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ePublication of Australian Fitness Network

Keep things interesting in the pool by playing with the many variables of your class programming, says instructor and industry educator Dominic Gili.



We all have our preferred teaching methods and class types, but to keep things fresh for participants and ourselves we should make a habit of embracing different training methods and class formats
• Programming variables include music, exercise combinations that work in the sagittal, frontal and transverse planes of movement, progressions and regressions, asymmetrical work, HIIT and interval training
• Be mindful of your audience when applying variables and offer progressions and regressions for new elements so that your regular participants are not overwhelmed by the change to their usual routine.

Are your aqua fitness classes innovative, engaging and purposeful? When was the last time you tried a different teaching style or class program? Varying your programming is the key to ensuring positive outcomes for every aqua workout.

We all have our preferred teaching methods and class types; some instructors choreograph their workouts, while others love interval training or working with a particular piece of equipment. However, we should all keep an eye towards a broader, more varied approach, embracing different training methods and class formats, which will challenge and stimulate both trainer and participant.

Consider some of these training options for new workout ideas or entire class programs:

Music, dance and exercise

When it comes to aqua fitness classes, music is an effective tool to motivate participants. The two key qualities of workout music are tempo and what psychologists call rhythm response, the latter being an individual’s physical response to the music – the involuntary tapping of your foot or nodding of your head, or that moment when you say ‘I’ve just gotta dance to this song!’

Dance-based workouts can be challenging, engaging and fun when adapted to the water environment. The choice of music available to trainers is wide and varied, from rock’n’roll and disco, to hip hop and even classical music – which gives us a great opportunity to create a special experience for participants.

So, where to start when creating a ‘pool party’ playlist? These three tips are great starting points:

  • use songs with pre-existing choreography, such as Nutbush City Limits, YMCA
  • be inspired by lyrics that describe moves, like Jump and Let’s Twist Again
  • choose songs that you think your participants may sing along to, such as Hey Baby, Sweet Caroline or any of the karaoke crowd pleasers!

Exercise combinations

In order to offer exercise variations that challenge your clients to work in all three planes of movement – sagittal, frontal and transverse – you can combine different exercises into one routine.

When combining exercises, be sure to offer smooth transitions from one exercise to another:

  • a one-footed move to another, e.g. Jog to Rocking Horse
  • a one footed move to a two-footed move (or vice versa) with a centre bounce, e.g. Front Kick to Jumping Jacks
  • a two-footed move to another, e.g. Jumping Jacks to Tuck Jumps.

Using fitness music programmed with 32-count blocks helps instructors to create dynamic routines that are easy to teach and follow. ‘Music mapping’ is a useful tool for all instructors to learn – click HERE for more information about this and other group fitness teaching tips.

Movement progressions

All basic exercises in the water can be varied to increase intensity. The focus of these progressions is to build strength and increase cardiovascular and respiratory endurance. This can be achieved by increasing the intensity of the movement via increasing speed, power, acceleration and propulsion.

The Aquatic Fitness Professional Manual
produced by the Aquatic Exercise Association states each workout can progress through various levels of impact and include numerous hand positions, all contributing to variations in intensity.

For example, working a base move from:

  • upright neutral position with hands slicing water
  • increase power and acceleration working with open palms
  • add plyometric variation
  • add suspended variation.

Movement regressions

All base moves can be pared back to isolate both arms, or a single arm or leg. These movement regression workouts have a multitude of benefits, with the moving limb targeting specific muscle groups while the rest of the body experiences a stability, balance and core strength workout.

This can be achieved using the ‘4,3,2,1 Method’. Start with a dynamic movement, such as Cross Country Ski, working both arms and both legs in the sagittal plane, and end with isolating a single arm or leg. For example:

  • (4 limbs) working two arms and two legs
  • (3) working two arms and one leg, or two legs and one arm
  • (2) working one arm and one leg
  • (1) isolating one arm or one leg.

The posterior chain

The posterior chain describes a group of muscles, including back muscles, gluteus maximus, hamstrings and calves. Its function is to allow the body to perform movements safely, as well as to return and stabilise the body in the upright position.

