A Killer Strength Workout — in the Pool

underwater workout
Take your weight training under water for a total body workout.Getty Images

To crank up your heart rate, boost your lung capacity, and build total body strength, hit the pool — but trade your kickboard for weights. Laird Hamilton has sworn by it for years, and recently U.S. Olympic athletes have taken the weights underwater for an edge before Rio. The benefit: Water offers 360 degrees of resistance, and switching up your environment is a challenge to the lungs and mind.

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You can find aquatic strength-training groups in the standard warm-weather hotspots — California, Arizona, Florida — where athletes can count on swimming outdoors year round, and where the pool decks are wide enough to accommodate barbells and kettlebells. But you can reach out to the pool manager and lifeguards at your local YMCA or community pool, and try a weights-and-water workout close to home, too.

To get started, use the exercises below, designed for the Coast Guard and Navy rescue swimmers. You’ll still swim laps, but also tread water with bricks, retrieve kettlebells from the deep end, and run bumper plates across the pool floor.

“I’ve been around water my whole life, as a swimmer and a surfer, and I was amazed by the benefits of doing these workouts,” says Mickey Brueckner, owner and director of training at the Annex Sports Performance Center in Chatham, New Jersey, a facility that caters to weekend warriors and pro athletes alike. “I had no idea treading water and spending time on the pool bottom can be so hard, or so beneficial.”

The Fewer Laps, More-Strength Workout

This 60-minute plan gives you something that most routines can’t: A low-impact workout that burns through calories and strengthens every part of your body.


Warm up with some mobility work on the pool deck — say, a runner’s lunge, side stretches, and planks — then swim an easy 500 yards using the stroke of your choice.

Treading Catch

Move to the diving tank, or deep end, to play one-handed catch (with a partner, or against the wall) with a lacrosse ball while treading water. Try to use one hand and your non-dominant hand to throw and catch. Drop the ball or make a bad toss, and you have to dive down to retrieve it. Treading water sneaks up on you after a few minutes, and with your hands busy playing catch, your leg and core muscles are forced to work harder.

Strength Laps

Now you’ve arrived at the heart of the workout — a mash-up of weighted freestyle sprints and calisthenics. The goal is to do as many rounds of the following in 30 minutes:

  • Swim 50 yards holding a diving brick or a light weight (try a five-pounder to start).
  • Haul yourself out of the pool; don’t use the ladder.
  • Perform 10 hand-release push-ups, 20 Russian kettlebell swings, and 15 sandbag squats (bag held in front of your chest; if you don’t have a sandbag, sub in a kettlebell for goblet squats).

Weight Runs

Finish in the deep end for fun with weights. Jump in while holding a plate or a lightweight kettlebell (start with as little as five pounds, to get comfortable), then run with it across the width of the pool, carrying it up to the deck at the other side. The key is to practice breath control, taking in large breaths before jumping in and slowly, slowly, slowly releasing the air through your nose as you make your way across. If you feel nervous or run out of air, don’t panic — carefully place the weight on the pool floor, and surface to catch your breath. (Yes, this workout mimics what Navy SEALs do, but there’s no need to push yourself to their extreme.) Do this for 10 minutes, resting as little as possible.

Need to modify the workout to be easier or harder? No problem. Play with the swim distance and strength moves. Instead of hauling a dive brick for 50 yards, try sprinting 25 yards on one breath, or carrying a five-pound weight for 100 yards. You can also change the underwater weight runs to picking up multiple weight along the way or increasing your time under water. 

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