Marietta Mehanni

Frothy Foam Ideas

Written by Marietta

November 28, 2013

What class would be complete without some exercises devoted to using the humble dumbbell? From the original milk containers that were one of the earliest floatation aids used in aqua classes, the dumbbell has many uses including:

  • Suspended exercises in shallow and deep water
  • Buoyancy resisted exercises for the upper body
  • Core stability exercises
  • Adding intensity to shallow cardiovascular exercises
  • Buoyancy assisted aid for people with disabilities and non swimmers


The Dumbbell

Dumbbells come in all sorts of shapes, sizes and densities, and this will determine how it can be used and the population group who will be able to incorporate it into their workouts.

For example a lighter dumbbell will have more buoyancy and, therefore, be harder to hold under the water, although it will be much more effective for buoyancy assisted exercises. It is important to keep this in mind when older adults are using these, as tender and arthritic hands and fingers will suffer from the strong grip that is required to hold these under the water.

There is also a range of shapes available and these will determine the level of manoeuvrability in the water. Exercises with circular dumbbells are determined by the range of movement, joint angle and the position of the body.

Another variable feature is the handle grip between the two foam sections. These can range from soft grip material to PVC tubing. Older adults will have a preference for the soft grip/padded handles. Also dumbbells with a handle that has a larger circumference will be easier to hold and place less stress on the thumb joint. The length of the handle will determine the type of grip and exercise that can be performed. Short handles will be limited to single hand grips whereas longer handles will provide enough space for both hands to grip the bar. It will also allow the dumbbell to be held under the knee, between the thighs and under the armpits comfortably.


Using a single dumbbell

Most everyday movements are unbalanced eg: carrying a bag, shopping or a child, getting in and out of a car, bathtub or bed, even reaching for something up high and tip toeing on one leg to extend further.

Balance is critical component of fitness that has become more important, especially for the aging population. Training for balance requires the opportunity to be unstable, and water provides a safe medium to develop this skill. Moving a buoyant object in one hand not only challenges the core stabilisers, but it is also effective in making sure that each side of the body is worked equally.

When starting stability training with older adults, begin with a stable base of support – feet in a pyramid or astride stance and with both hands gripping the dumbbell. Once proficiency has been developed, the next level would be to hold the dumbbell with one hand and perform a similar action. To make the same exercise even more challenging and less stable, bring the feet closer together. It is important to always encourage good technique – abdominal bracing, lifting of the pelvic floor and keeping the shoulders down and retraction through the scapulae.

If you have never used one dumbbell, it will certainly make you think creatively. The best place to start is to use standard moves that you use regularly and then apply the single dumbbell concept. You may find out that the some exercises are more challenging or functional with only one dumbbell. Exercises like Rock n Roll (suspended move with the body flipping from a prone to supine position and back again) which can be performed with two dumbbells, noodles or aqua belt, is much more challenging with one dumbbell.


How to handle a single dumbbell

Double Grip

Dumbbells can be held with both hands on the handle with the dumbbell in either the vertical position or horizontal position. To be able to hold the dumbbell in either position, the handle needs to be long enough for both hands to fit side by side comfortably. Older adults find this an easy grip to perform as both hands are manoeuvring a single dumbbell (rather that one in each hand).

Foam Grip

Both hands grip the foam parts of the dumbbell. This means that the dumbbell can only be held in a horizontal position. If the foam sections are large, it could be an issue for participants who have arthritis, wrist problems or RSI as the fingers need to be spread wide to hold the foam sections. The alternative option is to place palms on either end and press against the dumbbell to keep it in position.

Hand to Hand Pass

This is where the dumbbell is passed from one hand to the other and the exercises can be performed with the dumbbell in either the vertical or horizontal position. This allows the fingers and the muscles in the forearms to release, which is very important when using the dumbbell for extended periods. It does require more coordination, but start your participants in a stationary position and develop proficiency before adding the added challenge of moving the lower limbs.

For this grip to have a smooth transition from one hand to the other, it is very important that both arms are moving through the same plane of movement. If arms are alternating eg: forwards and backwards, it is very hard to pass the dumbbell from one hand to the other. The other alternative is to have a transitional move that allows both hands to grip the dumbbell, so that the dumbbell is passed over to the opposite hand easily.

Leg Grip

Another position that the dumbbell can be held, is in between the thighs, or under the knee between the calf and hamstrings. Holding the dumbbell under the knee quickly destabilises the body, so that the core stabilising muscles are activated immediately.

This is effective for improving balance, core stability and incorporating upper body exercises that are “dumbbell free”. It also provides a “finger break” for the hands, especially if the dumbbell has been used for an extended period of time.

Using dumbbells in water

When dumbbells are held under water, intraabdominal pressure is created. This pressure causes the abdominal wall, lower back muscles and pelvic floor to brace against the internal pressure. The result is an ‘abdominal brace’. Thus the use of the dumbbell in an aquatic environment is an excellent form of abdominal training. It also occurs without any conscious thought from the participant, which is effective those who struggle with connect with their bodies and activate the appropriate muscle group.


Submerged dumbbell exercises are also contraindicated for people suffering from hernias and any other condition that maybe aggravated by intraabdominal pressure or abdominal bracing.


“Hail” to the humble dumbbell, the mainstay of aqua classes not only in Australia around the globe. This basic aquatic tool is a highly effective buoyancy aid and resistance apparatus. The dumbbell’s versatility has no limit and we are still finding new ways to use it in our sessions.

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