Jan 29, 2015
Hydro Power: Using the pool in strength training
By Maria Hutsick, contributing writer

The pool is great for rehab, but how about making it a part of the strength training program? With a little creativity, pool workouts can build fitness while limiting overuse injuries.

athlete in the poolMany of our coaches used to laugh when I told them their athletes could benefit from a water workout. They were under the impression that a water workout meant simply splashing around and having fun in the pool. They stopped laughing, however, once they saw one.

We have all heard about (and many of us use) aquatic therapy for rehab, but have you considered applying the same ideas to training healthy athletes? If you are looking for a way to design intense workouts that don’t lead to soreness or risk injury, then water workouts are a great idea.

Working out in the pool has many benefits. When standing in chest deep water, an athlete weighs only 10 percent of his or her normal body weight. The reduction means athletes can work out harder at higher intensity levels several days in a row, without causing wear and tear on their joints and general muscle soreness. Not many strength coaches would allow an athlete to do two land-based, high-intensity sprint workouts on consecutive days, but when working out in a pool you can do two or three intense workouts in a row and not worry about overtraining injuries.

In addition, water is 12 percent more resistant than air because there are no gravitational forces. Working out in a pool for 30 minutes gives you similar benefits of a two-hour, land-based workout. Water accommodates resistance — the harder you push or pull through it, the more resistance you experience.

Water also forces athletes to work their muscles both eccentrically and concentrically. This allows an equal ratio of strength and reciprocal contraction and relaxation of the muscles.

Program design

When planning an aquatic workout, follow the same principles as those of land based exercises. Frequency, intensity, and volume must be considered while planning and periodization are also important. You should structure the workouts with specific goals and organization. For example, decide whether you want to use water workouts as your primary exercise vehicle or just occasionally as an adjunct for speed and plyometric work. There are plenty of implementation options for water workouts — the key is figuring out what fits for you and your training program.

You can conduct a water workout in a large pool, a small pool, or anyplace that has enough water to fit the number of athletes you are training. I have even put football athletes in a lake during some of our preseason camps in Maine. If you don’t have a pool at your school, you can sometimes use pools at hotels or fitness clubs.

Water workouts can be done in varying depths for specific purposes. Deep water is best for cardio work, while chest deep water is great for interval and power workouts, as well as plyometrics.

  » ALSO SEE: Strength training with the UCLA women’s water polo team

Almost any exercise you do on land can be done in the water. For both upper and lower body exercises, additional resistance can be added with water dumbbells, hand paddles, leg resistance, weighted boots, and bungie cords. You can also use the athletes’ equipment to make the workout very sport-specific—a tennis racquet, hockey stick, or bat can be effective additions to pool workouts.

Just like on land, correct body position is very important when performing the exercises. Water is great for emphasizing proper body position because it naturally slows down motion.

Here is an example of a water workout that incorporates strength, plyos, and cardio:

→ Warm-up: Almost anything that raises heart rate and gets the blood circulating is an acceptable warmup. For example, athletes can swim two lengths of the pool using any stroke or do calisthenics such as jumping jacks or high knees in chest-deep water.

→ Strength: Lunges can be done in chest deep water—forward, backward, and side-to-side. High kicks can be done in all directions and resistance can be added to the legs to increase the intensity of the workout. Water dumbbells can be incorporated for upper body exercises, and paddles can be added for rotator cuff routines and other types of shoulder exercises.

→ Plyometrics: Jumps can be incorporated into the workouts by putting boxes or stools in the water. For example, depth jumps can be performed in the water by placing the plyo-boxes in the pool at varying depths. Jump off the box, land soft, and jump up out of the water as high as you can. To prevent injury, athletes should wear an old pair of sneakers or sturdy aqua shoes.

A pace clock should be visible or a heart rate monitor should be used to assess how hard the athlete is working. Measuring heart rate determines if athletes are working hard enough and if they have recovered enough to proceed to the next exercise.

Strength, agility and plyos

Some coaches and athletic trainers say they feel limited with pool workouts. But I have found that if you can do an exercise on land, with a little imagination, you can usually adapt it for the pool. For example, to do agility ladder drills in the pool, you can paint a ladder on the pool bottom. For plyometrics, you can place weighted cones or hurdles on the pool’s bottom and perform jumps over them. To add more resistance, athletes can wear cuff weights on their ankles.

