man on calisthenics rings

10 of the Most Difficult Exercises to Test Your Limits

By Jenessa Connor

You don't need to register for an ultramarathon or embark on a month-long wilderness expedition to test your limits. Some of the toughest physical challenges — the ones that really prove your fitness — can be done at home with minimal equipment.

With the help of three expert trainers, we compiled a list of 10 exercises that even the most advanced athletes find difficult, excruciating, or downright impossible.

Feeling feisty? Consider this an official invitation to venture outside your comfort zone.

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1. Handstand Push-Up

hand stand push up | most difficult exercises

"Getting a strict handstand push-up is a great achievement because it requires very strong shoulders and triceps, good wrist mobility, and the courage to be upside down the whole time," says Michael Julom, CPT, founder of ThisIsWhyImFit.

  • Position a small cushion, like an ab mat, in front of a wall. Facing the wall, place your hands on either side of the cushion, about shoulder-width apart. Keep your neck as neutral as possible.
  • Spread your fingers wide, with the weight evenly distributed across your palms and your index fingers pointed forward or slightly outward.
  • Position your feet on the floor so your body forms an upside-down V with your back flat (not rounded).
  • Brace your core, press into your hands, and lift one leg up until both legs form an L. Then hop the other leg off the ground, raising both legs until your body is vertical and your heels are resting against the wall. This is your starting position.
  • Bend your elbows and, maintaining control, gently lower your head to the mat.
  • Keeping your core braced, push into the floor and extend your elbows to return to a handstand position.

If your arms, shoulders, and core aren't yet strong enough for handstand push-ups, Julom recommends incorporating shoulder presses and pike push-ups into your workout.


2. Pistol Squat

pistol squat

The pistol squat requires stability and strength throughout the core, glutes, and quads. And because you're balancing on one leg throughout the movement, you'll also need solid balance and a high degree of mobility in the ankle, knee, and hip to pull it off.

  • Stand tall with your arms extended straight in front of your chest and your left heel raised a few inches off the floor in front of you. This is the starting position.
  • Keeping your back flat, core engaged, and left foot elevated, push your hips back, bend your right knee, and slowly lower your body as far as possible.
  • Reverse the move to push yourself back up to the starting position. Perform equal reps on both sides.

If you struggle to do a full pistol squat, you can hold onto something, like the wall or a pole, while you perform the movement.


3. Ring Muscle-Up

ring muscle up

"The reason why the ring muscle-up is so challenging is that it is highly technical and requires an enormous amount of strength and stability," Julom says.

You have to master the false grip, the pull, and the transition, all while managing the instability of gymnastic rings.

  • Standing beneath a set of rings, reach up and grab both with a false grip (with the creases of the wrists placed close to or over the rings).
  • Engage your core, lean back, and pull your thumbs to your chest, keeping your arms and elbows close to your torso.
  • Keep pulling as you drive your chest forward and bring the rings under your armpits (the rings will turn to face out) so your upper body is sitting over the rings. Maintain a hollow-body position with your feet slightly raised in front of you.
  • Push up through your hands and lock your elbows. Keep the rings close and your core engaged to keep from collapsing.

Pull-ups and triceps dips (both challenging in their own right) will help develop the triceps and lats strength needed to perform the ring muscle-up.

You can also learn the muscle-up movement on lower rings in the kneeling position. "Hanging onto them this way allows you to control the amount of weight applied on the grip and it familiarizes you with its unnatural feeling," Julom says.


4. Burpee Pull-Up

burpee pull up

What do you get when you combine everyone's least favorite HIIT staple with the ultimate test of functional fitness? The burpee pull-up. This mash-up engages every muscle in your body and is guaranteed to get your heart pumping with just one rep.

  • Stand facing a pull-up bar with your feet hip-width apart and your arms at your sides.
  • Bend your knees, hinge at your hips, and squat down, placing both palms on the floor.
  • Jump your feet back to a push-up position: hands and balls of your feet on the floor and your body straight from head to heels, core engaged, and back straight.
  • Lower your torso until your chest is a few inches from the floor, and then quickly push back up.
  • Jump your feet back to your hands, and then jump up to grab the pull-up bar with an overhand grip that's slightly wider than shoulder-width.
  • Without swinging or kipping, squeeze your shoulder blades together as you pull your chest to the bar (or at least your chin above it).
  • Pause, then lower yourself back to a dead hang.
  • Release the bar and land with your feet hip-width apart. Immediately begin the next rep.

If burpee pull-ups feel impossible, stick to standard burpees (they're hard enough on their own!) or replace the pull-up with a hanging knee raise.


5. Slider Push-Up

"This is a huge bang-for-your-buck exercise that challenges the chest, triceps, shoulders, abs, obliques, and glutes," says Matt Guffey owner of Victory High Performance.

"The base of support — typically four static points — is now dynamic, so there's an element of coordination that's required to complete the exercise," he adds. "And because the base of support changes, the core is taxed harder as rotary forces are introduced to a traditionally one-dimensional movement."

  • Assume a high-plank position with your feet slightly apart, your body straight from head to heels, and your hands in line with (but slightly wider than) your shoulders. Engage your core and glutes to lock your body into position, then place a slider beneath your left palm.
  • Keeping it tucked in close to your body, bend your right elbow as you simultaneously slide your left hand forward. Lower your chest until it's within a few inches of the floor.
  • Pause, and then push up through your right hand and slide the left hand back toward your body to return to the starting position.

