Get Functionally Fit Forever With These Six Bodyweight Exercises
Six body weight exercises you can do anywhere that will make you functionally fit forever. (Or at least a very long time!)
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IF SOMEONE were to ask you, “Do you exercise?”, what image would appear in your mind?
Exercise looks like different things to different people, but at its essence, it’s simply movement. You move your body. If you’re very unfit, just walking slowly may be all the exercise you can do, and that’s where you start.
If you’re four-time CrossFit Champion, Rich Froning, you hoist an elephant on on shoulder and squat jump for a mile. If you’re me, you mix it up — high intensity interval training twice a week, yoga, throw some dumb bells around, and — the focus of this blog post — do body weight exercises.
I’ll get into that in a minute, but first let’s exercise some general concepts about exercise.
Many people don’t exercise because it seems overwhelming. They see someone like (well, not quite like) Usain Bolt flashing by and mutter to themselves, “I could never do that”, as if that’s the only exercise worthy of their caloric expenditure.
It’s true that right now you can’t sprint like Mr. Bolt, and are unlikely to ever do so, but such considerations are worthless, because they have nothing to do with you.
What has to do with you is what you can do now. Wait! That’s not right… it’s not even what you can do now, but what YOU’RE WILLING TO DO NOW!
I have a friend, let’s call him “Mike”, who used to be a nationally ranked athlete in college. His current exercise regime is sitting in a chair typing away on his computer. (Sound familiar?) Over the years, he’s packed on 40 pounds of blubber. Despite this, the guy’s a beast, and on any given day, could arise from his weathered leather chair, hoist me over one shoulder and climb Mt. Tamalpais. But he’s not willing to do so; and, in fact, this exertion would do more harm than good to an unconditioned body.
Another portly friend, “Jim”, was never an athlete, but he’s way better off than the college jock. That’s because Jim is willing to get his arse out of his chair most every day and walk a mile. Along the way, he stops at predesignated places and squats and does push-ups. He can do that, he’s wiling to do that, and he does just that.
When he started, Jim couldn’t walk a mile speedily, so he shuffled a mile. He couldn’t do a push-up off the floor, so he put his hands chest-width apart on the wall, stepped back and pressed his chest off the wall. He could do a squat, but it was feeble, as he couldn’t get down much further than parallel to the floor.
What Jim also could do was something life changing. He had a powerfully enabling conversation with himself that instigated action. It went something like this:
I can’t hoist an elephant on my back and squat jump for a mile like Rich Froning. I can’t run 100 meters in 9.6 seconds like Usain Bolt. My name is Jim Smith, and what I can do is shuffle for a mile, push myself away from a wall and do half-assed squats, and that’s how I’ll begin!
You have to start where you are, and be yourself. The only other alternative is to do nothing.
Be Consistent and the Progression Will Take Care of Itself
Jim’s walking most every day now. That’s the consistency. As he does so, he feels more inclined to push his capacity, and does so. That’s the progression. His shuffle became a fast walk, including up hills. His wall push-up became push-ups off the floor. His tentative half-squats became leaping squats emanating from a deep squat, butt nearly touching his heels.
It doesn’t matter where you start, what condition you’re in. What matters is that you do start, be consistent and keep improving toward your goal of becoming functionally fit, which by the way, refers to being able to use your body as designed, even under load (resistance).
You’re designed to lift your body, push your body, pull your body, move over distance, up and down. Bend forward, backward, sideways. Leap across, jump up, twist and turn. Ideally, your functionally fit exercise routine encompasses all of that.
Depending on your motivation and goals, your exercise can:
- Become more intense
- Become more complex
- Have more resistance
- Last longer
Intensity refers to how much energy, or physical power, is expended performing the exercise movement, expressed as a percentage of the maximal oxygen consumption your body uses when doing it.
Intensity is measured by “Metabolic Equivalent of Task”, or “MET”, a standardized point of reference, which is the amount of oxygen while sitting at rest. Specifically, MET is 3.5 milliliters of oxygen per kilogram of body weight multiplied by the number of minutes.
Here’s a chart to give you an idea of how various common physical activities rate on on the MET scale (courtesy of Wikipedia):
No surprises here: most of us have experienced that jumping rope is more intense than walking. That said, jumping rope for two jumps would be less intense than walking for an hour up a hill. Length of time, repetitions and sets all factor into intensity, as we’ll discuss later.
Complexity refers to the degree of difficulty to execute the exercise movement because it requires learning, skill, balance and/or flexibility. The complexity of an exercise or movement is magnified by resistance, such as a heavy weight. The most illustrative example I can think of is the Olympic snatch:
You can quickly get a sense of the degree of difficulty of the Olympic snatch. Go find a broom and try to squat so that your glutes are on your heels, and the broom is held straight up above but slightly behind your head. Hold that for a bit without wobbling or falling over. Now imagine that the broom weighs 176 kg (388 lbs.).
(Yeah, I can’t imagine it either.)
Complexity is also increased by time — the longer you attempt the complex movement, especially with resistance, the more difficult it will be do accomplish as your body become weary and unresponsive.
Resistance is that 176 kg lifted overhead, or a steep hill you’re running up, or your own body weight applying resistance against your chest, frontal deltoids and triceps as you do a push-up. The greater the resistance of a particular movement, the less of it can be done.
When you face resistance in an exercise movement, the basic questions are:
• How much resistance (say, weight)?
• How many repetitions or time?
• How many sets?
• How much rest between sets?
The resistance, repetitions and sets can, together, be referred to as “volume”. Thus, you can increase the volume of a particular exercise movement by using light resistance, few sets and high repetitions (the resistance is light enough for many reps), or by using heavy resistance, many sets and low repetitions (the resistance is too much for many reps but you do many sets).
