Bodyweight exercises are effective and gaining popularity, but they are often performed incorrectly, which increases your risk of injury
These exercises have the advantage of being very flexible and convenient, requiring no equipment and no special place or schedule, and the price is right—they’re free
Five popular bodyweight exercises are reviewed with their common mistakes highlighted; tips are given about how to perform them properly, plus modifications for each
Many exercise systems often sound great at first, but in reality simply will not make a good fit for your life.
Thankfully, there is something else you can try called bodyweight exercising, which is so flexible that it answers every possible concern you might have, including time constraints, prohibitive cost, and location issues.
Bodyweight exercise got its name because your own body provides all the resistance needed to help you get fit… and it does so at your own pace, without requiring a personal trainer to design the perfect system for your lifestyle and fitness level.
You likely already know that exercise is necessary to achieve high level health and a long life. What is not always clear is how you should go about it. There are countless different plans and theories about how to exercise.
Only you can choose a regimen that will fit into your personal lifestyle, in terms of time, equipment, travel to a gym or not, indoors versus outdoors, etc. Bodyweight exercises are some of the most flexible, since all you need is your own body.
You can do them anywhere, anytime, at your own pace and level, alone or with a friend—even if you and your friend are at different levels. It doesn’t cost a single penny. The method is not only effective, allowing you to train every muscle in your body, but it’s simple and allows you to work out at your own pace.
Because of the convenience factor, bodyweight exercises have been catching on—but many folks are performing them incorrectly. This is a real concern, because exercising incorrectly is an ineffective waste of time and may set the stage for a serious injury.
Health Benefits of Bodyweight Exercise
In the Huffington Post, Dave Smith discusses some of the greatest benefits of bodyweight exercise:1
- Workouts are highly efficient. As Dave points out, the goal is fitness, not to look like “Arnold circa 1977.” No equipment means that there’s minimal time transitioning from one exercise in your self-defined set to the next, so your heart rate is boosted quickly and keeps pumping.
- You get both cardiovascular and strength training. It is not necessary to do two separate workouts to achieve both types of fitness. Simply alternating exercise sets from cardiovascular to strength training keeps your pulse up.
- Your core strength is improved. The Mayo Clinic tells us that 29 muscle pairs located in the pelvis, abdomen and lower back form the core that’s needed to support your body and maintain balance.2 Your athletic ability, posture, and all the little things you do every day—like just plain sitting or doing the laundry—will be improved when your core is strengthened and stabilized.
- You’ll be more flexible. Increased strength without improved flexibility won’t do you much good. Good posture and athletic performance require good flexibility. Inability to stretch and bend is related to lack of flexibility.
- Your balance will improve. As you progress into more difficult variations of exercises, your ability to balance is trained. Better balance helps you achieve better body control. Since age and infirmity do not usually hinder performance of bodyweight exercises, they may be a great way for the elderly to maintain and improve balance.
With Bodyweight Exercising, You Are Your Own Personal Trainer!
Bodyweight exercise can be done by just about anyone. One study found benefits for stroke patients.3 If bodyweight exercise can help someone who’s suffered a major stroke and has difficulty walking, it would seem that nearly anyone could benefit.
Adaptability is what makes this system so good: it’s adjustable to almost anyone, from the least fit to the professional athlete. Just learn the basics and try different approaches until you find what works best for you. Just be sure you are performing the exercises correctly! There are five exercises that tend to be performed wrong, as this article in Men’s Health4 discusses. Let’s walk through each of them, and perhaps there are some modifications you’ll want to implement, in order to maximize your workouts.
1. Trade in Your Triceps Dip for a Plank-to-Triceps Extension
Unfortunately, the popular triceps dip is one of the worst moves for building fuller, stronger arms, because it places your shoulder joints in an unstable position and overloads the small muscles of your rotator cuff, which raises your risk for injury. Instead, substitute the plank-to-triceps extension in the following manner:
“Start to get into a pushup position, but bend your elbows and rest your weight on your forearms instead of on your hands. Your body should form a straight line from your shoulders to your ankles. Without allowing your lower back posture to change, contract your triceps, press your palms into the floor, and lift your elbows off the floor until your arms are completely straight. You should now be in a pushup position. Slowly lower to the start position. Do 15 to 20 repetitions with perfect form.”
