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Water Gym: Key Equipment for Aquatic Training

Over the past five years there has been tremendous expansion in program design and equipment availability for aquatic fitness training. Adding aquatic tools to your personal training toolbox not only adds options to your existing clienteles’ programs, but creates an opportunity to diversify your overall offering as a trainer.

This article provides a brief overview of some of the more popular and programmable pieces of aquatic fitness equipment on the market. The key to successful aquatic fitness program design (along with learning how to create specific programs to meet the individuals’ needs and goals) is to understand that each piece has unique principles and techniques. A “one size fits all” approach DOES NOT APPLY. Utilize the water’s natural buoyancy and resistance, and assume that each equipment piece requires skills to be used safely. Equipment may help to progress and/or modify any exercise and is very helpful in maintaining interest, enjoyment and enhancing performance.

Key Questions

A Personal Trainer should review the following questions prior to investing in water training:

Personal trainers who take time to understand the uniqueness of water training may find themselves launching into a whole new marketing opportunity for their business.

The Equipment

Trainers need to develop their own system of determining what equipment provides the most bang for their buck and what pieces will be most beneficial to their client base. I have seen lots of “home grown equipment” used in aquatic fitness training, but rarely have I seen any that portrays professionalism. The following outlines several pieces of equipment that can be extremely instrumental in building an aquatic training offering.


The primary purpose of a mitt is to aid in balance and body support. The secondary purpose is for upper body resistance. By increasing the surface area of the arms, the body is more balanced with the surface area of the legs.

There are two types of mitts:

Deep Water Buoyancy Belt

The purpose of a buoyancy belt changes depending on the depth of the water.

It is necessary to wear some type of buoyancy equipment in deep water, otherwise the body has a difficult time balancing. Without a buoyancy belt, most individuals would cheat the leg movements and just scull to keep their head afloat.

Using the correct amount of buoyancy is key to exercise comfort and performance. If a  person has too much buoyancy, they can become tilted and off balance, which can aggravate a back problem or cause the wearer to spend more time fighting for balance than performing the exercise. Women often require more buoyancy on the front to balance their buoyant bottom, whereas men typically require more buoyancy at the back. There are several designs available. Speedo makes a “six pack belt” with 6 dense foam blocks along an adjustable length belt. Blocks can be added to or taken off for convenient sizing and balancing body position. The waist size may be adjusted to a child or a large-waisted individual. Athletes with little body fat will require a denser belt to maintain their head above the water.

Aquatic Fitness Steps

The aquatic fitness step is constructed differently than a land step because it has to remain in place on the bottom of the pool. Its primary purpose is to load the lower body and legs. Since it requires the individual to change water depth, an aquatic fitness step provides challenge in terms of balance (Components of balance are different at each water depth.) Steps also allow increased range of  motion for lower body movement. For example: when performing a skateboard movement with a step, the step allows greater range of motion, thereby adding more dynamic balance and muscular power, as well as stabilization for the supporting hip.

Each individual has their own space in which to move and control the inertia currents. The step can simulate traveling moves during crowded conditions when a pool has limited space to travel, and can be modified to apply to varying abilities of participants in the program.

Aquatic stepping can help participants simulate functional movements such as stair climbing (ascending and descending steps), stepping up on a bus, balancing on uneven surfaces. The steps can be instrumental in learning how to change and adjust balance, as well as learning how to control balance and recover from falling in a safe environment.

The standard step is 7 inches in height. It is florescent orange in color for easy visibility in the water and has a rubber grid to minimize slipping. Steps still do move slightly, which can be of benefit, as it adds dynamic balance and challenge to movements. If a participant’s step is moving so much that it begins compromising movement, check that the step is on a level surface and that the person maintains good posture over the step. Ideally, each participant will need approximately 6 square feet of space around them.

The step may help to strengthen the quadriceps and gluteal muscles without rebounding work. Ideal water depth fort maximum benefit during squat and lunge maneuvers, is between hip and sternum depth. Pools that are extremely slanted or tiled and slippery may not work with an aquatic step. Participants wishing to work at a lesser intensity may perform the same movements off the step, and add the step later as a progression.

Resistive Paddles

Hand paddles or longer flex paddles offer an opportunity to provide overload for upper body muscular strengthening work. The flex paddles offer 5 levels of progression and should be added only when the participant is ready to progress their strengthening exercises. The biggest feature of resistive paddles is that the shoulder may be submerged when performing upper body strength work to prevent impingement ( or bone pressing to bone) on the shoulder. Additionally, a paddle may be utilized for advance scapular stabilizer exercises or for more lower body work, by dragging the arms with paddles. Always hold lightly with the thumb and fore finger so that the palmer circulation is not cut off.

