A No-Weight Workout

Easy Exercise

From the WebMD Archives

Unless you've been living under a rock for the past few years, you've undoubtedly heard how much better off you'd be if you lifted weights. Weight training, studies show, can slow the muscle loss that comes with aging, increase bone density, and boost the body's calorie-burning rate by as much as 300 calories a day.

But despite all the good news about strength training, most people aren't doing it: Only 15% of Americans strength train at least once a week, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association. Some are intimidated by gym weight rooms but are reluctant to invest in home equipment. Some travel too much to rely on a formal weight-training program. And some have a different reason altogether: "I detest weight lifting," says Eric Erenstoft, a 30-year-old advertising sales rep for a computer company in Los Angeles. Eric hasn't picked up a dumbbell in nearly 10 years. "It's hard to drive to a gym where you have little human interaction and get psyched up to go at a few stacks of rusty lead," he says. "And doing it at home is even less interactive. Ugh."

The good news is that you don't have to use weights to strength train -- or at least not the weights found only in a gym. In fact, at an April 2000 meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine, fitness experts spoke to a packed crowd on the alternatives. Erenstoft, as it turns out, is on to something. "I can stay strong without lifting weights," he says. Instead of spending time in the lonely pursuit of pumping iron, Erenstoft does a few quick sets of sit-ups and push-ups and a handful of exercises that use his body's weight as resistance, and he's all done. Why a 'No-Weight' Workout Works -->

Resistance is essential for making a muscle stronger. When a muscle has to work against a load placed on it, it adapts to the stress by creating new muscle fibers and making neurological changes that ultimately make it stronger, says Ben Hurley, PhD, a strength-training researcher at the University of Maryland. And while weights are handy resistance tools, they're not the only effective ones. "Muscles respond to virtually anything that offers resistance," says Cedric Bryant, PhD, an exercise physiologist at StairMaster Sports. "They don't know the difference between a dumbbell, a $2,000 piece of equipment, or your own body weight."

Continued

For the vast majority of people who simply want to be strong enough for the tasks of daily living, strength training without weights is sufficient, Bryant says. And if pure aesthetics is your goal, you're also in luck. "If you strength train without weights, you're going to look more toned and shapely," says Beth Rothenberg, a personal trainer who teaches at the University of California at Los Angeles' fitness instructor program.

Training without weights has other pluses, too. For one thing, it travels well. "You can drop anywhere and do 20 push-ups," says Rothenberg. And since you don't have to worry as much about proper form when training without weights, it's is a good place to start if you're a strength-training novice. -->Build Strength That You Can Actually Apply -->

It's also particularly appropriate if you're mostly just interested in "functional strength" -- the kind of power you need not to curl a dumbbell but to carry a bag of groceries. "Exercises like push-ups help you with the real things you do, like pushing the sofa to the other side of the room," says Rothenberg.

Admittedly, there are limitations to training without weights, particularly if you're doing exercises that rely solely on your own bodyweight. "You can't [easily] increase the weight so it's difficult to make the muscles work harder than they're used to," says Hurley. "That limits your strength gains. And since there haven't been any studies looking at the effects of training without weights on bone density, we don't know if it works as well to keep bones strong." In addition, if you've been training with weights for some time and then switch to weightless training, you may lose some of your initial gains in strength.

Still, if the choice -- as it seems to be for most people -- is between doing nothing and strength training without weights, fitness experts will advise the latter every time. -->The Anywhere Workout -->

And your weightless workout need not bog down your mind either. You need only to remember a few do-anywhere exercises:

  • sit-ups for abdominal muscles
  • push-ups for the arms, chest, and shoulders
  • dips for the back of the arms
  • squats for the muscles in the rear and front of the thighs
  • calf raises for the lower portion of the leg.

Continued

Like Erenstoft, you also might work some simple equipment into your regime. Both specially designed rubber bands and rubber tubing with handles can add resistance, as can simple household items. "To increase the resistance when you're doing squats, for example, you can do something as simple as hold soup cans or milk jugs filled with water," says Bryant.

