Finding new (and fun!) ways to mix up your workouts will keep your muscles guessing and you from getting bored and bailing on your fitness routine—both of which are super important if you want to see gains. One of the best ways to do this might just be adding water to strength or high-intensity interval training moves. Enter: pool exercises.
You see, working out in water dials down the impact of moves without decreasing their ability to sculpt your bod or help you burn calories. How? The H2O serves as a form of resistance similar to the way a dumbbell, ankle weight, or mini-band would.
In case you're skeptical, research shows that pool exercises are totally effective. In fact, aquatic HIIT has similar training benefits to that of land-based HIIT, per The American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine.
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You just have to take the right approach. The key is to incorporate different speeds and body positions (think jumping, floating, partially submerged, and standing tall), as well as full ranges of motions in multiple directions, according to research published in the Journal of Sports Medicine. Do this, and you'll boost both cardiovascular and muscular endurance.
The low impact but legit benefits of pool workouts are particularly handy if you're recovering from an injury or have another medical reason (like pregnancy) to go easy on the high-impact sweats, says trainer Melody Davi, CPT.
Sold on taking your next sweat to the pool? All you need is your bodyweight and hip- or waist-deep water to do the following 10 pool exercises—no swimming required! Chances are, you've already mastered some of these moves in the gym, but the water totally changes the game.
Of course, you never want to swim alone and for this type of exercise, you should stay in shallow water where you can stand flat on both feet with your shoulders out of the water. (Note that it's important to read the exercise descriptions below as some of the movements pictured are modified for the H20!) Keep tabs on how you’re feeling and get out of the pool if you start to feel too taxed.
And keep reading for a few more pro tips (including how to fuel up pre-pool workout), plus gear picks for optimizing your water workouts.
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Time: 15–20 minutes.
Good for: total-body
Instructions: Choose four or five exercises from the following list. Perform each for the prescribed number of reps, then immediately continue onto the next. Once you've completed all four or five moves, rest for 30 seconds and repeat twice more for a total of three rounds.
1. Triceps Dip
Muscles worked: triceps, core
Why it rocks: As you lift and lower your body in and out of the water, your triceps start burning fast.
How to: Start sitting on edge of pool with feet in water and hands at sides, gripping the ledge. Slide body forward and lower into water, bending arms straight back until they form 90-degree angles. Then, push through palms to re-extend arms so seat hovers just inside edge of pool. That's one rep. Perform 15.
2. Incline Pushup
Muscles worked: triceps, shoulders, chest, core
Why it rocks: "You'll get a little help from the water in the starting position, but this move quickly requires more from your upper body as you press out of the water and fight that resistance," Davi says.
How to: Start in water facing side of pool with hands on edge, just wider than shoulder-width apart. Keep arms and legs straight, so body forms a straight line from head to heels. Bend elbows to 90 degrees (or until chest touches edge of pool), then push back up to start. That's one rep. Perform 10–12.
3. Jumping Jack
Muscles worked: glutes, quads, upper back, shoulders
Why it rocks: Working against the water makes jumping jacks so much more exhausting. You'll get your heart rate up in no time, as this move is excellent cardio.
How to: Stand with feet hip-distance apart and arms at sides. Then, raise arms out to the sides and overhead, while simultaneously jumping feet out to slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Without pausing, quickly reverse the movement. That's one rep. Perform 20.
4. Squat Jump
Muscles worked: quads, glutes, hamstrings, calves, core
Why it rocks: Squat jumps have less impact on your joints in the water, but still offer the other benefits of high-intensity moves, like building muscle and spiking your heart rate.
How to: Start in a low squat with arms extended straight forward at shoulder height. Explosively jump off the pool floor. Land back in starting position. That's one rep. Perform 10–12.
5. Mountain Climber
Muscles worked: core, back, legs, shoulders
Why it rocks: Mountain climbers performed in the pool might be easier on your upper body, but they up the ante for your core and lower body as you drive those knees through the H2O.
How to: Start in a plank position with hands on edge of pool and body forming a straight line from head to heels. Drive knees toward chest one at a time, as quickly as possible. That's one rep. Perform 15.
6. Tuck Jump
Muscles worked: full body and cardio
Why it rocks: This high-intensity move not only builds strength, but it also increases your excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), which means you'll burn major calories even after your workout, says Davi.
How to: Start standing with feet hip-width apart, arms at sides. Bend knees slightly and extend arms out at shoulder height, elbows bent and wide, palms facing water. Use legs to bend deep and then jump straight up, lifting knees to touch hands. Land softly with knees bent. That's one rep. Perform 10.
7. Scissor Kick
Muscles worked: core, inner and outer thighs, glutes
Why it rocks: Hit your core from all angles as you work to stay stable in the water and maintain that kicking pattern. Holding onto the wall gives you extra support so you can focus on your abs, according to Davi.
How to: Start leaning with shoulders on side of pool and arms out wide, holding onto the edges on either side of body. Extend legs out straight so body forms one long line. Engage core, lift feet up off floor of pool and perform quick, short, alternating kicks underwater with legs long and toes pointed. Every two kicks equals one rep. Perform 15.
8. Knee Lift
Muscles worked: core (specifically obliques)
Why it rocks: This move challenges your balance and fires up your obliques in a way that few other core moves do.
How to: Start standing with feet wider than hip-width apart. Bend arms and place hands behind head. From here, bend and lift left knee towards left elbow. Reverse the movement, then repeat on right side. That's one rep. Perform 10–12.
9. Reverse Fly
Muscles worked: upper back, core, quads, glutes
Why it rocks: Working against the resistance of the water in this move allows you to strengthen your upper back without weights, Davi says.
