Aug 16, 2022
Using the Pool in Strength Training
Maria Hutsick, MS, ATC, LAT, CSCS

Many 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 of injury, then water workouts are a great idea.

poolWorking 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 to 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 you and your training program.

You can conduct a water workout in a large pool, a small pool, or any place 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.

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 bungee 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, plyometrics, and cardio:

  • Warm-Up — Almost anything that raises heart rate and gets the blood circulating is an acceptable warm-up. 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 exercises I use:

  • 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.
  • 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 and then backward.
  • Breaststroke 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 breaststroke. Recover to starting position and repeat.
  • Pistons — Stand in a split stance with dumbbells at your side. Alternate pushing up and down like pistons in an engine.

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 an 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.

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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. The 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), the 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 the 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.

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