Strength training with body weight exercises, like squats, lunges, and push-ups, is a method that has been around for years. Considering the many benefits of this type of training, it’s no surprise that it has regained popularity as an approachable, but challenging workout to improve fitness. Here are a few reasons body weight training may be a good fit for you.
It Is Effective
Similar to what happens when you lift weights, workouts that use body weight for resistance challenge the muscles by causing tiny tears in the muscle tissue. The tissue responds by rebuilding itself to become stronger. In addition, body weight training involves compound movements that use multiple muscle groups to develop both larger muscles and the smaller muscles that support them. Body weight training is also ideal for fast paced circuit workouts, which boost calorie burn for weight loss.
It Is Functional
A variety of exercises can improve strength and build muscle, but some do not translate well to the movements you do on a daily basis. Body weight training can be classified as functional fitness, meaning the movements are similar to the real-life activities you do outside of the gym. The exercises use the muscles you engage when you stand up out of a chair, squat to pick up a heavy box, or carry groceries.
It is Adaptable
Body weight exercises are adaptable for any fitness level. With a few simple adjustments, you can make standard moves easier or much more difficult. For example, you can start with a shallow squat, then move on to a deeper squat as you gain strength. From there, incorporate jump squats and one-legged squats. For push-ups, start on your knees, then progress to a standard push-up on your toes. To increase the challenge, do wide grip push-ups or one-armed push-ups.
It Saves Money
A body weight workout requires no gym membership and no investment in equipment. It is the least expensive form of resistance training that you can find. Depending on the exercises you choose, an exercise mat may be helpful, but otherwise you simply need a quality pair of athletic shoes to get started.
It Saves Time
There are several reasons a body weight workout saves you time. You don’t have to travel to a gym to do it. As long as you have some open space, most exercises can be completed in your living room. Whether you choose to do the exercises in a gym or at home, there is no need to lug out and put away equipment or wait for others to finish using the pieces you need. The lack of equipment also helps you move quickly from exercise to exercise, which keeps your heart rate elevated for cardiovascular benefit and reduces your exercise time.
Whether you want to prevent weight gain, lose weight or maintain your weight, research shows that regular exercise can help you reach your goal. Don’t let creating a workout plan overwhelm you. Here are a few simple steps to help you get started with an exercise program.
Determine Your Fitness Level
It’s important to know your fitness level before you jump into a workout program. This will help make your plan more achievable so that you stick with it and progress gradually. If you have access to a gym, consider scheduling basic fitness tests with a trainer. You can also perform your own fitness test at home by using resources from The President’s Challenge Adult Fitness Test. Once you know your fitness level, you can select activities that will be most effective for you.
Even if your main reason for exercising is to improve overall health, you still need to set goals. Working towards a goal will keep you motivated and prevent you from getting bored. If you don’t have aspirations to compete in an event or lose a significant amount of weight, keep your goals simple. For example, set a goal to do 15 standard push-ups without a break by the end of three months or to increase your walking speed to 3.5 miles per hour.
Cover the Basics
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that adults get 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity cardiovascular exercise or 75 minutes per week of vigorous activity. In addition, you should include 2 to 3 days of resistance training and 2 days of flexibility training each week. This might sound like a lot, but by starting slow and combining activities, you can avoid spending all day at the gym. First, consider these recommendations as goals. You might only be able to do 15 to 20 minutes of cardio 3 days a week when you start out, and that is okay. Also, try combining activities so that you meet recommendations in less time. For example, try a circuit workout that incorporates strength moves with your cardio, or stretch your muscles in between strength training exercises.
Add Your Personal Touch
Make sure that your exercise program reflects your preferences. It should include activities you enjoy and that easily fit into your lifestyle. A gym workout is one option, but if you don’t like that atmosphere, explore others. Sign up for dance classes, rock climbing instruction, or a hiking club. Create an inexpensive home gym, or start walking or biking to work. Your exercise program should be as unique as you are.
