Being healthy doesn't just mean being cold- and flu-free, or that you don't have to take any prescription medications. Being healthy also means being able to move in the ways your body was intended to move without restriction or pain.
Because, you know, movement matters. As do the basic components of fitness, including strength, endurance, flexibility, and body composition -- areas that are easily tested with basic bodyweight exercises. If any one of these areas is out of whack, chances are your movement patterns will suffer and you'll struggle to perform bodyweight moves with a full range of motion or good form.
Now, don't get me wrong. If you can't do some of the following exercises, it doesn't mean there's something inherently wrong with you as a human being. It just means you have to do what's necessary to manage your injuries or pain and slowly work your way back to optimum health. Test your current abilities by trying these basic bodyweight moves.
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Walking for a few hours
Yes, I said it. You should be able to walk around for several hours. Straight. Because believe it or not, your body is actually meant to move, and muscular and cardiovascular endurance can both be tested through sustained, moderate-intensity activity.
Katy Bowman, a biomechanist and author of Move Your DNA, points out that, "Perhaps in our quest to go intense for short periods of time for fitness, we've left untrained the ability to carry our bodyweight long distances at a moderate, easy pace."
Bowman points to a recent study that analyzed the physical activity patterns and cardiovascular health of a modern tribe of hunter/gatherers in Northern Tanzania. The study participants, ranging in age from young adults to those in their 70s, moved around at a moderate pace for at least two hours a day, doing things like walking, digging, foraging, and the like.
This basic physical activity was more than 14 times as much as Americans taking part in epidemiological studies, and participants showed no evidence of cardiovascular risk factors. Basically proving, once again, that moving a lot does wonders for overall health.
Squatting is one of the basic movement patterns that people use every single day. You use it when you sit down and stand up, you use it when lifting objects from the ground or searching through a low cabinet. You use it when you get into and out of your car. Even if you hate squats as a general rule, being able to perform them through a full range of motion without pain is fairly essential to your overall mobility.
Dylan Conrad, a personal trainer and owner of DC Fitness, a personal-training studio in Los Angeles, points to the prisoner squat as a test for overall health and fitness because it requires you to interlock your hands behind your head while performing a squat. "How can you expect to get up and down from the toilet if you can't squat? Further, how are you going to rip your shirt off for your lover if you can't put your hands behind your head?"
That whole ripping-the-shirt-off thing? Pretty important, amiright?
The push-up is to upper-body strength, balance, coordination, and control, what the squat is to lower-body strength, balance, coordination, and control. If you're not strong enough to push your own bodyweight up off the floor, it's kind of hard to get up if you fall down, or to play with your kids on the ground.
But it's not unusual for even generally "healthy" individuals to struggle with basic push-ups due to shoulder pain. Conrad explains, "If you have pain in one or both shoulders, this is usually a sign of inflexibility or poor rotator cuff activation, both of which are commonly caused by poor static posture."
In other words, you probably sit hunched in front of your computer too much. Like right now.
Ben Boudro, a personal trainer and gym owner with a master's degree in kinesiology, emphasizes the importance of proper form when performing a push-up (or any of these moves, really). "Your shoulders should be back, your core flat, and your elbows should make your body look like an arrow, not a T (angled out and back at roughly 45 degrees)."
Can't do it with proper form? "Humble yourself," says Boudro. Work your way through a progression, starting with push-ups on a wall, then on a bench, then on your knees, until you can finally perform a standard push-up balanced on your toes. Consider the progression a form of physical therapy and don't be embarrassed about it.
Most people envision the bent-leg or Romanian deadlift as an exercise that's used with added weight, but Sean Langlais, a biomechanist with Echelon Biomechanics, whose job it is to figure out how and why injuries happen, says, "This exercise should be perfected with basic bodyweight; in fact, using weight isn't necessary." The unweighted version is often referred to as a hip hinge.
The whole goal is to be able to bend over and right yourself while maintaining a neutral spine and moving through a range of motion that translates to basic, everyday movements. When doing the exercise, you're basically teaching your hips to move independently of your spine, so that when you bend over, you can do so by pressing your hips backward, rather than rounding your back.
As Langlais points out, this type of deadlifting translates almost perfectly to picking children or items up off the floor, or loading a dishwasher without risk of pain or injury.
You've probably tried a plank, but you may not realize how fundamental this movement really is when it comes to testing and developing your core strength. When done properly, it fires up all the major muscles of your anterior chain (the front half of your body), while strengthening the deep, stabilizing muscles of your abs and spine, helping protect your back from injury or pain.
The key here, of course, is to do it with proper form, which means keeping your elbows aligned directly beneath your shoulders, and maintaining a neutral, straight spine from heels to head. Aim for just 10-second holds to start, gradually building to 60 seconds.
Christian Heria, founder of the calisthenics training program Thenx.com, emphasizes that it's the isometric nature of the exercise that's so important, "Most athletes do concentric movements, but fail to work on isometric holds. Keeping time under tension in your muscles (when you hold any move) is essential in muscle development and creating a strong foundation in your physical capabilities."
And if you tend to have shoulder pain? Conrad says planks are a good way to build strength: "When your forearms are parallel to your body during the plank, it puts the shoulders in 'external rotation,' which gets the rotator cuff active, becoming a better shoulder stabilizer. When you link this with core activation for your body's overall health, it's game over!"
The Turkish get-up may not be an exercise you should attempt until you feel pretty solid on your ability to perform all the other exercises on this list. If you haven't seen one in action, it's essentially a compound, multi-move exercise that requires you to stand up from a lying position, using a specific sequence of movements where you maintain a neutral spine.
To be honest, it's tough, but it's also incredibly functional when it comes to total-body flexibility, strength, and range of motion through your major joints. Conrad says, "If I had only one exercise I was able to do for the rest of my life, the Turkish get-up would be it. It's the perfect combination of stability, core strength, and flexibility. When I get old and frail, and it becomes more difficult to get in and out of bed or up from a fall, the Turkish get-up will help me in this time of life or death."
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