Workout Countdowns:
Intense AND Joint Friendly

workout countdowns

The Conundrum of Intense & Joint-Friendly Workouts

Do your clients suffer from joint pain and injuries? Even the best of the best corrective exercise specialists have clients that are dealing with some joint issues. So, how do you approach their training when you need to push them out of their comfort zone while working around limitations?

I was in this same predicament as I prepared my next phase of training. Something had to give, and it wasn’t going to be the intensity of my workouts. That led me to start looking around for some joint-friendly alternatives to your basic movements. I needed a challenge and to be pushed out of my comfort zone without it leaving me reaching for a bottle of Aleve every day.

After a bit of searching (and cringing at the thought of having to count tempo reps) I stumbled upon an article that my friend Ben Bruno wrote and found a trick that I had long forgotten about and reminded me of the value of workout countdowns.

New Approach to Workout Countdowns

Typically a countdown will refer to a finisher, at least for me, where you countdown reps from 10 to 1 of two exercises in alternating fashion. But this was an entirely new take on it!

To perform these countdown sets you pick a number of reps to start with, perform that number of reps, hold the movement at the top or bottom for a few seconds and then drop to the next number for reps. This was exactly what I needed! I began by testing out the KB Goblet Squat on my first day of the program.

Here was the workout countdown:squat

  • 6 Reps
    Pause 3s at bottom
  • 5 Reps
    Pause for 3s at bottom
  • 4 Reps
    Pause for 3s at bottom
  • 3 Reps
    Pause for 3s at bottom
  • 2 Reps
    Pause for 3s at bottom
  • 1 Reps
    Pause for 3s at bottom

That’s 21 total reps and 18s of isometric holds for the set. A 20kg bell had my legs screaming!

Added bonus— no joint pain!

Workout Countdowns have become a staple in my programs to produce the training effect I want without beating me to a pulp.

Tip for putting together Workout Countdowns:

  1. Choose self-limiting movements for the beginner
  2. Consider the total volume when setting your rep start point (read as: don’t be a jerk and start with 10 reps!)
  3. Adjust your isometric holds as needed. You can countdown with them as well if you really sadistic (i.e. 5 reps, 5sec hold, 4 reps, 4 sec hold…)
  4. Try it before you prescribe it
  5. Start light, these are sneaky

Workout Countdown Combination Options

Combo Countdowns can be used in place of an isometric hold to pair two movements together to create a bigger metabolic effect. Take two movements such as squat + press or push up + mountain climber for the countdowns.

Example: 5 DB Front Squats, 1 Press, 4 DB Front Squats, 1 Press, 3 DB Front Squats, 1 Press, 2 DB Front Squats, 1 Press, 1 DB Front Squat, 1 Press

The cool part about this set up is you never have to set the weights down and you can use a heavier load for the presses than you would if you needed to complete a higher volume on them. The key here is to ensure the client can transition between the two movements seamlessly with little change in grip or position. You want to be able to move from one right to the other.

Where to Use Workout Countdowns?

There are a variety of ways to include countdowns in your programming and it really depends on your client’s goals. If possible I still like to have a big movement that focuses on strength development and utilizes a functional hypertrophy rep range at the start of the workout. After that movement is completed now it’s fair game to start putting in some accessory work with countdowns. They can also be used as finishers for a workout if you have a client that needs to build up a weak body part or if you want to ramp up the metabolic demand of the workout.

Countdowns can be used as finishers for a workout if you have a client that needs to build up a weak body part or if you want to ramp up the metabolic demand of the workout.

Placing a countdown in the regular workout might look like this:

  • A1) Deadlift from 8” blocks 4×8 60s Rest
  • A2) Lower body mobility filler 3×8-10 as needed
  • B1) KB Goblet Squat Countdown 3×6-1 30s rest
  • B2) Slider Leg Curl 3×8-10 60s Rest

A workout countdown finisher could be the following:

  • Sandbag Clean x1
  • Front Squat x6
  • Sandbag Clean x1
  • Front Squat x5
  • Sandbag Clean x1
  • Front Squat x4
  • Sandbag Clean x 1
  • Front Squat x 3
  • Sandbag Clean x1
  • Front Squat x 2
  • Sandbag Clean x 1
  • Front Squat x 1

There are an endless number of variations and combos that you can piece together for your clients to ramp up their workouts (via countdowns), keep them exciting and let them have a bit of fun sweating out a brutal set. All of this while not blasting their joints.


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