Test Your Plan
The biggest mistake many new exercisers make is that once they have a plan, they feel they can’t change it. While regular exercise does require some discipline, you don’t have to force yourself to continue with your very first plan if it’s not working for you. Give it a test run, and after a couple weeks, make changes if necessary. You might find that your early cardio session is causing you to skimp on sleep. Try switching it to lunchtime or the evening a few times a week. Maybe getting to the gym every day during the week as you had planned is impossible. Cut down your weekday workouts, and put in more gym time on the weekend. Be flexible, and make adjustments until you find the right fit.
Check Your Progress
It’s important to monitor your progress to ensure that your program is challenging enough to improve your fitness. After 1 to 3 months, evaluate your energy levels and how your clothes fit. Repeat the fitness tests, and see how you’ve improved. If your program is working for you, you can stick with it and make it more challenging by lifting more weight or increasing the intensity. If you aren’t getting the results you want, remember that it can take a few months to see changes, but also consider some new activities to help you reach your goals.
Design a strength training program that will improve your health and help you reach your fitness goals. The process isn't difficult, but there are a few things to keep in mind to ensure your workout is both safe and challenging.
Types of Programs
The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) identifies three basic designs of strength training programs: full body workouts, alternating upper and lower body workouts, and routines that split training by specific muscle groups.
When doing a full body workout, you will work the major muscle groups of both the upper and lower body in one session. This design works for beginner to advanced exercisers and is effective at improving your health and fitness. It serves as a convenient way to workout because you can do cardiovascular exercise one day and strength training the next.
Splitting upper and lower body workouts can serve two purposes: 1) The exerciser can develop the upper or lower body to benefit sports-specific needs, or 2) It can make workouts shorter. While you will need to train most days of the week to meet recommendations, you can make these sessions shorter by doing exercises for the lower body one day and for the upper body the next.
Separating workouts by muscle group is a practice most often used in bodybuilding. It allows you to give each muscle group more attention to develop strength and muscle mass.
The right exercise order is important to ensure that you don’t wear out the smaller muscle groups that assist larger muscle groups in movement. Begin your workout with exercises that target larger muscles and that involve multiple joints. For example, chest press, lat pull-down, and squats should be performed at the beginning of the workout. Then proceed with exercises that target the shoulders, hamstrings, quadriceps, biceps, triceps, and calves. According to general guidelines from the NSCA, when performing a full body workout, exercises that target the core can be worked in between sets during the rest period of other exercises.
Days, Sets and Repetitions
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends that adults perform resistance training for all major muscle groups 2 to 3 days per week. Positive strength gains are seen with 2 to 4 sets of each exercise, but research shows that new exercisers can improve strength with as little as 1 set. For general fitness, aim to perform 8 to 12 repetitions for each set. If muscular endurance is a major goal, you can perform 15 to 25 repetitions, but the ACSM recommends limiting the number of sets to 2.
Progression and Strength Gains
As your muscles grow and you gain strength, you will find that lifting the same amount of weight you started with becomes easy. If you continue to lift this amount, your muscles will no longer be challenged. In order to continue gaining strength, you must progressively increase the resistance or weight. You will know you are at the correct weight for your fitness level when you feel muscle fatigue after lifting 8 to 12 repetitions of an exercise. This does not need to result in complete exhaustion. If you do feel complete muscle exhaustion, you may be lifting too much weight. If the exercise is so easy that you feel no fatigue, it’s time to increase the resistance.
Don't give up on exercise when you are too busy to get in a full length workout. Even a small amount of activity can reduce stress and improve health. This simple circuit workout can be done in your living room with a set of dumbbells and takes about 10 minutes. It is fast-moving to get your heart rate up and combines both strength exercises and cardio. Do each station for 1 minute and then use 15 seconds to transition to the next exercise. Squeeze in one round and consider doing two or three if you have more time.
March In Place or High Knees
Marching in place will serve as part of your warm up. If you are already warmed up, increase the intensity and jog in place lifting your knees high towards your chest.
