No Time for the Gym Today? Try This at Home

Written by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

strength training home regimen

Story at-a-glance -

  • A combination of jumping jacks, crunches, squats, planks and burpees work most of your larger muscle groups, strengthen your core muscles and improve your cardiovascular fitness — all of which may be done at home without equipment
  • Multiple benefits of strength or resistance training include reduced anxiety, improved muscle strength and bone density, better cognitive function and reduced potential for functional decline
  • Load-bearing exercises reduce your risk of symptoms of perimenopause and metabolic syndrome, and lower inflammation and improve insulin sensitivity
  • Strength training may also increase your heart and respiratory rates, easily becoming a cardiovascular workout to improve your muscle tone and cardiovascular health

Regardless of your age or gender, strength training is an integral part of any well-rounded exercise program. Unfortunately, when designing an exercise plan, many ignore strength training, thinking it's only for those who want to gain bulky muscles.

You can put those worries to rest, since muscle growth is largely controlled by your genes and food intake, and few have the potential to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger. The size of your muscle growth is also limited by your age, body type, gender and other biological and genetic factors.

There are significant benefits to adding resistance training to your fitness routine as it has mental, emotional and physical benefits. Exercise may even help reverse diseases triggered by a sedentary lifestyle, such as Type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, heart disease and Alzheimer's disease.

Despite a significant number of benefits, you may sometimes find it difficult to get to the gym. When you're unable to find the time for a strength workout, consider using the routine outlined below. Being persistent increases the potential you’ll experience many of the health benefits associated with strength training.

Enjoy Multiple Benefits With Strength Training

Strength training is a core foundation to your overall health. In a meta-analysis of 16 previously published studies evaluating the effect of strength training on anxiety, the data demonstrated resistance training was associated with a reduction in symptoms of anxiety, whether or not the participant had a diagnosis of a mental health disorder.1

Strength training also helps prevent the natural loss of skeletal muscle that occurs with advancing age, called sarcopenia. This is an important factor in the loss of independence and functional decline. Sarcopenia is defined by a loss of muscle strength and mass attributed to factors such as hormonal changes, neurological decline, poor nutrition and declining activity.

The gold standard and safest way to hold off age-related decline will always be exercise and nutrition. In one study,2 researchers demonstrated strength training reversed muscle atrophy in 70-year-old participants. As it improves your muscle mass, it also reduces your risk of osteoporotic changes to your bone and thus prevents broken hips, wrists or vertebrae from calcium loss and thinning.

The growth in muscle mass also boosts your metabolism and helps you to lose or maintain your weight, as well as prevent damage to your joints. Inactivity and muscle loss increases the potential damage to large joints, leading to arthritic changes and pain, while exercise helps prevent these changes.3

Resistance training also helps reduce shrinkage of white brain matter and impacts your cognitive function. Researchers evaluated a 12-week strength exercise program in the elderly and found sedentary women demonstrated a 19 percent improvement in cognitive ability.4

The combination of upper and lower body strength helps reduce the potential for functional decline and maintain independent living, and researchers5 have found elderly individuals are typically more afraid of losing their independence and moving into a nursing home than they are of dying.

The benefits of resistance training effectively reduce the signs of aging, improve muscle tone, cognitive functioning and increase the potential you'll remain independent as you age.

Why Load Bearing Exercises Are so Important for Your Health

Many of the benefits from strength training come from load bearing exercise. Load bearing helps to counteract bone loss, which accelerates as you age and outpaces your body's ability to create new bone.

Bone and muscle loss are compounded by a sedentary lifestyle, increasing your risk of loss of mobility. Weak muscles in combination with a brittle bone structure are a recipe for crippling and disabling falls. Additionally, strength training:

Improves your insulin sensitivity — Mark Peterson, assistant professor of physical medicine at the University of Michigan, notes: "Muscle is very metabolically active, and it uses glucose, or blood sugar, for energy."6 Thus activity reduces your risk of insulin resistance.

