I take it for granted sometimes that by understanding the principles of strength and conditioning, it’s easy for me to whip up a workout I can do anytime, anywhere with or without equipment. I’ve just been doing it for so long that I don’t even need to think about it. The truth is that once you understand a few fundamentals, you’ll be able to make up a great workout just as easily.
My first choice, training methodology for body recomposition will always be heavy compound movements (like squats, deadlifts and cleans) with good technique, progressively increasing weight over time. Building muscle will help you increase your resting metabolic rate, and therefore burn more energy throughout the day, even while you are not exercising.
But in the absence of a barbell, or if you a super new to strength training, there’s no reason you can’t have a results-producing workout routine in the comfort of your own home. The trick is that if you aren’t lifting heavy, you will need to do a lot of repetitions with very short rest time in between - hence the idea of circuit training.
A circuit is three or more exercises done back to back with minimal rest. If done correctly, circuits will either feel like aerobic conditioning (keeping your heart rate at a manageable level and maintaining for a longer period of time) or like sprints (elevating your heart rate high, then needing rest before repeating). In the “sprint” variation of circuits, you will likely push it hard with the exercises for up to 2 minutes, then need to rest for around 2 minutes before repeating the cycle. You may have heard of this concept in terms of intervals or high intensity interval training (HIIT).
If you want to maximize your calorie burning doing circuits, you’ll need to either A) keep moving almost constantly for around 20 minutes or more, or B) perform intervals where you are pushing it so hard that you need that rest time before continuing. Either way, it beats walking on a treadmill. Am i right?
Try getting a workout timer App and playing around with various interval periods. The shorter your “work” period, the closer to 100% you should be pushing yourself and the longer your rest time should be. (1min on/30sec off, 15sec on/90sec off, 5min on / 1min off) The more you do intervals, the more you will learn about how long you can sustain a maximal effort exercise before your body isn’t able to hold up. You’ll also learn how long you truly need to rest, as opposed to just wanting to take a break.
My favorite interval variation is a Tabata. From the Japanese sports and fitness researcher, Dr. Izumi Tabata, who objective was to study if short bursts of high-intensity exercise would train the body more effectively than moderate exercise over longer durations. A Tabata is an interval sequence over the course of only 4 minutes, with 8 rounds of 20 seconds of hard work followed by 10 seconds of rest.
In the study, the group testing Tabata training showed an improvement both of aerobic as well as anaerobic fitness and muscle strength whereas the moderate intensity group working for an hour only improved aerobic (or cardiovascular) fitness. Tabata training was the clear winner for time efficiency and calorie burning.(1) You can use tabata with just about any exercise of movement, preferably some sort of compound movement (squats, lunges, burpees, rowing, biking). It makes a great finisher to a workout, or you can create an entire workout of various tabatas. Just make sure you rest and recover in between.
A good workout will burn calories, make you sweaty and leave you feeling like you accomplished something. A great workout will do all the above plus train your body in 6 fundamental movements to ensure you develop well-rounded physique, strength and joint mobility. Once you can categorize exercises into these 6 categories, it will be easy to stack them together to create a great workout.
Simply stated, a squat is sitting your butt towards the floor until your hips drop below your knees. As humans, we are usually able to squat as soon as we can stand. Children are the best little natural squatters and it is a key component of allowing us to develop hip and spinal stability. But as we grow older and the repetitive movements of adult responsibility set in, we develop muscle tightness, joint immobility and weaknesses that diminish our ability to perform a good, natural squat.
Squats are wonderful for strengthening the muscles around the hips and knees, and when done under a heavy load, so effective for strengthening the core. In fact, it’s impossible to do a weighted squat without using your abs.
A squat is a compound movement, which means that this exercise works multiple joints as opposed to isolating one joint like in a bicep curl. Because of its capacity to get your whole body moving, it wins - in my opinion - for one exercise that is supremely effective for weight loss. And there are so many variations (with or without a barbell) that you need never feel bored.
Some examples of squat variations you can do at home:
After squats, this is the first movement I teach my teenage athletes. It’s rare to find a youth these days who will elect to lunge with the front heel staying down, rather than lunging into the front toe. It’s an essential exercise to learn so as to ensure you can utilize your posterior chain (the muscles on your backside like the glutes and hamstrings) and stabilize the foot. So often, these athletes that cannot lunge without lifting their front heel are also the athletes that complain of knee pain.
Falling into the toes, whether in a lunge or squat, is a classic sign of our modern, quad-dominant nature. Get up and try it out right now: take a step out and lunge forward, letting the heel of the front foot come up. Feel it in your quads, and possibly an icky twinge in your knee? Now try it again, driving through the front heel as you stand up out of the lunge. Ooh! Feel it in your hamstrings and glutes? That feels right, huh? Lunges are my not-so-secret weapon to build strong glutes and hamstrings.
Training each leg individually is a great way to strengthen unilateral weaknesses, develop pelvis and foot stability. The lunge movement pattern isn’t necessarily so literal as what we’ve just described. A lunge-type exercise can be anything that includes stepping with each leg individually.
