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A British bouncer tested home workouts from American fitness gurus. Here’s his pick.

Fitness icon Charles Atlas exhibits his muscles at the New York Automobile Show in the 1930s. (Everett/Shutterstock)

If there’s one service that’s flourishing amid the wreckage wrought by the coronavirus pandemic, it’s online fitness. Googling “home workouts” returns more than 50 million results, as well as pages of YouTube coaches. But, you may be asking, where to start?

Never fear; I’ve done a lot of the research for you. I’m a bouncer and security guard who works long shifts and looks after a 6-year-old while off duty. I don’t go running, and the only time I’ve ever set foot in a gym is to switch off its burglar alarm. The fitness icon I most relate to is the fictional boxer Rocky Balboa. As a teen, I watched him get himself in shape not by hitting the gym, but by running up steps, doing dragon flags and towing his brother-in-law on a sled, as seen in “Rocky” movie montages set to loud, brassy, rhythmic music.

So, almost as if I knew a pandemic would someday arrive and strand us all in our houses, I spent the past few years trying the online programs of several famed home-workout gurus, all — probably not coincidentally — somewhat maniacal Americans like Rocky. My journey to fitness has involved crawling, squatting, leaping and lunging around my living room before settling on a routine that requires nothing but doors and furniture. (And a tool kit to fix the bits you loosen up while doing pulls.)

You’re never too old to regain that lost muscle. And you can do it at home.

At first, I looked to Long Beach strength legend Charles Atlas, having heard his name mentioned on the violent British TV comedy “Bottom.” His famous “dynamic tension” program — allegedly inspired by watching a caged tiger stretch, and incorporating everything from breathing techniques to push-ups between chairs — certainly got me aching, but it didn’t seem to have much in the way of manageable progression. Plus, two hours of squeezing my hands together before a night shift soon became monotonous.

How could I get a more effective workout in a shorter time? Chris Jordan, director of exercise physiology at the Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute, seemed to have a similar motivation when he devised the best-selling “7 Minute Workout” “to specifically address the needs of our time-constrained corporate clients who traveled frequently, and spent much of their time in hotels.” His system, at 3 million downloads and counting, feels like the toughest seven minutes of your life: 12 exercises, many high-intensity, done for 30 seconds each with minimal or no rest between sets. You go from jumping jacks to squats to crunches in a blur, with strictly no walking around and checking social media before your next round.

But personally, even an exhausting seven minutes made me feel like I was cheating. My job has always required me to quickly move heavy loads — such as freshmen who have overindulged in alcohol or power tools misplaced by contractors — but it can also involve long periods of keeping still. I wanted to make sure I was getting at least my required minimum 75 minutes of intense weekly exercise. Should I, or anyone, count “7 Minutes” as their full fitness provision?

Even Jordan doesn’t seem to think so. “If you have time, access to equipment and the motivation, I recommend incorporating other workouts you enjoy or that challenge you,” he wrote to me.

Cardio isn’t enough. For a healthy heart, add resistance training.

It was a plumber training between triathlons who guided me toward Beachbody’s “P90X,” the best-selling home-exercise program that reportedly helped sculpt onetime Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul D. Ryan. A lot longer than the “7 Minute Workout,” the intense regime required only dumbbells, a pull-up bar and a minimum hour a day in the company of Tony Horton, the hyper-enthusiastic trainer whose videos guarantee to get you ripped in three months.

He wasn’t lying: Four unbroken rounds of the 13-week program later, I had single-digit body fat, my best athletic ability — and my first visit to the doctor in seven years, with chest pains.

“I do have some concern in general about the ‘HIIT’ high intensity workouts that are popular at the moment,” Gwilym Morris, a consultant cardiologist at the University of Manchester and an intermediate fellow at the British Heart Foundation, wrote via email. “The reason being that there is evidence that adverse events such as heart attacks or sudden death during exercise are more likely to occur during high intensity levels of physical exertion. A classic example of this is the sprint for the line in a marathon.”

