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 ruthsova@ruthsova.com 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 https://www.beingbalancedmethod.com/fitness-videos

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

Maintain Your Flexibility

Some of my water fitness class participants enjoy stretching at the end of class and a few leave the pool before we get to the stretches. Are they missing anything important?

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends incorporating stretching exercises into your workouts 2-3 days a week but notes that daily stretching is most effective. They recommend that stretches be held for 10-30 seconds. Stretches that are held for 10-30 seconds are called static stretches. Stretching can also be dynamic. This means that you move a joint slowly through its full range of motion.

Stretching is a way to improve flexibility. Loss of flexibility results in a slower walking speed, smaller steps while walking, back pain and increased risk of falls. Improving flexibility reduces your risk of getting injured during physical activity. Muscles that are less tense are likely to have fewer aches and pains. You are less likely to have muscle cramps. Increasing your range of motion helps with balance. Flexibility and strength are two sides of the same coin. Stretching lengthens the muscles while strength training contracts the muscles. Performing both types of exercises makes you more physically fit.

There is a type of dynamic flexibility training that involves both stretching and contracting the muscle group being targeted. It is called Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation or PNF for short. In PNF an arm or a leg moves in a diagonal pattern. In the first illustration above, the right arm starts at the upper left front corner (left shoulder) and moves to the lower right rear corner. In the second illustration, the right leg starts at the upper left front corner and moves to the lower right rear corner. The opposite motion from the lower left front corner to the upper right rear corner is also performed. PNF stretching improves range of motion and muscular strength at the same time.

Ai Chi is another form of dynamic stretching. It was developed in Japan in 1993 by Jun Konno and introduced to the United States by Ruth Sova. Typically performed in shoulder depth water, Ai Chi moves arms and legs through a full range of motion while focusing on breathing patterns. You can find a video of Jun Konno performing Ai Chi on YouTube. A number of variations of Ai Chi have been developed. I find Ai Chi wonderfully relaxing and created a variation to use with my deep water classes. Ruth Sova is compiling the variations, including mine for deep water, which she will publish later in 2020.

Static stretching, dynamic stretching, PNF and Ai Chi can all be performed in a water fitness class to meet the American College of Sports Medicine’s recommendations on flexibility exercises. If you would like some ideas for stretches for various muscle groups to get you started, see pages 18-19 for shallow water and pages 175-176 for deep water in my book Water Fitness Progressions.

See you in the pool!

Chris Alexander

Make Your Heart Stronger with Intervals

The way to make your heart stronger is to make it beat faster. Since there is a direct correlation between how fast your heart is beating and how fast you are breathing, making your heart stronger means exercising at a pace that makes you breathe faster than normal. Interval training is a popular way to meet this objective.

Interval training is alternating bouts of fast paced exercise with slower paced exercise. The fast pace is called work and the slower pace is called recovery. One period of work plus one period of recovery is called a set. A group of sets is called a cycle. The chart above shows a cycle of five sets of intervals. If you are jogging, your work might be running and your recovery could be walking. In a water exercise class, your work might be performing an exercise faster, but there are other ways to increase intensity.

The basic aquatic exercises of jog, kick, cross-country ski and jumping jacks can all be performed at a somewhat easy level. Your breath will be faster than standing still, but you can still do the exercises while talking or even singing. To increase the intensity to a moderate level, increase the range of motion, that is, make the moves larger. Your breath will be a little faster and although you will still be able to talk, it will be harder to sing. To increase the intensity to a somewhat hard level, increase the speed of the exercise. Try not to lose range of motion as you go faster. For many people, taking the exercise to a suspended position is also somewhat hard. With faster moves or suspended moves you may be able to talk, but you will be breathing hard enough that you won’t really want to talk. To work at a hard level, add acceleration. This could be by jumping but you can also perform the exercise with power. The harder you push against the water the harder the water pushes back. Power moves are slower but the effort is greater. At this level, you might be able to grunt in response to a question and you will feel like you can only keep that pace for a short time.

Click on this linkhttps://youtu.be/g5V0lzwTi40 to watch a video of the basic exercise of cross-country ski in shallow water along with the variations of increasing range of motion, increasing speed, going suspended, adding power, and adding rotation (a variation of a power move). Each variation is performed for 4 counts.

Click on this link https://youtu.be/ZDJnhaxP5cU to watch a video of the basic exercise of cross-country ski in deep water along with the variations of increasing range of motion, increasing speed, adding elevation (accelerating the legs toward center to lift the shoulders out of the water), adding power and adding rotation. Each variation is performed for 4 counts.

The work period and the recovery period of an interval can last for a few seconds up to a few minutes. Usually the recovery period is longer than the work period so that you can recover fully before starting the next work period, but you can have a reduced recovery period for an added challenge. Some ways to time the intervals are:

  • Interval 30: 30 seconds of work to 90, 60 or 30 seconds of recovery
  • Interval 40: 40 seconds of work to 80, 60 or 40 seconds of recovery
  • Interval 60: 60 seconds of work to 120, 90 or 60 seconds of recovery
  • Reduced Recovery Time: 1, 2 or 3 minutes of work to 30, 60 or 90 seconds of recovery
  • Rolling Intervals: work for 1 minute, increase intensity for 1 minute, and increase intensity again for another minute
  • Surges: work for 45 seconds and increase intensity for 15 seconds to 60 seconds of recovery
  • Tabata – 20 seconds of work to 10 seconds of recovery 8 times
Chris Book Cover

These ways to time intervals, plus additional timing options, are explained in my book, Water Fitness Progressions. The book also includes sample lesson plans that use these timing options with variations for moderate, somewhat hard or hard intensities. To order the book from the publisher, click on the title. The book can also be ordered from Amazon.com  

See you in the pool!

Chris Alexander