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Having a general game plan for your workouts is always a good idea. Far better to have your sets and reps all sussed out ahead of time than to hit the gym and wander aimlessly for 45 minutes.

In the real world, however, physical challenges aren’t always so predictable. Whether you’re chasing a loose ball on a basketball court or running to catch a commuter train, life’s fitness tests tend to pop up at random: no warm-up, no mental prep time, no time to activate the core.

So every now and then it makes sense to throw an element of chance into your workout. “A little controlled chaos in a workout program can be invaluable,” says Phil Timmons, national program manager for Life Time in Chanhassen, Minn. “You stave off boredom and keep the body guessing and progressing.” Variation in training also helps prevent injuries that can crop up from too much of the same activity.

Enter the deck-of-cards workout. It’s never the same twice, and aside from the cards, all you’ll need is a little open space and a willingness to play the hand you’re dealt.

Lucky Hand

To perform the workout, grab the deck, shuffle the cards, and then turn them over, one by one. For each card, you’ll do a specific number of reps (designated by the card’s numerical value) of a specific exercise (designated by its suit).

Numbered cards are easy. If you get a five, you do five reps, and so on. Non-numbered cards are valued as follows:

  • Aces = 10
  • Jacks = 11
  • Queens = 12
  • Kings = 13

The two jokers are each a wild card requiring a special core challenge described below.

The standard versions of each move are described in the following pages. (In our “Hit the Deck” video, you’ll also find “Make It Easier” versions of the exercises for newbies, and “Make It Harder” versions that will tax even the fittest athletes.) At any level, you can control the duration and intensity of the workout by removing some or all of the face cards, aces and 10s from the deck so you do fewer total reps of each exercise.

Timmons also notes you can do the deck-of-cards workout with one or more training partners: Shuffle the cards and lay them out in a line on the floor, face up, so that you and all your training partners can see them. On a “go” signal, everyone in the group performs the exercise represented by the card farthest to the left. Continue with the next card to the right and proceed through the entire deck, one card at a time. Depending on your competitive predilections, you can stick together as a group or race to complete the full deck. “Camaraderie — and a little competition — can make for some great workouts,” says Timmons.

In the mood for a fun fitness routine that’s anything but predictable? Let the deck call the shots.

Deck-of-Cards Workout

Clubs = Jump Squats

a) Stand with your feet parallel, shoulder-width apart.

b) Keeping your chest upright and your gaze straight ahead, squat down low, reaching your hands toward the floor between your legs and trying to touch the floor with your fingertips.

c) Stand quickly, reach your hands toward the ceiling, and jump straight up off the floor as high as possible.

d) Land softly, keeping the center of your knees lined up right above your second biggest toe on the landings.

Diamonds = Hands-to-Elbows Planks

a) Assume a plank position, weight on your elbows, forearms and the balls of your feet, with your body aligned head to heels.

b) Maintaining optimal body alignment and minimizing any side-to-side rolling of your hips, place the palm of your right hand flat on the floor beneath your right shoulder.

c) Place the palm of your left hand beneath your left shoulder in the same manner. Straighten your arms and center your weight so that you are in the top of a pushup position.

d–e) Reverse the movement, lowering yourself onto your elbows and forearms — first the right arm, then the left (that’s one rep).

Continue for the designated number of reps, alternating the arm that starts the movement on each rep (think: “right-left, right-left; left-right, left-right”).

Spades = Single-Leg Pushups

a) Assume a pushup position, hands slightly wider than shoulder width, lower back in its natural arch, body aligned, head to heels.

b) Keeping your right leg straight, lift your right foot a few inches off the floor.

c) Maintaining optimal alignment, bend your elbows and lower your chest to the floor, drawing your shoulder blades together.

d) Press yourself back up to the starting position and lower your right foot to
the floor.

Alternate legs on each repetition.

Hearts = Squat Thrusts

a) Stand upright, feet parallel and at shoulder width.

b) Bend forward at the waist and bend your knees, placing your palms flat on the floor just in front of your feet.

c) In one explosive motion, jump your feet backward into the pushup position: elbows straight, lower back in its natural arch and body aligned head to heels.

d) Jump your feet forward again, returning to the squat position.

e) Stand, swing your arms overhead and perform a vertical jump.

f) Land softly on the balls of your feet.

Jokers = 10 Right-Side Planks + 10 Planks With Overhead Reach + 10 Left-Side Planks

The following three-exercise combo will challenge your core.

1a) Lie on your right side with your left hand on your left hip. Prop your upper body on your right forearm. Your right hip should rest on the floor, and your body should form a straight line, head to feet. Align your feet so that the toes of your right shoe touch the back of the heel of your left shoe.

1b) Keeping your head and neck aligned with your spine, lift your left hip a few inches off the floor, until your body forms a straight line from your head to your feet. Pause for a moment, then return to the starting position. Perform 10 reps.

2a) Assume a prone plank position.

2b–c) One at a time, reach each arm forward (if you were standing, you’d be reaching overhead) as far as possible. Perform a total of 10 repetitions on each side.

3) Roll onto your left hip and perform 10 side planks on that side (not pictured).

This article has been updated. It originally in the May 2011 issue of Experience Life and was originally published online on January 3, 2020.

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