Every gym in America has something in common—namely, they’re stocked with all sorts of equipment. But while dumbbells, weight machines, and treadmills definitely have a place in a solid exercise routine, Pete McCall, C.S.C.S., a San Diego-based personal trainer, says they’re not the only way to torch the calories.
It is possible, he says, to get a great workout from just your own bodyweight (think: push-ups, planks, squats, or burpees). That’s partly because you can train multiples muscles at the same time, instead of using a machine that limits the force to one specific joint or particular muscle, he says: “Bodyweight training can engage all of the muscles around a particular joint or section of muscle.”
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Using a number of muscles at the same time also helps improve overall strength and fitness levels, McCall explains. Consider a push-up instead of a barbell chest press. “Push-ups will use core stabilizers [which are around the lumbar spine], helping improve core strength and giving the appearance of a flatter tummy,” he says. “Lying on a bench—where the body is supported by the bench—the only muscles working are the chest and shoulders. These muscles can become stronger, but the core won’t be used at the same rate.”
Another point for using your own bodyweight: “Muscles become stronger in the ranges-of-motion that they’re used to,” says McCall. That means that, sure, they’ll become strong on the specific machines—but this strength may not transfer to normal everyday activities or sport-specific activities, he says.
Why’s that? You can be really strong on a leg press, but your back is supported by the machine. But when you go to lift that 50-pound bag of dog food, your back and legs may not work efficiently together, McCall explains.
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Of course, the effectiveness of bodyweight exercises depends on what your goals are. “If the goal is to develop muscle tone, lose weight, and improve fitness level—most definitely, bodyweight training can be effective,” McCall says. “However, if the goal is to significantly increase muscle mass or achieve a ‘shredded’ appearance, then strength training with weights will be preferable to bodyweight training.”
Looking for something quick? Next time you’re dreading the gym, skip it altogether and complete a circuit of these three do-anywhere moves (one does require a bar) from McCall instead.
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1. Split Leg Squat
Start with one foot on the ground and the other foot behind you elevated on a bench or jump box. Squat by flexing knee and hip of front leg until knee of rear leg is almost in contact with floor. Return to original standing position by extending hip and knee of forward leg and repeat.
“This exercise puts all of the strength into one leg—it can help strengthen the specific leg being used. Because you’re balancing on one leg, you’re also using core stabilizers and increasing activation of the nervous system to help recruit other muscles to limit unnecessary or unwanted movements.” Do 10 to 12 squats on each leg, rest for 45 to 60 seconds. Repeat for two to four sets.
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Grip bar with a palms-up grip. Pull chest to bar, bring chin above bar, moving up as fast as possible, and down slowly. “You can use a power band [a large rubber band] to help support your bodyweight,” McCall says. Do as many reps as possible to failure, rest for 60 to 90 seconds. Repeat for two to four sets.
Start in tabletop position on hands and toes with hips and shoulders at same height. Lift right arm up as you kick left leg across body. Press left hand into ground for support while extending left leg as far as possible. Alternate legs for eight to 12 reps, rest 60 seconds. Repeat for two to four sets.