Before attempting a slider push-up, Guffey recommends mastering the standard push-up, then progressing to weighted push-ups and staggered push-ups.


6. Bar Muscle-Up

bar muscle up

Besides demanding incredible mobility and upper-body strength, the bar muscle-up tests overall coordination, timing, and body awareness. In other words, a lot has to go right in order to get your body up and over the bar.

  • Grab a pull-up bar with an overhand grip that's slightly wider than shoulder-width.
  • Hang with your arms straight and your core and glutes engaged.
  • Initiate a kip swing: starting from a hollow-body position, use the shoulders to thrust your chest forward and arch your spine. Then, use your shoulders, lats, and core to swing back into a hollow-body position. (Once you're behind the bar, lean back and pull down on the bar to get as high as you can.)
  • Squeeze your shoulder blades together and pull your hips toward the bar. Once your abdomen makes contact with the bar, rotate your wrists forward, lean forward, and straighten your elbows so that your torso is above the bar.
  • Hold, then lower into a dead hang position.

A well-designed muscle-up progression can help you gradually build strength while developing the skills to perform the movement safely and effectively.


7. Turkish Get-Up

turkish get up

As much a brain teaser as an exercise, the Turkish get-up challenges coordination while working nearly every major muscle group.

"It's one of the few exercises that uses two hip hinges," says Jeff Watters, strength and conditioning coach with USA Boxing and owner of Watters Performance.

Plus, Watters adds, you'll work your core throughout the entire movement and improve your rotator cuff dexterity and lunge pattern.

  • Lie flat on your back, with your legs extended just outside hip width, and your arms at your sides.
  • Bend your right leg, and place your right foot flat on the floor. Extend your left arm on the floor about 45 degrees from your body, palm facing down.
  • Make a fist with your right hand and extend your right arm straight toward the ceiling. (If you're using a dumbbell or kettlebell, use your right hand to press the weight toward the ceiling.)This is the starting position.
  • Keep your right arm extended toward the ceiling and, without taking your eyes off your right hand, engage your core, and use your abs to roll up onto your left forearm.
  • Continue lifting up to a seated position, straightening your left arm so that you are supported on your left hand.
  • Keeping your left leg extended and right foot on the floor, push through your right heel, engage your core, and squeeze your glutes to lift your hips off the floor.
  • Sweep your left leg underneath and behind you, placing your left knee on the floor where you were sitting. At this point, your left shin will form a slight angle. Sweep your left foot out to your left so that shin is parallel with your right thigh.
  • Use your obliques to straighten your torso, removing your hand from the floor to assume a half-kneeling position.
  • With your right hand still extended toward the ceiling, push through your back foot to come up to a standing position, bringing your left foot to meet the right.
  • Reverse each step to return to the starting position. Perform equal reps on each side.

While the Turkish get-up is traditionally performed with a kettlebell or dumbbell, you can make this exercise easier by using just your body weight.


8. Jailhouse Push-Up

jailhouse push up

The jailhouse push-up combines push-ups with elements of cross-body mountain climbers and burpees.

"They work every muscle, every energy source, and both fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscle fibers," Watters says. "Because you're holding the push-up position, there's no real chance to rest."

  • Start with a push-up. Assume a high-plank position with your feet together, your body straight from head to heels, and your hands in line with (but slightly wider than) your shoulders. Engage both your glutes and your core to lock your body into position.
  • Keeping your elbows tucked toward your body and your head neutral, lower your torso until your chest is within a few inches of the floor.
  • Pause, and then push yourself back up to the starting position as quickly as possible.
  • From a plank position, draw your right knee diagonally across your chest toward your left elbow.
  • Return to a plank position and perform a second push-up.
  • From a plank position, draw your left knee diagonally across your chest toward your right elbow.
  • Return to a plank position, perform a third push-up, then jump the feet forward to meet the hands.
  • Explode upward, jumping into the air. That's one rep.
  • Land softly and immediately begin the next rep.

If jailhouse push-ups are too intense, try working on each component of the movement separately. See how many push-ups, cross-body mountain climbers, and burpees you can do without resting.


9. Single-Arm Push-Up

Nothing will humble you like the one-armed push-up. Not only does this variation increase the load on the working arm, but it also decreases the base of support. And don't be surprised if you find that one side of your body is weaker than the other.

  • Assume a push-up position with your shoulders stacked over your wrists and your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart. Keep your body straight from head to feet.
  • Maintaining tension throughout your body, lift your right hand off the floor and bring it behind your back.
  • Bend your left elbow to lower your body toward the floor.
  • Press away from the floor to return to the starting position.
  • Perform equal reps on both arms.

A slightly easier alternative to the single-arm push-up is the elevated one-arm push-up, in which your feet remain on the floor while your hand is elevated on a bench or box.


10. Superman Push-Up

The superman push-up requires strength, coordination, and (perhaps most importantly) a whole lot of chutzpah. Best case scenario: you get a great workout and look like a badass. Worst case scenario: you fall flat on your face.

  • Assume a high-plank position with your feet slightly apart, your body straight from head to heels, and your hands in line with (but slightly wider than) your shoulders. Engage both your glutes and your core to lock your body into position.
  • Keeping your elbows tucked, lower your torso until your chest is within a few inches of the floor. Then, forcefully push through your hands and engage your hips to lift your hands and feet off the ground.
  • While in the air, extend your arms in front of you.
  • Land softly in a low push-up position with the elbows bent. Immediately go into the next rep.

Not quite ready to take flight? Plyo push-ups, while slightly easier, will test your power (and they still look cool).


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