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Deep H2O Training: An Ocean of Opportunity

Deep water training is defined between neck and shoulder depth with feet off the bottom of the pool. The center of balance is at the chest because the lungs act like life preservers. This makes balance more of a challenge. In water, the center of buoyancy is the lungs whereas on land it is must be balanced with the center of gravity (pelvic area for women or the chest area for men). Buoyancy is additionally enhanced as lungs are submerged. It will make you float upwards even more, so take time to adapt to this change.

Deep water training requires equipment to provide a balance between work and rest (so muscles do not fatigue prior to breathing). It is recommended to utilize equipment such as belts, foam dumb bells, foam cuffs, noodles and/or other devices. This assists you with buoyancy to support and enhance good posture as well as provides optimal range of motion.. Some people in the past have attempted DWT without any buoyancy assistance, but typically, they spend so much time sculling and trying to keep their head above the water – they really do not get a good workout nor do they expend many calories (because the arms are only working and we know that the legs are the primary butter burner).

DWT provides a unique and open environment free from gravity and impact. It is the one place on earth that you may push and pull, rebound up and down and have negligible stress and wear and tear on the joints. (We would otherwise have to be on the moon to experience this!) Even the astronauts train in deep water to experience what it is like to move without gravity pulling you down.

The big selling feature especially for those who have to shed a few pounds is that the water provides submersion to neck for complete privacy and of course everyone may work at their own pace. This maximizes submersion of the upper body and lower body for increased potential for ROM and multidimensional resistance. Pushing and pulling the water, which is 1000 times more dense than air, is a natural liquid weight machine. The more you push and pull the water, the higher the intensity.

When designing cardiovascular sets, a personal trainer should realize that discontinuous sets of large rhythmical movement are much more effective than continuous sets because the muscles are not fatigued prior to breathing. Research has clearly illustrated that blood lactate levels are higher in deep water especially with untrained individuals. Specifically, Frangolias and Rhodes compared the metabolic response for both treadmill and deep water running in 13 land AND water trained runners They found lower V02 max with similar peak blood lactate levels and lower stride frequency values when comparing land and water exercise. They concluded it is simply a different exercise and that modifications need to be made in order to make it effective. (Frangolias and Rhodes ,1995). Therefore, balance cardiovascular sets with muscular conditioning, flexibility, balance or sports specific and functional sets so that muscles are not fatigued and cardiovascular training is not compromised.

Wilber and others (1996) studied the water performance of 16 male runners who had previously trained on land, but not in water. Researchers compared the subjects' physiological responses during submaximal deep-water running and treadmill running on land at the same VO 2 max. Blood lactate levels were 31 percent higher in the water than on land. The researchers concluded that the water's natural resistance elicits a greater anaerobic response to exercise (i.e., higher blood lactate levels), especially in non-water-trained participants.

Brown and colleagues (1997a) measured the physiological responses of men and women during deep-water running and treadmill running on land. When running cadence was matched in the two environments, the subjects' submaximal responses were higher in the water, indicating that the energy costs of doing the work were greater in this setting.

This reinforces that you really may achieve an optimal workout – if you know how to push and pull the water!

Fundamental Skills to Help Optimize Deep Water Training

  1. Learning a resting position (to balance work with rest).
  2. Practicing good posture and body alignment with all of the body positions.
  3. Learning to balance with a belt (to find the right position where the belt is comfortable and helps you perform an optimal workout). Some belts are more or less buoyant than others. Women who have more adipose tissue on their buttocks should have a belt that balances their posture with buoyancy on the front.
  4. Breathing diaphragmatically and regularly (because the lungs are submerged and vital capacity is decreased by approximately 10%).
  5. Relaxing shoulders for stress free work out and learn how to scull with the shoulders down and back.
  6. Focus on pushing down the legs and arms down against buoyancy as it is easy to lift either up high because of buoyancy.
  7. Use arm movements such as sculling, propeller arms, opposition arms and legs (to balance & assist travel) so that good posture and mechanics may be attained.
  8. Use arm and leg opposition ( right arm &left leg) because this is the mechanics of a functional walk or jog. It is easy to go the same arm and leg movement in the water, but typically the client compromises range of motion, balance and energy expenditure.
  9. Learn what vertical or standing tall is. A CV movement does not travel if you are tall in the water. Bending or bad posture will travel the move. If you do want to travel lean from the heels (keeping proper alignment) to optimize good posture.
  10. Check the intensity regularly with Rate of Perceived Exertion. Understand how to make the exercise goal harder or easier.

