Scuba diving is one of the most rewarding water activities you can engage in – how else will you have the opportunity to dive with sea turtles or explore shipwrecks? – and, at first blush, it’s one that you might expect to be extremely physically demanding. You are, after all, wearing a lot of heavy equipment and descending to depths of ten meters or more, your body subject to high pressure and the surrounding marine environment often hard to see clearly and difficult to navigate. Surely a very high level of physical fitness is needed before you strap on a tank and go scuba diving?
The truth is more complicated than this. While it’s true that very unfit people should probably not go scuba diving, it’s not necessary to be an Olympian before getting in the water. In fact, you don’t even need to swim to go Scuba diving! But what is the actual importance of fitness for scuba diving – and what are the best exercises for scuba divers?
Some level of fitness is very much recommended before committing to diving – and if you’re not quite as fit as you’d like (or is optimal), there are plenty of exercises you can do a few weeks or months before you plan your scuba diving trip. Let’s take a look at both how important fitness is, and the exercises that you can do to reach your desired level of fitness.
How Fit Should I Be to Scuba Dive?
There is only a minimum level of fitness required to begin Open Water certification. Firstly, you must be able to swim 200 yards without stopping, and you must be able to tread water (in calm waters) for ten minutes. These are fairly easy for most people, even people who aren’t particularly fit.
You can probably get away with no special exercises or preparation for scuba diving, then. But the same can be said of running 5km – sure, you could probably do it without any preparation or prior training, but wouldn’t it be a lot easier (and wouldn’t you go a lot faster) if you’d been regularly doing cardio for a while beforehand?
Similarly, having a good level of fitness for scuba diving can really help. Your air supply will last longer as your breath control improves, and in emergency situations physically fitter divers tend to react better than divers who might not be so fit.
However, physical strength is secondary to bigger fitness concerns when diving – namely, respiratory and cardiac health. When you get deep enough, the pressure on your body increases, making both your respiratory and circulatory systems work harder to achieve the same effect (your heart works harder against the pressure to pump blood, and your lungs need to work harder to oxygenate said blood). This means that any pre-existing conditions that you might have on the surface may be exacerbated underwater. Bottom line – if you have any respiratory or circulatory issues, always check with a doctor before engaging in any potentially strenuous activity.
To recapitulate, then: you don’t need to be an Olympian to scuba dive, and indeed any Average Joe (or Jane) can do it, assuming no underlying conditions. That said: it doesn’t hurt to be reasonably fit. And it doesn’t hurt to prep for a dive with some exercises.
Which leads us nicely to our next point: how can you physically prepare for your dive? Let’s take a look at the best exercises for scuba divers.
What Sort of Exercises Prep Me for Scuba Diving?
The most physically demanding aspect of scuba diving is finning – e.g. moving your legs to propel yourself through the water. Leg strength is obviously important, then, but so is core strength, as your core will be engaged throughout your dive (no body part is an island, and moving your legs also works your core).
That said, overall body fitness helps, and so your exercises for scuba diving shouldn’t focus exclusively on your legs and core.
The most important kinds of exercises when it comes to being fit for scuba diving are as follows:
- Cardio workouts
- Leg workouts
- Core workouts
- Upper body workouts
Let’s take a look at each type of exercise for scuba divers, and how they can help you improve your level of fitness for scuba diving.
Cardio Workouts for Scuba Diving
A lot of people simply cannot stand cardio workouts – they’re lengthy, they’re boring, and they’re tiring. But the simple fact is that cardio (short for ‘cardiovascular’) is essential for putting your heart and lungs through the paces – and guess which two things are actually really important when diving?
Cardio exercises are therefore among the most important exercises for scuba divers – but they are just great for overall fitness, too, and will improve your stamina and help you better regulate your breathing underwater.
Luckily for those who find it boring, cardio takes many forms and there is pretty much something for everyone:
Cycling is in many ways the perfect exercise for scuba divers – it’s relatively mild, it’s low-impact on joints and tendons (unlike running) and the pedaling is great training for finning, working similar muscle groups in a repetitive way.
It’s not quite as efficient as cycling due to the fact that it puts your joints and tendons under considerable strain and can, if done improperly, lead to injuries that might just put you out for the count before your dive. That said, if you’re already relatively fit and you don’t go overboard, running can be really beneficial to maintaining a lower heart rate and therefore lowering your oxygen consumption underwater. It also works most of your leg muscles, making your finning more efficient – which makes it one of the most popular exercises for scuba divers.
Though you famously don’t need to be able to swim to scuba dive, it certainly helps! Swimming mimics diving really well – there is resistance against your whole body due to the water, and so you’re toning every muscle in your body just by being in there (as with scuba diving). The right style can also help with your finning – front crawl, for example, has your legs moving in a similar way to finning – and as with other cardio, it will help lower your heart rate. Because swimming is a low-impact cardio exercise, you’re also less at risk of injuring your joints or tendons.
