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Climbing the Lifetime Fitness Ladder

Climbing the Lifetime Fitness Ladder

by macdaddy on April 29, 2008 · 16 comments

This post is a guest post from Trent Hamm, who writes The Simple Dollar, a popular personal finance blog.

One of the biggest challenges for me in getting motivated to get in shape is setting goals. I have a hard time setting realistic goals that challenge me but don’t leave me feeling dead tired and never wanting to exercise again. Similarly, when I set my own goals, I tend not to diversify, and I focus on just one or two exercises, burning me out too early and not encouraging all-around fitness.

A while back, I discovered the lifetime fitness ladder, and it forms the backbone of my regular activities for getting in shape.

What is the Lifetime Fitness Ladder?

The lifetime fitness ladder is a simple exercise regimen intended to provide a diversity of simple exercises that you can do at home with no equipment.

Each day, you work through a “rung” of this ladder, which consists of a specific number of five exercises:

  • Bends (in which you bend over, touch the ground between your toes, bounce up a few inches, touch the ground again, then go all the way back up and bend backwards a bit)
  • Sit-ups
  • Push-ups
  • Prone lifts (in which you lay on your back on the floor, lift your legs a bit off the floor, then lift your head and shoulders a bit, then lower your head and shoulders to the floor, and then your legs)
  • Run and jumps (in which you run in place and stop at regular intervals to do a set of ten jumping jacks)

Because many people that will try this out are in poor shape, the first 15 rungs actually use simpler versions of each of these exercises — the bend doesn’t involve a bounce at the floor, the sit-ups only go up high enough so that you can see your heels, the push-ups allow you to bend at the knee, the leg lift only uses one leg at a time, and the run and jump has sets of only seven jumping jacks every seventy five steps.

Getting started

So, let’s say you’re in poor shape but want to give this a shot. You’d start at the first rung, which would be a workout regimen like this:

  • 2 bends. A bend means standing up, bending over to touch the floor between your feet, bouncing back up, and bending backwards as far as you can, then straightening up.
  • 3 sit ups. A sit-up at this level means laying flat on your back on the floor, then without using your arms for help, sitting forward enough so that you can see your heels.
  • 4 leg lifts. A leg lift here means laying on your back, lifting one leg and your head simultaneously, then lifting the other leg and your head simultaneously.
  • 2 push ups. A push up means laying on your stomach on the floor, then pushing your upper body straight up while keeping your knees on the floor.
  • 105 steps. This means running 75 steps in place, stopping to do 7 jumping jacks, then running another 30 steps in place.

That’s it. For people who are seriously out of shape, this is actually a solid starting point — just commit to doing this every day and eating a little better. For those in better shape, it may be worthwhile to jump in at a higher rung on the table.

Let’s look at an example. I’m currently on rung 17 of the fitness ladder, which consists of the following exercises:

  • Bends – 15
  • Sit ups – 11
  • Prone lifts – 14
  • Push ups – 10
  • Steps – 355 (4 sets of 75 steps, followed by 55 more steps)

So, each day I do those exercises in one session. Once they build me into better shape and start to seem easier, I’ll jump to the next rung, rung 18, which ups the numbers a little bit:

  • Bends – 16
  • Sit ups – 12
  • Prone lifts – 16
  • Push ups – 11
  • Steps – 375 (5 sets of 75 steps)

Eventually, you should just find a rung of the ladder where you’re comfortable. My target is to reach rung 30 and maintain it over the long haul.

How I’ve Hacked the Fitness Ladder

I’ve made a few significant changes to the regimen.

First, I stretch for five minutes before starting. I just do a few basic stretches, similar to these leg stretches, upper body stretches, and back and neck stretches. This not only feels good, it also makes the exercises easier to complete and is slowly making me more limber.

Second, on nice days, I jog in the park across the street from me, replacing the steps. I use a pedometer and take a number of steps equal to that count for the day, plus 5 for each jumping jack I skip. So, right now, I’d add 250 steps, since I’m skipping out on five sets of ten jumping jacks, giving me a jog of 625 steps at the park. This amounts to almost two full park loops.

