I wrote this article for Playfitt, an app designed to help people gamify fitness and make health both achievable and fun. This article is about the top home exercises I recommend for getting fit. You can find this and other material by Playfitt at their medium profile here as well as on their website. Suffice it to say, I strongly recommend checking them out.
Thanks to Covid-19, the usual influx of gym goers is much smaller this year. I’m sad to see gyms suffering the economic effects, but I understand not wanting to workout around other people. With the slow vaccine rollout and the new highly contagious Covid-19 strain ravaging the United Kingdom, crowded buildings full of sweaty people will be understandably unpopular.
What I’m more worried about is how many people won’t be exercising. Your metabolic health is one of the most important factors in protection against Covid-19. I think one of the biggest oversights of this pandemic had been the lack of focus on eating well and exercising. Frankly, you might be safer from the disease by working out at the gym than lazing around at home.
But who says you have to make that choice? Why not, and I know this is a radical idea, work out at home (Gasp!)?
But Keenan! How! I need my workout machines! I need my fitness coach! I need to see other fit people to make me feel bad about myself!
No, you don’t.
Not to get cynical, but I think the average gym membership is the most overrated thing on God’s green earth (except Justin Bieber in 2009.) I mean think about it, what do you really get from the gym? A 20 minute drive before you can spend 15 minutes changing. If you forget your dress-code mandated gym gear, you have to go back home.
Then you get upstairs only to your machines occupied by a wait-list of sweaty meatheads. You need another 20 minutes to figure out what kind of workout you can even do with the limited available equipment, and by the time you’re done, showered, and drive home, it took 2 hours for 30 minutes of actual exercise.
And you pay for this!
Here’s the thing, you don’t need it! You can get more fit using bodyweight exercises than with most gym equipment. This is because bodyweight exercises build a functional exercise base, whereas gym machines isolate. Isolating muscle groups with a machine is a recipe for creating imbalances. Nowhere in the natural world does this occur, and in the long run you might get strong, but also stiff, tweaked, and in pain.
In this article we’ll discuss exercises you can do at home with minimal or no equipment. Even for top athletes, there are tactics here you can use to build strength and surpass your plateaus. Put it all together and you have a Covid-19 proof “gym” you can access at any time, anywhere, for any fitness level.
Let’s get started.
Why You Don’t Need Exercise Machines
In my opinion, one of the biggest problems with gyms is exercise machines. We have taken what is essentially a rehab tool for very specific scenarios and made it the base of fitness.
Machines work by isolating one of your muscle groups so you can exercise it without using the rest of your body. While this is effective for building strength in that muscle group, it neglects the rest of your body. A full exercise routine is sort-of like putting together lego blocks. Here’s some bricks for my chest muscle. Here’s some for my quadricep. Etc.
Our body doesn’t operate in isolation though. Training with machines creates separation rather than cohesion.
It’s better to train full body movements at low resistance. If you can’t do 20 push-ups without your back hurting, but you can do a 5 push-ups and plank for 1 minute, do the plank. Over time it may resolve your back pain and then you can increase your focus on push-ups.
Here’s the gist: even when you have access to equipment, you want to do functional exercises that use large parts of your body and do not isolate your movement. As a general rule, this means using free-weights (resistance bands, kettle bells, dumbbells, barbells, heavy objects, etc.) or body-weight exercises.
Exercise is Just A Signal
For the second piece of the puzzle, we need to understand what exercise actually is: a signal.
Exercise causes damage to your muscle fibers and uses resources. Technically, exercise weakens your body in the moment, but then during recovery, you grow stronger.
So, it is not during exercise when you actually become more fit, but during recovery. This is a great way to show that exercise is just a signal. Once you have the signal, you just need to recover. Therefore, our goal with home workouts is just to send our body a signal to build strength.
Many people hit plateaus because they are working out too much, living in a state of chronic overtraining that prevents improvement and can eventually lead to burnout. But this is just another reason why at-home training should not be intimidating. At the end of the day, you don’t even need that many workouts. Or exercises, for that matter.