A gentler, lower-impact form of jogging in essence, hiking is both a good low-intensity cardio workout and, if you pick the right place to hike, one of the most entertaining and rewarding. Obviously, it does take longer to get the same benefits that you’d get out of a more intensive cardio workout.
HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training)
HIIT is hands down the most efficient way of doing cardio, and certainly one of the best exercises for scuba divers.
HIIT is, at its core, all about attaining the same efficiency as longer cardio workouts, but in very short periods. As you might have guessed, it’s extremely high-intensity.
The benefits of HIIT are numerous; you burn, on average, 30% more calories than other forms of cardio, increase your metabolism for longer, burn more body fat, increase your lean muscle mass, improve oxygen consumption efficiency, and lower your resting heart rate.
All of this, of course, improves your overall fitness levels and efficiently preps you for your next dive. And because it takes up so little time, it’s easy to fit into your day!
Although this one might not immediately jump out at you as something that’s hugely beneficial for scuba diving fitness, the fact is that the two activities have a lot in common. Yoga is all about breath control – hugely important in scuba diving – and yoga encourages a sense of peacefulness and serenity that is hugely useful for helping more nervous divers maintain their composure underwater. That makes Yoga one of the best exercises for scuba divers.
Something that’s key to yoga is mastering inhalation and exhalation. It goes without saying that this is extremely useful to scuba divers, as efficient breath control means getting more out of your tank and thus enjoying a longer dive.
Yoga also helps with your overall levels of physical fitness, much like cardio training. Your heart rate will be lowered, and your heart and lungs will be healthier – all of which translates to a better and longer dive.
Though not as immediately useful as cardio or yoga, weight training has its place in prepping for a dive. You’re hauling a lot of equipment around both prior to, during and after a dive (as much as 25kgs of gear!), and resistance training will help a lot with that. The question is: what resistance training?
It goes without saying that your legs will be working pretty hard during a dive, as your primary method of movement is finning. Therefore, leg exercises are great for scuba divers!
Furthermore, because you’re trying to conserve as much energy (and therefore as much oxygen) as possible during a dive, it’s important not to expend energy unnecessarily – and that means that you really should stick to finning as your only method of locomotion, avoiding the temptation to try to cut through the water using some kind of pseudo-breaststroke or similar.
When scuba diving, you’re wearing fins. This improves your movement through the water, but also requires that you expend more energy to do so; fins take up more surface area than your feet, so you’re having to work your legs harder to move. If your legs are not sufficiently strong, you may find yourself tiring quickly – particularly if you’re fighting against a current. This makes it doubly important that you work those legs!
What leg exercises, then, make good training for scuba diving? The most important are those that focus on your hamstrings, quads, calves, and glutes. Working on your core is important, too (we’ll get to that later).
One of the best exercises you can do to strengthen your hamstrings is the aptly named hamstring curl, which helps you kick more efficiently during finning. They also work your glutes and abs.
A simple but effective move that strengthens your thighs, abs, obliques and glutes – all of which get a workout during finning.
One-leg Drop Squat
This exercise strengthens your calves and thus provides protection against their cramping during your dive.
In a similar vein to the previous exercise, calf raises help build your (you guessed it) calves up and improve strength and duration of finning. It will also help you avoid calf cramps.
Flutter Kicks (Swimming)
Nothing helps finning more than emulating finning, so hit the pool and do some flutter kicks! These closely mimic the motions your legs will undergo when finning, and so they are of immense benefit to your overall diving experience.
A solid core (abs and obliques) form a solid platform for your legs to work from – much like a sturdy house needs good foundations. It’s important, then, not to neglect giving your core a workout when getting ready for scuba diving. Having some core exercises in the workout routine is a great idea for all scuba divers.
Diving can really throw your core muscles off, as all that gear on your back changes your center of gravity and forces your core to work differently to the way it usually works. This can result in muscle strain and lower back pain if your core isn’t sufficiently strengthened, so don’t skimp on core day!
Let’s look at some exercises than can help strengthen your core.
A gentler version of the more (in)famous plank, this variation involves keeping your elbows and knees on the mat and contracting your abs so that your back doesn’t sag. Simple and effective, but if you’re relatively confident of your existing core strength you’ll be better moving onto…
A classic for a reason, the plank is a great workout for your core muscles and is deceptively tiring. Try to fit in planking daily in order to have a strong core for your dive.
Back Extensions can help you avoid ‘hunching’ with your tank (slouching forward to compensate for its weight), which brings its own problems, and improves overall core strength.
Neither exercise needs much introduction, being as they are some of the most well-known core-strengthening exercises. Both help immensely with maintaining a solid core.
