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When Your Class is Not Hard Enough

Author Lori Templeman, BA


Water fitness instructors are often approached with feedback. A participant may have suggestions about music, seek advice about exercise adjustments, or give praise for a job well done.  I have also received the following comment: “I enjoy your class, but it’s not hard enough”.  I was especially puzzled because it was a boot camp format with multiple intervals and freestyle drills, and other participants had told me it was a great workout. 

At first, this statement caused me to question my teaching abilities.  Then I began to dig deeper and realized an individual’s lack of perceived exertion may be due to many factors.  It could be the class format, but it could also be the student’s mindset, or a lack of education regarding intensity variation.

What Brings People to Class?

Answering the intensity question may be influenced by the reasons that participants attend your class.  Changes people wish to see through exercise include weight loss, stress relief, strength, improved quality of life, and independence.  A driven participant may be asking for more progressions because they have plateaued.  Social participants come to class for the interaction.  For them, it’s an opportunity visit with friends and add some movement to their day; they may not be focusing completely on the exercises.

At my next class, I decided to observe the participant who made the comment.  I noticed she was not making the most of the workout.  She was socializing during the intervals and wasn’t putting in her best effort.  Another male participant had also said that my class was too easy.  Although he purposely comes to work hard, he wasn’t using the water effectively due to poor technique.  So, what’s an instructor to do?

Education and Leadership

Instructors have a variety of ages and abilities to satisfy.  I decided to focus on educating my classes with progression and regression strategies.  I want to ensure everyone feels successful regardless of their fitness level.  Now, at the beginning of class I convey what to expect from the workout and how it should feel. This brings in personal accountability. Intensity is achieved through attitude and effort.  These are the two things that each participant can control.  An instructor may lead a class and choose the exercises, but the participant needs to execute them to his/her best potential in that moment. 

Consistently educate participants on the goal of your class and purpose for the movements you are teaching – endurance, strength, flexibility, stabilization, etc. Explain what they can expect to feel, such as breathlessness, muscle fatigue, core stabilization, or a mental challenge.  The focus of the day gives participants something to concentrate on and shows that you came prepared with a lesson plan. A class doesn’t have to be “hard” to be effective.  Targeting the different component s of fitness creates well-rounded results. 

An instructor can also keep participants motivated by providing new challenges.  When was the last time you mixed up your workout format?  If the participants are moving through the same routine in every class, their bodies will adapt to that stimulus.  A predictable routine also becomes less mentally challenging; talking begins as enthusiasm dwindles.  Providing a variety of formats will keep class engaging and will require more concentration from the participants.  Simple changes include switching up the exercise order, adjusting the ratio or timing of intervals, or varying equipment.  Pay attention to the new fitness trends and formats for ideas to refresh ongoing classes.

Cross training is an important training concept.  For those participants who have been attending classes for long periods of time, suggest trying different aquatic formats, such as shallow water, deep water or even swimming.  A participant who feels they have plateaued in the water may be ready to integrate more exercise on land.  Performing exercise in gravity supplements our level of fitness in the environment we live.  Some participants may need other options beyond our class to reach their goals.

Intensity Solutions

If a participant requests a more challenging workout, I provide them the following strategies for increasing intensity within the current program. 

  • Monitor Form and Technique.  Teach students how to work the water effectively.  Speed is our typical response for making a workout harder on land.  In water, we emphasize full range of motion against the water’s resistance.  The more water we move, the better the workout.  Practicing good alignment and proper tempo influences the effectiveness of an exercise.  Maintaining good posture during each movement requires body awareness and, at first, may require constant self-correction.
  • More Surface Area. Adjusting limb position makes a difference in the amount of resistance experience based on leverage and surface area. Participants may wear webbed gloves as progression for upper body work. Gloves allow for freedom of movement that may not always be achievable with hand-held equipment.  The upper body workload progresses as the hand adjusts from slicing, fisting, cupping, and “webbing” with fingers spread wide. 
  • More Force.  Newton’s law of acceleration applies to our water workouts by applying more force during the exercise – either against the water’s or against the pool bottom.  Cue to apply more power, energy, and muscular effort when we are executing a higher intensity movement.  Remind participants that this is a technique that can be employed at any time to adjust the intensity of their workout.  Consider this example of two intensity progressions. 

Exercise: Jumping Jack

Option 1: Perform a propelled jumping jack by pushing off the pool bottom with power to power the body up and out of the water.

Option 2: Drop down to neutral (level II) and press against the water with as much force as you can.

Both increase intensity by adding more force, but in different ways and with different levels of impact.They get to choose!

  • Coaching for Effort. Teach participants to use rate of perceived exertion (RPE).  AEA has released a new Aquatic Exercise Intensity Scale. The scale was developed to take into consideration the unique aspects of training in the water, and it includes an RPE scale (0-10), an aquatic heart rate reference, a standard description of exertion plus an added description to help individuals assess intensity levels better. These posters are available for purchase in the at the AEA website (https://www.aeawave.com/Shop.aspx) and can be posted at your pool for reference.



The talk test is another subjective method of estimating appropriate cardiorespiratory exercise intensity.Participants measure intensity by how easy it is to sing, speak, or hold a conversation.Everyone works to their own ability each day.We want to empower people to celebrate who they are and what they are becoming as a result of their efforts.

  • Consider a Different Class.  It is possible that a specific class format or your style of teaching is not the right fit for every participant.  We cannot please everybody all the time.  Some people will not be satisfied no matter how much you improve.  Suggest other instructors and class formats on the schedule, if available.

As aquatic fitness professionals, it is our job to empower our participants to achieve success in every class.  There is more to quality instruction than teaching the “hardest” workout.  We educate on proper form, effective progressions and regressions, and the ability to self-monitor intensity.  Those who get the best workout are present and mindful.  We can ultimately diffuse the intensity question by simply asking, “Did YOU choose the appropriate intensity for YOU today?”



Lori Templeman, BA, lives and works in Lincoln City, OR. She is a group fitness instructor, Red Cross instructor, personal trainer, and lifeguard. Lori is an AEA Aquatic Training Specialist and national presenter who travels the country leading aquatic fitness programs. She is also a successful freelance writer featured in various fitness publications. Lori’s certifications include AEA, ACE, AFAA, and Arthritis Foundation.


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