When you start out in fitness (or start back with it) it’s never a good idea to go at it gung-ho with a crazy intense workout. If your body isn’t used to structured exercise you must ease yourself into it gradually at a pace that suits you. This will help you gain strength and develop the co-ordination you need to eventually tackle the more advanced techniques.
The best strategy for making continuous progress whilst staying safe is to master the absolute basics and then move on from there. Basic workouts aren’t for the weak, they can be incredibly challenging if done correctly and will give you surprising results. When you focus on technique you get the opportunity to understand how your body likes to move, the geometry of your joints, the optimal range of movement for you, your current limits, and so on.
This quiet time spent building strong foundations will serve you well in the future. Trust me.
We are going to start with a simple 20 min workout consisting of 4 exercises carried out one after the other in a circuit fashion. This is a bodyweight workout that you can do in most places without any equipment as long as you have a safe surface to lie on.
We will start with a full explanation of how each exercise is performed correctly and the reasons why they are beneficial for your fitness and health.
The 4 exercises
1) The perfect body weight squat
Squats are awesome for many reasons. The main one being that they get you to workout a large number of muscle groups and they allow you to build both strength and explosive strength that you can make use of in your chosen sports. From my experience: you can jump high and really kick arse when you play volleyball, you can run faster, if you do Parkour you can jump higher or longer and if you pole dance squats will give you a lovely shape to your legs and glutes thus earning you bigger tips (this one I was told about, promise).
As well as the legs and glutes squats are great for your core muscles, balance, flexibility and co-ordination. They also help you get grounded and give you a strong posture which is essential in any fighting art.
This is how you do a perfect squat:
- Stand tall, straight and with your feet shoulders width apart. Make sure that feet and knees are pointing in the same direction and the position feels comfortable.
- What you do with your hands and arms is both a matter of personal choice and objective: in kung fu we used to do wider squats and to help with balance we used to keep our arms outstretched in front like the gentleman above, however if I want to work on strengthening my posture and to counteract a tendency to lean forward too much it’s more likely that I keep my hands behind my head (prisoner squat).
- When you are ready start the movement by pushing your derriere towards the wall behind you and then allow the knees to bend so that you can lower your glutes towards the floor until your position resembles the image above. Ideally your knees won’t go past your toes.
- When you get to the bottom of the movement hold the position for 1 second then get back up.
If you struggle don’t go down quite so much, if it’s too easy get your arse to the grass (like a toddler picking up toys from the floor) or even do it on one leg. It’s important not to sink through the knees as it can cause injuries. If you look at the image on the right, if the model had his knees together, it would mimic the position you would be getting in when skiing fast down a slope.
Once you have mastered the basic movement you can introduce variations like mixing up full squats with half squats or even pulsing at the bottom of the movement (that’s moving up and down an inch). You can move your feet further apart or bring them closer together and you can use weights or resistance bands to make the exercise more challenging.
2) How to get the most out of your push-ups
Push-ups have got to be easily the scariest exercise for my female clients to tackle. For some reason they come across as monstrous and a mammoth effort.
I would agree that they are not always easy to perform but with a bit of practice everyone can do them and enjoy the benefits of stronger arms, chest and core muscles. Remember that your face, shoulders and upper trunk is the first thing that people notice about you, and the only one if you are at business meetings sitting around a table. So it’s definitely worth the effort!
- You can start doing push-ups in the same position as the girl in the picture above. Being on your knees makes your body shorter so gravity has less to push down on as you do the exercise.
- You want your hands to be under your shoulders and level with your chest, elbows pointing outwards.
- When you are ready start bending your arms and lower your body until your chest is hovering one or two inches above the ground. Then push yourself back up.
Start with whatever you can do but aim at being able to do 3 sets of 10 reps with excellent form before you move on to the next variation.
If this is too hard you can bring the knees closer to your hands in a box position or even do the pushup against the wall. If this is too easy make a full plank your starting position but make sure you can go at least half the way down otherwise you are not achieving much.
If you feel like your arms and chest want to explode you are doing it right. Be careful of face planting if you get too tired. It’s best to do 2 excellent reps and rest for a bit than push yourself through 10 half hearted reps.
3) Get your spine combat ready with hip thrusts!
You think I am joking when I say that but I am not. Besides your brain your spinal chord is probably the second most important organ in the human body because it ensures smooth communications between the brain and the rest of the body, including your heart. Your spinal chord is safely encased inside the vertebrae that make up the spine which, in turn, are protected by a thick layer of tendons, ligaments and muscles.
