When I was a zookeeper, I liked to pretend I was MacGyver when it came to enrichment for the animals. “This yogurt container will make excellent enrichment”. “Don’t throw away the toilet paper rolls, I want them for enrichment”. And my ultimate favorite “I wonder if thrown out old boat fender buoys would make appropriate toys for elephants”. Spoiler alert: They did!
I was very good at reusing all sorts of items and turning them into mentally engaging and physically stimulating toys for animals. So, it came as little surprise when I switched gears from training animals to training myself and then others (in fitness and coaching at least) that I would incorporate a similar philosophy. “I bet these plastic bags could be used somehow to create workout equipment.” “These salad containers will be perfect for using in a workout.” “If these containers can’t be recycled, I’ll just turn them into dumbbells.”
Actually, the idea of my book Reuse, Recycle, Reduce Your Waist came from my reusing philosophy and an actual practice I started when I was still a zookeeper. My first piece of equipment I “created” was the broken rake handles the zoo kept stored away for god-knows what reason (actually, I know, it probably had something to do with enrichment). Instead of tossing them, I used the long sticks for warming up and stretching right before I started my shift in the morning. First thing we usually did as elephant keepers was clean the barn/yards, which usually comprised of a lot of rotating, raking, and lifting heavy wheelbarrows full of shit (I mean that in the most literal sense). My warm-up routine with the rake handles was probably one of the smartest (if not the only smart) ideas I came up with in my time at the zoo.
When I wrote Reuse, Recycle, Reduce Your Waist, I HAD to include the rake handle dowel rod. It’s one of the most handy pieces of equipment, and really the easiest, most convenient tools we have. Even if all you have is a broom handle, this will still help you stretch out and improve your mobility.
At Home Mobility
Start with a short cardio warm-up, such as a jog, jumping jacks, or if you want to stay with the Dowel Rod theme, go for these Bar Hops. In the video, they use boxes to bring the bar up off the ground, but if you want to keep the bar on the ground, that will do nicely for a warm-up or modification to the Bar Hop exercise.
Go through each movement at least 10 times (10 repetitions), and then repeat ones you feel hit muscles, joints, and areas of your body that need it most. Repeat throughout the day as needed, as well. This mobility exercise may take as little as 5 minutes, or as much as 15. Let your body give you feedback on how much time you take.
- Pass-Throughs: Hold dowel rod (broom handle, etc) in front of you in a wide grip. Keeping your arms straight throughout entire movement, raise both hands above your head. Lower your arms slowly so the bar comes down behind your head and rests against your back. Keeping your arms straight, bring them back above your head and in front of your body.
- Leg Swings: Place one hand around the dowel rod for support and all your weight on the opposite leg. Swing the leg closest to the pole straight out in front of your body forward and straight behind you back. Keep leg straight and find full range of motion (going only as high as your leg will allow itself to go). As balance and flexibility allow, reach your free hand (not holding the pole for balance and support) to touch your swinging leg as it comes forward. Repeat movement for 10 reps, then switch pole to other side and repeat with other leg.
- Around-the World: Another shoulder mobility exercise, hold the dowel rod in both hands in front of your body with a wide grip. Keeping your arms straight throughout entire movement, raise your left arm above your head and keep your right arm straight down at your side. Swing the bar around your head to the back, then lower your left arm down to your side while raising your right arm above your head as you swing the bar around to the front again. Repeat for 10 repetitions, then switch up your direction, raising your right arm first and bringing the bar counter-clockwise.
- Pendulum Leg Swing: Place the dowel rod in front of your body but just a small distance away to allow your leg to swing in front of you and behind the pole. Hold the pole in one hand and then swing the same leg to the side of your body and in front to the opposite side. Also called side-to-side lateral leg swing, this exercise opens your hips. Repeat the motion for 10 repetitions on one leg, then switch sides and repeat.
- Overhead Squat: Hold the dowel rod in a wide grip with both hands. Bring the pole overhead, keeping arms straight and shoulders engaged, with elbows not quite locked out. Place your feet hip width apart and squat all the way down, keeping bar overhead. Keep weight in heels and chest up, push your knees out as you stand back up.
- Good Mornings: This stretch is absolutely fantastic for hamstrings, but take care to do it with good form to avoid injury. Hold the dowel rod behind your back across your shoulders. Your grip can be neutral, whatever is comfortable. Keeping your back and legs straight, but knees soft, hinge at your hips to bend over. Keep both your back and legs straight to feel a stretch. Go only as far as your body will allow while keeping good form. If your back begins to curve to bend further, release a bit of the stretch until you can hold with a straight back. Slowly return to standing. As you repeat the stretch, see if you can go just a little further, but only go as far as your body will allow. Discomfort is okay, stretching can be uncomfortable at times. Pain is not okay. If you feel pain in your hamstrings or back, slowly release the stretch to stop the movement.
- Over the Fence(Video link): Stand in neutral, tall position. Bring the knee of the working side to your chest, holding it as high as you can. Slowly move the leg around to the side of your body while keeping the torso forward facing. Keeping the knee at that height, turn the leg so that your heel is as high as you can hold it and the knee is facing forward. Circle the leg towards the back of your body, maintaining that height for as long as you can. Slowly lower the knee back to starting position.Now reverse the move. Bring the heel to the ceiling, while maintaining upright posture. Circle the knee out and around to the side with the heel reaching to the ceiling. Hold it as high as you can. Slowly bring the knee back around to the front of the body to the starting position.
- Behind the Back: Hold pole in your left hand and bring to your back. Reach your right arm up overhead and bring behind your head to grasp the top of the pole. Pull down on the pole with your left arm to stretch your right shoulder. After about 20-30 seconds, pull up on your right arm to stretch your left shoulder. After another 20-30 seconds, switch the positions of your hands, putting your left hand on top behind your head, and your right hand on the bottom behind your back. Stretch and pull each way again for 20-30 seconds.
- David’s Special Movement: I call this “David’s Special Movement” because it was a stretch one of my Master participants used to do all the time when we grabbed the dowel rods for warm-ups, and honestly, I don’t know what else to call it. It sounds pretty complex, but once you get it, it’s super easy.
Hold the dowel rod out in front of you in one hand, so that the end is pointing or touching the floor. Keeping your hand in position on the pole, swing the dowel rod up and over your arm, so your elbow is bent all the way, but the pole is at your side. Reach your opposite arm across your body and under your arm, grasping the dowel rod at your side. To stretch the shoulder and lats, simply pull the pole with the opposite arm away from your side. Do so slowly and carefully, only as far as you feel a deep stretch. Discomfort is okay, pain is not. Hold the stretch for 20-30 seconds, then release and switch sides.
(Photo credit: The Box Mag)
- Flamingo Stretch: This great stretch for your quads, but can be a little wobbly. Using a dowel rod or pole for support can help with stability. Bend your knee and grab your foot or shoe with your hand. As flexibility allows, bring your foot as close to your butt as possible. Keep your quadriceps/kneecap flush with your standing leg. To deepen the stretch, lean forward, keeping your ankle to your butt and allow your knee to shift behind the standing leg. Hold the stretch for 20-30 seconds, then switch sides.
Repeat exercises as you need for mobility, flexibility, and to prevent soreness before or after exercising. Stay limber, so you can live green and train positive.