I know what you're thinking: "I really love my gym because of the many different machines, dumbells, barbells, and other exercise equipment".
And yes, I'd fully agree!
Most home gyms don't offer close to the possibilities offered by the average gym. That limitation, however, doesn't mean you shouldn't exercise at a home gym.
So let's explore why it's smart to follow a home workout program:
In fact, home gyms have their own huge advantages. Let's look at a few:
In this blog post, I'll teach you everything you need to know about home workouts using bodyweight training.
Let's explore why:
I wanted to give you the complete tools to exercise at home, without ever needing to join a gym anymore - if you so wish.
Many people simply don't even know that they can have high-quality workouts from the comfort of their homes.
And contrary to popular belief, you don't need to invest thousands of dollars to get effective workouts in. In fact, the first part of this course focuses on bodyweight-only exercises that everyone should be able to use.
All these exercises can be used in such a way that complete beginners, intermediaries, and advanced athletes can get a good workout with them.
So it doesn't matter whether you're 75 years old and have had a hip replacement or a 25-year-old with 15 years of competitive sports experience. Literally everyone can get a good bodyweight workout in.
Let's talk about why I'm uniquely qualified to talk about this subject:
I'm Bart Wolbers and I've originally been educated as a Physical Therapist. During my time as a physical therapist, I saw a wide array of different patients, ranging from elite athletes to elderly 80-year-old grandmas who wanted to keep walking.
I've also got extensive experience with both weight training and bodyweight training. I'm able to complete 15 handstand pushups, do 20 pushups on one arm, can do one-legged squats (even with added weight), and I got close to doing one-arm pull-ups a few years ago.
I'm also pretty strong in traditional gym work. I've squatted just under 600 pounds, can do chin-ups with 110 pounds of added body weight, have done dips with over 220 pounds, strictly pressed 275 pounds above my head, etcetra, all weighing 220-230 pounds. So I'm practicing what I'm preaching.
So let's talk about how this course is built up:
The aim of this course is to make you self-sufficient with regard to a home exercise program. The course is divided into several parts:
The first part of "bodyweight training" Is immediately visible. The other parts will all be available later on...
Let's first jump into a short history of bodyweight training to understand the principles better:
Using bodyweight exercises is as old as human history.
From Roman and Greek wrestling to yoga in India, to ancient Chinese breathing exercises, all of them are possible without buying any gym equipment.
In fact, up until the 1900s gyms as people know them today didn't even exist.
Of course, there were "gymnasiums" where one could practice gymnastics. Some of the sports, such as wresting or running had also survived from ancient history.
But overall, gyms, as they are known today, didn't exist. Only after the 1940s did gyms with tons of different barbells, machines, and dumbells hit the market and become popular. The rest is history, of course.
So for most of humanity's history, therefore, people used very minimal exercise equipment.
Implication? You don't even need most of that gym equipment! You can become stronger, leaner, and healthier without a gym membership.
Just take a look at a gymnast. That gymnast can probably pull him or herself up by one arm, has an extremely high vertical jump, and easily completes a set of one-arm pushups.
Other people have developed the ability to do thousands of pushups and squats in a period of several hours, thereby showing extreme endurance feats.
Of course, the abilities you develop with bodyweight exercises do not always translate to other athletic endeavors, such as strength in traditional gym lifts such as squats and deadlifts. But being very strong in the gym and benching 300 pounds doesn't translate in the ability to do one-arm pullups and pushups either, in many cases!
So bodyweight training strength and endurance make up a unique category of its own, independent from traditional barbell and dumbbell lifts. Keep in mind that I'm talking about the extremes of bodyweight development here.
You might not be at such a level nor even have the ambition for that development. That's why I'll begin with a very important principle:
Independent of what tool you're using for home workouts - whether that's bodyweight exercises or kettlebells - "progressive overload" always remains the most important principle (1; 2; 3)
"Progressive overload" means that the stimulus that causes the organism to adapt should increase over time.
