Video: Upper-Body Only Cardio

Who says you have to use your legs to get a good cardiovascular workout? Not me!

Brock Armstrong
2-minute read
The Quick And Dirty
  • Cardio is short for "cardiovascular exercise."
  • If a movement raises your heart rate and makes you breathe harder than usual, you're doing cardio. 
  • If you're injured, have limited mobility, or just want to give your legs a day off, it's possible to do upper-body-only cardio.
  • Using ideas from this video, you can create other similar movements to give you an upper-body cardio workout.

Over the last couple of weeks, I have had two separate requests for information on how to do cardio without using your legs. The first person just broke her ankle and isn't able to put any weight on her (very casted) foot for a few weeks. The other person is waiting to have hip surgery. While she can do some standing movement, including her physiotherapy movements, it causes her pain that she's hoping to minimize.

Admirably, both of them understand the importance of staying active, even with their own personal afflictions. So I got to work on putting together a routine that should help them not only get their heart rate up but also inspire them to create their own versions. If you're hoping to get an upper-body-only cardio workout, then this workout is for you, too.

In this video, I demonstrate a series of 5 exercises that you can do sitting down or standing up that will raise your heart rate, challenge your range of motion, and test your coordination.

The exercises are:

  1. Alternating Side Reaches
  2. Alternating Side Rotations
  3. Big & Small Arm Circles
  4. Three-Way Jabs
  5. Sprinter Arms

What is Cardio?

The term cardio is simply short for cardiovascular exercise—an exercise that challenges your heart and lungs. But honestly, I can get my heart pumping and get out of breath while doom-scrolling social media, so there must be a better definition, right?

Personally, I like this definition from my buddy and biomechanist Katy Bowman's podcast. Katy says:

... any exercise that works large groups of muscles, raises your heart rate, and is rhythmic in nature is really what most people mean by cardiovascular exercise and what people writing and doing research in the literature would be calling cardiovascular exercise.

Notice that she did not say "going for a jog" or "using an elliptical machine at the gym," which are two things that many people equate with the word "cardio." And while those activities definitely do fit our definition and belong on our cardio list, there are many other muscle groups we can work that will raise our heart rate, make us breathe heavy, and are rhythmic in nature. Including, but not limited to, waving your arms in the air (like you just don't care). 

So, whether you have a lower-body injury, limited mobility, chronic pain, or you just want to give your legs a day off, these are some great exercise alternatives to the more conventional and narrowly defined cardio movements.

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own health provider. Please consult a licensed health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Brock Armstrong Get-Fit Guy

Brock Armstrong was the host of the Get-Fit Guy podcast between 2017 and 2021. He is a certified AFLCA Group Fitness Leader with a designation in Portable Equipment, NCCP and CAC Triathlon Coach, and a TnT certified run coach. He is also on the board of advisors for the Primal Health Coach Institute and a guest faculty member of the Human Potential Institute.