This versatile workout is all about the dealer's choice: Assign a move for each suit, shuffle and flip. Can you finish the deck?

By Tiffany Ayuda
May 18, 2020
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If you're looking for a way to spice up your workouts, consider doing a deck of cards workout. This workout literally leaves it up to chance to determine what exercises and how many reps you will be performing from one card to the next. Plus, you can play it alone or with a partner.

The gist of a deck of cards workout: You assign exercises to each suit, draw cards, and do the exercise associated with the suit of the card for the number of reps indicated by the card.

"The benefit of this workout is that it's completely random—you don't know what's coming next," explains Mat Forzaglia, a certified functional strength coach and instructor at NEOU Fitness. "This can help your cardio goals by keeping the pace going, and it can also help with strength by adding volume. And you can play it in many different ways, depending on your focus for the workout."

And the only requirement is a deck of cards—you can design the workout based on your fitness goals and the equipment (check out some of these affordable tools) you have on hand. For example, if you want to focus on building strong abs, you can create the whole workout around core exercises.

The best part? "There's no right or wrong way. You just have to have an open and creative mind," he says. And a willingness to sweat. That said, if you don't know where to start, here's a primer on how to DIY a deck of cards workout. (Related: The Bodyweight Exercises You Should Be Doing)

How to Design a Deck of Cards Workout

1. Decide your workout focus.

Is it leg day? Do you want to strengthen your back for those pull-ups? Get your heart rate pumping with some cardio? Forzaglia recommends choosing a muscle group you want to target or goal you want to achieve with the workout, whether it's cardio or strength. For example, in his deck-of-cards workout, Forzaglia was all about core, so he included ab-driven movements, like hollow holds, plank jacks, jackknives, and Russian twists. If you aren't targeting a specific muscle group, consider making it a total-body workout and select exercises that incorporate upper body, lower body, core, and cardio.

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2. Assign an exercise for each suit.

Depending on what the focus of your workout is, you'll assign different exercises for each suit. For instance, if it's leg day, you can do squat jumps for every heart card and lateral lunges for every spade card you draw. (Or any of these best leg-day exercises.) No matter what exercises you choose, you want to make sure you have all equipment ready (if you're using any) so the transition is seamless and you're not wasting time fumbling over things. Here's a sample of exercises assigned to different suits:

  • Diamonds = Plank-Ups
  • Hearts = Squat Jumps
  • Clubs = Superman Lat Pull-Down
  • Spades = Russian Twists

Decide what to do with your face cards. You can decide to count face cards as a certain number of reps—so Jacks = 11, Queens = 12, etc.—or you can designate the face cards as special moves. For example, in his deck-of-cards ab workout, Forzaglia assigned jumping jacks for jack cards, glute bridges for queen cards, and supermans for king cards. You can make all face cards be 10 reps or a time-based movement. Here, more examples:

  • Jacks = V-Ups or Knee Tucks for 30 seconds
  • Queens = Lateral Lunges for 30 seconds
  • Kings = Blast-Off Push-Ups for 30 seconds
  • Ace = Burpees for 30 seconds

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3. Know your reps.

The number on the card will determine the number of reps you'll perform for each exercise. So if you pull out a seven of hearts, for instance, you'll do seven reps of that exercise. "I made the face cards 10 reps and the jokers were a 30-second rest," says Forzaglia. If you're including isometric exercises (such as planks or hollow holds) as the face-card moves, you can assign them as 30- or 45-second holds. And if you want to add a challenge to the low-rep cards, you can make it a double-count per movement; so if you're doing oblique mountain climbers, driving both knees up counts as one rep instead of two. (Partial-rep strength training can make a workout more challenging, too.)

4. Set a time limit.

While there are no rules on specific time limits for a deck-of-cards workout, the goal is to get through all 52 cards, plus two joker cards as quickly as possible. "Depending on the focus of your workout, it may be tougher to finish, but the whole idea is to get through the whole deck," says Forzaglia. (FTR, here's how much exercise you really need per week.)

That means there are little to no breaks in between flipping cards. "Once one card is done, flip to the next and keep the rest period short so your heart rate stays high. Even if your workout is strength-based, having little to no rest besides flipping the next card can be a very challenging workout," says Forzaglia.

You can probably get through an entire deck of cards in 15 to 20 minutes, but you can also set specific goals, like finishing half the deck in 10 minutes, or setting a timer for 5-minute intervals, and seeing how many cards you can complete within that time. Another way to set up the workout is to work the upper body for 10 minutes and the lower body for another 10 minutes.

5. Shuffle your cards.

Now that you've assigned exercises for every suit and know how many reps you need to complete for each card, it's time to start sweatin'! But before you start your workout, make sure to shuffle your cards so you're not performing the same exercises consecutively. You want to perform a variety of exercises so you stay challenged throughout the workout. (Related: The Creative Bodyweight EMOM Workout That's All About Speed)

Tips for Creating the Best Deck-of-Cards Workout

As with any workout, you should aim to have push and pull movements, which help you train both the front and back of your body. "Doing this workout with bodyweight might be a bit tough to add pulling movements, but if you have some equipment or a random object that you can use, you most certainly can get an effective workout in," says Forzaglia. Push-ups, plank-ups or overhead shoulder presses are good examples of push exercises to include in your workout, and for pulling movements, Forzaglia says you can lay on your stomach and do Ts with your arms, as you would in some variations of supermans, to focus on strengthening the upper back and opening the chest. You can also use weights to do rows or resistance bands for pull-aparts or find something to hang off of (a TRX, parallette bars, a sturdy chair, or a handrail might work) to do inverted rows.

If you have a workout buddy, you can take turns flipping cards and doing the exercises. You flip, they do the exercise, then they flip and you perform the move. The possibilities are endless! (Or, use some of these creative partner workout moves.)

In terms of incorporating deck of cards workouts into your routine, Forzaglia says it's most effective as a burnout round or finisher at the end of your workout. But because it's so versatile, you can use a deck-of-cards workout as your leg day, chest day, etc.

Check out some of Forzaglia's top bodyweight exercises, plus some other moves, to mix up your deck of cards workout. (Or head here for 30 more bodyweight exercise ideas.)

Eric Jeon

Core:

  • Mountain Climbers
  • Sit-Up
  • Hollow Hold
  • Plank Jacks
  • Jackknife

Total Body:

  • Burpee
  • Push-Up
  • Jumping Jack
  • Thruster

Glutes/Legs:

  • Squat Jump
  • Jump Lunge
  • Tuck Jump
  • Touch-Down Jack
  • Glute Bridge

Upper-Body/Back:

  • Superman
  • Good Morning
  • Tricep Push-Up
  • Plank-Up
  • Inchworm Shoulder Tap

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