When you hear the word cardio your thoughts might drift to the drudgery of a treadmill or elliptical. Cardio in lifting circles is often thought of as a dirty word, but improving your cardio has a wide range of benefits including improved conditioning and recovery from resistance training.
The best machine for improving cardio is not a treadmill, rowing machine, or bike, but your own body. The beauty of bodyweight cardio training is there is no need for specialized equipment and you can get your sweat on in the comfort of your own home.
Here, we will go into the 12 best bodyweight cardio exercises, how to incorporate them into your training, and discuss some of the benefits of cardio as well.
Best Bodyweight Cardio Exercises
Squats are not only for building muscular and strong legs. Performing the bodyweight squat for time or reps will improve your cardiovascular endurance, as your quads, hamstrings and glutes will push plenty of blood back and forth from the heart.
Benefits of the Bodyweight Squat
- Easy to progress and regress depending on training experience.
- Grooves the squat pattern to better improve your technique for more difficult variations.
- Because squats train the quads, hamstrings, and glutes they’re great for cardio and fat loss.
How to Do the Bodyweight Squat
Set your feet in your preferred squat stance and stand up straight. Either put your hands out in front or hold them together at chest level. Squat down between your knees, keeping your chest up until your thighs are parallel to the ground. Drive your feet through the ground, stand back up and finish with your glutes.
Burpees are an exercise with no middle ground — you either love them or hate them. But when performed well, they make for a great cardio workout. Burpees are a full-body move that builds muscle strength and endurance in both your lower and upper body. If you want to build toughness in the gym, burpees will help.
Benefits of the Burpee
- It’s a full body move that improves your ability to get up and down from the ground quickly.
- A great fat-burning exercise that improves cardiovascular endurance.
- Burpees help improve mobility, coördination, and balance because of the large range of motion used.
How to Do the Burpee
Stand tall with your arms at your sides and squat down until both hands are flat on the floor. Thrust your legs backwards until you’re in a standard push-up position. Perform a push-up and then jump your feet back towards your hands. Then, squat back up and jump in the air, raising your hands above your head.
This exercise is typically used to improve lateral power and deceleration but is a great cardiovascular exercise because it trains the quads, hamstrings, and glutes when performed for reps or time. The cardiovascular and power benefits come from the explosive lateral jumps which test your strength, balance, and coordination.
Benefits of the Iceskater
- Improves lateral power and deceleration capability.
- It’s a great cardio exercise that improves your strength, balance, and athleticism.
- Easily progressed or regressed depending on training experience.
How to Do the Iceskater
Stand on one leg with your other leg bent at the knee. Bring your bent leg behind you, jump laterally, and land on your opposite leg. Stick the landing, reset and jump back sideways to your starting foot.
360 Squat Jump
Squat jumps are a fantastic bodyweight power exercise to improve your barbell squats, vertical jump, and conditioning. Adding a 360 rotation to the mix further challenges your rotational strength, agility, power, and heart rate. This will help with changing direction with speed while improving your ankle mobility. Plus, doesn’t it look like fun?
Benefits of the 360 Squat Jump
- Improves leg power and strength, vertical jump, and rotational strength.
- Has great carryover to improving your regular squats.
How to Do the 360 Squat Jump
Stand in your preferred squat stance with your arms by your side. Squat down, pull your arms back and explode up and throw your arms in the same direction of the turn, turning either 180 or 360 degrees depending on your ability. Land back in your squat stance and pause for a moment before continuining.
The mountain climber is like sprinting but in a push-up position. This makes it a compound exercise that strengthens your arms, back, shoulders, core, hip flexors, and quads. Because of the constant leg motion, the mountain climber is a fantastic bodyweight cardio exercise that burns fat while improving conditioning and core strength to boot.
Benefits of the Mountain Climber
- Improves dynamic core strength and conditioning.
- It’s a low-impact exercise that’s easy on the joints while still being high intensity.
How to Do the Mountain Climber
Set up in a strong push-up position with your feet hip-width apart. Pull your knee towards your chest quickly with your foot hovering above the ground. Return your foot to the starting position and repeat with the other leg. Quickly alternate driving your knees in towards the chest as if you’re running.
Turkish Get Up
The Turkish get up is a great exercise for strength, mobility, and cardio, for the same reasons as the burpee. Getting up and down from the ground using multiple upper and lower body muscles is a sure-fire way to crank up your heart rate. When performed with bodyweight, you’ll be able to bang out more reps faster to further improve your conditioning.
