Underrated Cardio Workouts That Are Better Than Running to Burn Calories and Build Muscle Without Losing Your Mind

At this point, you’ve probably heard about the insane fitness benefits that come with being a runner — like running can help you torch calories, live longer, and recite the most digits of pi from memory. The important stuff.

But for those who just can’t seem to find their stride (hey, it happens… a LOT), don’t spend another mile suffering on the dreadmill. These cardio workouts are just as good or better than running, so you can burn calories and build muscle without losing your mind.


This CrossFit Workout of the Day (WOD) burns an average 13 calories per minute, according to scientists at Kennesaw State University.

It’s effective because it pairs three exercises—5 pullups, 10 pushups, and 15 air squats—that work different major muscle groups, and you do as many rounds as possible in 20 minutes.

So if you’re in amazing condition, you can go all-out for each one, without slowing down or stopping to recover in between.

If you’re somewhat less than amazing (read: like most people), you simply rest when needed. For example, you don’t move on to the pushup until you’ve completed 5 reps of the pullup, even if you have to stop and start.

“Any routine that takes you from standing, down to the ground, and back up to standing again is an amazing calorie burner, because it really spikes the heart rate,” says John.

Climbing stairs

As a runner herself, CRUNCH Fitness trainer Amelia DiDomenico knows the importance of supplementing other cardio workouts into her personal routine to prevent overtraining and mix up her workouts. “Running up or climbing stairs is a great way to burn a significant amount of calories while building muscles in the low back, glutes, and legs,” DiDomenico says. “Unlike running on a flat or on a slight incline, climbing stairs forces you to propel vertically — burning more calories and recruiting more muscle.”


Not just for CrossFit fiends! “Whether it’s adding plyometrics — which is, really simply, ‘jump training’ — to a circuit of strength training, or performing various jumping exercises like jump squats, bound jumps, switch lunges, and burpees in an interval format, plyometrics allow for explosive bouts of power and movement that increase and maintain a high heart rate,” says Caullen Hudson, ACE-certified group fitness trainer in Chicago. What gives them an edge over running? When performed at maximum capacity (your all-out level), they not only keep your heart rate up, but they also torch more calories from fat than traditional, steady-state cardio, Hudson explains.


Farouk Houssein, instructor at New York City’s The Fhitting Room, doesn’t doubt the cardiovascular benefits of running. However, pounding the pavement can take a major toll on your body, especially the joints. “Rowing can offer many of the same, if not more, benefits than running,” Houssein claims. “Both running and rowing will burn calories and get your heart and lungs working, but the impact and stress they do to your body is quite different. In one continuous movement, rowing targets major muscle groups like your glutes, quads, hamstrings, core lats, shoulders, and biceps to increase aerobic capacity, burn fat, and improve overall fitness.”

Jumping rope

Being an adult doesn’t mean you should stop jumping rope. “Jumping rope is an exercise you can do indoors or outside, anywhere, anytime,” says Tom Holland, exercise physiologist, author of The 12-Week Triathlete, and host of the Bowflex radio show The Burn. “[Jumping rope] burns significant calories quickly, and the plyometric nature of jumping strengthens and tones the legs while helping to preserve our fast-twitch muscle fibers — and prevent injury.”

Indoor cycling

As a track coach, instructor at a running studio, and running enthusiast, Yusuf Jeffers, coach at New York City’s Tone House, says there’s nothing quite like running. Still, he recommends stationary cycling as an alternative, or equivalent workout. Whether you’re measuring how many miles rowed, your time on the bike, or calories burned, you can get a workout that provides the same cardio benefits as running while minimizing the amount of stress on joints running puts on your body. “There are so many variations of possible intervals, you can simulate almost any running workout on the bike.”

Kettlebell swings

Jeffers is also high on kettlebell swings, something of a medieval-looking workout that really works your thighs and butt. “A 30-minute kettlebell workout, using the appropriate weight, can be as much, or more intensive, calorie burn-wise, than a 30-minute steady run,” he says. “The shape of the weights requires increased stabilization strength in muscles around the joint in order to properly control them.”

Metabolic resistance training

“Short spurts may seem easy, but when mapped out right, metabolic resistance training (MRT) can feel like running a marathon,” warns Joni David-O’Connor, trainer at YG Studios. OK, maybe she’s exaggerating a little. But metabolic resistance training — a training style that aims to maximize caloric expenditure while increasing your metabolic rate, ideal for burning fat and building muscle — is no jaunt in the park. “[MRT] pushes individuals to work as hard as possible in a variety of exercises for 15 to 20 seconds,” she says. “The recovery times are close to a full minute, so you can give another all-out effort. I believe these small, explosive increments make difficult goals or exercise more attainable mentally.”


Yes, it seems like running. No, it’s not exactly running. A sprint, in its truest form, is very different from a traditional distance run. When you run, say, 3 miles, you’re aiming to conserve energy as much as possible, keeping your arms steady and running in very upright fashion.

A sprint? Now, instead of bouncing lightly off the ground, you’re attacking the ground to create speed. You start with your chest forward, aggressively swing your arms, and slam into the ground with every footstep. It’s an explosive, powerful act, and yes, it can blast fat.

The key to sprinting is realizing that a true sprint can’t last long; at most, you’ll get 200 meters if you’re really going hard. But battle through 10 100-meter sprints with, say, a minute between each, and you’re workout’s over in around 15 minutes, but you’ve still destroyed plenty of unwanted calories.