Reduces your risk of metabolic syndrome — This cluster of conditions includes a large waist circumference, high triglycerides, high blood pressure and high blood sugar, which raises your risk of Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Research shows working with weights for just under an hour per week can cut your risk of metabolic syndrome by 29 percent.7,8

Other research has found a twice-weekly resistance training program improved insulin sensitivity and reduced abdominal fat in older men who had already developed Type 2 diabetes, without any dietary changes.9

Reduces perimenopausal symptoms in women — Symptoms of perimenopause, including anxiety and depression, mood swings, irregular periods, weight gain and brain fog, are reduced with strength training. In part these changes are the result of increasing production of testosterone, typically thought of as a male sex hormone.

During menopause, natural levels of testosterone may drop by as much as 50 percent.10 Although women should not take testosterone supplementation, improving your natural production using strength training is a safe way to address perimenopausal symptoms.

Lowers inflammation — Resistance training lowers inflammation in your body, a hallmark of most chronic disease, especially heart disease and cancer.

Strength Training Also Improves Cardiovascular Fitness

Cardiovascular exercise is the performance of a physical exertion during which your heart and respiratory rates accelerate. It's important to include some form of cardiovascular and high intensity training in a well-rounded fitness program, as well as strength or resistance training.

Fitness experts note you cannot fully access your cardiovascular system unless you are performing mechanical work with your muscles. So strength training is also a cardiovascular workout.

Your heart has two primary metabolic processes to fuel the muscle. Aerobic activity requires oxygen for fuel and anaerobic activity does not require oxygen. Traditional strength training and cardiovascular exercise primarily uses oxygen while high intensity training (HIIT) and SuperSlow strength training works your aerobic and anaerobic processes.

SuperSlow weightlifting techniques remove the momentum sometimes employed during strength training. By not allowing the muscle to rest, muscle growth is supercharged, as it has to continuously work throughout the entire movement. While the following bodyweight-based strength training routine does not use SuperSlow weight training or HIIT, it does offer you the ability to continue your program without missing a beat when you don’t have gym access.

Strength Training Basics

No matter the type of strength training you engage in, there are two basic terms you must understand:

  • Reps — A rep (repetition) indicates one complete motion of an exercise. Be mindful of performing each rep using full range of motion.
  • Set — A set is a group of reps.

If you performed two sets of 10 reps of bicep curls, this means you did 10 bicep curls, rested, then did 10 more. How many reps you do depends on your fitness level, goals and weights. To build strength using heavy weights, it's generally recommended to do one to six reps per set. If you are working out for bulk, use moderately-heavy weights that allow you to do at least eight reps, but no more than 12.

For tone, endurance and general conditioning, aim for 10 to 12 reps using more moderate weights or 15 to 20 reps with lighter weights. Note: The number of reps you do is based on what you can achieve to the point of exhaustion or muscle “failure;” in other words, when you can’t do any more reps in the set.11

If You Can’t Make It to the Gym Consider These Exercises at Home

This one-minute video demonstrates a simple routine you can do at home without any equipment. Depending upon the speed at which you do the reps and the time you rest between sets, this routine can easily become a cardiovascular workout as well.

Do one set of each exercise and move on to the next. Consider doing a second set after completing one full rotation as your strength and endurance improve. Remember to use correct form to reduce your risk of injury.

While you may be familiar with many of these exercises, to reduce the potential for a muscle strain or other injury it’s important to review and follow the proper form for each exercise. Gently stretch your arms and legs prior to doing your first set.

30 Jumping jacks — This an efficient cardiovascular exercise often used to warm up prior to strength training or cardiovascular exercise.12 Start by standing straight with your feet shoulder width apart and your arms to your side. Jump up, spreading your legs out and raising your arms above your head at the same time. Jump again to return your feet to shoulder width apart and your hands back to your side. This is one repetition. Do 30 repetitions for one set.

30 Squat holds — This primal movement is mastered by babies first before standing and walking. It is a base for many activities, from sitting in a chair to lifting heavy objects. The activity helps build your leg, back and core muscles and helps improve circulation in your legs.13 Each of these factors improve your strength and posture, reducing your risk for back injury.