Understanding the Dynamics and Difference of DWT

In deep water training, all movements exaggerated. There is no stable base of support, so that’s why the abdominals have to work to maintain a “land like “ posture and movement. The resistance in deep water is increased exponentially with force. It is difficult to achieve speed or travel with any movement, but typically the arms or legs will be needed to balance the move to facilitate travel. Each person’s buoyancy depends on body composition or their fat free mass (FFM) and body fat or adipose tissue..

In the water, leverage and ROM may be easily enhanced, but be careful to design sets that balance short and long levers as to not overstress or fatigue the musculature too soon.

The best benefit of DWT is that there is a lot of variety in terms of movements and angles of pull for muscular contractions. You may incline 10 degrees, or 20 degrees or 40 degrees with a side jumping jacks movement and really feel how the obliques have to work more to maintain the positions (the opposite side as you are tilting).

A unique feature of water is the hydrostatic pressure which increases with depth. Hydrostatic Pressure has more benefits than just massaging the body – it also supports and tractions the joints, thus increasing a joints’ range of motion. For example, a person with a shoulder injury will get relief from having the shoulders submerged under the water while still having the feet remain in contact with the bottom of the pool (Neutral Working Position) or engaging in a deep water program. The Hydrostatic Pressure of the water allows the joint to “open up” and feel good rather than fight gravity’s daily wear and tear. Additionally, the water can provide up to 25 times more resistance than air which is much more beneficial for strength and mobility training. That is why we train the client how to use the arms (especially sculling) in the water for the entire workout. The only exception is that the arms may be taken slowly out of the water to challenge balance, and lower body work ( since the legs have to work harder to keep the head above the water line).

Movements in deep water will feel heavier as compared to land movement since there is more water surrounding body. Research suggests that movements will need to be slower as compared to shallow water training to allow for the increased ROM. Frangolias and Rhodes in 1995 compared metabolic responses, such as V0 2 max to deep-water running and treadmill running on land. Subjects included 13 runners who had previously trained in deep water for at least six months. When these subjects ran at the same VO s max, at the same rating of perceived exertion (RPE) in both environments, stride speed was 39 percent slower in the water than on land. That means, despite moving more slowly than treadmill runners on land, deep- water runners can achieve similar results with regard to V0 2 max. This study supports prior research that recommends exercisers reduce speed by one-third to one-half when they transfer movements from land to water.

Equipment overloads such as shoes and mitts will help enhance surface area and drag force. Wear shoes in the deep will challenge the exercisers but, it should also help to anchor their legs and accentuate downward movements. Mitts or aquatic gloves provide a balance between the arms and the legs to help provide a more equal lever length or surface area. Secondarily, both the shoes and the mitts will provide an option to add resistance.


Working Positions for Deep Water Depth

The positions are specifically designed to:

Abdominal strength is required for changing and maintaining working positions.

  • Hips and shoulders aligned, hips slightly higher than knees Pretend that you are sitting in a chair.
  • Avoid bending forward at the waist.
  • Keep the shoulders stacked over the hips Utilize abdominals to keep position.
  • Envision standing tall in the water.
  • Utilize all of the multi-dimensional resistance by having long legs Lean into a movement to initiate travel
  • Keep the heels, knees, hips, shoulders.
  • Laying on your side.
  • Use abdominals to maintain posture and side-lying alignment.
  • Relax the neck or use the water to support the weight of the head.
  • Avoid pike or fetal positions.
  • Keep the shoulders in line with the knees.
  • Engage abdominals to hold the feet (or foot) out of water.
  • Challenging abdominal stabilization work.
  • Should be avoided by participants with low-back problems.
  • Laying on the stomach or front of the body.
  • Envision a drawling position.
  • Keep shoulders slightly above the knees.
  • Avoid hyper-extending neck – turn head to the side to see instructor.
  • Tilting or leaning with an extended body position.
  • Incline – forward, side, back.
  • Many degrees of tilting or inclining.
  • Seated so that shoulders are aligned over the hips.
  • Legs out stretched or in an “L” or pike position.
  • Use abdominals to maintain posture.
  • More challenging than seated position.
  • Keep the abdominals tight to avoid hyper-extending back.
  • Stack the shoulders in line with the hips and knees.

