You found a way to leave gravity behind, but now you’re in way over your head! How do you stay afloat? This post highlights the benefits and challenges of vertical deep water exercise. We will evaluate the pros and cons of flotation devices, keeping you in joyful suspense for your gravity-free workouts. Welcome to the deep end of the pool, and the wonderful possibilities of suspended exercise!
How Does the Body Respond to Vertical Immersion?
Suspended vertically, neck-deep in water, your joints are less compressed and typically, more mobile. Meanwhile, your core muscles have to work hard to maintain verticality and equilibrium: your core is your floor!
Hydrostatic pressure (HP – the pressure of the water on your body) is more intense the deeper a body part is immersed. This means there is a greater HP squeezing force at your feet than at your shoulders. Blood and fluids are pushed up from your feet toward your chest. This upward shift in bodily fluids causes heart rate and respiratory changes. Breathing muscles experience a 60% increase in workload – an excellent training effect! Your heart pumps more efficiently because it is stretched by increased blood volume. Therefore, heart rate can be 10 – 15 beats/min less than it would be on land, even during vigorous exercise. Physiology of immersion is a fascinating story, but let’s get back to suspension devices!
Body composition varies widely among humans. Some people are all muscle and bone (sinking man, left). Me, not so much! Still, even I am more dense than water (ask my family), especially when I breathe out. In vertical alignment, I need to vigorously move my arms and legs to keep my head above water. If I don’t, I sink. I love deep water exercise, but continue to value my ability to breathe!
In order to exercise vertically in deep water (not just tread water), most of us require buoyant support. Without a flotation device, all movement is directed at keeping our head above water. Some people suggest that treading water (NOT using flotation equipment for deep water workouts) is a good thing, because it adds to intensity. I discourage this approach. My suspended workouts offer a wide variety of functional limb movements, building strength in all planes. With proper flotation, body alignment and exercise technique are vastly improved. Whether you are an instructor, trainer, or aqua exercise enthusiast, this article will help you evaluate flotation options for vertically suspended, deep water exercise.
Examples of typical floatation equipment include: flotation belts (strapped around the waist), buoyant devices that are held, or strapped to the limbs, riding or sitting on a noodle, and riding a pelvic flotation device.
Before discussing best options, I’d like to clarify flotation methods I don’t recommend, and why.
Flotation Methods NOT Recommended for Suspended Exercise:
Buoyant devices on the limbs:
- Examples: buoyant foot, ankle or wrist cuffs; holding onto a buoyant object (ie: aquatic dumbbells, or a pool noodle); putting buoyant objects under the arms; standing on submerged buoyant objects.
- Why this doesn’t work well: All buoyant objects are seeking the surface. Therefore, the limbs are being pulled upward while the body is sinking. Most people lack the strength and body awareness required to maintain limb and body alignment. Exercise options become limited.
- Should I ever do this? Standing on a submerged buoyant object can be an exciting balance exercise, but won’t typically allow the vigorous limb movement associated with cardiovascular work.
- Holding onto a buoyant device requires perpetual gripping and concentrated scapular stabilization. Typically, the hands/forearms become very tired, while the shoulders creep upward.
- Grasping a buoyant dumbbell or noodle may be appropriate for a specific exercise like an aquatic plank. It isn’t comfortable or practical for a complete aquatic exercise session.
Buoyant devices under the armpits (axillae): Please do NOT do this!
- Examples: Buoyant devices like aquatic dumbbells, flotation collars, or pool noodles placed under the arms are a BAD idea!
- Why this doesn’t work well: Like all buoyant objects, these devices push upward, toward the surface. Therefore, they apply pressure on the delicate nerves and blood vessels of the armpit. If people attempt to move their arms, they can chafe the skin on the inside of the upper arm. In addition to applying inappropriate pressure, buoyant devices under the arms lift the shoulder blades toward the surface. Alignment of the neck and shoulders is compromised. When scapular set (anchoring the scapulae low on the ribcage) is the goal, buoyant objects under the arms are working exactly opposite to ideal alignment!
Should I ever do this? In my opinion, no, never. Not with anybody.
Sitting on buoyant objects, like sitting on a swing:
- Examples: sitting on belts, flutter boards, noodles or other buoyant objects.
- Why this doesn’t work well: when sitting on buoyant objects, the hips cannot extend (straighten). Therefore, other than knee actions, the legs are fixed, limiting vigorous movement.
- Should I ever do this? Seated balance activities can be fun. The buoyant device can be treated like a stability ball, and core-work options explored for short intervals.
