September 15, 2008

Fitness "Bargains"

[By Crabby]
This is not about financial "bargains," although I'm sure you readers have some awesome suggestions for fitness activities and/or gear that could save us a lot of cash. A future post perhaps?

No, this time by "bargain," I mean: Ways To Get Better Fitness Results for The Same Effort. Or, how to get the Same Results Quicker, or With Somewhat Less Misery. Whatever.

We all look for those "bargains," right? Because unless you love every aspect of working out and have unlimited time, there's usually a trade-off. You don't typically get something for nothing.

In fact, there's kind of a math to it:

(Photo: A.A.)

Eeeek, math!!!

Actually, no need to panic, not that much math. In fact the formula is quite simple:

Results = (Time Spent Exercising) x (Intensity); where Intensity=Miserableness.

At least that's how that generally works for me. I get better results if I exercise longer or exercise harder; the more I loaf and slack and leave early, the less muscle I build, the less endurance I have, and the fewer calories I burn.

But then there are weird exceptions to the normal math! Sometimes (Miserable) + (Miserable) = 1.5(Miserable); not 2(Miserable), as you'd expect.

Exploiting these mathematical anomalies is often the key to a fitness bargain.

(Note: And speaking of equations that don't add up: check out how sometimes 0+0=2 at The Hungry Little Caterpillar. A great reminder for overly optimistic Weight Watchers).

What? You Call That a Bargain??!!

(Photo: Zabowski)

Ever go to a place like Costco and bring home four gallons of extra virgin olive oil for the price you'd normally pay for 1 gallon? You feel so clever and thrifty until you remember that you can't get through more than one gallon anyway before the stuff goes rancid. Whoops!

Likewise with with fitness bargains. Some tips that sound great in theory will suck when you actually try them out. They might get you in shape faster, but if they turn your workout from a pleasant or only mildly dreary experience into absolute torture, then these bargains aren't worth it.

This means that you need to hear about a lot of tricks and find out which ones work for you.

And since I only have a few that reliably work for me, and long-time readers have heard all these already... I'm hoping some of our clever and knowledgeable commenters will add theirs below!

Especially since I'm going to concentrate on tips that begin with the letter C, for absolutely no reason at all except that the first couple did and I thought I'd make it a thing.

Oh Boy, It's a "C" Thing.
(photo: cobalt123)

And again, these are some of my favorites--can't wait to hear yours.

1. Combined Stretches

Does anyone else invent their own stretches that combine a couple of things at once? I know yoga people do combinations, but theirs are elegant and tend to take a long time. Mine are home-made and doofy-looking and quick.

Here's just one example: the stairway/doorway shoulder and calf stretch. Note: doesn't work if you live in one story house or don't have a doorway at the top or bottom of the stairs.

Position yourself on the top or bottom step of your stairway, facing upstairs. Put out your arms and grab the doorway on each side and lean forward, so you're stretching your shoulders. Meanwhile, scooch your feet back a little so that you can lower your heels off the step and stretch your calves at the same time. WARNING: if you're doing this at the top, don't go scooch back too far or you'll tumble backwards down the entire flight of stairs and break your neck and this time-saver will be no bargain at all!

2. Caffeine & Cool Tunes

I talk about these all the time so I won't belabor it. But the pounding beat of a favorite song and good solid caffeine buzz really does give me more energy and I can go longer and harder and get more done for the same amount of subjective effort.

3. Circuit Training "Lite"

The standard version, wherein you proceed through a strength training workout fast enough to keep your heart rate in the aerobic zone throughout, is a classic, time-honored Workout Bargain. You get your cardio and your strength training all at the same time!

Slight problem: I loathe circuit training.

It is too much Miserableness all at once; thus, for me, no bargain.

However, back when I was lucky enough to have a home gym in the basement, I discovered I could do a little informal combining and I came up with a routine that saved some time but that I didn't hate.

This is taken pretty much verbatim from an older post, but we all know that recycling is good for the environment, right?

It's Good to be Green!

Here's how you do Circuit Training Lite:

At some point in your cardio workout, get off your treadmill/bike/elliptical/whatever, but keep it running if it's motorized, and give yourself full credit for any time you're away from it. Since you're still going to be keeping your heart rate up, you get to count this time as though you were still doing cardio. Rush off and do a set of some strength-training exercise in a quick but not too half-assed manner, then hustle back to the machine again. Slog some more. Wait until you get totally bored with the cardio again, then jump off the machine and do a different strength training exercise.

