Aquatic HiLo: High intensity for the participant, low for the instructor

by Jennifer Schembri-Portelli

Teaching high intensity aqua classes can be taxing on an aqua instructor’s body.

Although aquatic exercise has been well documented as being a low impact workout for participants, it’s not so low for instructors unless they learn the tricks of the trade. It’s wise therefore to learn how to deliver aqua classes that are high impact for participants but low impact for the instructor.

In the following photos the AquaFrame is used to demonstrate the moves. This piece of equipment is predominately used for demonstrating buoyant, turbulent and propulsive movement patterns and has been the catalyst for creating exciting and innovate exercise routines for aqua participants and aquatic personal training clients for the past 15 years. And it also provides protection for the sore and overworked knees that many aqua instructors suffer!

The mechanics behind instructing ‘complex’ moves on the pool deck which equate to straightforward and appropriate moves in the water can be tricky. The following examples provide some teaching tips and strategies to accomplish this like a pro.

FHK and the mermaid

The first two moves, the FHK (flick hitch kick) and the Mermaid, can be used in addition to an energetic jogging move and a suspended move during a music track lasting for about four minutes.


Photo 1 displays the starting position for the FHK which is eff ectively a high intensity hop. A natural progression for advanced aqua participants and a great exercise to perform in the water, the FHK is incredibly difficult to demonstrate on the pool deck, requiring instructors to practice both in and out of the water.

Upper Body: Arms are situated by the side of the body ready to perform a bicep curl scooping action with cupped hands (photo 1).
Back straight and knees tucked up high. Bring the arms into the midline position to streamline the body during a transitional move. Use mental imagery; ‘the floor is a trampoline, bounce and get those knees up’ (photo 2).

  • Use your imagination to envisage this one. The legs come out of the tuck position, one leg is quickly lowered to support the body, while the other becomes a long lever and is kicked forward.
  • Turbulence is created by the upper body. Arm lines can be varied and directed to either the front or side of the body. Alternatively, a Policeman Arm action is very effective. This involves placing one arm to the front of the body while holding the other out to the side – now direct traffic! (photo 3).
  • Let’s do it again. Both legs will feel the workout.
  • The tuck jump is the ‘easy’ part of the FHK move, as it allows the buoyant force to act through the centre of displaced water (photo 4).

A good rule to remember is ‘if it’s easy to perform on land it may be hard to execute in the water, and if it’s diffi cult to demonstrate on land it’s usually most suitable for the aquatic environment!’ (photo 5).

  • Position the leg out in front of your body in addition to using corresponding arm lines.
  • Together the upper and lower body movements create turbulence and resistance. The supporting leg is in a flat-footed position.
  • It’s effective to continue the move for between 8 to 12 reps if participants are strong enough to work towards exhaustion.
  • Those with greater upper body strength will find it easier as they tend to ‘cheat’ and use their arms to scoop upwards, rather than their legs and core – instructing these participants to place their hands on their heads should sort that problem out! (photo 6).

The mermaid

The Mermaid move is best taught in a sequential teaching format. It is better to demonstrate and include the upper body workout prior to instructing the lower body movement with the following cue;
  • ‘A stable base, feet fl at on the floor, shoulder width apart’
  • ‘Let’s cross our heart and promise to keep coming to aqua!’ (photo 7)
  • Now for the second Mermaid position; arms outstretched. Notice the palms are facing backwards at shoulder height.

  • It is imperative to instruct a ‘tight’ body, especially the quads, buttock and core without gripping the toes. If the appropriate muscles are not recruited, the person will tend to float away and move off the spot. It’s the ultimate abdominal workout without performing one sit-up (non-aqua regulars take note!)
  • The greatest asset of the move is the simple aqua hand action of pushing backwards. This movement allows Newtons Law to be initiated – for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. So pushing the upper body back means the lower part of the body will automatically raise (photo 8).
  • The tuck is considered an excellent and eff ective transitional move, bringing everything to midline before changing sides or planes (photo 9).

  • This fantastic move is extremely liberating for many population groups as it allows them to get both feet off the bottom of the pool at the same time. Participants enjoy kicking up their toes every now and then, and it has the benefit of also toning up stomach muscles.
  • The use of imagery for this move is very effective; ‘our feet are the mermaids tail flapping away, let’s go everyone’.
  • Although it’s not about the instructor, I must admit, I too enjoy performing the Mermaid as I get a strength and abdominal workout when I demonstrate it using the AquaFrame (photo 10).
  • Abdominal muscle recruitment actually occurs when the feet are being returned to the pool floor.
  • Bringing the long lever limbs back into the tuck position and then pushing them against the resistive forces of water is a very similar action to the reverse curl (photo 11).

These exercises use the systemised WETS format which includes carefully combined sequential moves for each routine. The acronym WETS provides the instructor with an easy to remember instructor tool. Weighted (one foot on the floor at all times), Energetic (jogging move), Turbulent (explosive) and Suspended (feet off the bottom of the pool).

More information can be found at the web site


Jennifer Schembri-Portelli, BEd
'JSP' has specialised in water-based training for over two decades and is one of Network’s stalwart aquatic presenters. An aqua entrepreneur, she designs and delivers marketable and user friendly aquatic initiatives through her business, WETS (Water Exercise Training Service). JSP has significantly influenced the development and profi le of exercising in water within the fitness industry.

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