Put in plain English, the only way your body gets stronger is by challenging it. That definition of "challenge" also changes over time. Right now, you may have difficulty running 2 miles. But after running twice a week for 4 months, running 2 miles at the pace you did 4 months ago is no longer challenging.
Hence, your body needs a continuous increase in taxation so that it's stimulated to adapt.
Everyone starts at their own level. If you're 80 years old, you might only need to stand up from a chair 10 times to stress your body enough so that it becomes stronger. If you're a 20-year old athlete, 30 one-leg squats might be needed to challenge you sufficiently.
The key point here is that exercise needs to be challenging. If (bodyweight) training isn't challenging your body won't adapt and get stronger. Hence, progressive overload is the main principle I'm working with in this guide.
So let's get into the different exercises considered in this guide. I've broken up these exercises into:
That combination of exercises allows you to train your entire body. So let's get into squats first:
Main muscles worked: quadriceps (front of legs), hamstrings (back of legs), glutes, calves (several muscles), lower back
What is a "squat"? Simple: you lower your upper body while moving your glutes to the floor, and thereby have your tights touch your calves.
Squatting focuses on all the major joints in your lower body, such as the ankles, knees, hips, pelvis, and spine. If you're not wearing shoes, your feet will get a good workout in too.
Many different squats exist, ranging from the very easy 2-leg squat in the chair where you use your hands as support, to a slow 1-leg squat with no arm support.
Squatting is one of the most basic movements humans can engage in. In many societies where chairs aren't omnipresent, for instance, squatting is a basic resting position.
Inhabitants of most hunter-gatherer societies also use that position to rest in.
Additionally, squatting is the position humans traditionally used to "visit the toilet".
Since the 1960s, however, the squat has also become an exemplary sign of athletic performance.
Today, many human beings are using their ability to squat heavy loads as examples of their lower-body strength and explosive power. What many people don't know is that you can train your legs with increasingly difficult types of bodyweight squats without using any weights.
In this section, I'll show you how both your 80-year-old grandmother as well as that 25-year-old elite athlete can benefit from different bodyweight squats. Squats will benefit almost anyone's all-round performance.
But perhaps I don't have to tell you that...
Back in the early 2000s, when I started strength training, most men didn't train their legs in the gym. Traditionally, the chest muscles, deltoids, and arms were identified as the muscles "making someone strong".
During those early 2000s, I'd see men bench, train their abdominals, do a long arm workout, but 90%+ of men never trained their legs.
Today, times have changed, and I see many men with steel tights and glutes - which is great! So now in 2020 having strong legs has something you can be very proud of.
(Don't worry, lots of upper-body work is included in this blog post as well!)
The ability to squat has become associated with a strong and healthy lower body. Your legs and trunk, in fact, are the entire foundation to the rest of your body. If you squat heavily, moreover, you'll also tax your lungs as a good leg training is enormously stressful to your body in the short-term.
Additionally, being a strong squatter will translate into many other different movements, such as pulling or pushing objects, running, moving up staircases, lifting objects, and many sports such as wrestling, ball sports (soccer, American football), etcetera.
Why not use barbell squats with a very heavy weight? Well, both bodyweight squats and barbell squats both come with their own advantages and disadvantages.
Barbell squats emphasize the back muscles to a far greater extent, while bodyweight squatting puts more emphasis on developing your leg muscles (I'm oversimplifying a bit here but you get my point).
Hence, barbell squats or bodyweight squats aren't "good" or "bad" - both have their advantages and disadvantages depending on what you're aiming at.
So let's now consider the squatting exercise itself, ranging from very easy to extremely difficult:
As promised, I'm telling you how to choose the proper intensity for your squat workouts. As a physical therapist, I've coached both high-level athletes in their squatting as well as 80-year-old patients who needed to learn to walk again.
I, personally, consider the following buildup of intensity perfect for most people, ranging from low-intensity to very difficult:
The intensity buildup for squats no matter what your current strength and endurance level. If your goal is endurance, just focus on completing more repetitions on less difficult exercises. So you could aim for 100 bodyweight squats instead of trying five 1-leg squats with support.
