Weight machines and free weighs are great for increasing strength and toning muscles, but they don’t exactly slip into an overnight bag. Fortunately, your body itself can be just as effective in building muscular strength as anything that possesses a pulley or is structured of steel. Besides that, it’s the one piece of strength-training equipment you can take with you anywhere, and it won’t set off the metal detectors at the airport.
“The objective of any kind of strength training is to overload your muscles with more work than they’re used to handling,” says Patricia Hogan, Ph.D., associate professor of health promotion at Northern Michigan University. She notes that although most people strengthen their muscles with the aid of a dumbbell, barbell, weight machine or exercise band, the body’s weight alone may provide enough resistance to overload the muscles just as effectively as those sources of external resistance do. “That’s because your body doesn’t know the difference between 10 pounds of body weight and a 10-pound dumbbell,” explains Hogan.
Take abdominal crunches. They’re an excellent way of toning and strengthening your abdominal muscles, and it’s highly likely that you’ll feel a certain amount of fatigue in those muscles after a dozen or so repetitions. Most variations of this exercise, however, don’t call for the addition of any external weitht. The weight of your upper torso provides more than enough resistance overload to get the job done. Your muscles adapt to this extra work by growing stronger, and in time you can easily handle wrokloads that you might originally have struggled with.
Besides increased strength, using your body as a weight machine offers other benefits. “Exercises that manipulate your body weight in a variety of positions teach you to use your body more efficiently in everyday activities,” says Vincent Metzo, M.A., an exercise physiologist who works for the New York City-based firm Frontline Fitness. This translates into improved coordination, better balance and a more keenly developed physical awareness. For instance, the primary purpose of the Jump-squat-jump in the following exercise routine, according to Metzo, is to strengthen your buttocks, things and calves. But it also improves your ability to do vertical leaps and educates your body to jump and land correctly. Think about that the next time you have to slam a serve or spike a volleyball–or do something even more basic, like leap a large puddle.
Metzo, who designed the body-weight-only workout shown here, recommends that you use it as a substitute for your regular strength-training routine once a week or whenever weight equipment isn’t available. Start with one set of eight repetitions of each exercise, and perform them in the order they’re listed in.
To get the most from these exercises, you should do them slowly and precisely; correct form is essential. When you’re ready for more, increase the number of repetitions to 20 and the number of sets to three per exercise.
Works: Buttocks, thighs and calves.
Setup: Stand with your feet hip width apart, your knees bent one or two inches, and your palms on the tops of your thighs. Look straight ahead and expand your chest by relaxing your shoulders back and down. Pull your abdominals inward, maintaining a natural curve in your spine.
Movement: Gently spring a few inches upward off the balls of your feet, and land softly and quietly with your feet about six inches farther apart than in the starting position. As your feet contact the ground, bend your knees until your thighs are parallel with the floor. Tighten your buttocks, gently spring upward again and land in the starting position.
Thinking with your muscles: Picture a cat jumping off a table and landing on the floor without making a sound. You’ll feel this exercise in your calves, legs and outer thighs as you jump upward and in your buttocks and legs as you rise out of the squat position.
Works: Buttocks, thighs and calves.
Setup: Stand tall with your feet about a yard apart, your toes angled slightly outward, your knees directly over your heels and your hands on your hips.
Movement: Bend your knees and lower your body, keeping your torso straight, until your thighs are parallel with the floor. Lift your right heel off the floor, point your toe, and tighten the muscles of your entire right leg and buttock. Straighten your knees, at the same time dragging your right toe inward along the floor until your feet are hip-width apart and your knees are only slightly bent. Step out into the starting position again, and repeat with your left leg.
Thinking with your muscles: As you pull your foot inward, pretend that you’re drawing a line in wet sand with your toe. This “slide” places special emphasis on the inner thigh.
Outward thigh rotation
Works: Outer thighs and buttocks.
Setup: Lie on your left side with your head resting on your outstretched arm. Bend your right arm and place your palm on the floor in front of your chest. With your legs together, bend both knees about 90 degrees so that your upper legs are slightly forward of the rest of you and your top hip is directly over your bottom hip.
Movement: Flex your top foot and, keeping your heels together, open your legs as much as you comfortably can by turning your top leg out from the hip. Return to the starting position. As you move your leg in both directions, squeeze your buttocks together. Do an equal number of repetitions with both legs.
Thinking with your muscles: Think of your heels as a hinge and your top leg as the lid of a cedar chest that you’re opening and closing. To really feel this in your outer thigh, focus on rotating from the hip rather than the knee.
Works: Inner thighs.
Setup: Lie on your left side with your legs straight and your head resting on your out-stretched arm. Bend your right arm and place your palm on the floor in front of your chest. Raise your right leg a few inches, keeping it directly over your left leg, and turn it outward from the hip until your toes are at a 45-degree angle to the floor.
Movement: Lift your left leg straight up till your heels touch, then lightly tap the heels together and move them apart 12 times. Tighten your buttocks as you tap. Return to the starting position. This is one repetition; do an equal number of reps with both legs.
Thinking with your muscles: Pretend your top leg is immovable and put all your energy into the tapping movement of the bottom leg. You’ll feel this exercise in both inner thighs.