Updated: Dec 22, 2020
Whether you’re recovering from an injury, just getting back into working out, or have been told by a healthcare professional that you should avoid high-impact activity, you might be wondering if workouts are even worth it.
Often when people I know are told to try “low-impact” exercise, they picture grandmas with flowered swim caps doing water aerobics, or groups of men in matching track suits walking around a neighborhood track chit-chatting. Contrary to popular belief, you can actually make many of your regular workouts into low-impact working using a few strategies, which I’ll outline here.
1. Utilize Isometric Holds In an isometric exercise, often called a static hold, you utilize the static contraction of a muscle or muscle group without any movement for a predetermined period of time.
When performed with correct form, isometrics can give you multiple benefits - they improve strength and endurance of the muscles you are working, reinforce proper mechanics, give you the correct "muscle memory" for down the road when you might want to do multiple reps at a fast pace, and they're definitely a challenge.
If you've ever had to hold the position in a bicycle crunch where your elbow and opposite knee touch, or were punished with wall sits during high school sports, congrats - you've already done isometric holds! I love to incorporate these as a challenge when I’m already tired, or as a pseudo-rest period to create a shorter, more intense workout.
2. Work Through Your Full Range of Motion Often my own clients want and are able to perform exercises like weighted walking lunges, jumping lunges, and more. However, what I almost always notice is that their knees don't make it anywhere close to the ground, so while they're performing a high-level exercise, they're not getting the most bang for their buck. I dial back even my most athletic clients to starting their lunge from the "bottom," or the half-kneel position, and focusing on the upward movement. They usually are shocked at how difficult it is to complete their sets when they have to work through the full range of motion! I see the same thing happen with push-ups as well.
Can you lie on the floor, put you hands down, and push yourself up to the perfect plank without losing your form? What exercise can you think of that maybe you haven't gotten the full range of motion and, therefore, the full benefit from? Starting to build your exercise from the bottom up can give you a new perspective, as well as improve strength through your entire range of motion.
3. Incorporate Eccentric Training A ‘negative,’ or an eccentric exercise is one where the muscle lengthens (rather than contracts) under load. To incorporate eccentric training, a general rule is to focus on the opposite part of the exercise than you normally would. For example, in a push-up, focus on lowering to the ground - and I mean all the way to the ground rather than the actual pushing up. In a squat, you can do the same. And can you get a little lower than usual? And now just a little lower? It’s really amazing what we can do when we aren’t rushing. For your bicep curls, can you actually lower your forearms all the way down to your sides, instead of the tops of your thighs? (Not saying you do it, but it’s an extremely common little cheat.) To increase the challenge you can use a strategy such as taking 5 counts to lower, and 1 count to lift. Just like the first two techniques I mentioned, eccentric training can help you build strength, improve the quality of your movements, and allow you to have a challenging yet low-impact workout.
Fitness Trainer Lisa Kocsis @globalonehealth uses outdoors and Animal Flow to keep her workouts interesting and effective
4. Be Creative with Your Cardio Depending on your reasoning for choosing a low-impact workout, you may need to get creative with your cardio. I’ve worked with a lot of clients who had knee surgeries, and felt like they would be unable to get their cardio in until they were cleared to bike, run, or at least use the elliptical again. I challenge you to be a little more creative. Shadow boxing, for example, can be a great form of cardio - you can even use light hand weights (no more than 3 pounds) if you want. Learn some different punch combos to mix things up, and spice up your strength workouts by throwing 3 minutes of punches in between sets.
Athletic Trainer Erica Marcano demonstrates a body- weight workout using the friction of socks on hardwood in place of traditional resistance
5. Use Time as a Way to Challenge Yourself When it comes to variables we can manipulate when planning a workout, time is a big one. While you always want to make sure you have enough recovery in your workouts, building in a shorter rest period is a simple way to keep your heart rate up, and increase the intensity of your workout without changing any of the other factors.
You can also challenge yourself by trying to meet or beat the amount of reps you got in your first set in consecutive sets within the same time parameter.
Erica Marcano, MS ATC, CSCS, also known as The Notorious ATC, is certified Athletic Trainer and Strength & Conditioning Specialist with 15 years of experience in her field. She currently coaches clients in person throughout Brooklyn & NYC, and due to recent events, now sees clients virtually as well. Learn more about Erica and her holistic fitness practice here.