Renaissance Fitness The 3 Essential Bodyweight Exercises

Updated: February 27, 2012

Vic Magary

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This is a guest post by Vic Magary of

When considering the vast array of choices for spending your time and energy on becoming an expert, there is one quality that is the bedrock of all other pursuits: your health. Everyone knows that regular exercise is important for health, but maintaining consistent fitness habits can also help give you the focus needed to learn computer programming, the presence to really enjoy tea, or the stamina to become a racquetball playing machine.

Despite the importance of fitness, it's easy to get lost among the sea of shiny chrome machines at the corporate mega-gyms, infomercials touting armloads of workout DVD's, and magazine headlines blaring "the secret to sexy six pack abs". The truth is that your fitness regimen does not have to be complicated and can be completed in only a few minutes per day.

The foundation of a solid fitness program should be the basic body weight exercises: the push up, the squat, and the body row.

The Push Up

A favorite among sadistic high school gym teachers and military drill instructors alike, the push up is the most basic of upper-body pushing exercises developing the muscles of the chest, shoulders, and triceps. A properly executed push up begins with the balls of the feet and the palms of the hands in contact with the ground. The arms are fully extended and there should be a nice straight line from the shoulders to the hips to the knees to the ankles. pushup

Descend to the bottom of the push up by bending the arms and keeping the elbows about 45 degrees away from the body. This tends to help reduce shoulder aggravation, as opposed to the elbows being flared out 90 degrees away from the body. Be sure to bend the arms until the chest touches the ground. From the bottom position, push strong through the arms returning to the top of the movement for a complete repetition.

The most common error with the push up is shortening the range of motion by either not going all the way down until the chest touches the floor or not extending the arms fully at the top of the motion. This can be corrected by slowing down the movement and ensuring complete work from the bottom to the top.

Another common error is misalignment of the hips by either allowing them to sag or positioning them too high with the butt in the air. Sometimes focusing the gaze about 3 or 4 feet forward will help keep the hips in line with the shoulders and knees.

The Squat

Lower body exercises are often neglected in favor of working the "beach muscles" of the upper body. This is a mistake as the legs provide the foundation for nearly all of life's functional movements from picking up a bag of groceries to sprinting out of the way of a speeding car. The most important of the lower body exercises is the squat, which primarily emphasizes the quadriceps but will also work the glutes and hamstrings when done with a full range of motion.

From a standing position with the feet about shoulder's width apart and the toes turned out about 30 degrees, bend at the hips and knees pushing the butt back as if sitting in a chair. The chest should stay high and the shoulders pulled back throughout the movement. Descend to the bottom of the movement until the hip crease is below the knees while keeping the knees in line with the toes. Push strong through the heels returning to the standing position to complete the movement.

squat bodyweight exercise

The proper depth of the squat is subject to much debate and the warning to "not squat below parallel" can still be heard on occasion. I hold that you should squat as low as possible while remaining pain-free and maintaining proper technique. Technique will often break with the pelvis tipping forward and the lower back rounding when maximum depth has been exceeded. With practice, range of motion can often be increased so that squatting with the thighs parallel to the floor is the minimum standard.

Common errors include allowing the heels to rise and rounding the back. Focusing on pushing the butt back on the descent will often help with keeping the heels flat and making a point to keep the shoulders back will often help keep the back in proper position.

The Body Row

Many would consider the pull up the most basic of upper body pulling exercises. However in my experience it is rare that someone new to fitness training can do even a single proper pull up. Accordingly, I typically start beginners with the body row as the initial exercise for developing the upper body pulling muscles of the back, shoulders, and biceps.

For the body row, use a contact point roughly at armpit height. This could be a long towel, rope, or set of rings thrown over a pull up bar or a low bar as used in the video below. Start by holding on to the contact point and hanging so the arms are fully extended. Ideally the body should be straight so that the shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles are all in line. If pulling from the straight body position is too difficult, the hips may be dropped as an alternate position. This allows the use of the legs to help through the movement if necessary.

body row exercise

While keeping the body straight, pull with the arms to the highest point possible. The chest should be just a few inches below the contact point at the top of the movement. Next, lower the body in a controlled manner until the arms are extended while keeping the body straight to return to the starting position.

The most common error with the body row is failing to keep the body straight. It is better to drop the hips and use the legs to assist the movement than to struggle keeping the hips in line with the shoulders. Over time, strength will increase and a return to the straight body position will be possible.

The body is an essential tool of any Renaissance man or woman. And as with any tool, the body must be maintained for effective usage. Complicated exercise gadgets and chasing the latest workout craze are not necessary.

A minimalist approach to fitness with an emphasis on body weight training is often best, as it provides flexibility to take your exercise "on the road" and allows completing your training in a short amount of time.

When considering your fitness options, be sure to include the basic body weight exercises: the push up, the squat, and the body row.

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