This is a guest blog from Steph Toogood of Hydro-Actif. You can find more about them and meet all our member organisations here.

Hand Buoy ABCs features a triple training challenge to target Aerobic training, Balance challenges and Core strengthening – the essential ABCs of fitness.

Hand buoys for water workouts by the edge of a swimming pool

This programme uses a single hand buoy for focus, resistance and buoyancy to provide functional training for all populations.  The hand buoy (foam dumbbell) is one of the most popular types of pool equipment.  However, since the addition of foam equipment radically changes the way the musculature works and the equipment poses additional safety concerns, this course provides education and information that instructors should consider before embarking on a choreography challenge such as Hand Buoy ABCs.

Hand Buoy Selection

The hand buoy is available at most facilities. Hand buoys come in many shapes and sizes with differing proportions of foam and grip. The traditional hand buoy shape offers constant resistance when presented to the water if it has a regular shape, i.e. circular.  However, there are triangles, stars and oval shaped buoys which should be evaluated carefully before use.  Occasionally an excellent new product will appear on the market – am I now referring to the newly launched Noodle Buoy from HYDRO-FIT.  This product can be used in this programme to obtain a good result.  The application of the hand buoy manipulates the physical properties of buoyancy and resistance. The concept of increasing the surface area at the end of the arm as it is presented against the water provides the enhanced resistance training challenge. The buoyancy in the foam adds further challenge to muscle groups as the hand buoys are submerged and moved in various planes of motion.

The Importance of Grips & Handles

The hand buoy grip varies enormously due to the girth of the bar and the material the bar is comprised of.  Ideally the grip should be foam cushioned and of a size that does not cause the hands to clench tightly.  Students with medical issues that make grip difficult (e.g. carpel tunnel and arthritis) may prefer to use the new HYDRO-FIT Noodle Buoy which allows the equipment to be controlled with very little grip required.

  • Comfort: Some buoys may have a hard, plastic grip, which may be uncomfortable.  A grip comprised of softer foam or cushioned material is more comfortable for gripping.
  • Size: Check that the grip is a comfortable placement for your hands. Our daily activities cause overuse of the flexed hand position, so it is important not to perpetuate this problem by holding exercise equipment for long periods of time.  A thinner grip causes excessive hand flexing.  A larger grip helps to alleviate this problem, but ultimately the size of the hand dictates the best grip size.  The Aqua Sphere Ergobells as well as the HYDRO-FIT Noodle Buoys work well for students with hand issues.
  • Provide hand breaks: AEA Standards & Guidelines recommend that frequent hand breaks be provided.   As discussed later in this handout, the use of a single hand buoy offers a natural rest and release for the other hand.

The Importance of Foam Size and Density

The hand buoy foam comes in various different sizes. The increased quantities of foam provide progressive levels of resistance training.

  • It is important to decide which level of resistance is suitable for upper body strengthening exercises. You must be able to submerge the hand buoys and complete repetitions with good exercise technique.
  • If you are unable to submerge the hand buoys or complete at least eight submerged repetitions of an exercise maintaining good body alignment, then the hand buoys are the wrong size for your current level of upper body strength.
  • Instructors should advise students to start with a smaller buoy and progress to a larger size once all repetitions can be completed with good form.
  • In general, smaller buoys would be recommended for faster, aerobic activities and larger buoys (depending on fitness level) for slower, strength activities.
  • Smaller foam size would also be recommended if exercising in shallow water that is at a deeper depth – above mid-chest – due to excessive buoyancy.

Guidelines for hand buoy use

Submerged: When submerged the hand buoys engage muscles in the hands, wrists, arms, shoulders, chest, neck, and back. Indirectly, the submerged hand buoys affect the whole body. The extra buoyancy challenges posture and alignment control. The extra resistance and buoyancy further challenges working muscles throughout the body when a hand buoy exercise is combined with a full body movement like running or cross country ski.  Forces are transmitted from the upper body, through the torso to the lower body and vice versa.

Surface support: Using the hand buoy at the water’s surface offers buoyant assistance for balance and control during exercises.  The buoys can also be used in this manner during a fall prevention program. If you use the hand buoys in this way, try to take every opportunity to relax the hands, resting your hands over the bars. There is no need to grip in this application.  To ensure thermoregulation it is preferable to work upper and lower body simultaneously or alternately in warmer water.  Shoulder position is key with this hold.

