Wednesday, 9 December 2009

The Deck of Cards Workout

Ever been at a loss as to what training to do? Ever thought “I’d really like someone to tell me what workout to do today”? Well then – the Deck of Cards Workout is for YOU!

This workout has been around a while and has been written about by the likes of Matt Furey and Ross Emanait and I’m pretty sure neither of them lay claim to having invented it but it’s such a good effective training system it’s worth promoting again.

The Deck of Cards Workout is deceptively simple...using a normal deck of playing cards allocate an exercise to each suit for example Hearts = squats, Diamonds = press ups, Spades = lunges, Clubs = bent-leg sit ups. Then, starting with the well shuffled deck face down, turn over the top card and do the prescribed number of reps for that exercise so if you turn over the 8 of spades you would perform 8 lunges (either in total or per leg – that’s up to you.) Then, with minimal rest turn over the next card and do that exercise and so on until each card has been turned over.

Jokers can be removed or left in to provide extra exercises – the Joker could be something like run 500 meters or do 20 burpees...whatever you feel like putting in. The idea is to complete the deck as fast as possible so it’s an excellent cardio and muscular conditioning workout. Personally I like to make sure the Joker is a real challenge to add some extra intensity to the workout but whilst a challenge is good, making the Joker so tough that you fail to complete the workout would be erroneous so use some common sense!

Regarding the picture cards, there are a couple of options...Jacks = 11, Queens = 12, Kings = 13 or all picture cards = 12 (or higher). The beauty of the Deck of Cards Workout is you set the parameters based on your current fitness level and progress is very easy to logically progress the workouts over time. For example, as time progresses and you get fitter, the ace can increase from 1 rep to 3 reps and later to 5 reps and so on which adds volume to your workout. Ideally, when you have designed and completed a deck of cards workout it’s a good idea to repeat it on a regular basis so you can monitor your improvements as you (hopefully) complete it in less time than before.

The Deck of Cards Workout lends it’s self particularly well to body weight or minimal equipment exercises which keeps the transitions fast and the pace of the workout high but it can work equally well using traditional weight training exercises. Below I have outlined some of my favourite Deck of Cards Workouts to get you started...feel free to use them as they are or mix elements from the different workouts into your own unique training session. If you come up with a particularly good one, why not post it below for others to use?

1) Black cards = push ups
Red cards = bodyweight squats
Jokers = run 500 meters.

2) Hearts = Burpees
Diamonds = double unders (x 2)
Spades = high pulls
Clubs = sit ups
Jokers = 60 second planks.
(For this workout, when performing double unders complete 2 reps for every number of Diamonds i.e. 4 of Diamonds = 8 double unders)

3) Hearts = skipping (x 10)
Diamonds = body rows
Spades = kettlebell swings
Clubs = dipsJokers = row 500 meters.
(For this workout when skipping perform 10 turns of the rope for every number of Hearts i.e. 7 of Hearts = 70 turns of the rope etc.)

4) Hearts = step ups
Diamonds = sandbag clean and push press
Spades = chin ups
Clubs = crunchesJokers = 100 rope turns skipping

5) Hearts = barbell squats
Diamonds = barbell deadlifts
Spades = body rows
Clubs = bench press
Jokers = 60 seconds of twisting sit ups
(For this workout use around 60% of 1RM – it may be necessary to perform the reps rest/pause style i.e. if unable to perform all of the reps when a high card is revealed then do as many of the reps as possible, rest briefly and then continue with the set)

I strongly recommend writing in large letters the exercises you have allocated for each suit and sticking it somewhere visible for the duration of the workout. This will minimise any time wasted trying to remember what exercise you are supposed to be doing and avoid making mistakes.

As the cards come out in a random order, sometimes you’ll get a good run of dissimilar cards but from time to time you’ll think you must be playing poker and you’ll get runs of suits or lots of high cards in a row. Tough! That’s the beauty of this workout – you never quite know what you are going to get and that randomness is part of not just the fun but also the training effect. Runners call this kind of mixed training Fartlek which means speed play so just keep on keeping on – for every “bad” run there will be a good one.

There are endless variations for the deck of card workout and you are only limited by your imagination and as a change from the norm it’s a great but simple workout which really gets the job done!

Feeling inspired after writing this piece so I did a Deck of Cards Workout for my own training today.

I warmed up by skipping for 5 minutes and doing a few dynamic stretches...

Ran 500 meters
Black cards = press ups
Red cards = bodyweight squats
(All picture cards done for 12 reps, other cards for face value)
Jokers = run 500 meters - my pack has 3 of ‘em for some reason!
Ran 500 meters to finish

182 reps completed for press ups and squats plus 2,500 meters running

Total time from start to finish including the additional 500 meter runs = 26 mins 7 secs of FUN!


  1. This is a great workout with endless variations! Check out the free tool for new ideas or a customizable workout and playlist with timer for home workouts

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  2. Do this a few times even if you are a "pro" at planks this will be a good refresher before hitting the workout.