The health crisis upended a world of fancy gyms and personal trainers. Fear of infection keeps millions of Americans at home, and it will be many months until enough people are vaccinated to quell the pandemic.
The good news is you can remain reasonably fit without a gym full of shiny equipment. I wrote a column earlier during the pandemic about workouts you can do without any equipment. Here’s one on strength workouts that you can do with the simplest of equipment: a barbell and plates.
You can get a basic barbell and weights for a little as $250, and a higher-quality set for twice that much money. The cost is roughly equivalent to a year’s membership in a gym, so it makes sense even as a stopgap measure.
I talked to two different fitness experts, Mark Rippetoe, strength coach and author of Starting Strength, and Mary Edwards, director of fitness at Cooper Aerobics in Dallas, about basic barbell exercises you can do at home with no other equipment. They both gave similar advice: Concentrate on total body exercises like deadlifts, overhead presses, and power cleans.
“These are the big movers,” says Edwards, who competed as a cross-country runner and track-and-field athlete in college. “They use a lot of muscle at one time.” While weight lifting itself doesn’t burn a lot of calories, carrying more muscle increases your metabolism even when you’re not working out.
Strength training plays an increasingly important role as people age. Exercises that load the hips and spine in particular help seniors avoid osteoporosis and retain muscle mass. Lifting a barbell while standing also improves balance, a key consideration for seniors.
Weights aren’t a magic elixir to ward off aging, however. Rippetoe says you can expect to lose roughly 10% of your strength for each decade after your 30s even if you work out. Weight lifting slows the decline; it doesn’t stop it.
If all you have is a barbell, Rippetoe advises alternating two basic workouts: In one, do only the deadlift, which builds strength in your entire body, particularly your hips and back. It is the barbell equivalent of lifting up one end of the sofa.
Good form is important to protect your back. Keep the barbell close to your body and your chest up and back locked as you lift and then lower the barbell. Look online for videos on proper technique before trying it.
In the other workout, Rippetoe recommends overhead presses and power cleans or power snatches. The overhead press uses the same muscles you use when putting luggage in an overhead bin.
Rippetoe says seniors should do sets of no more than five repetitions to lower the toll on their body. “You can’t recover from a bunch of volume,” says Rippetoe, a former competitive power lifter who still lifts regularly at age 64.
Edwards also advises alternating workouts. One workout might consist of the front squat, deadlift, and overhead press.
Another workout could include lunges and barbell rows. You can also try floor presses, which consists of pressing a barbell up as you lie flat on the floor. Edwards says you won’t be able to lift as much weight this way as a bench press but it works the same horizontal pressing muscles.
A third workout might consist of doing sets of power cleans for 30 seconds to 45 seconds to build strength and fitness. The key is “time under tension,” Edwards says.
Working out with just a barbell isn’t a perfect long-range solution.
You are likely to plateau more quickly than you would at a gym, says Rippetoe. “If you’re going to keep training at home,” he says, “eventually you’ll need a squat rack.”
A rack will allow you to begin doing back squats, which many experts consider the best lower body exercise.
You can also use the squat rack to do overhead presses. That will allow you to lift more weight than if you have to lift the barbell from the floor before each set.
But a barbell alone will keep you fit for a few months until the health crisis eases. Then you can decide if you want to go back to a gym or if you’ve fallen in love with the ease of home training and want to shell out for a squat rack and other equipment for a real home gym.
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