It's two-for-one! (But, alas, this only works in a home gym or fairly deserted fitness facility. Abandoning your treadmill at a busy gym is NOT recommended).

4. Cutting Out Multiple Sets

One set of really heavy weights seems, for me, to do about 80-90% of the job that 3 sets does. So most of the time, I just do one. I save multiple sets for one exercise at a time, when I'm feeling especially motivated, but otherwise: screw it.

5. Chores

If you have a partner, particularly a male or stronger partner, it can be very tempting to delegate the "heavy" stuff that involves lifting or mowing or digging or schlepping to your mate. Or pay some cute yard dude to do it. But if you're lucky enough to have the time, how 'bout doing more of it yourself and giving yourself get exercise "credit" in a non-exercise context? If it's hard and physical, it counts!!!

Note: this is one of those tips I believe in but rarely do myself. I hate chores.

6. Commuting

Like doing chores, walking or biking to work (or on errands) is an efficient way to get exercise while actually getting something accomplished. Duh, right? Yet so few people who could walk or bike to work actually do. What's up with that? Some places are obviously too impractical, but I'm often amazed at what a minuscule number of Americans even think about leaving their cars at home. Then after work they drive to the gym so they can walk on a treadmill for an hour.

7. Cardio Intervals

Another great bargain--you can do incredible things for your body in less than twenty minutes. Downside: it's hard and that blows. But as many of you know, it doesn't have to be totally gruesome. There's a better way!

Think these are lame? Help me out with some better suggestions!

If we get a few good ones in the comments, I'll update this post later in the week and include a link to your blog or website, if you've got one.

UPDATE--Great Reader Suggestions!

Wow, some really helpful suggestions in the comments! Here are some, condensed and combined, but I can see now I may not get to them all. Better, fuller explanations are available down in the comments.

Theresa suggests doing push ups against the countertop while waiting for the tea to boil.

Tokaiangel is all about Running Up the Stairs.

KatieP suggests contracting ALL your muscles while doing strength training exercises, and standing on wobbly things to make it even harder.

Always the practical ones, Mary Anne in Kentucky and the Bag Lady suggest choosing strenuous occupations of the sort where you get a workout whether you want one or not.

Combining Exercises is a great idea! Jenn suggests squats with military presses or lunges with bicep curls.

Our very own Merry sensibly advises that you enlist a friendly canine as a workout partner, and Terrie Farley Moran suggests that Grandchildren also work well.

Circuit training is popular among those more energetic than the Crab. The Lethological Gourmet even has an Olympic Boot Camp circuit workout for you to try. And Mrs. Jelly Belly has an enthusiastic (and amusing) circuit training recommendation if you can track down the DVD by "Sunshine"-- it sounds great.

Geosomin does lunges in the lab, and takes the stairs two at a time instead of waiting for elevators. And another fan of gratuitous stair climbing is nolafwug, who thinks multi-tasking is overrated.

Liz Rosenbaum suggests squats while brushing your teeth. Similarly Sagan does calf raises while brushing her teeth, and jumping jacks/pushups while waiting for food to cook. And NewMe does calf raises while cooking and doing dishes.

Monica fixes her bike and gets exercise at the same time.

Grounded Fitness was too high on crack to offer specific exercise suggestions, but those yoga/pilates people seem to have the combining thing down pretty well already.

Katieo is trying to run faster, which is much more efficient if you can stand all the huffing and puffing! Likewise Mizfit, who often claims to be a cardio slacker, is nothing of the sort, as she combines regular cardio with HIIT.

Alexia shares a sincere appreciation of caffeine with the Crab.

POD suggests a pedometer and walking all over the place, as well as counter-top stretches.

Deb suggest something called a "Scuper-Scet" which sounds really freakin' hard like quite a workout. The full explanation is below, but it involves combining stable weight training exercises with a similar unstable ones until you're ready to die done.

Dragonmamma makes a great point about isolation exercises being inferior to exercises that work multiple muscles at once.

And the always creative Workout Mommy suggests "Child curls." (Just like bicep curls, but with a baby!).

Be sure to check the comments for more great fitness bargains as they come in!


  1. Ok, I've got one that I sometimes remember to do. Counter pushups.

    Waiting for the tea kettle to boil? Waiting for something to heat up in the microwave? Do some counter pushups!

    If your counter includes a corner, you can also do straight arm lifts from the shoulder. Stand in the corner with palms flat on counter and arms straight on each side. Lift up with shoulders supporting your weight for as long as you can.

