or perhaps just like being in the water, let’s take a look at the pros and cons of exercising in the water, and different ways to program challenges.

The Pros and Cons of Exercising in the Water

Water exercise is easier on the joints, but non-weight bearing. In other words, it’s good for your joints because it’s more gentle for them. However, water exercise doesn’t strengthen bones the same way that weight-bearing exercise does. Impact and force on the bones makes them stronger, reducing risks of breaks and osteoporosis. In-the-water challenges should ideally be supplemental for this reason.

Unlike many other exercise environments, the pool provides a built-in “cushioned” space for workouts where falling is a non-issue; for clients recovering from an injury or an aging client, water exercise is ideal.

Being suspended in water is quite useful for flexibility, for instance, due to the wider range of motion the body can achieve due to the greatly reduced force of gravity acting on the joints. This is why seniors, pregnant women, and/or those with chronic back pain, arthritis, diabetes, and other conditions that may limit tolerance of land-based based exercise are often recommended to include water exercise several times each week.

Water exercise is a fun way to get cardiovascular and strength-training exercise. Your client may just want to swim laps for cardio; on average, a 30-minute pool workout burns approximately 300 calories. Or they may want to forego swimming altogether and focus on resistance exercise. Perhaps they may want to do both!

Principles, Considerations, and Preparations

In order to design safe and effective exercise in the water it is important to understand several basic principles. Although this list is not inclusive, these basic principles will affect the exercise design.

Resistance-The viscosity of water is 12 times greater than the air; therefore, it provides greater resistance as a limb moves through the water. The surface area, size of the movement, speed of the movement, turbulence, drag, and the length of the lever all affect resistance.

Speed of movement-Due to greater viscosity it is more difficult to move the body as quickly through water as it is through air. For water walking or jogging, only one-half to one-third the land speed is necessary for the same energy expenditure.

Buoyancy-In water to the chin, the body loses 90 percent of comparable land weight. Gravitational forces are suspended and impact on the weight-bearing joints is minimized greatly.

Types of Aquatic Exercise

There are four predominant types of water exercise:

1. Water walking– Water walking is ideal for any level exerciser, and those with physical limitations or special exercise needs. Easy walking can be used as a warm-up or as general conditioning. Walking and jogging can be added to upper body moves or can be used as all or part of the cardiovascular segment of the workout. Walking can be forward, backward, or side to side and performed in a large circle, crossing the pool, in individual space or with a partner. Walk or jog steps can be performed on tiptoe, heels only, with a bent knee, forward/backward lean position, with large steps, small steps, slow, or fast.

2. Resistive exercise– The increased resistance provided by water is an excellent workout for the muscles. Conditioning should include overall strength and endurance work for the large muscle groups and major joint movements. Always begin with large muscle work, such as water walking and then work the smaller muscles of the upper body and lower legs. (See below)

3. Water aerobics- Water aerobics are performed in the shallow end of the pool and may be done with music if acoustics permit. Exercises and movement patterns should be designed to use all parts of the body and the physical properties of water.

4. Lap swimming– Lap swimming is an excellent cardiovascular exercise for a competent swimmer. However, lap swimming can be somewhat frustrating, energy-draining, and unsafe for individuals with poor swimming skills. Make sure your client wants to swim laps.

Exercise Design Considerations

The following factors should be considered when prepping clients for exercising in the water:

Water temperature- Water temperature should be between 82 and 88 degrees F for most exercise sessions. For more therapeutic exercise, the temperature should be between 92 and 96 degrees Fahrenheit. Pools heated over 90 degrees F should not be used for aerobic activities; pool temperatures under 80 degrees F present risk of body cooling when the activity slows or ceases. A body in water cools four times faster than a body in air. Always keep the lower body in motion during even brief pauses or breaks in the exercise. Air temperature in an indoor pool should be 2-4 degrees higher than the water temperature and humidity approximately 60 percent.

Water depth– Ideal water depth is upper abdominal to armpit level. This allows for arm movements to assist or resist movement and experience enough body weight to produce overload.

Safety– This is always a number one priority. Clients should refrain from rough play in and around the pool. The use of AquaSocks or other footwear in and around the pool is recommended. The pool deck should be clear of equipment and items that could be tripped on by participants.

Pool entry and exit– Pools with wide steps, handrails, or ramps are obviously easier to enter and exit than those with only ladders. The Arthritis Foundation and YMCA Aquatic Exercise Program suggest individuals with orthopedic conditions should always descend ladders or steps leading with their weaker or most painful leg. When ascending the steps or ladder, lead with the stronger leg and ascend and descend one step at a time.

