Core stabilization. Spinal alignment. Neutral position. These are buzz words in the fitness industry that can be traced back to far less scientific beginnings - your mom! Don't you remember when she told you to sit up straight in your chair and to stand up tall and pull your shoulders back? She was, as usual, correct.
Good posture and proper alignment makes you look better, feel better and perform better, whether it be daily functional activities or sports. The pool environment can help your clients develop core stabilization, maintain proper spinal alignment and determine neutral position for better performance!
The water is a dichotomy of descriptive terms. It is at once both easy (on the joints) and challenging (to the muscles). It can be both resistive (to the body) and relaxing (to the mind) - within the same workout. And we can develop more (intensity) with less (impact). The pool is a gym without equipment.
In her article, "Chronic Low Back Pain," Julianne Arient cites a study performed at Itasca Medical Center in Illinois. A group of 15 individuals with low back pain (LBP) performed an aquatic exercise program consisting of multidirectional walking and general upper body exercises as well as stretches and range of motion (ROM) exercises for the lower extremities and trunk for a period of five weeks. Improvements were seen in muscular endurance (57.3%), balance (70%), trunk ROM (13%-36%) and psychosocial abilities (16%-20%).
Water can provide an ideal medium to train the core muscles of the body as you experience both support and resistance. Archimedes' Principle (the loss of weight of a submerged body equals the weight of the fluid displaced by the body) describes the buoyant property of water. In the water, the body is influenced by two opposing forces: a downward vertical force (gravity) and an upward vertical force (buoyancy). The buoyant effect of the water will support the body during exercise and movement, thus lessening the axial loads on the spine. Buoyancy decreases the effects of gravity and reduces weight bearing impact as well as compression on the joints. An individual's buoyancy is affected by size, density (body composition) and depth of submersion. When submerged to chest depth, the body will bear approximately 25 to 35 percent of "land" or gravitational weight.
On the other hand, because water is more viscous than air, it provides a resistive environment in which the muscles are challenged in all directions of submerged movement. Viscosity refers to the friction between molecules of a liquid or gas. The tendency of water molecules to adhere to each other is cohesion, while the tendency of the water molecules to adhere to a submerged body is adhesion. This friction between molecules causes resistance to motion. Walking through the water is more resistive that walking on land, and walking in the water near the pool's wall is more resistive than walking at the same pace some distance from the wall.
Altering body positioning will also influence the amount of resistance created. A streamlined movement provides a smoother, more efficient exercise such as desired by a swimmer for speed. However, with water exercise, the goal is often less "efficient" movement to increase the workload, the challenge and the caloric expenditure. A less streamlined position of the body or limb will increase turbulent flow, which creates rotary movements known as eddies and thus increases the water's resistance. The trunk and lower extremities are effectively overloaded while exercising or walking in water of approximately chest depth.
Incorporate the following movements during the warm-up and/or cool-down phase of the aquatic exercise session to focus on posture and alignment. Remember that the focus is not on intensity but rather on technique and alignment. Be prepared to provide feedback both from on deck where you can make full body observations and in the water where you can provide specific, hands on corrections. The Aquatic Exercise Association recommends clients wear shoes when performing impacting type activities in the pool. Shoes provide arch support, ankle stability, cushioning, traction and protection from abrasive surfaces (especially important for diabetic clients).
Maintain upright posture and avoid leaning forward in order to move faster. Contract the abdominals and lift the rib cage away from the pelvic girdle. Depress and retract the scapulae. Keep the chin lifted. Focus on a heel strike and rolling forward onto the balls of the feet, allowing full range of motion at the ankle (dorsi and plantar flexion). Vary the length of the stride but encourage long, full range of movement to maintain functional capacity.
Power Walk (Travelling Forward Lunge)
Step forward striking with the heel of the foot. Flex at the hips and knees into a lunge position without allowing the front knee to move past the toes. Push forward onto the ball of the foot on the lead leg while lifting the body upright and pulling the rear leg forward to initiate the next step. Maintain the spine in correct alignment with rib cage lifted and scapulae retracted and depressed. Avoid hyperextension at the lumbar spine as the leg is stepping forward. The pelvis should remain in a neutral and stabilized position.
Tightrope Walk, Backwards
Standing erect, visualize walking backward on a tightrope (another visualization cue is walking backward in the sand while tracing half circles with your toes). Focus on erect posture, lifted rib cage, retracted and depressed scapulae and full range of motion movement. Students with hip replacements should avoid this exercise unless their primary care giver has been consulted.
Suspended Position Training
In the water, training at a Level III - or suspended position - provides significant challenge to the core muscles as well as the upper body. The feet will be lifted off the bottom of the pool for several counts up to several minutes, depending upon the strength and abilities of the client.
The arms will move in sculling motion to provide the necessary lift to keep the head above water. It is imperative to maintain the torso in an upright position with the shoulders and hips vertically aligned rather than moving toward a prone or supine position. The core muscles must work together to provide this equilibrium and sense of balance.