Armed with similar cautionary advice from my own doctor, as well as the realization that an hour’s daily circuit training was eating into precious Lego time with my daughter, I set a specific fitness goal: longevity. I wanted a routine I could perform into my sunset years.

Who better to turn to for that than Jack LaLanne? In Britain, he’s still mostly remembered for his juice machine infomercials, but anyone who has read Noah Hawley’s best-selling thrillerBefore the Fall” will know him as the man who, at 70, towed 70 boats with 70 people along Long Beach Harbor for a mile and a half. While shackled. And swimming against the current. He also opened one of the first health studios, hosted a fitness show on television and developed some of the machines still used in gyms today. 

Written when he was in his 90s, LaLanne’s “Live Young Forever” contains his brutally simple dietary recommendations (“If man made it, don’t eat it,” and, “If it tastes good, spit it out”), and a home-training routine. But again, and this is no criticism of Jack, I doubt he achieved his record 1,000 pull-ups on live TV by simply following the dumbbell hypertrophy program he outlines in the book’s training chapter. Four sets of bench presses will undoubtedly build your chest, but Jack’s own routine was reportedly longer than two hours, starting at 5 a.m. each day, and included more than 100 handstand push-ups and nearly 50 100-pound barbell curls. I couldn’t find a load that heavy at home. Not unless I was prepared to start squatting the fridge.

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Convinced that an authentic and sustainable home-workout routine was a myth, I was on the brink of abandoning the Yanks and returning to British prisoner Charles Bronson’s “Solitary Fitness” when a scarlet icon jumped out at me from the App Store.

You Are Your Own Gym, a strength-training workout, is based on the book of the same name, which purports to be “the bible of bodyweight exercises.” It was developed by former U.S. Air Force Special Operations trainer Mark Lauren, and its sample chapter — available by signing up to marklauren.com — opens with the following quote: “I do not train movie stars, television celebrities, models, or other personalities whose livelihoods hinge on being fit. I train people whose lives do.” On reading those words, I sat up from my sofa, as motivated as I was by my first “Rocky” montage.

“Fitness and athletic ability depend mainly on getting into ideal joint alignment and staying there,” says Lauren, writing from his home in Tampa. “I started making programs for myself when I was 12. Then I went on to do it as a Special Ops guy for many years before doing it for the public.” His no-filler approach to fitness has had international reach: “You Are Your Own Gym” became a bestseller, both in the United States and Germany, where it’s published as “Fit ohne Geräte,” or fitness without equipment.

“My German audience seems to be especially fond of the efficiency and simplicity of my at-home training program,” Lauren wrote. “The average age of the 4,000 subscribers at my website is 42, and many of them are going strong in their 60s. Exercise is good, but it can also hurt you. I apply stress thoughtfully. The military taught me to plan.”

Lauren’s program won’t suit everyone — prepare to risk having your home’s inside doors loosened if regularly performing his Let-Me-In rowing exercises — but it did for me what the best training routine should: remove uncertainties. When my muscles felt like they had been Tasered after Day 1 of the Basic program, I knew the routine was legitimate. I’ve continued with the workouts to this day, even while on vacation.

My favorite thing about the routine is that it understands that fitness shouldn’t be all-consuming. My job means I go many weekends without seeing my family; now at 2 a.m., when my girlfriend is exhausted from her teaching job, I’ve still got the energy to put our daughter back to bed after a bad dream. If she wakes up before her alarm, she can come into the front room and watch me finish my 36-minute body-weight workout. I may be a sweaty puddle afterward, but my daughter enjoys seeing the man with the “film voice” (American accent) help Dad get ready for work. She even joins in sometimes; to date, her favorite move is one-arm push-ups. It may be fate; these were also featured in “Rocky.”

George Bass is a feature writer who has contributed to the Guardian, the New York Times, the New Statesman and New Scientist. Find him @GeorgeBas5.

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