Take Your Fitness to the Next Level With Workout Finishers

Most of us want to squeeze the maximum benefit out of each and every workout. But even if you've been consistently nailing your main workouts, there's another element you can add to take your results up a notch: A workout finisher.

Workout finishers may leave you exhausted but they certainly get results. (Image: AzmanJaka/E+/GettyImages)

What Is a Workout Finisher?

A finisher is an advanced workout technique that involves quick, intense bursts of cardio and/or strength exercises performed at the end of your regular workout. These routines are typically one to 10 minutes, and are meant to more fully exhaust your body. "I classify workout finishers as the 'final push' of a workout," says Hannah Davis, CSCS, owner of Body By Hannah and creator of BBH.Fit online training studio.

For example, if you just completed a lower-body workout, you could perform a leg finisher where you do as many squat jumps or dumbbell thrusters as you can in five minutes to further exhaust the target muscle groups. "The idea is that you're pushing yourself through speed, a high number of repetitions, a high weight or an extended period of time until you really feel like your legs are just dead," says Holly Perkins, CSCS, author of Lift to Get Lean.

"One thing is for certain: Whatever exercises you pick, you want to feel maximum fatigue immediately at the end [of the finisher]," says Chris Ryan, CSCS, a personal trainer in New York City.

What Makes Workout Finishers So Great?

By taking target muscle groups to a state of exhaustion, you can build more muscle, strength and endurance over the long term. You can also increase the overall calorie burn of your workout by taking advantage of a physiological phenomenon known as post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC).

Here's how EPOC works: When you exercise intensely — as during a workout finisher — you use up more of your energy stores and create more damage to working muscles than when you exercise at a lower intensity. Your body then has to replenish those energy stores and repair the muscle damage after you're done, which uses up a lot of energy in the form of calories.

As a result, your body continues burning more calories long after your workout is over. If your goal is to lose fat, this added caloric burn may help you reach your goal faster — so long as your diet is on-point, of course.

Pushing yourself to do more work when you're already fatigued has mental benefits as well. "Workout finishers offer a variety of benefits, from building extra strength, speed, and/or endurance, but mostly [they build] confidence to understand that your body can still work hard, even in a fatigued state," Ryan says. This confidence can be especially helpful during races or competitions when things get tough.

Keep in mind that finishers can't accomplish your goals on their own — you need to pair them with a primary program.

Should You Add a Finisher to Your Workout?

Before you think about adding a finisher to your workout, consider your experience level. That is, have you been exercising consistently for months (or even years)? Or, are you still new to exercise?

While finishers can be adapted to suit any level of fitness and experience, it takes some experience to recognize your body's limits with exercise, and exercise newbies may not know right away when they're pushing themselves too hard. If you attack a finisher with too much intensity, you may end up too sore to exercise for a few days and increase your risk of injury.

"I tend to reserve finishers for more advanced exercisers and people who really know their body well," Perkins says. She recommends giving yourself at least four to six months of consistent workouts before you start adding finishers to your routine.

How Do You Do a Workout Finisher?

The great thing about workout finishers is that they're appropriate for just about any fitness goal, whether you're trying to lose fat, gain muscle, build strength, boost endurance or speed or simply stay healthy.

There are countless ways to structure a workout finisher, but how long the finisher is and what you do will depend on your primary workout, fitness level, goals and how fatigued you are after your workout.

Davis typically limits finishers to 10 minutes, but they can be as short as one or two minutes. When you're first starting out, stick to the lower end of the spectrum for just one workout a week and ease up on the intensity. As you build strength and fitness and become more familiar with how finishers feel, you can kick things up a notch, adding them to two to three workouts a week.

What you do for your finishers will depend on your goals. If you're looking to get a mix of both strength and conditioning during your workouts, you could follow a strength routine with a conditioning-focused finisher (like the one below) and vice-versa. Many strength and conditioning finishers incorporate dumbbells, kettlebells and even barbells, but body-weight exercises are effective as well — especially when you add a pulse or jump (i.e., plyometric exercises).

On the other hand, if you want to build up specific muscle groups, you could use finishers to sneak in more reps. So, if you want bigger biceps, grab a lighter weight than you're used to and perform one or two biceps exercises nonstop for a couple of minutes — or you can't do any more with good form.

And if you want to practice running fast in an already-fatigued state — a helpful skill for any runner training for a race — tack on a quick sprint session (like the sprint finisher below).

However, while you certainly want to feel tired after your workout and finisher, you don't want to work yourself to the point of total exhaustion. "I believe you should leave the gym exhausted but not completely wiped out, so if you're going to use a finisher, don't completely trash your body," Perkins says. She recommends ending your finisher feeling like you still have a little juice left. After all, if you go too hard, you'll only prolong your recovery in between workouts.

3 Workout Finishers to Try

If you feel like you have some gas left in the tank after your next workout, give one of these finishers a go.

1. Sprint Finisher

This finisher option is as quick as it is simple: See how fast you can go for one to two minutes on the treadmill, indoor rower, stepmill or other piece of cardio equipment.

2. Plyo Finisher

Pick a plyometric exercise (squat jumps, plyo lunges, skater jumps, plyo push-ups, tuck jumps) and do as many reps as possible in one to two minutes. If jumping causes discomfort, you can get a great burn by doing walking lunges (with or without added weight), bear crawls or loaded carries for one to two minutes, stopping only as needed to catch your breath.

3. Conditioning Circuit

For a more structured routine, try this circuit from Davis. Perform as many rounds of the circuit as possible in five minutes, taking little to no rest in between exercises. Pause if needed; don't sacrifice form for speed.

  • 10 two-handed kettlebell swings
  • 10 goblet squats
  • 10 push-ups (elevate hands if needed)

Move 1: Kettlebell Swing

  1. Start in a squat, holding the kettlebell in front of you (still on the ground) at arm's length.
  2. Straighten your legs without locking your knees and hinge at your hips as you hike the kettlebell between your legs.
  3. Drive your hips forward as you stand, swinging the kettlebell until it reaches about chest height.

Move 2: Goblet Squat

  1. Stand with feet hip-width apart, toes pointing slightly out, and hold one heavy dumbbell (or kettlebell) at your chest.
  2. Bend your knees and hinge your hips back to squat down. Imagine sitting in a chair.
  3. Press through your feet to return to standing.

Move 3: Push-Up

  1. Start in a high plank, hands under shoulders, core braced, legs extended behind you, balancing on balls of feet, body in a straight line from head to toes.
  2. Keeping your body in straight line, elbows close to sides, brace through core and bend elbows to lower chest toward the floor.
  3. Push back up.
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