a woman rolling an exercise mat

Use your body: Body-weight exercise for all fitness levels

Someone asked me what I thought was the best option for a quiet cardio machine. The first thing to mind? Using body weight exercise to make a cardio workout happen. 

Body-weight exercise is an excellent option for home workouts if you are space limited, don’t want a noisy machine in your place, don’t want to spend a lot of money, and would like to tick the box for strength training and cardio exercise in the same session. 

Your own body-weight  is great

Whether you are running or doing pushups, you’ve got one thing going for you: Your own body-weight. Most people don’t think about how much they weigh, at least in terms of resistance. Since we have muscles that are used to holding us upright and moving us around, we don’t have a sense of how heavy our body parts are. But when you are moving, you are moving all your weight around. You have a built-in gym! And many ways to use it.

Body-weight exercise is great for cardio and strength training

One of the reasons we don’t notice the weight of our bodies when we are doing normal daily activities is that our brain is good at minimising movement to conserve energy. This means that your movements will be as small as possible, without limiting what you’re doing. For example, imagine walking around and lifting your knees as high as your waist with every step. It’s unnecessary, not to mention pretty awkward! 

Many body-weight exercises require you to move through a much larger range of movement than you normally would. People often don’t realise that strength is range-specific, meaning that you only develop strength in the ranges of movement that you use. If you aren’t used to big movements – like those that might be required by your workout – they are automatically more challenging. 

To meet this challenge, your muscles have to contract more powerfully, which uses more oxygen. Your heart rate and breathing get faster to move oxygen to the working muscles. You’re all of a sudden in the “cardio training zone”. 

In addition, many of us don’t lift anything close to our body-weight in any strength exercise, so your weight can be a great strength challenge.

Body-weight exercise is easy to modify

If the challenge is too much, don’t worry! Body-weight exercises can be made easier or more challenging even though your weight doesn’t change, so you’re not stuck. Thanks to the magic of physics, you can increase or decrease the amount of work you do by making your movement more vertical or more horizontal. Changing your body position relative to your working muscles makes a big difference. 

For example, let’s look at a push-up. The standard push-up position has you hold your body parallel to the ground. The balls of your feet are the pivot point, and your shoulders and arms are moving the weight of your flat body – your whole height – up and down against gravity. 

But if you change the angle of your body by putting your hands up on a bench or table, you decrease the load by decreasing the length-of-body moving against gravity. The higher you go, the less you work against gravity. (There is a more science-y worded explanation of course. I suspect we are all more interested in the practical side of things.)

You can also change the challenge in other ways. Movement speed can make a huge difference to intensity: Move really slowly, or really quickly, and see how you feel. Don’t forget that controlled movement is key to safe exercise, regardless of speed. You’ll get more from a workout that doesn’t injure you; if you’re injured, you can’t work out again tomorrow. 

What’s the take-home message?

Body-weight exercise is a great option no matter what kind of workout you want. It can provide great cardio benefits, and will help you get strong. You can modify the challenge of the exercise by changing your body position, or changing your movement speed. Move your body, have fun, and see what happens. 

What do you think?