Level III training might include a simple tuck and hold, or you may choose to challenge your clients further by requiring them to move through the water in various directions while in the tuck and hold position. Also, you can increase the intensity as well as the balance factor by adding movements to the legs while in the suspended position such as hip abduction/adduction or flexion/extension.
Realize that this can be a very demanding position from which to work. Individuals with a lean body composition are denser and therefore sink more easily. Non-swimming clients will probably not be comfortable working at this level unless you provide them with additional flotation equipment.
The postural muscles are an integral part of any program, and they are very important in the prevention of injuries. Coordination and balance, minor components of physical fitness, are important attributes for your clients to develop whether they are professional athletes, weekend warriors or elderly individuals focused on independent living.
Balance is a complex function that allows the body to adjust the center of gravity (and center of buoyancy when exercising in the pool) effectively. Typically found to decrease with age, balance is also strongly related with the prevention of falls. It is imperative to continue to train for this fitness component throughout our life.
Coordination = correct form and technique = efficient movement. Coordination can be described as the ability to move with precise form and control in a fluid manner. Poor coordination can lead to improper alignment and therefore potential injuries. Developing and maintaining coordination is an important building block for other components of fitness.
The pool is an excellent place to train for balance and coordination, both for the safety factor and the comfort level. The fear of falling is lessened, the potential of injury is minimal (although use caution when working with non-swimmers), and the intimidation factor is reduced since the body is submerged. The water also provides constant sensory feedback to the client and helps to develop kinesthetic awareness. Performing balance skills requires a cooperative effort between the abdominal and back muscles to maintain proper posture and alignment.
Below are some sample skills to practice with your clients in the pool utilizing a foam water log (also known as a woggle or noodle). Note: Make sure clients can return to an upright position from both a supine and prone position (tuck and roll taught in basic swim lessons) prior to initiating these exercises. Non-swimmers may not be receptive to trying these techniques!
In chest deep water, stand with both feet on the log, feet approximately shoulder width apart. Perform a reverse squat by lifting the knees toward the chest and then returning to an upright position. Once the move has been mastered (without losing the log!), increase the challenge by moving the feet closer together, performing the squat with only one leg and then finally repeating the sequence in deep water.
Hold the log near the ends and submerge under the water. Practice jumping forward and backward as well as side-to-side over the log. For an easier version - and one that does not require equipment - the "log jump" can be performed by utilizing a lane line in the pool or even visualizing an object to jump over. Incorporating the buoyant equipment does increase the challenge but may not be appropriate for all clients.
Sit on the log as if sitting on a swing (versus straddling the log). Try to turn your body (not the log) around to face the opposite direction (visualize the positions: swing facing front, straddle facing side, swing facing back). The goal is not to fall from the log during the movement and to concentrate on alignment and posture. The final challenge is to perform the movement without touching the log with your hands.
Douglas W Kinnaird has developed an aquatic-based program, "Terpsi Technic," utilizing martial arts principles and dance-like movements. Designed to work muscle groups for pelvic stabilization and balance as well as lower extremity range, flexibility, coordination and strength, these exercises were developed for relief of low back pain, rehabilitation after trauma or surgery and for enhancing function in neuromuscular disorders. The functional progressions move from (1) deep water movement to (2) weight-bearing activities in shallower water and finally (3) to land.
The "Triple S," an aquatic program that uses Pilates techniques, has been developed by Ruth Sova. Muscle focus is geared toward the synergists and stabilizers instead of the agonist (prime mover). "Triple S" emphasizes activation of the transverse and oblique abdominals, scapula and gluteals prior to movement. This allows clients to initiate movement from the pelvis and trunk, encourages proper biomechanics and coordinates motion at the extremities. Back pain, diabetes, hip replacements, multiple sclerosis, older adults, osteoporosis, prenatal and shoulder pain are all appropriate diagnoses for the "Triple S" application.
The pool provides endless opportunities for developing exercise programs. You are limited only by your knowledge of the water's properties, so dive into a new dimension of programming!
- AEA, Aquatic Fitness Professional Manual 2nd Edition, Aquatic Exercise Association, Nokomis, FL. 2000.
- AFAA, Fitness Theory & Practice Second Edition,Aerobics and Fitness Association of America, Sherman Oaks, CA 1997.
- Arient, Julianne. "Chronic Low Back Pain", AKWA Letter, Vol 13, No 1, June/July 1999.
- Kinnaird, Douglas. "Terpsi Technic", AKWA letter, Vol 13, No 2, Aug/Sept 1999.
- Morris, Mike. "Water + Resist-A-Ball = Strength, Balance and Flexibility", AKWA Letter, Vol 13, No 5, February/March 2000.
- Sova, Ruth. "Stabilizers and Synergists", AKWA Letter, Vol 12, No 6, Apr/May 1999.