5 Strength Exercises to Take from Land to Water

By Lauren Bedosky |

Build muscle and balance with this physical therapist-approved pool routine.

Senior African-American woman in a swimming pool

If you typically do your strength and balance workout routine at the gym or at home, it’s time to give the pool a chance.  

Don’t worry, we’re not suggesting you learn all the different swim strokes and start swimming laps (though you can, if you’d like). Instead, we’re talking about taking a few key land-based exercises for a dip.  

Thanks to the added resistance of the water, your muscles and balance will be challenged in totally different ways, says Tamara Jacobs, D.P.T., a physical therapist who specializes in aqua therapy at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City.  

And far from being child’s play, pool exercises can be more practically useful when you pick moves that directly relate to the skills that you need to go about your day on dry land, says Jacobs.   

Think: What kinds of activities do you perform in your everyday life? Chances are you count getting out of a chair, going up and down stairs, opening doors, and walking among your daily go-to moves.   

Well, you can mimic all of your usual activities in the pool, Dr. Jacobs says. And in so doing, you’ll build the strength and stability you need to be able to do these activities on your own—without stressing your joints.   

In fact, moving your workout to a pool can ease any existing joint pain and stiffness, as shown by a 2016 study in The Journal of Rheumatology. A group of adults with osteoarthritis, also known as a “wear and tear” joint condition, saw significant improvements in joint stiffness and pain after swimming 45 minutes three days a week for three months. 

Another study comparing the strength and flexibility benefits of land and water exercises for older adults found similar improvements across the board. However, the water group showed greater gains in dynamic balance, which is your ability to stay steady when you’re moving.   

Not to mention, exercising in the pool offers a great change of pace, and helps keep your workout routine feeling fresh.  

How to Take Your Workouts from Land to Water

Perform the following pool routine two to three times per week on non-consecutive days.   

Jacobs recommends going to the point of mild fatigue on each exercise (meaning the last couple of reps are challenging, but you can finish with good form). But two sets of 10 reps is a good place to start.  

As always, safety is key. These exercises may be different or more advanced than those you’ll experience in a SilverSneakers class. If you have a chronic condition, an injury, or balance issues, talk to your doctor about how you can exercise safely. 

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.

Exercise #1: Single-Leg Balance with Toe Taps 

Do 2 sets of 10 reps 

How to do it: Stand in water not much higher than waist-height. Brace your core and shift your weight onto one leg, knee slightly bent. This is your starting position. 

Try to stay balanced on your standing leg as you reach your other leg out in front of you and tap the floor with your toes. Then, reach your free leg out to the side and tap the floor again. Finally, tap the floor behind you before returning your free leg to the starting position. That’s one rep. Repeat for 10 reps on one side before switching to the other.  

Tip: Keep your chest up and hips level; try not to shift side-to-side or front-to-back during the movement.   

Make it easier: Grip a flotation device (such as a pool noodle or kickboard) or the side of the pool if you struggle to maintain balance.   

Exercise #2: Standing Four-Way Hip Circles 

Do 2 sets of 10 reps in each direction on each leg  

How to do it: Stand in water not much higher than waist-height. Brace your core and shift your weight onto one leg, knee slightly bent. This is your starting position.  

Lift your opposite foot off the pool floor and slowly kick your leg out to the side. Keep your working leg straight and the motion small; only kick as far as you’re able while keeping the hips level and back upright.   

Bring your foot back to the pool floor and repeat for a total of 10 repetitions on that leg. Then, kick forward 10 times, inward (you’ll cross your foot across your standing leg) 10 times, and backward 10 times. Repeat on the opposite side.   

Tip: Keep your chest up and focus on moving from the hip. As you kick, think about tightening the hip muscles on the side and back, as well as your inner thighs and quadriceps.  

Make it easier: Grip a flotation device or the side of the pool if you struggle to maintain balance.  

Recommended reading: 6 Pesky Pool Workout Problems, Solved!

Exercise #3: Standing Abdominal Draw-Ins (aka Pelvic Tilt)

Do 2 sets of 10 reps

How to do it: Stand in water not much higher than waist-height, feet shoulder-width apart on the pool floor, and toes pointing forward. Bend your knees slightly and draw your belly button in and down as though you were putting on a tight pair of pants. Pause briefly, then release. That’s one rep.  

Make it harder: Hold the contraction and march in place for a count of 10. Release the contraction and repeat. 

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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.

Exercise #4: Squats 

Do 2 sets of 10 reps 

How to do it: Stand in water not much higher than waist-height. Your feet should be hip-width apart on the pool floor and toes pointing forward. Hold your arms straight out in front of your chest.   

Brace your core and bend at the knees to push your hips back as if you’re sitting down on a chair. Keep your chest up and heels glued to the ground. Don’t let your knees cave inward; think about pushing them out.   

Pause, then push through your heels to return to standing. That’s one rep.  

Make it easier: Grip a flotation device (such as a pool noodle or kickboard) or the side of the pool to help you maintain balance. 

Exercise #5: Stepups on Pool Stairs 

Do 2 sets of 10 reps per side 

How to do it: Without blocking the way for other swimmers, stand in front of the pool steps (not the pool ladder). Position yourself next to the pool wall or railing, if you’d like.  

Brace your core as if you’re about to get punched in the gut. Then, place one foot flat on the first step and step up. Make sure to keep your chest up and shoulders back. Allow your leading leg to do the work.   

Pause briefly before returning your back foot to the ground; you can keep your lead foot on the step. Do 10 reps on one side before switching to the other.   

Recommended reading: A 20-Minute Cardio Interval Workout You Can Do in the Pool (No Laps!) 

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