3 July, 2019
I’m making waves in a swimming pool in London Bridge and trying not to swallow them, given I’m horizontal on two colourful spaghetti-floats working on my abs. Core work in water is far more hazardous than sit-ups on the floor of a gym, where drowning in anything other than sweat is unlikely.
Just in time, Julian – my clock-watching instructor – stops us and hands me two grey foam dumbbells for the next round of exercises.
“Hold them in front of you, bend your knees and push them up through the water as quickly as you can,” he says, making a whooshing sound. “Then pull them back down. Then back up. As many as you can. Two minutes. Let’s go!” He starts grooving to the beatbox beside him.
Given the weights are as heavy as two crisps in the air, I’m smug, but try pulling them up through a dense body of water and they feel at least 5kg each thanks to the resistance, which is of course why these new HIIT classes – high intensity interval training in the swimming pool – work so well. On land you can burn 500 calories by pounding the treadmill and lifting muscle-shaking weights; in the pool you can burn 400, without any of the high-impact exercise.
Fitness First launched the sessions a year ago and have since spread them across the UK to 19 clubs including those in Leeds, Swindon and St Helens, to cope with increasing demand. If you’re older, or injured, high-impact work-outs can be detrimental, but take it to the pool and you can still have all the benefits of HIIT without the hurt.
Julian Baker, Fitness First’s group exercise manager, who is today leading the class, says dozens of people started signing up for “H20 HIIT” classes at the Cotton’s gym in London Bridge when they realised they weren’t conventional pool aerobics sessions.
“This isn’t your bog-standard pool workout class, which up until recently people did tend to think of as slow, rehabilitative classes for elderly people in leisure centres,” he says. “This is the modern pool workout. What people love about it is that you can burn the same amount of calories as you can from a normal HIIT class, but it’s low-impact, so it’s great for people who are injured or have any problems with their knees or other joints. Older people might not think a HIIT class is for them, but the water version would be a great place to start.”
After a warm-up, which involves us swimming half a length, then “running” (skidding) back to the middle of the lane along the slippery swimming pool floor, we are given a series of exercises to do for two minutes, as quickly as possible.
Next come weighted exercises with the dumbbells as well as functional exercises like tuck jumps, where you use your body weight in the set, and core work where you curl your knees up to your chest in an abdominal crunch, with long tube floats around your middle. Then I’m handed pink foam boxing gloves and told to beat the water in front of me as though it’s a punchbag. If anything, it gives more resistance.
We race through each exercise for two and a half minutes, break for 30 seconds, then move on. After four rounds, there’s a race to swim as many half lengths as possible with the other person in your lane, back-to-back.
“The quicker you go, the quicker your heart will beat and the more calories you’ll burn,” Julian explains. “Wait for it,” he says, then the beat drops on his stereo and he grooves again.
Given I injured myself running earlier this year, and had to take a long break from anything high-intensity at the gym, this is the perfect work-out for me and I love it. My heart’s racing but I feel less faint than I would doing the same exercise on land, plus there’s no risk of further damaging the knee I injured, only strengthening it.
Bianca Zietsman, a sports injury and performance specialist based in London, agrees that the water version of HIIT is a great stepping-stone for anyone recovering from injury. “In these classes the water takes the pressure off the joints, allowing you to stay fit while not exacerbating your condition. The fact that it also incorporates weights has benefits for the musculoskeletal system and is especially important for older people.”
But young people love the classes, too. Sajanah Norat, 33, comes to the Cotton’s class and says she signed-up because she wanted to build water confidence.
“I’m not a hugely strong swimmer, so I don’t love lane swimming because I don’t want to slow anyone down,” she adds. “I find it a bit daunting without an instructor and I feel like there’s a bit of a grey area between lane swimming and water work-outs, which often don’t feel much like exercise.
“Aqua HIIT does feel like exercise, so it makes me feel like I’m becoming a stronger swimmer and might one day be able to do a triathlon.”
By the time the class ends, I’m as tired as I would be from a triathlon myself. Water HIIT really does feel as far away from the kind of aqua aerobics class you might watch in a Costa del Sol swimming pool as you could get.
“Can you feel your heart beating?” Julian asks when we’re done, but I’m pretty sure the whole pool can.