Sample Deep Water Training Moves


Think of sitting on a recumbent bicycle keeping the back stacked over the hips and the abdominals tight to support good posture. Pretend you are cycling and making a big circular shape with the legs. Pull the legs down to resist buoyancy. Cycle fast or slow, change gears. Go forward or backwards, lay on your side. Use one leg if you want to target one leg and the hamstrings more.


To keep your head above the water, you will need to perform arm movements opposite the legs. Think of making a “T “with the body like Tom and then an “A” like Arnold and you will be coordinated in no time.


Pump the arms in opposition to the legs. Avoid just lifting the knees up high rather think of extending the legs down to push the water and work against buoyancy. The elbows push down and back to maintain good posture and shoulder alignment. If you want to travel, lean into your travel and avoid breaking at the waist. Remember to breathe as your lungs are submerged.


Think of sitting in a chair and pull the heels forcefully down and back to target the hamstrings. Release and relax as you outstretch the hamstring to the start position. You should travel forwards. Use the arms with a light scull to balance good posture.


One of the most challenging exercises to teach your client is good posture. By securing dumbbells behind your back, you will have to anchor by retracting or adducting the scapulae and stabilizing the shoulder girdle. Avoid letting the shoulders float up. Envision a long, long neck and a tall body.

Breath normally and feel the abdominal work to additionally support good posture.

Suntan or Superman (or Superwoman)

To target the abdominals, by first making a “C” with your abdominals. Curl the hips towards the ribs utilizing the rectus abdominis muscle. Suck and tuck to further engage the abdominals. Use the arms to balance the movement with a scull . Avoid using momentum and flinging the legs through. Relax or jog the legs back to the start positions. This is truly an advanced position that is way better than curls on the neck as the buoyancy supports the neck and shoulders.

Multi-Directional Jog

Pretend you are on a race track, tilt to the side and keep jogging then circle to the other side. Feel how the abdominals have to balance the body. Keep the arms and legs pumping throughout al turns, this is the sport of life – rotational movement. Keep pressing the heels down against the water. Your RPE should be in your target zone!

Side Jax

Lay on one side an scull with the lower arm. Use the obliques to stabilize and maintain good posture. You may either power both legs in together to work the adductors – and you will travel to the left or you may power the bottom leg down to work the abductors. Feel how you may sculpt the outer thighs with the poser of the water.


Think of the hands on a clock that move very purposefully, Start at 9 o’clock and move to 6 o’clock then to 3 o’clock. Try to avoid momentum and utilize the abdominals (Obliques) especially as you go down against buoyancy. The hips are externally rotated to take the iliopsoas muscles out of the biomechanical action. You may also choose to knee and keep the hips, knees and ankles together. Avoid holding the foam dumbbells tight. Rather use a light grip and to add more resistance. Pull down in the direction you are tilting to feel increased resistance.

Sample Deep Water Training Program

Component to Train & Duration Exercise Goal Exercise Design
Program Set Up: Equipment Orientation & Safety Skills
(2 minutes)
  • Get client properly outfitted
    (good fitting belt, mitts)
  • Know air & water temperature
  • BELTS various sizes and buoyancy
  • SHOES (optional) but will make it more difficult
  • MITTS for balance (neoprene, lycra)
  • Optional Equipment: SPEEDO Fit Bands, tethers, Foam
    Foam Dumbbells, Flex or hand paddles, Cuffs, Training Fins
Thermal Regulation & Skill Orientation
(3 minute)
  • Check belt – how it fits? Make sure it is snug
  • Get acclimatized to water & air temperature
  • Focus on breathing to release pressure on chest
  • Rehearse Flat sculling, to balance posture
  • And/or assist/resist travel
  • Find balance with the belt
  • Find full ROM
  • Balance the posture with Body Check
  • Bicycle/jog to get warm
  • Jog and exhale and inhale naturally
  • Smooth jelly on toast- arms low - Body Check
  • Tall and shoulders relaxed
  • Recover to a stand or balance position
  • Opposition & stabilization
  • Jog Focus on ROM -Long legs down
(3-5 minutes)
  • Prepare body for workout to come
  • Give opportunity to feel buoyancy & multi dimensional resistance
  • Learn fundamental CV & filler moves and terms
  • Learn posture in seated
  • Learn how arms must assist/balance a movement
  • Shallow/deep combination (option to start either depth)
  • Bicycle, Jog, JAX
  • Learn posture in seated
  • Upper body sweep
  • Jog with ankle touches front/back
  • Check for warmth
  • Jog & pump arms
(3-5 minutes)
  • Focus on posture & balance
  • Abdominal stabilization so that you may engage the abdominals THROUGHOUT the entire program.
  • Kneeling pendulum
  • Diamond leg pendulum
  • Teach good body posture & working positions
  • Bicycling through positions
    (seated, incline, vertical, L, prone etc)
(2-3 minutes)
  • Learn body positions CV moves
  • Use a variety of movement planes to keep muscles from fatiguing
  • Check Intensity with HR monitor, talk test, RPE ( HR are typically 10-20 bpm lower than similar intensity as land especially if in cooler water)
  • BICYCLE – forward
  • JAX - arms opposite legs
  • JOG - pumping arms –forward

