What Is the Hardest Workout in the World?

"The Circuit" is 32 exercises to get you fit, toned, and exhausted before indulging in holiday gluttony guilt-free. Get-Fit Guy outlines the hardest workout in the world. 

Ben Greenfield
7-minute read
Episode #215

Years ago Esquire magazine published an article called "The Hardest Workout in the World." In it, the author outlined septuagenarian Don Wildman’s grueling, intense, multi-stage weight training workout, dubbed "The Circuit." This workout was exactly what the 75-year-old Don had used for many years to stay in amazing shape, and is exactly the kind of winter workout that can come in handy during this busy holiday time when your chances to exercise can be few and far between.

Basically, think of an incredibly difficult workout as a strategy to put a lot of work into your body prior to letting it rest for a few days at Grandma’s house while you stuff your face with holiday fruitcake. Or perhaps it's the way to get your body jumpstarted back into fitness mode after a week of holiday partying.

The first time I went to the gym to do the "Hardest Workout in the World," I thought it would be a piece of cake. After all, if a 75-year-old can do it, I should surely manage it, too! When I crawled out of the gym 3 hours later, I was thinking a bit differently and my body was feeling the effects of the challenge for the next several days.

However, despite it being an incredibly difficult (and effective) workout, I have an issue with the routine: It’s done primarily on machines..

Why is this a problem? Well, when compared to free weights, machines carry a higher risk of injury because they lock you into a single, restricted range-of motion. By contrast, when you use free weights such as dumbbells, barbells, and kettlebells:

  • You get stronger. Research has shown that free weights help you to get stronger much faster than weight machines.

  • You get more athletic. Free weights also build more balance and coordination than weight machines.

  • You’re more efficient with time. Most free weight exercises, such as dead lifts or squat-to-overhead-presses recruit more muscle groups than weight machines, so you work more muscle and burn more calories in less time.

  • You can move through a greater range-of-motion. Many weight machines simply don’t “feel right” to your body, no matter how you adjust the seat or handles. With free weights, you have complete freedom of rotation so that something like an overhead shoulder press can feel much more natural and comfortable with free weights compared to weight machines.

  • Finally, you typically have to drive to the gym to use weight machines. But you can use free weights (and your own body weight) in the comfort of your own home, thereby cutting your time expenditure substantially.

So in today’s episode, I’m going to tell you exactly how to do the hardest workout in the world – with the special twist of only using body weight or free weights rather than weight machines.

The Hardest Workout in the World

"The Circuit" consists of 16 groups of exercises done as supersets (back-to-back exercises) with no breaks and minimal rest between each set. For each group of exercises, you simply alternate between the exercises listed. Go into this workout well-rested and don’t plan on doing anything hard for a few days after you’ve finished it.

This entire routine has been modified by yours truly to make it a bit more functional, involve fewer seated exercises, and also be less reliant on weight machines – while still holding true to the spirit and overall effectiveness of the original routine. Ready? Here we go:

Group 1

#1. Standing Dumbbell Shoulder Presses: Position dumbbells to each side of your shoulders with elbows extending downward. Press dumbbells until your arms are straightened overhead. Lower and repeat. (3 sets, 30/20/10 reps – this means that you do 3 total sets of 30 reps, then 20 reps, then 10 reps, with each of those sets followed by the next exercise, outlined below)

#2. Standing Dumbbell Curls: Stand with your arms holding the dumbbells down by your sides. With your palms facing forward, curl the dumbbell up so that it’s parallel with your shoulder. Alternate sides. (3 sets, 30/20/10 reps)

Group 2

#3. Standing Barbell Push Presses: Hold a barbell at shoulder height, bend your knees, and explosively press barbell up overhead. That’s one rep. (3 sets, 30/20/10 reps)

#4. Dumbbell Side Raises: Hold one dumbbell in each hand, raise both arms to the side until they’re at shoulder height, then lower.  (3 sets, 30 reps)

#5. Leg Raises: Lie on the ground and raise your legs up and bring them toward your chest. Then lower them slowly without letting them touch the floor. (3 sets, 30 reps)

#6. Side Crunches: Lie on the floor and turn your legs completely to one side. Place your hands behind your head and lift it slightly off the ground. Lower your head back down so it almost touches the ground. Repeat exercise on other side. (3 sets, 30 reps)

Group 3

#7. Super Slow Push-Ups: Get into push-up position and lower yourself for a 4 count, then press back up with a 4 count (3 sets, 10 reps)

#8. Side Plank Rotations: Get into a side plank position. Reach your top arm under your body, then rotate it out towards the sky. Do all 30 reps for one side, then switch sides. (3 sets, 30 reps)

Group 4

#9. Dumbbell Chest Press: Lie on the ground or on a bench and press the weight outward away from your chest. Return to start position and repeat. (3 sets, 30/20/10 reps)

#10. Seated Leg Raises: While seated on a bench or on the floor, raise your legs up and bring them toward your chest. Lower without letting them touch the floor. (3 sets, 40 reps)

Group 5

#11.  Dumbbell Rows: Grab one dumbbell, bend over, and pull it in a motion just like you are starting a lawn mower or chainsaw. Do all reps, then repeat for other side. (3 sets, 30/20/10 reps)

#12. Sit-ups: Lie on the floor with your arms crossed over your chest. Bend your knees and place your feet flat on the floor. Slowly and gently lift your head, followed by your shoulder blades. Pull up from the floor about halfway. Return to original position and repeat. (3 sets, 40 reps)

Group 6

#13. Pull-Ups (or Pull-Downs): Do a set of wide grip pull-ups. Or, for the pull-down version (which is easier), hold bar with a wide, comfortable grip while putting your knees underneath the pad. Pull the bar down smoothly until it touches the top of your chest. Extend your arms back to the top and repeat. (3 sets, 30/20/10 reps)

#14. Standing Alternate Crunches: Stand with your right hand clasped behind your head, then bend over and crunch to the left knee, then stand up, and switch to the other side. That’s one rep. (3 sets, 40 reps)

Group 7

#15. Dumbbell Squats: Hold a dumbbell to your chest and perform a squat. (3 sets, 30/20/10 reps)

Group 8

#16. Barbell Upright Rows: Grab bar with a shoulder-width or slightly narrower overhand grip. Leading with your elbows, pull bar to up to your neck. Allow your wrists to flex as bar rises. Lower and repeat. (3 sets, 30/20/10 reps)

#17. Alternating Sit-Ups:  Perform sit-ups, curling side to side and reaching your elbow to your opposite hip. Alternate sides. (3 sets, 40 reps)

Group 9

#18. Front Plank Taps: Get into a front plank position, then lift and tap your right foot with your left, then lift and tap your left foot with your right. That’s one rep. (3 sets, 40 reps)

#19. Superman: Lay on your stomach with arms and legs extended, raise all 4 limbs off the ground, hold for a 2 count, then slowly lower. (3 sets, 40 reps)


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

Ben Greenfield

Ben Greenfield received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from University of Idaho in sports science and exercise physiology; personal training and strength and conditioning certifications from the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA); a sports nutrition certification from the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN), an advanced bicycle fitting certification from Serotta. He has over 11 years’ experience in coaching professional, collegiate, and recreational athletes from all sports, and as helped hundreds of clients achieve weight loss and fitness success.