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HIIT the Pool

Sanders, Mary E. Ph.D., FACSM, RCEP, CDE®

doi: 10.1249/FIT.0000000000000025
COLUMNS: On the Floor

Mary E. Sanders, Ph.D., FACSM, RCEP, CDE®, is a clinical exercise physiologist and diabetes educator at the Division of Wellness and Weight Management in the School of Medicine and adjunct professor of the School of Public Health, University of Nevada, Reno. She is an associate editor of ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal® and editor of the YMCA Water Fitness for Health training manual. Dr. Sanders is ACSM Certified Clinical Exercise Specialist SM and ACSM Registered Clinical Exercise Physiologist®.

Disclosure: The author declares no conflicts of interest and does not have any financial disclosures.

Are your clients short on workout time but may not be comfortable performing vigorous or higher-intensity interval training (HIIT) on land? Maybe it’s time to help them water-down their training options.

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A study by Fan et al. (2) revealed that people who engage in higher-intensity activity, whether for less than 10 minutes or longer than 10 minutes, were more likely to have a lower body mass index and a lower risk of obesity. Every minute of higher-intensity activity lowered the odds of obesity by 5% for women and 2% for men. Several studies indicate that HIIT may play an effective role in improving exercise capacity in special populations (4). Participants with balance or limited mobility may be uncomfortable exercising on land. Let’s explore the depths of water as a HIIT modality so we are better equipped to tailor safe and effective programs to a broader population.

During a recent study by Nagle et al. (5), young college-aged women (N = 21) performed basic shallow-water moves to determine energy expenditure. Moves included jogging, kicking, jumping, scissors, and hover jogs (a jump-and-jog combination). Various parameters were altered to impact intensity, including speed, surface area, and range of motion. They found that the highest maximal heart rate averaged 177 BPM, equivalent to 90% of the participant’s age-predicted maximum heart rate (HRmax). Table illustrates the average percentage of age-predicted HRmax achieved for the five moves during the ∼22 minute cardio segment.

These values meet ACSM guidelines of 64% to 91% HRmax for vigorous training, which shows promise for those participants who may choose a water-based program (1). Let’s dive into the pool to discover some higher-intensity options by focusing on applying the variables of surface area, range of motion, and speed variations to gear up or gear down intensity.

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Pre-HIIT Tips

Suggested HIIT guidelines for older adults or for participants who may be deconditioned (6).

* Learn the skills for proper body alignment and stabilization. In water, hands must be coordinated with the legs for proper body mechanics. Sculling, which is a figure eight-shaped movement of the hands, helps stabilize the upper body for proper alignment.

* Before beginning, you should be able to exercise for at least 20 to 30 minutes at 70% to 85% of HRmax, without exhaustion or problems.

* If your HR does not droptoapproximately 70% of HRmax during recovery intervals, shorten your work intervals and/or lengthen your recovery intervals.

* Build gradually. A total of 8 to 12 weeks of aerobic endurance training may be needed before starting hard intervals. Start with an interval workout 1 day aweek and add intervals to your regular workouts over time. For hard intervals, keep sessions to no more than 10% to 20% of weekly workout time.

* The day after intervals should be light exercise or recovery.

* Remember to always warm up and cool down.

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We’ll take the spirit of HIIT and circuit training to the pool with these short sets that are sure to create a tsunami of energy!

Practice each move with participants and check for proper alignment, body mechanics, and full range of motion before cuing to speed up. Encourage participants to challenge themselves but to go at their own pace and slow down or recover as needed. Check that participants are sufficiently skilled to work independently in the water depth you’ve selected. During deep-water sets, check for personal safety skills in deep water.

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This short set is based on the SWEATTM protocol. The acronym describes a method that includes:

S = Speed and Surface area

W = Working positions of rebound, neutral, and suspended

E = Enlarge ROM

A = work arms and legs around the body, changing planes

T=Travel forward, backward, and sideways (5).

We simplified the system to use only the “S” or changes in speed and the “E” to enlarge range of motion to gear up or gear down intensity.

Equipment: Webbed gloves are advised for support and to grip the water for greater overload. Gloves also enhance sculling.

Intervals: 15/15 to 30/15 seconds

Preparation/stabilization: Rehearse the basic move and enlarge as you develop full range of motion. Hands scull or move slowly pushing and pulling in opposition to legs (15 seconds, easy pace).

Work: Speed up! (15 to 30 seconds, hard/very hard/maximum pace)

Recover: Easy pace, hands scull at the surface for support (15 seconds).

Perform each of the following moves as a circuit using the interval format. Repeat 5 to 10 times.

* Kick: Kick forward with hands sculling at the surface for support or push and pull arms in opposition for increased overload.

* Jump: Squat and jump, pulling arms down to assist upward.

* Scissors: Arms and legs work in opposition for balance. Hands push and pull for stabilization and overload. Alternate arms and legs, working the arms in opposition to legs, and hands pushing and pulling the water to maximize overload.

* Hover Jog: This move combines a jump and jog (four to six times) above the bottom before landing. Hands scull at the surface to assist with upward lift.

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The following sets include various types of equipment to increase surface area overload, weight (water in the buckets, ball weight), and elastic resistance.

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Complete as many rounds as possible, performing 10 to 20 repetitions of each exercise during 3 to 5 minute segments.

* Bucket brigade: Fill up, or only partially fill, a camping bucket. Squat and lower to the surface then lift overhead or onto the deck.

* Big ball: Jump and keep ball dry.

* Thera-Band: Hop and pull back.

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Complete as many repetitions as possible for each exercise in 1 minute, working as fast as possible. Recover 1 minute between the 3 exercises. Repeat 3 to 5 rounds.

