This article originally appeared on VICE US.
Ideas on at-home fitness goals? All I can think of is increasing push-ups or plank time. Thanks! -Kate
I agree that both of these things sound kind of boring (though figuring out how to make progress on them can make them more interesting; my tips on at-home workouts are here). I have really come to hate push-ups in the course of quarantine. I simply want to do upper body strength stuff without having to hold the entire rest of my body tight. I’m aware that that is part of what makes it a good exercise, but I resent it!!
Anyway—I’m not someone who normally needs or wants to have a lot of imagination or creativity about how to work out, and this is one of the things I love about heavy lifting. The foundational movements are easy to learn but hard to master, and I get a lot of joy of a) not having to learn skills anew or maintain a vast variety of them in order to feel like I’m doing a good workout, and b) just trying to do this very limited set of things I can hold in my brain more correctly than the last time I did them, because that’s all you need to do to make progress.
Every once in a while I learn a new variation of some movement, but the basics (squat, bench, deadlift, row, overhead press) are an entire universe unto themselves. There’s no need to work out each muscle individually for three sets of 20, or to use 12 different movements on your arms to make them “toned.”
All that said, when I am not actually able to focus on these basic movements and slowly make them heavier, for a total lack of the equipment I need to do them, I’m definitely getting bored. Doing isolateral (one side of the body at a time) movements for sets of 12-15 even for only a few movements means I’m doing hundreds of reps; I could cry tears, it can get so tedious. I’ve even gotten back into listening to music and podcasts, which I can’t normally pay attention to during my gym sessions.
But I’ve also had some luck with “simply trying new, non-rep-and-set-focused skills,” where I Iet myself just try to do a new thing for a while. I made it my vague goal to get better at handstands and pistol squats while isolated.
And while I haven’t made substantial progress at either, I try to keep in mind that I can learn a lot by trying to do something I’m terrible at (and it hurts no one but me to do so). I also try to remember that the burden of benefiting from trying to do something is not “learning to actually successfully do it”; embracing the process of learning and progression is a core fitness goal in and of itself. If I come out of this 10 percent better at pistol squats, I’ll have at least learned… something.
Most hard movements have “progressions,” or a series of variations that build your skills to do the ultimate really hard version, that are plenty of work on their own. Maybe you’ll never learn to do the hard thing! There are a number of things in here that, I’ll say outright, I’m never going to be able to do, mostly from a lack of will. But trying to work my way toward them can still be fun and, most importantly, distracting from the total lack of control we all feel right now.
Usually the progress framework of heavy lifting (adding more weight, focusing on different cues to do it better each time) keeps me occupied, but when that’s gone, variety can be the answer. I find a lot of bodyweight exercises to be overly mythologized and harder than they look, and that's a lot of what's in here. But if you manage your expectations, especially when we literally can't go to gyms, there's something to get out of them.
This goes for pull-ups, or pushups, or any of the stuff I’m going to list here. Not all of this is strength stuff, and there are a few things at the end that kinda anyone can try to do and could benefit from. I included more ideas that any reasonable person can pursue at once because some of them will be dependent on the equipment you have, but your idea of what is a “weight” should be a very fluid concept right now. The cat, some books, a gallon jug of water, a suitcase filled with rocks can all be weights. Tables, chairs, and boxes can be tools. This can be an annoying part to figure out, but once you have your setup the sailing will be much smoother. (Just be careful with all this, it's not a great time to go to the hospital.)
This is harder than it looks and has super-functional applications; who among us doesn't have to stand up from lying down? This blog claims it has “neurological benefits”, which, uh, sure, but it’s a decent conditioning workout and helps develop stabilizing muscles, one of the things I love about lifting in general. To get better at this, you can do more reps or try to increase the weight you use. (And start with no weight at all, so if you ever add any weight, instant progress!)
Carries seem like a deeply underrated exercise except by people who do strongman (a strength-oriented sport with its own catalog of movements), but according to Barbend they also work to train your ability to stabilize yourself, train your central nervous system’s capacity for work, and will really help your grip strength, if holding onto dumbbells or barbells is a problem for you. (To be clear, a yoke carry involves having a weight across the back of your shoulders; a farmer carry is holding weights in your two hands; a suitcase carry is basically a farmer’s carry, but just one arm.)
Also, per above, who doesn’t have a suitcase right now they can fill with books and walk down the street with? And who hasn’t had to carry a heavy bag a long distance, furious with themselves at how tired they get doing it when all you’re doing is simply carrying a bag? Usually with carries, you’re trying to hold onto and walk with the thing for as long as possible, so you can track yourself on time or, even better, distance.
Overhead carries are similar to above but harder, and maybe better if you’re really pressed for heavy weights to carry. I also just imagine these absolutely bang for your core. People who worship at the altar of their only god, “engaging their core,” would do well to pay attention here.
Another one that’s trickier than it looks. For a while there fitness people were saying this move exposes all of an athlete’s weaknesses, which doesn’t seem like it could possibly true, but it does nonetheless ask quite a bit of our bodies that we don’t do normally (hold things over our head, fully use our hip joints, stabilize with our core). Getting the movement down even with a little bit of weight for a bunch of reps and sets can be pretty challenging, and you can do it with a weight in one hand or in both hands.
