Water provides about 12 times the resistance of air. The built-in opposition means that there’s no single better venue for a workout that at once incinerates calories, gets your heart pounding, works—and builds— muscle, yet is gentle on your joints so you can go for longer. So says Stephen Madden, owner-operator of SwimPT, a program that combines CrossFit training with aquatic exercise, in Chatham, N.J.
And while there are all kinds of water exercise courses offered at local pools, you can take your workout with you on vacation, too, says Madden. Just find any body of water with a nice, soft bottom and, if possible, a sandy beach. Then get in waist- to chest-deep and let your creativity take over for a workout that is as challenging as it is fun.
Madden stresses that even in shallow water safety should be top priority: “Never, ever get into the water alone when you’re exercising, especially in an outdoors setting where you could be far from help or subject to ocean surf.” Also, avoid exercising in any body of water with a rocky or uncertain bottom, or in strong or unpredictable currents. For added safety, seek venues where there’s a lifeguard on duty.
Here are just a few of Madden’s water exercises to get fit in the water. For the rest between sets, you can simply stop for a couple of minutes if you need to, but for a better cardio workout Madden recommends an easy 50-yard swim between sets.
ARM CHURNS In belly- to chest-deep water, squat so that your shoulders are submerged. Keeping your core engaged for stability and arms straight out to the sides, start by making small circles with your arms. Every 5 rotations widen the circle just a little bit, so your last 5 rotations are a full stroke. Do 25 forward churns and 25 in the reverse direction. Make it harder: You control the difficulty of this exercise, says Madden. Slow your circles and it’s downright easy. Speed up, and you’ll feel the added drag.
WATER FROG JUMPS In the same-depth water, squat down so your face is under water but your head is still upright, place your palms on the bottom, then jump straight up as high as you can with arms overhead. “Not only do you get the added difficulty of water resistance, but you have to hold your breath for part of the exercise, which adds a hypoxic element,” Madden says. Do 3 sets of 10 to 15. Make it harder: Madden sometimes carries a dumbbell to add difficulty to jumps.
TREAD AND TOSS Tread water—in either a flutter (straight leg, kicking back and forth) or eggbeater kick (bent knees, rotating legs in alternating circles), with arms above the surface—and toss a tennis ball, football, beach ball, or whatever you have between participants. Tread water for sets of 2 to 4 minutes, with rest in between, for a total of 10 minutes. Make it harder: Try keeping your arms raised above your head to catch and toss. “That alone will make you gassed,” notes Madden. Or work up to 10 minutes straight with no rest.
THE BEACH BUM 100 Here’s one Madden and his wife did during their beach vacation: Pace out 100 yards (roughly 65 strides) on the beach and mark each end with something visible, like a pile of towels or beach umbrella. To begin the workout, sprint the 100. Then do 15 sit-ups (for a challenge face your feet uphill, so you’re on an incline), then go into the water and swim 100 yards back to the start, get out of the water and do 15 pushups. Repeat as many times as you like—the Maddens went for 10 rounds— varying calisthenics to include squats, planks, and lunges.
The best part of this workout is the variety, says Madden, whose CrossFit memoir, Embrace the Suck, will be published by HarperCollins in December. You could also add water running, sand digging, or anything else you can think of. If your kids are the right age, you might even be able to convince them to join in part of the fun, says Madden, who is the father of three young teens. “So in our case we were just an embarrassment,” he says. “But it was a great workout.”
WHAT TO BRING
No gear? No problem. But goggles help tremendously, as do water shoes. Other useful items such as flippers (to work your legs) or beach balls can be incorporated creatively.