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 want to go easy on your joints. Whatever the reason, you need a low-impact workout. Well, good news: We've got you.

We tapped fitness professionals and dug into the research to round up the best low-impact exercises that will give you a good workout. 

Because as Sivan Fagan, CPT, owner of Strong with Sivan, told Health: "Low-impact doesn't mean low-intensity." 

But keep in mind: Yes, low-impact workouts are gentle on your skeletal system, but you still need to perform them with proper form.

The appropriate technique reduces your risk of injury. And if you're unsure how to do a specific exercise or workout modality, seek help from a qualified professional or trainer. Or check out the American Council on Exercise for instructions on performing specific moves.

Here are 12 exercise options that deliver the heart-pumping, endorphin-boosting benefits you want in a sweat session without adding extra stress to your joints and ligaments.

kettlebell workout , Cropped shot of two sportswomen working out with kettle bells outdoors
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High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)

Does high-intensity interval training (HIIT) have to be a high-impact? Not necessarily. HIIT describes a workout method where you perform bursts of maximum-effort work followed by rest periods.

HIIT is great for increasing your anaerobic and aerobic capacity, Alicia Jamison, CPT, trainer at Body Space Fitness in New York, told Health. Anaerobic capacity is the ability to perform short stints of high-effort work. And aerobic capacity is the ability to sustain lower-effort work over a long period.

Examples of HIIT exercises include low-impact speed squats while holding a dumbbell on each shoulder or a simple bodyweight plank.

Sophia Pellegrom, CPT, certified Barre instructor and trainer at TS Fitness in New York, suggested an eight-minute low-impact HIIT sequence that will get you sweaty. 

Perform the following four moves for 20 seconds each and rest for 10 seconds before moving on to the next exercise:

  • Plank up-downs
  • Squat to overhead press
  • Lateral lunge 
  • V-ups

And when you're finished with the sequence, repeat the exercises one more time.

Walking

There's a lot to love about walking. For starters, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), regular brisk walking provides vast health benefits, including: 

  • Manages weight
  • Improved mood
  • Boosted balance and coordination
  • Prevents or manages conditions like heart disease, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes

Also, walking is free, convenient, and, most importantly, low-impact. But you can easily amp up the intensity of your walk with just a few minor tweaks. Fagan said one reliable way to do that is up the incline on your treadmill. 

Or, walk up a hill outside. Tackling a steep grade will feel more challenging than treading on flat ground. But rest assured, it'll still be gentle on your joints. 

"It's not like running and slamming into the floor every time," explained Fagan.

Fagan said you could also make your walks more vigorous by increasing the speed or distance. Instead of walking 20-minute miles, aim for 18 minutes. Or, tack another mile or two onto your usual route.

One tip: Don't hang onto the handrails if you're on a treadmill. Fagan explained that handrails worsen your form, and you won't reap the full benefits. Instead, let your arms swing in time with your legs, advised Fagan.

Swimming

"Swim sports are a phenomenal modality," said Jamison. 

Swimming is a low-impact workout that still provides excellent resistance training, thanks to the intense drag force of water.

In a study published in 2017 in Osteoarthritis and Cartilage, researchers examined participants who were post-menopausal women with knee osteoarthritis. The researchers reported that the participants experienced weight loss and improved walking speed after a four-month aquatic resistance training program. 

And like other research examining the health benefits of swimming, the researchers did not find any risks or drawbacks of swimming as exercise.

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 adjusting your speed, distance, and stroke style, noted Fagan.

Cycling

Cycling—indoor or outdoor—is a non-weight-bearing and low-impact exercise. You can work up a sweat without stressing your joints.

If you want an intense cycling workout incorporating upper body work, take a spin on the assault bike, one with moveable handles and a big fan in front. 

"They really get your heart rate up very fast," said Pellegrom, who suggested doing a HIIT-style workout on the assault bike to train your power and anaerobic capacity. 