The trick to doing this movement with proper form is to imagine there is a chair behind you.14 Start in a standing position with your feet shoulder width apart and your feet pointed straight ahead. The squat starts by driving your hips back, and then bending at the knees and ankle. Press your knees open as you sink into a squat position and go as deep as you can comfortably.

If you have knee pain, don't go deeper than a 90 degree angle in your knees, keeping your thighs parallel to the floor.15 Hold this position for 30 seconds, then return to standing.

20 Calf raises — The standing calf raise helps develop the strength of your lower leg and improves the range of motion and strength in your ankle.16 While doing this movement, resist making it bouncy and instead control raising and lowering your body throughout.

Once you are adept at doing these on flat ground, consider increasing the intensity by doing them on stairs, placing your toes on the step with your heels hanging over. This allows you to drop your heel as you lower your body and achieve a greater stretch in your ankle. Be sure to keep your legs straight throughout the motion.

Begin by standing with your feet shoulder width apart on the floor. Use the wall or a chair to stay balanced when you begin. Push your weight into your toes and raise your heels off the floor. Pause at the top and then slowly lower yourself back to the starting position. This is one repetition.

20 Crunches — Attempting crunches the wrong way may lead to back pain and muscle cramps. Traditional situps pull at your neck and back muscles and activate your hip flexors.17 While doing your crunches, keep your mind on the muscles you’re exercising. This helps you to activate your abdominal muscles and relax your neck and back.

Start by lying with your back flat on the floor. Bend your knees to 90 degrees, or rest your feet on the seat of a chair. Cross your hands over your chest. Keeping a fist’s worth of space between your chin and chest, draw your belly button toward your spine and crunch up, lifting your shoulders off the ground without raising further than your midback.

Be careful to use your abdominal muscles while keeping your neck, leg and thigh muscles relaxed. Exhale as you crunch up and inhale as you lie down.

30-Second elbow plank — Using tension without contraction in your legs, back, abdominal and arm muscles, this isometric exercise is a true test of core strength. Performing the exercise consistently improves your strength and posture, and reduces your risk of injury. However, there are a few common mistakes that may trigger muscle strain and reduce the effectiveness of the exercise.

Begin on the floor, with your legs extended, toes on the floor and your elbows shoulder width apart and directly under your shoulders. Then, raise your midsection up into plank position. It is important to keep your back straight from buttocks to your head, not allowing your back to sag or to raise in the middle.18

Keep your eyes focused on the floor approximately 6 inches in front of you, so your head and neck are in alignment with the rest of your body. Hold this position for 30 seconds. As you get stronger consider increasing the time to one minute or more.

10 Burpees — This exercise was developed in 1939 when Royal H. Burpee invented the bodyweight movement as a simple way of administering a fitness test. Over the last 75 years it has evolved to a six-count movement that may or may not include a pushup.

In the video above, our trainer demonstrates a burpee using a modified pushup. CrossFit coach and nutritionist Erica Giovinazzo believes the burpee is a good fitness tool since they require use of the whole body through multiple planes, saying:19

“If I were to run, or row, or even do something like jumping jacks or jump rope, I'm pretty much staying in one spot, or just moving straight ahead. A burpee makes you go up and down and up and down. This increases the heart rate dramatically.”

The demands of the burpee are intense and are a great way to end this short workout. The greater the intensity of the movement, the higher the post-exercise elevation in your metabolism and the greater improvements you’ll experience in cardiovascular health.

You begin the burpee by standing with your feet shoulder width apart and your hands at your side. Squat and place your hands on the floor in front of you just outside of your feet. Jump both feet back so you're in a plank position. At this point you can drop to a pushup or do a modified movement seen in the video above. You may also drop to your knees and do a pushup.

Once completed, push back into the plank position and jump your feet back in toward your hands. Now explosively jump into the air, raising your hands straight overhead. This is one repetition. Aim for at least five burpees the first time, working up to 10 repetitions.