Third, I play Wii Sports Boxing or Dance Dance Revolution (and I’ll soon add Wii Fit) as a “wind down” exercise. I play for about fifteen minutes, usually playing the boxing training game where you have to knock out the bags several times, chasing after my record of 34 bags. This usually gets me in a rhythm and is a lot of fun. Other days, I’ll play Dance Dance Revolution — it’s fun and in aerobic mode can get you moving pretty quickly.

Give It A Try!

If you’ve been hesitant to try a workout system, give the lifetime fitness ladder a shot. It’s certainly helped me get into better shape. I’ve lost a little weight, but more importantly, I feel much better — I can feel it during my day-to-day activities like hauling laundry from the basement to the upstairs floor, for instance.

J.D.’s note: Despite my dedication to running and weight-training over the past couple months, I don’t think I could start very high on the fitness ladder. For one thing, the push-ups would kill me. Still, ever since I saw Trent first mention this, I’ve been meaning to give it a try. Flickr image by eye2eye.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

1 MS April 29, 2008 at 8:31 am

Great article. Another benefit of the fitness ladder is that is only takes 15 minutes to complete.


2 Red April 29, 2008 at 9:26 am

I do like the pre-defined system to work through, I’d be curious to see what percentage of people stick with the system.


3 Cecily T April 29, 2008 at 10:07 am

Just curious about what kind of stretching you are doing…relaxed muscle stretching, prior to exercise, actually heightens your chance for injury, as you are stretching and loosening the muscle, when what you want is to be ‘warming up’ the muscle by telling it to get ready to work. Performing active stretching prior to exercise is more beneficial than relaxed stretching. Save that for after.

E.g., active stretching = stand on one foot and swing the other leg forward and back to warm up your hams and quads. Note that the muscles are engaged and this takes effort to do. After your workout, do relaxed stretching with the classic 4-sit stretch for your ham and a standing stretch for your quad. This will increase your flexibility, but not at the expense of your workout safety.


4 Chase Johnson April 29, 2008 at 12:34 pm

I have also been on the fitness ladder, although I only discovered it about a month ago and am currently on rung 5. The structure and simplicity make it a very useful habit to get into, from which to build fitness from. You can always do more, but as long as you do these 15 minutes of exercises every morning, you’ll be in decent shape.

I have a minor correction though: the leg lift is not done laying on your back, it is done laying on your stomach. Both the third and fourth edition of the Hackers Diet specify the exercise that way.


5 AndrewE April 29, 2008 at 3:16 pm

This fitness ladder idea looks quite interesting.


6 joe c April 29, 2008 at 7:30 pm

The Royal Canadian Air Force Exercise Plans for Physical Fitness works much like this: it’s a set of exercises you can do without any equipment that start slow and simple and grow in frequency and abililty as you get more fit. It’s definitely work seeking out if you can find an affordable copy of this little book.


7 Mark April 30, 2008 at 6:39 am

This is the first that I have heard of the fitness ladder. Maybe that is because I am so focused on aerobic conditioning. It looks like a great place to start for someone like me who needs to build some “core” strength along with some impact aerobics. I think I will start doing this program to see how it works for me.


8 Toby May 18, 2008 at 7:17 pm

I want to thank you for posting about this… I’ve been doing this since you posted and thanks to their beginning level of sit ups, have built up the strength to do real sit ups for the first time in over 20 years. I feel pretty good about that. :)


9 Don J May 25, 2008 at 9:03 am

@6: The fitness ladder is actually based on the RCAF routine, so the similarities you notice are not just coincidence.

A downloadable PDF of the RCAF 5BX book can be found at this site.


10 Team @ Whey Protein May 28, 2010 at 8:14 am

Gradually easing into any exercise routine is the best way. Too many people give beginner routines for full exerises such as push ups when many people can’t do push ups so try, fail, and instantly give in.

It’s not just beginners who need to take the gradual approach, even so-called advanced trainees are on the same never-ending continuum of gradual progress.


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