Length of time refers to how long an exercise movement is to be performed. Generally, the greater the intensity, the shorter the time interval over which a movement can be performed. Aerobic activities are performed with less intensity but longer than anaerobic activities — jogging vs sprinting.
Six Functionally Fit Body Weight Exercises
A body weight exercise is one that exercises your body using your body weight. (Yes, I came to that conclusion using my own concentrated powers of observation.) Running fits that description, but here we’ll be focusing on calisthenics-type exercises that make your muscle strong, enduring and preps your body for anaerobic work, such as sprinting and plyometrics.
If a picture is worth one thousand words, video is worth a million, so we’ll refer to select videos courtesy of YouTube to demonstrate these six body weight exercises. If you need further inspiration or want to observe other techniques, go to YouTube and have at it.
You’ll quickly see that these are not just six specific exercises, but exercise concepts (or categories). What I mean by this is that a “push-up” might convey an image of pushing yourself off the floor using your arms, but this concept can be applied to many different movements done in different ways. The commonality of all push-up exercises is the use of your arms to engage your chest, frontal deltoids and triceps to push your body away from some immovable object, be it floor, or wall.
When you look at it this way — as exercise concepts — you quickly get creative, and that creatively gives space for using different techniques to progressively make yourself stronger, no matter how weak at the start. Progressing from pushing yourself away from a wall to doing explosive plyometric push-ups off the floor is a good example.
Exercise Pairing and Sequence
The exercises are presented in the order I’d recommend doing them in an exercise routine. The idea is to alternative upper and lower body exercises, doing each as a “superset” that is repeated after a rest period for whatever number of sets you prescribe. After that combination is finished, you move to the next, and so forth.
Example: One set of squats immediately followed by one set of push-ups. Rest till you catch your breath and repeat. If you’re new to this type of exercise, begin with just one superset of each exercise combination.
First Superset: Push-ups/Squats, number of sets and rest between supersets determined by your ability.
Second Superset: Pull-ups/Glute-Hamstring combo.
Third Superset: Handstand Push-ups/Core combo.
A note to long, heavy people (and this includes me): We are not as well designed to lift and pull our bodies as are smaller, lighter people. You’re unlikely to ever see a 6’4″ 210 pound Olympic gymnast. If you’re big, long or both, be patient. The good news is that people like us can build more muscle with body weight exercises without needing to get to creative with them, simply because the exercises are harder for us. Work = Force x Distance, so every push-up a long-armed heavy person does takes more work than his smaller brethren.
One more point — warm up! You’ll perform better and reduce the chance for injury if you warm up before jumping into the exercises. In “Warm Up and Mobility” I present several warm up sequences, but if you’re inclined to ignore this advice, just do some jumping jacks before you begin. For extra credit, you can also do some post-exercise stretching. “Post Exercise Stretching” will guide you.
Remember, we’re talking push-up concepts here, so anything that involves using your arms to push your body away from something that has more mass than you (like a wall) qualifies. You will progressively increase the intensity of the exercises by the angle of your body relative to your arms, how fast you do the exercise (note: super slow is tough because of time under resistance), the time period between sets and the number of sets.
There are plenty of examples of “free squats” (squats using only body weight) on YouTube, so I wanted to find a really good progression for one-legged squats you can learn. Once you can do 40+ free squats you might want more resistance than your own body weight. Squatting on one leg will do the trick.
Beginner (No video, just follow the instructions):
Extend your arms out in front of you parallel to the floor, place your feet about a foot outside the width of your hips, angle your feet outward slightly, make sure your knee tacks (stays in line with) your feet, thrust your butt out and back, and sit down as far as you can go without falling back. Pause. Stand up. Repeat
Beginner to advanced Pistol Squat progression:
At this point, we’ve worked the pushing muscles of the upper body — chest, deltoids and triceps, as well as various supportive muscles (trapezius, rhomboids, and even latissimus dorsi for stability) — now let’s get to the pulling muscles.
These exercises will exercise your latissimus dorsi, scapula and biceps (the primary pulling muscles of the upper body), as well as rhomboids and rear deltoids. Know that a “pull-up” is when your knuckles are facing you (less emphasis on the biceps), and a “chin up” is when your palms are facing you (more emphasis on the biceps).
Beginner to Advance Progression:
#4. Glute/hamstring Combos
There are exercises that will isolate your butt from your leg biceps, but since they are made to work together, why bother? We’re not trying to be bodybuilders.
#5. Handstand Push-ups
Yes, I know that a handstand push-up is out of reach for all but the most rabid fitness buff. Thankfully, there are several almost-handstand-push-ups that are very effective at building upper body strength.
This could be in the push-up category, but since the angle is much more vertical than horizontal, and works more of your shoulder than chest, it gets it’s very own category.
Beginner to Advance Progression:
#6. Core combos
These days, you can’t read anything about exercise without getting the importance of a strong and flexible core pounded into your head. Everyone has piled onto this bandwagon, and for good reason. Nothing on your body is of much use without a fit core. It’s the centerpiece of a strong, mobile body. It includes the lower back, abs and obliques. Work your core!
- Contrary to what the commercials exhort, be like Jim, not Mike — accept where you are and begin from there.
- Don’t be overly ambitious and burn yourself out before you get traction; rather start with an exercise routine you can and are willing to be consistent with, and then progress naturally, inevitably.
- Multiple-joint/muscle body weight exercises can progress to the level of advanced practitioner. You can do this without equipment. If you have a body and some willpower, you have what you need. No willpower? Grab a friend and whip each other into a competitive frenzy. That should work.
Over and out.
P.S. Need help with habit making? Check out A More Youthful Body Thru Progression, Tiny Habits and A Buddy.
P.P.S. Wanna age better? Read The Anti-aging Effects of Exercise.