How to Do Deep Water Exercises

All exercise is properly performed with the spine in neutral alignment. In deep water, good posture is more challenging to achieve because the feet do not touch the floor. Beginning exercisers may find themselves curling forward, flailing the arms, and drifting. There are some things you can do to stabilize. The most important is to wear a deep-water flotation belt. Without it, you will find yourself sinking when you attempt to achieve upright neutral alignment. Use a stabilizing scull, sweeping the hands in and out, to control flailing and reduce drifting. Webbed gloves further increase stability. Learn to brace the core muscles. Include tucks in the warm up (tuck ski or jacks tuck) to engage the core. With practice, the core muscles will engage continuously and discreetly throughout the workout, which is why deep water exercisers so often see improvements in their posture. Below is a list of basic deep water exercises with descriptions. Click on the name of the exercise to see a short video demonstration.

Scull. Sculling is an important skill in deep water. Besides assisting in stabilization, you can use a propeller scull (a figure 8 hand motion) to travel. Hold the hands up in front of you and propeller scull to travel backward. Hold the hands down by your sides and propeller scull to travel forward. Extend the hands out to the sides and use the scull to lift the shoulders out of the water. This works great with jog, heel jog, bicycle, and flutter kick. Maintain the elevation for 30 seconds or more to up the intensity.

Knee-high Jog, Sprint, and Power Run. Jogging is one of the most basic of all moves. Lift the knees until the thighs are parallel to the floor in a knee-high jog. Lifting the knees higher than that tends to make you curl forward and puts a strain on the low back. To increase intensity, go into a sprint by adding speed. To increase intensity even further, go into a power run, which uses large, powerful arm movements that pull the water, and longer, more powerful leg movements.

Heel Jog. Instead of lifting the knees in front, heel jog lifts the heels in back, working the hamstrings. Check to make sure that the knees are staying down.

Skate Kick. A kick backward with straight legs works the gluteus maximus, a muscle that tends to be weaker from sitting too much. Watch that you are not bending the knees and turning the exercise into a heel jog.

Crossover Kick. The midline of the body is an imaginary line that goes through the nose and the bellybutton. Crossover kick crosses that midline. Since the right side of your brain controls the left side of your body, and the left side of the brain controls the right side of your body, crossing the midline of your body requires using both brain hemispheres, causing more neurons to fire and making more connections. It’s a good idea to include some exercises that cross the midline in every session.

1. Skate Kick
2. Crossover Kick
3. Sweep Out
4. Center

Skate Kick, Crossover Kick, Sweep Out and Center. I love this exercise! It challenges coordination, crosses the midline, and engages the core. One leg kicks back, then kicks across the midline, sweeps out to the side and returns to center. Perform the move alternating right and left legs.

Cross-country Ski. Cross-country ski is the ultimate deep water exercise! It uses long levers, works both the upper body and the lower body, and gets the heartrate up. Plus, there are multiple variations! In a neutral position the arms and legs should go forward and backward evenly. If the glutes are weak, it may be difficult to get full hyperextension of the hips. If you tilt the trunk back and focus too much on hip flexion, you end up just kicking forward. Check out your form by skiing with your back to the pool wall; your heels should tap the wall. Try shortening your range of motion so that your forward flexion is not greater than your backward hyperextension. As the glutes get stronger you can increase your range of motion.

Cross-country Ski Travel Backward and Forward. Traveling backward with cross-country ski is a challenge. You cannot propel yourself backward by pushing off the floor. Instead your push yourself backward with a powerful forward arm swing. This takes upper body strength! Turn your palm to face forward when you swing the arm forward, and slice on the swing backward. Do the opposite to travel forward. Turn the palm to face back when the arm swings backward, and slice when the arm swings forward.

Tuck Ski. Instead of tucking your knees up, tuck your feet under your body. That way when you go into the ski your flexion (with the front leg) and hyperextension (with the back leg) will be equal. Watch that you don’t power pop the knees when you lengthen the legs. Tuck ski is a good exercise for the warm up or for active recovery between intervals.