Just to ensure you're carrying you the exercise correctly, let's focus on some guidelines for performing squats:
Bad form, over time, will lead to injuries. Hence it's smart to always use proper form and not let your ego dictate that you have to use more difficult squat versions without first mastering form first:
Main muscles worked: pectoral muscles (chest), triceps (back of your arm), frontal deltoid muscles, rectus abdominis (front of your abs), obliques (side-abs) in one arm variations.
The next basic bodyweight movement: pushups.
Everyone can do pushups! Why? Well, just as with squats, there's an intensity buildup from very easy to extremely difficult.
And sure, pushups are somewhat of an "unnatural movement". Your ancestors living 30,000 or 300,000 years ago would never have practiced pushups - they wouldn't waste their energy just like that.
And yet, that claim doesn't really matter. Species are evolving all the time and today, humans need a way to keep their bodies healthy. Pushups are a great solution for upper body strength and endurance.
Well, pushups work all of the major pushing muscles in the body around the chest, arm (triceps), and abs. Targeting these muscles is very difficult without any other bodyweight exercise.
Of course, in the gym, many exercises exist to work these muscles, such as bench presses, flyers, machine work such as peck deck, etcetera.
"Pushing" movements are also an important movement from human beings, simulating throwing movements humans would have traditionally performed. So let's consider how everyone can use their own unique pushup variation:
So let's consider these pushups ranging from very light to extremely hard:
Once more, that's it. All pushup variations from very easy to inhumanly difficult. Let's consider what to keep in mind when practicing pushups:
Once again, a few guidelines to perform pushups:
That's it, the second main exercise all laid out. Let's move on to pullups:
Main muscles worked: biceps, part of triceps, lattisimus dorsi (back muscles under armpits), middle back muscles around shoulder blades, deltoids
Pullups? Yes! The case can be made that pullups are a very natural part of human movement.
Simple: our primate ancestors climb and pull themselves up a lot and some traditional hunter-gatherer cultures still use this movement pattern up until today. You cannot remove a coconut from a tree without pulling yourself up, for instance.
Of course, most people will assist that climbing motion with their legs to save energy but the case can be made that the pulling movement pattern is a traditional part of human movement.
Secondly, pullups simulate the "pulling" movement that's very basal to the human condition. If you hunted a deer as an ancestor, for instance, then pulling it behind you or pulling the deer walking backward would be one way of moving it.
(Of course, carrying less heavy prey is also an option that would be used for longer distances.)
To carry out pullups you usually need some equipment although not always. If you're already relatively strong and you're able to pull yourself up, then many natural places will exist where you can pull yourself up.
Stairways, trees, playgrounds and other objects supply endless possibilities to do pullups. These objects also allow you to train once you achieve an elite level of strength with one-arm pullups.
However, if you're lower on the scale of strength in pullups, you'll probably need some equipment to practice with. Gymnastic rings are perfect for all pullups variations. I'll talk more about that equipment in the exercises described in the next section:
Here we go again: understanding pullups from extremely easy to insanely hard:
Once again, anyone can practice this pullup movement.
Just as is the case with pushups though, make sure you're 1) keeping your body stable as a plank, specifically your spine; 2) warm up well and don't over-exert yourself if you get elbow or shoulder pain; 3) experiment with different shoulder withs: closer or wider grips might feel better or worse - the only way to know for sure is to try.
Main muscles worked: rectus abdominis (front of abs), hip flexors (ab muscles ranging from your spine to your upper leg), and other muscles around the lower spine.
Most of the exercises I've covered previously such as pullups, squats, and pushups, all target your abs to a certain degree. However, none of these exercises will hit the abs as hard as targeted exercises can.
I'm specifically talking about the big ab muscle originating on your ribs which runs to your pelvis. Then there's also the side abs that connect your ribs to your pelvis diagonally.
Now, traditionally, I consider the main function of these muscles to prevent rotation or the moving sideways of your spine. When you're running or throwing an object, for instance, these ab muscles mainly have a stabilizing function.