The muscles of the posterior chain are often underutilised, particularly in circumstances where individuals sit for 8 to 10 hours per day. The longer the body remains in the seated position, the more the hip flexors and quadriceps tighten, which can eventuate in the glutes ‘forgetting’ their primary role as hip stabiliser and extensors.
Programming workouts and educating participants about the importance of strengthening the posterior chain is vital for assisting participants to move with better function on land.

To ensure the focus of a workout is on the posterior chain, trainers can adapt any base move to use the ‘1:3 method’. For example, a ‘one leg kick’ movement can be varied from the standard ‘front to back and repeat’ to ‘one front kick and three back kicks’.

Brain training workouts

Simple coordination-based exercises improve brain function as well as coordination by helping clients engage the mind and create better body awareness. Recent research conducted by Cheng has demonstrated that crossing opposite arms and legs to meet at, or cross, the body midline engages both sides of the brain.

A simple example of this is when we alter the plane of movement:
Cross Country Ski: working legs in the sagittal plane and arms in the transverse plane
Jumping Jacks: working the legs in the frontal plane and the arms in the sagittal plane.
Another option is to perform any base exercise where the legs work to a constant beat but the arms pause on the third beat for one beat. This coordination challenge requires clients to engage their brain to control physical co-ordination of the body. For example, with Jumping Jacks:

  • BEATS 1-3: Arm and legs move out and in together
  • BEAT 4: Arms stay still and only the legs move
  • BEATS 5-7: Arms and legs move in opposite directions
  • BEAT 8: Arms stay still and only the legs move.

Asymmetrical workouts

The engagement of core muscles to improve balance and stability is easy to achieve when programming asymmetrical workouts in the water. The imbalance created when using only one hand buoy challenges the

body to maintain good body alignment.
From the very start of an asymmetrical workout, clients become aware of muscle imbalances and are thereby challenged to develop core strength response in order to improve symmetry, stability and balance.
The best thing about asymmetrical workouts is that you don’t need to redesign your typical class program to achieve great results: just add one hand buoy and the workout automatically takes on another dimension!
A great example of this is when working two legs forward and back while suspended (commonly known as Rock’n’Rolls or Shoot Throughs). Participants that usually perform this exercise with no hand buoys have no trouble balancing. Those using two hand buoys sometimes feel a slight imbalance as their stronger side dominates, but with only one hand buoy it usually takes at least three swings for the brain and body to adapt to the imbalance.

When instructing these moves, remind participants that:

  • activating core muscles will stabilise the hips in a neutral position or at least reduce the hips swinging
  • working the empty hand/arm with power will create the uplift required to counterbalance the buoyancy of the hand buoy on the other side./li>

Interval training

Also known as HIIT or Tabata, interval based training alternates between periods of hard exercise and rest, providing clients with the potential to improve cardiovascular and respiratory endurance, speed, agility, coordination and balance. The intervals should be pre-determined and can either be measured by time, repetitions or distance.

Research conducted by Gibala in 2009 outlines the clinical benefits of interval training including: improved oxygen utilisation, improved ability to burn fat, improved heart and efficiency, and reduced insulin dependency.

Further research by Paoli in 2012 focusing on the effects of high-intensity interval resistance training proposed that short period resistance training could play a role in weight control by increasing resting energy expenditure.

Most music produced for fitness classes has the option to be programmed with timed intervals, making an instructor’s job easier as the music manages the time.

Circuit training

This high intensity form of training is used for body conditioning, endurance and resistance training. Circuit stations can be set up at different points around the pool. Each station utilises a particular piece of equipment for strength-based training. Similar to interval training, circuit training alternates between periods of hard exercise and rest, which are measured by time during which participants work out at one station before moving onto the next. Traditionally, the time between exercises is short.

There are many inexpensive equipment options for use in circuit classes, including:

  • one or two hand buoys
  • noodle, half noodle or noodle hand pieces
  • Latex-free band loops
  • kickboards
  • Frisbees
  • bike inner tubes as tethers
  • soft balls with nodules.

Participant numbers and pool depths should be considered when setting up equipment stations to ensure that exercises are both achievable and safe.

Putting a fresh twist on your class programming can be as simple as introducing or amending just one of these factors. Of course, to shake things up even more you can always apply a number of these variations – though you should consider your audience and be mindful of whether too many changes at once could be detrimental to their aqua fitness experience.

Dominic Gili is the founder of, 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’.

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