// On the one-hand… fun, functional aqua dumbbell training

By instructing moves that use just one aqua dumbbell, you can challenge both sides of the body and embrace a more functional approach to stability training, says Marietta Mehanni.

What a wonderful feeling it is to be weightless and suspended, literally floating in liquid. No other conventional form of group exercise or fitness program comes close to the uniqueness of exercising in deep water. The sensation of reaching down with your feet but not touching anything solid challenges the neuromuscular system’s lifetime of familiarity with the effects of gravity. In fact, proprioception can be so altered that exercising in deep water can very effectively improve coordination and neuromuscular function.

Of all Newton’s Laws that apply to exercise in deep water, the third law is most significant; ‘Every action has an equal and opposite reaction’.

Any movement that involves reaching in front of the body will have the effect of pushing the rest of the body backward. In the exact same manner, any movement that extends behind the body will instigate forward movement. In essence, if the desired effect is to stay still (not travelling forwards or backwards in the water), equal force is required to the front and back of the body. Utilising this law therefore creates the potential to work opposing muscles equally.

The dumbbell

Synonymous with aqua exercise, the aqua dumbbell plays a large role in providing variety. It has been used to:

  • create resistance to strengthen the upper body
  • enable buoyancy-assisted and supported exercises to change the position of the body in the water
  • create turbulence to make stability exercises more challenging
  • create instability when only one dumbbell is in use.

This final point highlights one of the biggest advantages of using only one dumbbell, as it challenges each side of the body differently and has a more functional application to stability training.

Stability training in the water

A key benefit of exercising in water is the supportive, safe environment it provides. Stability training can be executed by creating turbulence and thus challenging the body to either stay still or move in a desired direction that is not assisted by turbulence. Adding the use of a single dumbbell will create further instability, as the buoyancy assistance to only one side of the body will cause the opposite side to work harder to find equilibrium. The result is an overall body workout in which the core muscles are consistently recruited in order to develop the power required to drive the limbs through the water in the desired direction.

Individual arm strength

Often when two dumbbells are used, the stronger, more able arm will compensate for the weaker side. When only one dumbbell is in use, a difference in strength is highlighted. This is advantageous for the client, instructor or personal trainer as muscle imbalances can be observed and rehabilitated. It is also an opportunity for the body to develop an awareness of what is ‘not working’ and how to correct the undesirable action by recruiting the appropriate muscles.

How to hold a single dumbbell

Double Grip
Dumbbells can be held with both hands in the centre or on the ‘bar’ in either the vertical (photo 1) or horizontal position. To be able to hold the dumbbell in either position, the bar needs to be long enough for both hands to fit side by side comfortably (photo 2).

Foam Grip
This requires both hands to grip the foam segments of the dumbbell, holding it in the horizontal position (photos 3 & 4). If the foam sections are large, it could be an issue for participants who have arthritis, wrist problems or RSI, as the fingers would need to be spread wider and grip harder to maintain control.

Hand to Hand Pass
This involves the dumbbell being passed from one hand to the other, with the dumbbell in either vertical or horizontal position (photos 5,6,& 7). This allows the fingers and the muscles in the forearms to release, which is necessary when using the dumbbell throughout the class. It requires more coordination, because the legs are usually moving, sometimes in the opposite direction.

For this grip to have a smooth transition from one hand to the other, both arms need to move through the same plane of movement (saggital, frontal, transverse). If arms are alternating, for example forwards and backwards with a kick to the front, it is very hard to pass the dumbbell from one hand to the other. An alternative option is to have a transitional move that allows both hands to grip the dumbbell, so that the dumbbell is passed to the opposite hand easily.

Leg Grip
The dumbbell can also be held between the thighs (half way up) (photo 8), or under the knee (photo 9) between the calf and hamstrings. This actively incorporates core stabilisers and enables the focus to shift to upper body exercises that don’t use dumbbells.

Where to start

Begin with standard moves that are used in a regular workout and apply the single dumbbell concept. This will gradually introduce participants to exercises that require more balance, proprioception, coordination and core stability. Exercises like a basic jog can use the single dumbbell in a number of ways:

  1. Hold in one hand and perform an alternating jogging action (photos 10 & 11).
  2. Double grip in either vertical (photos 12 & 13) or horizontal position (photo 14 & 15) and push in and out from the torso (saggital plane).
  3. Double grip in either vertical (photos 16, 17 & 18) or horizontal position (photos 19, 20 & 21) moving from side to side (transverse plane).
  4. Single or double grip circling over and under in the front of the body or to the side (photos 22, 23, 24 & 25).
  5. Double grip in vertical position circling in the transverse plane (stirring the pot) (photos 26 & 27).

Exercises like Rock n Roll (suspended exercise with the body flipping from a prone to supine position and back again) can be performed with two dumbbells, noodles or aqua belt, but are much more challenging with one dumbbell.

Using a single dumbbell with a double grip can make some traditional dual dumbbell exercises easier to perform – the side-to-side kick with dumbbells pushing to the opposite side, for example. With two dumbbells this exercise takes longer to perform and requires considerable strength, whereas with one dumbbell, although there is some upper body resistance, it can be performed faster, thereby maintaining heart rate and core temperature.

Structuring a deep water class with one dumbbell

Variety is the greatest challenge for any instructor when planning exercises for a class. Many moves can feel very different when a range of arm patterns are used. For example, a Cross Country Ski can use any of the following arm patterns:

  • Open and close chest fly with the dumbbell staying in one hand.
  • Open and close chest fly with the dumbbell alternating hands.
  • Both hands on the dumbbell moving from side to side.
  • Push forward and tricep kickback with the dumbbell staying in one hand.
  • Push forward and tricep kickback with the dumbbell alternating hands.

Each of these exercises changes the turbulence created in the water, which in turn shifts the emphasis of the muscles used to stabilise the body. This makes each exercise unique even though the same leg action is used.

Balance the time spent using on one-handed dumbbell exercises with exercises that require both hands. Other than avoiding excessive fatigue in local muscles, particularly the fingers and forearm, the nervous system will be constantly stimulated, thus making it a workout for the mind as well as the body.

Marietta Mehanni
Marietta is an award winning Australian presenter and Australian Fitness Network Ambassador with over 20 years of teaching experience in both land and water-based group exercise. Marietta is also the World Master Trainer and Education Coordinator for Gymstick International and Pelvic Floor Ambassador for Continence Foundation Australia. For more information visit www.mariettamehanni.com