When it comes to cardio it seems that most people prefer high impact, high-intensity cardio, probably for the reason that it's effective at burning calories in a short amount of time. The thing about these types of workouts is that they put a ton of stress on the body, this is why it's recommended to take a rest period of 24-48 hours between sessions. You might need to take the full 48 hours if you're strength training! So what can you do on your off days that still gets your heart pumping and your body moving? Low-impact cardio!
Low-impact does not mean low-intensity. It just means that unlike high-impact cardio, it puts less stress on your joints. Other than that, this type of cardio is similar to its high-impact counterpart, it helps strengthen and improves your respiratory and cardio fitness, while still helping you get effective results. This is why it's considered the best type of workouts for beginners and for those recovering from injuries, but also for those strength training! And in case you haven't heard, workouts like these can help strengthen your immune system 😉
There are even more reasons as to why you want to start incorporating these types of workouts in your training routine. We'll tell you all about them, plus give you low-impact exercise ideas you can try at the gym or home!
Why do low-impact cardio?
You might be wondering why you should even start incorporating low-impact cardio when you already do a few HIIT workouts a week. Well, although high-intensity workouts like HIIT are great for fat burning, they often require high-impact exercises that are hard on your joints. This is not the type of training you can do every day, especially for those who are new to fitness and anyone strength training (can cause overuse injuries or other types of injuries). That's when low-impact cardio comes into help! These types of workouts increase the heart rate while reducing the amount of stress on your joints. Although the name might make you think otherwise, these workouts can still give you a good calorie burn boost and reduce your risk of injury.
So like traditional high-impact cardio, it can still make you break a massive sweat and get that heart rate pumping! Here are other benefits of low-impact cardio:
- Reduces risk of injury
Less impact on the joints means less risk of an injury. Lifters would benefit even more from low-impact cardio because heavy lifting adds a lot of stress to the joints as it is! So a lower impact cardio workout might be better than a high-impact cardio workout that will add more stress to the body and can lead to an overuse injury.
- Improves cardiovascular fitness
Improving your cardio fitness is not only good for weight loss, it's better for overall health. Especially for your heart health which is responsible for protecting against heart disease, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes.
- Perfect for active rest days
Low-impact cardio is the perfect workout for active recovery days. Active recovery helps boost the recovery process, can even help reduce muscle soreness, and helps you stay active and focused on your fitness goals. The exercises that we'll get into later are excellent for those days you want to stay active but want to give your muscles a break.
- Better for muscle building
Cardio is a must for weight loss, but doing too much of it at a high intensity can lead to serious muscle loss if you're not keeping up with your protein and training! Low impact cardio exercises help to sustainably build muscle, elevate your heart rate to burn some serious calories, all without placing extra stress on your joints. So you'll lean out with minimal muscle loss.
Low-impact cardio workouts that are still high intensity
As you now know, low impact doesn't necessarily mean low intensity. These five low-impact cardio workouts can be easily implemented on your active recovery days, before lifting weights as a quick warm-up, or after as a cool down. Doesn't matter when you do them, either way, they will help you burn some extra calories! Most of these do require equipment, so you'll need access to a gym... But we'll have some more home cardio workout options coming up next 😉
First up on the list is walking - The best and most common low-impact workout! It's one of the best types of cardio to do in general because it can be done anywhere by all fitness levels, is effective at burning fat, and can be done at a lower intensity or higher intensity. If you want to increase the intensity, but want to minimize joint stress, increase the speed or walk on an incline, that is if you're on a treadmill. If you want to maximize your outdoor walk try a route that has more hills or find a good easy to moderate hiking trail.
You might be surprised to hear that rowing is a relatively low impact exercise, although it requires your entire body! Rowing doesn't really add stress to your joints, but it does target your upper body, core, and even your legs! This is a great exercise for lifters to try before or after hitting the weights! It'll help elevate their heart rate, get a good body burn, while still working key muscle groups.
- Stationary Bikes
Cycling on a stationary bike, or a normal bike, will virtually have no impact on your joints. Using a stationary bike at the gym will allow you to set the pace and adjust the resistance to make it more difficult and make you bust a massive sweat! Just like walking, it's an exercise that you can easily incorporate in your daily life, that is if you have a bike! You can bike to work, to get coffee, or with friends, it's a fun way to get your weekly cardio in.
This is another stationary exercise machine that is found mainly in gyms. It mimics the motion of running but without the impact your joints get from bouncing off the ground. So if you want to run, but can't due to joint pain or injuries then consider using the elliptical! It can be done at a low intensity or the intensity can be increased by speeding up and adding resistance. Plus, it gives you a full-body workout since it requires your arms and legs to move the machine.
Swimming is not only a fun activity, it's quite the workout too! This exercise is often neglected as cardio, but it's a very good one that everyone should try if they can. Not only will swimming burn massive amounts of calories, but it'll also help strengthen your muscles throughout your entire body, especially your back! You can do it at the gym, your local pool, or even your pool if you have one.
