Water Fitness: Training the 7 functional moves of daily life

By programming movements that mirror those used in the activities of daily living, we can deliver truly functional workouts that help participants maintain their independence, writes water fitness specialist Marietta Mehanni.

  • Activities of daily living (ADL) are the activities necessary for normal self-care
  • ADL’s are generally defined as feeding, bathing, dressing, toileting, continence and moving between activities
  • ADL’s have been broken down into seven different movement patterns: squatting, lunging, pushing, pulling, rotating, hingeing and bracing
  • When transferring land-based ADL movements to the water, buoyancy and resistance have to be factored into the equation.

Functional training has become one of the most popular buzzwords in the fitness industry, and if one can claim something as being ‘functional’ then the activity seems to be instantly validated. But what actually is functional, and how is an exercise classified as such?

For most people, ‘functional’ means the functions they need to perform in their day-to-day lives. Activities of daily living (ADL) have been defined since the 1950’s as a set of activities necessary for normal self-care. These activities are: feeding, bathing, dressing, toileting, continence and transferring, which is the ability to move from one activity to the next, for example, getting out of bed, or standing up to move to another space.

What has exercise got to do with ADL?

ADL’s have been broken down into seven different movement patterns and these are:

  1. Squatting – both feet are in contact with the surface
  2. Lunging – shifting weight from one foot to the other
  3. Pushing
  4. Pulling
  5. Rotating
  6. Hingeing – bending at the hips
  7. Bracing – holding still.

In analysing ADL, several, if not all, of the seven patterns would be incorporated and are usually combined to perform an activity, for example, getting out of a car. This simple activity, which would be deemed an ADL, demonstrates six of the movement patterns. First, there is the pulling on the door handle, then the pushing the door away, the lunging out of the car with a hinge, the rotating to move away from the car, and finally a brace action to hold the body still as the second leg steps out from the vehicle.

As trainers, we can use these basic movement patterns in our workouts to ensure that clients can maintain their independence and self-care. Land-based training has a more functional role, as this is the environment that we live in, but we can certainly implement these movement patterns in an aquatic environment to maximise the opportunity to enhance quality of life.

Aqua exercise that uses 7 ADL movement patterns

When considering how to transfer land-based ADL movement patterns to the water, buoyancy and resistance have to be factored into the equation. For example, the basic definition of a squat is when both feet are on the floor and weight is lifted up and down. The basic mechanics are ankle, knee and hip flexion and extension. Feet can be pointed in any direction (do not have to be shoulder-width apart) as long as both are in contact with a surface, as in standing or sitting down onto a chair.

In the pool, the classic land-based squat loses its relevance and, essentially, doesn’t work. On land, standing or sitting down requires exertion in both the concentric and eccentric actions. Performing the exact same squat action in the water does not elicit the same physical response, as water supports most of the body weight.

So what would a land-based squat look like in the pool if you were trying to include all seven ADL movements in order for the workout to have a functional purpose?

A tuck jump is similar in movement pattern – the ankle, knees and hips all flex and extend throughout the exercise and both feet land on the bottom of the pool at the same time. In fact, a land-based tuck jump is a propulsive squat and falls into this movement pattern. Other aqua moves that fulfil the ADL squat pattern are jumping jacks, ski jumps, twisting and any move where both feet land onto the bottom of the pool at the same time.

Buoyancy and resistance

Buoyancy acts in reverse to the effects of gravity, lifting and floating the body as opposed to pulling it down towards the earth. Buoyancy thus decreases the effects that body weight has on joints, whereas gravity can increase it, as in running down stairs or jumping down from a height (the load is less on the joints when jumping up and down on the spot).

When considering how to effectively create ADL movement patterns in the pool, the effects of buoyancy have to be taken into account. In a squat, as previously mentioned, the action needs to be a pull up towards the body so that the muscles are effectively activated. With a lunge, this can be any exercise where there is a transfer of weight from one leg to the other and effort is exerted in both the lifting up and the pushing down of the legs. Hinge actions are best performed with the legs straight and the torso stiffened, as in a high kick.

The resistance of the water enhances all the other ADL patterns: push, pull, rotate and brace, because it completely surrounds the body and increases exponentially as more force is applied through the water. Using aquatic tools will also increase the effectiveness of the resistance of the water to increase the intensity of the muscles when performing these ADL patterns. What is more noticeable in water is that the push and pull patterns are usually accompanied by either a brace or a rotation, and sometimes both.

An example of this is a high front kick during which the arms perform an alternating swing. One arm is pulling whereas the opposite arm is pushing. To perform this exercise correctly, the torso is required to rotate to either side, and the arm is also rotating to keep changing the position of the palm. At the same time, the stronger the arm action, the more bracing is required through the torso to maintain an upright stiffened position.

Using one dumbbell

Using only one dumbbell increases the challenge to maintain stability and control throughout the movement. A simple jog with one dumbbell in the right hand will create more rotation through the torso as the body tries to balance the load created by only one side. Holding the dumbbell under the right knee will bring focus to the left leg, which is performing the movement (usually a push, pull or hinge action) while the torso braces to stabilise the body during the exercise.

With stationary actions in which the dumbbell is either pushed or pulled with the arms, the torso braces to stabilise against the turbulence. The legs also brace to assist in this stabilisation, and in doing so the feet are challenged to remain on the bottom of the pool, so there is a constant shifting of weight from one leg to the other as the participant tries to stay still (lunge action).

The term ‘functional’ can have different connotations. For a footie player, explosive plyometric training that mimic jumping to take marks might be deemed functional. For most of our participants, however, the functionality they need to achieve is for everyday activities. As water exercise instructors, we can directly link exercises that we do in classes to the seven movement patterns that they require in their daily lives in order to maintain independence.

Marietta Mehanni

Marietta is a multi-award-winning presenter with over 30 years’ teaching experience in both land and water-based group fitness. She is also an instructor mentor, World Master Trainer and education coordinator for Gymstick International, co-creator of MyGroupMove and mSwing, and Pelvic Floor Ambassador for Continence Foundation Australia. mariettamehanni.com / mygroupmove.com / mswing.com.au