    Really, these are like free since what else would you be doing other than staring at the timer on the microwave?

  2. Run up the stairs. Every time you go up the stairs. EVERY TIME. I have always, always done this and I have NO idea how many more energy it burns per day, but once you get into the habit it's easy.

    TA x

  3. I'm going to have to look into combined stretches - they sound great.

    Also I love the idea of counter pushups, especially if the exercise acts as an appetite suppressant helping me to ONLY eat what I went in there for the first place for, instead of finding a few cookies to eat as well.

  4. Here's mine in the spirit of the letter 'C' - Continually Contract

    Do all your sitting down exercises (shoulder presses, overhead tricep extensions, bicep curls, lat pull downs) standing up. And while you are standing SQUEEZE everything - your legs, your butt, your stomach, on the hard part (concentric? I always get confused!).

    Then do them sitting on a swiss ball or if that is too easy - standing on a Bosu ball. EVERYTHING gets a workout all at once.

  5. These are awesome suggestions! I'm definitely going to do an update and put these in the main post.

    Keep 'em coming, these are excellent!

  6. I thought the circuit training light was brilliant, if a tad dangerous...

  7. Good point, Sue!

    Between teetering off the top of the stairs stretching, and leaping on and off moving treadmills, it's a wonder I've survived this long, especially since I'm something of a klutz.

    Readers: proceed with caution and please don't sue me!

  8. My best suggestion is to get a job that involves lifting, pulling, pushing, and moving around all day. Getting PAID to exercise is a win! I'm really disappointed that since I quit work to stay with my father I've kept right on exercising and doing yoga, and my muscle is slowly turning to flab.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  9. I heard to stand on one leg while shaving! Try that one, Crabby :-)

  10. The Bag Lady likes Chores,
    Chopping wood, Carrying firewood into the house, Checking cows, and Cardening!

    (oh, and Dr. J. - all females have to stand on one leg whilst shaving....the other leg!)

  11. Mine is a combo of #3 and #4. It's calling Combine, Combine, Combine. Do squats with military presses or lunges with bicep curls. You get your heart rate up, AND you're working your lower- and upper-body at the same time. Score.

  12. Dr. J - how else does one shave their legs? Of course you have to stand on one leg!

    Crabby - LOVE the math. I had never thought of it before that way but your misery quotient is right on:) You pretty much summed up the principle behind HIIT! Loved your suggestions.

  13. What about another C -- canine? For a nominal fee at a shelter you can get an exercise partner who's always up for a walk no matter what the weather.

  14. That way, the misery of exercise is balanced by a comforting tail wag afterward :)

  15. I'm totally down with the commuting part - when the weather's nice I walk about 30 minutes on my commute, when it's not nice, I have to take the bus :(

    I'm all for circuit training! Though because I'm the in the group ex studio, I have to make it more organized (I'm picturing all the members running back and forth and running into each other. While that sounds amusing, probably not so great for liability purposes. I put a post on my blog with one of my thematic circuit classes: Olympic Boot Camp

  16. A big thing for me: ignoring the elevator - I work on many different floors in a building and end up with the opportunity to do a lot of stairs at work. A while back I made a vow to always take stairs down, and unless I have to use the elevator (carrying lab/heavy stuff) I take the stairs up as a rule, 2 at a time if I can.

    And I try and do a few sets of lunges throughout the day in teh lab when I'm waiting for timers. I work alone so I can make a twit of myself and noone will see...well not very often anyways.

    Also, walking to work or biking to work over the bus when I's been less than I"d like, but I figure any little bithelps :)

  17. Here's mine: Multitask Less. I know it's a wrench to lose time and sacrifice efficiency but if you end up running up and down the stairs twice as much and taking many more steps than you normally would as you go about your day, great!

    For example, whenever I need to put something back or retrieve something from upstairs, I do it right away instead of waiting for several things to pile up and consolidating my trip. When I make the bed I walk from one side of the bed to the other multiple times. When I put away laundry I walk back and forth from laundry basket to closet with just a small bit of clothes in my arms so that I'm walking more. Silly little stuff, but it all adds up.

  18. This is the first time I've seen your blog... Very funny! I'm a personal trainer and I always tell my clients to do SQUATS when they are brushing their teeth!

