In a world of increasingly demanding jobs, extracurricular activities, and household responsibilities, it can be downright challenging to find time to exercise – especially if it involves getting to a gym.
Last week, I made the case that five-minute workouts, done consistently over time, lead to significantly improved health and fitness. What do you think? Are you on the fence?
I used to think that fitness was mostly beyond my grasp. I figured if I didn’t have the money for a gym membership, the space for special equipment, or the time for lengthy exercise routines, then why bother – right?
Wrong! While those things are nice and do offer certain benefits, they are not necessities. You can get fit any time, any place, and for free, if you know how to do some basic bodyweight and calisthenic exercises.
A Definition Of Terms
Bodyweight exercise is a form of strength training that leverages the weight of your own body. No equipment is required – only gravity. Some examples of bodyweight exercises are push-ups, pull-ups, squats, lunges, and planks.
Calisthenics is an umbrella term that includes bodyweight exercises, as well as aerobic exercises such as jumping jacks, high knees, and mountain climbers. The two terms are related, and frequently interchangeable.
Today, I’m sharing some of my favorite bodyweight and calisthenic exercises for those times that I:
- only have a few minutes to spare
- don’t have any weights or equipment
- am confined to a small space, such as my bedroom – good luck hula hooping in there!
But first, a reminder: I am not a personal trainer. I am not a health professional. Nothing that I say should be taken as medical advice or a prescriptive course of action.
These are fairly basic movements that can be easily modified to suit different needs and abilities. But before you embark on a new exercise regimen – even a five-minute workout – it’s a wise idea to consult a medical or fitness professional to ensure that you are doing what is best for your unique body. Please and thank you!
Now, before I get to specifics, here’s how I began strength training – with, essentially, a one-minute workout.
From “Just Walking” To “Just One Minute”
I’ve shared the story of how “just walking” changed my entire life. Daily walking was one of the initial goals that started me on a journey toward wellness. It had such a profound and unexpected impact on me that I became hungry for more healthy habits. So, once walking was as automatic as brushing my teeth – something that I did every evening, without much thought – I decided that it was time to add to my routine.
For a number of reasons, I found myself drawn to strength training. Strength training is important for both building and retaining muscle. Because of the changes I had made to my diet and overall activity level, my body was in the process of shedding excess weight. When we lose weight, we lose both fat and muscle – but you want to hang on to the latter as much as possible.
Once again, I found myself fairly clueless and overwhelmed by the prospect of learning a new behavior. And once again, I decided to dumb things down as much as possible. Like I always say, think small and lower the bar!
I decided to begin by doing ten bodyweight squats and ten push-ups per day, just before my evening walk.
Yep, that’s it. It amounted to less than two minutes of effort – but I vowed to do it every single day.
While the squats did not present much of a challenge, I soon discovered it was a struggle for me to do even a single traditional push-up. Unswayed, I dropped my knees and kept at it. And I kept at it every day.
I don’t know exactly how much time passed, but it wasn’t much – probably a month or so – before I realized that I no longer had to drop my knees. For the first time in my life, I successfully did ten standard push-ups. At that point, I decided to up my game – to twelve push-ups and twelve squats every day.
Soon, fifteen. Then twenty.
My strength training routine has evolved to include more than these two moves. But now, I can fire off 40 to 50 standard pushups at a time, something I never dreamed would be possible. And it’s all because I started by doing ten modified push ups – consistently, every single day.
Less than two minutes per day, with very little thought, led to significant results. I got stronger. I got more confident. It paved the way for everything that followed.
And that is why I firmly believe in the power of five-minute fitness.
Making A Habit Of Five-Minute Fitness
To help you get started, here are eight simple bodyweight and calisthenic exercises that can be done any place, any time, and in a matter of minutes. Assuming you have done your due diligence and know your body’s strengths and limitations, you can piece together a brief – but effective – routine that works for you.
And don’t be afraid to set a low bar. Start with five minutes a day. Start with two minutes a day. Just start a daily habit. See where you are in a week, a month, or in several months!
I’ve heard the squat called the king of all bodyweight exercises, and that’s for good reason. Squats are excellent for building strength in your glutes, core, and legs. (And by the way, leg strength is correlated with cognitive health and longevity.)
When you squat, keep your feet shoulder-width apart, ensure that your knees stay in line with your toes, and stick your butt way out, as though you’re about to hover over a public toilet. Aim to squat low enough to bring your thighs parallel to the floor, or even lower. Drive yourself back up through your heels, while squeezing your glutes and keeping your core engaged.
