Doing movements that build strength, explosive power, speed, and size all make sense. But sometimes, you just want to kick your own tail. Be it a test of mental toughness or just to see how much physical work you can sustain, doing grueling exercises can work your mettle as much as they do your body. Below are nine grueling exercises that you punish yourself with.
If squats are the king of all exercises, then 20-rep squats are the king of all grueling exercises. This is because you’re not just testing strength, but cardio, endurance, core development, mental toughness, and just sheer will. Properly done, 20-rep squats will leave you literally lying on the floor, so be sure to have a puke bucket nearby.
However, “properly done” 20-rep squats aren’t just banging out a set of squats for 20 reps. Rather, you need to load up the bar with your 10RM – the most amount of weight you can squat for 10 nonstop reps. View our max rep calculator here.
Unrack the bar and gut out those 10 reps. But instead of re-racking the bar, keep going until you hit 20 reps. These will be done “rest-pause” style, meaning that you’ll stand there with the bar on your back, taking gasps of air between reps, grinding out additional reps until you hit 20.
20-rep squats are not to be underestimated, nor are they for the faint of heart. Even the best and most experienced of lifters have been humbled by the resident monster of grueling exercises. Just be sure you don’t have much walking to do the rest of the day after you attempt them…or maybe even the day or two afterward, either.
400m Walking Lunges
While walking lunges might not seem as extreme as other grueling exercises, they get that way when you do them for 400m. There’s no rhyme or reason, nor set or reps scheme to go with this. You simply just start doing walking lunges and don’t stop until you’ve gone a quarter mile.
The entire 400m doesn’t have to be covered in non-stop fashion, but your rest breaks are to be done in “rest-pause” style. This means you go as far as you can, take only a few breaths of air, then keep going. Pacing yourself is important, but you also want to finish as quickly as possible.
Want to make this even harder? Grab a pair of dumbbells. Want to make it even harder still? Put a barbell across your back. How about restricting your breathing? Wear a weighted vest or hold said barbell in the front squat / “racked” position.
More an an “activity” than a “movement”, hill sprints definitely belong on a list of grueling exercises. There isn’t much to this. Just find a hill, sprint up to the top as quickly as you can, walk back down, and repeat until you’re ready to hurl.
The steeper the hill is, the harder it’ll be on your legs. The longer the hill is, the more it’ll make your lungs burn. If you’re on grass, wearing a pair of cleats will give you more sure footing. However, if you’re near the beach and have dunes nearby, the deep sand will provide all new levels of torture.
Some underestimate just how tough hill sprints are, but there’s a reason legendary NFL hall of fame running back Walter Payton credited much of his success and on-field capabilities to his time spent on the hill. Don’t over-think it – just run up that hill as hard as possible, as many times as possible.
Just reading the word “burpees” will make many trainees cringe. Few other grueling exercises can elicit such pain and agony as this conditioning juggernaut. Perhaps the most effective element about them is that the better shape you get in, the harder you can make them.
You could probably do 50 burpees if you had enough time. But now try to do them with as few rest breaks as possible. You can do all 50 in a row without stopping? Make sure each one is done with a pushup and a jump. Now you’re not only doing 50 burpees, but 50 pushups and 50 jumps, too.
If that’s easy, then push the pace. Do them faster and don’t let yourself rest at all between reps. Smooth out your reps so that the transition from squat to thrust to pushup to squat to jump is all seamless. Start your pushups while your feet are still in mid-air, thrusting backwards. Jump higher. There’s almost no way burpees can’t be grueling if you’re working hard enough.
Clean & Press
Save for kettlebell or some circuit / dumbbell training aficionados, the full clean & press is one of the least performed grueling exercises. However, it’s also one of the most demanding. This is not only because so much overall movement is being done, but because a lot of the exercise loads the body. And when the body is loaded (especially from the front), then it’s simply harder to breathe.
