When it comes to getting fit and building muscle, don't overlook the oldies but goodies. While it's totally possible to use any number of machines or "insane" workouts to build muscle, tried-and-true exercises such as pushups and sit-ups shouldn't go the way of the rotary telephone or the horse and buggy. These exercises will work the core muscles of the abs, shoulders and back. In fact, both exercises are still listed as some of the top 25 at-home exercises by the American Council on Exercise. Just getting down and doing the exercises is going to help -- but there are also a few ways to maximize the gains you'll get from doing them.
Use proper technique. Doing any exercise improperly can mean you'll get hurt -- which will put a damper on your big plans for building muscle. For the pushup, make sure your hands are directly under your shoulders and that your shoulder blades are pulled down your back. Tighten your abs and don't allow your head to dip or your back to arch as you lower yourself into the "down" position. For sit-ups, keep your feet on the floor and your heels about 12 to 18 inches from your butt. Keep your shoulder blades pulled together and avoid arching your lower back, with your hands behind your head and your elbows back. If you're still not sure whether you're doing the exercises correctly, work with a trainer who can monitor your moves.
Perform both exercises to fatigue. There are dozens of methods, combinations of repetitions and crazy sets you can do, but the bottom line is, pushing your muscles until you can't do any more is an effective way to exhaust the muscle and maximize the benefits of these muscle-strengthening exercises. It's okay to count as you crank out your sets of pushups and sit-ups so that you have the satisfaction of knowing how many you can do, but don't get married to finishing a certain number. Do as many pushups or sit-ups as you can, stopping when you feel like you can't do even one more. That's how you really build muscle.
Set a schedule to do your sit-up and pushup routine three to four days a week -- making sure to give yourself proper breaks in between workouts. Just like the other muscles of your body, the muscles of your abs and upper body need time to rest and recover, and to build new muscle tissue. If you're pushing yourself too hard and cranking out tough sets of pushups and sit-ups every day, you're not allowing your muscles the recovery time they need. Take at least 24 hours rest in between sessions to give your body that time.
Add variations that can make your exercises more intense. Over time, your muscles will become accustomed to the burden you're putting upon them, and you may find yourself hitting a plateau in your muscle gains. For sit-ups, one option is to hold a weight plate in your arms to increase the amount of weight you're lifting. For pushups, try the leg-lift pushup, in which you lift a single leg as you lower yourself down. When you get really tough, you may even be able to try the one-arm version of the pushup.
Maximize your gains by watching what you eat and drink. Avoid processed foods and sugary drinks. Eat good sources of protein, including lean meats, fish, flax seeds and nuts. Drink plenty of water, and include healthy fats, protein, vegetables and complex carbohydrates in each meal. In other words, follow the general guidelines for healthy eating. Whether you're trying to build muscle or just live better, eating well will never be a bad thing.
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