Benefits of the Turkish Get Up
How to Do the Turkish Get Up
The Turkish get up is an extremely intricate movement with many moving parts. Your best bet is to consult a video reference like the one above for a real-time demonstration of the movement.
Triple extension is the simultaneous straightening of the ankle, knee, and hip. It is present in many athletic exercises, including the Olympic lifts and all forms of jumping. By performing triple extension as part of a hybrid squat, you can drive up your heart rate and refine your lower body mechanics at the same time.
Benefits of the Triple Extension
- A joint-friendly exercise that gets your heart rate up.
- Trains triple extension which has great carryover to other complex athletic movements.
How to Do the Triple Extension
Stand with your feet hip-width apart and your arms by your side. Quickly drop into a squat and touch your ankles with your hands. Explode up, raising your feet off the ground and hands above your head. Drop back down to your heels and repeat as one continuous movement for time or reps.
High Knee Skip
High knee skips are either performed in place or moving forwards and are a fantastic cardio exercise. Although it’s more of a hop than a skip, high knees will strengthen your core, hip flexors, single leg balance, and help improve gait efficiency.
Benefits of the High Knee Skip
- Strengthens hips flexors, core, quads, and glute muscles.
- High intensity, low impact exercise that’s easier on the joints than pounding the pavement.
- Has direct carryover to more complex athletic movements.
How to Do the High Knee Skip
Stand with feet hip-width apart and bend your arms to 90 degrees. Skip in place by hopping on your right leg, bringing the left knee up toward your chest, and driving your right hand up and left hand back. Stand tall as you drive your knee towards your chest.
Windmill Side Lunge
Side lunges help develop strength, stability, and balance in the frontal plane, which ironically improves your ability to dart from side to side. Plus, lateral work improves your adductor mobility and strength. Moreover, the windmill side lunge with added arm action provides a cardiovascular challenge also.
Benefits of the Windmill Side Lunge
How to Do the Windmill Side Lunge
Stand up straight, hold your hands together, and raise them above your head. Step out to the right with your right leg, pushing your right hip back while the left leg remains straight. Bring your arms down between your thighs as you lunge. Step back, bringing your arms fully overhead.
The bear crawl is a fantastic bodyweight cardio exercise that trains multiple muscle groups in your upper and lower body both actively and isometrically. Crawls will not only improve your conditioning and coördination but strengthen your spine and core stabilizers too.
Benefits of the Bear Crawl
- Improves the coordination between your lower and upper body.
- Strengthens the core and hip stabilizers.
- Crawling improves the stability and mobility of the shoulder joint.
How to Do the Bear Crawl
Begin on all fours, hands under your shoulders and your knees under your hips. Press your hands into the ground, hover your knees just above the ground and set your spine neutral. Crawl forward by taking small steps with your right arm and left leg, and then your left arm and right leg for distance or time.
Leopard crawling is a movement that ties together your hips, core, shoulders and helps ingrain your natural contralateral movement (opposite arm/opposite leg) pattern that’s needed for walking, running, and sprinting. The leopard crawl is distinguished by its long, smooth strides.
Benefits of the Leopard Crawl
- Improves core stability and total body coördination.
- Because it works the large muscles of the lower and upper body, it’s a great conditioning exercise.
- You’re supporting your entire body weight on your hands and feet, making your wrists and ankles stronger.
How to Do the Leopard Crawl
Start with your knees under your hips and hands under your shoulders. Keep your head up as you crawl forward by taking large, smooth steps with your opposite leg and arm. Remember to keep a neutral spine for the duration of the set in order to work your core adequately.
Sprinting is one of the most explosive and powerful exercises around. It’s a total-body movement that improves your cardiovascular system, burns a lot of calories in a short time, and leaves you winded at the end. Repeat bouts of sprinting have also been shown to increase human growth hormone, which is a major player in muscle growth. (1)
Benefits of Sprinting
- Stimulates growth hormone to help build muscle or burn fat.
- Provides a convenient way to get your cardio in with absolutely zero equipment required.
How to Do Short Sprints
The starting position for sprinting is highly particular and best explained via video reference like the one above. Once you’re comfortable with the technique, locate an open level field to run on and work sprints for brief, high-intensity periods of up to 30 seconds.
Benefits of Cardio
You’ve probably heard about cardiovascular exercise being great for heart health. While true, sticking to your cardio guns does come with a slew of other perks as part of its performance package.
Improving your aerobic system improves blood flow and your body’s ability to carry away the waste products from exercise. Further, better blood flow can augment nutrient partitioning, which help you recover from hard resistance training.
