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Wednesday, April 5, 2017
by Pauline Ivens, MS 


Every move we teach must have purpose. There must be good reasons why we choose and share exercises. As water exercise instructors, we take on the responsibility to provide a safe, effective, fun experience in the water. To be safe we need to know what we are doing. To be effective we need to understand the purpose of each exercise. Safety and effectiveness go hand in hand.

Knowledge of human anatomy becomes applied anatomy as you translate anatomical information into movements. Knowledge of the physical properties of water helps you understand movement effectiveness in water to provide positive outcomes when each participant returns to land.

Class description should indicate some of the purpose for that class. A Boot Camp class suggests high intensity exercise for fitness improvements. A Gentle Moves class would suggest joint-friendly exercise with a focus on range of motion, low impact, and functional benefits. Both classes could use the cross-country ski exercise, so let’s consider the purpose of this popular exercise and how it differs between these two formats.


Exercise Name



Good application of range of motion in the sagittal plane for the hip joints and shoulder joints. Strengthening of hip flexors and hip extensors. Strengthening of shoulder flexors and extensors. Has aerobic potential by rhythmic use of large muscles of the lower extremities. Provides flexibility for the hip flexors. Great functional movement pattern for gait training.

Joints involved

Hip, knee, ankle, foot, shoulder, elbow, wrist, fingers. We could also include intervertebral spine because we do constant core stabilization as we ski.

Primary muscles involved

(Just about everything!)

  • Lower body - Iliopsoas, gluteus maximus, hamstrings, quadriceps, anterior tibialis, gastrocnemius, soleus, all the muscles of the feet.
  • Upper body – Pectoralis, anterior and posterior deltoid, biceps, wrist flexors, latissimus dorsi, triceps, wrist extensors, pronators, supinators, muscles of the hands.
  • All core muscles because this is a systemic movement involving the whole body and requiring core stabilization.

Primary movements in the exercise

Flexion, extension, and hyperextension at the hip.

Stabilization in the core.

Shoulder flexion, extension and hyperextension for the arm swing.

Some flexion and extension at the elbow and the knee.

Wrist flexion and extension to pull and push with the hands. Shoulder rotation and forearm supination and pronation if the hand is turned to lead with the palm.

Ankle dorsi and plantar flexion

Description of exercise action

An alternating swing of the legs from front to back in the sagittal plane simulating a cross-country skiing motion. Arms swing from front to back in opposition to the legs. Levers stay long and reach forward to grab water, then press all the way past neutral and into the posterior area. Range of motion is large. This exercise can be performed deep and shallow

Possible intensity variations

Power, elevation, and increased range of motion work well for cross-country. Speed increases are less effective with a long lever exercise

Effect of resistance on the exercise

Enhanced strengthening of the legs, hips, arms, chest, and shoulders. Increased load improves muscular endurance.

Effect of equipment on the exercise

Increased surface areas will increase overload. Buoyant equipment will add eccentric muscle conditioning.

Special considerations


Modifications available for special populations

Bent leg version of ski will decrease surface areas presented against the water. The bent leg style also takes some of the direct load off the hip joint. Smaller range of motion may be recommended for some individuals. The low impact version is highly recommended for shallow water. Some low back problems may not be able to tolerate the hip hyperextension


Similar exercises with the same purpose

Several other exercises have aerobic potential, and move in the sagittal plane – for example, jogging, kicks, rocking horse. However, cross-country ski is the most complete motion for the hips from anterior to posterior range of motion. The other exercises do not have the posterior component, but a combination of other exercises could certainly achieve the same purpose as cross-country ski.

Goals in BOOT CAMP

Cross-country ski would be used for cardiovascular training. Power ski with or without elevation. Application of power should improve strength in the sagittal plane. Full body movement done at the appropriate level of intensity should improve fitness.


Cross-country ski would be used to improve stride length as part of gait training. Level II for low impact and focus on joint range of motion in the sagittal plane.


Our example is an easy one, because cross-country ski is one of the most popular, effective, and safest water exercises for numerous participants. The alternating action makes it viable for multiple repetitions without causing overuse injuries. Varying the impact would be a good variation to use without limiting aerobic potential. Motion in the sagittal plane is not placing any of the primary joints in a compromised position. Cues would include “soft knees and elbows” so that water is not loaded on hinge joints in full extension.


The key message of this article is:

Tell your participants WHY they are doing the exercise and explain the benefits!



Pauline Ivens, MS, has taught movement education for 43 years. She is the owner of AQUA AEROBICS UNLIMITED, offering education and training to water exercise professionals. Pauline travels nationally teaching and training water exercise instructors, as well as writing and designing new materials for water exercise education. Pauline has a Master’s degree in Adapted Physical Education, is certified by AEA and ACE, and is a Training Specialist for the Aquatic Exercise Association. She is also a Licensed Nia® Teacher. In 1997 Pauline was awarded AEA’s Aquatic Fitness Professional Global Award for excellence in aquatic fitness leadership and education. Pauline Ivens can be contacted at

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