Pushups aren’t a fad. Neither are squats, or lunges, or the good, old-fashioned plank. If anything, they’re the anti-fad: the tried and true exercises you conveniently forget to do. The ones you know so well, you’ve slacked a little on your form. You know the ones. The exercises you’ve done enough times last week, or last month, or in your lifetime. I mean, I still have nightmares about being told to drop and bang out 10 pushups in high school. I’d rather avoid the real life manifestation of that dream, thank you very much.
Signing up for four weeks’ worth of body weight workouts with a trainer, however, you know you’re in for push-ups. Real push-ups. On your toes push-ups. I-already-regret-this-decision push-ups.
I knew I was in for something when the good people at Body Space Fitness sent me an intake form that spanned two whole Excel spreadsheets. They wanted to know everything from whether I had any injuries (I stepped on my knee funny when training for a marathon in August) to what my stress level at work was like (manageable) to how I typically ate (85% healthy, 5% sweet potato fries, 10% dessert). I’ve worked with trainers before, so I knew this was a good sign. How can you work with somebody if you don’t know anything about them? And now Body Space knew as much as they could know about me before meeting me.
I thought I knew all there was to know about Body Space, too. I creeped their website. I read up on my trainer, owner Kelvin Gary. (I even took a peek at his Instagram, where he highlights what his clients can do, and let me tell you in one word: wow.) And I’m no stranger to gyms. But walking into Body Space, on the 5th floor of an otherwise unassuming building in Manhattan, changed my perception entirely.
For one, the space is small—cozy small, not uncomfortably small. It’s intimate. There weren’t a lot of people working out, and those that were had a trainer coaching them. A grass floor ran about half the length of the space, and all sorts of weights peppered the landscape. In total, there were about four treadmills. Forget my preconceived notions of gyms with rush hours and waiting for machines: you could tell this place was about work.
Enter Kelvin, a guy who, for all his friendly smiles, just looks like he means business. Almost immediately, he had me warm up first with a foam roller before doing a series of dynamic stretches across the floor. (Walk-outs and lunges before the actual workout even begins? Oh, boy.) But the stretches were nothing compared to the circuit of eight simple exercises Kelvin then broke down for me, because not only did he demonstrate and explain how to do each exercise, but he tested me on variations for different skill levels. To top it all off, he explained the science of each move as we went, almost as if he was daring me to whine and protest my way out of doing something that was so clearly Good For Me.
We started with squats, making sure I followed the complete range of motion and extended my hips at the top of every rep, before continuing with plié squats, speed squats, squats with my feet together, and jump squats. Then came planks, multiple reps of which left my whole body straining to remain in a straight line. Kelvin had me raise my legs, raise my arms, and even slide my legs back and forth on a slippery mat (the way a towel would slide against a hardwood floor, for the folks watching at home). Pushups were next—real, honest-to-goodness pushups. But at least Kelvin was kind enough to strap a resistance tube around my middle to help support my body as I dropped and gave him 10. He also mentioned that the reason why people often have trouble with pushups has more to do with weakness in the core, which hinders stabilization; most of the time it’s not about upper body weakness. I’ve never had a lot of upper body strength, but trying instead to focus on my core put the exercise in a whole new light.
Single leg deadlifts were next, a move I never imagined I could do with only using my body weight, and yet hinging forward on one foot was tricky enough without any extra poundage. It was then back to the floor for pushup holds, a plank in which you pull one arm away from the ground in a rowing motion, contracting your back muscles and forcing yourself to use all the muscles in your back to keep yourself from toppling over. Kelvin then had me try sit-outs, a complicated-looking move that started as a plank, but involved weaving my leg under my body and flipping myself over (almost like a break dancer) before moving back to the plank. I am not a coordinated person—in fact, I like long-distance running because it’s just running, no fancy movements involved—so the next move, lunges, were a welcomed change. But in addition to static lunges, Kelvin had me do reverse lunges, forward lunges, curtsey lunges, lateral lunges, every-direction-you-can-think-to-go-in lunges. Finally, I cranked out some side planks, both static and with dipping my inner hip to the ground and bringing it back up for a few reps.
Did we get all of that?
Throughout the session, Kelvin explained which muscles I was using with each exercise, why it was effective, and how changing either the base of support or complexity of an exercise (or both) either made it easier or harder on my body. (I’d like to say I’d take the hard variations any day, but Kelvin is now a witness to the fact that that’s a lie.) He made sure my glutes and core were engaged with every exercise, that I was keeping proper form throughout the full range of motion, and that my knees weren’t caving in when forced to hinge or do work. He was also super nice and encouraging, which is what I needed in somebody who was going to make me contort my muscles in ways they’re not used to for an hour. Having a drill sergeant would have been adding insult to injury. We went slowly, he was friendly, and while I was sweating a little, I didn’t think it wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle. After all, I wasn’t holding any weights! How bad could this have been?
And then he had me do all eight exercises straight through. Without breaks.
It took me about three minutes to bang out the following:
- 5 jump squats
- 5 walk outs
- 5 pushups
- 5 single leg deadlifts on each leg
- 5 pushup holds on each arm
- 5 sit outs on each side
- 5 reverse lunges on each leg
- 5 hip dips with a side plank, on each side
Those three minutes were enough to leave me huffing and puffing by the pushup holds, and by the side planks, I was ready to consider myself cooked. Done. Finito. Kaput. Thankfully, that was the end of the hour; we high fived, and he recommended I do some additional exercises before the next week’s session. This really was the holistic approach, and I left thinking about how even if I were stranded on a desert island, I could recreate the workout with ease. I mean, sure, I guess you could use coconuts for weights, but this seemed much, much simpler. That’s the beauty of the body weight workout: you were born with the only piece of equipment you need.
I woke up the next morning, my glutes threatening to abandon the rest of my body, they were so sore. Okay, fine. Maybe I shouldn’t conveniently forget to do my squats all that often anymore.