The 12 Best Low-Impact Workouts, According to Trainers
Low-impact doesn’t equal low-intensity.
Maybe running isn't your jam. Perhaps jumping aggravates your knees. Or maybe you just want to go easy on your joints for a change. Whatever the reason, you need a low-impact workout—and good news: we've got you.
We tapped fitness pros and dug into research to round up the best low-impact workouts that will still feel like a workout. Because as Sivan Fagan, CPT, owner of Strong with Sivan, tells Health: "Low-impact doesn't mean low-intensity." Below, you'll find 12 exercise options that deliver the heart-pumping, endorphin-boosting benefits you want in a sweat session without adding extra stress on your joints and ligaments.
Quick note before we dive in: Yes, these workouts are gentle on your skeletal system, but you still need to perform them with proper form and technique to really reduce your risk of injury. Not sure how to do a specific exercise or workout modality? Seek help from a qualified pro.
1. HIIT Training
Think high-intensity interval training (HIIT) has to be a high-impact? Not true: HIIT simply describes a workout method where you perform bursts of maximum effort work followed by periods of rest. HIIT is great for increasing your anaerobic capacity (ability to perform short stints of high-effort work) and your aerobic capacity (ability to sustain lower-effort work over a long period of time), Alicia Jamison, CPT, trainer at Body Space Fitness in New York City, tells Health. Because the goal of HIIT is to go all out during the bursts of work, you can absolutely get in a stellar workout even if you're not jumping, running, or doing plyometrics.
What might that look like? Well, instead of doing high-impact jump squats, you could do low-impact speed squats while holding a dumbbell on each shoulder. Or in lieu of burpees (and all the corresponding joint pounding), you could opt for a simple bodyweight plank.
Sophia Pellegrom, CPT, certified Barre instructor, and trainer at TS Fitness in NYC, suggests an 8-minute low-impact HIIT sequence that will definitely get you sweaty. Perform these four moves—plank up downs, squat to overhead press, lateral lunge, and v-ups—for 20 seconds each and then rest for 10 seconds before moving onto the next exercise. Repeat the sequence.
There's a lot to love about walking. For starters, regular brisk walking provides huge health benefits, including weight management, improved mood, and boosted balance and coordination, the Mayo Clinic reports. It can also help you prevent or manage conditions including heart disease, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes. Moreover, walking is free, convenient, and most important, low-impact. Yet another perk: You can easily amp up the intensity of your walk with just a few small tweaks.
One solid way to do that is to up the incline on your treadmill, says Fagan. Or, walk up a hill outside. Tackling a steep grade will feel more challenging than treading on flat ground (thanks, gravity!) but rest assured, it'll still be gentle on your joints. "It's not like running and slamming into the floor every time," explains Fagan. You can also make your walks more vigorous by increasing the speed and/or distance, Fagan says. Instead of walking 20-minute miles, aim for 18. Or, tack another mile or two onto your usual route. Just one tip: If you're on a treadmill, don't hang onto the handrails please, says Fagan. It's not good form and you won't reap the full benefits, she explains. Instead, let your arms swing in time with your legs.
"Swim sports are a phenomenal modality," says Jamison. That's because swimming is a low-impact workout that still provides excellent resistance training, thanks to the intense drag force of water, which is nearly 800 times (!!) denser than air. In one head-to-head comparison study published in the journal Metabolism, researchers looked at the health and fitness benefits of swimming versus walking in 116 sedentary women, and found that those who swam three times a week for six months lost more weight, improved their body composition, slimmed their hips and waist, and improved their cholesterol levels better than those who performed a similar walking program for the same time.
Swimming is also great for strengthening your shoulders, back, core, and legs. Plus, it's super scalable—you can control the intensity of a swim workout by simply adjusting your speed, distance, and stroke style, notes Fagan.
RELATED: Try This Beginner Swimming Workout
Cycling—indoors or out—is non-weight bearing and low impact, so you can work up a sweat without stressing your joints. If you want a really intense cycling workout that also incorporates upper body work, take a spin on the assault bike, one of those bikes with the moveable handles and a big fan in front. "They really get your heart rate up very fast," says Pellegrom, who suggests doing a HIIT-style workout on the assault bike to train your power and anaerobic capacity. That could look like pedaling as fast as you can for 20 seconds, resting for 10 seconds and then repeating that sequence three more times.