The barbell version of this exercise isn’t one you want to do for high reps, but even in sets of 4-6 or 6-8, it’s going to be enough weight that when you’re holding the bar in the “racked” position, you’ll have a much harder time breathing. And this will increase the fatigue factor very quickly.
At the same time, if you’re doing the clean & press with dumbbells or kettlebells, it’s likely that you’ll be doing one limb at a time. Now it’s become even harder because everything but your shoulder and arm is doing double duty. In other words, every time you do a set of 8 reps, your hips, glutes, legs, back, etc all have to do 16 reps – 8 reps each side.
This is something that only a few years ago was really only seen in athlete training facilities or powerlifting gyms. But now you’re seeing it in bootcamp style classes, “functional fitness” workouts, and even trainees doing at home since it’s so effective.
If you’re not sure why it’s so tough, think back to the last time you had to help someone push their stalled or broken down car off the road or across a parking lot. Your legs had to push hard, your core was tight, and your shoulders, arms, and back all had to strain to apply your strength and force to this giant, heavy object. All while you’re huffing and puffing like mad.
These days, you can use any number of different sleds to achieve this same effect. Some have “high” handles around your waist that you can push. Others have “low” handles only a few inches off the ground, making you bend over and work even harder. Then there’s the old school sleds you have to pull with a rope or harness. They’re all a hard workout.
“Thruster” (Front Squat to Push Press)
Almost any combination exercise that stacks one movement on top of another is going to be more difficult, but the Thruster is by far one of the hardest. Much like the aforementioned clean & press, it’s so grueling for two reasons.
The first is that you’re simply just doing so much movement in order to complete one rep. Going from a front squat immediately into a push press means both your body and the bar travel a great distance with each rep. Musculature throughout almost your entire body is needed to make this happen – legs, hips, back, traps, shoulders, etc. Just going through the actual motion requires a lot of effort.
Then consider how hard the body is loaded down given that you have the bar in the “racked” position for a good chunk of the time. Whether you’re using an appreciable weight for modest reps or lighter weight for higher reps, you’re making it harder for yourself to breathe. This just compounds the intensity of what was already a difficult movement requiring significant effort.
Unless you train at a gym that has this sort of equipment, or you have a sledgehammer and giant tire to hit at home, you’ve likely never tried this. However, if you ever have the chance, you need to as it’s one of the most grueling exercises you can do.
A lot could be said about sledgehammer strikes in terms of the grip endurance needed or core strength or rotational power. You could discuss the cardio for the constant work or the shoulder girdle stability to keep the sledgehammer in line.
Fact of the matter is that while all these are true, sledgehammer striking is just plain, old school manual labor. Think of chopping fire wood or an old time laborer pounding spikes into the ground when building a railroad. That sort of thing wears you out for a reason, and sledgehammer strikes encapsulate that.
The man maker is one of those grueling exercises that doesn’t look like it’d be that difficult. However, after your first set, you’re left asking yourself why that was so hard. It’s because of all the effort your body has to put in that you didn’t realize was necessary.
In case you’re unfamiliar with it, the man maker is a combination renegade row and pushup. Put two dumbbells on the floor at shoulder’s width. Put your hands on each one and get into the top position of a push up. Keeping your body straight and minimizing torso rotation, row the left dumbbell to your side, then the right one. After that, do a pushup. Repeat this for 8-12 reps per set.
The fatigue builds up because of all the “extra” work you have to do. Rowing a dumbbell isn’t overly difficult on its own, but statically contracting your torso, hips, and legs so they stay stationary ups the difficulty. Adding a pushup to each rep just prolongs the static stability you have to hold – much like how a plank done for an extended time can be much harder than it looks.
If you’re looking for a hard workout, try any of the grueling exercises on this list. Some, like the man maker, are just more difficult than they look. Some, like the clean & press or thruster, just make you do a lot of work. Others, like sledgehammer strikes or sled pushing, are just variations of old school manual labor. And some, like 20-rep squats, just seem stupid because they’re so hard. Regardless, add any of these to your routine, and you’ll likely find yourself left in a heap of sweat and misery.