There are likely thousands if not millions of various exercise programs out there. As fantastic as it is to have so many options when it comes to exercising and maintaining an active lifestyle, there can be a certain level of apprehension leaving many overwhelmed. Should I look into team sports or a fitness class? What about hiking? Should I buy equipment or sign up for a gym? Should try to link up with others or go it alone? Whether it’s been eons since the last time we deliberately did anything to improve our fitness, or if our current, workout regimen has just gone a bit stale, not knowing where to turn, what to add, what to remove and what to focus on is a common problem many face in the long-term.
At the core of exercise is performing any movement effective in increasing muscle strength, flexibility, agility, balance and all other aspects of a healthy physical body. The functional purpose of movement is my favourite way to simplify the wealth of exercise options out there. Not only does “function” create a practical element to, i.e., “what exercises will help me do the everyday things I need to do?”, but it also allows more muscle groups to be engaged at once, drastically reducing the types of exercises, and most importantly, the time needed. Reducing time is key since it’s well documented that on the whole, exercise is relatively ineffective for health, and while beneficial is not nearly as essential and doesn’t warrant nearly as much attention, to healthy living compared to food. Primal Blueprint founder Mark Sisson emphasises this approach characterising the most basic movements as fitness plans even cavemen did.
These basic movements are pushups, pullups, planks and squats. As far as strength building goes, these cover the most whole-body, yet functional, natural physiological movements. Lifting heavy boxes, climbing trees, stairs or ladders, moving furniture around, or carrying babies engage all of the same muscle groups and involve similar movements as these four exercises. This is in contrast to other common exercises that are not nearly as practical such as bicep curls which are more about body building and appearance than the strength of a physiologically important movement. Add in sprinting once and a while, and moving frequently at slow paces and you have the entire gamut of essential exercise to base the active aspects of your healthy lifestyle around.
Pushups, along with running represent perhaps the simplest and most “default exercise” there is. Everyone knows what pushups are, has tried to do them and has an understanding of their place in physical fitness. Whether they are elite competitive athletes, or people starting to exercise for the first time in decades, their program incorporate pushups, or moves that mimic pushups (i.e., the bench press). Simple as that.
When done properly, pushups engage your arms, chest, shoulders and core (abs and back) making them one of the most efficient and beneficial bodyweight movements there is. One of the other benefits in pushups is in the variety. There are many different forms of pushups allowing the movement to be adjusted for level of ability, pace, range of movement or even environment.
At their purest form, pushups are done lying face down on a flat surface, starting with your hands at shoulder height and just wider than shoulder width. I find that placing my hands at a width at which my forearms perpendicular to the ground when I’m I’m at rest (lying down) is the most comfortable, balanced and strong position. Feet placement can also very. The closer they are together the more difficult they are since wider feet make maintaining balance and a solid core easier, your trunk (abs, bank and hips) are crucial. You want to keep your whole body as rigid as possible. I have known people to place a broomstick on their back while they do pushups to make sure they remain solid. If you’re doing this, your heels or calves, butt, space between your shoulder blades and head should all be in contact with the stick, if not, odds are your trunk is sagging below. WellnessMama has a fantastic simple breakdown of the perfect pushup and many of the ways to modify the exercise depending on level of ability.
Despite being a very basic movement in theory, pullups are commonly regarded as one the most challenging exercises there is for many reasons. Your body weight affects your ability to do pullups more than pushups, situps and most other basic movements since unlike those, with pullups, your entire body counts as the weight. With most others, only a fraction of your body is being directly lifted and with squats, your lower body is naturally better equipped and more accustomed to supporting your body, than your upper is.
Grip-strength in my hands wrists and forearms is what poses the biggest difficulty for me personally. This is why without pullup counterweight machines many find it difficult to begin them if they haven’t tried them in a long time. Another simple way to progress through pullups is to simple use your legs to lightly support your weight. By gauging the effort required, you can gently press your feet against the ground or bench if the bar is too high, and slowly stand, making sure your effort is targeted on your back, shoulders and arms to do their fair share of work.
These variations are where the beauty of pullups lie. As challenging as they can be for beginners, there is plenty of room to make them easier or more difficult depending on your level and all approaches are fairly common sense. The wider your grip is the more difficult they are. Personally, I’ve spent a lot of time building up the ability to do the easiest form - narrow grip, palms facing backward. As 10 become regularly achievable, I started to widen the grip. Adding more weight to your body makes them harder, and adding more support to your body (a bench to stand on, a counter-weight machine, muscle-ups) make them easier. Slowing down is also harder, as being able to pause mid motion is a true mark of strength.
Planks are the outlier movement here as they are the only one which doesn’t actually involve movement. Planks are an isometric exercise which means it involves holding steady position for a set period of time. Isometric exercises are more effective for your core due to the prolonged tension - staying flexed for a very long time rather than for repeated short bursts. Research shows this prolonged tension promotes strength and builds muscle-mass which is essential for a stable core that can support movement and steady posture for the entire body.
The most common plank form with face down, with your body supported only by your forearms and toes on the ground - the rest of your body in the air. It’s incredibly important to maintain a straight body from head to toe - like a plank of wood. Similar to pushups, a broom stick should be able to rest along the backs of your legs, butt, shoulders and head. Once this position is started, the goal is then to hold it for a set period as the burn settles in. If you can hold it for a full minute 2 or three times with short breaks in between to rest, you’re in pretty good shape. Aiming for shorter times, or going with your knees on the ground, so that less of your body weight is active are simple ways to scale the challenge back if you’re just starting out.
When done properly squats engage more of the entire body than any other single movement. Of course, the primary benefactor here is the lower body from the glutes all the way down to feet, but maintaining balance and control requires an immense level of effort from the core, back, shoulders and arms, especially if modifiers such as extra weight, single leg, or explosive movements are made. Squats have a reputation for being dangerous, but if proper form and controlled progression is emphasised, the potential for injury is as minimal as with any weight-bearing movement. The risk-factor does rise quite quickly if you overdo though, so no loud, eyes-closed wiggling around to make sure you push more weight than you should.
The basic squat involves a starting position of standing with your feet greater than shoulder-width apart. I generally set mine as wide as possible without it feel like I’m stretching - still comfortably standing. Then ti’s a matter of lowering your body bending at the knees to a target of 90 degrees which brings your thighs parallel to the ground, then rising back up to standing just before your knees lock straight. The difficult part is to maintain an arched back. Holding your torso upright rather than hunching or leaning forward is the most important factor in preventing injury. I try to make sure my torso changes as little as possible from standing to squatting - look forward, ideally at my reflection, with the chin up, shoulders back and my back straight enough so I don’t have to crane my head up to look straight.
The other key point to remember involves preventing your knees from bending inward or outward laterally. Your knees should be above your feet directly, so that they are not any closer or further from each other than your feet are. In other words, conscious effort should be given to ensure your shins are perpendicular to the ground rather than leaning to either side.
This is it. Regardless of where you decide to go as you chase an admirable health-related New Year’s resolution, or where to turn to next as you fall out of love with cross-fit, as long as you remember to keep these 4 essential exercises as the foundation, your workout program will be effective, efficient and practical in the real world.