- Precaution: Remember that many of us spend too much time in seated alignment. Our backs become rounded and hip flexors shortened because of perpetual sitting. Deep water aquatic exercise is a perfect place to open the hips, engage the core and activate powerful posterior hip muscles. Seated alignment does not permit vigorous thigh movement, so I limit the use of this buoyancy option.
Preferred Flotation Methods for Deep Water Exercise: My recommendations
- Examples: Buoyancy belts have been the industry standard for many years. As a result, belts are available in many colours, sizes, prices, and fit options. They attach around the waist, with a simple plastic clip. The belt strap may be non-stretch (best), or elastic (feels great at first, but the elastic breaks down quickly in pool water).
- Do belts work well? Yes and no. Belts are easy to find, with average cost around $30 to $60. The belt material is quite resilient. Belt straps and buckles tend to stretch out, wear out, and break, requiring replacement. But that’s not the only problem:
- Belts tend to ride up: because they’re buoyant, and because they are usually not adequately tight when fitted. Buoyancy belts aspire to become push-up bras! This wouldn’t be a bad thing, necessarily, but when belts are up around the chest, they restrict breathing and chafe under the arms. If they’re really loose, belts will push the shoulders upward, out of alignment.
- Belts put pressure on the diaphragm and abdomen, when properly fitted and tightened. This further increases the work of breathing (remember, it’s already harder to breathe because of vertical immersion). Flotation belts may not be appropriate for people with the following:
- hiatus hernia
- acid reflux
- COPD (respiratory difficulty)
- cardiac issues
- pregnancy belly, or large, protruding abdomen
- Belts are less stable than pelvic flotation devices. Some belts are designed to tip you forward for deep water running. Depending on how the belt fits you, it may tip you off balance.
- A belt may not provide adequate flotation for someone with very dense body composition. Sinkers often need a belt designed to provide extra buoyancy. They may need to wear two belts (this is very cumbersome). Sinkers may find adequate flotation if they wear a belt AND ride a noodle (usually a better option than wearing two belts).
Before you conjure the image of someone floating upside down, buoyed up by their pelvis (perhaps after eating a 3-bean burrito), let me explain. Pelvic flotation means: a device that creates buoyancy at or below the pelvis.
- Examples: riding a noodle, or using a specifically designed pelvic flotation device such as the Water Horse, Freeman Floater, or Wave Rider.
These devices are designed to create buoyancy around and below the pelvis. Let’s consider the benefits and challenges of pelvic flotation.
- Does this work well? Yes! In my experience, pelvic flotation is the most comfortable and stable of the buoyancy options presented so far.
- A pool noodle may be all you need, and that’s cost effective. What are the disadvantages? Noodles press directly on pelvic parts (more so than other pelvic flotation options). Some people do not like the upward pressure between their legs. This pelvic pressure is most intense with the high-quality, dense noodles found at some pools. Some people experience chafing of the inner thigh. This problem can be solved by wearing aquatic shorts, or suits that extend to mid thigh.
Advantages of pelvic flotation over belts:
- Fitting is easier, since you don’t have to cinch up a belt. Work of breathing is not affected, because there is no pressure on the abdomen.
- Pelvic flotation is more comfortable for most women during pregnancy.
- Since there is no pressure on the abdomen/diaphragm, this option is best for people with hiatus hernia, acid reflux, respiratory or cardiac issues (assuming their conditions are stable and they are suited for deep water work).
- Pelvic flotation is more stable than wearing a belt. Centre of buoyancy is extended in front of and behind the body. Similar to a high-wire artist carrying a balance pole, this placement of buoyancy tends to stabilize the body.
So there you have it! My preference is pelvic flotation. It’s comfortable, non-restrictive, stable, affordable and accessible. I designed the Wave Rider to allow adaptable buoyancy (by using longer/denser vs shorter/hollow-core noodle pieces). Check it out, and get in touch if you have questions: www.FortheLoveofFit.com. For aquatic training courses on-line, visit: www.FortheLoveofFit.Thinkific.com. Check out: Cue for Two Depths, with lots of tips and ideas for teaching chest deep and deep water exercise simultaneously.
For all flotation equipment, do a buoyancy “T” Test, to be sure flotation is adequate:
- In shoulder-deep water, where you can access the pool floor, ride your pelvic flotation device, or wear your belt, snugly fitted to your waist.
- With wall support (if required), or sculling arms, lift one foot off the floor, then the other, so you are floating vertically (kneeling or seated).
- Stop arm movement, and float vertically with only the support of your device.
- With no arm or leg movement, breathe slowly in, then out.
- If your chin stays above the water line as you breathe out, your flotation is adequate.
- If your chin goes below the water line, and/or you need to scull with the arms to keep from sinking, you need more buoyancy.