A water workout so hard that just standing up is an accomplishment
I’m wobbling. I’m as shaky as a newborn deer. My core, my arms, my legs, every muscle in my body is straining to keep me upright, balanced. Then, 25 minutes in, when I momentarily relax, thinking I’ve got it under control, I suddenly lose it — and plunge sideways into the abyss.
Well, not an abyss, actually.
Just the the cool, chlorinated water of a community swimming pool.
Involuntarily laughing in embarrassment, as everyone does when they tumble off their boards, I crawl back on and eagerly resume one of the coolest — literally—workouts ever: Aqua Stand Up.
Falling into the drink once or twice is to be expected during your first time doing this unique new strength-and-aerobic workout conducted on stand-up paddleboards. Tethered on each end to opposite sides of the pool deck, they have just enough instability to make every yoga / Pilates-ish movement a challenge and the all-body workout a tough, satisfying 45-minute adventure.
Aqua Stand Up creator Eric Vandendriessche, a native of the resort town Biarritz in the South of France, got the idea for the class in 2011 while stand-up paddleboarding on the flat Atlantic Ocean waters outside his hometown.
“I thought, this would be a great, small-group workout for balance and strength, especially for people over 40,” said the longtime personal trainer, who’d been teaching boxing and step aerobics classes and working his clients’ stability and core strength on inflatable Swiss balls.
“It would be a fun, functional way to work the stabilizing muscles and the core.”
He set up six paddleboards in a local pool, developed routines and soon had classes filling up in 45 locations around France.
Brought to the U.S. in 2016, Aqua Stand Up is offered in 20 locations around the U.S., from Washington, D.C., to San Diego, with L.A. classes at the Westside Jewish Community Center and the Culver City Plunge. (You’ll definitely learn some workout moves you can do in your own pool, or ask your local aquatic center to expand its offerings.)
“Music gives people power,” says Vandendriessche, who infused our 45-minute Functional Training workout (there are also yoga, circuit training and kids classes) with a dozen songs cued to different exercise movements.
Speaking above the low-volume music from the pool deck, he instructs us to crawl atop our boards, lie belly down and warm up with the easiest and most basic paddleboard movement we’ve seen every surfer do: the crawl stroke.
As the board surges a few inches forward and backward with each left-right scoop, a realization soon sets in: My shoulders are burning. It looks easy, but it’s a movement you never do in normal life. And after a minute, this is hard, man.
Then the music changes to song No. 2. Just a few minutes into Aqua Stand Up, the moment of truth is upon us.
“Get up,” Vandendriessche says.
There’s no ocean here, not a wave in sight, but pressing up to your feet on a rocking, tippy surface for the first time is intimidating. Vandendriessche barks the step-by-step instructions: Do a push-up. Lower your hips. Press up to your feet.
Standing never seemed so difficult. Every muscle in your body engages as you strain to stay balanced. But something wondrous happened after 30 seconds: a calming, a stabilization, a sense of relief and joy. The mere act of standing without momentary terror seems like a remarkable achievement.
But it gets better. To build on our new ability, Vandendriessche orders us to do squats, to “rock the boat,” to make waves.
And that’s how the workout progressed. A baby step to a bigger step. Every three minutes, we’re doing something that would have seemed impossible three minutes before.
For song No. 3, we grab our paddles and take the biggest step of all: stationary stand-up paddleboarding, the big idea that sparked Vandendriessche’s fancy a decade ago in France.
Paddleboarding is a great all-body workout — hitting the triceps, chest, legs, core. For first-time paddleboarders, whether out in nature or here in the class, the feeling of mastering a highly coordinated new skill, which this is, is a deeply satisfying thrill.
For me, having done it outdoors many times, the opportunity to “hone my craft” in a controlled aquatic laboratory was pretty cool.
As the sense of achievement built through the music-themed phases of the Aqua Stand Up, so did the muscle fatigue. Just as with the simple lying-down crawl stoke that started the workout, every very-doable movement progressed from “This is sorta easy” to “When is this going to end?” to “Oh, my God — I’m going to blow!” as the minutes ticked by.
By the time three minutes had gone by after doing standing cross-body pulls with rubber stretch tubes during song No. 4, I wanted to cry. The crunches, climbers and planks of song No. 5, all multiplied in their intensity by the constant firing of stabilization muscles, brought me to the edge of prayer.
After song No. 6’s recovery sequence of yoga poses and bird-dog pointers, which allowed you to relax your breathing and your brain, song No. 7 hit us with harder-to-balance lunges and yoga’s Warrior I, II and III and Tree poses. The remainder off the workout ramped up the difficulty with more active movements.
Refusing to slow down, overheated and delirious from the burpees on song No. 9, I finally lost it and tipped too far, plummeting to the depths of the 4-foot pool.
Never has failure felt so good.
Aqua Stand Up is not Zen. It’s not a relaxing workout.
It’s a physical and mental challenge from the get-go, no matter your age and ability. But it’s all worth it at the end, with the ethereal vibes of song No. 11 echoing in the air as you lie on your back and luxuriate in a grand finale that is part relief and part primal, blissfully sending you back to the womb, floating on cleansing, chlorinated amniotic fluid as you bask in the exquisite satisfaction of having completed a great workout that left you fitter and healthier and more skilled than when you started.
Ready to stand up?
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