Workout Sets

Should integrate between all components of fitness especially C/V & muscle sets to increase optimal intensity and caloric expenditure.

Dependent on:
  • Clients goals
  • Clients-abilities
  • Client’s motivation
  • Cross training needs
  • Water temperature
  • Equipment available
  • To prevent muscle fatigue
  • To provide good overall workout
  • Muscular Conditioning: isolate the joint action (on one side for lower body & just the arms and easy leg movements or no legs for upper body exercises.
  • Perform approximately 3-5 Set of 8-25 reps ( dependent on muscle fiber type, skill level, fatigue level & exercise goal) should feel muscular fatigue or work – otherwise you should choose another exercise.
  • *Remember: Do not fatigue musculature prior to breathing
  • Check that correct joint action works against buoyancy (or with optimal resistance) for muscle sets. Do not do land – like exercises otherwise all movements that are resisted with gravity on land are assisted with buoyancy (and not effective) Relax shoulders & breathe diaphragmatically
  • GLUTEALS – single leg skateboards
  • HAMSTRINGS – forward dolphins kicks
  • LATISSIMUS DORSI – power down and clap the hands to the side
  • QUADRICEPS- backward dolphins
  • TRICEPS - extensions
  • ABDUCTORS - power out scissors legs
  • RHOMBOIDS - upright breast stroke ( do not turn the thumbs down otherwise impingement of the shoulders)
  • ADDUCTORS -power in scissors,
  • SHINS - backward bicycles
  • ABDOMINALS – Pendulums, Suntan & Superman.
Utilize large dynamic movements of the legs, use travel to increase intensity, do not sacrifice ROM to speed
  • JOG Front & back
  • SKI - popping out of water
  • Easy twists
  • BICYLE – figure eight
Throughout a program utilize full range of motion . Allow buoyancy to assist the movement without taking a joint beyond its normal or functioning range. Relax and feel the muscle lengthen and unload
  • HAMSTRINGS Easy forward kicks
  • GLUTEALS – easy knee towards the chest HIP
  • FLEXORS – splits
  • ADDUCTORS – side splits
  • CALFS – gently pull toe back
  • LOW BACK – both knees to chest PECS, BICEPS,
  • Outstretch the arms and easy bicycle

Warm Down

Component to Train & Duration Exercise Goal Exercise Design
  • 2-3 minutes
  • Active work
  • Legs moving for upper body
  • Lower body stretches alternate sides with active recovery set in between
To get out
Option of static or dynamic stretching patterns (depends on if the client maintains thermalregulation)
  • Lessen intensity
  • Perform ROM for all joints
  • Shallow Water (if able)
  • Take off belt
  • Feel gravity gradually so that legs do not have trampoline effect
  • Easy cycling
  • Gluteal stretch - Indian sit
  • Adductor stretch - splits
  • Hip flexor - hurdler
  • Rhomboids - figure eight with hands together
  • Deltoid - bring arm across body
  • Pectoral - extend one arm and circle
  • Shallow water: Walking patterns – forward, sideways, backwards
  • Overhead stretch
  • Neck stretches
  • Easy shoulder rolls