A well rounded exercise program should include three routine components: strength training, cardio, and mobility work. Here are 3 very basic strength exercises that can be done anywhere, and that will benefit any existing routine (or lack thereof) you’ve got going. The key to these is NOT how many repetitions you can do, but instead, the muscular control you do them with. Good form is key, so be sure to read through the cues I have included for each exercise.
Contrary to popular belief, nobody is interested in seeing how high you can get your pelvis off of the floor. Instead, the bridge is meant to orchestrate the use of multiple core muscle groups while also mobilizing all of the joints of the lower back. If your back hurts at the top, and/or your stomach muscles are popping out, stop, reset, and start again. In my best Buzz Lightyear voice:
“Your abdominals should be engaged by drawing in, during every exercise and beyond”.
Lying on your back, feet hip width apart, knees bent, and feet on the floor. Start by pulling in the belly, tucking the pelvis so that if you had a tail it would be going through the legs, and roll the pelvis and lower back off of the floor. Only go high enough to feel the backs of the legs and stomach engage, and stop before your rib cage splays open and your lower back arches. Then reverse the motion, to snake the spine back down to the ground.
- 2 sets of 15 repetitions
- Variations: Feet on a foam roller or ball, feet on the wall, pinch something between the knees to engage the inner thighs, one leg at a time while the other is in the air.
To know the plank is to hate the plank, and that’s why we need to rethink the plank. The whole purpose of this exercise is to use the abdominals to brace the lower back. If we are hunched in the upper back, dropping our heads to the ground, and letting our low back sway towards gravity, we are no longer gaining any benefit from this exercise, and now hating the plank because of the unnecessary pain it is causing us. Listen, it’s not the Planks’ fault.
As you perform this exercise, envision your back flat up against a wall. Use your abdominals by pushing the muscles inward, not allowing the lower back to arch, but instead to tuck the pelvis under (again, tail between your legs) and lessen the arch. Legs should be glued together and butt squeezing, head should be pushed back in line with the rest of the spine (double chin), and upper back is straight rather than rounded forward like you are sitting at your computer. Don’t let the weight of the torso sink you into your shoulders. Actively press the forearms into the ground, and stabilize the shoulders down away from the earlobes.
- 5 sets of 15-20 seconds with perfect form
- Variations: rock front and back without letting your back fall, one foot lifted thighs still glued together, alternate swiveling one hip down and then back up, forearms on the foam roller
If there was an exercise that was given an award for always being done wrong, it would be this one. If you don’t know what the “bird dog” is, you can venture a bet it’s being done by the oldest person in the gym, and is so obviously based in PT that nobody trying to maintain “cool” status would be caught doing it willingly, let alone around other people. I invite you to reconsider. The bird dog is theoretically the epitome of a perfect core exercise because, when done correctly, it automatically fires the most deep and important spinal stabilizers we have, while also stimulating a cross lateral connection between both halves of the brain – so many reasons to practice this one mid-day, in your office, behind closed doors.
Start on all 4’s, with your stomach pulling in, minimizing the arch in your lower back, flat through your upper back (no hunched shoulders), and your head in line with your spine (double chin). As you raise an arm straight forward, extend the opposite leg straight back. DO NOT allow the lower back to arch, the pelvis to tilt or tip to ones side, or the supporting shoulder to sag. The whole point of this exercise is to stabilize the torso, minimizing any amount of movement as the opposite appendages extend and then return to the ground. Alternate sides.
- 10-20 repetitions alternating sides slowly, and pausing at the top of the movement
- Variations: see how long you can hold on each side, touch opposite elbow and knee in the middle without touching the ground and extend, knees on a roller/BOSU, be creative!
I am a stickler for form, and an important thing to note is that the quality of the exercise being performed makes the exercise that much more effective. Exercises being done with bad form are worthless and often times lead to injury, no matter how trivial the exercise or movement may seem (tell me how your knees feel after decades of walking with your toes slightly turned out!). If you move well your body will reap the holistic benefits, and will repay you in feeling strong and pain free. Lastly, be creative as to when you can fit these into your life – never overlook the possibility of a mid-day movement break right around the time that your computer eyes start to burn and your face is becoming one with the screen!