Can I get stronger without going to the gym?

The idea of pumping iron at the gym can be intimidating, especially as we get older. But as we get older we tend to lose muscle, so doing resistance exercise to maintain it becomes even more important. So, is there a way to maintain our muscle without going to the gym?

The exercise

As we enter our 40s our bodies get worse at building and maintaining muscle, and we can lose as much as 1% of our muscle mass every single year.

That continual loss doesn’t just affect our strength: low muscle mass is also a predictor of poor health in old age and even early death.

But the right exercises can slow or even reverse this decline.

So we designed an experiment in conjunction with Dr Philip Atherton of the University of Nottingham to see if muscle size and strength can be increased without going to the gym.

We took 12 volunteers aged over 40 and gave them a month-long exercise programme that could be carried out entirely at home.

The results

At the beginning and end of the experiment we tested the participants’ leg strength and power, handgrip strength, and we also used an ultrasound to measure the size of their thigh muscles.

The difference between ‘strength’ and ‘power’ is that strength only measures how much force can be exerted, whereas power also includes how quickly it can be applied.

On average:

  • Thigh muscle cross-sectional area was 57.5cm³ before and 59.0cm³ after (an increase of 3%).
  • Thigh muscle thickness was 25.0cm³ before and 25.5cm³ after (an increase of 2%)
  • Leg strength was 152.7 newton-metres before and 170.8 newton-metres after (an increase of 12%)
  • Leg power was 277.1 watts before and 320.3 after (an increase of 13%).
  • Handgrip strength was 35.5kg before and 36.5kg after (an increase of 4%).

All of these increases were significant – and a surprise to everyone involved with the study!

What does this mean?

These simple exercises that anyone can do at home can produce really significant increases in muscle strength.

If this is done over a long period of time, it may help to slow or reverse muscle loss caused by aging.

What do the experts recommend?

The NHS recommends doing at least a couple of sessions of resistance exercise each week to build and maintain strength. Our results show that this can be done for free in the privacy of your own home.

Exercises

Participants were asked to do 3 sets of 12 repetitions every day for 4 weeks.

(If you’d like to print these out, download this PDF.)

Exercise 1: Toothbrush Squats

  • Stand with feet shoulder width apart,
  • make sure that ankles, knees and hips are in alignment,
  • sit back and down like you’re sitting in an imaginary chair,
  • keep your head facing forward,
  • lower until your thighs are as parallel to the floor as possible,
  • press your weight into your heels,
  • do not let your knees go over the front of your toes,
  • hold at the bottom and then return to starting position,
  • a convenient time to do this is while brushing your teeth,
  • to progress this exercise make the squats slower and the hold at the bottom longer,
  • alternatively replace the toothbrush with a heavier object e.g. a bag of porridge or pet food.

Exercise 2: Hoover or Shopping Bag Walking Lunges

  • Step forward with first leg,
  • land on heel and then forefoot,
  • lower body by flexing knee and hip of front leg until knee of rear leg is almost in contact with floor,
  • do not let your front knee go over the front of your toes,
  • keep knees and feet pointing forward,
  • keep torso upright during lunge,
  • repeat by alternating lunge with opposite legs,
  • a convenient time to do this is while hoovering or brushing the floor
  • to progress this exercise make the lunges slower and the hold at the bottom longer,
  • alternatively do this exercise whilst carrying a shopping bag in each hand.

Exercise 3: Cleaning Calf Raises

  • Stand tall with your abdominal (stomach) muscles pulled in and
  • your feet hip width apart (or slightly narrower),
  • raise your heels so that you're on your tiptoes,
  • hold the position and then lower your heels to the floor,
  • ensure that the lift comes from the whole width of your foot and not the little toe or inside of the foot,
  • a convenient time to do this exercise is while dusting, cleaning windows or reaching for high objects during cooking
  • to progress this exercise make the raises slower and the hold at the top longer,
  • alternatively do this from the bottom stair, starting and finishing with your heel lower than your toes,
  • finally add a weight in your hands to increase the difficulty of this exercise.

Exercise 4: Cooking Bicep Curls

  • Stand up straight with a weight in each hand at arms length,
  • keep your elbows close to your torso and rotate the palms of your hands until they are facing forward- this is your starting position,
  • keep the position of your elbows stationary and curl your arms until the weights are close to shoulder level,
  • hold in this position and then lower slowly back down,
  • this can be done at any time using various house-hold objects such as tins/ cans and bottles of water,
  • this exercise can be done standing or sitting,
  • to progress this exercise make the curls slower and the hold at the top longer,
  • alternatively increase the weight in your hands to increase the difficulty of this exercise.

Exercise 5: Towel Tricep Extensions

  • Pick up a towel with one hand at the end of the towel and position the arm so the towel hangs down your back and the arm is bent,
  • your forearm should be behind your head with the elbow pointing upwards,
  • grasp the other end of the towel behind your lower back with your free hand,
  • make sure your feet are hip width apart and your posture upright,
  • stretch out the top arm fully, the other arm offers the resistance,
  • the upper part of the top arm should remain stationary,
  • hold at the top against resistance and then relax the arm back down,
  • switch arms after each set of 12,
  • this exercise can be done using a bath or tea/ hand towel
  • to progress this exercise make the extensions slower and the hold at the top longer,
  • alternatively increase the resistance from the bottom hand,
  • this exercise can also be done with a weight in the top hand instead of a towel to offer resistance.

Exercise 6: Wall/ Door Frame Press-up

  • Stand facing a wall or door frame with your feet hip width apart about 2 feet away from the wall,
  • place your palms slightly wider than shoulder-width apart on the wall,
  • you should be able to keep your arms straight with your palms flat against the wall,
  • keep your body straight and slowly bend your elbows, lowering your chest to the wall, until your upper arms are close to parallel with the wall,
  • hold in this position and then press up until your arms are straight again,
  • to progress this exercise make the presses slower and the hold at the wall longer,
  • alternatively move your feet further away from the wall to increase the difficulty of this exercise,
  • finally, this exercise can be done one-hand at a time as an advanced progression but only if you are confident doing this.

Exercise 7: Washing Basket Oblique Twists

  • Stand up straight with feet roughly hip distance apart and soft knees,
  • hold your washing basket, or other similar weighted object in both hands with your arms at your sides and hands positioned just above your waist,
  • twist the basket around your body to one side while keeping your lower body fixed and your hips facing forward,
  • repeat by twisting to the other side
  • to progress this exercise make the twists slower and the hold at the end longer,
  • alternatively increase the weight of the object to increase the difficulty of this exercise,
  • finally, if you take the object further away from your body this will progress the exercise.

Exercise 8: Broom Deadlift

Hold a broom or mop horizontally, and stand just behind it with feet shoulder width apart,

  • squat down (see exercise 1) and grasp the handle with hands slightly wider than shoulder width apart,
  • keep your back straight and eyes looking forward,
  • keep the back rigid and arms straight,
  • lift the broom or mop using the legs, keeping your arms straight,
  • once you are upright, complete the exercise by raising the shoulders slightly,
  • return the broom to the ground slowly and carefully
  • to progress this exercise make the lift slower and the hold at the top longer,
  • alternatively use a heavier object to perform the exercise- 2 objects can be used (1 in each hand) but these will need to be evenly weighted.

(If you’d like to print these out, download this PDF.)