Waterlogged strength training is trending this summer, boasting a low-impact way to boost your heart rate and build muscle. So should you swap your usual workouts for underwater jump lunges and pistol squats?
Strength training and swimming both have their own clear benefits, so combining them can certainly lead to a solid workout, says Tyler Spraul, C.S.C.S.
Consider the benefits of strength training: When you put resistance on your muscles—whether it’s your body weight in a pushup or a barbell in a squat—you trigger muscle protein synthesis and build lean body mass, which boosts your metabolism and the number of calories you burn throughout the day.
Water offers 12 times as much resistance as air, and because it’s so difficult to move through, it really challenges your muscles, according to The Cleveland Clinic. Given the effort it takes to move your body through the water, it’s no surprise that research has shown regular swimming improves physical strength, endurance, and body composition (a.k.a. how much lean mass versus fat you have).
On top of all this, water also supports some of your body weight, so it’s kinder to your joints than land is. “Water-related exercise is an excellent way to work out while reducing the joint stress that comes from regular workouts outside the pool, whether it’s pounding the pavement or lifting heavy weights,” says Spraul.
Working out in the water is also especially beneficial for anyone with an injury, arthritis, back pain, degenerative spine or disc issues who may have a limited ability to exercise, says Chris Kolba, Ph.D., P.T., C.S.C.S., physical therapist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
With a little creativity, you can do all sorts of exercises in the water—just expect to move quite a bit slower than normal.
To switch up your resistance training routine, you can perform moves like lunges, squats, step-ups, pullups, pistol squats, and inclined pushups in the pool.
Looking to kick things up a notch? Try traditional HIIT moves, such as bounding (running with long strides), squat jumps, plyometric lunges, or tuck jumps, says Spraul. Because the resistance of the water won’t let you move as fast as you normally would outside the pool, these explosive movements will actually be more difficult, he says. And that added resistance will force you (and your muscles) to really work.
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A lot of gyms and studios with pool access even offer aquatic boot camp circuits, plyometric, and interval classes. We’re not talking old-lady water aerobics; we’re talking workouts involving underwater cycling and jump lunges—like those offered at New York City’s AQUASTUDIO or select LifeTime Fitness locations. (One of our editors even tried them out.)
Here’s the thing: That doesn’t mean you should always opt for the pool over land. Performing these moves won’t make for as athletic of a workout as they would if you were performing them with higher intensity and speed on land, says Spraul.
The force produced when we exercise on land is crucial for our ability to strengthen our bones and muscles, says Kolba. And working out on the ground better prepares our bodies for the functional movements and activities we do throughout our everyday lives.
Kolba recommends that if you’re injury-free and can strength train on land, you should continue to do so. “A land-based resistance program will maximize strength, balance, and bone-loading—which is especially important as we age,” he says.
But taking your workout to the water does have a place on recovery days, or when you’re craving a little variety. “When you’re doing strength training or HIIT-style exercises in the pool, the water will help take some of the load off, so you don’t put as much stress on your muscles and likely won’t feel as tired or sore afterwards,” says Spraul. After all, you can’t go all-out every day of the week—and overexerting yourself can lead to injury—so if you wake up feeling a bit sluggish, consider hopping in the pool for an easier (but still challenging) workout.