What Determines the “Level” of an Aquatic Fitness Class?
Aquatic Fitness Topic 3
There is no one standard that is universally applied to the level of difficulty or intensity of aquatic exercise classes. There is no one designation either, though you can generally be sure that a program called “Aquacise” or ‘Water Aerobics” will be aimed at very general populations and to beginners and therefore will not be an advanced aquatic fitness class. General programs must be programmed for multi-age and various fitness-capable populations. For these populations, “one size does not fit all!” as my friend and Grandmaster Trainer Julie Twynham, Educational Director and Creator of WaterART Fitness International, insists, advising WaterART trainers and instructors to encourage people to “go at their own pace” if teaching these kinds of classes where often people walk in with virtually no vertical aquatics and perhaps zero fitness training at all. Some programs have two levels, some three, some four, some none. This depends on the size of the program, the size and temperature and target uses of the pool, the training of the instructor/s and the fitness levels and aquatic training of the clientele, and some other unpredictable things. Numbers have come not to mean a lot. While they might be helpful for new people who are deciding which class is suitable for them, numbers as level designators are not likely be descriptive of what goes on. And no matter what level of class you are in, your body will no doubt direct you to go at whatever pace you are already comfortable with. To move beyond that pace in order to progress the difficulty and intensity of your workout, you will have to concentrate on improving form, breath, lever length, muscle engagement, and you will have to actively challenge your body to step it up a notch.
Levels of intensity can mean intensity of muscular training and/or cardio intensity—but both of these depend on the same things: endurance, range of motion, speed and force, lever length, as well as the principles of water (like buoyancy, resistance, hydrostatic pressure, the body’s need to thermo-regulate, turbulence, wave eddy, etc.) and the knowledge of how to use them to intensify the workout. Buoyancy is opposite from land’s gravity: in the buoyancy of water, the power motion is downward and through the water; in the gravity on land, the power motion is upward. Effective water workouts use every muscle in your body, recruiting multiple supporting muscles and always the core muscles—it is very difficult in the water to isolate one muscle or muscle group as you can on land, and why would you? The water is a 360 degree multiplex gym and all by itself, your body is all the machines at once—different exercises may target one muscle group, but they will also recruit support from others because you have to balance yourself in the water. Your movements in water compare more to astronauts in gravity suits trying to walk on the moon than they compare to movement on land. For example, when you jump in the water, you get far less work than if you don’t—just as in the weightless atmosphere of space. Every time you are in “flight phase” or “float phase” you cease to get exercise. The exercise is in coming down, and only if there is no momentum. Your work in both environments—water and anti-gravity space– would be in trying to put your legs and feet back down on the surface instead of raising them up. And the work will not be activated in the legs and feet as much as it will in the abdominal muscles and gluteals and upper hamstrings and quadriceps. These are forced to work eccentrically (work while lengthening a muscle) as well as concentrically, or shortening, it), especially in the areas of the “deep six” muscles of the pelvic floor and the lowest strands of the large transverse abdominis muscle—and is great for tightening up the apron sag of the belly: that is since muscles groups work in opposition in the water, even when a group is in the rest phase, simply because balance recruits most of the muscles, the resting muscles are also having to work—just not as primary agonists.
Since everything must be done differently in water, and since muscle work is recruited throughout the body in order to keep your balance and all along the opposed levers you are pushing and pulling rather than upon just one muscle or group, this makes water the superior medium for balancing your muscles—making the left side as strong as the right, the rear muscles as strong as the anterior muscles, the antagonists as strong as the agonists, which is the goal of all healthy fitness activities. Using equipment in the water is like putting icing on an already very substantial cake—whereas on land, to progress you absolutely have to have equipment. Like land equipment, water resistance and buoyancy equipment will have zero exercise benefit unless you can perform the exercises properly down and through the water using proper breathing techniques without the equipment first. The level of difficulty should be maximized without equipment before the equipment is added to the exercise. The highest level of difficulty in aquatic training is being able to perform all exercises with full ROM and adequate force while fully suspended using no equipment at all.