Your ancestors 50,000 years ago wouldn't have "trained" their abs by doing hundreds of crunches on the floor. Instead, hunting and gathering activities would have determined how these muscles were used, and in almost all cases, that's not while you're laying on the floor.
Disclaimer: if you're older and don't have the ability to get up from the floor then skip these ab exercises and mostly focus on squats and lunges. During my time as a physical therapist, I've worked with people of 80 years old who used a walking aid - in such circumstances, there's risk involved getting on the floor because you might not be able to get back up.
So let's get into these ab exercises.
Many misconceptions exist around abs, such as the belief that training your abs will help you burn body fat or that abs need to be trained every day (contrary to other muscle groups).
Both statements are obviously false.
Training your abs will not lead to fat loss any quicker than training other body parts would. In fact, training bigger muscle groups such as your back and legs might lead to more bodyfat being burned simply because those exercises are far more taxing on the body than training the small ab muscles.
My suggestion: practice your ab exercises like you would practice training your squats, pushups, and pullups. No need to think of your abs as "special" muscles that need a different treatment.
(Yes, I'm aware that different muscle fibers are made up of more or fewer fast-twitch fibers and therefore might need to be trained differently from each other, but, I'm not trying to overcomplicate things and I'm trying to keep this work accessible to as many people as possible.)
Additionally, keep your neck in line with your upper spine during all these ab exercises. Some people get neck pain due to excessively flexing their neck...
Moving on to the ultimate all-round bodyweight movement:
Main muscles worked: almost every muscle in the human body is targeted in one way or another.
No exercise is as universal and foundational to human movement patterns as moving on your 2 legs in different ways.
Of course, kids all begin with walking, then run, and are finally able to sprint quickly. Adults, of different ages, are usually able to run and may sometimes be able to sprint (without injuring a muscle).
If you're 35 years old, or even 55 years old, you should be able to sprint at a reasonable capacity. If not, it's something you need to work on in order to be considered a person with healthy structural bodily integrity.
And while I know running or sprinting is not possible for everyone at home, usually, people can find a way to carry out such exercises.
I also want to distinguish between walking on the one hand, and running or sprinting on the other hand.
Walking I consider a foundational exercise that's not really intense but still has enormous health benefits (4; 5; 6).
Running and sprinting, however, are more intense and people are far more prone to get injuries compared to walking (7; 8; 9; 10).
So if you ever run or sprint, always make sure to warm up correctly. Nonetheless, I consider the inclusion of some sprinting universally necessary for any home workout program if you're generally healthy.
Just to be clear:
Would I recommend 100-meter (~320 feet) sprints to an 80-year-old person with poor coordination?
But, do I think a healthy 30 or 60-year-old person with no obvious physical or mental limitations should sprint? A resounding "yes"! The reason is simple: both running and sprinting played a major role in human evolution (11; 12).
Hence, I consider running and sprinting more important than more cardiovascular demanding activities such as riding a bike or an elliptical workout.
Can the latter options have benefits to your health? Sure! But your ability to walk, run, and sprint is far more primordial.
Include some 20, 50, 100, 200, and even 400-meter sprints into your weekly routine. Alternatively, you run for a few miles once in a while.
Once again, you cannot engage in that exercise directly in your home in most cases (unless you've got a treadmill but I'm assuming that most people can still move around freely in their neighborhood.
To warm up, make sure to include some sprints at 70, 80, and 90% of intensity. Doing so dramatically lowers your injury risk.
(I'll tell you how to incorporate sprints into your workouts in a later section.)
Main muscles worked: deltoid and trapezius muscles around your shoulders and neck, mid-back muscles between the shoulder blades and spine (rhomboids, middle and lower trapezius), triceps (back of your arm).
After you're reasonably good with pushups, like being able to perform 30-50 regular pushups and 10-15 clap pushups, it's time to include handstands and bodyweight handstand presses as well.
The reason for including this exercise is because it's a very different movement pattern from pushups and works different muscles.
