The Best Upper Body Cardio Workouts

The traditional belief amongst most people, especially those starting out on a new fitness regime in the gym, is that “cardio” consists only of the classic activities:

  • Running
  • Walking
  • Cycling
  • Rowing
  • Cross trainer/stepper

Thing is though, whilst these are all perfectly acceptable ways to get your sweat on and heart rate up, they’re not the only methods of doing so. And they’re certainly not the most exciting (well at least in my book they’re not).

Another stumbling block for others is the inability to do anything leg related in the gym. For example, if you’re unable to perform leg movements, or are just recovering from an injury of sorts, upper body workouts may be your only solution. If that’s the case you’ll want a way to still get those lungs working and heart pumping.

In today’s post, I’m going to share with you the best upper body cardio workouts (in my humble opinion), that only require the use of your upper body muscle groups. And because of the short burst interval nature of the workouts, your heart rate will raise considerably and you’ll burn more calories over the next couple of days, pretty cool eh?

Some of the movements are pretty gnarly, but I’ll be providing alternatives to the harder movements. So if you’re not a gym junkie yet, you can start easy and progress.

Let’s get started shall we?

First Thing’s First

Before I start going through the workouts, there are a few things we need to take care of first. You need to prepare your body for the stress ahead, so that means getting a warm up in place.

Pro Tips:

  • Get your heart rate up with a moderate intensity cardio exercise. For example the cross trainer or rowing machine – 10 minutes.
  • The first time you go through the workout, start at a slower pace (about 50% of your maximum effort). This is so that you can to accustom your muscles to the movements, and slowly integrate into the workout.

Other things to consider before you start:

  • Try to perform the movements without any rest in between the exercises. Remember, this is a cardiovascular workout, so your heart rate should be elevated and you should be breathing hard.
  • Only use enough weight so you’re able to complete the number of reps stated. If you can’t get anywhere near the number of reps in the workout, you need to lower the weight/resistance. If you’re finding it too easy, you know what to do!
  • When you’re finished, make sure you end the workout with 5 minutes of “cooling down”. In other words, jump on a piece of cardio kit of your choice and spend 5 minutes at a low intensity.
  • You’ll need some dumbbells, a medicine ball, and a stopwatch, that’s it! So don’t complain that you can’t get the equipment or the gym’s too busy 😉

The Workout

1. Bent over dumbbell rows – 25 reps

  • Standing upright holding the dumbbells by your side, begin to push your hips backwards (sticking your bum out).
  • Whilst you’re pushing your hips backwards, ensure you maintain a neutral spine in the process (keep your spine straight).
  • When your chest is facing the floor and you have a right angle bend at the hips, begin to pull the dumbbells to either side of your body.
  • Return the dumbbells back to the straight arm position in front of you, maintaining that 90 degree bend at the hips.
Bent over dumbbell row

Pro Tip:

  • As you lower the dumbbells down to the starting position of the movement, count a tempo of 3 seconds down, and one second on the “up” phase.

2. Dumbbell Punches – 1 minute

  • Stand feet shoulder width apart holding dumbbells in front of your chest (very light ones in this case).
  • As fast you can manage, begin punching straight forward whilst holding the dumbbells.
  • If you’re struggling to maintain the pace, reduce the weight, or opt for no weight and perform “air punches”.
Dumbbell punches

3. Push ups – 25 reps

  • You’ll begin on your hands and knees. Ensure your hands are shoulder width apart and your shoulders are directly over your hands.
  • Straighten your legs until your entire body is supported on your feet and hands. Legs and arms should be completely straight.
  • Begin lowering your chest until it’s three inches off the floor.
  • Finish the movement by pushing up and raising your chest from the floor. Keep the legs straight and your head in a neutral position (just look straight ahead at the floor, don’t try and look up or down).
  • If you can’t lift your whole body weight off the floor, opt to drop your knees and rock forward on the knees. This way you’re only lifting half of your body weight.
  • Alternatively you can use a higher surface to push off from, like a plyo box, dumbbell rack, or even the wall if you’re lacking upper body strength
Push up

4. Repeat Dumbbell Punches – 1 minute

5. Standing Dumbbell Shoulder Press – 25 reps

  • Start by standing shoulder width apart, resting the dumbbells on the shoulders.
  • Keeping the palms facing forward, raise the dumbbells above your head.
  • Lower the dumbbells back down so they’re resting on the shoulders.
  • Use a three second lowering tempo for the movement, and one second on the raising phase.
Standing dumbbell shoulder press

5. Repeat Dumbbell Punches – 1 minute

6. Medicine Ball Slams – 25 reps

  • Stand shoulder width apart holding the medicine ball.
  • Raise the med ball above your head, and slam the ball down to the floor whilst bending your legs on the way down. Keep your spine in that neutral position I spoke about (keep that thing as straight as humanly possible!)
  • Keep your chest up as you extend your legs and return to the over head position in one smooth movement.
  • Rinse, and repeat.

This workout is designed to be completed as fast as possible, so there are no rest periods in between.

If do find that you’re struggling to keep up, by all means pause for 10 seconds. However, don’t leave too long in between exercises, otherwise you forgo the cardiovascular element.

Repeat the entire workout 2-3 times depending on your ability.

Final Words

This workout is 95% upper body, bar the leg bending phase of the med ball slams. So be prepared that you’re going to suffer from a few aches and pains in the arms afterwards.

Just bare that in mind when you’re pushing yourself beyond your limits.

It’s also pretty short and sweet, and will only last about 30-40 minutes max. Only aim to perform the workout 2-3 times per week. If you’re working at maximum effort, you won’t need to do it any more than that!

So what are you waiting for? Get started sculpting that lean mean upper body!

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Mike Julom, ACE CPT

Mike is an ACE Certified PT and a CrossFit Level 1 Trainer. He is an avid lover of all sports. Basketball, tennis, athletics, volleyball, soccer, squash, golf, table tennis, even darts, you name it! He's a very active CrossFit athlete and has been WOD'ing for over 7 years. With such an intense fitness regime, Mike has learned to take care of his body physically, nutritionally, and spiritually. Mike founded ThisIsWhyImFit as a way to share his vast knowledge of exercises, diets, and general fitness advice.

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