June 24, 2024

Bodyweight Blueprint

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Proper Form and Other Workout Advice for The Wall Street Journal Fitness Challenge

8 min read
Proper Form and Other Workout Advice for The Wall Street Journal Fitness Challenge

We received tremendous feedback from participants in The Wall Street Journal Fitness Challenge, a six-week program developed by Arnie Kander, an NBA sports performance coach. Haven’t signed up yet? You can start at any time here.

Mr. Kander uses a 20-second step-up test to provide a baseline for participants to improve upon. For an idea of what it should look like, check out this video. A number of participants wrote asking about proper form and adjustments. Mr. Kander and our expert panel weigh in:

With the new year in full swing, follow veteran NBA sports performance coach Arnie Kander through a 6-week step-up challenge to gauge your fitness and improve over time.

The final exercises in the core series are a push-up followed by a plank hold. There are many ways to do a push-up and plank. Can you explain proper technique?

The push-up in the program is the standard facing-down movement with good posture of head level to shoulders and pelvis, Mr. Kander says. “Keep this line of posture as you descend into the movement,” he says. “Hands are slightly wider than shoulder width. Let the elbows naturally drift away slightly from the body to activate more of the larger pectoral muscle. Go as low into the movement as comfortable. If it’s been a while since you’ve done a push-up or have shoulder limitations, do not go as low.”

After, follow with a high plank, which is the initial starting position of the push-up, he says. Focus on maintaining a straight line from head to shoulders and pelvis and keep your core engaged. “Remember to not hold your breath during these movements,” he says. “You can do the high plank right after the push-ups for more core endurance if your level of fitness is higher, or take a 30-second rest in between,” he says.

Ellen Chase, a 70-year-old retiree in Wayland, Mass., writes that she has arthritis in her right wrist and can’t do exercises where she has to support her body weight on her hands. She wonders about workarounds for a push-up or plank.

Try doing a modified push-up from the knees as opposed to from the toes, says Miriam Morey, a professor of medicine who specializes in exercise and aging at Duke University. “This will reduce the amount of weight being supported by the arms and hands. If this position still causes discomfort, then you should consider doing a standing push-up against a wall. You can adjust the position of your feet, closer or further away from the wall, to a pain-free position. Similarly, you can adjust the width of your hands and the depth of the push-up to find the pain-free sweet spot.” She suggests modifying the high plank by doing a plank on the forearms or holding the position on a folding chair, with your legs on the ground and your elbows on the seat of the chair. “This will reduce the volume of weight supported and may help reduce stress on upper-body joints,” she says.

Swinging my arms is throwing off my balance in the step-up. Can you clarify what to do?

When you step up, your opposite arm should move forward to counterbalance the movement, Mr. Kander says. So if your left foot is on the step, your right arm moves forward. As you step back off the step with your left foot, your left arm will move forward and your right arm slightly back. “Your arms counterbalance your legs, but the amount of movement will vary based on the speed of the movement,” Mr. Kander says. As you increase your step-up tempo, the arm movements get smaller so as to not throw you off balance.

Neil Baron, a 64-year-old strategic marketing consultant in Needham, Mass., says four weeks into the program, he feels more athletic when he climbs stairs and walks. As a tennis player, he asks how he can improve his lateral movement.

The body is designed to move across multiple planes of movement in a variety of directions, says Andrew Jagim, director of sports medicine research at Mayo Clinic Health System in La Crosse, Wis. “Incorporating side step-ups is a great way to engage muscle groups on the interior and exterior sides of the hips and glutes across different planes of motion,” he says. Start with a lower step, like a sidewalk and focus on balance versus speed. With your right hip facing the stair, step your right foot up, then left foot up, left foot down, right foot down. Repeat on the opposite side. Other options could be incorporating side-lunges or a single-leg lateral squat with the off-leg extended out to your side and the foot placed on a towel or slider circle (if available), he says. The latter exercise works best if done on a wood or tile floor and is a great way to improve mobility within the hips, pelvic stability and overall balance.

Join The Wall Street Journal Fitness Challenge


Jon Krause

Try this six-week program of exercises designed by an NBA sports performance coach for all skill levels that can be done almost anywhere, and delivered to your email inbox.

Rev. Gregory Semeniuk, 59, of Philadelphia, has noticed that he has less control while performing exercises balancing on his right leg compared with his left, and tires more quickly on the right side. He asked how to correct the imbalance.