Cross-country Ski
with Rotation

Cross-country Ski with Rotation. This is another exercise that crosses the midline of the body. The rotation is in the upper body, and therefore the arms reach across the midline, while the legs move toward the corners. This is a difficult exercise for some people to master. They end up doing a crossover kick while sweeping both arms side to side, or a crossover kick reaching with the arm on the same side of the body. It looks and feels awkward. But once the move is mastered, you can really up the intensity because the range of motion is so large, the movement is in multiple directions, and you are creating lots of turbulence.

Cossack Kick. My class likes this move. Begin with the heels together and the knees apart, in a diamond position. The shoulder blades are contracted with the elbows bent and the hands out to the sides, thumbs up. Now kick the legs out to the sides and at the same time reach the arms out to the sides. It looks a little like a marionette dancing.

Jumping Jacks. If you perform jumping jacks in deep water the same way you perform them on land, you will find yourself bobbing up and down. Performing them with arms and legs opposite solves the problem. Think of making a capital letter T with your body followed by a capital letter A.

Jumping Jacks Travel Sideways. If you want to travel sideways with jumping jacks you need a different arm and leg motion. Use only one side of your body. If you are traveling to the right, your right arm and right leg reach out to the side, then pull them both straight to center. Use the left arm and leg to travel to the left. Be sure to keep the leg straight, working the inner thigh. A common mistake is bending the knee, since short lever moves are easier than long lever moves. But this turns the move into a Cossack kick and works the hamstrings instead of the inner thigh.

Jacks Tuck. For this exercise tuck your knees up and bring your arms down to the sides. Then abduct the hips (bring the legs out to the sides) while lifting your arms to the side toward the surface of the water. Jacks tuck is another good exercise for the warm up or for active recovery between intervals.

Inner Thigh Lift. Begin with your legs wide apart. Lift one inner thigh toward the surface of the water while the opposite hand reaches down to touch the inner thigh. You can also touch the lower leg or even the ankle if you can reach it, but watch that you do not lean forward to accomplish this. It is more important to keep the spine in neutral than to touch the ankle. Work in your feel good range of motion. It is okay to bring the legs closer together if wide apart is uncomfortable for you, but if the legs are too close together the exercise becomes a knee-high jog.

Accelerate the Legs to Center Elevating the Shoulders. Elevation is a power move that begins with the legs apart, either front to back or side to side, followed by a forceful acceleration of the legs to center. As the straight legs come together the shoulders lift out of the water. There are four exercises that use this technique: cross-country ski with elevation, tuck ski together, frog kick, and breaststroke kick. All of them are great exercises to use in interval training.

Cross-country ski
with Elevation

Cross-country Ski with Elevation. Use your full range of motion for this ski, then forcefully pull the straight legs to center. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Tuck Ski Together. Begin by tucking the feet under your body before going into a full range of motion ski then bringing the straight legs to center. Add some speed and perform the move smoothly. If you are a swimmer you will recognize this as a vertical scissors kick. For non-swimmers, a common mistake is going back into a tuck before the straight legs come together; this takes the power and elevation out of the move.

Frog Kick. This is another move swimmers will be familiar with. Begin by lifting the knees wide to the sides. Straighten the legs into a full range of motion jacks position. Then forcefully accelerate the straight legs to center. Again, a common mistake is tucking the knees back up before the straight legs come together, and then the move is essentially a jacks tuck.

Breaststroke Kick. Instead of lifting the knees wide to the sides as in the frog kick, lift the heels up in back. Then straighten the legs into a full range of motion jacks position and forcefully accelerate the straight legs to center. Both the breaststroke kick and the frog kick are lateral moves, but in the breaststroke kick the legs lift in back first and in the frog kick the knees lift to the sides first.

Side to Side. Begin by tucking your feet under you. Then extend both legs to one side in a side-lying position. Tuck again and extend both legs to the other side. Try to keep the feet close together. Foam dumbbells held out to the sides assist with stabilization for this exercise. It can be performed without dumbbells; in that case stabilize with a scull.

