Working out the whole body is important for overall health and wellness. It can help you shed excess weight and just generally improve your fitness level. Selecting a full-body workout that can support the strength and development of a wide range of muscles can help you maintain fitness and independence long term.
Dr. Jin Choi, a sports medicine physician with Hoag Orthopedic Institute in Southern California, says that whole body workouts are important because “in the real world, when we do any type of physical activity, we don’t just use one or two muscles at a time separately. We use multiple muscles groups in coordination to create motor movements.”
Activating multiple muscle groups together can help you maintain that coordination and strength for a lifetime.
In addition, the more muscles you activate during a workout, the more calories you’ll burn in a given period of time. There’s a real cardiovascular benefit to working out the whole body at once.
Of the many ways you can chose to work out, some are better at involving all the muscle groups and providing a full-body workout. Here, Choi outlines a series of exercises you can use to build a great, full-body workout that can be performed almost anywhere with minimal equipment.
7 Exercises for a Total Body Workout
One of the best ways to get a full-body workout doesn’t require much in the way of equipment and can be done at home, in the park or anywhere. If you have some weights, those are helpful, but you can substitute everyday items as a stand in if you don’t have barbells, dumbbells or kettlebells.
Choi recommends building a circuit of exercises that can build the whole body. Work with a trainer to make sure your form is correct to avoid injury and to help find the right progression of exercises for you.
These seven exercises are good to include, but there’s a wide range of additional movements out there that you can use to create more complex or challenging workouts.
core. Start on all fours with your palms flat on the floor slightly wider than your shoulders. Stretch your legs out and balance on your toes so that your body is straight and long with arms fully extended. Tighten the core and lower your upper body until your elbows are at a 90-degree angle (or as close as you can get). Push back up to the starting position for one repetition. Be sure not to sag in the middle and keep your neck relaxed.
Another perennial gym class staple, pull-ups target all the muscles in the upper body. You’ll need access to a bar that’s high enough above your head that your feet don’t touch the ground when you hang from it. Be sure the bar is able to support your weight.
A jungle gym at the park is often a good option.
Grasp the bar with both hands (start with an overhand grip) and hang straight down. Pull your body up towards the bar. Clear the bar with your chin and lower back down gently for one repetition.
Squats target the large muscles of the lower body. Stand with feet about shoulder width apart and point your toes parallel or slightly outwards as is comfortable for you. Squeeze your abs and lower your body slowly as though you are about to sit down on a chair. Keep your behind backwards and keep your knees in line with your toes. Keep the upper body straight and look straight ahead.
When your knees are bent at 90 degrees, slowly return to the starting position to complete one repetition.
Lunges also target the lower body and begin in the same starting position as a squat, with you standing up tall, feet about shoulder width apart.
Take a big step forward with one foot and bend the leading knee to a 90-degree angle. Keep the knee over the toes on the side that’s bending. The back leg should flex naturally to keep you upright, and your back heel will rise off the ground a bit. When you’ve reached a full bend with the forward leg, come back to the starting position and lunge on the other side to complete one full lunge cycle.
Deadlifts work out nearly every muscle in the body, with special focus on the core and legs. To execute a deadlift, you’ll need a barbell or other weight, such as dumbbells or sand bags in each hand, or a single kettlebell held by both hands in the center.
Stand in front of the barbell with feet about shoulder width apart. Bend your knees and bend over with a flat back. Your hands should grasp the bar about shoulder width apart. Tighten your core and your butt and pick up the barbell off the ground. Stand up and straighten your back, but keep your arms straight down. The barbell should not rise above the tops of the thighs. Pause for a moment, then slowly lower the barbell back to the ground for one repetition.
Burpees are a four-part, full-body exercise that can offer superior conditioning in short order. Start in a standing position and move into a squat, as you place your hands on the ground. Kick your feet back until you’re in an extended plank position – like what you’d use for a push-up.
Planks are great for the core muscles. Start in the same position you do for a push-up, but instead of lowering your body and pushing back up, simply hold still, with your arms supporting your upper body and your toes anchoring the lower body to the floor. Hold for a few seconds or a few minutes as your ability dictates.
Modify to Your Ability
Choi notes that there are “many more exercises out there” that provide similar benefits, so if you don’t like a particular movement or don’t have the flexibility or fitness right now to execute it correctly, you can sub in a variation or another exercise that works that specific body part. Again, working with a trainer can help you figure out what works best for your body and fitness level.
The advantage of a whole-body workout built from these kinds of exercises is that you can complete it in a relatively short amount of time.
“Anyone can set aside 20 to 30 minutes a day to do a complete whole-body exercise program and gain great benefits,” Choi says. “I recommend finding exercises you can do easily at home or at work and do them regularly. The best type of whole-body exercise is the one that you can do and want to do consistently.”
Add in Aerobic Exercise
In addition to those strength moves, you should also be sure to include some aerobic exercises in your weekly fitness routine to help balance out the workouts and provide some additional cardiovascular training. Good full-body aerobic exercises include:
- Running. Running really works the big muscles of the lower legs, but can also provide a moderate upper body workout, especially if you pump your arms as you’re climbing a hill, for example. Running is high intensity, weight-bearing and may not be suitable for people with joint problems in the lower limbs. But it’s one of the simplest exercises you can do to get your heart rate up quickly and burn some serious calories.
- Swimming. Swimming can provide a top-notch cardiovascular workout along with gentle resistance training that can help you build muscle strength – the water provides more resistance than air as you move through it. Swimming is a great way to get the cardio you need without the weight-bearing and pounding impact of running. Its gentleness sometimes belies just how great a cardiovascular workout it can provide.
- Cycling. Like swimming, cycling is a low-impact cardio exercise. Like running, it focuses on the lower legs. And like both, cycling can provide an intense aerobic workout if you’re working hard enough.
- Rowing. Because you’re seated while using a rowing machine, you’re not having to bear your body weight the way you do in running, and that can be good news for people who have joint issues. Rowing also provides a superior full-body workout that involves the arms, legs and core along with a killer cardio burn and excellent aerobic training.
No matter which type of aerobic workout you prefer, all of these disciplines help improve overall cardiovascular fitness and can boost weight loss efforts.
If you’re new to total-body exercise, Choi recommends “starting low and slow and gradually ramping up the intensity as you start to improve. We all have to start somewhere, and I wouldn’t recommend jumping straight into high-intensity exercises without warming up to it first,” as that’s a good way to get injured or “become discouraged and stop exercising all together.”
Instead, he says you should “pick three to five different exercises (from the list of seven above) you can do per day, and go light and slow in the beginning. Once they become easier, then you can advance yourself to more intense and difficult exercises.”
To do that, you can increase the weight, the number of repetitions or both on the various exercises. As you get deeper into the routine, consider adding new equipment, such as kettlebells or resistance bands.
“Push yourself gradually, and make sure to focus on maintaining good form,” Choi says.
No matter which exercise disciplines you choose, engaging in a variety of exercises and applying consistent effort can help you achieve your fitness goals. “The best type of whole-body exercise is the one that suits the individual,” Choi says, adding that “everyone is different. Not one exercise program fits everybody.”
Creating a program of whole-body exercises that work for you is an effective and efficient way of getting and staying fit, Choi says. “The best part is you can do these exercises anytime and anywhere. You don’t need to be at a gym. The point is to stay healthy, avoid unnecessary injuries and have fun.”