* Small ball: Suspend above the bottom and push and pull arms forward and back. You should stay in the same position if you push and pull with equal force.

* Paddle jumps: Squat and jump while stabilizing the upper body, shoulders down and back, paddles at hips for surface area overload. Keep arms straight throughout.

* Sandbell hover jogs: Hug a Sandbell as you hover jog.

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This set was designed by Huey and Foster (3) to bring runners to the pool for partially off-loaded and effective cross-training.

Tether runners to the wall in shallow water using a bilateral system if possible to stabilize their position. Run at an easy pace, pulling against the tether as you move arms in opposition, as you would on land. Be careful not to lean forward. Count each time the right arm comes forward.

* Warm-up/Preparation: Count 25 strokes easy (one set)

* Work: 25 strokes hard (one set)

* Recover until breathing is easy

* Work: 50 strokes hard (three sets). Recover between each set of 50

* Work: 100 strokes somewhat hard to hard. Recover and cool down.

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The following drills were designed by Jim Fitzsimmons, Ed.D., campus recreation and wellness director at the University of Nevada, Reno, who took some of the basic concepts from land-based HIIT programs and adapted them to an aquatic environment. Many athletes are comfortable and efficient at running and rowing; swimming presents a unique challenge. For athletes who are experienced swimmers, the addition of ground-based, multijoint, externally loaded movements performed at a high intensity can expand work capacities. The deep-water drills served to prepare candidates for the U.S. Navy Special Warfare Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training.

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Breath Alert!

Personal Safety: In any depth of water, monitor for fatigue and watch for signs of blackout that can occur without warning. Shallow- or deep-water blackout can affect anyone who is breath-holding. It can occur without warning in any depth of water, in a pool, lake, ocean, or body of water. To avoid water blackouts:

* DO NOT PRACTICE prolonged breath-holding. The ARC, YMCA, and USASwimmingnowban hypoxic training and prolonged underwater swimming, although far too many still practice it.

* Never swim alone.

* Underwater breath-holding should never be encouraged, but if practiced, the rule of thumb for safety is: One Breath-hold,OneTime,One Lap,ONLY.

* Never hyperventilate.

* Repetitive breath-holding increases the risk of blackout. If breath-holding under water, a buddy must be next to you, tapping you on your shoulder so you can signal that you are OK. His or her total focus needs to be you and your safety. He or she should never breath-hold with you. Do not rely on lifeguards. Blackout is difficult to detect above water.

Read more at:

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Use pool mats for safety. In shallow water, complete three rounds as fast as possible of each exercise.

* 20 Sandbell swings (on land or stand in shallow water).

* Swim: Jump or dive if depth is adequate and swim one length heads up freestyle or run the bottom, popping up for air as needed.

* 12 Squats on deck or hover jogs in pool (arms crossed on chest).

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Warm up by swimming 100 m any stroke. Check for deep-water comfort by treading water, bobbing, and performing forward and backward somersaults.

* Single-brick carry:Carry a single dive brick or sandbell halfway across the pool using any stroke and drop. Continue the swim to the far wall and return to brick or bell. Surface dive and retrieve. Swim and carry to wall. (Watch clips here:

* Double-brick carry: Carry two bricks or sandbells to the halfway point. Drop one and carry other to the wall. Carry and return to surface dive, retrieve dropped brick or bell, and carry both to wall.

* Team carry: In teams of three to four, drop four bricks or sand bells on the bottom. Retrieve all four bricks/bells and swim a specific distance while all members are in contact with all the bricks/bells. All team members must be in contact with all the bricks/bells when the team breaks the surface of the water. If a team member breaks contact, bricks must be dropped at location of break of contact and re-retrieved by the team. Fastest time wins. (Check out the video clip at:

* Knot Drill: Participant dives to basket with rope. Puts figure 8 in the line, threads the line through basket, and completes the figure 8 follow-through. Participant may return to the surface as many times as necessary until the knot is tied successfully. Partner then checks final knot and gives thumbs up.

* Basket drill (for time): Teams of four. Basket will start on bottom and must be retrieved and brought to the surface by all team members. The team must remain on the surface with a minimum of one person in contact with the basket. You only may retrieve the objects associated with your team number. When all objects have been collected, the basket may be moved to the wall, with all team members in contact with the basket at all times.

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Special thanks to the CrossFit® coaches, University of Nevada Reno; participants at the AquaTeam European Conference 2011 and 2012; and students attending the WaterFit®/Royal Spanish Swimming Federation training, Madrid, Spain, 2013.

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1. ACSM’s Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription. 9th ed. Philadelphia (PA): Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins; 2014.
2. Fan JX, Brown BB, Hanson H, Kowaleski-Jones L, Smith KR, Zick CD. Moderate to vigorous physical activity and weight outcomes: Does every minute count? Am J Health Promot. 2013; 28 (1): 41–9.
3. Huey L, Foster R. The Complete Water Power Workout Book. New York (NY): Random House; 1993.
4. Keteyian SJ. High-intensity interval training in patients with cardiovascular disease: A brief review of physiologic adaptations and suggestions for future research. J Clin Exerc Physiol. 2013; 2 (1): 13–9.
5. Nagle EF, Sanders ME, Shafer A, Barone-Gibbs B, Nagle JA, Deldin A, Franklin BA, Robertson RJ. Energy expenditure, cardiorespiratory, and perceptual responses to shallow water aquatic exercise in young women. Phys Sports Med. 2013; 41 (3): 67–76.
6. Sanders ME. Higher-intensity interval training moves to the pool. J Active Aging. 2013; 12 (1): 66–73.
© 2014 American College of Sports Medicine.