Handstand and handstand pushups will work your deltoid and trapezius muscles (between your neck and your upper shoulder blades) much heavier than regular pushups, for instance. Of course, regular pushups have their own advantage in that they work your chest muscles more prominently.
Disclaimer: if you're of older age, have poor coordination, or have blood pressure issues, I wouldn't recommend practicing this exercise. And because it's impossible for me to list all criteria that should bar you from this exercise, consult with your physician before engaging in any handstand variation.
Once again, let's look at the intensity buildup:
For handstand pushups, most of the same guidelines exist as for regular pushups. For instance, elbow or shoulder injuries can occur if you train/move improperly, and "sagging" around the core is a common reason many people cheat with both types of pushups.
So always ensure that your spine, hips, knees, and ankles are aligned in one straight line.
Also, be mindful of elbow, neck, and shoulder injuries once again. The answer to these injuries is almost universally to 1) use proper form; 2) workout out less so that you recover quicker from workouts.
And that's it: all the most important bodyweight movements explained in detail. Let's move to a few accessory movements that allow you to spice your workouts up:
You don't necessarily need to only rely on the exercises I've listed above: below I list a couple of other exercises that you can use to spice your workouts up.
Some people get bored using the same workouts over and over again, and hence, I've included several exercises here as inspiration. Please keep in mind that many other accessory bodyweight exercises exist - you can simply learn more of them by Googling.
Hence, the list below is not meant to be exhaustive. With the primary movements (squats, pushups, pullups, ab exercises, sprints) you're able to challenge yourself forever.
Main muscles worked: different glute muscles such as the gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus, as well as back and ab muscles around the spine, such as erector spinae and different obliques
Either using two legs or one leg, lift your glutes from the floor.
The 1-leg versions is a lot harder than the 2-leg version. For a more challenging exercise, hold your body for 3-5 seconds on top just like you would do with an abdominal plank.
More difficult variations of these glute bridges will be considered in next installments...
Main muscles worked: quadriceps (front of legs), hamstrings (back of legs), especially the glutes, calves (several muscles).
Lunges will only be used initially until you've built up the strength for one-arm squats. The benefit of lunges is that they help you build strength in muscles that accord closer to one-leg squats than two-leg variations.
It's best to use lunges once you're accustomed to bodyweight squats.
The most frequently used lunge is one where you take a step forward, and then get back to your place - regularly standing upright on both your feet.
To make lunges harder, however, you can also include side-lunges to target the muscles inside your hips, or lunge by taking a large step backwards.
Another killer is to do walking lunges, with your knee almost touching the floor. That exercise is a killer.
Ultimately, however, lunges will not be challenging enough anymore and you'll have to move to one-leg squats.
Main muscles worked: triceps
Triceps extensions are carried out from a pushup position. But instead of moving a lot in your shoulder joint you're mainly moving at your elbow.
For most people, it's better to move your arms closer together than with regular pushups. If you put your hands on the floor and let your thumbs and index fingers touch so that they make a "diamond" sign you've usually got a good grip.
Main muscles worked: almost every muscle in the human body, except for mid- and rear shoulders and upper back muscles.
Nobody loves burpees because they're so taxing. And yet. burpees get you winded very quickly.
To complete a burpee, you drop into a pushup, complete that pushup, then get on your feet from that pushup position, and jump vertically into the air. That's one repetition! Once you complete 20 of them, you will have started breathing more quickly.
Over time, you can add several types of jumps, spice up your front planks by tapping your shoulders, do clapping pullups, and more.
I could have included far more exercises in this program but I wanted to keep things simple instead. However, if you're a person who likes to keep changing things up then you'll almost certainly be able to find variations on the movements I've described above, such as clapping pullups or different types of planks.
Feel free to add your own exercises to this mix. For instance, you can go through all the main bodyweight exercises first and then finish your workout off with a 20-mile bike ride. The possibilities are endless.
Below I've listed a few example workout programs. These programs range from extremely easy (low-intensity) to advanced (for elite athletes).
