Average Joe Fitness
The internet is filled with multiple programs that will get you bigger than a mountain, strong as an ox, ripped to the bone, fast as lightning, or flexible enough to be a Roman arch if you follow them properly and work hard. But have you ever heard of a routine that’s specifically designed to make you feel good? I sure haven’t heard of many, while ironically enough, I think this is what most people are looking for; something to keep them healthy and be largely free of physical discomfort.
Call it “Average Joe Fitness”. You’re not interested in being a world-class athlete or a professional bodybuilder, but you do want to be able to move with confidence, have the doctor tell you you’re healthy, and have a body that can support whatever is you do on a daily basis (for work & play). If, someday, you decide that a higher level of athleticism sounds appealing to you, you want to have a sound base from which to start.
While we’re all unique in our sizes, shapes, & aspirations, there are things that tie us all together because we are human and because of our shared lifestyles. For example, if you can read this right now, I can say that you probably sit more than you move. Our physical degeneration, both individually and collectively, is founded on the fact that we are an active species that’s become sedentary. Sitting leads to bad posture, which leads to further acute & chronic pain and injuries. Coupled with poor dietary & lifestyle habits, sitting contributes to the onset of heart disease & diabetes. Most of us sit inside, so we deprive our bodies of the opportunity to be exposed to sunlight, the natural way we acquire Vitamin D, an essential nutrient and a very powerful antioxidant.
Much more could be said about the effects of sitting too much, but the core component of Average Joe Fitness is that you move more. How you move your body matters less than the fact that you move it at all. Trade in all that time you spend watching TV & playing video games, and go do whatever physical activities you enjoy. Don’t view this as exercise, view it as your play time. If you have kids, follow their example; just go out and have fun. Learn to reconnect with your body and experience the gift that is movement.
With that being said, many of us are desk jockeys (myself included). We’re paid to sit in one spot for 8 hours a day. Unless you find a more active occupation, there’s not really a way around that. That’s ok. Acknowledging that we spend most of our time seated helps to isolate our most needed concerns. As mentioned, the seated position leads to bad posture and unnatural skeletal alignments. Many people (even professional athletes) undertake strenuous activity without first correcting their posture. As such, they often end up with some kind of injury or pain to deal with down the road.
Because we’re all human and we sit too much, there have developed 2 general concerns: 1) an inability to use ones’ hips properly & 2) weak posterior muscle mass. These two factors are responsible for more damage to our bodies & self-esteem than you can count. Addressing them will help keep you safe & strong in your movement, as well as build your self confidence.
Your hips are the main pivot point in your body, dividing the torso from the legs. Proper usage of your hips leads to efficient bodily loading, which means you become instantly stronger, faster, longer lasting, & less prone to injury. The main function of the hips is to perform what’s called a hinge.
A proper hinge keeps your spine & legs braced while your body moves, minimizing energy losses and placing loads on the strongest muscles of your body. The primary muscles of your hips are the glutes, specifically the gluteus maximus (your butt).
It’s the largest & strongest muscle in your body, but most people have forgotten how to use it because they sit too much. What you frequently see instead of a hip hinge is people flexing their spine, which places what should be gluteal loads on one’s spine. The result…acute or chronic back pain, herniated discs, or worse.
Instead of prescribing specific exercises, I’ll recommend movement patterns. Some of us may favor or be more capable of certain exercises than others, but we should all perform specific forms of movement, the hinge being towards the top of that list. If you’ve been completely sedentary, you’re best starting with a couple basic drills before you increase the loads on your body.
Stand up against a wall. Your heels, butt, upper back, & the back of your head should comfortably be in contact with the wall (depending on the size of your calves, they may be as well). Your lumbar spine should not. Keeping your butt against the wall, lift your chest (like you’re trying to touch your nipples to your chin without moving your head). Done properly, you should feel your shoulders retract & the muscles in your back contract. This is called spinal extension, the opposite of what you do when you sit down. In addition, brace your core (try to pull your naval straight up); this keeps your pelvis neutral.
This is the position from which activity should be pursued. Doing so will help you to reap the aforementioned benefits. Get used to carrying yourself like this also, and you’ll notice that you’ll have increased positive interactions throughout your day (because people perceive you as confident).
Assume the same position as the posture drill, but step about a foot away from the wall. Now, touch the wall with your butt while keeping your chest high and your knees over your ankles with your body’s weight on your heels. Return to an upright stance.
You have just done a hinge. If you did it right, you should feel a mild stretch across the back of your leg. This means the hamstrings are being loaded, as opposed to the spine being loaded. Gradually step further and further away from the wall as you increase your mobility and get more comfortable with the movement.
All you need for this drill is a resistance band and something to wrap it around (a pole, a leg of a table or chair, etc.). Wrap the band around whatever you’re using, and step over it so that you’re holding onto it between your legs at the bottom of your groin. Take a step or 2 out to put tension on the band. From here, hinge as you did in the butt-to-wall drill (you should be out far enough that the band still has some tension at the bottom of the hinge). Keeping your chest high, squeeze your butt and stand back up. Repeat for reps.
The pull-thru is an easy way to load the hinge while teaching proper movement mechanics. It also doesn’t require much investment.
