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How to Get a Full Workout in the Pool, No Swimming Required

Get stronger and fitter with these simple water exercises

By Debra Witt | August 1, 2013

Summer is in full swing and nothing tops slipping into the water to cool off. But the pool is more than a place to get a refreshing dip. When temperatures rise, you can relocate your entire workout there.

"Underwater you'll get resistance from every plane of motion, something that's just not possible on land because of gravity, making it the perfect place to build strength," says Kathy Fisher, aquatics director at the Randolph YMCA in Randolph, N.J., and the pioneer of the country's only Aquatic Boot Camp, a high-intensity circuit workout that attracts participants of all ages and abilities.
 
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The Benefits of Water Exercise

For people in midlife and beyond, the advantages of pool workouts are clear, if not widely known, Fisher says. Hydrostatic pressure exerted on your body by the water helps to alleviate inflammation, making pool exercise a smart choice for anyone with joint pain. "Water allows you to do exercises that you may not be able to do anymore on land, maybe because of arthritis, chronic pain or a limited range of motion. The buoyancy supports your body weight so there's virtually no impact."
 
When you wade waist-deep into a pool, 50 percent of your body weight is supported by water, Fisher explains. Stand chest-deep and that percentage rises to over 70 percent. "So for someone who may have given up an exercise like jumping rope because of sore hips or a shoulder problem," she says, "doing the same motion in water makes it possible again."
 
What's more, when you move in the pool, your all-important core muscles — abdominals, buttocks, hips and lower back — remain consistently engaged to keep you stable. "You're getting a wonderful core workout that will help your balance and muscle-support system on land, without having to do one crunch," Fisher says. As you constantly push against the water's resistance in all directions during a low-impact routine, you can potentially burn more calories in a pool than in the gym, he adds, "and you don't have to use any equipment to get the resistance required to strengthen and build muscle."
 
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Fisher shares her favorite upper- and lower-body exercises below. Try these routines two to three times a week in waist-deep water. Before each workout, warm up your muscles (outside the pool) with shoulder rolls and five minutes of jogging in place. After your workout, cool down with pool walking and gentle stretches.
 
Lower Body Workout
 
Squats Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and flat on the bottom of the pool — no standing on your toes. Inhale and bend your knees and hips to lower yourself into a squat position. As you bend, raise your arms to just under the surface of the water. Try to get your thighs parallel to the floor and double-check that your knees are not in front of your toes. Push your arms down and exhale as you return to the start position. (Spread your fingers apart to increase the resistance.) Do two to three sets of 10 to 16 repetitions. For an advanced variation, try one-leg squats.
 
Walking Lunges Stand with your feet hip-width apart and your hands on your hips. Step forward with one leg and slowly lower your body until your front knee is bent 90 degrees. Rise up and bring your back foot forward to repeat the motion. Alternate your feet for 10 to 16 steps, then turn and repeat in the other direction.
 
Calf Raises Stand on the lowest rung of a pool ladder with just the balls of your feet on the step. Slowly rise onto the balls of your feet, hold for two seconds, then slowly return to the start position. Do two to three sets of 10 to 16 repetitions.
 
Upper Body Workout
 
Jumping Jacks Crouch down so that your shoulders are under the water (or move to neck-deep water, if you can stand there comfortably). Begin with your feet together and your hands at your sides. At the same time, raise your arms to the surface (but do not bring them out of the water) and jump to spread your feet out wide. Quickly reverse the movement and repeat 10 to 16 times. For a variation, use the same jumping motion, but bring your arms up and down in front of your body. Or begin with your arms straight out to your sides at shoulder height and bring your hands together in front of your chest. These variants will engage other chest, shoulder and upper-back muscles.
 
Biceps Curl Unlike biceps curls on land, these movements require no dumbbells and the second part of the motion engages your triceps as well. Start by crouching down so that your shoulders are under the water (or move to chest-deep water, if it's comfortable). With arms at your sides and elbows tucked tight to your body, slowly bend your elbows and curl your palms toward your shoulders. Spread your fingers apart for maximum resistance. Keeping your palms face up, slowly lower your hands to the starting position. Do three sets of 10 to 16 repetitions.
 
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Chest Press Crouch down so that your shoulders are underwater and stabilize yourself by standing in a lunge or squat position. Keeping your arms just under the surface, spread your fingers wide and slowly push the water forward until your arms are fully extended. Without changing your hand position, slowly pull your arms back to the starting position. Do three sets of 10 to 16 repetitions. For a tougher challenge, use a hand buoy or pool noodle to increase resistance.