Looking to diversify your programming, attract new personal training clients, and add variety to your fitness repertoire? Water workouts can make quite a splash!

Many people enjoy the experience of being in water from childhood. Others learn to embrace water-based exercise when working out on dry land becomes difficult to tolerate due to conditions such as arthritis, chronic back pain, or diabetes. Simply put, being in and around the water, for many people, is just plain fun.

Designing an exercise regimen that incorporates aquatic movements comes with its own set of requirements, of course, but the results can be well worth the effort.

The medical community has long used the special properties of water as a medium for treating injuries and as a way to rehabilitate patients. From a physics standpoint, an aquatic workout has a lot going for it. Compared to air, water’s buoyancy and greater resistance place less stress on the joints for a no-impact exercise experience.

On average, a 30-minute pool workout burns approximately 300 calories. Since 3,500 calories is the approximate equivalent of a pound of body fat, even 3-4 exercise bouts per week in the pool can lead to noticeable weight loss in a matter of a few weeks.

Water Workouts For Active Recovery

In strength training, the muscles need rest time in order to adequately repair themselves. Due to the above-mentioned buoyancy that spares the joints and muscles, pool-based exercise may be recommended on days off from the weight room as a way of staying active while allowing the body to actively recover.

Pool Principles

In order to design safe and effective aquatic exercise, it is important to understand several basic principles that are unique to the medium. The following list is meant to be illustrative–not exhaustive–of the basic forces at work in water exercise design.

  • Resistance–The viscosity of water is 12 times greater than that of air. As a consequence, water provides greater resistance as a limb moves through the water. The surface area used, the size and speed of the movement, as well as the turbulence, drag and the length of the lever all affect resistance to a more noticeable extent than exercising in air.
  • Speed of movement–Due to the greater viscosity, it is more difficult for a body accustomed to moving through air to move through water. For routines that involve walking or jogging, only about half to a third of the speed on land is sufficient to expend the same amount of energy.
  • Buoyancy–Someone standing in water up to the level of the chin loses 90 percent of his or her weight standing on land. The force of gravity is largely suspended and the consequent impact on weight-bearing joints is greatly reduced.

Aquatic Exercise Design Considerations

The following factors should be considered when designing water exercises:

  • Safety–The importance of safety in and around a pool cannot be overemphasized. The pool deck should be free of clutter, such as equipment and clothing that could be a trip and fall hazard.
  • Where possible, entries and exits should be made by means of steps, handrails or ramps rather than ladders. The Arthritis Foundation and YMCA Aquatic Exercise Program recommend that people with orthopedic conditions should descend ladders or steps by leading with the weaker, or most painful, leg. When going back up the steps or ladder, start with the stronger leg and ascend and descend one step at a time.
  • Water temperature–Water temperature should be between 82 and 88 degrees Fahrenheit for most exercise sessions. For more therapeutic exercise, the temperature should be between 92 and 96 degrees Fahrenheit. Water temperatures over 90 degrees should not be used for aerobic activities, while temperatures below 80 degrees can lead to excessive cooling when activity slows or stops. Because the body loses heat four times faster in water than it does in air, it’s advisable to try to keep the client’s lower body in motion even during a brief break.

Don’t Get in Too Deep

Where possible, the water should come up to the upper abdomen to armpit. This depth allows for arm movements to assist or resist movement and experience sufficient body weight to produce overload.

Water Workout Considerations

Correct body positioning and a neutral spine should be encouraged for all movements.

  • Movements that are slow and controlled are preferable to those that are jerky, ballistic, or bouncy. In other words, think “fluid”, just like the medium.
  • Don’t lock the knees. Instead, keep them soft and pliant.
  • To lessen the risk of injury or unnecessary joint discomfort, start by using short levers and then move to using longer levers. One example is to begin with bent arm or leg movements and then move to straight arm or leg exercises.

Why stay dry?


1. Lotshaw AM, Thompson M, Sadowsky S, Hart MK, and Millard MW. 2007. Quality of life and physical performance in land- and water-based pulmonary rehabilitation. Journal of Cardiopulmonary Rehab and Prev. 27:247-51.

3. Westby MD. 2001. A health professional’s guide to exercise prescription for people with arthritis: a review of aerobic fitness activities. Arthritis Care and Res. 45(6):501-11.

4. Bartels EM, Lund H, Hagen KB, Dagfinrud H, Christensen R, Danneskiold-Samsøe B. 2007. Aquatic exercise for the treatment of knee and hip osteoarthritis. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 4:1-9.


These resources are for the purpose of personal trainer growth and development through Continuing Education which advances the knowledge of fitness professionals. This article is written for NFPT Certified Personal Trainers to receive Continuing Education Credit (CEC). Please contact NFPT at 800.729.6378 or info@nfpt.com with questions or for more information.