“Muscle imbalances and asymmetries are quite common,” Dr. Jagim says. Activating and strengthening the hip muscles during a warm-up or as part of a daily rehab routine can help, he says. Resistance-band exercises strengthen the hip muscles and activate the gluteal muscles. He recommends putting a band around your ankles and walking laterally to strengthen the hip abductors.

“You can also help correct muscle imbalances over time by working one leg at a time,” Dr. Jagim says. “This will reduce the ability for one leg to compensate for the other during two-legged movements.” He recommends trying exercises such as alternating reverse lunges, single-leg split squats and single-leg glute bridges.

Share Your Thoughts

What changes have you noticed since joining The Wall Street Journal Fitness Challenge? Join the conversation below.

I love the back-to-basics exercises in the program. Can you give some technique advice for other common body-weight exercises?

Michael Rogers, a professor in human performance studies at Wichita State University in Wichita, Kan., says the squat, crunch, lunge and bridge are all great body-weight exercises to incorporate into a home routine, but form is crucial. Here are some common technique mistakes to avoid.


Don’t let your knees go too far forward, he says. They should not extend beyond your toes.

Don’t let one or both knees collapse inward as you lower into your squat.

Your heels should bear your weight, remaining firmly planted on the ground so you can push off them when rising.

Don’t lean forward and round your back.

Don’t do squats if you have back or joint pain.


“To avoid neck pain, keep your chin slightly tucked,” he says. “Cross your hands in front of your chest rather than putting them behind your head and pull in on your neck.”

The shoulders only need to go 2 to 3 inches above the floor, he says. Pause at both the top and bottom.

“If you are pregnant, consult your doctor or fitness trainer before doing crunches, since exercising while lying on your back can increase weight on the pelvic cavity,” he says.


Keep your chest lifted and your torso upright so the spine is vertical.

Step far enough to allow both knees to be at a 90-degree angle during the lowest point in the lunge without letting your front knee extend past your toes, he says. Don’t let your knees collapse inward.

“Avoid forward lunges if you have bad knees,” he says. Instead, you can do a backward lunge or do a forward lunge and keep the back leg straight instead of bending the back knee, he says.


“Keep the back flat and don’t let the hips sag or hyperextend the lower back,” he says. “You only need to lift the hips as high as the glutes can squeeze. Higher is not better.”

Push through your heels to avoid pressure on your knees, he says.

Don’t place your feet too near or too far from the hips, he says. Find a spot where you can comfortably keep the feet flat but be able to lift your toes off the floor.

“If you have knee pain or difficulty bending your knee to 90 degrees, try placing your feet farther apart,” he says.

Shout Out to Some of Our Challengers

Here are step-up scores posted by readers who have taken the challenge:

Gavin Minnis, 37, Dallas, digital marketing manager, 29 right, 29 left

Cynthia Riley, 59, Eagle, Idaho, part-time financial planner, 16 right, 16 left

Bill Mundy, 71, Parker, Colo., retired attorney, 17 right, 17 left

Barbara Duffy, 65, Phoenix, retired nurse, 22 right, 20 left

Bob Muhs, 66, Renton, Wash., retired, 17 right, 18 left

Patrick Duffy, 60, Phoenix, attorney, 17 right, 16 left

Wiley Bartine, 59, Los Angeles, consultant, 21 right, 22 left.

Jennie Brantner, 68, Wyncote, Pa., retired, 21 right, 22 left

Kathy Asheton, 69, Ann Arbor, Mich., artist, 13 right, 13 left

Patric Yumul, 46, San Francisco, president, Mina Group, 27 right, 28 left

Rev. Gregory Semeniuk, 59, Philadelphia, executive director of the VSO, 23 right, 22 left

Neil Baron, 64, Needham, Mass., strategic marketing consultant, 18 right, 18 left

India Baird, 57, Cape Town, South Africa, founder of Brave, a non-profit that empowers girls, 25 right, 24 left

Christopher Kim, 55, Gaithersburg, Md., vice president, Strategic Sourcing, 27 right, 24 left

Judy Shelton, 67, Raleigh, N.C., retired, 16 right, 17 left

Brendan Davis, 46, Wilmington Del., risk manager, 23 right, 22 left

David Shepler, 71, retiree, Knoxville, Tenn., 23 right, 23 left

Write to Jen Murphy at [email protected]

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