Tuesday, July 02 2019

HIIT classes have been popular in the pool for the past few years.  Add Tabata, HIIT or Boot Camp to the name of a class and PRESTO you have a winner.  But is it legit HIIT? Netherlands Aqua Presenter, Katrien Lemahieu, revises the HIIT strategy with some High Energy Aquatic Training (H.E.A.T.).

H.E.A.T. or High Energy Aquatic Training features four shallow-water combinations and each combo includes four different movements.  The premise of this workout is to build out intensity over a longer duration by focusing on teaching just one combination in a 30-45 minute time frame.  The interval aspect of the workout occurs when the combination is taught in its final form – first in a more relaxed manner and then with HEAT or high intensity.  Katrien shares two important messages with this workout.  First, she believes that true HIIT protocols are challenging to achieve in the aquatic environment and that it is better to strive for high energy over a longer duration.  Secondly, she believes less is best.    

HIIT History
High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) has been around in some form for the past century according to the web article, The Past, Present and Future of Interval Training. Around 1910, Finnish runners and their coaches get the credit for developing an interval training method.  These runners focused on alternating fast and slow runs.  By the mid 1930’s, interval training was further enhanced in Sweden with the Fartlek method, which is still popular these days.   After World War II, athletes in various sports began putting their own stamp on interval training.  In 1996, Izumi Tabata gained fame after he published studies on a training protocol that was used for Japanese speed skaters.  And well…we all know what happened after that.

Legit HIIT?
The point here is that high intensity interval training (HIIT) protocols were designed for and used by collegiate, Olympic and professional athletes.  Furthermore, most of the studies are based on very short bursts of anaerobic exercise exceeding 85% to 90% of maximal heart rate.  Izumi Tabata based his findings on one 4-minute Tabata performed weekly.  Aquatic fitness classes are 45-60 minutes in length and attended daily by some participants.  And no offense to anyone but aqua classes aren’t exactly populated with professional athletes. This brings up a couple of points.  Filling class durations of 45-60 minutes with HIIT means that it probably isn’t HIIT in the “truest” sense.  It would be near impossible to train 45 minutes of intervals at the intensity recommended in most HIIT protocols; especially considering the typical population we serve in the pool.  Bless their hearts, but my students don’t work anywhere near 90% of heart rate when we do “Tabata” and nor should they.  Most aquatic fitness classes are filled with older, less conditioned populations and it is simply imprudent to expect them to train with HIIT guidelines established for athletes.

HIIT Reality
Does this mean that you shouldn’t do Tabata or HIIT in your classes?   Absolutely not!  My students love the pre-formatted Tabata CDs and they perform like champs when we do Tabata rounds.  Often I will only add one or two intense rounds between combinations of choreography.   When I add several rounds I do so with lower intensity exercises designed for other outcomes. Is it really Tabata? No.  Does that matter?  No.   In conclusion, it is perfectly fine to call your class HIIT or Tabata – but educated instructors should operate with full transparency and understanding of what the true protocols are and how to effectively modify them to produce results and provide an enjoyable exercise experience for their members.  Fitmotivation has posted several HIIT and Tabata videos for aquatic group fitness and all have been presented with different objectives and themes and modified for select outcomes.

THE HEAT Alternative
H.E.A.T. was created for aquatic classes and the populations that serve. The program maintains some of the components of interval training, notably alternating between a more relaxed pace and a higher intensity.  “This workout still has interval training and high intensity but we focus on more repetitions and longer training for endurance, as well as power and speed, “ says Katrien.   

The second key feature of the H.E.AT workout is that it embodies the KISS principle.  Keep it simple and smart.  “Lots of instructors struggle with class preparation because they try to do too much,” says Katrien.   In the video, Katrien and Elson present four combinations that include four movements each, but this was for video presentation only.  In her classes, Katrien says she will do just ONE combination for 30-45 minutes.  How exactly does that work?  Below is her timed formula.


  • Warm up: Introduce all 4 exercises in their base form and add-on  (8 minutes)
  • Exercise instruction:  teach each of the four moves with intricacy & intensity options, spending around 7 minutes on each move.   (28 minutes)
  • Teach the final combination:  Apply the interval training of H.E.A.T.  For example you could the final combo two times at a more relaxed pace and three times with HEAT – high intensity.   (4-5 minutes)
  • Cool down:  4-5 minutes

Teaching one combination for an entire class may sound like a strange concept to some instructors, but that is because we are naturally inclined to over-do everything.   “Doing one combination with lots of repetitions makes it easier for participants to learn the moves with good technique and then increase the intensity once they have gotten it,” says Katrien.

HEAT Ingredients
The interval training aspect of H.E.A.T is once again highlighted only after the moves have been established and form perfected with lots of repetitions.  The final combination, complete with progressions, is taught a couple of times at a regular pace.  And then the command - “Add HEAT!” - is given and the combination is then performed at a higher intensity.  How exactly do you add HEAT?  “Create higher energy by using the aquatic laws to alter intensity,” advises Katrien. These aquatic laws include incorporating acceleration (force & bounding), travel (inertia), hand positions, longer levers, tempo changes and more.

Fitmotivation once again offersTHANKS to Katrien Lemahieu and her Kataqua Team for their production efforts in the Netherlands.  Special thanks goes to Elson Dos Santos for his stellar performance as the student.  Check out Elson’s Fitmotivation video, Afro-robics.  Katrien’s husband, Jeroen Bockweg, also deserves credit as the video guy.  Check out other videos from Katrien and the Kataqua Team, including, Deep Magic MatchAquatic Ladder Challenge, Aqua T-System, BioExercise and Working 5 to 9. 

Author: Mark Grevelding is the founder of Fitmotivation. He is also a training specialist and consultant with the Aquatic Exercise Association’s (AEA). Mark has been active in the fitness industry for 22 years as a group fitness instructor, personal trainer, international presenter and a continuing education provider for AEA, AFAA & ACE.