This Low-Impact Cardio Workout Will Get Your Blood Pumping Without Killing Your Joints
PSA: Low-impact cardio isn’t just for people with bad knees.
Based on runners' breathlessness and sweat-drenched t-shirts after powering through sprint workouts, it's easy to assume that pounding the pavement (or belt) is a form of cardio that simply can't be topped.
But IRL, running isn't necessarily the absolute best cardio exercise, says Brianna Bernard, a certified personal trainer and Isopure Athlete. "The right type of cardio is the thing that you're going to show up and do every day and whatever your body responds well to," she explains. "If you hate running or your knees hurt while doing it, then it's not the right form of exercise for you... it doesn't mean you throw in the towel. It means you pick a new [move]."
One option: Low-impact cardio, a style of exercise that gets your heart rate up without hurting your joints. Here, Bernard breaks down the reasons why low-impact cardio can be a beneficial component of your routine — even if you're injury-free — and how to incorporate her go-to moves into a killer workout.
The Benefits of Low-Impact Cardio
ICYDK, cardiorespiratory (aka cardio) training involves exercises that help stimulate and strengthen the heart and lungs, Melissa Kendter, an ACE-certified trainer, functional training specialist, and Tone & Sculpt coach, previously told Shape. More specifically, cardio increases your heart rate, gets your blood pumping, and trains your lungs and heart to work more effectively to deliver oxygen to the muscles, which ultimately helps you to tackle more strenuous activity without feeling winded, she explained. Along with building up your endurance and heart health, cardio can generally be a major calorie-burner — if that's something you're aiming for, adds Bernard. (Related: What You Need to Understand About Exercise and Calorie-Burn)
Some popular cardio exercises, such as running, box jumps, and burpees, are also high-impact, meaning these moves create a great impact on your feet and joints, says Bernard. And while this pounding may be NBD for some folks, others may struggle with it. "It can be really hard on your knees, on your joints, your low back," she explains. "For anyone who has foot or arch issues, whether it's plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendon [injuries], or something else, that high-impact cardio can be really detrimental to any of those ailments, or it can contribute to creating new ailments under any of those categories." Low-impact cardio moves, on the other hand, are gentle on the knees, joints, low back, and feet, but they still challenge and strengthen your cardiorespiratory system, says Bernard.
Regardless of the impact level, both the American Heart Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend performing 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity, or a combo of both each week to score those health perks. One way to measure your workout's intensity is the talk test: If you can carry out a conversation but can't sing, you're working at a moderate intensity, but if you can utter only a few words at a time, you're exercising at a vigorous intensity, according to the Mayo Clinic. To hit those recommendations, Bernard encourages people to incorporate cardio exercises into their routine every time they work out, whether it's three, five, or however many days a week, she says. (FTR, she recommends also performing some strength-training moves during every workout to score some major health benefits, such as increased bone strength and reduced injury risk.)
Types of Low-Impact Cardio Exercises
Jump-Free Plyometric Moves
Plyometric training involves explosive movements that will increase your muscle and power, such as jump squats, speed skaters, and other hop-heavy moves. But these exercises don't have to be high-impact. Medicine ball slams, wall balls, box step-ups, and battle rope waves — Bernard's favorite low-impact plyometric exercises — all help you generate explosive power and strength. "These are plyometric movements that we don't necessarily think of as cardio because you're not going to do them for 30 minutes at a steady state as you would if you were running or cycling," she explains. "But they do spike your heart rate and they almost have more of a high-intensity interval element." Translation: Low-impact cardio exercises can still have a place in your HIIT workout. (Take this as a sign to finally buy some battle ropes for your home gym.)
Modified Bodyweight Moves
With their ability to strengthen your entire body and get your heart rate up, both mountain climbers and burpees can be beneficial additions to your workout routine. But for some folks, they can have too high of an impact, says Bernard. In those cases, she recommends performing the moves at a slower pace, walking your feet back and forth as opposed to hopping. "There's no impact — you're never jumping, there's never an explosive moment," says Bernard. "[For burpees,] you're literally bending down to the ground, placing your hands on the floor, stepping back with your right foot, stepping back with your left foot, stepping forward with each foot individually, standing up, and repeating. It's the same movement but without the impact."
The same goes for mountain climbers; instead of driving your feet up to your chest as if you were running, you'll simply tap your toe at the top, step it back, and repeat on the opposite side, she says. "It's eliminating the jump and any harm that it could be doing to your feet and knees, and it makes it more of a universal activity for all individuals," she adds.
Even though you'll be moving at a slower pace, these low-impact cardio moves will still get your heart rate up — and in some ways, they may feel even more challenging, says Bernard. "Those muscles are having to really focus on each movement, and if you slowly bring that foot forward, you're going to feel it more in your core and you're going to engage your hip flexors more," she explains. "In a way, it's almost a better workout." (If you're in the mood to go big or go home, try this 100-burpee EMOM workout.)
