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The 9 BEST Cardio Exercises for Bad Joints

We have great news for those of you with joint pain.

You can still exercise, reach your fitness goals and make incredible progress in the gym. 

Bad knees?

Bad shoulders?

Bad back?

No problem.

In fact, continuing to workout or starting to workout with the right exercises during injury, not only is going to allow you to improve your fitness, but it will also improve and speed up recovery.

The better your fitness level is, the easier it is to recover from injury and improve aches and pains. 

A common thought is that complete rest is the best option to improve injury. 

Through our experience as well as rehab and exercise research, it is the combination of treatment and rest to the affected area and continued participation with modified exercise activities focusing on improving fitness that yield the best results.

This allows you to:

  • Continue to improve health, fat loss, strength, fitness etc.
  • Increase blood flow to affected area to promote healing
  • Improve flexibility and strength of weak and stiff areas
  • Improve overall movement quality, preventing future injury

Combine that with the fact that we now have one of the best Physical Therapists (Jamie Morse -- Altitude Physical Therapy) as part of our team and you have a recipe for success.

This allows our members to work with Jamie to treat the affected area while working with our performance coaches to work around and often improve the injured, painful and inflamed area.

The key to all of this is to choose the right exercises for you. 

The cardio exercises should:

  • Be low impact 
  • Cause no pain
  • Increase your heart and respiratory rate
  • Burn calories
  • Shred fat 

Let's keep you moving and working towards your goals with our 9 favorite low-impact cardio exercises!

#1 Sled Push & Reverse Drag

The sled push and reverse drag are two of our joint friendly cardio drills. They are great for our members who come in with bad backs, knees and/or shoulders. The controlled, concentric-only leg action places much less stress on the knees than traditional lower-body exercises like squats and lunges. They are great for getting your heart-rate up and burning fat, but also great for building some serious lower-body strength -- a great way to improve and prevent lower-limb pain. 

Sled Push

Key points:

  • Keep arms straight and straight line head to back foot
  • Keep body leaning at 45 degree angle 
  • March forward one step at a time keeping head and upper body still
  • Start with 3-5 reps of 15-25yd march with :30-1:00 rest between reps

Reverse Drag

Key Points:

  • Attach handles to bottom of sled
  • Grab handles with a neutral grip and keep chest tall
  • Keep low athletic position throughout
  • Keeping feet flat, use legs to walk sled backwards
  • You should feel your quad muscles (front of thigh) working throughout
  • Start with 3-5 reps of 15-20yds reverse drag with :30-1:00 rest between reps

#2 Med Ball Slams

One of our favorite forms of cardio is medicine ball work. They work well with all of our members, especially members who come to us with some kind of joint pain.  We like these especially with our members with lower-body and/or low-back issues. Get some aggression out and get ready to sweat!

Key Points:

  • Get as tall as possible and reach ball high overhead without leaning back
  • Slam ball right in front of feet 
  • Finish slam in low squat position
  • Catch and repeat as fast as possible
  • Start with :20 of work followed by :40 of rest for 6-10 rounds.

#3 Kettlebell (KB) Swings

Kettlebell swings are a staple for many of our members. The dynamic, fast paced motion makes the swing a great exercise for getting your heart-rate up and burning calories. The majority of the work comes from your hips, hamstrings and glutes making the swing a great choice for individuals with bad knees, feet and ankles. The hamstrings and glutes are two of the most important stabilizers of the knee so strengthening these two muscles is a must for improving knee pain. 

Key Points:

  • Before trying the KB swing, be sure to master the Kettlebell Deadlift or RDL first (shown in video)
  • Make sure all the work is done through your hips
  • Keep posture strong and tall throughout 
  • At the top position, finish tall with glutes squeezed and legs straight
  • Start with 8-10 swings followed by :30-:45 of rest for 6-10 rounds

For more on proper KB swing technique, click on the video below:

DSC Technique Tuesday: KB Swing


Read More

#4 Mountain Climbers

We love mountain climbers for all of our members but they are especially great for members with bad knees and low backs. When done correctly, the plank position keeps the low back and spine, in a good, neutral position. By keeping your weight in your hands, stress is not placed on the knees. Build core strength and shred fat with the mountain climber. 