In the next section, I’m going to show you all you need to get fit at home.
5 Exercises For Every Occasion
To exercise for total fitness, we gotta work our total body. In my time as an athlete, I’ve parsed out 5 major areas to focus on for optimal fitness: 1. Chest (forward pressing) 2. Mid-back (forward pulling) 3. Upper back (overhead pulling) 4. Shoulders (overhead pushing) 5. Legs (Lower body push).
In this section, I’m going to offer 1 body-weight exercise for each category. This body-weight exercise should be your base for learning proper form and reference for any other exercises. For example, if you can do a perfect push-up, you can do a perfect dumbbell chest press.
The push-up may be the most versatile body-weight exercise that exists. Without any weights, you can modify this exercise almost endlessly. Already fit? You can do 50 push-ups at once? Okay hot-shot. Learn one-armed push-ups.
Learning perfect push-up form will teach you how to tighten the slack in your body. It builds your core and synchronized your body from head to toe. If you had to choose just one exercise from this guide to become obsessed with, it should be push-ups or squats.
To perform a push-up:
- Place your hands on the ground underneath your shoulders. I like to spread my fingers so my index fingers are pointed straight forward and my other fingers splay outward from there.
- From here, assume a plank position by getting your knees off the ground. Your feet should be far enough back that your butt is not up in the sky but your hands are still directly under your shoulders.
- Check your body. Are you slumped between your shoulders? Does your pelvis sag toward the ground? If you haven’t done push ups before, you might notice these issues. I call this “slack” in the system.
- To get rid of slack, without changing your hand position, corkscrew your arms so the back of your elbows twist towards your hips. Simultaneously, press into the ground so your shoulders are not slumped. You should feel your chest tighten and your upper back stabilize.
- Next, tuck the front of your hip bone towards your navel and flex your abs. Don’t overdo it by sticking your butt in the air. From your head to your heels, your body should form a straight line.
- Stabilize the legs by flexing your feet toward your navel.
- Now you are in plank position. To do a pushup, lower your body to the ground. Keep torque by continuing to corkscrew your arms. Don’t let the elbows flare out enough to lose tension. Your shoulders can ride a bit but you should not feel any slack.
- Keep your core tight, touch your chest to the ground, and then push your body back up to the plank position.
If at any point during the exercise you start getting slack, stop. This is a sign that your body is becoming too tired to maintain good position. It’s better to stop than to practice poor form. You can modify push-ups by putting your knees on the ground, but otherwise follow the same guidelines here.
Getting fit? You can make push-ups harder by doing variations such as tricep push-ups, wide-hand push-ups, clap push-ups, one-armed push-ups, diamond push-ups and many more. I’ve even done push-ups with my hands and feet on medicine balls. There’s really no point where push ups become too easy.
2. Doorway rows, or ring rows
It can be difficult to do rows without equipment, but it’s not impossible. Rows are a great way to workout your back. They are especially powerful for the lower back which often harbours injuries. This is an exercise where a couple heavy dumbbells come in handy, but you can definitely do them without equipment.
Doorway rows are the no-equipment solution. You can also use a couple close countertops, a friend, or get creative with playground equipment.
When you can, I suggest getting a pair of gymnastics rings. Now you can do proper rows anywhere you can find a tree branch.
To perform rows is very similar to the starting position for a push up, but in reverse.
- Holding a door frame or gymnastic rings, lean back until your arms are fully extended. The further forward your feet, the lower you’ll lean back and the harder the rows will become.
- Stabilize your body with the same process you use for push-ups, corkscrew the arms slightly and bring the shoulders forward in front of your ears.
- Tuck your hips, and create a stable and straight line from head to toes.
- To perform a row, pull your body up by flexing your arms and back until your shoulders are behind your ears and arms are fully pulled to your sides with your elbows behind you. If you are using rings, you can twist the rings so your palms are facing upwards toward your face at the end of the pull.
