middle age woman doing yoga on rooftop

How do I become stronger physically without going to the gym?

I don’t have (or want) a gym membership. What can I do every day to get stronger?

Muscle mass naturally decreases with age, about 1% per year from your mid-30s onward. Strength decreases along with that loss. This is easy to ignore – when you’re in your 30s, 40s, 50s, it’s easy to not notice any losses, or feel like you’ve got plenty of time to make them up. And there’s no shortage of people that say they figure it’s just part of getting old.

While these losses are indeed part of the aging process, that doesn’t mean you just have to sit there and accept them. There’s lot that can be done to maintain strength and muscle mass regardless of age. And you definitely do not need a gym. Instead, get creative and find ways to move your body against resistance. Some of the examples commonly discussed with our personal training and exercise physiology clients include:

Do some pushups. For easier versions, choose an incline option, with hands on the wall, the kitchen table, counters or benchtops, back of the sofa etc. The lower you get to the ground, the harder the exercise gets. You’ll want to find the balance between the difficulty of the exercise and your ability to maintain good technique – if your back hurts or you can’t maintain a straight line while doing it, find something easier.

Carry your groceries in a shopping basket or bags, rather than a cart. This will help build upper body strength and perhaps surprisingly, core stretch – the core muscles will work hard to counterbalance the external weight and keep you in an upright position. It’s important to alternate which side you carry items on, only using one can actually create an imbalance in core strength and muscle tension. Bonus: If you park farther away, you’ll carry grocery bags for a longer period (building upper body and core strength) and get more steps.

Take the stairs. This may seem more like cardiovascular work, and climbing stairs does count as aerobic exercise, but it’s also a great strength builder for the lower body. Minimize your risk of knee pain by taking your bodyweight through the back of the foot, not just the toes. Bonus: Carry things while you’re doing it for increased resistance.

Squat down to pick things up. Instead of bending over from the waist to pick something up off the floor, squat down by reaching down and back through your hips and sitting on your heels. NOTE: This move is often stiff and uncomfortable for people who sit a lot, especially at first. Squat as low as you can and keep your chest lifted to minimize back strain. Even if it’s not a large movement, this will actually help you regain joint mobility and movement ability through the hips over time.

Do some sit-to-stand squats. Find a chair, sofa, stool, etc. that is slightly lower than what you normally sit on. Reach backwards with your hips and slowly lower yourself down to the seat, controlling your movement all the way. Push through your heels to stand back up. Repeat 10-15 times per set.

Daily activities can be safe strength builders as long as you keep two key points in mind. Anything you do need to be pain-free, both during and after the movement (noting that there is a difference between the muscle burn from 1000 crunches and the catching, stabbing, sharp pains that often go along with acute injuries). The first rule is always “Stay Pain Free”. The second point: Strength building still takes effort, regardless of where you do it. That means that whatever you’re lifting, moving, or carrying will still need to be heavy enough to feel like effort. There are many many ways to achieve this, so get creative. What can you come up with?


Walking along coronation drive in Brisbane

Client Question: Can Walking Uphill Take The Place of Lower Body Resistance Training?

Thanks to one of our exercise physiology clients in Indooroopilly for a great question!

Hill climbing can be a challenge to the muscles of the lower body, whether you walk outdoors or on a treadmill. As a result, uphill walking can help improve the strength and endurance of the lower body muscles. But it will not completely replace the need for lower body resistance training.

You may feel that walking uphill is a physical challenge, and you are not wrong! The major muscle groups in your legs have to work harder to keep you moving, and that can certainly lead to greater strength development than walking only on a flat surface. Walking will only stimulate strength development up to a point though, and relying on walking for strength will mean you’ll also miss out on other important elements of fitness.

Resistance Training Develops and Maintains Joint Mobility

Most strength or resistance training exercises require larger movements than walking does. These larger movements are the key to maintaining joint mobility (the freedom to move your joints through a normal, full range of motion). This keeps you moving well and can reduce wear and tear on the joints – one of the biggest causes of joint pain.

Resistance Training Develops and Maintains Muscle Strength

Strength is important, even if you don’t see yourself entering any future strongman competitions. You need a minimum, basic level of strength to meet the demands of daily life, whether that means lugging a heavy bag or briefcase around all day, carrying the groceries, or picking up the kids. While any activity that makes you work hard will develop muscular strength to some degree, resistance training is the best for this. A dedicated strength-building workout will promote far more strength than any you might build as a by-product of other exercise.

Resistance Training Helps Maintain Movement Abiliity

The combination of strength and joint mobility will help you maintain your overall movement ability, agility, balance, and gait well into your golden years. These two components of fitness and musculoskeletal health are what give you the ability to catch yourself if you trip, reach overhead to grab things down from shelves, and generally maintain your ability to walk, jog, and run well throughout your entire life.

Resistance Training Helps to Maintain Muscle Mass

Around about your mid-30s, you’ll start to lose about 1% of your muscle mass every year. Over time, this has a huge impact on your movement ability (muscle mass is directly related to physical strength) – if you don’t take action. Your body will keep the muscle it uses. Use resistance training to maintain muscle mass and your muscle mass will keep you moving.

Over time, muscle loss can also substantially slow your metabolism, one part of why many people gain weight with age. Remember that old saying “muscle burns more calories than fat”? It’s true! Resistance training keeps your metabolism revved up, helping you more easily lose weight and keep it off.

So you can’t rely on the treadmill to build lower body strength. Do you have to join a gym? Not at all. If the rise of in-home personal training options and other at-home workouts tell us anything, it’s that you can get a great workout at home with little to no set-up. Our in-home personal training, exercise physiology, and coaching options do recommend a few different training tools, but you can start resistance training at home using just your bodyweight and branch out as you need to. You’ll probably find that you actually have a few things already lying around the house that you can use to provide resistance. Get creative and enjoy the benefits!

For more information:
Plowman, S. A., & Smith, D. L. (2017). Exercise Physiology For Health, Fitness, and Performance (5th ed.). Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
Franz, J. R., & Kram, R. (2013). How does age affect leg muscle activity/coactivity during uphill and downhill walking? Gait & Posture, 37(3), 378-384. doi:10.1016/j.gaitpost.2012.08.004

At-Home Exercise: Single Leg Deadlift

No equipment needed, yet a highly effect exercise for working the hips and back of the legs (hip stabilizer muscles, hamstrings, and glutes). This exercise looks simple, but it takes a lot of concentration to really get the benefits, so take your time and only move as much as you can control it:

Single Leg Deadlift
  • Stand tall and brace core
  • Lift one foot off ground and make leg active by pulling toes towards shin
  • Move heel back and behind body
  • As foot moves backward, torso will tilt forward (keep head and neck in line with spine)
  • Keep a straight line from keep to top of head, even if it means you don’t go down as far
  • Keep back in “neutral” position as you move
  • Keep “bottom” knee slightly bent
  • Arms can reach to the side, front, or anywhere you are comfortable
  • You should feel: work through the outside of the hips, back of the thigh, and your core

single-leg-deadlift