A 20-Minute Cardio-Interval Workout You Can Do in the Pool

By Tish Hamilton |

Good news for summer days: You can get a great heart rate-raising, whole-body workout in the pool — no lap-swimming required! 

Cardio-Interval Workout You Can Do in the Pool

Pool workouts increase circulation, take a load off your joints, and allow you to move freely, with confidence — without fear of falling, says James N. Robinson, M.D., a sports medicine physician with Hospital of Special Surgery in New York City.

“If you are chest deep in water, you are only bearing around 25 percent of your body weight,” Dr. Robinson explains. “That can significantly decrease pain associated with arthritis and help you perform many activities you couldn’t do before. Plus, the water adds resistance, helping you build strength.”

That’s because even when it feels “easy,” doing moves with water resistance significantly increases intensity — and therefore your fitness. Indeed, walking in the water raises your heart rate more than a stroll around your neighborhood. That was the finding of an Italian study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness.

“People underestimate how good a pool workout is,” says Damien A. Joyner, CPT, ICEI, owner of Incremental Fitness in San Diego and ACE-certified personal trainer who specializes in working with active aging adults and who designed this cardio pool workout.

“I’ve led group water workouts for older adults who told me they didn’t realize how hard their muscles were going to work until they got out of the pool,” says Joyner.

That’s how sneaky — and effective — pool training can be!

Ready for a pool workout? Find participating SilverSneakers fitness locations here. Tip: Use the “Filter” tool and click “amenities” to narrow your search to locations with pools.

How to Do This Cardio-Interval Pool Workout

You can complete the workout Joyner designed (below) in about 20 minutes. If you’d like a longer workout, simply repeat the exercises.

“Be mindful of staying within your own personal comfort zone,” Joyner advises.

You don’t need any special equipment, but you may want to consider:

  • Water shoes for traction while walking
  • Goggles to protect your eyes from splashes or wrap-around sports sunglasses if you’re using an outdoor pool
  • A swim cap to both protect your hair from splashes and to minimize distraction
  • Floaties on your arms or a flotation vest to help you feel more buoyant, if necessary
  • A pool noodle for balance

You can up the intensity of any of the exercises by using waterproof dumbbells, which are often available at the pool.

Bring a water bottle: You may not feel like you’re sweating in the pool but it’s important to stay hydrated.

As always, check with your physician before starting a new fitness program, says Dr. Robinson, especially if you have chronic medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes, or arthritis. A pool heated to 83 degrees is ideal for people with arthritis.

For another fun water workout, try SilverSneakers Splash! This shallow-water class is good for all fitness levels. Offered at participating fitness locations. Check your eligibility here.

The 20-Minute Cardio-Interval Pool Workout

This is an interval workout, which means you’ll alternate between short bursts of faster-paced, higher intensity moves, and an active recovery period.

This style of training has been shown to improve fitness, says Joyner. Even bursts as short as 4 seconds boosted cardiovascular fitness and endurance for a group of out-of-shape adults age 50-68, according to a 2021 study from the University of Texas at Austin. Those participants sprinted on a stationary bike 15 to 30 times over the course of a 15-minute workout three times a week.

Tip: Position yourself near the pool wall, especially for the faster-paced exercises, in case you need to hold the pool edge for balance or support.

Recommended reading: 6 Pesky Pool Workout Problems, Solved!

Exercise #1: Water Walk

Start with a walk in the pool to warm up your muscles and feel how the water shifts, says Joyner.

  1. Travel forward—going no more than waist to chest deep—or walk in place
  2. Engage your core (as if you’re bracing for a gut punch)
  3. Focus on walking tall with good posture
  4. Swing your arms back and forth through the water with exaggerated movements
  5. Walk for 5 minutes

Exercise #2: High Knees

In addition to getting your heart rate up, high knees work the front and back of your legs (quads, hamstrings, and glutes), your hip flexors, and your calf muscles, while the arm pumps strengthen your biceps and triceps.

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  1. March in place
  2. Pump your arms at a 90-degree angle
  3. Bend your knees to raise your upper leg until it is parallel to the pool bottom, or as close to that as is comfortable for you
  4. Pick up the pace, moving as quickly as you can while maintaining good form and balance
  5. Do High Knees for 30-60 seconds

Exercise #3: Butt Kickers

Track athletes perform this classic drill on land as both a warmup and a power booster. Doing it in the water delivers the benefits without the pounding.

  1. Stand with feet hip-width apart, and your hands on your hips
  2. Lift your right foot directly behind you as if you were going to kick your butt, while keeping your knees close together
  3. Lower your foot to the pool floor and repeat on the left side
  4. Gradually pick up the pace, alternating legs
  5. Add a little hop if you can while maintaining balance
  6. Try doing 10-20 fast Butt Kickers

Exercise #4: Skater’s Move

This lateral movement works the muscles along the outside of your leg, helping improve dryland balance, as well as your upper back and core.

  1. Stand with feet hip width apart
  2. Engage your core
  3. Jump to the right, landing on your right foot, bending your knee, and sweeping your left leg behind you
  4. At the same time, swing your right arm directly behind your body, skimming the surface of the water, and swing your left arm in front
  5. Repeat the move to the left side
  6. Start slowly, and continue alternating sides 10-20 times, picking up the pace and moving as fast as you comfortably can while maintaining balance
  7. Try to do this smoothly, as if you were skating across ice

Timed 10-Second Intervals

Once you’re comfortable doing the four exercises, you can string them together for the cardio interval part of the workout. This will get your heart rate up and work multiple muscle groups, improving all-around fitness, says Joyner.

He recommends alternating between moves, for example:

  1. Do 10 seconds of fast High Knees
  2. Recover for 50 seconds with a Water Walk
  3. Do 10 seconds of fast Butt Kickers
  4. Recover for 50 seconds with a Water Walk
  5. Do 10 seconds of fast Skater’s Move
  6. Recover for 50 seconds with a Water Walk
  7. Repeat the circuit for 10 minutes

How fast do you need to go? “Whatever is quick for you,” says Joyner.

The most important thing is to keep good form. Dial back the intensity if you’re not able to complete each faster-paced move properly.

Cooldown With a 3-Minute Water Walk

Curious about cardio interval training? Try a Cardio Interval (Express) workout with SilverSneakers LIVE! Check your eligibility here. View the current schedule and RSVP here.

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