Resistive Bands

Resistance bands or tubing are excellent tools that can be used both on land and in the water. The use of this piece of equipment may be learned in the water, then taken home for ongoing training. Bands provide overload, especially as range of motion increases. Always maintain resistance on the way back in for eccentric loading (i.e. don’t let the bands snap back). Participants can change the resistance by simply increasing or decreasing slack on the band.

One safety consideration for resistance bands is speed. Do not use speed and momentum for the muscular strength exercises. Rather, control the tension in both directions to provide optimal benefits. Fit Bands are made in 15 inch & 30 inch loops and are very user friendly and easy to grip in the water.


Noodles are affordable, and add enjoyment, variety and entertainment. Whether a "toy", a prop or an extension of the gym, the noodle, a 5ft cylindrical piece of foam, has found its way into most pools in the world. Participants may choose to relax the exercise with assisted applications or challenge the exercise by resisting buoyancy. There are many exercise options that can be skillfully and creatively designed. A person may sit, stand, lay, kneel, partner, drag, hold above water, wrap around the body, or simply utilize the noodle as an extension of the levers. The key is to find or create the most appropriate adaptations and progressions for your client(s).

Sponge Balls

Sponge balls are excellent for training the small muscles of the hand and can be key in strengthening the forearms, preventing wrist fractures and aiding in stabilization of the wrist. Sponge balls are affordable and they allow frail or severely arthritic participants to start building hand and forearm strength. Additionally, balls may be utilized for hand to eye coordination skills and juggling fun!

Foam Dumbbells / Rings

Foam dumbbells assist and/or resist buoyancy for upper body strengthening work. Dumbbells vary in terms of density and buoyancy, and therefore provide differing effects, depending on the exercise. A small dumbbell or buoyant ring provides an easier strength (resisted) workout when compared to the denser and thicker rings. However, for buoyancy-assisted work, the small foam dumbbells add difficulty compared to thicker dumbbells, which make the work easier.

Be sure to start slowly and work up - do not do too much upper body strengthening with participants right away. Movements for strength should be slow and controlled so that there is eccentric loading on the way up to the water’s surface (or in the direction of buoyancy). Buoyancy Dumbbells may also be anchored in the water for some shoulder stabilization work or dragged through the water for the lower body. A frail person may feel more secure with buoyancy dumbbells than a noodle – and more structured piece of equipment may be what is needed to get them off the wall and moving dynamically through the water.

Kick Boards

Most pools have kick boards. A kick board is a very stable tool when used for securing balance (and progressing the person off the wall). Start with one kick board either side of the body to help with balance and posture. Progress to having one kickboard in front, then to a single kickboard on one side only.

A board may be utilized for dynamic balance exercises such as sitting, standing or kneeling balance exercises, but caution against the board popping out of the water and hitting your client’s face, should they lose balance. Avoid using a kickboard for strengthening exercises if the person has low upper body strength or shoulder problems.

Kick boards may be combined with training fins for a more challenged session. In fact, once the trainer is fluent and comfortable with the features and applications of various equipment pieces, ALL equipment may be creatively combined at different times for variety, progression or modification.

Training Fins

FINS are made of soft black rubber of various lengths and sizes. Fins may provide superior quadriceps work, which unless a participant is performing step or lots of rebounding work, may not be otherwise sufficiently engaged. Quadriceps strength is important to help support the knee joint and allows us to perform such common tasks as walking up and down the stairs. With top athletes, we utilize a variety of body positions and equipment additions (barbells, paddles, tethers, chutes, kickboards) to challenge the top athletes.

Buoyant Cuffs

Buoyant cuffs may be worn on the ankle to increase surface area for ADVANCED work for the lower body. Program applications may include shallow water walking or deep water training. In deep water, the buoyant cuff changes (and challenges) a person’s balance because it becomes difficult to keep the feet anchored underneath the body. Cuffs may also be put together to create a buoyancy belt or utilized for hand-held upper body exercises.

There are many other valuable pieces of equipment for aquatic training, some of which we will cover in future articles. In the mean time, the above items will be very helpful to any trainer interested launching a successful aquatic training program in their business. Keep your mind and your training options open. Enjoy the surf and turf of fitness!