Strengthening Exercises: The hand buoy is very popular for targeted strengthening exercises. The body can be engaged in jogging, running or skiing while adding a complementary hand buoy exercise. Or you can set up a stance, and only work the upper body as a totally focused, isolated


Position: Standing upright, hands at the sides, elbows at the waist

Table explaining elbow flexion / extension muscle contraction - water vs land

Buoyant Resistance

As you can see by the example in the chart above, using no equipment or drag equipment will create resisted movement in all directions with primarily concentric muscle actions.  This is one of the reasons why exercising in the water is beneficial.  Muscles are trained in pairs, on both sides of the joint, promoting muscle balance.  However, some fitness experts seem to think that eccentric muscle actions are equally – if not more important.  The example in the chart shows that using weighted or buoyant equipment in the pool will introduce eccentric muscle actions into a workout.

Benefits of Eccentric Training

  • Enhanced range of motion and flexibility
  • Greater overall strength gains
  • Reduced risk of injury

Let’s take a closer look at some key concepts regarding muscle actions.

Concentric:  This is the resisted phase of a movement and features a shortening contraction

Eccentric:  This is the assisted phase of a movement and features a lengthening muscle contraction

Gravity:  This is a downward vertical force.  Resisted (concentric) movement is upwards and assisted (eccentric) movement is downwards

Buoyancy:  This is an upward vertical force. Resisted (concentric) movement would be downwards and assisted (lengthening) movement would be upwards.

Safety Considerations

The shoulder area is made up of an intricate system of muscle layers with many tendons and ligaments. The interaction of all these muscles provides incredible mobility around the shoulders. The shoulder joint itself is quite unstable and so these muscles and tendons also protect the shoulder and provide that extra stability. It is imperative to maintain this level of mobility and keep this area strong. Using equipment like the hand buoy for resistance training can strengthen this area. However, improper use of the foam dumbbell can compromise the joint and potentially cause injury.

This next section highlights some of the safety considerations for the use of hand buoys.

  • Overuse injuries can be caused with constant, prolonged finger flexion. Take every opportunity to relax the fingers between exercise sets. It is instinctive to grip the hand buoys, so instructors must constantly remind participants to let go, open the hand and relax the fingers.  Participants with arthritic conditions and hypertension should take extra precautions against excessive gripping of the hand bar.
  • Wrist position. Avoid over flexing or extending the wrist when exercising with hand buoys.  Instead, maintain a firm, neutral wrist position so the hand buoy becomes an extension of the arm and the muscles that move the wrist are challenged for neutral strength.
  • Suspended training with the hand buoys. If using the hand buoys for suspended training in shallow water, AEA recommends limiting the amount of time suspended, offering frequent breaks and providing options for those with special needs. In deep water, avoid suspending the body with just a pair of hand buoys. This may damage the shoulder through sustained, loaded joint abduction and causes shoulder impingement. It is recommended that you wear an additional flotation device that is attached to the body when using the hand buoys in deep water.
  • Avoid using the hand buoys under the armpits. Most participants will not be able to do this without placing the shoulders in a continuous shrugged position. This compromises the joint, and over stresses muscles in the shoulders and neck.  The armpit is also a sensitive area and the applied pressure may be uncomfortable for some people.
  • Maintaining Proper alignment of the shoulder girdle.   According to AEA Standards and Guidelines, instructors should carefully observe the shoulder alignment of students.   The density of the foam causes shoulder girdle elevation in some students.  Cueing scapular depression helps to reduce the risk of impingement in the shoulder capsule.
  • Using the correct size hand buoys. For the most, excessive shrugging of shoulders and shoulder impingement can be avoided by choosing an appropriately sized set of hand buoys.  Facilities should offer a wide range of hand buoy sizes so that participants can switch to a smaller buoy if they are having trouble exercising with proper shoulder alignment.
  • Limit repetitions and rest. To maintain balance between strength and mobility in the shoulder, limit exercise repetitions and combine with shoulder relaxation and mobility exercises. As with all strengthening exercises where individual muscle groups are isolated, limit reps, rest the worked area between sets and reduce the number of sets of the same exercise within one workout period. The normal range of repetitions is 12‑16.  It is always better to do three sets of 16 reps than do all 48 reps at once.  Consider interval programming with the hand buoys, where exercises with the hand buoys are alternated with exercises without the hand buoys.
  • Limit the range of motion of the arm. Resistance equipment on the end of a long lever (the arm in this case) places a lot of stress at the shoulder joint. The shoulder is designed for mobility, but it is also quite unstable. We need to increase strength to improve stability, but we must not lose mobility. The water encourages us to indulge in greater ranges of motion, but around the shoulder we must be careful due to the added resistance of water and/or additional equipment. When opening arms wide, limit the range of motion so that the shoulder joint is not placed in its most vulnerable positions. AEA Standards & Guidelines recommend avoiding shoulder abduction beyond 90 degrees without external rotation.  In other words, if you cannot see the hand buoys in your periphery vision when looking straight ahead, you have opened the arms too wide.
  • Constantly submerged hand buoys equals constantly contracted muscles. Submerging hand buoys immediately engages the upper trapezius and deltoid muscles. They will be constantly contracted while the hand buoys are under the water, whatever other muscles the exercise is trying to target. This emphasizes the importance of resting these muscles between sets of upper body strengthening.  The shape, size and design of the hand buoys do not allow them to be submerged for long periods of time, much less an entire class.
  • Keep neutral postural alignment. In any activity where the arms and legs are loaded with resistance, it is important to align the core of the body safely.  Perform exercises with the trunk in neutral postural alignment, with shoulders over hips and pelvis in neutral. Keep observing, reminding and cueing participants about correct alignment.