If a full squat is difficult, just do a partial squat – you will build up your strength and eventually get, in gym parlance, “ass to grass.”
My other favorite bodyweight exercise, the push-up, is excellent for working your entire body – legs, arms, and core. I love getting that kind of bang for my buck!
Push-ups are also easily modified. If you find that a traditional push-up is too hard, don’t beat yourself up. As you now know, it was hard for me, too! Begin by doing standing push ups against a wall, or do as I did and lower your knees to the floor. The key is to do what feels right for your body. If anything hurts – STOP.
When you do a push-up, try planting your hands just wider than your shoulders, with fingers pointed slightly outward. Don’t let your elbows splay way out to the sides; maintain a 45 degree angle to your body. Keep your core engaged and your spine straight.
Push-ups strengthen your triceps, but you can target them specifically with tricep dips.
Begin by sitting in a sturdy chair. Grip the front edge, hands shoulder-width apart, and scoot your hips forward and off the chair. With legs extended in front of you, bend your elbows and dip down, lowering your butt toward the floor. Keep your back close to the chair and don’t bend your elbows more than 90 degrees. Press down through your hands and straighten your arms to come back up.
Be sure to watch your form. Listen to your body and, as always, don’t do anything that hurts. If you need to make this exercise easier, try bending your knees.
The wall sit is an isometric exercise that works your legs, core, and glutes. With your back against a wall, pretend to sit upright in an invisible chair, maintaining a 90 degree bend at hips and knees. Simply hold this position until you feel a healthy burn through your thighs and calves.
In the beginning, try maintaining a wall sit for about ten seconds. Over time, you can work your way up to doing several one-minute sets. Keep your feet flat on the floor, and your spine, neck, and shoulders neutral against the wall. Make sure that your feet are far enough from the wall that your knees do not extend beyond your toes. If at any point you feel knee pain, stop.
The glute bridge is great for your butt, but also works your thighs, lower back, and core. If you are prone to lower back pain, you may find that this exercise helps alleviate it.
Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Place your arms parallel to your sides, with the palms of your hands facing down. Activate your core and squeeze your glutes as you lift your hips, forming a straight line from your knees to your shoulders. Hold for a second and lower your hips; repeat.
Be mindful to keep your shoulders low and relaxed; don’t tense or scrunch your neck.
Toe raises are a nice way to stretch and strengthen your calf muscles. All you do is raise your heels off of the floor to stand up on your toes. Lower your heels, then repeat.
Over time, you can make this move more challenging by positioning yourself with the balls of your feet on a step or ledge, heels extending off.
Let’s incorporate a little cardio, shall we?
I probably don’t need to explain the mechanics of a jumping jack. They’re a classic exercise – and for good reason. Jumping jacks are an effective way to boost your heart rate while working muscles throughout your whole body, including your hips, legs, core, and shoulders.
Jumping jacks can also be modified to accommodate different fitness levels. For a low-impact workout, don’t jump. Simply step one foot at a time out to the side, alternating right and left, while raising your hands over your head.
Invisible Jump Rope
Jumping rope is excellent exercise, but I don’t recommend trying it indoors unless you have a lot of space. And personally, I don’t. No matter – you can get the same cardiovascular benefits from pretend jump rope.
Stand with your upper arms close in to your body, elbows bent and hands extending out to the sides. Pretend to hold and turn a jump rope, moving your wrists in small circles. Keeping your head up and spine straight, jump lightly on the balls of your feet. Maintain a steady rhythm and good form.
There is no need to leap high into the air. You can make this a super low-impact exercise by simply bouncing on the balls of your feet, never actually lifting off of the ground.
Refine And Expand Your Routine
This list of bodyweight and calisthenic exercises is by no means exhaustive – it’s not even the tip of the iceberg. This is merely a handful of basic moves that might help you get started with a five-minute fitness habit.
There are dozens upon dozens of other exercises, from beginner-friendly to highly advanced, a mere Google search away. Try searching for “bodyweight workouts for beginners” or “calisthenics for beginners” to get started.
You can also find a variety of quick and simple workout videos on YouTube. Try searching for five, three, and two-minute workouts – each will return plenty of results.
And remember: think small and lower the bar! Don’t stress if you only have a few minutes to devote to exercise. If you can make a daily habit of it, positive results will follow.
My favorite bodyweight exercises are squats and push-ups, because they built up my strength and confidence, and because they work so many different muscle groups. Do you have a favorite exercise? Tell us about it in a comment!