2. Slow Down, Mountain Man
Doing mountain climber quickly invariably results in sloppy form, unless you are one of the strongest elite athletes. Putting this type of strain on your spine increases your risk of a back injury. But if you slow it down, the exercise will be safer and far more effective.
“Start in a pushup position with your arms completely straight. Brace your abs, and hold them that way for the entire movement. Without changing your lower-back posture, lift your right foot off the floor and raise your knee as close to your chest as you can. Touch the floor with your right foot, and then return to the starting position. Repeat with your left leg. Alternate back and forth for 30 reps total.
If you perform a cross-body mountain climber, raise your right knee toward your left elbow, lower, and then raise your left knee to your right elbow. Minimize the rotation in your lower back as you alternate back and forth.”
3. Squat Like a Prisoner
Squats are one of the best functional exercises out there, promoting mobility and balance, and helping you complete real-world activities with ease. Squats also help you to burn more fat, because they build so much muscle. Squats have sometimes been criticized for being destructive to your knees, but research shows that when done properly, squats actually improve knee stability and strengthen connective tissue. With just a slight modification, you can use squats to work your back, arms, and posture—all at the same time!
In this “Prisoner Squat” variation, instead of holding your hands out in front of your body as you squat, place your fingers on the back of your head and hold your elbows out (as if you’re being arrested). Stick your chest out, pull your elbows and shoulders back, and keep your back muscles contracted hard throughout the entire squat. When you return to standing, squeeze your shoulder blades together to create maximum tension.
For added challenge and variety, try modifications such as split squats, sissy squats, pistol squats, and goblet squats. But before getting fancy, however, make sure you can perform a basic, perfect squat, as Darin Steen demonstrates in the video above. And for the ultimate, try super-slow squats. By slowing down your movement and focusing on control, you’re actually turning your regular old squats into a high-intensity exercise, which science is proving provides greater benefits than low-intensity workouts.
4. Think You Have Pushups Down? Think Again
Just as with triceps dips, there have been many torn or strained rotator cuffs from performing pushups incorrectly. Even done correctly, standard pushups will start to lose effectiveness over time if you don’t add in new challenges. Make sure you can master the perfect pushup before you begin modifying it.
During a pushup, many people allow their elbows to flare out, which causes immense stress on their shoulders. The idea is to keep your elbows at a 45-degree angle from your body—and close to your body—when you’re in the bottom position. This also reduces the amount of work your pecs have to do. You can make the exercise more challenging with the following modification:
“To make your chest work harder, use this rest and pause technique. Perform as many pushups as you can, and then rest for 20 seconds. Repeat once more. Finally, finish with one last round of pushups to failure. The result: a pumped-up chest and healthy shoulders.”
5. Stepping Outside Your Box
Box jumps have become quite popular with the advent of CrossFit, but they are associated with a fair number of injuries, especially from jumping backward off a box. When jumping off backward, you tend to land with your weight forward for balance. This can produce an abrupt stretch of your Achilles tendons—and the last thing you want is a torn Achilles! Therefore, instead of jumping backward off the box, simply step down. This will slow down the pace, which makes the exercise more controlled, safer and more effective. Men’s Health also suggests some total body extensions:
“Stand with your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart, toes forward. Push your hips back as if you’re about to sit in a chair, and lower your body. Let your arms hang by your hips with your palms facing behind you. In one swift motion, swing your arms straight overhead, and explosively stand up by thrusting your hips forward and rising up on your toes. Immediately return to the start position. Continue to do as many reps as you can for one minute.”
Exercising Properly Reaps Countless Rewards
Bodyweight exercise is effective and frees you from the expenses and restrictions of many other exercise programs. However, it’s critical to understand that you shouldn’t just go flinging your body around or acting as if you’re immune to injury. If you focus on proper form, you will gain the most benefit and minimize your injury risk.
Every person is different, so there are many “correct” ways to exercise. Because we’re all different, what works for one person may do little for another. Experiment a little! If you can tolerate a bit of “fumbling around” until you find the exercise routine that works best for you, the benefits to your mental and physical health will be immeasurable!
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