The hinge might be more difficult to visualize. Think of your hips as a hinge joint. When you bend forward at the hips (as you would to stretch your hamstrings), then stand up again, you have just done a hip hinge. Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean you are keeping your knees locked, only that the knee joints are not primary movers in these exercises.
In super simple terms, hinging at the hips typically involves bending forward to create a stretch in the hamstrings, then extending again using the glute muscles. The most common example of a hinge is the deadlift. Keeping a flat back, and using the entire posterior chain (remember than?) you stand up with the weight.
Again, seeing as how we are quad-dominant people from the way our modern life is structured, it is key to strengthen the posterior chain with hinge motions in order to balance strength around the joints. Imagine someone with you quads, but with very little strength in the hamstrings. These muscles around the knee will be unbalanced and the body won’t be able to properly stabilize the knee. What does this mean? Injury.
In a hip hinge you will push your hips back, keeping a flat back by trying to keep your chest up. Your weight should be biased towards the heels. To return to your starting position, drive your hips forward again, keeping the core rigid, and stand tall. With slight variations, these cues will hold true with all standing, hip hinge exercises. Always make sure you can master unloaded variations of these exercises before going heavier.
Hinge motions coincidentally build the best butt.
Examples of Hinge motions you can do at home:
The pushing motion is important for shoulder strength and health. We have been pushing things since we first learned as babies how to push ourselves up from our tummies into a sitting position. Pushing (as well as pulling which you’ll see next) helps correct a slumped posture, gives your back and arms the strength to carry things around or pick up heavy objects.
Having the mobility to get a weight overhead as well as stabilize that weight overhead is a very functional movement and important to the health of your kinetic chain. Having the ability to, for example, push your body away from the floor as with a push-up, is also a key functional movement that has the added bonus of developing core strength (try doing a push-up without using your abs).
Pulling, along with pushing, will support healthy shoulders. You never want to train 100% pushing with no pulling, and vice versa. Just like with the importance of balancing quad and hamstring strength to support the knees, you need pushing and pulling (preferably in a 1:2 ratio) for optimal shoulder health.
Having a strong upper back will not only carry over to strength in other movements like the deadlift, but it will also lead to better posture. Plus, they say that Traps are the new Abs. There are 13 different muscles that surround each of the shoulder blades and you can train with a large variety of exercises using either bands, weights or a pull-up bar.
Two additional movements are also important to developing a well-rounded athleticism though I didn’t include them in your primary 5 simply because they are easier to get in everyday life.
You carry heavy bags of groceries from the store, or carry your child’s car seat. Now, start being more mindful of how you carry these things: with a braced core and a stable pelvis. If you don’t heavy enough weights to provide much of a carrying challenge in your workouts, some of these exercises could be tricky. However, picking up a heavy stone in your backyard, or filling a 5 gallon bucket with sand and carrying that is great in a pinch. (Starting to understand why we call it functional movement?)
Every time you twist to pick something up off the floor, throw a ball or turn around to look behind you, that is a form of rotational movement. However this could be limited so if you can add it to your workouts, all the better. Certain sports naturally incorporate rotational movement - basically anytime you throw a ball you need to separate your hips from your shoulders and rotate. But other activities like Powerlifting or bodybuilding incorporate nothing rotational and so you’ll have to go out of your way to build that strength up intentionally.
I’m fully aware that if all people knew how to push themselves hard during workouts, I might very well be out of a job. Half of what coaches provide for people is accountability and encouragement to keep going. It’s difficult when you already lack the energy to work out - you’re tired from a day of work or you’ve just woken up and it’s easy to talk yourself out of exercising.
It helps to create an energetic space in your home gym for yourself to exercise. Dedicate a space in your home that you think of as your gym, no matter how basic or small. Don’t keep your exercise bike next to your bed, for example, since you could be lured in to bed when attempting to use the bike. Separate your workout space from your daily living space.
The only exception to this rule I have is a pull-up bar. If you have, say, a doorframe pull-up bar in your home, put it somewhere where you pass it often so that you are more likely to use it frequently. Otherwise I think it can become easy to ignore dumbbells and cardio machines that turn into dust-collecting furniture in our homes rather than tools we respect and use.
Turn on music that pumps you up or a stimulating podcast so that you feel mentally prepared to exercise. Set the tone for your workout by taking it seriously. Mindset is so huge when getting into exercise. If you’re wearing your pajamas and slippers, yawning and groggy from getting out of bed, it will be hard to want to move. Brush your teeth, put on your sneakers, drink your coffee and get to work!
The second part of pushing and motivating yourself is working hard during your workouts. I often see people at a commercial gym, sitting comfortably on the recumbent bike, pedaling slowly and sipping a protein smoothie that’s more or less a milkshake. I try to get into the mindset of those people and I imagine they think they are getting points simply for showing up. You know that expression “showing up is half the battle?” Well, that’s absolutely true, but you still have to work hard once you’re there if you want to accomplish anything.
Don’t simply go through the motions of your exercise routine. Connect with the muscle groups you’re training. Push yourself a little harder than you did last week. Watch your strength grow. It shouldn’t be comfortable, friends, otherwise there would be no physical or mental growth.