Low-impact cardio exercises you can do at home
Although most of those low-impact cardio workouts listed above require equipment, there are still exercises that are home friendly. These exercises require no equipment, friendly for all fitness levels, and work up the sweat just like high-impact exercises!
This exercise engages your whole body, but especially your legs. It will help get your heart racing while increasing overall leg strength. Plus, there's a unilateral element to it that can help fix muscle imbalances in your legs.
How to do it: Stand 6 inches in front of a bench, or raised platform. Step onto the bench with your right leg, while making sure your foot is flat against the bench. Lean forward slightly and push yourself upwards through the heel of your right foot, so your left leg can come up to the bench. Step down with the right leg under control.
- Mountain climbers
This exercise is typically high-impact, but there's a slight tweak to it that will make it a lower impact exercise that has the same benefits as the original one - It'll work your entire body, especially your core!
How to do it: Place your hands in a plank position with your wrists stacked beneath your shoulders and body in a straight line. Step your right foot to the inside of your right palm. Then gently march your right foot back to plank position and march the left foot to the inside of your left palm. Then repeat. Don't move too fast through the exercise, as it will cause you to lose your form.
- Bodyweight squats
Squats aren't only beneficial with weights, they can also be beneficial without them! Move through it slowly and aim to go through the full range of motion. If you're not able to sit deep enough, then practice on getting lower as you progress.
How to do it: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Start the movement by bending your knees and sitting back with your hips. Move slowly and go down as far as you can. Pause, then reverse the motion back to the starting position. Keep your head up and back upright throughout the move.
This is normally a plyometric exercise that requires a jump, but this modified version omits the jump while still working up a sweat. This exercise targets the lower body, specifically the glutes, hamstrings, quads, and even your core.
How to do it: Get into a curtsy lunge position by bending both legs and moving your right leg behind and across your body. Keep your left arm straight down and right arm bent comfortable up at your side for support. Push off the left leg and begin to stand by bringing your right leg forward and gently swinging your left leg back and across. Switch your arms as you work. Move quickly, but at a comfortable pace to maintain a lower impact.
- Squat to jab
This compound movement works your lower and upper body by combining the classic squat and kickboxing jab movements.
How to do it: Stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and arms down at your sides. Slowly get into a squat position, make sure your chest is up and knees are out. Begin to stand, once your legs are extended, throw cross-body punches with each arm. Get back to the starting position, squat down again, stand up, punch, and repeat.
- Walking lunges
Just like with squats, lunges are another exercise that can be beneficial without the added weight! Doing this exercise properly works major lower body muscle groups, your core, and even helps build stability.
How to do it: Begin standing with your feet about hip-width apart, this will be your starting position. Step forward with your left leg, flexing the knees to drop your hips. Descend until your right knee nearly touches the ground. Your posture should remain upright, and your left knee should be in line with your left foot. Do not allow your front knee to go forward beyond your toes as you come down, as this will put undue stress on the knee joint. Drive through the heel of your left foot and extend both knees to raise yourself back up. Step forward with your right foot, repeating the lunge on the other leg.
- Modified burpees
Luckily, this high impact exercise can be modified to be lower impact while still being effective at strengthening your arms, core, and legs. Instead of moving quickly throughout the exercise and jumping, you'll be moving slowly through the exercise and simply extending upwards instead of jumping at the top of the movement.
How to do it: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Begin to get into a plank position by bending your knees and hips, and placing your hands on the mat or floor in front of you, and start stepping your right foot to the back of the mat then do the same with your left foot. Pause for a moment while in a plank position. Then begin to step your right foot forward in between your hands and do the same with your left. Keep your left shoulder-width apart. Now, instead of jumping, raise your heels up from the ground while extending your arms above your head. Lower your heels and repeat.
The best way to use these exercises is by using them to create your own circuit training routine (check out these tips on how to create a circuit workout). You can even include other low-impact exercises you like using long resistance bands or other equipment you might have at home!
How often should you do low-impact cardio?
This depends on your fitness goals and your fitness level. If your main form of training is weightlifting and you only want to use it as a way to burn fat while building or maintaining muscle then consider doing it three times a week. You can do 15-30 minute sessions depending on the intensity, do it as active recovery, or as warm-ups and cooldowns. If your main goal is weight loss, but you prefer lower impact exercises due to an injury or other reasons, then feel free to do it up to five times a week. It really depends on how intense each session is, but since it's less stressful on the joints it can be done more than high impact workouts. You can easily implement low-impact exercise with other forms of training by walking in the mornings and evenings, swimming for active recovery, or just doing a low impact circuit routine at home on the days you want to skip the gym.
Don't worry if you're not ready to ditch your HIIT workouts! High intensity, high impact workouts like HIIT have just as wonderful benefits and still can be included in your training routine, as long as you take an adequate amount of rest in between sessions (48 hours). That rest period is the perfect opportunity to do lower impact exercises like the ones listed above. Just remember, a workout is still a workout. Although low impact workouts don't add too much stress to your joints, they still work your entire body. So you'll still need at least one full rest day a week to give your muscles time to recover. And as always, don’t forget to stay hydrated and eat a healthy balanced diet!