Levels of difficulty in group aquatic classes on the other hand often use difficulty in choreography and keeping a very fast tempo as standards of measuring difficulty. And difficult choreography doesn’t necessarily mean a great workout will be achieved; often, the opposite is true. In shallow or transitional water depths, when choreography is complicated and too fast, people will cheat by using up and down floating and bouncing movements, or they will use foam dumb bells held at the surface of the water to suspend, or they will cheat ROM by shortening it so they can go fast. The power motion in water is down and through, however. Every time the feet leave the pool floor and do not forcefully exert to push back down to the floor, the exercise benefit is nil. If one rides on the dumb bells at the surface of the water in order to bicycle or cross country ski, the exercise benefit is nil, and the level of difficulty—which should be intensified with dumb bell use—goes to nothing. The only way buoyancy equipment augments exercise benefit in water is by pushing or pulling it or the body against it down and through the water.
The level of difficulty and intensity in group aquatic classes depends on the following:
1. The fitness level of the students in the class. Beginning students can’t do advanced aquatic work, Period. They can work to the level where they are. Doing advanced aquatic work takes years of practice and continually progressing one’s attention, intention and skill; it also requires developing a very high level of general fitness and fitness specific to water as well as familiarity with the qualities and principles of water and their differences from land work in gravity. Further, advanced students won’t do beginner work—they will be programmed to automatically engage muscles, use long levers, oppositional body movements, force, speed, full ROM, proper breathing technique, and to create resistance to work their bodies hard. They will also keep their minds in their muscles and breath and not on their neighbors. They don’t chat much. Exercise science has demonstrated that you get a third less exercise if you watch TV or listen to music or chat with people or read while you exercise. If you can concentrate on something else other than your body while you are exercising, you need to work harder and more intensely. The mind has to be a full partner! s.
2. The training and expertise of the instructor and the instructor’s expectation of the participants. The training level is not something that is achieved once and for all. Like physicians, professors, and other professionals, the fitness professional studies, carries out research, practices, participates in advanced training events, takes exams and writes case histories to certify his/her skills in using properties of the water, in teaching and cueing, in body mechanics and systems, and earns on average 8 hours of continuing education credits every year, often completing one certification after another.
It is possible for a new basic instructor to teach an intermediate class, but only if the new instructor has already had a huge amount of aquatic and teaching experience and has trained at the more advanced levels. The instructor of an advanced class is accustomed to working her/his own body at very advanced levels and self-challenges to greater difficulty and intensity frequently. S/he is adept at teaching while doing and cueing corrections to folks who are doing something improperly or dangerously. You see the instructor/trainers in and out of the water a lot. The phrases “work at your own level” and “this is your workout so do what you feel comfortable with” are very important in beginning and intermediate group classes, but are not terribly applicable to an advanced class, as everybody’s level is up there and the instructor’s expectations and willingness to guide and teach and train are up there too. When beginners inadvertently come into one of my advanced specialty classes, with “power” or “gym” or “training” in the title, my regular, trained participants start rolling their eyeballs. They know where my attention will have to go and they resent it. They have paid for a difficult, high intensity class that will give the workout they need and which they have already worked months, years or decades to achieve, and suddenly they are not getting their money’s worth. If this happened often, I would probably lose the class.
3. Specialty classes, like “arthritis” or any medical specialty or “Rehabilitation Exercise” or “kids,” or “senior populations” or “Sports Training” do not have levels. They are more personally directed to a more cohesive group. And these are the most difficult classes to teach and require the most training and skill and knowledge of the instructors as well as specific personality traits. The clientele is there for quite specific reasons—because of aging or impairment of strength, flexibility; or because of injury, pain or deconditioning, or because they are children and need some constructive, active, well planned and executed fun, etc. Aquatic strength training or muscle classes are like this as well—the clientele is a special population.
I believe classes should advertise themselves according to their populations/clienteles as precisely as possible. And I like the terms “basic, intermediate, and advanced” better than levels 1, 2, 3 because words are more descriptive than numbers. Specialty classes, I think, should advertise themselves according to the populations they seek to serve. The AEA (see *note below) distinguishes between basic, intermediate and advanced levels of “transitions” between various exercise movements or patterns. Fluid transitions that involve changes in working positions and planes of motion as well as the activity itself can also distinguish between levels of exercise intensity/ levels of fitness classes.
