// When aqua hands are smiling

by Marietta Mehanni

 I actually call Smile Hands ‘happy hands’, though after a good aqua session you tend to end up with ‘tired arms’! This great aquatic exercise tool from OKEO has a classic smiley face design which belies its hidden power in the water. The Smile Hand concept is similar to both the hand paddle used by swimmers and the webbed glove.

It is a large hand held circular apparatus that increases the surface area applied through the water. A recent development in the Smile Hand design is the extra hole, which gives the face two eyes. The thumb is placed in one of the ‘eyes’ and the other fingers are positioned in the ‘smile’. Another improvement is the concave shape which makes it easier to hold and use in the water. It fits snugly in the palm of the hand, making it comfortable for the fingers and wrist joints.

The design of the Smile Hand requires the palm of the hand to face the direction of travel. Moving in the reverse direction requires a very firm grip on the tool, resulting in hand and forearm muscle fatigue. This is not to say that it shouldn’t be pulled backwards through the water, but these actions should be kept to a minimum.

The Smile Hand can be used as a buoyancy tool in both shallow and deep water exercises, as the body can be completely suspended by pushing the apparatus under water.

It is most effective, however, when the larger surface area is manoeuvred through the water (e.g. a cross country ski with alternating arm

reach). When using the Smile Hand, the palm needs to be turned forward when the arm extends to the front of the body. To take the arm back, the palm needs to flick around so that the thumb is pointing to the thigh as it passes next to the body. A slicing action is not effective as the side of the tool is narrow and using it in this way defeats its purpose. Sculling also uses the same principles of surface area verses turbulence, and using the Smile Hand to scull encourages the necessary figure-of-8 action.

This is great for beginners who have not developed this skill and can also be used in more advanced sculling movements to challenge regular participants or athletes.

One of the potential contraindications of using the Smile Hand is fatigue in the hand and forearm muscles caused by the constant gripping action. Finger release exercises should be incorporated to avoid excessive fatigue in these muscles. Finger releases can include:

• allowing the arms to float to the surface and resting the palms on the Smile Hand while the legs keep moving under the water

• pushing the tool down into the water so that the arms are straight and releasing the fingers or

• holding the Smile Hand between the legs and using it as a flotation device while incorporating upper body movements (the bonus here is the adductors are worked isometrically while the heart rate is maintained). Teaching with the Smile Hand can be challenging for those unfamiliar with the properties of water. New participants will require coaching on how to turn the Smile Hand into the direction of movement (palm leading through the water). It is also common for participants to ineffectively ‘slice’ the water with the Smile Hand, which does not provide the appropriate muscular effect. A quick tutorial prior to the start of the class is a very good idea.


This deep water exercise allows the legs to fully extend, but requires considerable core control to maintain good posture.

The emphasis is on moving from the waist rather than from the hip or knees (as most participants will attempt to do). Keep the chest lifted and relatively stable while the lower body is rotating.

a) Start with knees extended and legs directly below torso. Bring the right leg across the front of the body. Ensure that the left palm is facing the front and the right palm is facing the back. Both arms are fully extended (photo 1).

b) With a powerful torso twist, swap the position of the legs so that the left leg swivels to the front of the body and the right leg twists behind. Using the Smile Hands, push the water in the opposite direction to create the swivel action (photo 2).

c) Return to the starting position by swivelling the right leg back to the front of the body with the Smile Hands at the side of the body, pushing back in the opposite direction (photo 1).


This deep water move is an effective adductor exercise that can also elevate heart rate if performed with speed and power. The legs perform a ‘Double D’ action, by circling out and in, in a vertical position. The arms and Smile Hands mimic the strong leg action.

a) Start with knees pulled up towards chest, elbows fl exed and arms lifted to chest height. Smile Hands pressing down in water in front of chest (photo 3).

b) Push legs out wide with Smile Hands pressing out into the water on either side of the body. It is important to maintain an upright torso position when abducting the arms and legs (photo 4).

c) Adduct legs with a powerful squeezing motion. Adduct the arms and Smile Hands in towards the torso. This should propel the body upwards slightly and should be felt in the inner thigh muscles (photo 5).

d) Start the movement again by pulling in the knees back up to the chest and the arms and Smile Hands back up to the chest (photo 6).


This exercise can be performed in any depth as the body is horizontal in the water. It can be a travelling move, by pulling the Smile Hand harder in towards the body. Ensure that the Smile Hands stay under the water or the body will start to sink.

a) Lay prone in the water and pull the knees, alternately, up towards the torso. Extend the arm opposite to the moving leg forward, with the Smile Hand angled so that the palm is pushing forward (photo 7).

b) As one leg extends behind, pull in the opposite arm towards the torso. Angle the Smile Hand so that the palm is turned in towards the body. Whenever the hand moves forward or back, it is important to use the large surface area of the disc rather than the edge to ensure the participant stays afloat and stable in the water (photo 8).


This exercise can be performed in any depth as the body is horizontal in the water. It is a stationary move as the arms counteract the leg action, so no movement forward or back should occur. This is a great cardio move that can be included in a circuit or when there is no travelling space available.

• Start by lying prone in the water and alternate knees, pulling up towards the torso. Both arms work in unison, alternating from side to side, so that when one elbow is extended, the other is fl exed. Make sure to angle the Smile Hand so that the water is scooped in and away from the body. This is referred to as the Smile Hand sculling action (photo 9).


This exercise is very effective in working the pectorals, latissimus dorsi, deltoids, abductors, adductors and cardiovascular system. It is a ‘big’ exercise, so each participant will require enough room around them to stretch their arms and legs out.

a) Start by lying prone in the water and abduct legs and arms to either side. Ensure that the Smile Hands are angled in the water so that they will be scooping the water forward to the front of the body (photo 10).

b) Move arms forward in a butterfly action as legs adduct to the midline (photos 11 and 12).

c) Pull the arms back through the water on either side of the body ensuring that the palm of the hand is pulling the Smile Hand in towards to the body (photo 13).

d) Abduct arms and legs to return back to the starting position. The total action is similar to a butterfly stroke with the arms staying in the water and the knees remaining extended.

Marietta Mehanni
Recipient of the 2007 Australian Fitness Network Author of the Year award, Marietta is also an award-winning instructor and presenter with over 17 years of teaching experience in both land and water-based group exercise. Recently qualified for international accredition (AFAA and ACE), she presents regularly at national and international conventions. Marietta is also a course coordinator, lecturer and examiner for Certifi cate III in group exercise and aqua exercise leadership.