Bodyweight Walking Lunges for Time

The classic walking lunge, a staple of plenty of leg workouts, is a great way to incinerate fat. Just find a large space (or better yet, hit your outdoor 400-meter track), and start doing walking lunges. Aim to work for at least 5 to 10 minutes, doing your best to do so without taking a break.

The entire endeavor will have you breathing hard, because you’re essentially repeating a bodyweight strength move over and over and over again. You’re also building leg strength and endurance as you go.

The Ski-Erg

One of the most fierce ways to get your heart rate up is the Ski-erg, a cardio device that’s supposed to simulate cross-country skiing. To get the Ski-erg going, you need to aggressively and powerfully bend at the knees and hips while also pulling downwards hard on a pair of ropes attached to a variable-resistance fan.

It’s a potent and versatile workout. You can easily go for, say, 2,000 meters. But you could also break this up into aggressive intervals, pushing hard for 20 seconds, then resting for 10 seconds, and repeating that pattern for 6 fat-blasting minutes. No matter what, expect to be drenched in sweat.

Mountain Biking

Get your cardio in by hitting the great outdoors on a bike. Spending a few hours biking along trails will do more than rev up your metabolism. It’ll challenge your balance and athleticism as you react to varied terrain.

It’s a perfect way to get outside, too, giving your body a much-needed dose of fresh air.


You’ll be drenched after this workout, but it may not be sweat. If you need a nasty workout for your lungs (and more of your back than you may think), then hit the pool for some laps. You can either do interval work in the pool, swimming for, say, 100 meters, then resting for a minute and repeating 10 times, or you can just swim a steady distance (think 2,000 meters).

Either way, it’s a solid workout, and it’s low-impact to boot, sparing your joints and tendons from the wear-and-tear that comes with many other workouts.

Indoor Rock Climbing

Sometimes, the best way to get your cardio is by going up. Indoor rock climbing is a unique way to get your sweat on, requiring as much strength as it does agility. You’re constantly moving and straining here, much like running.

But unlike running, your upper body doesn’t get even the slightest bit of rest. Your hands (and forearm and grip muscles) get taxed to the max while grasping tiny handholds, and your back must constantly pull your torso toward the wall. It’s a vicious blend that’s growing increasingly popular. Need somewhere to start with it? If you’re in the New York City area, check out Chelsea Piers.


You don’t have to get in the ring against an opponent to knock out calories with boxing-style workouts. Hit a heavy bag, work with a partner, or just perform punch combos on air to smash through calories — up to 800 per hour, if a study from supplement maker Forza’s claims are correct. Check out these boxing workouts to get punching.

Agility Ladder

You’ll burn a ton of calories with the short bursts of speed, balance, and coordination it takes to finish a full agility ladder circuit—especially if you run through the drills continuously with limited rest.

But your brain might get the best benefit from this type of cardio exercise. A 2014 study from the Air Force Research Laboratory showed that agility training can improve cognitive performance along with boosting cardio levels. Instead of just plodding mindlessly along on a run, agility drills help you hone your VO2 max, athletic footwork, memory, and concentration.

Indoor Rowing

A 185-pound guy can burn 377 calories during 30 minutes of vigorous rowing, or about 12.5 calorie per minute, reports a Harvard University study.

And because you need to utilize the muscles in your arms, legs, and back for efficient strokes, it’s a great total-body trainer.


If you have a few hours, hit a trail and go for a hike. You won’t move as fast as you might if you were running, but you’ll still burn plenty of calories. Even better, you’ll be training your ankles, knees and hips to be resilient as they move across diverse, unpredictable terrain. You’ll also hone your balance and coordination more than you think.

Cross-Country Skiing

Zipping along on skis delivers a better cardio workout compared to running at about the same pace, thanks to the fact that the sport requires you to push with your lower-body and pull with your upper.

In fact, a good cross-country ski session can burn more than 12 calories a minute, according to the Compendium of Physical Activities.

That explains why Nordic Skiers consistently collapse in exhaustion at the finish line of Olympic races. (No fresh snow? Look for the new Concept2 SkiErg machine at your gym.)

Tabata Jump Squats

This four-minute miracle drill burns major calories both during a workout and after. In an Auburn University at Montgomery study, participants who did eight rounds of all-out jump squats—20 seconds of hard work, separated by 10 seconds of rest—burned 13.4 calories per minute and doubled their post-exercise metabolic rate for at least 30 minutes.

Battle Ropes

In a recent College of New Jersey study comparing various workout styles, battle-rope exercises came in first in terms of total oxygen consumption and an average calorie burn of 10.3 calories per minute.

Kettlebell Flow

Flowing is a relatively new brand of fitness that has you chaining together a sequence of exercises, doing one move, then seamlessly shifting to the next and then the next after that. Imagine doing a kettlebell swing, followed by a clean, followed by a snatch, followed by a squat-to-press. It’s like dancing with weights, and it draws from more venerable disciplines like yoga, gymnastics, martial arts, and breakdancing to do more than mere rep after rep of an exercise.

It’s also incredibly demanding on both your cardiovascular system and your strength, challenging you to move quickly and athletically while handling a weight (although it can be done with bodyweight as well). The result: You wind up breaking a fierce sweat as you build strength and athleticism.

Flows do require more fitness experience than many kinds of cardio, because you’ll want to flow only with exercise moves that you’re comfortable with. But once you master enough exercises and get comfortable with several flows, you’ll find yourself getting a total-body burn and burning serious calories all at once.

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