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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.