[In response to the “You weigh 400lbs and you exercise??? How can I start??” emails, I seem to be doing a “how-to” series on exercise. Skip it if it doesn’t interest you.]
Strength training is often seen as weight lifting, but you don’t have to use weights, so for this post I’m going to assume there aren’t any. You don’t have to already be able to do pullups or pushups, either! One of the best ones for me is a simple exercise I got from the physical therapist* that I call chair squats:
- Sit down. (Lower seats are more challenging; higher ones are easier.)
- Stand up slowly, using both legs.
- Slowly lower yourself back down, again using both legs.
How many times do you repeat? Depends on where you’re at. I was told to repeat it 10 times in a row, then try for another 10, and to work up to a third set of ten. (In exercise-speak this is “2-3 sets of 10 repetitions“.)
BUT…what if you can’t do this ten times? What if you’re having trouble doing this twice in a row? Then just do it twice. It’s a good idea to stop if you have to speed up — you want to keep your movements slow and controlled.** Keep doing it twice every day or every other day** and soon you probably can do it three times in a row, then four. You can shake it up a bit, doing 2 sets of 3.*** You can also try a different chair. Eventually you may not need to have a chair at all — which is a full squat, in bodyweight parlance.
That is strength training in a nutshell:
- Pick a movement that uses muscles you want to make stronger.
- Repeat it as needed (up to 8 – 12 times).
- Do this 2-3 times a week, or every other day.
What’s the benefit? The chair squat is a compound exercise, meaning it’s strengthing multiple muscles — in this case, most of the muscles in your legs — to do a better job of supporting you. You may improve your balance and joints. It’s a functional movement, meaning it’s a movement you do in real life, and so it benefits your real life. You don’t need any equipment other than a chair.
Ah, you wonder, what about the rest of the body? Here’s where I started:
- Abdominal crunches**** I’m a desk worker. These really help my abdominal muscles stay strong enough to support my back when I’m working late. I had decades of low back pain until I started doing these and back exercises—now I compare crunches to flossing.
- Bridge Okay, I started with the modified Cobra from Yoga for Round Bodies, but the physical therapist recommended this, and it’s easier to describe without video.
- Lay on your back on the floor, with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. You want to be fairly comfortable.
- Lift your bottom off the floor, so you are holding yourself on shoulders and feet. Try 20 seconds at first. You can vary the length or do repetitions.
- Single-leg raises, seated leg extensions, side leg lifts. I do a series of each of these 2-3 times a week to strengthen my leg muscles. These are in addition to the chair squats and have seriously reduced my knee and joint pain.
- Wall Push-Ups I’d known about these for years, but had never made the leap from wall-ups to full push-ups. One day Noël pointed out that doing push-ups on the kitchen counter is harder than wall-ups, easier than full push-ups, and it’s still a compound exercise that uses arms, chest, and upper back. If you’ve got a flight of stairs available, you’ve got even more options to adjust how much of your bodyweight you’re lifting with your arms.
- Walking. If you haven’t been walking much, walking will be a strength training move for you. After my injury, 4 minutes on the treadmill was a challenge. I got stronger. One woman began her exercise program by walking around her kitchen using her counters for support, 25 steps at a time, 100 a day. She got stronger.*****
Pushups, BTW, touches on something else. I have a history of wrist injuries. When doing upper body exercises I have to be careful to keep my wrists straight and to not overstrain them — which makes any variant of pushup more challenging for me than someone who hasn’t had wrist problems. In this case, I’m doing lots more of the easier exercises (wallups) and not moving onto the harder ones. Everyone has different histories and limitations — the key is to know your own issues. If something isn’t working, try a different exercise or an easier variation instead.
*No, I’m not a physical therapist myself, nor do I play on on the internet. You know your abilities and limitations much better than I do.
**If you push harder, you will likely have sorer muscles the next day. Keeping things slow and controlled is a good way to be sure you aren’t pushing, but to really avoid soreness do less than you think you can. Some tips to alleviate sore muscles: train every other day or every third day; warm bath or shower; stretching the sore muscles; going for a comfortable walk; ibuprofen or another favorite painkiller.
***More discussion of the terms and how you can vary things is here. I’ll be posting more on that later, too.
****I remember doing this in high school and my mother complaining that she found it too hard to get up off the floor to do them. I wish that exercise balls had been easier to find then!
*****Story is discussed on a page that also discusses weight loss here. Please don’t follow the link if discussion of weight loss will make you uncomfortable.