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How to get stronger without using weights: 7 moves you can do anywhere
You don’t need to lift dumbbells at a gym to get stronger. Learn how you can add muscle by using your own body weight.
It’s easy to stick to certain types of exercise. Maybe you’re a runner, or you take a regular Zumba or yoga class. But to get the most out of your routine, you’ve got to be sure to include strength-training. That means working out your muscles to make them stronger.
“Strength training is necessary for your health, your bone density, for balance as we age, and just for more energy,” says Sonya Walker, PhD. She is the senior program executive for healthy living, equity and integration at YMCA of Greater Seattle. Walker also notes that it can help improve your sleep. And that it’s also been linked to improved anxiety and better mental health.
It can also help keep you from getting certain health conditions. A 2019 study found that doing resistance exercises for just one hour or less each week was associated with a lower risk of heart attack or stroke by as much as 70%.1
It’s recommended that adults do muscle strengthening activities at least twice a week.2 That’s according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
You might think that you need to lift weights or go to the gym to work out your muscles.
But did you know that you can strength-train using your own body weight?3
Below, find some simple exercises that can help you build strength. These can be done in your house or outdoors. Try to do 8 to 12 repetitions of each exercise. (A repetition is a full exercise movement, such as bending your elbow to lift up a weight and then straightening your arm to bring it back down.4) And you can fit them in any time of the day.
Exercise #1: Push-ups
“Push-ups are some of the best exercises you can do,” Walker says. These exercises strengthen your arms, shoulders and more. “Depending on where you place your arms, you work different muscles.” When you do push-ups, you strengthen your chest, core (lower back, hips, stomach) and leg muscles all at once.
Here’s how to do them:5
- Get down on your hands and knees.
- Place your palms on the ground, slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Extend your legs as far as they can go. Your body should be facing the floor.
- While keeping your arms and legs straight, lift yourself up on the balls of your feet. (If this is too hard, keep your knees on the floor.)
- Bend your arms to lower your body until your chest is a few inches off the ground. Then straighten your arms to push yourself back up.
You can also do standing push-ups against a wall or your kitchen counter, says Walker.
Exercise #2: Squats
This exercise is a great way to make your lower body stronger. Here’s how to do a single squat:6
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Keep your back straight.
- Put your arms straight out in front of you. They should be parallel to the floor.
- Bend at your hips, pushing your rear backward.
- Squat down as if you’re sitting in a chair, bending your knees. Be sure to keep your knees in line with your feet.
- Slowly return to the starting position.
As with push-ups, you can do different versions of this exercise. Walker suggests using a chair for balance if you’re new to this workout. “You can stand up and sit back down in your chair, and that’s just a modified squat,” she says.
Exercise #3: Lunges
Have you ever put one foot forward and leaned to reach for your TV remote? Basically, that’s a lunge. They’re great for working the muscles you use to move throughout your day. And they can also help you stay active as you get older.3
Here’s how to do the exercise version of a lunge:8
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart.
- Step forward with one foot. Keep your knees and hips facing forward.
- Bend your knees at a 90-degree angle. You’ll feel the stretch in the back of your calves and front of your thighs.
- Slowly straighten your knees and return to a standing position.
“A lot of people lose their balance when they do lunges,” Walker says. “Make sure your feet are parallel, like you’re standing on a train track.”
Is your exercise routine medically necessary? You may be able to pay for things like free weights using a medical expense account, like an FSA or HSA. Need a fitness tracker to track your progress? You can find one (and more) at the Optum Store. Start exploring.
Exercise #4: Chair dips (aka triceps dips)
This type of exercise is called a “chair” dip. But you can use anything from a park bench to a low, sturdy table for it. It’s a great workout for your triceps muscles. These are the large muscles on the back of your upper arm.
Before you begin, make sure your “chair” isn’t going to move during your workout. Now that you’re settled, here’s how to do some chair dips:9
- Sit on your chair or bench. Plant your feet flat on the floor, hip-width apart.
- Place the palms of your hands on the chair beside your hips and grip the front of the seat with your fingers.
- Move your torso forward off the chair.
- Bend your knees and elbows as you lower your body, keeping your feet flat on the floor.
- Lower until your elbows are at a 90-degree angle. Then slowly push yourself back to your starting position.
Besides your triceps, chair dips also work your core and hamstrings, Walker says. But they call them triceps dips for good reason.
“Chair dips are a great exercise to do as you age because your triceps are usually the first muscle where you start to see it ‘go,’” she says. “This move is a nice, easy way to keep those muscles engaged.”
Exercise #5: Wall sit
This exercise is done exactly the way it sounds. It can help strengthen your legs and core muscles.
Here’s how to do a wall sit:10
- Stand with your head, back and hips against a wall. (Any solid vertical surface will do.)
- Keep your feet hip-width apart.
- Move your feet forward from the wall by about two feet.
- Slowly slide your back down the wall until you’re in a sitting position. (Imagine you’re sitting in an invisible chair.) If you can’t go down this low, that’s OK.
- Hold this position for as long as you can, then slowly stand back up.
Another reason to love a wall sit: You can easily measure your progress. Walker suggests challenging yourself by holding the pose for longer each time. You can also lower yourself so you’re sitting closer to the floor. That will make your core and legs work harder.
Exercise #6: Step-ups
This is another exercise that can help multiple parts of your body at the same time. Walker likes step-ups because they work your entire leg and core muscles. What’s more, they can help you better maintain balance and mobility as you age.3
You can use stairs in your house or a park (really, wherever) for this workout. But a curb, a solid box or any other raised platform will do, too. Here’s how to do a step-up:10
- Step onto the platform with one foot.
- Lift your other foot off the floor or ground.
- Let it hang loosely for about five seconds.
- Slowly lower your foot back to the floor.
- Switch sides and repeat.
Exercise #7: Planks
“I love planks,” Walker says. You can do them anywhere and they’re easy to modify, she adds.
Here’s how to do a plank:11
- Start out like you’re doing a push-up on the floor or ground.
- Bend your elbows so your forearms are resting on the floor. (You should be holding yourself up on your forearms, not your hands.)
- Now just hold that position. Keep your back flat and your ab muscles tight. Keep your rear end, back, neck and head in line with one another.
Planks engage your whole core. This helps with balance and stability. “People think your core is just your abs,” Walker says. “But it’s actually the whole trunk of your body.”
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- Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. Associations of resistance exercise with cardiovascular disease morbidity and mortality. Published March 2019. Accessed March 28, 2023.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd edition. Published 2018. Accessed March 28, 2023.
- National Institute on Aging. How can strength training build healthier bodies as we age? Published June 30, 2022. Accessed March 28, 2023.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How much physical activity do adults need? Last reviewed June 2, 2022. Accessed March 30, 2023.
- American College of Sports Medicine. How to teach the push up and bench press. Published September 6, 2019. Accessed March 28, 2023.
- American College of Sports Medicine. Squat technique and coaching. Published August 4, 2020. Accessed March 28, 2023.
- National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. Living with arthritis: Health information basics for you and your family. Last updated March 2022. Accessed March 28, 2023.
- American College of Sports Medicine. Forward lunge technique video. Published March 23, 2020. Accessed March 28, 2023.
- American Heart Association. American Heart Association Move More: Dips. July 17. 2019. Accessed April 12, 2023.
- American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Knee exercises. Last reviewed February 2009. Accessed March 28, 2023.
- American College of Sports Medicine. Plank technique video. Published March 23, 2020. Accessed March 28, 2023.
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