To warm up before strength, agility, or plyometric work, swim a few slow and easy laps. In chest deep water, walk 10 yards forward and then backward. Concentrate on staying on your heels while taking baby steps. Make sure to swing your arms as you walk.

Here are some lower-body exercises I use:

→ Hamstring curls: Stand on one leg and perform a hamstring curl with the opposite leg. Alternate while standing still. Add forward walking followed by backward walking. For a plyometric exercise, add a jump while performing the curls.

stock swimmer→ Forward kicks: Standing in a stationary position, lift your thigh and kick your lower leg out in front of you. Alternate doing it with each leg followed by forward and backward walking. Add a jump to turn it into a plyometric exercise. For variety, alternate doing six forward kicks and six backward hamstring curls.

→ Small jumps: Stand with legs apart and knees slightly bent. Then perform four jumps, turn 90 degrees to the right and do four more jumps, then turn 90 degrees to the left and do four jumps. Progress to 180-degree turns, then 360-degree turns.

→ Lunges to a front kick: Standing on your right leg, lunge back on your left leg, then bring your left leg forward and perform a kick. Repeat four times and switch legs. Use your arms for balance and push the water forward when lunging back. Push the water backward when front kicking.

→ Skateboards: Imagine that you are standing with your right leg on a skate board and pushing off with your left. Stand on right leg, knee slightly bent. Left leg should be forward. Push with the left leg, pulling it through and behind your right. Repeat 10 times and switch legs.

→ Heel clicks: Jump and click your right heel to your left. Repeat 10 times and switch to your left. You can perform these while moving forward then backward.

→ Skips: Skip forward for the length or width of the pool then skip backward to your starting point. Repeat 10 times or perform continuously for 40 seconds. Rest one minute and repeat.

→ Tire runs: These are the same as tire drills used in football. Pretend that you have two parallel lines of tires and move forward with your body open and vertical, legs turned out with feet flexed as you alternate pushing down with each leg. You can add high knees or push for a faster foot turnover.

→ Frog jumps: With your arms between your knees, push down with your hands and pretend you are hopping over a fire hydrant. Perform 10 reps and repeat.

→ Side kicks: This is similar to a karate kick. Stand on your right leg and kick out to the side with your left. Repeat five times with right leg and then switch legs.

→ Kick board runs: Sit on a kick board with your legs straddling the board, like riding a horse. Use your lower legs to propel you forward the length of the pool and then go in reverse backward to your starting position.

Here are some of my favorite upper-body exercises:

→ Sweep in/out: Stand with one leg in front and one back like a split stance. With arms held out to the side, hold hand paddles or water dumbbells just below the surface, sweeping your arms forward, then back to the starting position.

→ Breast stroke arms: Using a split stance hold hand paddles or dumbbells just below the surface of the water with arms relaxed. Extend arms directly in front of your body then sweep them out to the sides simulating a swimming breast stroke. Recover to starting position and repeat.

→ Curls: With elbows bent and arms at your side, alternate pushing down with one arm and pulling up with the other. Palms can be up or down.

→ Press/pulls: Standing in a split stance, begin with arms at your side, palms up. Keeping your arms straight, raise them in front of you to just below the surface of the water. Then turn your palms down and push the water down and back behind you. You can do this with both arms at the same time or alternate.

→ Pistons: Stand in a split stance with dumbbells at your side. Alternate pushing up and down like pistons in an engine.

→ Stick swings: With a tennis racket, baseball or softball bat, golf club, field hockey stick, or ice hockey stick in hand, move the object through the water as you would in sport. Use forehand and backhand stokes, swing the bat both left and right, practice your golf swing, or take shots on goal with hockey sticks.

Speed work

For speed work, I use two running styles to train my athletes in the water. One is a traditional running style and the second is a more difficult cross-country skiing motion. We alternate the two forms to add intensity and keep the workout interesting. Whenever we want all-out, 100-percent effort, we use the traditional running motion, which is often more natural for the athletes so they don’t have to think about form as much.