Abdominal Pike and Spine Extension. This is my favorite move for working the abdominals and erector spinae. Begin by tucking your feet under you. Then go into a pike, or a capital letter “L” position. Tuck again and extend both legs 45 degrees to the back. Try to keep the feet close together. Foam dumbbells held end to end on the surface of the water assist with stabilization; keep them on the surface of the water and let your abdominals do the work. This exercise can be performed without dumbbells; in that case stabilize with a scull.

Burpee: 1. Plank
2. Tuck
3. Drop the legs
4. Elevate

Burpees. This is a fun move! You need to use a noodle, preferably one of the denser more buoyant ones. Begin in a plank position. Tuck the feet under you and then drop the legs down to neutral, letting the noodle rise toward the surface. Push the noodle back down and flutter kick to lift the shoulders out of the water. Tuck your feet under you again and go back into a plank position.

Once you get comfortable in deep water you can really get a great workout. I enjoy the freedom of moving without my feet touching the floor. The late John Spannuth, the founder of the US Water Fitness Association, compared deep water exercise to flying. If you would like to know more about deep water exercise, check out my books. Water Fitness Lesson Plans and Choreography has lots of photographs and cues that tell you what muscles you are working. Water Fitness Progressions tells you how to progress your exercises from basic to high intensity interval training, plus lesson plans using various types of equipment.

See you in the deep end!

Author/Instructor Photo
Chris Alexander

The Benefits of Exercising in Deep Water

Exercising in deep water has many of the same benefits as exercising in shallow water, plus a few more. The hydrostatic pressure in deep water pushes blood out to the extremities the same as in shallow water, but since more of the body is submerged cardiovascular efficiency is enhanced and the heart rate is even lower. Hydrostatic pressure against the chest makes inhaling more challenging, which strengthens the muscles of respiration. Ninety percent of the body works against the water’s resistance requiring increased energy expenditures during exercise, and improving muscular strength. Exercisers are able to achieve higher maximal contractions in the lower body and trunk compared to the same movements in shallow water or on land. Immersion in deep water completely offloads the joints leading to a greater range of motion and improving flexibility. There is an exhilarating feeling of weightlessness that comes with exercising in deep water.

Buoyancy creates a challenge to maintain neutral alignment. In shallow water, exercisers maintain alignment using their center of gravity located in the pelvic area, the same as they do on land. They receive feedback from the feet and ankles which allows them to adjust their form. In deep water, exercisers must achieve alignment between their center of gravity and their center of buoyancy, located mid-chest, with no information from their feet to tell them where they are in space. This can decrease body awareness, resulting in instability. A flotation belt attached to the body’s trunk can provide feedback, as well as engage the core muscles, and help the body maintain neutral alignment. Without neutral alignment, the body is at risk for injury. Exercising in neutral vertical alignment increases surface area which creates more resistance, allows exercisers to achieve more powerful movements, and burns more calories.

One of the best known forms of deep-water exercise is deep-water running, which has been studied extensively. The research shows that deep-water running helps prevent injury, improves balance, improves cardiorespiratory fitness, improves mobility, and reduces pain. Beyond running, deep-water exercise offers a variety of exercise options. Most exercises are done in the vertical position, but you can also use a diagonal tilt to the side, go side-lying, lean forward 45 degrees, get in a seated position or go into a pike position. Accelerating the arms and legs to center lifts the shoulders out of the water. Travel uses a variety of arm motions that require upper body strength. A number of exercises take advantage of the pool wall. There are not as many formats as with shallow water, but they include deep-water aerobics, high intensity interval training, circuit classes, and strength training. There are some kickboxing moves, Pilates exercises, and Yoga poses that can be done in deep water. The Arthritis Foundation suggests going to the deep end with a flotation belt if you have arthritis in the spine or shoulders. Ai Chi can be modified for deep water. See Ruth Sova’s book Ai Chi: The Water Way to Health & Healing, page 82, for my deep water modifications.