Important disclaimer: Cycling may not be a great low-impact option for everyone. "I've had clients that had knee issues and cycling didn't feel so good for them," says Fagan. That's why it's super important to listen to your body. If any type of exercise—including, yes, low-impact exercise—causes pain or discomfort, stop and consult a medical pro as needed.
Unless you're a regular on the crew team, chances are you don't do much rowing. In which case, you're missing out on a total-body workout that provides solid cardio and endurance training, says Pellegrom. Rowing also strengthens your arms, legs, and core, and improves your upper back strength and posture. As a bonus, you'll burn nearly 500 calories an hour (more if you crank up your effort and row vigorously). Oh, and unlike the treadmills, which are almost always taken, the rowing machines also are likely to be open and ready to give you a workout whenever you walk into the gym.
You've probably seen the SkiErg at the gym but maybe you didn't know what it was called or how it works. Essentially, it's a row machine that's centered on upper body movement (picture: standing up and pulling down on two cables to mimic a skiing motion). That means it can be a great option for folks with lower-body injuries, says Pellegrom—or really anyone who wants to improve their power, strength, and endurance in a joint-friendly way.
That said, the SkiErg can also provide total-body burn, depending on how you use it. "What makes the SkiErg such a great piece of equipment is that it utilizes the full body, the glutes, hamstrings, lats, triceps, and shoulders," Rustin Steward, a Tier 3+ Trainer at Equinox Sports in New York City, previously told Health.
This ballet-inspired exercise method, which is centered on lots of small pulsing movements, is heavy on mobility and flexibility work, says Pellegrom—two things many of us could stand to improve. It can also enhance your stability and balance. And, depending on the type of Barre class you attend, you'll also get a good dose of cardio and/or solid muscular endurance work, Pellegrom adds. The best part though? Barre delivers all of those benefits without pounding your joints and ligaments.
Pilates is a low-impact workout modality that's heavy on core strength, breath work, and alignment. A systematic review published in the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation looked at 16 studies involving healthy people and found "strong evidence" that Pilates is an effective way to improve both flexibility and dynamic balance. Though you may not get a super intense cardio challenge from Pilates (that all depends on what type of class you choose and your current fitness level), its strong focus on core strength makes it fantastic cross-training for other activities, like weightlifting and running, says Pellegrom.
9. Kettlebell Training
Working out with these sleek free weights can deliver great cardio and total-body strengthening with minimal impact on your skeletal system. "Kettlebell training is fantastic because you're not leaving the floor at all," explains Pellegrom. Also cool: The handle on a kettlebell, Pellegrom explains, allows you to perform more dynamic movements—like the kettlebell swing, clean, and snatch—than you could with other types of free weights (think: dumbbells or plates), making it a valuable, versatile tool in your arsenal.
10. Circuit Training
When you're strapped for time and want low-impact strengthening and cardio, consider a circuit training workout. Here's how it works: You pick a series of gentle-on-the-joints exercises—say, knee push-ups, V-ups, and glute bridges—and perform each move for a certain number of reps (for instance, 20). Then, you immediately move onto the next move in the series without resting and repeat the sequence as many times as you can in 15 to 20 minutes. Since you aren't pausing for breaks, your heart rate will likely climb quickly and stay elevated, making this a great cardio challenge. "It can be quite intense," says Fagan.
11. Kinetic Stretching
Also known as KinStretch, this low-impact exercise modality involves taking a joint through its full range of motion while creating tension with the rest of your body, explains Jamison. For example, you might contract as many muscles in your body as possible and then circle your arm as wide as you can. That combo will lubricate your joints and then increase your mobility, says Jamison—an oft-neglected component of fitness. As a bonus, "you might sweat a little bit," she adds. "It does feel pretty intense."
This classic gym staple is a superb option for low-impact cardio, says Fagan. It works several big muscle groups at once and delivers the benefits of running without any of the pounding impact. Many ellipticals have ski-pole-like arm handles, so you can engage your upper body muscles and up your calorie burn while also strengthening your arms, shoulders, and upper back muscles. Bonus: The elliptical will build your butt better than fitness walking. One study that compared elliptical training at various speeds and stride lengths found that every one of them fired up the glute muscles better than walking.
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