The ultimate fitness equipment doesn’t cost a dime. In fact, you've already got it at home. It’s your own body! While joining a fancy new gym or trying out the latest craze may seem like the only way to reach your fitness goals, those are not your only opinions. You can get strong and fit right at home using nothing but your body weight. Pushups, squats, lunges, dips and other no-equipment moves have been around for centuries for a reason—they work.
But if those bodyweight classics are the only exercises you know, there’s another truth you should know about at-home workouts: They can get stale. They can also lead to plateaus. Once you’ve become proficient at pushups, you’ve got to add more pushups—a.k.a. more time—to your workout to get stronger. Even then, you’re not overloading your muscles the way you would with heavier weights, meaning you’re building more endurance, but not necessarily more raw strength.
So, what's the solution? If you're feeling bored with your current routine and need to spice things up, consider challenging your muscles with new moves trainers love, but few exercisers use.
Challenge Your Core
We're all too familiar with the plank, crunch in leg lift, but there’s much more you can do for your core. Putting a few new twists—including some actual twists—on classic moves offers that added challenge you core needs to build strength. For Glenn Higgins, a personal trainer based in England, it’s as simple as adding a little oomph to the classic pushup by adding in a toe touch.
To do this move, assume the traditional pushup position with shoulders stacked over wrists and the body forming a straight line from head to heels. Maintain this rigid body line as you bend your elbows to lower your chest towards the ground. As you push back up, lift your hips up and back to form a shape similar to the top of a downward dog yoga pose. With hips high, keep your hips square as you lift your right hand off the ground and reach back to touch your left foot. Return your hand to the ground, lower your hips and do two regular pushups. Then raise your hips again, and touch your left foot with your right hand. Keep alternating in this way—two pushups, one toe touch. If you struggle with a full pushup, drop down to your knees in between toe touches.
Quianna Camper, a certified personal trainer with RSP Nutrition, likes to juice up a regular plank with the bear plank reach, a move that strengthens her core, glutes, quads and shoulders simultaneously. To do it, assume a quadruped position on hands and knees. Plant your toes and lift your knees about two to three inches off the ground. Hold this position and keep your hips and torso level as you lift your right arm and reach it forward so it’s by your ear. Return your right hand to the floor, then repeat with the left side. Perform three sets of 12 to 20 reaches on each side, keeping your knees elevated the entire time.
Lastly, a variation on the classic "dead bug" maneuver, which Steven Head, author of "Not Another Fitness Book", says increases activation in your middle. To do it, you’ll set up on your back with a wall just behind your head. Place your hands up next to your head against the wall, and raise your legs into a tabletop position with bent knees. Press your hands into the wall—hard—keeping your arms flexing. You’ll need to brace your core to do this. While continuing to press with your hands, lower one leg to the ground, straightening it and bringing the heel toward the ground, but not touching it down. Bring the leg back up, and lower the other leg. Continue "marching" in this way while continuing to press the wall above you.
Undo Damage from Sitting
One weak point for many at-home workouts is back strengthening. "It’s hard to work your back without equipment," says Mike Whitfield, a trainer and creator of Sets & Scriptures. Most back moves in the gym involve pulling something—a barbell to your chest, a cable toward your midsection or your chin over a bar. And since many of us spend our at-home time sitting, we need back work, Whitfield says.
"Your smaller, upper back muscles get tight [from sitting at a desk] and we end up ‘hunching over’ because these muscles get fatigued and lack endurance. This can lead to poor posture, even while standing," he explains. His solution for at-home exercisers and desk dwellers? A no-equipment move he simply calls the "cross."
To begin, stand with your feet just outside shoulder-width apart. Brace your core as if you’re about to take a punch. Extend your arms out to the side at shoulder level, with thumbs up. Keeping your arms out, squeeze your shoulder blades straight together, focusing on not letting your upper trapezius muscles—your shrugging muscles—come up. Hold your shoulder blades together for 20 to 30 seconds, rest and repeat one more time.
Get Moving In New Directions
The most common bodyweight exercises tend to have exercisers moving in the same direction, Head says. Pushups, lunges, squats—even running—all involve moving forward and backward. But athletic bodies don’t just go straight ahead. They twist, turn and move side to side. To become more athletic—that is, to move more fluidly with less pain and less chance of falling—means to train in these directions, too.
To get these benefits, Head suggests at-home exercisers add a set of sliders to their routine. And you don’t even need official sliders: If you’ve got carpeted floors, a plastic or paper plate will do the trick. And if your floors are tile or wood, an old towel works perfectly.
To use the slider—or plate or towel—to move in a new direction as you challenge your core and strengthen your hips, try Head’s high plank abduction and adduction move. Begin by placing the sliders under your feet and assume the classic pushup position. In this position, imagine your body is a clock, with your head at 12 and your feet at 6. Maintaining this rigid body line and keeping your hips square to the floor, slide your right leg out as if it were a hand on a clock to 3 o’clock. Slide it back to the start, and do the same with your left leg, sliding it out to 10 o’clock. Repeat for six slides on each side in each set, starting with one set.
The Triple Stop Method
In the gym, it’s not just how much weight you lift, but how long you lift it. The idea of increasing "time under tension" has long been used to increase strength and muscle size. Whitfield creates this same effect with bodyweight exercises through a "triple stop" method. "Pause for one second halfway down, again at the bottom, and once more halfway up," he explains. If a regular pushup takes you two seconds, a single rep of the triple-stop takes five seconds.
"This increased tension forces your muscles to work harder and optimizes muscular strength and endurance," he says. "Another plus is that it helps you be mindful of the muscles being worked. Many times, we just go through the motions of an exercise routine, neglecting to focus on contracting the muscle. These brief pauses help with the brain-muscle connection, helping you improve your form."
Try switching your pushups and bodyweight squats for triple-stop versions of each at your normal repetitions. If you don’t normally do pushups and squats, try for three to five sets of five of each to start.
A Heart-Pumping Finisher
Lots of bodyweight workouts finish with a high-intensity bout such as performing explosive squats in intervals or burpees for time—anything that leaves you feeling like you left everything you could on the exercise mat. If you're burned out on burpees, Higgins recommends trying kneel-to-squat jumps.
Start on your knees on an exercise mat with your chest tall and hands on your hips. Without using your hands, place one foot on the ground, then bring the other foot up to meet it, putting yourself at the bottom of a squat position with your chest tall and hips back and down. From there, explode up out of the squat to jump. If you’re not used to jumping, squat up with enough force to come up onto your toes at the top. Land softly and lower back down into the squat, then step back into the kneeling position, one leg at a time. Try doing this move for 10 to 12 reps at the end of your workout.
"I love the mixture of control and explosive power with this one," he says. Even though it’s not as ballistic and fast moving as a set of burpees, your balance, core stability and overall body control are tested throughout this move. Focus, Higgins says, on the portion where you’re transitioning from kneeling to the bottom of the squat: "When coming up from the kneeling position, it takes control to not fully extend the legs until you explode into the jump."
Before you resign yourself to waiting for your gym to reopen or purchase a ton of expensive equipment, remember that your workouts are what you make them. Research new exercise moves and increase intensity to keep home workouts interesting and keep those gains coming.