There are in excess of 30 muscle pairs intertwined to form two sausage like structures that run alongside the vertebrae: the erector spinae. These two muscle groups are your first line of defense against injuries to the spinal column and spinal chords in the event of a fall. It therefore makes sense to pay attention to their health and ensure they stay strong and flexible.
You can easily do that by doing hip thrusts on a regular basis. This simple exercise, when carried out correctly, will help your back become both strong and more supple. In addition it will help you develop strong glutes and hamstrings as well as helping you stretch the abdominal muscles.
The version in the image above is perhaps a bit more advanced than where you may want to start if you have never done this exercise before. Nevertheless… get into the position at the top and push on the leg that’s bent and with the foot on the floor to raise your hips towards the ceiling. As you reach the top of the movement aim for a straight line or slight arch from your shoulders all the way to the knee. I like to remind my students and clients to practice mindfulness and feel each vertebrae as it lifts off the floor on the way up and as it rests back on the floor on the way down.
If this version of the exercise is too difficult do it with both feet on the floor. If this is too easy you can place one or both feet on a swiss ball or, even. move on to working on a full bridge.
4) Leg raises for abs of steel
With this exercise we will take care of your core from a different perspective than squats and push-ups.
When you perform leg raises correctly you develop strong abdominals by addressing all layers of muscle protecting our internal organs: the deepest transverse abdominis, the obliques and the top layer (six pack) rectus abdominis. The back muscles are also involved and so are the hip flexors.
- You can start from the position shown in the picture above left and push your hands and arms into the ground
- start lowering your legs until the feet are hovering an inch or two above the ground
- go back to the starting position.
- Your back should be firmly braced and barely changing shape as you lower your legs. If this starts to happen stop there and return to the starting position until you have become strong enough to go a little bit further down.
If this is way too hard for you then start the exercise with your feet an inch above the ground and the legs straight, bring your knees towards the chest and then push your feet back out to go back in the starting position. Then work your way to a full leg raise.
If this too easy you can try doing the leg raises while you are suspended from a horizontal bar of some sort (a chin-up bar for example). You can start by bringing your knees to your chest without swinging from your arms and work your way to straightening up the legs.
The rules of the workout
The rules for this workout are very simple:
• you will only workout for 20 minutes + a couple of minutes to warm up and another couple of minutes to cool down. In my experience, this is an ideal length of time to focus on exercising that all my clients have found easier to accept than the traditional 60 min sessions;
• you will only do reps with 100% correct form;
• it doesn’t matter how many rounds you complete in 20 minutes to begin with as long as the form is always spot on. Eventually you will be aiming for at least 4 rounds before increasing the difficulty;
• there is no rest scheduled in between sets of exercises however, if you get tired and you start to lose form stop, rest for a few seconds and when you are ready start from where you left off and carry on with the circuit;
• signs that the workout is working are: you get hot, breathless and your muscles burn. If you don’t get this choose a more advanced version of each exercise until you do;
• repeat the circuit 2 – 3 times per week to get the best results. Repetition is the key: the more you ask your muscles to perform a task the more they are going to grow and give you strength (not volume);
• enjoy the workout. Really find a way of enjoying it and you will reap the benefits tenfold than if you just did it because I told you to.
THE WARM UP
If you exercise at home this part can be tricky unless you can go for a jog, intense walk or maybe even play with a hula hoop. The objective of the warm up is to prepare your body for exercise so don’t skip this fundamental component. If space is limited you could consider doing some star jumps or running on the spot or even going up and down the stairs a few times. Just don’t do anything too strenuous, think gentle and progressive not extreme.
THE COOL DOWN
The objective of the cool down is to slow all the systems down after they have been “put through their paces” during your workout. Exercise brings about the release of stress hormones which are useful for triggering fat loss but we don’t want them to remain excited for too long. A good cool down will slower your heart rate and return your respiration back to normal levels too.
Stretching immediately after a workout is always a good idea as it will help you increase mobility and reduce stiffness in the muscles. If it’s not your cup of tea you can always go for a leisurely walk around the block. 15-20 minutes of gentle strolling will be enough but you can go for longer if you wish.
As I already said although this workout looks very easy, if you do it correctly you will still get breathless and hot and sweaty AND you will prime your muscles and nervous system for more exciting things in the future.
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