Though your upper body is not as important to scuba diving as your legs or core, it’s nevertheless used in your dive (remember that, as a result of water resistance, all muscles are used when underwater) and should not be neglected when training before a dive.
Lat pull-downs are great for working the middle of your back, several muscles of which come into play when lugging your equipment around out of water. If you’re getting into your gear unassisted, your lats are also important when you’re getting your tank on, and so should not be neglected – nothing spoils your dive more than pulling a muscle in your back and having to abort!
Wait a second – didn’t we say that we don’t really use our arms during scuba diving? Why would we want to work on our biceps, then?
Though not directly useful during your dive, your arms will get a good workout moving equipment around before and after your dive, and so you should do at least a little work on them.
Again not directly important to your dive once in the water, your shoulder muscles are nonetheless important when moving equipment around pre-/post-dive, or helping your friends into and out of their own gear.
The humble push-up does double duty for the scuba diver, working not only your chest and arms, but also engaging your core in order to keep you balanced. A deceptively great workout for scuba diving!
There we have it, then – a brief guide to physical fitness and its importance to scuba diving. But there’s another kind of fitness that’s equally important when diving – one that’s often, unfortunately, overlooked…
Is Psychological Fitness Important When Scuba Diving?
The importance of a relatively good level of physical fitness to scuba diving is well established and receives a lot of attention. However, while there is much talk about physical exercises for scuba divers, psychological wellbeing is every bit as important — though it might not, at first blush, seem to be.
Consider the mental workload you assign to yourself when scuba diving. You must be in a position to pay attention to the following:
- The safety of your surroundings
- Your air gauge
- Your depth gauge
- Your diving buddy’s wellbeing
- The state of your equipment, e.g., your mask which may be fogging or leaking
- Your regulator
- Your levels of calmness and alertness
- Your ability to recognize narcosis symptoms
- Your personal limits
This can be a lot to keep track of, and it can be difficult for some people. In addition, the ocean can be a scary place, and some people may be prone to panicking – and if anything is sure to contribute to an accident, it’s panicking 20 meters under the surface!
How then, can we ensure that we’re able to pay attention to everything we need to pay attention to whilst scuba diving? And how can we avoid panic, stress and accidents?
Ensure That You’re Well Rested
The benefits of a good night’s sleep are well documented and exploring them in great detail is beyond the remit of this article, but suffice it to say that being well rested translates directly into being a more alert, more clear-headed diver. Make sure you’ve had a good night’s sleep before any dive in order to make the most of it and stay safe.
Avoid Drugs of Any Kind if Possible
Recreational drugs such as cannabis, ecstasy, LSD and so on should 100% be avoided before a dive – not only because of the obvious physical drawbacks that come with a ‘hangover’ from such drugs, but also because of the psychological effects that may accompany it. The last thing you need are feelings of despondency and listlessness, or an inability to focus.
Obviously, this also goes for alcohol, which in addition to reducing alertness and responsiveness, also has physical effects that may increase your chances of decompression sickness.
If you are on medication for legitimate medical reasons, consult your doctor before diving.
Seek Medical Advice if Experiencing Mental Health Issues
Though scuba diving is typically an option for most people, it may be worth reconsidering if you’re undergoing bouts of anxiety or depression. Much like you wouldn’t dive with a cold, you shouldn’t dive if severely depressed or anxious. The former will make it difficult to focus, and the latter may cause you to panic (which, as we have previously established, is bad).
Ensure Psychological Competence
This sounds like something you might find on somebody’s military record, but it’s just as important to we civilian scuba divers. Basically, it asks you to consider if you’re mentally fit to scuba dive. Are you able to regulate your emotions and impulses? Are you able to recognize your limits and those of others? If not, and there’s a risk of you endangering yourself and others through recklessness or negligence, you should not be diving.
Recognize (and Deal With) Pre-Dive Stress
As we’ve pointed out, diving itself can be a stressful experience – particularly for inexperienced divers, or those who’ve not dived for a while. Worrying about what might happen on a dive is far more pernicious that the things that actually go wrong on a well-prepared dive, and it’s important to avoid this.
Thankfully, the pre-dive checks that we all undergo are designed specifically to avoid this kind of stress. Checking all your equipment and completing your mental checklist not only helps keep your mind busy and off things that might otherwise stress you out, but it instils a sense of order that naturally prevents tendencies towards panic.
We hope that we’ve demonstrated that fitness for scuba diving – both physical and psychological – is undoubtedly important, but that it’s important to realize that you don’t have to be Michael Phelps in order to dive safely and enjoyably. With a healthy portion of fitness, you will be able to enjoy scuba diving even more and have a lot of fun! That said, there are a number of exercises for scuba divers (whether physical, mental, or a combination of the two like yoga) that can help prepare you to have the best possible dive you can. Stay safe, stay sane, and make sure you’re well-prepared for every dive you make!