Benefits of using a single hand buoy

In the Hand Buoy ABCs workout, a single hand buoy is used.  Using just one hand buoy instead of traditional paired use provides different exercise opportunities, outcomes and benefits.

  • Using just one hand buoy allows for the hands to rest and the fingers to extend, by either switching the working hand or by placing both hands on the end of the single buoy, with fingers open and extended
  • Switching the working arm allows for the deltoid and upper trapezius muscles of the non-working arm to relax
  • The use of a single buoy challenges core alignment and stability with asymmetrical and unilateral movements
  • Single buoy use allows for creativity in exercise selection. Different movements can be utilized that would not be possible with traditional paired use.
  • Less equipment is needed which can be helpful for reducing equipment costs

Hand buoys ABCs: 3 segments

Music tempo: 124- 128 bpm

 Segment 1 – Aerobic

The warm up should be in all planes with each joint moving in various ways. Short lever moves progress to bigger range of motion with the grip constantly changing.

Grip choices:

  • Single hold – right or left
  • Two hands – holding centre of bar
  • Two hands – holding ends of buoy – fingers extended

For the aerobic segment the smaller hand buoy will produce optimal work with the use of tempo changes and frequent grip changes.  The aerobic challenge can use any base moves or combination of base moves.  This segment is mostly level I using acceleration, action and reaction, lever length variants, surface area changes and working unilateral and bilateral.

 Segment 2 – Balance

Many balance programmes offer a pair of hand buoys, which can offer more stability for frail students.  However, by using a single hand buoy you can actually increase the degree of difficulty.  The single buoy when held off-centre promotes instability and a balance challenge.   Balance training using a single hand buoy can be manipulated to be progressive by using variations in the base of support of the lower body.  The narrower the base of support, the greater the balance challenge. Changing from a wide squat, to a lunge, to narrow tandem and ultimately to single leg stances while performing hand buoy exercises will challenge core stability and balance. And then the exercises can be progressed to off-axis postures, which often mimic real-life situations to improve our function on land.

Segment 3 – Core Strengthening

The hand buoy is the perfect piece of equipment to help with core strengthening. The buoy is utilised as a destabilising tool once stability has been established and the core engaged, gradually increasing the distance from the body’s centre of gravity and centre of buoyancy. More complex moves include rotation and ultimately off-axis balance poses.  The final routine places the single hand buoy between the thighs to change the relationship between the centre of gravity and centre of buoyancy.  This includes a multi-planar medley of movement with the body alternating level III (suspended) moves with some grounded exercises.

Take home message

There will never be a single size or shape of hand buoy that will be suitable for all fitness levels and population.  Ensure that your input and suggestions as an instructor are conveyed to your management who may be responsible for ordering the equipment.  Ideally a selection of different hand buoy shapes and sizes will ensure that individuals obtain an optimal workout.

You can find out more at Hydro-Actif’s website here.

Guest blogs are written by our member organisations and are not necessarily representative of the views and opinions of EMD UK.