Searching for a fun and intense workout that won't murder your joints? Look no farther.
If there's one thing that can make you give up on your workout routine faster than the allure of sleeping in an extra hour, it's an injury. But if your poison of choice happens to be cycling, muscle and joint pain come with the territory, right?
Not if you've taken up aquacycling, a workout brought to the U.S. in 2013 by a Parisian named Esther Gauthier, who founded AQUA in New York City.
What's aquacycling? Just take everything you love about spin—intense cycling, unorthodox arm and chest exercises performed on a bike, inspiring music, instructors who never stop smiling—and add salt water, swimsuits, and enough resistance to make you feel like you have weights strapped onto your body. It's grueling, effective, and totally therapeutic.
Now subtract the one downside to traditional cycling: the potential for joint injury. Gauthier, who worked in photo production before taking an aquacycling class in Paris that inspired her to become an entrepreneur and introduce the workout to Americans, credits those benefits as the reason she is betting on aquacycling becoming the next big fitness-trend-turned-everyday-workout in the U.S.
"I think it's like when yoga started—it takes a bit of time for it to spread because it is so drastically different from what people are used to," Gauthier says, adding that "aquabike," as it is known in Europe, is huge in France, Italy, and Spain. "But I do believe this form of workout is here to stay thanks to the healing power of water, which allows you to move freely without risk of injury."
Don't just take the founder's word for it. "Aquatic exercises help to strengthen while protecting from joint pain and reducing injury," says Alice Holland, D.P.T., a physical therapist at Stride Strong Physical Therapy in Portland, OR. "It's good conditioning in between practices for athletes, and also as a means of recovery for injured patients."
If you've ever complained about your knees after a traditional cycling class on land, you have even more reason to give it a try underwater. "If you take a cycling class on land, the standing up and bouncing might be tough on your knees. Aquacycling will not have the same effect since the buoyancy of the water helps relieve stress on our joints," says Kate Hamm, a former NCAA swimmer, certified AEA Aquatic Personal Trainer and founder of AnamBliss. "Plus, the pressure of the water against your body will actually help with any swelling of joints."
On top of being a great workout for the elderly, pregnant women, and injured athletes who don't want to aggravate or worsen any injuries, aquacycling is also just a damn good workout. Those who spin underwater can expect greater calorie burn at the same rate of perceived exertion (meaning you get a more efficient workout in the same amount of time you'd spend on land, plus the added comfort of working out in buoyant water), says Amanda Dale, an ACE-certified personal trainer and AFAA-certified exercise instructor.
There's also the constant resistance. "On land, if you do a biceps curl, gravity helps to support the hand to the start position," Hamm says. "In water, the same motion requires the triceps to work to return by your side. You can work two opposing muscles at the same time with one exercise instead of two."
I recently had the chance to give AQUA a try with none other than 12-time Olympic gold medalist Ryan Lochte (who recently announced a partnership with PowerBar's Clean Start Campaign.) Surprisingly, Lochte revealed that he had taken his first aquacycling class that very morning and found it incredibly challenging. Lochte's review is promising for anyone with Olympic fitness goals, and he wasn't exaggerating. After a 30-minute session in AQUA's pool, where an infectiously spirited French instructor named JC led Lochte, myself, and a few other people through a series of chest, arm, and leg exercises in the heated water, I was physically spent. (I made sure to look over at Lochte a few times and was beyond overjoyed to see that he, too, looked tired.) But here's the thing: I was also emotionally happy (perhaps all of that smiling really works?) and left with far fewer muscle pains than I typically experience after a spin session.
The other bonus: Like traditional spin classes, aquacycling can be adapted to suit various fitness needs and levels. Class types at AQUA run the gamut from the more intense interval and power cycling to stress-relieving restorative and mantra flow sessions. Most classes are 45 minutes long and the only attire needed is a one-piece swimsuit or bikini, spandex shorts with a sports bra, and water shoes (check your venue to make sure you can rent yours).
Aquacycling classes aren't limited to big city dwellers, either. While it's true that the majority of these classes are still found in cities like NYC, Los Angeles, and Miami, a search for aquacycling classes yields results everywhere from upstate New York to Phoenix and Henderson, Nevada. Companies like Wike-Up are already ahead of the curve and are selling Aquabikes to fitness enthusiasts keen on working out in the comfort of their own backyard pools.
Before you dive in and commit to becoming an aqua fitness enthusiast, there are a few things you need to know. Injuries may not be common, but they can still happen. If you're pregnant or have blood pressure issues, check with your physician before starting. And since unexpected consequences can include cramping in the water, Holland says to stay hydrated, preferably with a beverage that contains electrolytes.