I’m once again talking about the pistol squat. So long as we are talking about “things I do not reasonably expect I’ll ever be able to do,” considering my last few weeks’ relative lack of progress, the pistol squat is another one. However, I’ve had a reasonable amount of fun trying out some different variations (I just tried this one last night, to minor effect but hilarious result). I don’t think they haven’t helped, is how I would put it. I just learned of this variation, the “advanced shrimp squat,” that I’m going to try. I appreciate the pistol squat for keeping me busy with one zillion variations such that I don’t feel like I ever really have to actually do a pistol squat to feel accomplished.
You might ask why I appear obsessed with pistol squats; the best answer I can offer is that since I can squat 265 pounds, I feel like I should be able to squat my own self, and yet I can’t. It’s very simple: The pistol squat makes a mockery of me. But I keep trying:
Generally speaking, I find the concept of holding positions during workouts absolutely infuriating; it’s why I resent yoga so much. Do this painful thing; good, now keep doing it until the teacher has decided it’s enough. The submission to authority, the lack of end in sight, the lack of motion, the interminable pain… there’s just nothing redeeming about it. I can’t, at this time, pursue further the absolute metaphor of the popularity of an activity among women that involves “be uncomfortable, ok now just stay in that position forever.”
All that said: I think handstands are pretty cool. We don’t do a lot of overhead-strength things in real life, so making special time for it makes sense. I personally harbor a secret aspiration to learn to do a press to handstand, where you start from standing, bend over and put your hands on the ground with legs straight, and sweep your legs up and over your head. It looks so hard, and it rules, and there are lots of practice movements to try out.
Single-arm clean and press (“circus dumbbell press”)
This is another strongman-type movement that I think is disproportionately cool. It just looks fun. It depends on having a manageable weight that won’t break your wrist off—no suitcases, probably—but it’s something I could see myself doing until my shoulder fell off. You can also do this movement with two weights (ideally kettlebells or dumbbells), and you can also do it for reps, lowering the weights to the ground between reps.
One arm pushups or clapping pushups
Hey if we’re talking about pushups, you don’t have to stop at just trying to do a million normal ones. There are a bunch of absolutely messed-up ones you can try to do too.
A "skin the cat"
I never knew this was what this was called, but I sure did it a lot on the playground as a kid, and it kills me to think about what flexible shoulders I must have had. Mobility queen. Nonetheless, it requires “Olympic rings” which seem like they wouldn’t be too hard to acquire or set up in a home gym, and might be available at a playground with one of those “fitness areas” for adults.
This is one where I’m like, cards on the table, I’m just never going to be able to do this. BUT, the easier variations (or “progression” that is supposed to help you learn to do it) seem like they’d be plenty hard, and like you might be able to piece together the equipment at home (two adjacent, level surfaces). As someone with less than zero deltoids, this is the move that may cure me of my apparent deltoid wasting disease.
Another one to which I simply say, all my best to you, if you have the patience to get to a place where you can do the actual real version of this movement. It just seems way too hard to me. But again, the incremental variations could be satisfying, specifically the “band assisted tuck planche." (Again, I call out to the core worshippers.)
And now for a few less-taxing things...
Full body “scan” or “relaxation”
If you’ve ever dabbled in meditation, this has probably come up: that thing where you relax your extremities one by one, then your limbs, then your butt, then your neck, etc. etc. until you are fully putty in your own hands. As someone who lately goes around with one trap muscle so cranked up my shoulder is in my ear, I could stand to do a lot more of this, in addition to stretching and warming up in general. In my ideal world, I’d do this every night before I fell asleep and enjoy the deepest slumber of my entire life, each night more log-like than the one before. (If you hate this particular version, search “fully body scan relaxation” to find a session of the right length and with a voice that doesn’t annoy you.)
Develop your "resting squat"
This is something I’m admittedly disproportionately curious about, but it’s a distinctly Western thing to sit default to sitting at rest only when there's a chair around, and many people in many countries prefer the resting position of a full squat. I aspire to this so much and believe it would fix everything about me.
You might not be able to even get into this position, particularly if you sit a lot, so learning to just do it in the first place can really help develop a lot of lower body mobility. Also, if you do want to lift weights someday, investing time in learning to do this will help you be able to do a weighted barbell squat. The video above includes not just some information about the resting squat, but mobility exercises to help you learn to do it.
This program suggests trying to do it every day for 30 days, but in my estimation, that first day of 30 minutes will be so hard and mess you up so much you’ll never want to try again. It would be a lot easier to try to do a minute or two at a time and then, let’s say, build on it with an additional minute each day.
Work on your splits
This is another thing I deeply admire: people who can do splits. Splits are both hard and incredibly incremental, another perfect example of “something I will never probably be able to do” and yet a thing I endlessly benefit from pursuing. There are so many insanely flexible people on YouTube just waiting to tell you all the ways you can get better at splits (their specific term is “get your split”) but there are no real mind-blowing tricks, you’re just doing various split-like things, trying to force your legs apart in all the directions. To me sitting passively in a split is a perfect TV-watching activity.
Disclaimer: Casey Johnston is not a doctor, nutritionist, dietitian, personal trainer, physiotherapist, psychotherapist, doctor, or lawyer; she is simply someone who done a lot of, and read a lot about, lifting weights.