In my thinking, programming is the thing that most distinguishes among levels, and one can achieve a very good workout at all levels, or not, depending upon one’s attention to the exercise and willingness to work to carry it out properly. Basic level programming usually has participants at least pass through neutral position in the transitions between moves, and movements are usually carried out on one plane of motion only. An intermediate level programming use more advanced variations of the six to seven basic aquatic movements and often uses traveling moves and frequent changes in planes of motion and direction. (All water exercise is essentially composed of variations of the 6 to 7 basic moves, combined with the 4 working positions and the 3 planes of motion.) It requires additional cueing skills and choreography planning, as well as smooth and immediate transitions among exercises and planes of motion and direction, using circular, forward, backward, diagonal and sidewise motions. Advanced level programming is for the fit or for trained athletes, and requires enormous core strength and coordination to complete the swift transitions safely. It involves continuous and multiple changes in planes of motion and in working positions and uses two and three planes of motion within one exercise as well as doubling up on working positions within a one unit design. It uses hands, fingers, feet and toes and all joints to extend levers to maximum length and contract them to minimum in order to increase the resistance component as maximally as possible. The level is designated “advanced” because of participants’ superior core strength and breathing technique and the conscious intention to challenge more and more muscles into engagement and work.
It is almost easier in land fitness group classes to designate levels, simply because if one tries advanced work on land and one is not ready for it, an injury will usually result—people are usually aware of this risk and limit themselves accordingly. An “advanced” step aerobics class, for example, or advanced “Zumba,” is just that—people can peer in the door and see instantly that this is or is not for them. If you don’t have the specific skills and fitness level to do it, you are likely to get hurt, or injure somebody else.
There are other variables brought to bear on the “level” of class that have nothing to do with skill level or intention or the regularity of performance. Pool temperature and air humidity, for example. If the water is too warm (more than 85 or 86 degrees), your body will not let you work at an advanced level. Your body is not dumb. It is not going to let you give yourself a heart attack—it will simply slow down, and you won’t get your workout. If you are fit enough to push yourself anyway, you put yourself in danger. The size of the pool in relation to the number of participants is another issue. 50 people in an Olympic size pool would work, if they had a shallow area. 25 people in a standard junior Olympic pool with a large shallow area will almost work. In a pool half the size of junior Olympic, 25 people will certainly not have the 4’ X 8’ of individual water space recommended or needed to move with full ROM—travel will be greatly restricted and consequently so will the workout. Many suspended moves require at least 10 feet per person. And, a class generally uses only half a pool at a time, so any number is crowded into that space.
There are so many different fitness and health associations, I doubt if any of them will ever agree upon a “standard” of “levels” of classes. But any individual can search out a highly certified instructor by searching their credentials and by searching the certification standards of their accrediting fitness association. A superior educational, research and teaching oriented accrediting association insists upon the science of exercise in water, insists upon and extensively tests the knowledge of both the body (its systems and bio-mechanical principles of muscular and movement oppositions) and the principles of water and how biomechanics work in the water, and demands the industry standard of 16 advanced skills CECs at least every two years for recertification, as WaterART Fitness International does, which is why I chose it over all others when I became obsessed with, my husband would say possessed by, aquatic fitness training and education. I am a professional—was a university professor for nearly four decades. Once a professional in any field, one is always a professional and demands that in her cohort. Look for top level professionals in the certifying association. Participants can always go and observe and try out several classes over a month or so and can go online and read for themselves the training association’s tested demands of its instructors. Then remember, you are never stuck in a class—if you feel you are not advancing or getting what you need or being challenged enough or too much for you, do your research and take a different class for a while.
A transition where the next move begins where the previous move ended or it passes through neutral alignment. Usually changes from a one-footed move to another one-footed move or a two-footed move to another two-footed move and is generally performed in the same plane.
This requires more coordination and core strength to pass through the transition and still maintain safe alignment for the more fit or experienced participant without musculoskeletal or medical conditions. Requires additional cueing skills and choreography planning.
Can be considered as programming for fit students or trained athletes. Requires additional core strength and coordination to pass through the transition safely. Many times the body does not maintain neutral alignment.
Aquatic Exercise Association
Dr. Lucia Cordell Getsi, Ph.D.
Comparative Literature and Cognitive Poetics
University Distinguished Professor Emerita, Illinois State
Master Trainer; Aquatic Rehabilitation Exercise Specialist, WaterART Fitness International