How to: To start, stand with feet hip-width apart and knees slightly bent, hinged forward at the hips, torso tilted forward, arms hanging straight down, palms facing body. Raise both arms out to the sides until they reach shoulder height and squeeze shoulder blades together. Return to start. Perform 15.
10. Lateral Lunge with Balance
Muscles worked: quads, hamstrings, glutes, core
Why it rocks: Performing underappreciated lateral lunges in water makes them easier on your balance, but still challenges your lower body as you push through the water.
How to: Start standing with feet hip-width apart and hands at sides. Take a big step to right, pushing hips back and bending right knee to lowering seat until right knee forms 90-degree angle. Push back to an upright position, lift right knee, and pull it into chest with arms. That's one rep. Perform 10 per side.
Pro Tips For Optimizing Your Water Workout:
Here, Tyler Fox, a senior swim coach at Life Time in Scottsdale, AZ, walks us through three ways to make the most of any pool routine.
Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.
Although maintaining a regular intake of H20 prior to working out is a solid idea for any type of exercise, that’s especially important if you’re in a pool. That’s because you might not be aware of how much you’re sweating as the water or chlorine keeps your skin cool—and you’re not as inclined to take regular sips, says Fox. “Make sure you bring plenty of water for your [swim] workout,” he explains.
Although that’s typically dependent on the individual and how vigorous the activity is, Fox says to aim for several sips of water every 10 minutes if you’re engaging in light exercise (say, casual swimming or light aerobics). For moderate-cardio exercise (like these in-pool strength moves listed here!), a few sips every five minutes should suffice.
Apply sunscreen 15 minutes early.
If your pool is indoors, wearing sunscreen doesn’t necessarily need to be a top consideration. But if you’re outdoors, lather up, says Fox. “Most sunscreens provide a layer of mineral protection that must be absorbed into the skin before contact with water,” he says. “Apply it to dry skin 15 minutes before entering a wet environment.” He explains that, if you apply it the second you hop into the pool, it’s likely to wash off into the water.
If possible, aim to complete a single bout of exercise within 30 to 45 minutes, Fox says. That way, you can stop, dry off, reapply sunscreen, and wait an additional 15 minutes before hopping back in (if need be).
Fuel your body right.
Any movement while submerged turns into a full-body blast—the water itself is applying pressure to every square-inch of your body, requiring you to work harder to move your muscles (think: trying to run in a pool when your legs are completely submerged).
That being said: “Make sure you fuel up with light, high-carb foods before exercising [in the pool],” Fox explains. One of his go-to pre-pool meals: a bowl of granola, low- or non-fat Greek yogurt, and fresh fruit.
And while there’s no hard-set rule for how soon to eat prior to exercising in a pool, don’t worry about that 30-minute rule, according to Mayo Clinic. Your best bet: Pick foods you know won’t bog down your digestive system.
6 Gear Picks For Pool Exercise:
According to Fox, if there’s a single pool item that’s a must-have for aquatic exercise, it’s this. “Goggles will offer protection from the sun and chlorine,” he says. “Think of goggles like a pair of sunglasses—you want full protection from the sun, dust, and other elements.” His favorite brands: Speedo, Arena, and TYR.
2. Snug-fitting swimwear
As adorable as that multi-colored bikini might look, save it for sunbathing. Fox notes that it’s important to pick a suit that’s snug (think of the fit similar to the way your exercise leggings and sports bra fits). One- or two-pieces are both fine, as are “bike short” variations. Similar to goggles, he recommends Speedo, Arena, and TYR suits.
Although fins aren’t necessarily a must-have for swim exercise (especially if you won’t be doing laps), Fox says they can add an extra leg burn to your workout. “Short fins, sometimes referred to as zoomers or powerfins, are stubbier fins that add weight to your feet while you kick,” he says. “These fins are ideal for trying to develop leg strength as they will increase the weight of your feet and resistance to your legs during exercise.” Longer fins, as Fox explains, can add serious speed.
4. Training paddles
Just like fins add resistance for your lower body, training paddles can do the same for your upper body, says Fox. They enlarge the surface area of your hand, forcing you to push more water with each stroke.
“A kickboard allows you to stabilize your upper body on the surface of the water, so that you can focus on developing your kick,” Fox says. As for what type of board to choose, Fox says that there are typically two types: light and heavy ones. For a supercharged core and lower-body burn, aim for a lighter board that’ll force your upper body to work harder to keep yourself afloat. Heavier boards, on the other hand, can be helpful if you’re not totally comfortable in the water just yet and need a little extra support.
6. Mesh or deck bag
The second you step out of the pool, you’ll need your garments to dry fast, says Fox—which makes a mesh or deck bag to carry items ideal. “These [bags] are waterproof and designed to sit on the edge of the pool during a workout,” he explains. Look for varieties with shoulder straps for easy hauling. Although these neon-colored mesh bags are technically for kids, there’s no reason why they can’t help you tote your own aquatic exercise supplies. They’re listed as an Amazon Choice product, which means they’re high-rated and ship fast.
Alexis Jones is an assistant editor at Women's Health where she writes across several verticals on WomensHealthmag.com, including life, health, sex and love, relationships and fitness, while also contributing to the print magazine. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University, lives in Brooklyn, and proudly detests avocados.
Lauren Del Turco, CPT
Lauren is a freelance writer and editor, an American Council on Exercise-certified personal trainer, and the Fitness & Wellness Editor of Women’s Health. You’ll find her hiking, lifting weights, working on her downward dog, or perusing the farmer’s market.