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Friday, July 26, 2013
Aquatic Cross Training: Can CrossFit and the Pool Coexist?
by Bobby Stanley 

When you think about fitness in the aquatic setting, what comes to mind?  A typical aerobics class would not be an incorrect answer, but who is to say that it cannot be more?  In recent years, a new brand of workout termed “CrossFit” has become increasingly popular among fitness enthusiasts. 

CrossFit is essentially a cross-training program designed to help people of all fitness levels to achieve their fitness goals. This broad, all-encompassing approach to fitness is one of the appeals of CrossFit and cross-training in general. Many workouts combine a mixture of cardiorespiratory exercises with strength and plyometric exercises.  However, performing these types of exercises as a comprehensive, complete program in the aquatic setting has not yet gained the same levels of popularity as similar land-based programs.  This could provide an invaluable tool for athletes looking to mix it up by adding new and exciting stressors to their bodies.   The challenge is, then, can the aquatic environment be an effective or advantageous environment in which to introduce CrossFit?


CrossFit often has its participants operating at maximum or near maximum effort.  Can the aquatic environment facilitate or even equal such effort?  A recent study in the International Journal of Aquatic Research and Education showed that at maximal efforts, underwater running on a treadmill provided similar metabolic results as land-based maximal treadmill tests (Shall, Collins, and Ashley 2012).  The study was performed in chest deep water to allow for foot contact, better mimicking actual running motions on land.  Deep water running is also an effective and popular form of cardiorespiratory fitness.  Since cardiorespiratory exercises can be performed in both shallow and deep water (AEA), the variability in exercises could be very beneficial to the cross-training athlete.


Box jumps and speed ropes are two staples of CrossFit workouts. Athletes use plyometric exercises like these to increase motor-unit recruitment and force output for greater overall strength gains.  But can the aquatic environment, known for its low-impact effect on joints and movements, be an effective medium to cross-train for an athlete looking to break their plateau?  In a study performed in 2007 by John D. Stemm and Bert H. Jacobson, it was found that aquatic plyometric exercises resulted in at least similar gains to land based plyometrics.  Plyometric exercises performed in the pool also benefit from the natural resistance properties of the aquatic environment (AEA, Stemm and Jacobson 2007).  Many plyometric exercises are also performed at near maximum or repeated maximum efforts (Donoghue, Shimojo, and Takagi 2011), making this an integral cross-training tool.


When you search CrossFit on your computer, one of the first things that you will recognize is the intense amount of resistance training the participants perform.  From cleans to overhead squats to push presses to bench press, the athletes that participate in CrossFit make resistance training an irreplaceable aspect of the sport. When you think of resistance training in the aquatic environment, you think of viscosity, water resistance, surface tension, and buoyancy.  A study performed by Cortell and Perez (2007)concluded that resistance training in the aquatic environment consistently mirrored results from similar intensity land-based exercises.  

This isn’t to say you cannot do conventional weight lifting in the aquatic setting.   Dumbbells and even barbells can be introduced into the aquatic environment to add variability into an athlete’s workouts (AEA).  Exercises such as weighted lunges using dumbbells or weight vests and even dead lifts (in shallow water, of course) can create an interesting and robust aquatic workout.


Everything listed so far is fundamental training in the aquatic environment, but how can we combine CrossFit principles to enhance aquatic cross-training?  CrossFit posts a Workout of the Day (WOD),which gives participants at least a foundation to work from.  If you are unfamiliar with the types of exercises involved, go to for a definitive guide with demos to aid you.  An example of a CrossFit WOD:

For time:

o  100 feet lunge walks

o  100 box jumps

o  100 burpees


Now, naturally it is acceptable to break the workout up into smaller chunks by performing 10 sets of10 reps of each in a circuit training pattern or whichever way you feel is more efficient for you on that day.  But what could we do to adapt a workout like the one above into the aquatic environment?  How about:

For time:

o  100 feet lunge walks (can use dumbbells, weighted vests, and ankle cuffs for added resistance and surface area)

o  100 tuck jumps

o  100 wide leg jumps with overhead claps + wall pushups


That’s pretty similar, right?  Intensity and volume can be adjusted to the level of athlete participating in these workouts, adding to the variability of training in water.   These are not the only exercises that can be translated from land to water. That’s the beauty of the aquatic environment – almost any exercise can be adapted to the aquatic setting, and you can still get the cross-training effect you desire.  The pool is a great place to introduce CrossFit.  Whether you are an injured athlete looking to maintain all the fitness gains you have made or someone who is looking to add a little variety to your workout regimen, a CrossFit style workout adapted to the aquatic environment is a safe and effective way to get more out of your body.



1.Aquatic Exercise Association. Aquatic Fitness Professional Manual - Aquatic Exercise Association. Sixth ed. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 2010. 398 p.

2.Cortell JM, Pérez JA. Physiological and Metabolic Responses to Aquatic Resistance Training in Healthy Men: a Comparison between Land-Based and In-Water Exercises. Acta Kinesiologiae Universitatis Tartuensis. 2007;12:37-56.

3.CrossFit: Forging Elite Fitness [Internet] [cited 2012 10/20]. Available from:

4.Donoghue OA, Shimojo H, Takagi H. Impact forces of plyometric exercises performed on land and in water. SH. 2011; May; 3(3):303-9.

5.Schaal CM, Collins L, Ashley C. Cardiorespiratory Responses to Underwater Treadmill Running Versus Land-Based Treadmill Running. International Journal of Aquatic Research & Education. 2012; 6(1):35-45.

6.Stemm JD, Jacobson BH. Comparison of Land- and Aquatic-Based Plyometric Training on Vertical Jump Performance. Journal of Strength &Conditioning Research (Allen Press Publishing Services Inc ). 2007;21(2):568-71.



Bobby Stanley graduated in Exercise Physiology from West Virginia University and plans to attend Physical Therapy School, also at WVU.


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