Foam Dumbbells
Aqualogix Bells
Resistance tubing
Webbed Gloves

Hand-held equipment used in the deep end needs to float, otherwise it may sink to the bottom of the pool if the exerciser loses her grip. There are many types of equipment do float, including buoyant equipment such as noodles and foam dumbbells; drag equipment such as Aqualogix bells, and resistance tubing. Webbed gloves are worn on the hands and are not in danger of sinking. There are some great articles on deep water by Beth Scalone, MacKenzie Barr, Lori Sherlock, Whitney Kessie, and one by me on hand-held resistance equipment, in the December-February 2024 issue of Akwa magazine. Access Akwa on the members only section of the AEA website. There is also information on deep water, including lesson plans for cardio, intervals and strength training (with and without equipment) in my books Water Fitness Progressions and Water Fitness Lesson Plans and Choreography. I am a fan of deep water exercise!

See you in the pool!

Author/Instructor Photo
Chris Alexander

High Intensity Interval Training in Deep Water

There are those who are passionate about deep-water exercise (and I am one of them). But for those who have never tried it, there is a degree of mystery about it. One of the concerns I hear most often is: “I don’t think I could tread water for an entire one-hour class.” You don’t have to! Everyone should wear a flotation belt in deep water. The second concern I hear is: “Can you get a workout in deep water as intense as the workout in shallow water? And the answer is definitely, yes!

Let’s back up to that flotation belt. It needs to be attached tightly around your waist so that it doesn’t slide up under your arm pits. And then you need some practice stabilizing, since your feet don’t touch the pool floor and there may be a tendency to tip forward or backward. The core muscles have to learn to contract to keep you upright, which is why most people see improvements in their core strength after taking a deep-water class for awhile. The second thing you need to learn is to continue to maintain that upright position in which you work against the water’s resistance with your entire body from the neck down, instead of trying to streamline by rounding forward, as in the drawing with the big X through it. In this position the bones of your spine are compressed on the front side, which is not good for the back.

Now, let’s talk about getting an intense workout in deep water. This means high intensity interval training (HIIT) where you work at 80-90% of your maximum effort for short periods followed by periods of active recovery. Achieving maximum effort requires focus. Your focus determines the number of muscle fibers that need to contract and the speed of those contractions. It’s important, then, that you are actively engaged, not reminiscing about vacation or chatting with another participant, when you are performing HIIT. The strategies for achieving high intensity in deep water are similar to the strategies in shallow water, but with some differences.

Step One: Start with the Base Moves. In deep water the base moves are jog, bicycle, kick, cross-country ski, and jumping jacks. These moves all have multiple variations. (1) Jog. You can jog with the feet hip distance apart or wide. You can cross the midline in front with an inner thigh lift or cross the midline in back with hopscotch. You can lift the knees in front or the heels in back. You can lean diagonally to the side or go all the way to side-lying. (2) Bicycle. Bicycle with the feet under you as if you are on a unicycle. You can bicycle tandem, with the feet pedaling in unison. You can lean diagonally to the side or go all the way to side-lying. (3) Kick. You can flutter kick, kick forward, kick across the midline, Cossack kick like a Russian dancer, or kick backward. (4) Cross-country ski. You can ski upright, add a tuck, lean diagonally to the side or go all the way to side-lying. (5) Jumping jacks. You can add a tuck or perform the jacks seated, with knees bent or in an “L” position. All the base moves can be varied by using different arm movements or different foot positions.

Step Two: Increase the Range of Motion. Large moves take more effort than smaller moves. Increasing the range of motion is one intensity variable. Get the knees high in your jog and pump the arms in big movements. Start your inner thigh lift with the feet wide apart and lift the inner thigh high. Start your hopscotch with the feet wide too. Bicycle in large round circles. Kick higher – front or back. Perform cross-country ski with your full range of motion, or do a helicopter ski, moving the legs in semi-circles around the body instead of in straight lines. Take your feet as wide as comfortably possible in your jumping jacks and cross the legs in the center. Focus on achieving your full range of motion. Depending your level of fitness, you may find large moves to be really intense. Alternate base moves with exercises using full range of motion for your intervals until that becomes easier.

Step Three: Add Speed. Faster moves increase intensity. The tendency, however, is to decrease the range of motion as speed is increased. You work much harder if you maintain the same full range of motion while speeding up. Pay attention to your exercises to avoid slowing down. Speed is a second intensity variable. Alternate base moves with faster exercises for your intervals until that becomes easier.