Pounding the bag after a stressful day is a sure-fire way to blow off some steam — and test your power. But if you want a low-impact cardio alternative, turn to speed boxing. "Punching and kicking for speed creates less impact than if we were punching and kicking for power," says Bernard. "I have a lot of my clients do speed rounds just tapping [the bag], not this heavy impact, and it gets your heart rate going without creating any jarring movements to your wrists or knees." Plus, you can even ditch the bag entirely and instead punch the air in front of you, removing all the impact, she adds. (Related: This At-Home Beginner's Boxing Workout Will Get You in Fighting Shape)
How to Add Low-Impact Cardio to Your Workouts
Not sure how to add those low-impact cardio exercises to your routine? Bernard recommends incorporating them into a circuit workout, alternating between 30 seconds of cardio and 30 seconds of strength-training movements, she says. The strength exercises will give you some time to recover before the next high-intensity cardio move. But since you're not taking a full-fledged rest between moves, your heart rate will mostly stay up, allowing for a greater calorie burn, she explains.
To create a circuit workout, choose two low-impact cardio moves (such as those medicine ball slams, wall balls, box step-ups, battle rope waves, modified mountain climbers and burpees, and speed punches) and two of your favorite strength-training exercises, such as dumbbell squats, dumbbell chest presses, dumbbell bicep curls, push-ups, bodyweight walking lunges. Alternate between the cardio and strength moves in the circuit, performing each one for 30 seconds, for three rounds. Create and perform as many circuits as you'd like, depending on how much time you have to sweat, says Bernard.
Low-Impact Cardio Circuit Workout
If creating your own workout sounds intimidating and you want to take out all the guesswork, try this low-impact cardio workout featuring Bernard's favorite moves.
How it works: Perform each exercise in the circuit for 30 seconds. After one round, rest for 30 to 90 seconds, then repeat the circuit two more times. Repeat the process with the next circuit.
Modified Mountain Climbers
A. Start in a high plank position with shoulders over wrists, fingers spread apart, feet hip-width apart, and weight resting on balls of feet. Body should form a straight line from shoulders to ankles.
B. Maintaining a flat back and gazing between hands, brace core, lift one foot off the floor, and bring knee to chest.
C. Return foot to start and repeat with the other leg. Alternate bringing knees in toward chest.
Repeat for 30 seconds.
Dumbbell Goblet Squat
A. Stand with feet hip-width apart, holding a dumbbell in front of chest with both hands, elbows pointing down.
B. Keeping chest proud and core tight, slowly lower into a squat, pushing hips back and down as if sitting into a chair. Thighs should be parallel to the ground. Avoid allowing knees to cave in toward the midline.
C. Press feet firmly into the ground to stand back up and return to start.
Repeat for 30 seconds.
(Try these other weighted squats the next time you create your own low-impact cardio workout.)
Medicine Ball Slam
A. Hold a medicine ball and stand with feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
B. Explosively lift ball overhead, then immediately slam it to the floor by driving ball downward. As you do, follow the ball with body, avoiding bending at the waist, and end in a low squat position with head up, chest and glutes low.
C. Scoop the ball up on the first bounce and explode upward, driving the ball back overhead and fully extending body and arms.
Repeat for 30 seconds.
A. Start in a high plank position with hands directly underneath shoulders and legs extended, feet hip-width apart.
B. Engage core by tucking the tailbone and drawing the navel in toward the spine. Lock in the lats by drawing the shoulders down and away from the ears. Engage the glutes and quads.
C. Push elbows out so the arms form a 45-degree angle to the body. Look down to keep neck neutral, and slowly lower body, stopping 3 inches above the floor. Keep core engaged throughout the movement, ensuring body forms a straight line from head to toe.
D. Quickly push back up to start.
Repeat for 30 seconds.
A. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, weight in heels, and arms at sides.
B. Push hips back, bend knees, and lower body into a squat.
C. Place hands on the floor directly in front of, and just inside, feet. Shift weight onto hands.
D. Step feet back in a plank position. Body should form a straight line from head to heels. Be careful not to let back sag or butt stick up in the air.
E. (Optional) Lower into a push-up or lower body all the way onto the floor, keeping core engaged. Push up to lift body off the floor and return to plank position.
F. Step feet forward so they land just outside of hands. Reach arms overhead and explosively stand. Immediately lower back into a squat for next rep.
Bodyweight Walking Lunge
A. Stand with feet hip-width apart and core engaged.
B. Brace core and take a big step forward with the right foot, lowering until knees for 90-degree angles.
C. Push off the back foot and press into the front foot to stand with weight centered over both feet. Squeeze glutes at the top.
D. Take a big step forward with the left foot to do a rep on the opposite side.
Fast Feet Punches
A. Start standing in a boxer's stance with the left foot forward, fists guarding face, and elbows in to start.
B. Staying on the balls of your feet with knees bent, shift weight quickly from one foot to the other, simultaneously throwing jabs (a punch forward with the left arm) and crosses (a punch forward with the right arm). Repeat.
Dumbbell Bicep Curl
A. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart and core engaged. Hold a dumbbell in each hand with straight arms in a neutral grip, palms facing forward. Tuck ribs to brace core and squeeze glutes to start.
B. Keeping elbows tight to sides and shoulders back, engage bicep muscles to simultaneously draw both dumbbells toward their corresponding shoulder until wrists nearly touch shoulders.
C. Pause, then lower the dumbbells back down to sides with control. Repeat.