If the first thing that comes to mind when you hear about pool training is older adults working out at the YMCA, I can’t say I blame you.
I think I can speak for all of us when I say that our first introduction to using the water for physical fitness is either in older populations or youth swimming lessons—and that’s fair. Pool training (or aquakinetics, as it’s sometimes known) is a fantastic tool for improving strength and maintaining movement qualities as we age. It’s also a great (and potentially life-saving) activity for kids to get involved in, regardless of their athletic aspirations.I believe we’re really leaving an uncut gem on the table if we don’t give aquakinetics a second glance for both fitness and sports performance, says @rewirehp. Click To Tweet
All of this being said, I believe that we’re really leaving an uncut gem on the table if we don’t give aquakinetics a second glance for both fitness and sports performance.
What Qualities Does It Help Develop for Sport?
Let’s kick off with credit where it’s due—I first learned about the concept of using pool training for performance from strength and conditioning pioneer Marv Marinovich. I remember always being amazed at the level of results he would get in his athletes, in both a performance and rehab context—and the pool was a massive part of his programming.
After diving in (sorry, I had to) and integrating pool training in my own programming over the years, I’ve seen it check a number of athletic development boxes. These include speed, agility, movement economy, durability, and reciprocal inhibition/contract and relax cycles (the ability to turn on and off or “twitch” in lay terms).
How Does It Work, and How Do I Think About It in a Programming Context?
Wilt Chamberlain was one of the first mainstream athletes to integrate aquatic resistance exercise. First introduced to it through rehab, Chamberlain later used it supplementally for performance.
The concept of pool training is actually fairly simple once you understand the mechanisms of action. The first is omnidirectional resistance. This is the part that’s really challenging (if not impossible) to replicate without aquakinetics. It essentially refers to the water’s ability to load the body in all planes of motion, which allows athletes to load entire movement patterns in a more integrated capacity (as opposed to more isolated muscle groups). Obviously, there’s a place for both, but this really helps develop coordination in a drop-dead simple capacity.
You can have athletes perform underwater sprints, trunk and pelvis dissociations, jumps, throws, punches, and much more in a way that allows you to load the entire pattern with the intent to move fast for strength, power, and speed development. The water essentially acts as a global feedback mechanism, so your body rotates, adducts, abducts, pushes, and pulls against it concurrently in whatever pattern you want to train.
Video 1. A full-body movement in pool training.
In my experience, outside of the basics, more complex speed ladder and agility drills often don’t produce the intended adaptations. A lot of them end up looking like highly choreographed movements that athletes have to overly think about, and many may limit velocity (maximal expression of the nervous system in this context) in doing so. You know what I’m talking about—we’ve all seen the ladder drills that look like tap dancing. In contrast, the pool provides simple kinesthetic feedback to all parts of the body to help coordinate movements that athletes can perform using max intent.The pool provides simple kinesthetic feedback to all parts of the body to help coordinate movements that athletes can perform using max intent, says @rewirehp. Click To Tweet
That said, you can also isolate certain micro-movements. More on that later.
Speaking of resistance, the second concept is what’s known as drag resistance. This refers to the water resisting the surface area of your body to create load. The more force the athlete inputs into the water, the more force the water gives back. In that sense, the water is a form of adaptive resistance similar to isokinetics. This also helps make it a highly effective training modality for older populations and in return-to-play rehab scenarios.
If a rehabbing athlete can only produce 70% of their previous capacity, the resistance will only match their current output abilities. It’s also great for taxing tissues without joint load due to the ability to remove gravity from the situation. The lack of gravity-based load can also help decompress the body, and well-designed movements can help hydrate the fascia as well.
The aforementioned coordinative abilities also mean more integrated movements, which means the forces an athlete encounters are more likely to be distributed throughout the kinetic chain (as opposed to excessively being “absorbed” in one or more joints in compensation). This means the resistance is adequate for all levels—therefore, as the athlete’s power and speed progress, so does the resistance stimulus.
Although you can absolutely train without equipment (outside of needing the pool, of course), the best results I’ve seen come from pairing the pool work with aquatic ankle fins, hand bells, and drag resistance “barbells.” These increase the surface area the water resists to create an even greater stimulus for more strength, power, and velocity development. There are several companies in the space, but I’ve found the best results using Aqualogix’s hand training bells and fins (your baseline set) and rotating in the Hydro-Tone bells for more resistance. That’s our bread and butter, with the Hydro-Tone barbell or Hydro Revolution aquatic swing trainer being great options for push-pull and/or rotational movements and sports.
Video 2. Punch movement performed with hand bells.
The next unique feature of pool training is the dual concentric resistance, similar to certain dual concentric isokinetic machines. Whereas traditional strength training generally features concentric load followed by eccentric resistance (in a bracing capacity), pool work is a little different in that athletes will have concentric resistance followed (or preceded) by intentional yielding or pulling on what would be the “eccentric portion” of the movement.The next unique feature of pool training is the dual concentric resistance, similar to certain dual concentric isokinetic machines, says @rewirehp. Click To Tweet
For example, if I’m performing an alternating row press underwater, one arm is pushing concentrically while the other is simultaneously rowing concentrically. This is huge for developing reciprocal inhibition of tissue groups and helping train athletes to turn muscles on and off at appropriate times in a contract-relax capacity. Many athletes who perform too much excessive eccentric bracing without a requisite training balance could dampen their neurological abilities in these key areas.