Step Four: Add Acceleration. There are two ways to do this. (1) Accelerate your leg movements toward center to lift your shoulders out of the water. This is called adding elevation. Examples are frog kick, breaststroke kick, cross-country ski, and tuck ski together (scissors kick). The body will rise and sink rhythmically. You can also use a scull to lift your shoulders out of the water with a jog, bicycle or flutter kick. Aim to stay elevated with your scull. (2) Accelerate against the water’s resistance, or add more force to the move. Take your jog to a steep climb by stretching out your arms and pressing alternating hands down while at the same time lifting the knees high and then pressing the heels down toward the pool floor, as if climbing a steep mountain with trekking poles. Lift your inner thigh with power as your press the opposite hand down forcefully toward the thigh. Bicycle with power as if you are climbing a hill in first gear. Perform a high kick powering the leg on the downward phase, or power both upward and downward. Kicks backward, cross-country ski and jumping jacks can all be performed with power. Be mindful about what you are doing because the harder you push against the water, the harder the water pushes back. Acceleration is a third intensity variable. Alternate base moves with accelerated moves for your intervals until that becomes easier.

Step Five: Combine Intensity Variables or Work in More than One Plane. One strategy for continuing to perform HIIT once you have achieved your fitness goals is to combine intensity variables. Go for full range of motion with power, elevation with speed, or power with travel continuing to use force as you move across the pool. Another strategy is to work in two or three planes at once. You can do this by alternating one move in the frontal plane, such as a frog kick with another move in the sagittal plane, such as a tuck ski together. A second way to work in multiple planes is to combine arm moves in one plane with leg moves in another plane. Examples include jumping jacks (frontal plane) with clapping hands (transverse plane); cross-country ski (sagittal plane) with arms sweeping side to side (transverse plane); and high kick (sagittal plane) clapping over the kick (transverse plane) then under the kick (frontal plane). Continue to focus on what you are doing, and your periods of high intensity will leave you breathing hard. You will need those periods of active recovery to catch your breath. For more information on interval training in both deep water and shallow water, including lesson plans using these five steps, see my book Water Fitness Progressions.

See you in the pool!

Author/Instructor Photo
Chris Alexander

Ai Chi for Deep Water

Ai Chi (“energy of love”) is a water exercise and relaxation program that combines deep breathing and slow, large movements, performed in continuous, flowing patterns. It was created by Mr. Jun Konno of Japan and further developed my Ms. Ruth Sova in the United States. The YouTube video above shows Mr. Konno demonstrating Ai Chi.

Ai Chi, performed in shallow water, is so wonderfully relaxing that I wanted to try it with my deep water classes. This required modification, since weight shifting is not possible while suspended in deep water. I will present my modifications on Ai Chi Day, on Sunday July 25, 2021. The Zoom conference lasts from 8:00 AM – 12:00 noon EDT (7:00 AM – 11:00 AM CDT). There will be 18 presenters, including Jun Konno and Ruth Sova; my presentation is 10:10 – 10:19 AM EDT (9:10 – 9:19 AM CDT). If you are interested in attending, you can contact Ruth Sova at for more information.

I am excited about presenting. Here is a preview of Ai Chi in deep water:


The first stage of Ai Chi is called Contemplating and it is a preparation for the moves to come. your body is in an upright posture with the spine in neutral and the legs apart. The arms are out to the sides near the surface of the water. Focus on your breathing. Inhale through the nose and exhale through the nose and mouth. Become aware of how your body rises and falls in the water. Then begin the first sequence, a series of four moves called Floating, Uplifting, Enclosing and Folding, which focus on breathing. They feature a series of arm moves. Most of the upper body moves work well in deep water, but upward movement, such as the front shoulder raise in Floating, tends to make the body sink. You can avoid sinking by turning the thumbs up and slicing through the water.