Squat with a Side Leg Lift
Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Squat down as if you were going to sit in a chair. Lower until your thighs are parallel to the floor, or as close as you can get to this position. As you squat, push your bottom back to help keep your knees behind your toes.
Return to the starting position, and extend your right leg out to the right in a side leg lift. Lift only as high as it takes to feel the contraction in your outer thigh. Return to the starting position, squat and lift the left leg. Continue to squat and alternate side leg lifts.
A jump rope is optional for this segment. If you don’t have one, mimic the movement by hopping in place. Keep your elbows close to your sides, and rotate your hands and forearms in circular motion as you would if you were swinging the rope. Get creative and hop from side to side or on one foot for a while and then switch.
Hammer Curl with a Shoulder Press
Stand and hold dumbbells at your sides with your palms facing in towards your body. Keep your elbows tucked close to your sides as you bend at the elbow and curl the weights up. Once the weights are up to your shoulders, press them into the air over your head into a shoulder press. Return the weights to shoulder level and release the hammer curl to the starting position. Repeat the exercise performing a hammer curl and a shoulder press for each repetition.
Lie on your back. Lift your feet off the floor, and pull your knees in towards your chest. Place your hands behind your head with your elbows wide and your fingertips touching behind your ears. Rotate your left shoulder towards your right knee as you extend your left leg out, parallel to the floor. Rotate your torso and move your right shoulder towards your left knee as you extend the left leg out. Repeat, alternating shoulder to knee.
Bridge with a Triceps Press
Lie on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Hold a dumbbell in each hand and extend your arms into the air at chest level. Turn your palms to face each other. Raise your lower body into a bridge position by lifting your bottom off the floor so that your body is in a straight line from your knees to your upper back. Hold this position as you slowly bend your arms at the elbows and lower the weights towards your shoulders. Your elbows should be tucked in to your sides. Once lowered to just below a 90-degree angle, press the weights back towards the ceiling, returning to the starting position. Continue to hold the bridge throughout the segment as you continue with the triceps presses (see video explaining triceps press).
Kneel in front of a stair or a sturdy, low bench. Place your hands on the stair or bench a little wider than shoulder-width apart. Get into push-up position on your toes, or lower to your knees to make the exercise easier. Just like a standard push-up, lower your chest towards the floor until the chin almost touches the bench and push yourself back up to the starting position.
Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Sit back into a squat position. Propel yourself upward, jumping into the air. Land in the starting position and repeat.
A warm up not only reduces your risk for injury. According to the American Council on Exercise, it also helps you burn calories more efficiently due to the increase in your core body temperature. As you gradually ease into movement, your muscles begin to heat up, which increases their elasticity. The blood vessels also dilate, which allows blood to move more freely, delivering oxygen to the heart and the muscles. Increased oxygen flow to the muscles facilitates a better supply of energy for exercise. Instead of experiencing a rapid increase in movement and heart rate, like what occurs when you go from no movement to intense exercise, a warm up allows the body to prepare for the activity, improving exercise performance.
What to Do to Warm Up
As long as it gradually increases your heart rate and gets the muscles moving, any activity can be used as a warm up. For strength training, it can be as simple as pedaling on a stationary bike with little resistance. If you are working out at home, try marching in place. Using the same activity you will do for your workout, but at a lower intensity, can also serve as a warm up. For example, if you are going to run, start the course with a walk or a light jog. If you plan to swim, you can tread water or use a kickboard to take a few slow laps around the pool. Once your body is warm, increase the intensity or resistance and move on to your full workout.
How Long to Warm Up
The length of your warm up can be influenced by the time of day, temperature, and type of exercise. As a general rule, your warm up should last from 5 to 10 minutes. When you are preparing for a high intensity workout, plan to do at least a 10-minute warm up. Your body will benefit from the extra time to work up to a challenging pace. If you exercise first thing in the morning, you may also need a longer warm up to help increase blood flow. This is also true when exercising in cold weather. It may take your muscles longer to warm up and improve elasticity to allow for easy movement. Once your heart rate has increased, you are breathing more heavily, and your muscles feel warm and flexible, move on to your workout.