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Fact checked by Kirsten Yovino, CPT Brookbush InstituteFACT CHECKED
September 03, 2022
Unlike the Energizer Bunny, our bodies can't always take a lickin' and keep on tickin'. While humans are generally very durable, there are many reasons for mitigating stress placed on the body, including everything from injury to sore joints to tight muscles. The solution? Low impact workouts.
Unfortunately, though, sometimes the phrase "low impact cardio workouts" brings images of step aerobics or speed walking in an 80s leotard to mind. Now there's nothing wrong with either of those (we happen to love leotards), but we want to clear something up: Low impact doesn't mean low effort or easy.
In this article, we're going to go over the best forms of low-impact cardio to add to your workout. And, don't worry, we're not going to forget about your muscles. We'll also include low impact strength exercises to build serious mass.
A low impact exercise is one that causes minimal impact to a joint. By impact, we mean a limb coming to a sudden stop, as when you jump and then land. In this context, low-impact doesn't necessarily mean no stress.
Take the squat, for example. Technically, zero impact is involved, yet it can place tremendous stress on your joints. That said, if you were to perform a jump squat with the same amount of weight on your back, your body would receive a significantly larger amount of force.
Another high-force activity includes running, which can cause a ground reaction force of 2.9 times your body weight¹. Alternatively, recumbent bikes and most exercises on recumbent bikes are a much gentler-on-the-joints option.
With that in mind, a low impact workout is one in which the footsteps are light on the ground. Better yet, the best form of low impact exercise is one in which the foot or arm remains in contact with the machine.
Here are a few reasons to give low impact cardio exercises a try - even if you don't "need" them.
Is your right knee popping? Left foot creaking? Maybe your shoulders just aren't moving the way they used to? Or, perhaps you're working out while pregnant and your body is more sore than normal.
Our joints can be fickle. Even when we take the best care, joints are complicated structures, and things can go wrong. With a selection of low impact exercises, you're able to give them a rest when needed without sacrificing your workouts entirely.
Don't you hate when you're about to hit your calorie goal on the treadmill, but your knees have other plans? And here you were almost forgetting you had bad knees!
That's frustrating. Even worse is going easy because you're scared to aggravate troublesome joints or always thinking about them rather than enjoying your workout. Low impact doesn't mean you can't follow a cutting plan with the best of them, and burning calories doesn't need to equate to joint pain.
If weight loss wasn't enough, cardio will also release all those feel-good endorphins. If you're wondering, the runner's high is very real. Now your workout can make you happy and pain-free.
You'll be surprised at how many low impact exercises there really are. Literally, every single muscle can still be trained with no sacrifice on effectiveness. Assault bike workouts are a great example of this.
Before we start, if you do have concerns or have had major surgery, please check with a healthcare professional for medical advice. This is especially true if you have heart health issues, such as high blood pressure or heart disease, or any other health conditions.
Don't be fooled into thinking any of these low impact cardio workouts are easy. They're "low impact" not "low intensity". Similar to HIIT, they're going to get your heart pumping and burn major calories.
Stair climbers are an amazing low impact cardio exercise that will help you lose weight, improve cardiovascular fitness, and build muscle in the lower body.
A stair climber is simply a revolving staircase that you walk up: left leg then right leg. It's really that simple.
We could go on and on about stair climber benefits, but its main perk is that it enables you to perform high-intensity training without putting too much strain on your joints. This is because you're placing your foot on an elevated surface rather than it coming down to the floor with full force, allowing a “soft” landing.
But again, stair climber workouts can get real tough, real fast. Just ask a fireman.
Tips for proper form:
Learn more about the stair stepper in our article comparing the stair climber vs treadmill.
Cardio without running is possible, and the elliptical is proof. You just need the right workout equipment. The elliptical achieves its status as a top low impact cardio workout by combining cycling with running, an awesome combination for staying in the fat burning zone. To do this, it utilizes two revolving foot platforms.
Unlike running, which involves the foot coming down with excessive force, the foot never leaves the elliptical's platforms, mitigating excessive force. In addition, most have two moving handles that allow for an upper body workout as well. In fact, when it comes to elliptical muscles worked, the exercise equipment does a great job of activating both the upper and lower body.
Because it has platforms for the feet and hands, you can also choose to primarily use either one, if desired. As for form, the movement is similar to running, with your knees bent as the leg goes up. Be sure to keep an erect torso the entire time. No leaning forward!
Check out our article on elliptical benefits to discover even more reasons to start incorporating it into your routine!
You'll love all of the stationary bike benefits this low impact exercise provides. In fact, this may be the best form of training for a truly low impact cardio workout². To be clear, all of these machines work, but cycling tends to allow people to push themselves harder and faster.
Remember when we said "low-impact" workouts don't mean low intensity ones? Well, the most popular form of high intensity interval training is infamous for using cycling. We're, of course, talking about Tabata.
That's right, the original Tabata protocol was done using a cycling ergometer, and this is still the most advised form to use. It's high impact cardio, minus the high impact. Both cycling and a stationary bike are great to add to any fitness routine. Trainees of all fitness levels can easily use either one to improve cardio endurance or help burn calories.
Cycling tips to follow:
A SkiErg is specifically designed to be an upper body workout. We love it, and if you've ever done cross country skiing, you know it's good. This low impact exercise was designed after a sport infamous for burning insane amounts of calories, so it certainly deserves a spot in your routine.
This is a full body workout in every sense of the word and ideal for anyone looking for a good cardio exercise.
