Aquatic Heart Rate Pyramid Workout

I have taught aquatic fitness for several years now and I am learning from my students that many want to really work hard in the pool.  Before I got into the fitness industry, I had bought into the notion that water exercise was for little old ladies with blue hair. When I got certified with AEA and experienced trainings at IAFC, I learned that water is for the hard bodies, young, and very fit! Seeing the young international fitness professionals come to IAFC and getting their anaerobic fixes- inspired me to work on creating an experience for my classes where participants could be drawn into the fun, possibilities and empowerment of pushing themselves out of their comfort zones through the exploration of intensity.

I love coaching from the deck to help students to refine their form and get the best workout possible. I try to help students determine at the beginning of their workouts what their intention for that particular workout is. Do they want to push themselves out of their comfort zones or is today a day for them to take it easy because of injuries or illness. I challenge them to OWN their workouts. Like a good AEA trained professional, I give students the option to take care of themselves and opt out of this challenging format and do their own thing if that’s what they need.

One profile that I have created that has received great reviews from my students is based on a heart rate pyramid-teaching class members how to master their intensity by checking their heart rate every five minutes throughout class and to play with increasing their heart rate gradually through out the workout.  Some who are motivated by numbers have elected to purchase aquatic heart rate monitors like a polar watch to find their numbers more readily. I have met class members before and after class to introduce the Kruell formula to those who really want to know how the hydrostatic pressure and pool temperature impacts slowing their heart rate down.

Everyone can discover how to master and explore their intensity levels as they work.  With those students who aren’t able or willing to check their heart rates, I simply talk about RPE and how their breathing is a great measure of their intensity efforts.  I coach them about the rate and depth and intensity of their breath during their work effort. The pleasure of teaching to a variety of students in one class in this format is this:  everyone can work hard using RPE and/or heart rate monitoring. I have healthy 80 year olds breathing hard and 25 year old triathletes in the same class sucking air. The magic of this is finding what motivates each participant and to teach in the way students learn rather than waiting for the student to learn the way we teach!

A broad description of how one would conduct this particular format might look like this:

  • 5-12 minute warm up-depending on the fitness level, age and health of the class.
  • Take the heart rate and we will call that our “floor” heart rate. I give them the word picture of being a pot of water on a gas stove. Warm up was having the heat on warm. I tell them that the next 5 minutes, we will turn our intensity up to low on the “stove”. We are working to increase our heart rate from 2-5 beats during “low”.   I describe the sensations of effort-that low is a level they could sustain for a couple of hours if they had to. My students are familiar with the RPE scale so low should feel like a 3.
  • Each five minutes of class, we add intensity using the properties of the water, speed, range of motion, and power to get the heart rate up. I add increasingly more challenging options for class members to do to assist with turning up that fire on the gas stove.
  • My goal is that within thirty minutes, we could go to the “ceiling” heart rate from the “floor” heart rate-which I count AFTER warm up. Their aim is to gradually increase their heart rates up to about 30 or more heart beats per minute within that time.  For example, a conservative parameter for numbers could be if the heart rate is 100 bpm after warm up and they over the course of class, the ceiling heart rate (when we are working at “boiling” or high intensity) could be 130. Many, many factors play into those numbers as we know: medications and overall health being are two very important factors that we need to remind students to take into consideration as they take this class.
  • This workout can be deceptive because we start at warm (the warm up), increase to low the second five minutes, medium low the third set of five, and on, such that there is never a recovery of effort so it’s an endurance effort.  Additionally, I coach the class that they don’t have to go breathless during the workout, so they are discovering how hard they can sustain their work effort without going to that really hard place.  I offer the option that participants can opt to “boil” or work at their 9 out of 10 towards the end of class during some HITT work. Otherwise, class members spend the class learning how to increase their intensity in a gradual, deliberate, and measured way . Participants are curious to discover these layers of intensity and I love helping them learn what their bodies can do.
  • The last five minutes of class prior to the cool down, I gradually take them back down from medium high back to low, and then I finish the class back in “warm” with lots of dynamic stretching.

Exercise Ideas for this format (shallow water):

Warm up-jogging sideways

Sideways squats

Gallop sideways

Jog forward 4 and walk forward 4

Take heart rate after 5 (or longer) minutes of warm up to determine “floor” heart rate. (Or get members who aren’t doing HR to notice that their respiration has increased somewhat but that it is still easy to have a conversation.)


Examples of “easy does it effort”–L1 XC with arm variations: single arm, rotator cuff sweeps, single arm jack

Take HR following 4-5 minutes-aiming to have increased respiration or HR by 4-6 beats and no more.

Medium Low”

turn up intensity using more power and speed to moves-

Examples of easy moves that use more muscle activation could be using bands, noodles, resistance equipment like bicep curls, lunges, chest flyes, squats, etc.

Take HR following, continuing to pyramid up the HR by 4-6 bpm.


Turn up intensity to level that feels sustainable for one hour of effort but coming to a level of effort that feels like work.

Example:  L2 jack variations like jack diagonal kicks, jack anchored with alternating kicks, jack with lateral arms

Take HR or check respiration for the pyramiding of effort to be reflecting in HR or breath. I describe a medium intensity as one where you can converse but you would rather not. Working at this level takes focused effort.

Medium High

Prepare class to get OUT of their comfort zone for Medium High. We will sustain medium high for 5 minutes and they should be uncomfortably comfortable. Breathing hard but not going breathless. Class should really focus on NOT going to “boiling” at this point so participant must be very clued into his effort. I cue folks who are using only RPE to notice that when they are working at this level of intensity, they cannot easily converse or string words together.

Examples:  Use speed skating, football runs, Level 3 or horizontal moves, single leg hopes, jump squats

HR or breath check. At this point, I give participants an “out” for the final pyramid. Do they feel up to boiling today or do they need to take a pass and either stay at medium high for another five minutes or even bumping back down to medium work. OR do they want to push themselves to misery-if their health allows. I ask them to make the choice now and to stick with their decision for the next five minutes and be okay with honoring their bodies.


For those who choose-I take them to the land of Sufferville by doing some form of HITT or tabata. I give them 4-5 minutes to work at their 9 out of 10 and to go breathless. Those who opt out are working-doing similar moves-just not at the intensity of those who opt into “boiling” mode. I find that participants really respond to a music that is formatted for tabata with coach included. For my RPE folks, I tell them that working at this level, one is not able to converse because they work is too intense.

Examples:  travelling sprints, plyometric jump squats, plyometic skis, “quick quicks”-which is a move that is a very fast suspended ski where both legs scissor open very quickly and land feet on pool floor powerfully)

Following this interval set, we take the heart rate quickly. Somehow, getting that number motivates many into working at that level.


The final five minutes of the class, we start at medium high and decrease rather quickly back to medium, medium low, and back to low. My reminding them to think of boiling a pot of water helps them to transition themselves.

I finish the class with a final five minutes of dynamic stretching returning to the “warm” heart we started with. I usually don’t take the heart rate these final 10 minutes as participants have worked so hard, they are much more in tune with their work efforts and bodies by that time.

One of the reasons I love this particular workout is that I have found many of my regular aquatic classes can enjoy this format. Most everyone wants to find their physical edge and challenge themselves. As aquatic professionals, developing creative approaches to our pool workouts keeps us interested in teaching and keeps our classes full of enthusiastic and motivated participants who want to use the safety and challenge of the water to improve their health.

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