The second Ai Chi sequence focuses on healing, and includes exercises for the upper body and trunk stability. You will need to brace your core to stabilize in deep water. Webbed gloves can also help with stability if necessary. The movements in this sequence are called Soothing, Gathering and Accepting. The moves begin with a turn to the side. In deep water you will use a scull to assist in turning. The legs stay apart in a suspended lunge position while the arms sweep and flow. After you perform several repetitions of a move on one side, you turn to the other side and repeat the repetitions.

Balancing Begin

The third Ai Chi sequence is called healing and it focuses on the lower body. The moves are called Accepting with Grace, Rounding and Balancing. To get into position you turn to the side using a scull which puts the legs in a suspended lunge position. From there you need to drop the legs into neutral or the lower body movement tends to become a slow cross-country ski. Instead, brace the core and move one leg to the back, or to the front, or swing it front to back as in Balancing (in the photos above) while the arms sweep and flow. After performing several repetitions of each move on one side, turn to the other side and repeat the repetitions.

There is no right or wrong way to perform Ai Chi. Whatever adaptions you make, including deep water adaptations, will make it right for you. See you in the pool!

Author/Instructor Photo
Chris Alexander


An important exercise to add to your fitness routine is the squat. A squat is a functional movement because you use it whenever you sit in a chair, get into the car, use the toilet, or pick up a basket of laundry. Practicing the squat will enable you to continue to perform these activities of daily living much longer. Squatting uses your hips, knees, ankles, glutes, quads and core. Strengthening these muscles in your lower body will also make you more stable and help prevent falls.

Sit down and stand up

So how to get started? Begin by sitting in a chair and standing up. If this is difficult, then hold on to a table or counter while performing the move. Progress to sitting down and standing up without holding on. When you are comfortable with this, see how many times you can sit down and stand up in 30 seconds. The goal is 12 repetitions.

Incorrect Squat
Correct Squat

The next progression is to squat without a chair. How deeply you squat is not important, but make sure your knees are not projecting forward over your toes, as in the first picture. Instead, bend forward from your hips while keeping your knees aligned over the toes, and your weight on your heels, as in the second picture. You will feel it mostly in your quads and glutes. There are several ways to vary the squat. Try squatting with the feet close together or wide apart. You can also try the squat with one foot in front of the other. A lunge is essentially a one-legged squat, with the weight on the front leg and the back leg assisting with balance. Another progression is to hold weights while squatting. If you have a bar you can hold onto, you can take your squats deeper. To see a video with additional information about squats, check out the Being Balanced website at

Feet Close Together
Feet Wide Apart
One Foot in Front

Squat on Step
Squat One Foot on Step
Lunge on Step

Take Your Squats to the Pool. When you squat on land, gravity assists as you lower your body, and the quads and glutes do the work as you rise. The dynamic is different in the water. There buoyancy assists you to rise, and the hamstrings do the work to lower your body toward the floor. This is not necessarily a bad thing. You can increase the work for the hamstrings by holding buoyant equipment, such as foam dumbbells, down by your sides as you squat. One way to work the glutes and quads in the pool is to do squats and lunges on an aquatic step. In this way, more of your body is out of the water and therefore gravity comes more into play. Another way to work the glutes and quads is to perform rebounding moves in which you push off from the floor with both feet. Examples are cross-country ski, jumping jacks and various kinds of jumps, as in the pictures below.

Tuck Jump
Split Jump
Skateboard Jump

Squats and jumps are not options in deep water, but there are other exercises that can be used to work the glutes and quads. One option is to focus on pressing the heels toward the pool floor during a knee-high jog. You can perform a seated leg press, an action similar to using a leg press machine, or rock climb, leaning forward and moving the arms and legs as if climbing a rock wall. Glutes can be worked individually with a cross-country ski or skate kick; and quads can be worked individually with a seated kick. All the underwater photos are from my book Water Fitness Lesson Plans and Choreography.

Seated Leg Press
Rock Climb
Cross-Country Ski

Recommendation: To be able to continue to do important activities of daily living such as sitting in a chair and standing up, driving your car and using the toilet, be sure to include squats in your fitness routine or work your glutes and quads in the pool or do both!

Author/Instructor Photo

Chris Alexander