Is a “Finisher” Your Key to Better Fitness Results?

Lauren Bedosky
by Lauren Bedosky
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Is a “Finisher” Your Key to Better Fitness Results?

Have you ever ended a workout thinking, “That’s it?” You expected it to be harder or more intense than it actually was, and you wish there was something you could do to achieve the burn you were looking for. Next time this happens, try a finisher.

A finisher is a form of metabolic conditioning that’s done at the end of a workout. During a finisher, you work at near-maximum intensity for 5–10 minutes and utilize a combination of strength and cardio exercises (e.g., burpees, pushups, thrusters (squat to overhead press), sprints) to spike your heart rate — leading you to feel spent — or like you couldn’t complete another rep.

“By eliciting both the muscular burn and the breathlessness, your body is essentially tapping out the last of your muscles’ energy reserves for the day,’” says Jill Coleman, MS, owner of JillFit, an online fitness business that provides a variety of metabolic conditioning programs and workouts.

For example, bodybuilders sometimes add a “drop set” (the bodybuilder’s version of a “finisher”) to the end of their workout to hone in on a specific muscle group. They might start with 8–12 reps of a biceps curl with a heavy weight, then immediately drop the weight and do another set of 8–12 curls, and drop the weight again for one last set of 8–12 curls. “This essentially taps out the muscle being worked, bringing it to near-failure or failure each round,” Coleman explains.

The possibilities for structuring an effective finisher are endless. For example, you might set your timer for 10 minutes and try to complete as many sets of 10 pushups and 10 dumbbell thrusters as possible, resting as needed. Or, you could choose one movement (e.g., squat jumps, medicine ball throws, kettlebell swings) and perform as many reps as possible in 5 minutes.

“Have you ever had to sprint for something so fast it left you bent over to catch your breath? That’s the feeling you’re trying to achieve during a finisher,” says Eric Salvador, certified personal trainer at Fhitting Room, a high-intensity training studio in New York City.


Unless you’re a total beginner, finishers alone won’t build significant muscle mass or strength. However, they can help you burn more calories and develop greater cardiovascular fitness — especially anaerobic fitness.

Anaerobic exercise is any short, intense, interval-driven physical activity (like sprinting and HIIT) that’s fueled by the energy sources in your muscles, as opposed to inhaled oxygen, according to an article in the World Journal of Cardiology.

“During a finisher workout, as the intensity increases, it becomes harder for the body to provide oxygen to fuel the muscles,” Salvador says. “The absence of oxygen puts the body into an
anaerobic state.”

Anaerobic fitness is useful for playing any high-intensity sport (like soccer, tennis, volleyball, football, rugby), as well as helping to make everyday activities like climbing stairs and carrying heavy groceries a little easier. In addition, research suggests anaerobic exercise offers unique heart-health benefits you can’t get with aerobic exercise alone.

The intensity of finishers also makes them a great tool for providing an added calorie burn to your workout.

Like longer high-intensity sessions (Think: HIIT), finishers can increase your post-exercise calorie burn through a phenomenon known as excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, or EPOC. Anytime your body works at near-max intensity, it has to produce higher levels of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) to fuel your working muscles. Then, as soon as your workout is over, your body has to use more energy to repair muscle tissue and return to its normal resting state. In the end, you wind up using more energy in the form of calories to recover from HIIT than you would to recover from an easy jog.


Technically, finishers are appropriate for all fitness levels because you can modify movements and working sets according to your ability. For example, if you have trouble with full burpees, you can perform a modified version that doesn’t include the pushup at the bottom or the jump at the top. Or, if you’re new to exercise, you might take longer rest periods, use lighter weights or do a shorter finisher. “Without a good aerobic base, you will find this kind of workout very hard at first, but with time you can build your stamina and improve,” Salvador says.

That said, it’s easy to get nauseated or dizzy during a finisher — especially if you’re a beginner. “As a general rule, I prefer people have been doing traditional strength training for at least three months and know how to move their bodies with weights before adding in finishers,” Coleman says.

However, regardless of your fitness level, you’ll want to take care not to overdo it. Yes, finishers are short, but they’re meant to be intense, and “doing finishers every single day for months on end is not necessarily recommended,” Coleman says. Limit yourself to 2–3 finishers a week and make sure you’re getting plenty of rest and refuel properly with good nutrition.

Also note: High-intensity exercise is not recommended if you’re pregnant. Make sure to check with your doctor before starting any new exercise program. Once you get the go-ahead, work with a certified personal trainer who can modify exercises as needed.

About the Author

Lauren Bedosky
Lauren Bedosky

Lauren is a freelance fitness writer who specializes in covering running and strength training topics. She writes for a variety of national publications, including Men’s HealthRunner’s WorldSHAPE and Women’s Running. She lives in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, with her husband and their three dogs.


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