Improved Work Capacity
Improving the efficiency of your cardiovascular system through regular cardio boosts your aerobic system and improves your ability to do more work whether it be in the gym or on the sporting field. Just as stronger muscles can help you jump higher or run further, a stronger engine can improve your performance in the weight room.
Better Mental Health
Cardio activities like jogging, swimming, cycling, walking, gardening, or dancing have been proven to reduce anxiety and depression. (2) Dedicated cardiovascular exercise does wonders for your mind as well as your body, helping you to be a more complete athlete.
How to Program Bodyweight Cardio
Cardio can be programmed any number of ways — steady-state for time or distance, high intensity for conditioning, as a cluster or circuit, and more.
While it’s often thought that high intensity is better for fat loss than steady-state cardio, but both have been proven to be equally effective. (3) You’re free to pick your preferred cardio, but below you can find two simple ways to perform any of the drills in this guide.
Choosing five exercises above for 30 seconds of work and 30 seconds of rest for two 10-minute blocks is an effective way of improving your aerobic fitness. Here is an example.
- Windmill Side Lunge
- High Knee Skip
- Bodyweight Squat
Perform each exercise for 30 seconds. Rest for another 30 seconds before moving onto the next movement. Once you’ve finished all five exercises, break for 1 – 2 minutes and begin again.
Reducing your rest periods or trying to fit in as much work within a certain time will make your bodyweight cardio more intense. Here is how you can ante up. Pick one of the exercises above (except sprints) and perform it with the following work/rest periods:
- 10 seconds work/20 seconds rest.
- 20 second work/10 seconds rest.
- 40 seconds work/20 seconds rest.
Repeat for six to eight rounds.
How To Warm Up For Cardio
If you’re performing bodyweight cardio after your strength training, there may not be a need to warm up. But if you’re performing cardio as a standalone workout, it is important to warm up with some mobility and core work to get your muscles and joints ready for action. A good warm-up will:
- Increases your body temperature to get your body ready to move.
- Delivers valuable blood flow and oxygen to muscles.
- Helps get you mentally prepared to train.
- Promotes the release of synovial fluid in your joints to get them ready for work.
Performing some bodyweight moves such as the dead bug, hip extensions, spider-man with rotation or some inchworms for eight to 12 reps of each will get your body ready for action.
Bodyweight Cardio Tips
It may seem simple enough, but mixing cardio into your larger workout scheme takes a clever hand. Here are a few considerations to get the most out of your cardio.
Before or After Strength Training?
It’s often debated when to perform cardio — before or after strength training. In truth, it is dependent on your goals. If it’s your goal to get stronger, then perform cardio after strength training.
If you’re prioritizing your cardiovascular or muscular endurance, hit up the track before you move on to the weight room so you’re fresh and ready to work.
Recovery Between Sets
While cardio training may not be as demanding or intense as a heavy set of deadlifts, you generally don’t want to rest too long between “sets” during a cardio workout. If you’re especially interested in building endurance, maintaining a somewhat-elevated heart rate is paramount.
That said, quality is more important than quantity when it comes to dynamic exercises, and if you need a little bit of extra rest, take it.
Maintaining a good breath cadence is essential during a cardio workout. You don’t want to be left wheezing between each interval or exercise. Generally speaking, taking consistent, moderate breaths will give you the best return on investment. Inhaling as deep and aggressively as possible might backfire, and taking small “sips” of air may not be sufficient if you’re working hard.
Choosing the Right Exercises
Finding exercises that work well for you — your skill level, structure, experience, and body type is important. If plyometric exercises hurt your joints, don’t train through pain. There are other high-intensity exercises that will have the same training effect. To keep cardio fresh and fun, pick exercises that feel good and blend well with your body.
1. Stokes, K. A., Tyler, C., & Gilbert, K. L. (2008). The growth hormone response to repeated bouts of sprint exercise with and without suppression of lipolysis in men. Journal of applied physiology (Bethesda, Md. : 1985), 104(3), 724–728. https://doi.org/10.1152/japplphysiol.00534.2007
2. Guszkowska M. (2004). Wpływ ćwiczeń fizycznych na poziom leku i depresji oraz stany nastroju [Effects of exercise on anxiety, depression and mood]. Psychiatria polska, 38(4), 611–620.
3. Keating, S. E., Johnson, N. A., Mielke, G. I., & Coombes, J. S. (2017). A systematic review and meta-analysis of interval training versus moderate-intensity continuous training on body adiposity. Obesity reviews : an official journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity, 18(8), 943–964. https://doi.org/10.1111/obr.12536
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