Cardio Without Legs: 11 Tough Upper-Body Cardio Workouts

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Most common cardio exercise types, such as running, walking, cycling, the elliptical machine, stair climbing, jump roping, and even rowing, require you to use your legs.

However, if you have a knee, hip, ankle, foot, or another leg injury, or you have a physical impairment or disability that prohibits the use of your legs during exercise, coming up with a good cardio workout without using your legs can be challenging.

However, although your doctor may advise you to take a certain amount of time off from exercising completely if you have the go-ahead to try and train, there are a few options for upper-body cardio workouts that don’t use your legs. 

This article will discuss how to work your cardio without legs and examples of upper-body cardio without using legs.

We will cover: 

  • How to Do a Cardio Workout Without Using Your Legs
  • The Best Upper-Body Cardio Workouts That Don’t Involve Your Legs

Let’s jump in!

A person riding an arm cycling.

How to Do a Cardio Workout Without Using Your Legs

The overarching purpose of a cardio workout also called an aerobic workout, is to increase your heart rate so that you challenge and strengthen your cardiovascular system.

According to the American College of Sports Medicine, to qualify as a moderate-intensity “cardio” workout, your heart rate should be in the range of 64-76% of your maximum heart rate, while vigorous-intensity cardio is associated with a heart rate of 77-95% of your max.

To meet the guidelines for physical activity for adults set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the British Heart Foundation, you should aim to accumulate either 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity cardio exercise per week.

For this reason, it can be helpful to wear a heart rate monitor during your cardio workouts to get a sense of your true effort level and the physiological impact of your workouts.

The Best Upper-Body Cardio Workouts That Don’t Involve Your Legs

Here are some ideas for cardio without using legs but with your upper body instead:

A person using an arm ergometer in a physical therapy office.

#1: Arm Ergometer

One of the best types of cardio that doesn’t require legs is the upper-body ergometer, or arm ergometer. 

This is essentially a stationary arm bike or exercise bike for the arms.

These types of exercise bikes are typically found in physical therapy settings, but certain commercial and community gyms, such as YMCAs, also tend to have one or two on hand as well.

To use an arm ergometer, sit upright in the seat and then hold onto handles that you can then pedal with your arms.

Like a regular exercise bike, you can adjust the resistance and pedal at a faster cadence to increase the intensity.

You can also do intervals to give you more of a cardio workout without legs.

If you want to create an arm bike on a budget, you can buy a small under-desk cycle and place it on top of a desk or table.

These inexpensive units don’t usually have as many resistance levels, and the ergonomics aren’t usually optimized for long, vigorous arm cardio workouts in the way that upright arm ergometer bikes are, but they can be a good budget-friendly option if you have a leg injury and want to do upper-body cardio workouts at home.

A pull buoy.

#2: Pull Buoy Swimming

Swimming can be a great upper-body workout.

To focus on your arms to do cardio without legs, you can allow your legs to simply rest in the water while you vigorously perform free stroke with your arms. 

If you need to do a cardio workout without using your legs at all, you can use a swimming tool known as a pull buoy. 

This is essentially the opposite of a kickboard, in which you are resting your arms and working your legs.

Instead, you place a small piece of foam between your legs, which gives them buoyancy and requires you to keep them stationary to hold the pull buoy in place. 

Then, you can focus on just using your upper body and core to swim, keeping your legs entirely uninvolved during the upper-body cardio workout.

A person in a wheelchair in a gym using battle ropes.

#3: Chair Cardio Workout

If you are in a wheelchair, have mobility impairments, or have a musculoskeletal injury that requires you to be entirely non-weight-bearing, you can also do a seated cardio workout without legs.

There are many free chair cardio workouts on YouTube, or you can create your own.

Put on some upbeat music, and then perform different intervals of cardio exercises for the arms.

For example, you can grab a pair of light dumbbells and do rapid punches forward for 60 seconds, alternating to each side for 60 seconds and then overhead for 60 seconds. Then, do running arms with the dumbbells, pumping vigorously alongside your body.

Complete five rounds for a 20-minute cardio workout without legs.

A person on a rowing machine.

#4: Upper-Body Rowing 

Rowing is a total-body workout, even though we often consider it an upper-body cardio exercise.

With that said, you can modify a rowing machine to do cardio that doesn’t require legs.

If you can’t use either leg, place your feet down on the floor on either side of the rail rather than strapped into the footplates. Then, pull the handlebar with your arms. 

You won’t row as fast or far with each stroke, but it’s a good way to get your heart rate up without using your legs.

If you have an injury in one foot or leg but have use of the other, you can strap your good foot into the rower as usual, and then you can place your injured foot on a skateboard and roll it back and forth on the ground as you row.

This will give you more of a total-body cardio workout.

A person kayaking, an example of cardio without legs.

#5: Kayaking

Kayaking or canoeing only involves the upper body. If you paddle vigorously, you can keep your heart rate elevated and get a good cardio workout without using the lower body. 

#6: Stand-Up Paddleboarding

If you can stand, stand-up paddleboarding can be an excellent cardio and strengthening workout when you can’t use your legs. You can also kneel or sit on the board and paddle if you are unable to stand.

Stand-up paddleboarding is also a great core workout because you have to balance and stabilize your body against the moving water, and when you are pushing against water resistance on only one side of your body at a time.

#7: Arm Aqua Jogging

Aqua jogging with a flotation belt can be a good upper-body cardio workout without using your legs. 

Pump your arms vigorously to stay afloat and raise your heart rate. Keep your legs still if you’re unable to use them. The flotation belt will help keep you buoyant.

A person boxing.

#8: Boxing

If you can stand up, you can hit a punching bag or speed bag with boxing gloves or do shadow boxing for a high-intensity cardio arm workout. You can also sit in a chair if you’re unable to stand up or be weight-bearing.

#9: Handcycling

Like using an arm ergometer or upper-body stationary arm bike, hand cycling is biking outdoors but using a specialized cycle that uses an arm crank instead of leg pedals. This enables you to get a challenging cardio workout without using your legs. 

Plus, you get to exercise outdoors, which can help the time pass more quickly and enable a far more enjoyable workout than when using an arm bike indoors.

#10: Rope Climbing 

Pulling your body up a rope is an extremely challenging workout from a cardiovascular and strength perspective.

There are also rope climbing machines, which are essentially an endless rope like a stair climber machine, but it is quite difficult to find these in most gym facilities.

A person in a gym doing lateral raises.

#11: Upper-Body Circuit Training

One way to get a cardio workout without legs is to perform upper-body circuit training.

You can use lighter weights and higher repetitions and eliminate the rest between exercises. This will help keep your heart rate elevated throughout the duration of the workout. Lift vigorously and rapidly, focusing on using good form.

For example, you might do 60 seconds of bicep curls, 60 seconds of chest press, 60 seconds of chest fly, 60 seconds of dips, 60 seconds of weighted punches, 60 seconds of forward raises, 60 seconds of lateral raises, 60 seconds of overhead presses, 60 seconds of overhead punches, and 60 seconds of reverse fly. 

Complete three rounds and you have a good 30-minute upper-body cardio workout that also strengthens your muscles.

Overall, it is more challenging to get an intense cardio workout without your legs because most of your muscle mass is found in your lower body, and most of the common cardio exercises involve your legs in one way or another. However, it is possible to do cardio without legs with a little creativity. 

If you have a specific injury, it can also be helpful to consult a physical therapist for individualized advice, so they can prescribe you exercises that are safe to perform while you are recovering.

For some rowing intervals, you can check out our rowing machine workouts; just don’t use your legs!

A person climbing a rope.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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