Movement considerations – Correct body positioning and a neutral spine should be encouraged in all maneuvers:

Since overuse of the hip flexors can contribute to back discomfort, avoid excessive abdominal exercises that involve single or double leg lifts while hanging from the side of the pool.

Slow controlled movements are preferred over jerky, ballistic, or bouncy movements. Keep the knees soft rather than locked. Design class movements with less bouncing and more traveling and walking patterns.

To avoid injury or unnecessary joint discomfort begin by using short levers and progress to using longer levers. For example, begin with bent arm or leg movements and progress to straight arm or leg exercises.

Take extra care to prevent tightly gripping on flotation devices, railings, the pool wall, or gutter. This can contribute to pain and deformity in arthritic hands and fingers.

Varying intensity– Participants may increase or decrease exercise intensity by varying movement size, direction, speed, or number of repetitions. Small fast movements and sustained over-the-head movements increase isometric work and heart rate, but not aerobic conditioning. These movements should be used sparingly.

To increase exercise intensity:

  • Maximize leg movements that involve large muscle groups.
  • Use movements that travel a minimum of 6 to 12 feet to maximize turbulence and drag.
  • Use larger movements at one-half to one-third the land speed
  • Change directions, start then stop, and restart the movement again.
  • Use slow upward motions and increase the speed on downward motions.
  • Remember, work intensity is directly proportional to the surface area in motion.


To reduce exercise intensity:

  • Use a short versus long lever arm and shorten the distance moved.

Sample Workout

Warm-up (5-10 minutes)-The thermal (musculoskeletal) warm-up includes easy water walking and slow moves that imitate the strength moves later in class. Use short levers and reduced range of motion (ROM) to stimulate joint lubrication. Progress to longer lever and larger, fuller ROM movements for a dynamic stretch.

Pre-Cardio (3-5 minutes)-Water walking and larger movements with increased intensity prepare the cardio-pulmonary system for the workout to follow.

Cardio (20-30 minutes)-The aerobic portion incorporates increased dominance of large muscle activity, of the leg, thigh and hip muscles, in activities such as walking, jogging, skipping, and jumping. Arm movements should be at or below shoulder level. Research has shown that for decreasing body fat, rhythmic water exercise is comparable to land-based programs.

Cool down(5 minutes)-Activities mimic the pre-cardio.

Strength (5-15 minutes)-Part of the strength work, especially the large lower body and trunk muscles, can be incorporated into the cool down. This is followed by smaller muscle work. Equipment props add surface area and increase the intensity of the work.

Flexibility/Relaxation (5 minutes)-This section is an extension of the previous two. Plan more prolonged flexibility exercises for the areas stretched in the warm-up.


The following are specific exercises to program for clients. Plug and play as appropriate:

  1. Treading water.  For savvy swimmers, find a place where the bottom of the pool is unreachable with the head above water and tread. Use a bicycle motion, scissor kicks, or frog kicks to mix it up. Aim to stay buoant for 1-3 minutes. Bonus challenge: Use just the arms or just the legs.
  2. Flutter kicks. Rest arms on the edge of the pool and kick the legs. Keep glutes engaged and legs lengthened with a slight bend at the knee. Alternate pointing and flexing the feet. Bonus challenge: Put flippers on or try kicking while holding onto a noodle.
  3. Noodle abs. Incorporate this by laying on the back on a noodle, raft or side of pool if there is no equipment. Straighten and bend your knees to your chest. Rotate your lower spine right and left mindfully. Do scissor kicks. Bonus challenge: Place a towel on the front of your shins to add resistance or ankle weights if you have them.
  4. Push and Pull.  Use a noodle as resistance and keep it just below the water. Push and pull forward and back toward you to work your arms.  Keep your shoulders down away from your ears. Bonus challenge: Change the speed to go slower and faster.
  5. Swimming. Choose between breaststroke, forward crawl, backstroke. Set a goal of how many laps you want to your client to do. Bonus challenge: Have clients team up for a session to race each other, taking breaks in between laps to drink water.
  6. Jumping. Jumping out and in with on the pool floor, just like jumping jacks. Also forward and back. You can do scissor jumps, where one goes forward and the other back. Jumping is much safer in the water because the impact is greatly reduced. Bonus challenge: Put on some music and keep moving continuously to a full song. It’s more fun than counting and keeps may keep your client going longer.

Beverly Hosford

Beverly Hosford

Beverly Hosford, MA teaches anatomy and body awareness using a skeleton named Andy, balloons, play-doh, ribbons, guided visualizations, and corrective exercises. She is an instructor, author, and a business coach for fitness professionals. Learn how to help your clients sleep better with in Bev’s NFPT Sleep Coach Program and dive deeper into anatomy in her NFPT Fundamentals of Anatomy Course.