Deep water HiLo

When it comes to low impact environments, it doesn’t get lower than the pool! But that doesn’t mean that this aqua workout doesn’t have impact, write Debi Godfrey and Dominic Gili.

Deep water workouts challenge the entire body by offering multidirectional resistance in an impact-free yet unstable environment.

If you’re looking to launch or refresh a deep water class, you’ll need some inspiration to help you create cardio, strength and stability workouts that cater to a broad range of fitness abilities and needs at the same time.

Getting started

Instructing deep water fitness requires general knowledge of:

  • anatomy and human movement
  • the effects of buoyancy (in relationship to gravity) and other water principles
  • strategies for balance and correct alignment for movement in a suspended, impact-free environment.

Educating your participants by sharing knowledge, explaining how and why each workout is best performed, and offering modifications based on individual needs will help you establish credibility and become a more effective instructor. Participants may not appear to always be taking in everything that you say, but little by little, over the weeks, it will sink in.

A great place to start is to discuss with your participants the hydrostatic pressure of the water and how it improves their heart function and venous return by assisting the return of blood to the heart. This can be a real attention grabber if you explain it clearly, and with enthusiasm – and why wouldn’t you? It’s really positive stuff and everyone likes to know that what they’re doing is making their heart work better, especially if it’s happening before they’ve even started exercising!

Next up, inform your participants about the best ways to manipulate the water, and explain which muscle groups need to be engaged in order to achieve vertical alignment and trunk stabilisation.

Share the benefits of the efficient double concentric muscle action through one movement, for example when working Cross Country Ski arms, the shoulder flexion in the sagittal plane will engage anterior deltoids, while shoulder extension will engage posterior deltoids. Of course, if you use this technical terminology with your participants, be sure to accompany it with a visual demonstration, clearly indicating the muscles used.

While being suspended in the deep means that there is no compression on the joints and spine, it is still helpful to remind participants to lengthen downward through the spine as if gently trying to touch the pool floor with their fingers, heels or toes during movements. Cues like this really help participants visualise what you want them to do.

Exercise programming

Deep water fitness class programs should incorporate ‘Hi’ workouts to improve cardio fitness and ‘Lo’ workouts that increase strength and stability for every participant.

‘Hi’ cardio workouts

With the use of interval training, ‘Hi’ energy workouts can challenge the cardiovascular and respiratory systems.

As anyone in the fitness industry will be aware, HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) has been all the buzz in recent years, due to the acclaimed efficacy of performing brief periods of very intense exercise, typically ranging from 80 to 100 per cent, interspersed with rest periods. In deep water training, these rest periods should actually take the form of active recovery segments in order to counteract the cooling effects of the water.

Some research indicates that HIIT can provide similar or even greater cardiorespiratory, metabolic and musculoskeletal improvements in less time than continuous training (Kravitz and Zuhl). Additionally, improvements can be achieved in muscular endurance and strength, cardiorespiratory endurance and body composition.

The simplicity of this method is appealing to many instructors and participants as there is no need for complicated choreography, only a willingness to work hard.

When programming intervals into your class, it’s important to consider how water principles might influence and affect the intensity of the workout.

Three options to increase the intensity of a workout are tempo, acceleration and elevation.

Tempo effectively means increasing the speed with which movements are performed, whereas acceleration is working with power against the resistance of the water through a full range of movement. Elevation refers to lifting the body upwards out of the water by pushing down on the water with power and speed.

It is important to select effective workouts that are easy to perform in the deep water when focusing on increasing intensity. ‘Hi’ workout elements that use balanced bilateral movements of the upper and lower body include:

  • jogging
  • ankle reaches
  • straight leg lift/pull down
  • heel lift/push down
  • cross country ski
  • flutter kicks.

Two examples of preformatted music with intervals are:

The classic interval training format is Tabata, which features 8 bouts of 20 seconds of intense work interspersed with 10-second rests for one round of training. Another format, used in Gymstick intervals, features 6 bouts of 30 seconds of intense work interspersed with 10-second rests for each round.

‘Lo’ strength and stability workouts

It is helpful to educate your participants on the importance of working muscle groups that help stabilise the body in the upright position. These muscles include the lower back, glutes and hamstrings, commonly known as the posterior chain.

Most of us sit for long periods each day, working the anterior muscles and neglecting the posterior ones. As these muscles weaken they are unable to perform their primary role of hip stabilisation and extension. Without the contribution of the gluteus maximus to hip extension, the hamstrings and lumbar erector spinae muscles work overtime, which can lead to displacement of the pelvis and/or lower back issues. Workouts that strengthen the posterior chain, therefore, are essential.

As well as challenging participants to work in the vertical plane to maximise resistance and drag (as opposed to swimmers who lie flat on the surface in a streamlined position to minimise resistance) we should also challenge them to work in all three planes of motion. Continually varying the working planes is functional, as we reactivate core stabilisers to return hips and lower body to vertical alignment and train participants for daily activities, from almost unconscious actions such as getting out of bed, to withstanding pushes or knocks sustained during contact sports.

Combining two or more different exercises, such as Cross Country Skis, Jacks and/or Tucks, into one routine is a great example of how to program ‘Lo’ workouts. Others include:

  • tuck and extension in varying body positions
  • double knee extension and curl in seated position
  • side kicks in various planes
  • directional changes and quarter turns
  • isolating specific limbs while working others to destabilise the body and challenge the core muscles
  • working upper body in one plane, the lower in another plane
  • focused core exercises – plank poses in various body positions using sculling arms.

Choreographing your routines to music motivates and helps participants to focus their attention and work at a challenging set tempo. Having to follow choreography is also great for brain training, while music elevates the mood (the science even says so!).

Finally, when programming, alternate the ‘Hi’ and ‘Lo’ workout elements so that the classes are well structured and participants remain engaged and challenged.


Dominic Gili is the founder of AquaFitnessOnline.com, Dom has been teaching aqua fitness since 1993 and has a reputation for offering innovative and challenging water workouts. He delivers aqua workshops and new instructor trainings across Australia. A regular contributor to fitness industry publications, in 2012 he was named Australian Fitness Network’s ‘Author of the Year’.

Debi Godfrey has been teaching aqua fitness for over two decades, both in her native South Africa and then in Australia when she moved to Sydney in 2000. In addition to her Liquid Barre program for deep and shallow aqua, Debi teaches Aqua Zumba and Gymstick H2O.