From here, there are 4 exercises I like for teaching the hinge: 1) the Founder, 2) hip bridges/thrusts, 3) kettlebell swings, 4) the deadlift. Each of these have different benefits; the founder strengthens the many muscles that run up & down the spine that can be overlooked with traditional exercises. Hip bridges/thrusts are the best for gluteal hypertrophy and are helpful for reinforcing the high-chest position. Kettlebell swings are the purest form of loading the hinge, and also develop explosive power. Deadlifts are not a pure hinge, but are predominantly a hip extension exercise. As such, they teach the whole body to work together and can be loaded the most, leading to the greatest strength gains.
Whichever exercise you prefer, hinging should be a core component of your training. Focus on doing it properly and feeling the relevant muscles doing the work.
On the other side (literally), you should undertake some work to lengthen your hip flexors. Sitting puts the hip flexors in a shortened position, so chronic tightness in this muscle group is widespread. There are many different stretches you can use for this task (my preferred one is the Lunge Stretch as demonstrated by Foundation Training), so pick the one that works best for you. Make sure to squeeze your glutes and keep your spine in extension when stretching the hip flexors to isolate the stretch in the proper spot (between the top of the thigh and the bottom of the iliac crest).
Back & Shoulders
Many of the exercises that develop a strong hinge (and their related muscles groups) also develop the back. Still, people round their shoulders forward when they’re seated, leading to poor shoulder mobility and further exacerbating bad posture.
Thus, we should do some work specifically for the upper back & shoulders as well. A healthy person should be able to lift their arms directly overhead without pain while maintaining proper posture (use the wall if you’re unsure of your positioning). There are tons of different mobility drills & strength exercises you can do for this area, but we’ll go one step at a time.
Most would be well off with some type of row. The most accessible is probably doing a row with a resistance band (perhaps the same one your use for pull-thrus). After wrapping it around a fixed object and adjusting the tension, soften your knees (for taller people, hinge slightly; shorter people, squat slightly) and assume a high chest position with your shoulders retracted. From here, pull the band along the sides of your chest and squeeze your shoulder blades together tightly. Use the muscles in your back to pull, not your arms (you aren’t curling the band in).
On the reverse, keep your chest high and extend your arms while keeping your shoulders retracted. Your chest shouldn’t cave in, nor should you shrug your shoulders up as you extend your arms. Repeat for reps.
The muscles of your upper back (rhomboids, traps, lats, & posterior delts) are the ones most affected in slouching. Weakness in this area is a large contributor to kyphosis (hunchback) as these muscles are unable to bear a postural load sufficiently. If you have impingement in your shoulders, it’s possible that a weak upper back has lead to improper alignments around the shoulder girdle.
Another exercise you can do with no equipment is the stick-up (think getting arrested; “Freeze! Stick ‘em up!”). From a proper upright posture, bring your hands to your shoulders as if you’re holding something on your chest. Squeeze your elbows against your ribcage. Without over-arching your back and keeping your head neutral, “press” your hands overhead (it works well if you have a history of doing presses with a barbell to reference). You should feel your shoulders and upper back contract as you do the exercise. Keep your elbows tight and pull them back to start position.
This exercise is surprisingly challenging. You can also do it against a wall for reference.
As you progress, you can move to other upper back & shoulder exercises like pullups, barbell rows, & barbell presses, but make sure to employ the same cues you learned with the band rows & stick-ups.
Walking & Bracing
Some type of sustained movement should be factored into your routine to supplement your activity of choice, as it’s unlikely that that alone will get you moving enough. It’s important too that this shouldn’t interfere with your ability to recover from everything else you’re doing. Enter walking.
Walking is the most efficient movement we do. For all the debate surrounding whether we’re meant to be endurance runners or sprinters, nobody debates that we’re meant to walk. I believe walking possesses a rate of return beyond what the numbers will tell you because it is so in-line with our physiology. Make the effort to walk at least 1 mile 4x/week if you’re capable, and do so with good posture and relaxed breathing (belly breathing). It’s more productive & more enjoyable to do it outside, but a treadmill once in a while isn’t a big deal.
If you desire, you can undertake some work to teach your body how to brace (essentially the anti-hinge). Your best starting exercise is the plank; I prefer the Foundation style plank, but the Russian Kettlebell (RKC) plank is also a good option. Once you master planking, progress to pushups. Do them properly; all the way down with a slight pause & all the way up. Keep the weight on the heel of your palm (instead of your fingers) and “screw” your elbows into your ribcage. Chest high, neutral pelvis. 10 reps in this fashion is a solid indicator of upper body strength & balance.
A sample training day may look like this:
Joint Mobility Work (if necessary)
Founder Sequence x 3
Barbell Rows – 3×5 (w/ a 10-12 rep max weight)
Pushups – 3 x 33-50% max reps
Stick-Ups – 3×10
1 mile walk
This routine is not like P90X, Insanity, most of what you read on the internet, or what you’re likely to encounter at your local commercial gym; it’s not sexy, and it’s not meant to be. Rather it’s meant to to be effective. You’ll probably think that this is “too easy” to get a benefit from, but be patient. While some muscular development may take place, the primary objective is to teach your body better habits, so it’s designed to be easy enough that you could do it everyday so you can develop those habits quickly.
No fitness program is complete without a sound support system. Get enough sleep, stay hydrated, eat more fruits & vegetables, and get unnecessary sources of stress out of your life. Couple these good habits with good movement, and you’re well on your way to physical well-being.
Until next time…
Keep it strong, keep it vegan.