Cardio Without Legs – Upper Body Cardio Exercises


Is it possible to do cardio just using your upper body and get good results?

Actually, yes, you can get a great workout without using your legs! But – you have to choose the right kind of exercise.

So next time you’ve got a leg injury and need to hold up on the running for a short while, you don’t need to sit back and do nothing. You can keep up your fitness and even build some arm muscle with upper-body cardio, like the ones we’ll share below.

Is It Possible to Do Cardio Without Legs?

Yes! Although most common cardio exercises—running, walking, elliptical, swimming, cycling involve the legs. So you need a bit of creativity so you can get an excellent workout with just your upper body.

To do an effective cardio workout, you should increase your heart rate to between 64 and 76 percent of your maximum for moderate cardio. Or up to 95 percent of your max, for a vigorous workout.

If that counts as good cardio, then it’s perfectly possible to do that without even using your legs!

It’s worth noting that you might burn fewer calories when big muscles like the quads and hamstrings aren’t involved. But you can still work up a sweat and get your heart pumping, which is what cardio is all about.

Upper-Body Cardio Exercise Options

The key to doing effective cardio without legs is finding an upper-body-only workout that works for you. This will depend on what’s comfortable for you, what types of exercise options you have, and if you are recovering from a lower-body injury.

Here are our best options – see which works best for you!

1. Spinning Those Arms: The Arm Bicycle

Yes, the arm bicycle is a real thing! It’s actually called an arm ergometer, and it’s like a stationary bicycle for your hands. Instead of pedals, it has comfortable hand grips. It’s usually mounted on a wall or comes in the form of a machine.

It’s simple to use—grab the hand “pedals” and go for it! Most of them come with resistance levels for a challenge. There is often a built-in chair to support your back.

Most also have feedback like time, distance, power, stroke rate, pace, and more. Remember that they might not be accurate, as they’re made as one-size-fits-all machines, but it’s helpful to keep track of your workout.

You can easily do interval workouts on one of these machines, which will help you to get your heart rate up and burn more calories.

Not many gyms have one of these, though. You might find one at a rehabilitation therapist’s office, but you might have to look around a little to use one.

2. Climbing to the Clouds: Endless Rope Machine

Some gyms might have an endless rope machine, which is a climbing rope fed through a machine. You can set the resistance of the rope so it becomes easier or harder to pull, and it’s the perfect design for everyone to get a rope climbing workout regardless of whether your legs are involved or not.

If you set it to a little looser so you can pull it through faster, you’ll get a great cardio workout. Up the resistance too much, and you’ll find that it becomes more of a muscular workout, so you might need to experiment to find the middle ground.

3. Making a Splash with Pull Buoy Swimming

Regular swimming uses your legs, but you can make it an upper-body workout by using a pull buoy. This is a small flotation device that you place your legs in, so your legs can float, and you can do all the work with your arms.

If you don’t have one, you can let your legs rest in the water and paddle with your arms, tightening your core to maintain your form.

4. Paddle Your Way to Fitness: Kayaking & Canoeing

If you live near a river or lake and have access to a canoe or kayak, this is a fun way to get some fresh air and some cardio at the same time. Remember that this is different from the rowing machine at the gym—that one requires you to use your legs, but a kayak or canoe doesn’t.

You can get quite a vigorous workout on a kayak or canoe, but make sure you keep your core tight while you’re rowing to maintain your balance. You’ll also get a good arm and shoulder workout!

5. Shadow Boxing Without Footwork

If you can stand, you can always try a boxing workout without moving your legs. If you can’t place weight on your injured leg or foot, you can also do it sitting down.

It’s a great way to add some high-intensity upper-body exercise to your routine and get your heart beating faster. Just make sure you keep a straight back and box with good form.

6. Raging Ropes: Battle Rope Workouts

If you love battle ropes, good news! You can get a cardio blast with ropes without even leaving your chair. Anchor your wheelchair or seat yourself on a box or other solid surface.

Remember that you’ll need to anchor yourself, so your legs might come into play a little, depending on how vigorously you’re pumping your arms. Make sure to brace your core so you don’t need your feet much to stabilize yourself.

7. The Great Outdoors: Handcycling

If you want to get out and about in nature, consider investing in a handcycle. You can rent one while injured, if you want to get out on weekends and do something different. Or, you can invest in one and make a hobby of it!

Aside from being a great cardio exercise, it’s excellent for building upper body muscle. You’ll need to counter the bumps and curves on the path or road, so it’s not the same experience as using an arm ergometer.

8. Circuit Party: Upper-Body Circuit Training

An upper-body circuit training workout is a great way of doing cardio without legs and getting some muscle-building power in there simultaneously.

If you want to maximize your cardio, use weights slightly lighter than you’d usually use so you can run through your repetitions faster.

Move from one exercise to the next as quickly as possible, without stopping to rest other than moving from one exercise or to the next. This will keep your heart rate up.

Remember to keep good form—this isn’t just about doing exercises as fast as possible! Here’s a quick example of an upper-body cardio circuit:

  • Bicep curls: 60 seconds or 15 reps
  • Tricep kickback: 60 seconds or 15 reps
  • Chest press: 60 seconds or 15 reps
  • Front raises: 60 seconds or 15 reps
  • Lateral raises: 60 seconds or 15 reps
  • Reverse fly: 60 seconds or 15 reps

Repeat this progression three times, with a short rest of a few minutes in between each set. If you find it hard to get the reps or meet the time requirements, use less weight.

9. Wave Runner: Arm Aqua Jogging

Aqua arm jogging is a little different from swimming with a pull buoy. You’ll use a flotation belt to keep you bobbing in the water, so your legs don’t need to come into play.

Pump your arms vigorously in the water. The water provides good resistance so you’ll get a bit of a muscle workout, but the goal is to raise your heart rate with the movement of your arms.

You might need to work your way up to longer and longer sessions. If you’re not used to working your arm muscles this way, you can end up with sore, stiff biceps and shoulders the next day!

10. Rocking the Chair: Cardio for All

If your injury is severe enough that you have to be in a wheelchair for an extended period, don’t despair! There are a few fun options for wheelchair users to get a great heart-pumping workout.

Make sure you know how to use your wheelchair correctly first! You should be able to maneuver yourself smoothly and avoid obstacles with ease, and you should also know how to operate the brakes if you need to.

Trying to play sport in a wheelchair without knowing how to operate it properly can lead to collisions or falls, and potentially worse injury!

If you live in an area that doesn’t have facilities for these kinds of sports, you might need to get creative. Involve a few of your able-bodied friends if there aren’t other wheelchair-bound people to play with.

Wheelchair Basketball

If you love basketball, you’ll love playing it from a wheelchair. You’ll need strong arms and a great sense of balance because you’ll be clamoring for the ball with a bunch of other players.

Those who are unsure about playing with a team but like the idea can shoot a few hoops solo. However, keep in mind that you’ll need to work up a sweat and get your heart rate up if you want the cardiovascular benefits.

Wheelchair Racing

Wheelchair racing gives the arms, shoulders, and chest an excellent workout, as well as the cardiovascular system. You might be able to join some races at the nearest track or indoor sporting facility.

You may need to do some research on the correct form for wheelchair racing to ensure that you don’t accidentally lose your posture as you race.

Wheelchair Zumba and Dance Classes

If dance is your thing, wheelchair dance classes will be your new favorite exercise. It’s unique, fun, and does an excellent job of increasing that heart rate, so ask around the dance studios and see if this is available near you.

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Ben is an avid road and trail runner, and has completed multiple marathons and ultras. A former running store owner, he now shares his knowledge and experience writing these articles.