By Martin Sigrist
Takeaway: The best way to get fit and stay healthy is to incorporate exercise into your daily life, making it easy to “work out” rather than assuming it can only take place in a certain place at special times. Just a few pieces of cheap, easy to use and easy to access gear will make you fitter and healthier than thousands of dollars worth of special equipment locked away in a special place you only go to a few times a week at most.
The problem with the words “exercise” and “workout” are that they make it sound as if physical activity is something to be done at a special time, in a special place, with special equipment.
Gyms are a case in point. While I am sure they work for some, they have a number of drawbacks that mean that the vast majority will never think of using them. Gyms gain (at least if I am anything to go by) a sizeable part of their income from folks who pay a membership fee to assuage their guilt about not exercising but then never actually go. Gyms waste precious exercise time getting there, changing, showering, changing and getting back. Gyms are full of fabulous equipment costing thousands that must be better than the “old fashioned” barbell and dumbbells right? Wrong. Free weights are, undisputedly, the best way to train — especially if your objective is not just strength but also feeling better by becoming more mobile and stable.
The biggest improvement in my well being over the last decade has come about by doing more than ride a bike. There are four pillars to fitness, and cycling addresses only one: cardiovascular. It does nothing for the other three: strength, mobility and stability. Indeed, it risks degrading them leading to problems either short or long term.
And the biggest step change came about when I stopped going to the gym and stopped thinking about rebuilding my missing pillars as “exercise.” Instead I bought the equipment that was essential and just left it laying around in my home. I would do a “workout” as and when I happened to feel like it, 5-10 minutes here and there when the mood struck.
I admit to making a mistake. My first purchases were sets of weights so I could free lift. That worked and my strength improved noticeably. But my aches and pains remained and while I didn’t do myself any harm I was not doing as much good as I could.
Then, better late than never, I heard of Kelly Starrett and his “Supple Leopard” idea. I bought some more (cheap) equipment, some of which I had never seen being used at a gym and my life changed forever. I am truly astonished at that degree to which I have been able to restore lost function and banish pain. It’s a good news story I want to share because it takes so little to accomplish.
Here’s a quick run down of the equipment and knowledge I wish I had when I was 25.
Dumbbells with adjustable weights: These allow all the essential movements to be done with the option to do them isolating a single arm or leg to not only build strength but stability and remove the imbalances which cause many types of pain.
“Resistance Band” These can be bought but I find old inner tubes work just fine. They serve two purposes: to help build strength especially in the secondary muscles that act as stabilisers and to “distract” joints which involves putting tension on them so as to free them up to allow mobilisation.
Chin Up Bar: Not for chin ups. Simply hanging from one is one of the simplest and most effective forms of exercise. It’s especially good first thing in the morning after getting out of bed. They can also be used to anchor resistance bands for some movements.
Kettle Bell: Not essential but useful as it adds instability to some movements which makes them more effective.
Paper plates/Thick socks: Used for sliding feet or hands. Which is needed depends on floor type.
Lacrosse ball and/or softball: For massage.
Towel: For support in some movements and to help in others.
That’s it. The only other thing needed is some free space in which to work.
The number one thing is that mobility and stability “exercise” doesn’t make you sweat and they are not hard work. This may sound daft but it’s a game changer. It means that they can be done whenever you feel like it and have the opportunity. Doing 5-10 minutes a day every day is much better than an hour once a week. These minutes can be anytime, anywhere. First thing in the morning, last thing at night, watching TV, during a break between chores, even sitting on the pan! If I was still working I’d have had a resistance band and lacrosse ball in my desk to use during long phone conferences.
The second main thing is that while it can get complicated at the end of the day if you just do 6 simple movements well, really focusing on form (film yourself) just using very light weights, then that is already a big step. These 6 are: goblet squat, single leg squat, single leg deadlift, dumbbell row, dumbbell press and overhead dumbbell press. If any of these prove difficult then identifying the root cause and resolving it (the equipment above should be all that is needed for most issues) should be first priority.
A local physio should be able to help with diagnosis and take you to the next step.
Alternatively I have found these Youtube channels to be consistently good in terms of content. Each of them has helped me personally fix at least one problem I thought I was doomed to suffer the rest of my life. There are of course many more, the key test is that they get you motivated and make you feel better.
Feldenkrais with Taro Iwamoto
The simplest and easiest of exercises whose main purpose is build awareness of how your body is moving. Most exercises don’t need any equipment. A great place to start.
The Ready State
New home of Kelly Starrett who I owe a huge debt of gratitude for starting me on a path that resulted in me feeling decades younger. Focus is on mobility, the name of the channel reflects its goal of getting your body into the ideal state for competition in terms of its ability to move efficiently and safely.
Aaron Horschig works with some of the world’s best athletes. His speciality is the diagnosis of, recovery from and prevention of injury. The video above is a simple set of 3 exercises that will get your core in great shape, something that is essential on a bike both to generate power and avoid injury.
This is more extreme and won’t be for everyone. But while the focus may seem on building big muscles there is a lot of science and useful advice for everyone who just wants to get healthier. The first linked video is an example, 10 exercises that you can do at home that will give you a full body workout. The second is a complete structured plan using equipment that will address every area of your body.
I’ve said it before but it’s worth repeating. Cyclists should not be put off “weight training” in the misguided belief that it is just about building big muscles. It’s not. Building those muscles is a choice. But what really isn’t a choice is whether to do the essential mobility and stability work that you need to stay healthy and feel well for the whole of your life.
Now among the world’s fittest sexagenarians Martin Sigrist started riding on doctor’s orders in 2005 and had to push his bike up his first hill. Next year he soloed the Tour de France. He has since experienced every form of road cycling from criterium to ultra endurance. His ongoing mission is to use the latest in science and technology to fight a, so far successful, battle against Father Time.