That workout could look like pedaling as fast as you can for 20 seconds and resting for 10 seconds. Then, repeat that sequence three more times.

But keep in mind: Cycling may be a poor low-impact option for some.

 "I've had clients that had knee issues, and cycling didn't feel so good for them," said Fagan.

Rowing

Unless you're a regular on the crew team, chances are you only do a little rowing. And in that case, you're missing out on a total-body workout that provides solid cardio and endurance training, said Pellegrom. 

Rowing also strengthens your arms, legs, and core. What's more, the exercise may improve your upper back strength and posture.

As a bonus, you could burn nearly 500 calories an hour if you crank up your effort and row vigorously. And unlike the treadmills, which are almost always taken, the rowing machines are more likely to be open and ready to give you a workout whenever you walk into the gym.

SkiErg

You may have seen the SkiErg at the gym, but you needed to know what it was called and how it works. Essentially, it's a row machine centered on upper body movement. 

Picture standing up and pulling down on two cables to mimic a skiing motion. That means the SkiErg can be an excellent option for folks with lower-body injuries, said Pellegrom. It's also a great alternative for 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, previously told Health.

Barre

Barre is a ballet-inspired exercise method centered on lots of small pulsing movements. The exercise is heavy on mobility and flexibility work, said Pellegrom, two things many of us could stand to improve. Barre 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 solid muscular endurance work, Pellegrom added. 

The best part, though? Barre delivers all of those benefits without pounding your joints and ligaments.

Pilates

Pilates is a low-impact workout modality heavy on core strength, breathwork, and alignment. Per a review published in 2021 in the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, which looked at 28 studies, Pilates effectively improves muscle strength, balance, and quality of life.

Though, you may not get a super intense cardio challenge from Pilates. However, that challenge depends on what type of class you choose and your current fitness level. 

Still, the workout's focus on core strength makes it fantastic cross-training for other weightlifting, running, and other activities, according to Pellegrom.

Kettlebell Training

Working out with the 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," explained Pellegrom.

Also, according to Pellegrom, the handle on a kettlebell allows you to perform more dynamic movements than you could with other free weights, like dumbbells or plates. A kettlebell can be a valuable, versatile tool in your arsenal.

Circuit Training

Consider a circuit training workout when you're strapped for time and want low-impact strengthening and cardio. 

Here's how it works: 

  1. Pick a series of gentle-on-the-joint exercises, like knee push-ups, V-ups, and glute bridges. 
  2. Perform each move for a certain number of reps (for instance, 20 reps). 
  3. Then, immediately move on to the next move in the series without resting. Repeat that sequence as many times as possible in 15 to 20 minutes.

Since you aren't pausing for breaks, your heart rate will likely climb quickly and stay elevated, making circuit training an excellent cardio challenge.

 "It can be quite intense," said Fagan.

Kinetic Stretching

Also known as KinStretch, the low-impact exercise modality involves taking a joint through its full range of motion. At the same time, you create tension with the rest of your body, explained Jamison. 

For example, you might contract as many muscles in your body as possible and then circle your arm as wide as possible. That combination will lubricate your joints and increase your mobility, said Jamison.

As a bonus, "you might sweat a little bit," Jamison added. "It does feel pretty intense."

Elliptical

According to Fagan, the elliptical is a classic gym staple and a superb option for low-impact cardio. 

An elliptical works several big muscle groups simultaneously and delivers the benefits of running without any 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.

Also, an elliptical will build your butt better than fitness walking. For example, a study published in 2012 in Clinical Biomechanics compared elliptical training at various speeds and stride lengths. The researchers found that every one of them fired up the glute muscles better than walking.

A Quick Review

Low-impact exercise is often safe, but listening to your body with any activity is still super important. If any exercise—including, yes, low-impact exercise—causes pain or discomfort, stop and consult a medical pro as needed.

Updated by Selene Yeager
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