Key Points:

  • If new to the mountain climber, start with hands on bench or table vs. the floor
  • Maintain a stable upper-body plank position throughout
  • Keep hands placed directly under shoulders
  • Quickly bring one knee forward at a time, while keeping the back leg straight
  • Start with :15 of work followed by :45 of rest for 6-10 rounds

#5 Bike Sprints

Bike sprints are the ultimate joint-friendly cardio exercise. They allow our members with aches and pains to train at a very high intensity, while keeping the stress off their injuries. They are great for bad backs, shoulders and knees. Sprints are also more fun and burn more calories than traditional low intensity, long duration bike rides. These are tough!

Key Points:

  • Set seat height of bike so their is a minimal knee bend when pedal all the way down
  • Keep bike resistance minimal if on spin bike
  • Start with a 5 minute warm-up at medium intensity
  • Complete 6-10 rounds of :15 sprint followed by :45 rest

#6 Curved treadmill Run/Walk

One the best equipment investments we have made has been our curved, self-propelled treadmills. They actually do not have a motor therefore, similar to running on the road, you have to be the one to move the belt. The difference between our treadmills and traditional running or treadmill running is the curve feature in the front of the treadmill where your foot strikes. This actually dampens the impact forces, making these much more joint friendly for our members with bad feet, ankles and knees. We have even had people run on our treadmills who have not run in years because of pain. They are also great for those with elbow or shoulder issues. Feel free to walk, jog or sprint depending on your current level. 

Key Points:

  • Stay tall throughout
  • Try to stay to front of treadmill
  • Keep hands on railings if needed
  • Focus on getting knees up 
  • Start with :15 sprint, jog or fast paced walk followed by :45 walk for 6-10 rounds. 

#7 Battling Ropes

Battling ropes might be our member's favorite cardio exercises. They are especially great for anyone with lower-body or back pain as all of the work is done through the arms, shoulders and core. Not only are they tough but they are a lot of fun! 

Key Points:

  • Stay in a low, athletic position throughout
  • Using just your arms, make quick and even waves with the ropes
  • Keep the ropes moving together or alternate arms
  • Start with :15 of work :45 of rest for 6-10 rounds

#8 Speed Squats 

We love various jumping, bounding and hopping cardio exercises but those with foot, ankle, knee and/or hip issues should avoid such exercises. A great exercise that replicates the speed and intensity of high-impact exercises like jumps is the speed squat. You can also limit your range-of-motion if deep squatting gives you pain.

Key Points:

  • Start feet shoulder width with toes slightly pointed out
  • Start by breaking at the knees and sitting back
  • Keep weight in heels throughout
  • Go as low as possible with neutral spine and no pain
  • Drive through heels to return to starting position
  • Complete as fast as possible
  • Start with :15 of speed squats followed by :45 seconds of rest for 6-10 rounds

#9 Elevated Burpees

The burpee is one of the most popular fat-burning, cardio drills on the planet and rightfully so -- they are tough and tax the entire body. The tough thing about burpees is that they require a great deal of mobility. For many, getting down to the floor can be a problem and can cause pain. For our members who do not have the ability to complete the full burpee, we simply shorten the range-of-motion by having them go off a bench rather than all the way to the floor. Win, win!

Key Points:

  • Start with hands on bench or chair 
  • Keeping weight in hands, kick feet back to plank position
  • Add push-up if possible
  • Do not let hips sag when kicking legs out
  • Bring feet back in, stand up, jump and reach
  • Start with :15 of work followed by :45 of rest for 6-10 rounds

For more on the burpee technique, click on the video below:

The Perfect Burpee

Learn how perform one of the most popular cardio exercises!...

Read More


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