By Dr. Mercola
Are the winter months bringing you workout blues? Do icy roads and bitter temps make you dread the trip to the gym? Is your gym closed during the only hours you are available to exercise?
Maybe you’re just bored with the same old routine and need something new to inspire you—to shake things up a bit. You’re certainly not alone! This is the time of year when winter doldrums can strike even the most die-hard fitness enthusiast.
If you’re not a winter sports buff, maybe the best way to get back into the swing of things is a workout you can do without going anywhere, with minimal equipment or no equipment at all. One of the best tools for in-home exercise is bodyweight exercising.
Bodyweight exercise got its name because your own body provides all the resistance needed to help you get fit. You can address every muscle in your body with hundreds of exercises that can be performed in a small space and adapted for your fitness level. It’s a simple answer to the challenges of weather, time constraints, finances, or just plain boredom.
No holiday hours, no personal trainer, and no expensive equipment needed... just you and gravity. In this article, I’ll be suggesting exercises you can do at home, as well as some extra TLC for your abs. After all, now is the time to start tuning up those abs from their holiday indulgences.
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. Since you are not using equipment, you spend minimal time transitioning from one exercise to the next, so your heart rate stays up.
- You get both cardiovascular and strength training. It’s not necessary to do two separate workouts to achieve both types of fitness. If you do your exercises slowly, you can increase their intensity. And you can alternate your exercises between cardio and strength training, or low impact and high. There is no end to the flexibility of these routines.
- Your core strength is improved. You have 29 pairs of muscles in your pelvis, abdomen, and lower back that form your core, which is important for maintaining strength, coordination, and balance in your everyday activities, from hauling groceries to working in your garden to walking your dog.
- You'll be more flexible. Increased strength without flexibility and range of motion won't do you much good. Good posture and athletic performance require good flexibility, so that you can bend and stretch with ease.
- Your balance will improve. As you progress into more difficult routines, your balance will improve, which gives you better body control and lower your risk of falling, especially if you’re elderly. Since age and infirmity do not usually hinder performance of bodyweight exercises, they can be adapted for any age or ability.
Baby, It’s Cold Outside
In “The Stir,” Carly Pizzani (aka Working Out Mama) offers some suggestions for in-home workouts. She’s put together two routines—one low impact and one high impact—but you could certainly combine elements of the two.2
The exercises she suggests are good, but there are some things to remember in terms of proper body mechanics, in order to get the most from your efforts. If you aren’t using proper form, you can potentially hurt yourself, regardless of whether you’re in a gym or in your own garage. Many people do popular exercises incorrectly, so in the sections that follow, I’ll be pointing out some frequent mistakes and how to prevent them.
Carly’s Winter Workouts Low Impact (2 sets of 15 reps, each round) High Impact (3 sets of 10 reps, each round) Pushups Squats Side plank (30 seconds per side) Mountain climbers (1 minute) Bridges Burpees Lateral leg lifts (with band or weight) Forward lunges Seated leg raises Jump rope or jumping jacks (1 minute) Plank flutters Tricep dips Inchworms Push ups Quadrupeds High knees (1 minute) Stand up squats Plank (as long as you can!)
Trade in Your Triceps Dip for a Plank-to-Triceps Extension
Unfortunately, the popular triceps dip is not one of the best exercises 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, I recommend substituting the plank-to-triceps extension in the following way:
- 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 yourself to the start position. Do 15 to 20 repetitions, paying careful attention to your form throughout the set.
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. However, make sure you have mastered the perfect pushup before you begin modifying it.
During a pushup, many people allow their elbows to flare out, which causes great stress on your 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, which is a rest and pause technique that increases the workout on your pecs:
- Perform as many pushups as you can, and then rest for 20 seconds
- Repeat once more
- Finish with one last round of pushups, to failure
I do about 20 pushups every day but do them with my legs supported on a banister 40 inches off the ground, so they are partially inverted. I also do about 10 wide gripped slow pull-ups, 10 one-legged deep squats on each leg, and 10 one-legged lunges on each leg on a suspension trainer like a TRX or a Jungle Gym.
Slow Down, Mountain Man
Doing mountain climbers 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. Here is how to modify mountain climber:
- 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, then 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.
How to Perform the Perfect Squat
Squats are one of the best functional exercises out there promoting mobility, 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! Here’s how to improve your squats with the “Prisoner Squat” variation (for a demonstration, watch Darin Steen):
- 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, make sure you can perform a perfect basic squat. And for the ultimate challenge, 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 has greater benefits than low-intensity workouts.
Is Your Six-Pack in Hibernation?
Elle offers a four-week plan for restoring your six-pack in time for summer, including animated demos.3 This certainly gives you a number of ideas for working your abs and core, using different approaches and muscle groups.
Four Weeks to Killer Abs WEEK 1 Exercise #1: Beast Activation Exercise #2: Bicycle with Reverse Curl WEEK 2 Exercise #1: Three Way Plank Exercise #2: Back Extension Lat Pull WEEK 3 Exercise #1: Plank with Hip Rotation Exercise #2: Hollow Body Hold WEEK 4 Exercise #1: Side Plank with Arm and Leg Lift Exercise #2: Lunge Chop
Abdominals require a great deal of exercise variation, because they occupy a large area of your body. You must address upper abs, lower abs, and obliques, and each requires a different type of exercise. The exercises in the table may give you some ideas for how to expand and vary your routine. Remember, pushups are great for your abs, too!
That said, I must remind you that the MOST important exercise for your six-pack is lowering your body fat with optimal nutrition. If you are overweight, intermittent fasting is a powerful tool to help you achieve that. It isn’t that toning and strengthening is not important, because it is. Your abs are a key part of your core strength. However, no one will see your six-pack if it’s covered by a thick layer of fat—no matter how strong and toned it is. By the way, everyone has a six-pack. If you can’t see yours, it’s a body fat issue.
So, the key to muscle definition is as much about diet as exercise. Eliminating processed foods, fast foods, and junk foods—and replacing them with whole foods, fresh vegetables, and healthful fats—is the way to a strong, healthy core that will serve you functionally, as well as aesthetically. For more fitness information, please visit our fitness videos page where we have more than 20 different videos covering a broad range of topics.
Exercising Properly Reaps Countless Rewards
Exercising at home is a great way to beat the winter blues and escape the 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—whether you’re at the gym or in your own home. If you focus on proper form, you will gain the most benefit and minimize your risk of injury.
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. You may need to experiment a little until you find the exercise routine that works best for you, so the benefits to your mental and physical health will be immeasurable—winter, spring, summer, and fall!