Here is a more detailed description of the styles:

→ Traditional running form: Using a running or marching motion, the athlete coordinates arm and leg movements as they would when running on a track. Head, shoulders, hips, and feet are vertically aligned. In addition, the head should be up, chest out, abdominal muscles tight (but don’t hold your breath), and buttocks muscles squeezed together.

→ Cross country skiing form: In these exercises, the athlete coordinates arms and legs as they would to cross country ski. The body is vertically aligned and legs and arms are kept straight. The basic motion is to scissor the legs forward and backward from the hip leading with the toes while the arms pull through the water.

Here is a sample speed workout:

→ 20 x 15-second runs at 90-100% effort.

  • 15-second jog between reps.
  • Do 4 sets of 5 with a 1-minute jog between each set.

→ 10 x 30-second runs at 90% effort.

  • 30-second jog between reps.
  • Alternate cross country motion every other reps.

→ 25 x 5-second sprints at 100% effort.

  • 5-second jog between reps.

→ 12 x 18-second high knee pumping, arms running at 100% effort.

8 x 45-second runs

  • Alternate cross country at 80% effort with 15-second jog between each rep.

→ 10 x 90-second progression runs.

  • 1st 30 seconds at 80%.
  • 2nd 30 seconds at 90%.
  • 3rd 30 seconds at 100%.
  • One minute recovery jog between each rep.

→ 6 x 1-minute runs at 90% effort.

  • 30-second jog between each run.

→ 10 x 1-minute cross country at 100% effort with resistance.

  • 1.5-minute jog between each run.

→ 7 x 2-minute runs or cross country at 80-90%.

  • 1 to 2-minute jog between each run.

→ Pyramid run:

  • 1 x 15 seconds at 100%.
  • 1 x 30 seconds at 100%.
  • 1 x 45 seconds at 100%.
  • 1 x 1 minute at 100%.
  • 1 x 1.5 minutes at 100%.
  • 1 x 2 minutes at 100%.
  • 15 to 30-second jog between each run.

Seeing its impact

At Boston University, I used water workouts in both team situations and 1-on-1. Some teams that have responded well are women’s basketball, men’s and women’s soccer, men’s and women’s ice hockey, and men’s and women’s lacrosse. With these teams, we typically use water workouts in place of land workouts once or twice a week during the preseason. I have found them especially helpful in preventing the type of leg injuries that often develop during preseason training in basketball and soccer.

One athlete in particular who benefited from water therapy was a U.S. Olympic ice hockey player whose chronic patellar tendonitis sidetracked her workouts, hindering her overall fitness level. I switched all of her workouts to the pool and within a month she gained not only cardio fitness, but also power and strength. She was able to return to the ice and was an integral part of the team that won a silver medal at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.

Although you may think of water workouts primarily as a rehab tool, you may also want to consider them as an element of strength training. With a little planning, your athletes can soon be ready to take the plunge.

Safety is an important component to factor into your water workouts. Athletes must be able to swim, or they must wear an aqua jogger when in deep water. The person conducting the workouts must also know how to swim and be able to perform a rescue if needed. If you are conducting a workout for more than 10 athletes, an assistant coach or coaches should be present to help control the team and assist in case of an emergency.

There should also be some specific rules in place to ensure safety. For example, no horseplay or running on the deck are standard rules. Diving boards and starting blocks must also be off limits.

Our rules include that athletes entering the pool facility must sit on the pool deck and wait for instructions before entering the water. Also, we always thoroughly explain what the athletes will be doing in the water before they get in. This helps remove the temptation to fool around.

Additional resources

There are now many books and videos available on how to utilize water in your fitness and strength training programs. Here are some of my favorites:

  • The Complete Waterpower Workout Book, by Lynda Huey, will take you through a variety of strength and conditioning programs. This book also has excellent photographs depicting each exercise. Huey has worked with both elite and average athletes for many years.
  • Strength & Power Water Workout, with Karen Westfall, is a DVD that offers advanced interval training with plyometric and power movements. It alternates between strengthening and aerobics.

Here are two other websites that contain good information on workouts and products:

Maria Hutsick, MS, LATC, ATC, CSCS, is the Director of Sports Medicine at Boston University and Athletic Trainer for the USA Women's Olympic ice hockey team. She has also served on the NCAA Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports and the NATA's Board of Certification. 

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