Looking to burn belly fat without stressing your joints? If you have access to a pool, you can craft a low-impact routine with swimming strokes and traditionally land-based exercises like squats.
Before you get started, though, keep a couple things in mind. First, belly fat can't be spot-reduced (sorry!). You can take steps to decrease your overall body fat, but there's no miracle exercise that zaps your gut.
Second, nutrition is even more important than exercise. Terry Heggy, certified personal trainer and U.S. Masters Swimming coach, says the first thing he tells clients wanting to lose weight is to look at what they're eating. No miracle cures here, either, just the standbys you'd expect: fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean protein.
With those caveats, here are some pool exercises recommended by Heggy and triathlon coach and registered dietician Cindy Dallow, PhD.
One of the best pool exercises is good old-fashioned lap swimming. "I'm prejudiced," says Heggy, "but I would recommend you take swimming lessons and actually learn how to swim. And then you can incorporate that as a really fun low-impact workout… to burn as many calories as you want."
The research backs him up. An October 2015 study in the Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation examining the effects of swimming on middle-aged women found that regular swimming exercise helped them eliminate body fat.
And according to the American Council on Exercise, swimmers can burn calories at the same rate as runners. A 150-pound person swimming vigorously expends 680 calories an hour — the same total they'd hit after an hour of running at a 10-minute-mile pace. Though, of course, exact calories burned always depends on effort.
Dallow advises basic strokes such as the freestyle and breaststroke. Whatever you choose, focus on intensity if you want to lose weight. "I see people at the pool sometimes just gliding along," she says. "It's definitely better than nothing, but it's not going to burn a lot of calories."
The trick is to maintain the intensity without burning out. The problem most beginners have is starting too hard, Heggy says. Worse, they often hold their breath, which makes them fatigue even faster.
If you don't pace yourself and breathe right, you're not going to lose weight, because you'll burn out too quickly, Heggy says. "If you start out slow and can put 20 [laps] together, that's an actual workout." He tells people to think like marathon runners. Start with a "slow-pace mindset" and breathe continuously, exhaling underwater.
Dallow suggests a "ladder" to help with pacing. Start by swimming a certain distance, say, 50 yards. Rest for 20 to 60 seconds, then swim 100 yards. Rest again, then swim 200, rest, swim 300, and so on.
If 50 yards is too much, structure your intervals differently. Swim 25 yards quickly, rest, then swim 25 yards slowly. Rest again and restart the cycle.
Dallow also recommends kicking with the aid of a kickboard. "That's really good for the lower back, the butt muscles and the leg muscles," she says. Beginners can wear plastic fins to make the exercise easier. Heggy's advice is to hold the board vertically, not horizontally. That way, you're getting resistance across its whole surface.
If you have a pool buddy, you can team up for what Heggy calls "board wars." Place a kickboard on the water between the two of you, each person taking hold of an opposite end. Then start kicking and try to push your partner backward. "That's just kind of fun," says Heggy, who describes the exercise as an inverse tug-of-war.
If you've ever had to tread water before, you know what an intense workout it can be. In water deeper than you can stand in, kick your legs back and forth as you hold your body vertical. At the same time, move your hands in circles below the water's surface. Keep your palms flat, sweeping the water "in the way a butter knife would be used to spread icing on a cake," Heggy says.
He also recommends a variation in which you point your toes and raise your shoulders as you tread. Keeping your core tight, lift your shoulders as high as you can. This modification ups the resistance level. "Pay attention to how much of your head and shoulders come above the surface," Heggy says. The stronger you tread, the higher they'll go.
Traditional Land-Based Exercises
Maybe you're not comfortable swimming, or you want to mix things up. Either way, you have lots of options. Many exercises normally done on land can also be done in the water with little or no adjustment.
Running in a deep-water pool is one example. "It's a great way to get your heart rate up," Dallow says. Underwater running works especially well for people with shoulder injuries because it mainly engages the legs. It can even benefit people with certain leg injuries by strengthening their quadriceps, she says. Heggy suggests pool runners use a flotation belt or foam noodle for assistance.
Other land-to-water exercises include jumps, squats, pull-ups and dips. Here are some of Heggy's tips for doing them.
- Find a pool depth where the water comes up to your armpits.
- Bend your legs, completely submerging your head. (This way, you get the full resistance of the water when your legs push you upward.)
- Jump up straight out of the water.
- Avoid curling your toes after jumping, so you don't land on them. Your feet should be flat to cushion the impact of landing.
This exercise works the same way it does on dry land. Perform it in chin-deep water if you're comfortable at that depth. If you're not, do it in waist-deep water. You can even benefit from just walking and carrying the dumbbells in the water.
- If your pool has a ladder, starting block or diving board, you can use it for pull-ups. Grab on and pull yourself upward, squeezing your back and biceps.
- If the block or object you're using doesn't extend over the water, try a "pull-forward." With your hands on the block, place your feet on the pool wall, making your body into a sideways V. Then pull yourself toward the wall, return to the starting position and repeat.
- Similar to a bar dip, this exercise can be done either facing a pool wall or away from it.
- Place your hands in the poolside gutter as you raise and then lower yourself, stopping when your hands reach your armpits.
- Keep your chest and head upright, and avoid scraping the pool wall.