Tips for the Rower:
Interested in adding one to your home gym? You'll want to check out these best magnetic rowing machines. You can also see how the rower stacks up to another of our favorite low-impact equipment in our article: Rowing Machine vs Stationary Bike: Which Should You Pick?
Rock climbers are perhaps the most impressive specimen of the human species. And that's not hyperbole. The men and women who climb up vertical structures while holding onto a lip that's no more than an inch wide truly is remarkable.
Oh, and, they also have incredible physiques while experiencing no impact in their training. To be clear, their joints likely experience stress due to the extremely powerful muscular contractions, but there's no jolting impact.
Rock climbing will effectively strengthen all of your muscle groups, especially grip strength, while also providing many cardio benefits.
Tips for Rock Climbing:
Last, but certainly not least is our favorite full body, low impact cardio workout: swimming. You may automatically think of the lower body when you think of swimming, but it might actually be the upper body getting a better workout. Think about it. What's harder to do - body squats or pull ups and chin ups?
If you answered with the latter, you'd be correct! Pull ups and chins ups are tougher, as they must move the same amount of weight using smaller muscle groups.
Compared with all the other low impact exercises, swimming probably puts the least amount of stress on the joints. This is simply because the body is experiencing neutral gravity so weight is significantly decreased.
That said, swimming is a challenging form of aerobic exercise with a minimal risk of injury that will definitely improve your body composition through fat loss and muscle gain.
Tips for Swimming:
If we're being honest, the vast majority of strength training qualifies as a low impact workout. In fact, many are “zero impact” workouts as your feet or hands are in contact with the load at all times.
Having said that, this section will be a bit different as we'll provide more joint-friendly exercises as well as tips to mitigate stress on the joints.
The back squat is a beast of an exercise. Unfortunately, even with good form, it puts a lot of stress on your back, knees, and even shoulders. While this isn't bad (in fact, it's how your muscles build strength), overdoing it can be harmful and may even lead to lower back pain.
This is why we love using the belt squat machine, as it's effective when you want to put more volume on the legs yet chill with the back, and for times when you're dealing with back issues.
While the belt squat still places force on your knees, it's generally more comfortable as the weight pulls you back rather than forward, which can build stress.
Tips for the Belt Squat Machine:
Commonly found in Strongman workout plans, holds or carries are movements such as farmer's walks or front carries (holding a heavy medicine ball at chest level). These exercises are perfect for low impact cardio or strength gains as both variables can be trained.
When performing these types of exercises, your limbs have little to no flexion. For example, when performing a farmer carry, you hang your arms straight down. Flexing your arm is actually against proper form.
Further, any carry is going to demand you keep your core engaged for the entire movement. This makes them one of the best functional movements around.
If you have any doubts, consider the fact we recommend these types of movements to basically any strength or hypertrophy athlete. This shows they aren't a weak alternative for those with sore joints.
Whatever your fitness goals, and regardless of your current fitness level, throwing in carries consistently will help you succeed while saving your joints.
Our favorite holds and carries include:
Another style of training found in Strongman, sleds are awesome. Sled pushing and pulling exercises are going to work you head to toe.
There are three types of sled training we'd like to point out: pushing a sled, pulling a sled facing backward, and pulling a sled facing forward.
These are all great variations that will train the entire body while keeping the range of motion in the joints much smaller compared to many other exercises. And even with minimal flexion and extension, they still deliver an insane leg workout.
Tennis elbow, golfer's elbow, and elbow joint pain, in general, can give a lifter or fitness enthusiast some serious problems. One of the easiest ways to relieve stress is simply using a neutral grip.
If that's not an option (maybe you don't have the right equipment), pick up a pair of dumbbells. Not only do dumbbells allow for a neutral grip, but they can also relieve stress on the shoulders.
For example, instead of doing the barbell bench press, use a Swiss bar, if possible, or dumbbells. When performing pull-ups, use a neutral grip.
Your muscle can make three types of contractions: concentric, isometric, and eccentric.
When discussing the differences between concentric and eccentric contractions, a concentric reaction is when the muscle gets shorter and pulls. This is generally the "up" portion of an exercise, like when you push the barbell during the bench press or pull the bar up to the chest in a barbell bent-over row.
Eccentric contractions are when the muscle lengthens, and generally occurs when the object is lowered. While many people are more interested in concentric contractions, it's actually the eccentric that plays a larger role in strength and hypertrophy³.
Isometric exercises are when the muscle stays the same length and holds the body in position. These are exercises such as wall sitting or holding a plank.
The best approach is to determine which contraction causes you pain, and then focus on the other two contractions more until your joint discomfort is dealt with.
For example, great concentric movements are:
For isometrics, we already discussed some above, but again, here are some great examples:
With eccentric contractions, you just need to do the lowering portion without coming up.
You probably noticed that options for low impact style training are nothing to scoff at. With all of the training options and tips above, you'll never have to miss out on training any of your muscle groups again. You also no longer need to put off getting in shape or enjoying exercising's many health benefits due to your bad knees.
Having aches and pains is never fun. However, to ensure your body stays strong, we suggest working around the pain. This phrase refers to using exercise modifications and alternatives that allow you to continue training while minimizing discomfort. And that's really what this article is about - to keep you lifting and crushing your ambitious 6-day workout split regardless of your joint issues.
As always, feel free to shoot us a message with any specific questions about your exercise program and if needed, always get professional medical advice before starting any new program or exercise.
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