This also dovetails back to the coordination piece. Let’s say I want to improve running gait for durability and speed purposes. One major piece is improving my athletes’ contralateral reciprocation abilities: this refers to the rotational qualities of the kinetic chain, wherein one side of the body has a certain posterior chain engagement while the opposing side sees certain anterior chain behavior simultaneously taking place in a reciprocating fashion.
For a simple example, let’s isolate the lower body in this context. On one side, you’d see dramatic hip flexion and knee elevation while, simultaneously, the rear trail leg exhibits dramatic hip flexion. The pool can be a way to develop this reciprocating frontside and backside mechanics action by stimulating the appropriate muscle and fascial tissues involved in a coordinated capacity.
This last bit isn’t so much exclusive to the pool, but the water does provide a unique way to develop conditioning abilities through the aforementioned movement pattern loading, as well. I’ve often recommended this for combat sports athletes in camp, as per Sports Lab and Coach Nick Curson of Speed of Sport.
What Kinds of Exercises Do I Generally Prescribe?
Like Marv, I keep things relatively simple and general across all sports.
Underwater sprint and jump variations are a staple, as are reciprocal row-press or rotational torque movements that improve the relationship between the pelvis and thorax. In fact, these exercises check both performance and corrective boxes simultaneously and can even out kinetic asymmetries. Thus, you may be able to cut down on some time spent doing corrective exercises.
Video 3. Underwater sprint variation.
For forward locomotive sports, I may have athletes perform coordinative movements for agility, such as loaded pelvis-rib cage dissociations, as seen in basketball and football. Depending on the group size, I usually use the Aqualogix and Hydro-Tone training bell and fin combos here.
Speaking of, explosive underwater suplexes (think a medball suplex) using the aforementioned Hydro-Tone Barbell are a staple for posterior chain development, as are underwater “kettlebell” swings using the hand bells.
That’s the bulk of it as far as upper-drives-lower forward locomotive sports go. As far as lower-drives-upper rotational sports, like baseball and combat sports, some of these general movements, plus underwater swings, throws, and shadow boxing, can be beneficial and deserve consideration.
For more isolated corrective movements, simple push-pull actions at various joints can be really useful. Some examples include hip abduction-adduction twitches, hamstring curl-knee extensions, and chest fly-rear delt fly combos (remember, the dual concentric makes these combo exercises).I recommend aquatic ankle fins, hand bells, and drag resistance ‘barbells’ to progress pool exercises…. The upside is that pool cross-training equipment is highly cost-effects and lasts forever. Click To Tweet
If possible, I do recommend the basic set of equipment I mentioned earlier to progress exercises in a meaningful way. The upside is that pool cross-training equipment is highly cost-effective and lasts forever.
What Are the Drawbacks?
Let’s start by saying the obvious—not everyone will have access to a pool.
In this case, the best solution is to find a school, public, or private pool where you can host drop-in days for athletes to supplement their weight-room, speed, and plyometric work with pool training. We’ve done this on and off over the years, depending on availability and interest.
Another suggestion here would be for coaches to prescribe supplemental “homework” to athletes who may have access to a pool on their own if they can perform the exercises safely. That’s what we’ve historically done for both in-person and remote athletes.
It should go without saying that youth athletes and people who don’t feel comfortable in the water need appropriate supervision from qualified professionals. That said, all of our pool work involves the water only going up to chest or shoulder level at a maximum—many hot tubs may suffice, too. The pool training I’m referring to is not meant to include some of the pool training you’ll see where people do long-duration breath holds underwater or carry loads across the bottom of a pool—that’s a different conversation from a safety perspective.
Video 4. Pool training where the head and shoulders are above water minimizes particular safety concerns.
This isn’t so much a downside but more just adding context: athletes still need to get in their other training modalities for strength, speed, and the like. I just feel like I have to add that context since some people see things in stark black and white. That said, I do think a training diet comprised of more pool training can absolutely suffice in older adult populations as well as in the case of certain neurological conditions.
All in all, finding a location (even if it’s not part of a weekly training cycle) will be the biggest hurdle for coaches and athletes. Even then, that’s a fairly minor deterrent that goes away once you take the time to find an accommodating situation.
I should also note that this is an area of training that’s relatively immature when it comes to research looking at outcomes of aquatic resistance exercise in athletes. A lot of research is understandably overfocused on older populations, and some looks to compare outcomes from land versus aquatic training when an either/or approach is not what I’m recommending here.
That said, some very encouraging research exists, and there are many case studies or observational instances of aquatic training having benefits in athletic populations. Moving forward, there needs to be more direct research observing some of these specific resistance exercise interventions in athlete populations.
All You Need Is a Pool
The real takeaway here should be that a simple yet brilliant addition to our training has been hidden in plain sight all these years. In an era of increasingly complex equipment, training concepts, corrective exercise strategies, and nuanced ideologies, one simple (and natural) addition can be a unifying modality that checks so many boxes across all these things.The real takeaway here should be that a simple yet brilliant addition to our training has been hidden in plain sight all these years, says @rewirehp. Click To Tweet
Outside of getting set up with a pool, it’s insanely easy to integrate. It also enables us to train durability and performance at the same time.
I suggest that athletes and coaches give it a shot and see if it moves the needle in their movements and athletic ability. If you’re rehabbing or helping recondition an athlete, it’s a no-brainer that can support almost every rehab scenario I can conceive.
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