What Is The Best Low Impact High-Intensity Exercise?

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In terms of exercise, impact and intensity are very different things. Impact is the force of your body used in an exercise; intensity is the level of power used.

High impact and high intensity seem like they go hand in hand, but they don’t always need to.

Since high impact exercises can put a lot of stress on joints, low impact but high intensity exercises are great tools to stay in shape without putting your joints in danger. See what BuiltLean experts suggest as the best low impact, high intensity exercises and see what they can do for you.

Best Low Impact, High Intensity Exercise #1: Swimming

As an exercise method, I would definitely go with swimming. All the muscles in your body are working to help propel yourself forward with a resistance only being water. You can get an amazing workout, especially if you do swimming sprints, with very little impact. A couple of runner-ups are elliptical sprints, and stationary cycling sprints. In terms of strength training exercises, I would go with jump squats with a TRX, or bar for assistance. Using assistance while jumping can make the exercise much lower impact and smooth. Add weight such as a weighted vest to add intensity.

- Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT

Best Low Impact, High Intensity Exercise #2: Kettlebell Swings

Kettlebell swings! This move targets the glutes and hamstrings. It builds power and strength, and is a killer way to get some cardio into your workout. It’s an all-in-one exercise that offers so many benefits.

- Kristin Rooke

Best Low Impact, High Intensity Exercise #3: Rowing Machine

I think for a low impact, high intensity exercise, not many things beat a rowing machine. As long as you don’t have too many issues with your lower back or really bad rounded shoulders, you can really ramp up the intensity while having minimal wear and tear on the body. My other favorite in terms of low-impact, high intensity exercise are Airdyne bikes. Since they are rarely found in gyms though, this just isn’t a realistic option for most people.

- John Levya, CSCS, CPT

Best Low Impact, High Intensity Exercise #4: Recumbent Bike

A recumbent bike is the best low impact exercise modality, and with the addition of utilizing interval based cardiovascular activity with the recumbent bike, it can double as a very high intense exercise. The reason I chose a recumbent bike is because of its easy use, as well as protective back padding for those individuals with lower back issues.

- Kwesi Peters, CSCS, CPT

Best Low Impact, High Intensity Exercise #5: Kettlebell Swings

Kettlebell Swings. They work multiple muscle groups and also improve coordination & balance. You can get an intense, nearly whole body workout in about 10 minutes. If you don’t have access to kettlebells, use a dumbbell instead. Start with the basic swing: grab the kettlebell and swing it back between your legs, then forward with a powerful hip thrust. On the upward swing the kettlebell should go at least to eye level, although you can go higher if you’re comfortable doing so. Start with a very light weight until your technique is smooth – at no point throughout the entire movement should you feel off balance, or need to take a step forward or backward to prevent from falling over. Once you have the basic swing down, try doing it with one hand!

- William Lagakos, Ph.D.

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10 Comments on “What Is The Best Low Impact High-Intensity Exercise?

  1. September 30, 2013 #

    Hi Marc,

    definitely agree with your recommendation of swimming. I recently did some research comparing the benefits of common cardio exercises and one of the things I looked at was typical calories burned.

    Of the non impact exercises, these were the highest calorie burners in descending order: swimming, rowing, cycling & elliptical.

  2. TJ
    September 30, 2013 #

    Love kettlebells, and the fact that you have kettlebell swings in two positions out of the tip five.

  3. abe
    October 2, 2013 #

    Hi Marc,

    I know it’s completely off-topic, but I’ve just found out about this site and think it’s great, tons of useful information…Thanks!

    I’ve read your articles about how HIIT or metabolic workouts can be much more effective than cardio exercises as regards fat burning, because of EPOC. New info for me ;)

    What I wanted to ask you is if this extra, over-time fat burning that occurs after a HIIT session, can be measured with my HR belt: I mean, if I just leave my sensor ON and the training computer recording AFTER I finish my HIIT session, could it measure (or, at least, estimate) my extra-time calories and fat burning? Does it have to do with my HR remaining at a higher value for a longer time than it would do if I made cardio instead?
    Or is it some other type of fat burning process the one that occurs after a HIIT session?

    I hope I’ve managed to make myself clear… Many thanks! for your answer, and for the whole site! :)

    1. October 2, 2013 #

      @abe – Happy you like the site. The science of the afterburn effect (EPOC) is actually kind of complicated. Personally, I don’t measure calorie burn from exercise, I simply estimate how many calories I’m burning daily based on how many times I’m exercising using the Katch & McCardle Method. I think it’s a mistake to try to get too obsessed with calorie burn from exercise because even physiologists have a lot of trouble tracking it.

      For more info, check out these two articles:

      How to Calculate Calorie Burn
      Afterburn Effect Interview

  4. abe
    October 3, 2013 #

    Thanks Mark! Will check those articles…

  5. Mark
    October 5, 2013 #

    Hi Marc,

    I agree 100% with your article. In my own
    experience with one of these home based
    extreme based workout programs, I now
    have issues with plantar fasciitis and hip
    pain from all of the impact.

    I only use my old school Nordic Track which
    provides an amazing calorie burn.

  6. Brian
    October 5, 2013 #

    Great list as a trainer myself the kettlebell swing is one of my favorites. This was an excellent article.

  7. Garrett
    October 6, 2013 #

    Hey Marc,
    I was just wondering, I’ve had patellar tendinitis for over 2 and a half years now, so naturally I’ve had a tough time with my workouts. I’ve pretty much only done upper body workouts and tried to be creative with that but it’s kinda difficult and unfortunately a little boring. I’ve tried to think of ways to still do high intensity interval training, but doing exercises that load the knees aggravates them and makes it harder to recover. Do you have any suggestions for ways to get good high intensity workouts, even if it’s all upper body focused?

    1. October 7, 2013 #

      If you have access to a pool, as I said in the article swimming can be a killer workout. I do think it’s possible to get great workouts with primarily upper body. Your upper body still has a lot of muscle. I think a good old pull up and push ups workout can do the trick. Here’s an upper body workout I enjoy doing:

      3 rounds of 10-12 reps each
      A1) Shoulder Press (barbell, or dumbbell)
      A2) Lat Pulldown (or pull up)
      A3) Rear delt flyes

      3 rounds of 10-12 reps
      B1) Flat DB Bench Press (or push ups)
      B2) Single Arm DB row
      B3) DB Pullover

      This is more of a hypetrophy workout, but if you do it with relatively little rest, it’s also pretty darn high intensity.

  8. Vanessa
    October 7, 2013 #

    Hi Marc, thanks for this information. I notice a slight pain in my knees from running this past summer, even when running on the treadmill. I decide to switch to the elliptical at my gym, and the stationary bike every now and then. I also appreciate that kettle bell swings are considered low impact, although my lower back hurts when I’m through doing a one hour DVD of nothing but kettle bell swings and cardio.

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