- With control, lower back to the start position.
If you have weights, you can perform rows by standing, then bending over at the hip ’til your torso faces the ground. Keep the core stable, and row the weights off the ground. It should feel the same as using rings except that you are picking up weights instead of pulling your body up.
Here is a video of a row using a door frame.
Pull-ups can be the most intimidating exercise when you’re bad at them, and the most rewarding when you’re good. The best way to do pull-ups is to get a cheap doorway pull up bar. Once you have one, here’s how to perform a pull-up.
- Start with your hands overhand on the bar. You may find it easier, especially in the beginning, to do a chin up. To do this, follow the same steps but have your hands underhand, meaning your palms are facing you on the bar.
- Hang all the way down. If you’re new to this exercise, you will probably need help.
- Put your feet on a chair or use a pull up band to assist the movement. Once you are ready, hang from the bar.
- To do a pull-up, first pull with your lats and scapula by pulling your shoulders down toward your ribs. As you begin to move, pull with the muscles in your arms and back to bring your head up to the bar.
As you improve, you should feel your back taking on more of the effort than your arms.
Depending on your height and weight, it is common for pull-ups to take a long time to develop. Personally, I could do at best 23 proper pull-ups while training them often. Now, I could probably manage 13 to 15 on a good day, despite being fitter than when I could do 23.
4. Active planks
Like rows are the opposite of push-ups (you use the same body position but pull instead of push) shoulder pressing is the opposite of pull-ups. To do shoulder presses without weight, we do something known as an active plank.
- In pushup position, Hinge at the hip and put your butt in the air. Get into the position known as “downward dog” in yoga. There should be a straight line from your hips to your fingertips.
- Now, return to a plank position. This movement uses the core and the shoulders. To increase difficulty, we can turn it into a press.
If you find this description too simple, here’s a guide to the active plank by PlayFitt.
To turn the active plank into a shoulder press, also known as a pike push-up, follow these instructions.
- Get into the downward dog position. This time we won’t be returning to a plank Make sure there is tension in your shoulders.
- Now, begin doing a pushup with your shoulders. Bend your arms until the crown of your head taps the ground. Then press back up to downward dog.
You can increase the difficulty of this move by elevating your feet. Stand on a stairwell or put your feet on a chair.
You can also use weights if you have them. Stand upright and keep the weights by your head. Then press the weight up toward the ceiling.
Last but not least, we have the squat. Possibly the most important exercise here, squats optimize your ability to move through your healthy range of motion and build leg strength, which is most associated with hormone function and longevity.
The squat can also be the most difficult move to describe with words. For that reason I am going to pass the mic over to my friends at PlayFitt, who have written a great guide to mastering this move.
To use these exercises, just put em’ together as a workout.
For size, I recommend a workout of 3 rounds of each exercise. Use a variation where you aim for 5 to 10 reps each round. Between rounds, rest for 30 seconds. You can do this workout 2 or 3 times a week.
For strength, I recommend doing just one round of each exercise but do slow reps. For example, take 10 seconds to complete each rep. When you feel like you cannot do another rep, try anyway and try to hold position for 10 seconds when you can no longer move. Then quickly move to the next exercise. Based on the body by science workout by Dr. Doug McGuff, this workout takes 15 minutes. In his program, it is only needed once a week.
You can also do these exercises throughout the day, which is my favorite method. Pick two exercises and do up to 5 reps every 30 minutes alternating exercises each time. Then, do the other two exercises the next day, and the fifth exercise on the third day.
I like to alternate push-ups and rows on Monday, pull ups and shoulder push-ups on Tuesday, and I do squats on Wednesday. Then I start the cycle over Thursday through Saturday. Sundays I take off. This training style is designed to build rapid strength with minimal damage to your muscle. It is often referred to as grease the groove, or “practicing the skill of strength.”
And there you go! 5 moves to get fit as heck without ever walking into a gym.