What's more, two of the hottest exercises around, yoga and Pilates, also fit the "no weight" bill, says Rothenberg. Many of the poses in yoga require using one's own body weight to load the muscles. Take the "warrior" pose, for example. It's essentially a lunge, one that works the muscle in the front of the thigh. Pilates is a series of exercises that involve slow, precise moves -- either using your body weight or specially designed machines -- to work your muscles. You might work your abdominal and leg muscles, for example, by pushing against a bar on springs or by raising your legs when they're attached (by straps) to a pulley.

Whether you choose to use some equipment or forgo strength training tools altogether, what's most important is to find a routine that you can stick with -- exactly what Eric Erenstoft has done. "Why go to a gym and get angry at a set of metal plates?" he says. "I like what I'm doing now, and it's working just fine."

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Originally published June 19, 2000

Updated Dec. 19, 2001

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Why a 'No-Weight' Workout Works

Resistance is essential for making a muscle stronger. When a muscle has to work against a load placed on it, it adapts to the stress by creating new muscle fibers and making neurological changes that ultimately make it stronger, says Ben Hurley, PhD, a strength-training researcher at the University of Maryland. And while weights are handy resistance tools, they're not the only effective ones. "Muscles respond to virtually anything that offers resistance," says Cedric Bryant, PhD, an exercise physiologist at StairMaster Sports. "They don't know the difference between a dumbbell, a $2,000 piece of equipment, or your own body weight."

For the vast majority of people who simply want to be strong enough for the tasks of daily living, strength training without weights is sufficient, Bryant says. And if pure aesthetics is your goal, you're also in luck. "If you strength train without weights, you're going to look more toned and shapely," says Beth Rothenberg, a personal trainer who teaches at the University of California at Los Angeles' fitness instructor program.

Training without weights has other pluses, too. For one thing, it travels well. "You can drop anywhere and do 20 push-ups," says Rothenberg. And since you don't have to worry as much about proper form when training without weights, it's is a good place to start if you're a strength-training novice.

Continued

Build Strength That You Can Actually Apply

It's also particularly appropriate if you're mostly just interested in "functional strength" -- the kind of power you need not to curl a dumbbell but to carry a bag of groceries. "Exercises like push-ups help you with the real things you do, like pushing the sofa to the other side of the room," says Rothenberg.

Admittedly, there are limitations to training without weights, particularly if you're doing exercises that rely solely on your own bodyweight. "You can't [easily] increase the weight so it's difficult to make the muscles work harder than they're used to," says Hurley. "That limits your strength gains. And since there haven't been any studies looking at the effects of training without weights on bone density, we don't know if it works as well to keep bones strong." In addition, if you've been training with weights for some time and then switch to weightless training, you may lose some of your initial gains in strength.

Still, if the choice -- as it seems to be for most people -- is between doing nothing and strength training without weights, fitness experts will advise the latter every time.

The Anywhere Workout

And your weightless workout need not bog down your mind either. You need only to remember a few do-anywhere exercises:

  • sit-ups for abdominal muscles
  • push-ups for the arms, chest, and shoulders
  • dips for the back of the arms
  • squats for the muscles in the rear and front of the thighs
  • calf raises for the lower portion of the leg.

Like Erenstoft, you also might work some simple equipment into your regime. Both specially designed rubber bands and rubber tubing with handles can add resistance, as can simple household items. "To increase the resistance when you're doing squats, for example, you can do something as simple as hold soup cans or milk jugs filled with water," says Bryant.

What's more, two of the hottest exercises around, yoga and Pilates, also fit the "no weight" bill, says Rothenberg. Many of the poses in yoga require using one's own body weight to load the muscles. Take the "warrior" pose, for example. It's essentially a lunge, one that works the muscle in the front of the thigh. Pilates is a series of exercises that involve slow, precise moves -- either using your body weight or specially designed machines -- to work your muscles. You might work your abdominal and leg muscles, for example, by pushing against a bar on springs or by raising your legs when they're attached (by straps) to a pulley.

Whether you choose to use some equipment or forgo strength training tools altogether, what's most important is to find a routine that you can stick with -- exactly what Eric Erenstoft has done. "Why go to a gym and get angry at a set of metal plates?" he says. "I like what I'm doing now, and it's working just fine."

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD
© 2000 WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved.

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