Unless you have access to a gym through your work or university, going to the gym can be expensive. Even if it’s not expensive, it can be intimidating. Fortunately there a number of exercises that you can do without a gym membership. Many of them can be done in your home, and most of them don’t require any equipment.
Some exercises are better at building muscle, and some exercises are better at burning fat, but both do both, and both are good for you. Exercises that make you breathe faster and pump up your heart rate are the kind that burn calories, and exercises that you count in reps rather than times or distances are the kind that build muscle. There are also exercises for things like balance, flexibility, and coordination. This article will discuss easy exercises for the upper body and core, while the next two articles will discuss lower-body and full-body exercises.
Changing Your Push-Ups for Gym Quality Arms and Pecs at Home
Most of the machines and free-weights in a gym are there to provide resistance, something for your muscles to work against. There are a lot of exercises out there, however, that use the body itself as resistance, meaning that they don’t require extra equipment costs or membership fees, and can be done in the home.
Most people are familiar with the basic push-up – toes together, hands shoulder-width apart, up, down, you get it – but there are actually a number of different ways to do the push-up that can target different muscle groups in the upper body. The basic push-up, which mainly targets the muscles in the chest, is valuable but try moving your hands farther apart. You should be able to get lower to the ground this way, and rely more on your arms and less on the muscles in your chest. Similarly, putting your hands close together so that your thumbs and index fingers form a diamond can drastically change which muscle groups you use to perform the same basic action.
If you find the push-up too hard at first, try going onto your knees instead of supporting yourself only on your hands and toes. This should be less strain, and will help develop the muscles required to do a push-up on proper form. Furthermore, even if you can do some regular push-ups, doing them on your knees will allow you to do more of them, and do them faster. Doing push-ups this way can help them burn more calories, even if it won’t build muscle as quickly.
Pull-Ups, and What to do if You Can’t
Another classic body-resistance exercise is the pull-up – grab a bar with both hands, shoulder-width apart with your fingers facing toward you and, well, pull up. This exercise is great for the muscles in the arms and upper back – a difficult region to work.
Pull-ups can be hard, especially for people carrying extra weight, so don’t set your expectations too high at first. If you can’t manage a pull-up, ease into things with something called the flexed arm hang. In a flexed arm hang you grab the bar so that your hands are right next to each other, and rather than pulling yourself up, just hang there for as long as you can. This exercise isn’t great for burning calories, but it’s a great way to develop the muscles necessary for doing a proper pull-up.
One note on pull-ups is that it might be best to use special equipment for this. Never do a pull-up on a pipe or door frame, as these can break causing damage to your building, and potentially yourself. I am talking from experience because I have seen broken pipes in homes as a result of doing pull-ups. Pull-up bars that can be securely adjusted to door-frames can often be purchased for a reasonable price from most big-box stores.
Modified Sit-Ups and Crunches for a Rock-Hard Core
Exercises that use the body as resistance can also be of benefit to the core. The classic sit-up – Lie on your back with knees bent and feet flat, and bring the chest up to the knees with fingers locked behind the head. If your feet come up, try tucking them under a couch or the end of the bed – can do wonders for the abdominal muscles, the ever-coveted “six pack.”
There are other muscle groups making up the core, however, most notably the obliques. These muscles run at angles from the back around to the front. These muscles can be worked by doing a standard sit-up, but rotating the body so that the elbow goes to the opposite knee. A little more advanced move is to do a regular sit-up, and then twist the upper body back and forth three times; the abdominal muscles are working to lift the upper body and keep it upright, while the other muscle groups work to rotate the upper body without moving the hips, which should remain on the floor. When I learned these in JROTC we called them “Rockies” after the Sylvester Stallone films. This is also another exercise that burns more calories than the conventional version.
Similar to the sit-up is the crunch – lie on your back with knees bent at a ninety-degree angle so that your feet are off the floor and bring your head up toward your knees with fingers locked behind your head. This exercise is a little easier for most people, but targets the same muscle groups. Like the sit-up, crunches can be done while rotating to work other muscle groups.
One important thing about crunches and sit-ups is that you should always try to lift your upper body using your abs. With the fingers locked behind your head it can be tempting to try to pull yourself up, but this can cause a lot of strain to the neck. If this temptation is too great for you, try crossing your arms over your chest when you do sit-ups instead, though this is a little awkward while doing crunches.
An interesting core-exercise using body-resistance involves lying flat on your back with your hands palms down at your sides and lifting your legs. This is an interesting example of something called “reverse muscle action,” which is just a scientific way of saying “using a muscle to do the opposite of what we usually use it for.” A huge variety of exercises can be made out of this one by slightly changing the action by, say, raising one leg at a time, or keeping both legs in the air and moving one up while moving the other down – sometimes called a “flutter kick.” Depending on how they are done, these exercises can be great for building and toning muscle, burning calories, or both.