I didn't list these example workouts for you to blindly follow them. Instead, I've included these workouts as an example of how you can build your own bodyweight training program no matter where you're coming from:
2 rounds of:
If endurance is your main goal, complete these exercises without resting between them. Then after each round, rest for 2 minutes.
If strength is your goal, rest for about 30-60 seconds between each exercise and then move to the next.
2 rounds of:
Most young people will be wiped at that point! Rest 3-4 minutes between these rounds. Rest 1 minute between the exercises if strength is your goal, or don't rest at all if you want to build up endurance.
2 rounds of:
If you can complete that workout you're firmly planted in the elite category of strength and conditioning!
But let's not forget the people who don't have very high strength and conditioning skills:
This program is perfect if you're older or in not so great health and just need a way to move.
2 rounds of:
See? Even a 85-year-old person can get a great workout in from the comfort of their home!
But let's return to my earlier point, on how you need to adjust these programs towards your own goals and capabilities:
You don't have to follow the beginner, intermediary, advanced, or low-intensity workouts to the letter.
In fact, you should be able to create your own program with the exercise progressions I've included above.
The end goal is to simply move to more difficult exercises over time.
Once you master regular pushups you can start practicing clapping pushups. Once you master bodyweight squats on 2 legs you can try 1-legged squats while using your hands as support.
You get the drill...
Also, make sure to increase the number of repetitions on all of the exercises. Keep track of what numbers you hit over time by journaling.
If you're now able to do a 40-minute regular plank, aim to build up to 45 or 50 seconds the next month. One month after that you may be able to hold the plank for a minute.
Another example are pushups. Maybe you can do 15 pushups on your knees right now. But once you build up to 25 pushups over a period of 2 months, you'll be able to switch to regular pushups and crank out 4-5 repetitions. Be proud! By practicing these regular pushups over time, you'll be able to build up to many more...
Anyone can do these exercises and progress over time. Always make sure that safety comes first though - if you get injured you can wipe out months if not years of progress:
Most people should do a warmup before going all out. Warmup here means that you'll select less intense variations of the exercise you're aiming at.
So if you regularly do clapping pushups, it's better to warm up with regular pushups.
You get the drill...
Unless you know your body very well, you should not start your workouts without warming up. So my recommendations is to go through the entire list of exercises first, choosing the easier variations of the movement you're finally aiming at...
Let's also talk about intensity...
The sample workouts I've listed don't take you 40 or 90 minute to complete. instead, 10-25 minutes is more than enough to get a good workout in.
At Alexfergus.com, we believe that overtraining is a major danger and that less is more with regards to workouts, in most cases. In fact, training very heavy for long periods of time probably reduces your overall health.
If you'd like to learn more about that idea, consider the Fitness & Training resource page.
The bottom line is that very heavy and very quick workouts, 1-2 times a week, are probably perfect for your health. Fewer workouts than that number, as well as more frequent ones, reduce the health benefits.
Hence: only 2 rounds of intense bodyweight exercises is all you need, while working out 1-2 times a week. No need to spend hours in the gym.
And with 1-hour of workouts per week, there's literally no excuse on the planet why you cannot start bodyweight workouts this week! You deserve the best...
Remember January 1st several years ago, when many people get a gym membership for a year? Most of these people don't turn up to the gym anymore in February, even though they still keep paying.
A less risky approach?
Start training at home! You need nothing to begin with, so no excuses exist in trying such as program for a short period of time - especially if you're doing nothing right now!
Bodyweight training has literally be used for thousands of years in cultures like Greece and India to gain endurance and strength.
When applied properly and with continuous progressive overload, you can build quite the perfect athletic body with body weight training only.
Of course, saving time is yet another huge benefit to home workouts. Traveling to the gym costs many people around 30 minutes, which is the same time you can be done with this workout.
A much better you, in 1 hour a week. Isn't that a great offer?
This is a post by Bart Wolbers. Bart finished degrees in Physical Therapy (B), Philosophy (BA and MA), Philosophy of Science and Technology (MS - Cum Laude), and Clinical Health Science (MS), and is currently the chief science writer at Alexfergus.com.
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