Let’s Talk About Bodyweight Exercises and Fat People

Squat IdylwildAs COVID-19 keeps gyms and fitness centers safely closed and people look for new options to work out at home, I’ve been getting a lot of e-mails from people who are frustrated that they are seeing bodyweight workouts recommended, but the bodyweight workouts they are finding online are completely unattainable.  I got this e-mail a couple of days ago, shared with permission:

I am so frustrated I don’t know what to do. I had been doing a lifting program at the gym for a couple months before COVID, now I’m stuck at home. I tried to do some bodyweight workouts but I wasn’t even close to being able to do a lot of these things – I can do squats, but getting my knee to the floor for a lunge? no. It said to start off with as many pull ups as I can do and then increase over time. That number is zero. Is this just something that bigger people can’t do?

Before I get into the issues with body size I do want to point out that often these bodyweight programs are not inclusive of disabled people (of any size) which is a serious issue. There are all kinds of disabilities and health conditions (including joint issues and balance issues) that can affect the ability to do bodyweight exercises and/or to do them safely.

Then there is the tendency to blame any difficulties fat people have with these workouts on our body size. The truth is that there are people of all sizes who struggle with bodyweight exercises. I know a lot of thin people who can’t do a knee-to-the-floor lunge and whose max pull-up number is also zero. There are also fat people who can do all kinds of bodyweight exercises – including pull-ups and lunges.

There tends to be a belief that since it’s “just” using your body weight, it should be do-able for everyone, but that is demonstrably false (there’s a reason you start out bench pressing a 45 pound bar and not your full body weightl.) The fact that someone walks through the world does not mean they can do walking lunges holding soup cans, the fact that someone pushes themselves through the world in a wheelchair does not mean that they can pull their body weight up up in a pull up.

Like any other type of movement, doing bodyweight exercises is not an obligation, barometer of worthiness, or entirely within our control. There is no shame in not being able to do any of these exercises – there is no morality in whether or not one can do a pull-up, and it’s not a necessary skill for most of us (spies and American Ninja Warriors excepted.)  If you find someone claiming that “everybody” should be able to do an exercise (whatever that exercise is,) you’ve found someone who is wrong.

Beyond us getting to decide what we want to try to do, all bodies have things that they can and can’t do and there’s nothing wrong that. That said, if bodyweight training is something that you want to do, I suggest giving it a try, and looking at it  as an experiment rather than a way to prove that you are “good enough” or “fit enough.”

For the record, I’m an ACE-certified Health Coach and Functional Fitness Specialist, and I’m going to give some general suggestions, but this is just the tip of the iceberg and since I can’t possibly know your personal situation please make sure that you ask your healthcare/fitness professional.

Modify the Moves

Look for ways to make the moves more do-able and then decide if you want to stay where you are or increase intensity. Nobody says you have to get your knee to the ground in a lunge. Using push-ups as an example, you might start against the wall, then move to the kitchen counter, then to to a bench, then a chair, then a step, then the floor. Once on the floor you could start on your knees, then move your hands farther away from your knees creating a more challenging angle, then eventually, if you feel like it, move to full push-ups. If you google “modify [insert body weight movement] you can often find good options (though sadly you may have to wade through fatphobic nonsense)

If a move, a lunge for example, is a balance challenge you can use a chair, counter, wall etc. to help with balance. if you want to try to create more of a challenge you can put less pressure on the hand that is helping to balance you and eventually, if you want, you can try it without the balance check.

Also be aware that many of these movements do not take fat bodies into consideration – they are created (and typically modeled) by and for people without large stomachs, thighs, breasts etc. So you may need to modify movements to make room for all of your fabulous body, or choose a different move.

Get Some Support

I’m really excited about the Primal 7 System (full disclosure: I have no affiliation with them, they don’t even know I’m talking about them.)  It’s a system that provides support and options to help with all kinds of body weigth exercises, including yoga. Their ads have people of diverse sizes and abilities and I haven’t seen much weightloss or diet talk from them (which doesn’t mean there isn’t any, sadly) They support weights up to 400 pounds (I did send an e-mail encouraging them to go higher, haven’t heard back) and they don’t charge extra for the band that supports heavier people. You could also try a TRX or other suspension training system.

Try an Alternative

If you’re looking for an alternative to strength training the gym, there are lots of options besides bodyweight workouts. They include resistance bands that come in different materials and configurations, weight sets or an adjustable dumbell, home gyms, yoga classes etc.

Finally,  remember that it is completely reasonable for a global pandemic to change your fitness regimen so be kind to yourself.

If you have an at-home strength workout and/or move modifcation that you really love, please tell us about it in the comments.

ONLINE WORKSHOP: Talking Back To Fatphobia

I’m giving an online workshop where we’ll discuss options for dealing with the fatphobia that we face as we navigate the world – from responses that encourage a dialog, to responses that encourage people to leave us alone, with lots of time for Q&A and a pay-what-you-can option.
Details and Registration: https://danceswithfat.org/workshop-talking-back-to-fatphobia/ 

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About Ragen Chastain

Hi, I’m Ragen Chastain. Speaker, Writer, Dancer, Choreographer, Marathoner, Soon to be Iron-distance triathlete, Activist, Fat Person.
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1 Response to Let’s Talk About Bodyweight Exercises and Fat People

  1. Agnes says:

    I really really love Jenna Doak and their site: Body Positive fitness! She can be found on instagram, her handle is @bodypositivefitness_

    They have virtual Zoom classes and the athmosphere is so welcoming and Jenna always shows modifications, encourages everyone to rest when they need it etc., she is so awesome and they have zumba and yoga classes as well!


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