  19. I'm running away screaming from the math- that's my kind of fitness bargain!

    When I'm waiting for food to cook I'll do some jumping jacks/push ups etc. I like to do calf raises when I'm brushing my teeth, and I do chores to keep myself moving rather than plonk myself in front of a tv. Even if the chores are simple like doing dishes or dusting. Then your house gets cleaned AND you get in a bit of exercise!

  20. No wonder women are better balanced than men!

  21. Dude, I was a mathematician in my former life. This post made me tingle not unpleasantly. Add bicycle maintenance to the list. I spent Saturday afternoon cleaning my bike and greasing the chain. All that time bent over my baby's sexy frame has me sore in the hams and triceps. It was all worth it though.

  22. The math made my brain hurt.

    I stumbled upon a super simple circuit training DVD done by a woman named Sunshine that turned out to be a fantastic AND effective workout.

    Thirty minutes total (a lot less for me because I refuse to do crunches)of simple strength training exercises that end with three sets of a killer Compound move. I have yet to get through one set, let alone 3, but boy is it effective.

    If you can get past her accent, it's a no frills workout that's great for both beginners and lazy exercisers.

    And she doesn't annoy the crap out of you by babbling on about nothing during the workout.

  23. Hi Crabby,

    I do love your math.

    So far, my best effort includes lots of walking instead of driving and when I hang out with my grandkids, I do stuff with them instead of watching them do it. Right now we are very big on lining up every chair in the house two by two and making a school bus. Yesterday, I helped carry the chairs and since it was my house, I got to put them all away afterward.

    Great column and great suggestions.


  24. LAME.


    How do i get more results in less time?

    CRACK. Its where it at.

  25. Love this post.
    I was JUST thinking the other day as I ran 4 miles in about an hour (and hey back off...that included stretching okay?)

    "Huh. If I run faster, I can be done faster."
    Lightbulb moment.

    So I'm trying to (drumroll please)...

    run faster than I normally do.

  26. This comment has been removed by the author.

  27. I got nothing.
    nothing innovative I mean.

    I did 35-40 minutes of cardio and now Im HIITing on the recumbent bike and doing 25.

    does that count?

    **crickets chirping**

  28. I'm all about caffeine (within reason) some of the time -- especially when I just need an extra kick to get going.

  29. This may not sound too exciting but I work near my sister's house, on the same property so when I go to her house to pick up anything (my fridge'd lunch, mail etc), I ALWAYS walk around her house, front to back, down stairs, up a hill and then allow myself to go inside the house to get what I wanted. I wear a pedometer daily so those walks add up especially on top of my 40 minute morning walk.

    I also do a lot of stretching using her granite counter tops. My cheap formica would just crack under the stress.
    From the looks of some others posts, I wonder what we'd do without counter-tops?

  30. When I do dishes or cook, I periodically stand on my tip toes.

  31. Kind have to go with jenn's idea of Combining. I'd call mine:

    Scuper-Scets. Because we all know I love my scuper-scets.

    Combine a stable weight training exercise with a similar unstable one (or two). Move from one to the other and rest when you've done them all.:

    Flat bench chest press, bench tricep dips, bench crunches.

    Bent row, stretchy band military press, bench push up.

    You end up working out harder, and the workout is completed quicker.

    BTW, doing any exercise on one foot, or adding more instability skeers a lot of the gymrats.

  32. Since it has to start with C...CUT OUT the time wasting isolation exercises. For every isolation exercise you're doing, you could be working that same muscle with a combination of other muscles and be burning more calories while doing it.

    For example, instead of bicep curls and tricep extensions, do push-ups and (assisted)pull-ups.

  33. I got the chore extra credit today when I mowed the lawn. Yay me! :)

    ok, I have one to add, and it begins with a C too!

    Child curls. (similar to a bicep curl, but with a child/baby) Mine loves it and at 22 pounds, I am getting some decent resistance.

  34. How about great fitness Non-Bargains. There was a think in the Business section of the NYT about something I think was called a FitTracker or something. Cost $99. I am SO going to get one!! I'm too tired to look it up now, but I'll get back to you about it.

    (I have 4 cartoons now.)

  35. Umm, maybe I was a little vague in my "Sunshine" recommendation. That's me. Vague.

    The actual title of the DVD is "Fun Circuit Super Speed Weight Loss with Sunshine" and it's available on Amazon.

    Sunshine does not appear to have a last name.

  36. Maybe Sunshine /is/ the last name? Could be a relative :)

  37. I wanted to say thanks for these! I decided to try Counter Pushups while I waited for the tea today and I'm hooked! I even threw in some Counter Tricep Dips as well! Whee!


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