I have been working as a personal trainer for over 30 years, and one question that I am frequently asked is how to do cardio without using the legs. Initially, this question puzzled me because many of the most effective cardio activities primarily rely on the legs, such as running, cycling, and stepping. However, there are actually numerous ways to engage in cardio exercises that don’t involve much, if any, lower body movement. So, why do so many people want to focus on upper-body cardio? There are several reasons, including foot, ankle, knee, and hip injuries, back injuries, lingering fatigue or soreness from previous leg workouts, the need for upper body conditioning for sports, and the desire for workout variety and enjoyment.
While running, cycling, and rowing are indeed effective cardio exercises, they are not the only options for training your heart, lungs, and circulatory system. This is great news because research indicates that cardio training is crucial for long-term health, fat loss, and achieving your ideal weight. Therefore, most people need to incorporate more cardio into their fitness routines. In this article, I will share nine ways to engage in cardio exercises without using your legs. These suggestions are based on my personal experimentation over the years, as well as feedback from numerous personal training clients.
If you are looking to do cardio without using your legs, here are some of the best options based on my extensive experience in the fitness industry:
1. Upper body air-bike or ski-erg: Air-bikes and ski-ergs utilize large fans for resistance. These machines are commonly found in gyms and are also available for home purchase. While they typically provide a full-body workout, you can use them solely with your upper body. You can perform steady-state and interval training on these machines, and the variable air resistance allows you to adjust the intensity of your workouts.
2. Upper body bike: There is an increasing number of equipment manufacturers producing upper-body bikes. Gyms often have these machines, and they can also be purchased for home use. Most upper-body bikes have removable seats to accommodate wheelchair users, and some are designed for tabletop use, making them portable and suitable for home workouts. These bikes work your chest, back, shoulders, and arms, while also increasing your heart and breathing rate. You can use an upper-body bike for various types of cardio training, from Tabatas to high-intensity interval training (HIIT) to low-intensity steady-state training.
3. Seated battle rope intervals: Battle ropes are heavy ropes used for intense conditioning workouts. Typically, they are used while standing, engaging the legs in the exercise. However, by sitting on a bench or chair, you can effectively work your upper body using just the ropes. Battle rope exercises are challenging, making them ideal for interval training. For example, you can perform two-handed rope slams for 30 seconds, rest for 60 seconds, and repeat the sequence ten times.
4. Upper body circuits: Circuit training involves performing several resistance exercises consecutively. This training method has been popular since the 1950s and has been proven effective for improving cardiovascular fitness, body composition, strength, and muscular endurance. While circuit workouts often include leg exercises, it is not a requirement. You can create your own upper-body circuit workouts, or follow the example provided below:
– Push-ups: 45 seconds
– Lat pulldowns: 45 seconds
– Shoulder press: 45 seconds
– Seated row: 45 seconds
– Dumbbell curl and press: 45 seconds
– Kneeling cable crunch: 45 seconds
Use a load that challenges your muscles within the allotted time. Rest for 1-2 minutes between laps and aim to complete 3-5 circuits in total.
5. Boxing: While boxing does involve the legs, the upper body carries the majority of the workload. By remaining relatively stationary and focusing on arm movements, you can still achieve a great workout. You can practice heavy bag work, shadow boxing, and speedball training. Three-minute rounds with one-minute rest periods are particularly demanding and simulate the physiological demands of boxing. Ensure that your feet remain relatively still to maximize the engagement of your upper body.
6. Sledgehammer training: Sledgehammer training is an enjoyable and effective upper-body cardio workout. To perform this exercise, you will need a regular sledgehammer and an old SUV tire. It is also recommended to wear work gloves to protect your hands. With the sledgehammer in hand, swing and hit the tire for a specific duration or number of repetitions. There are various ways to structure sledgehammer training, including intervals, density blocks, Tabatas, and pyramids. Here is an example of a Tabata sledgehammer workout:
– 20 seconds of work
– 10 seconds of rest
– Repeat for eight sets
7. Arms-only rowing machine: Rowing is typically considered a full-body workout, as each stroke begins with a leg extension before transitioning to arm pulling. However, by focusing solely on the arm movements, you can engage in an upper-body cardio workout. This can be achieved using an arms-only rowing machine.
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