When traveling, you may find yourself without access to a gym. Or maybe you’re just starting out on your fitness journey. If you haven’t yet decided whether you’re a gym person or a ‘work out at home’ person, you might be looking for a way to get a good workout without access to equipment. Keeping in mind that building any appreciable amount of muscle from bodyweight alone is nigh impossible, if you need to get a great workout, Rocky IV style, here’s how.
Muscle Building with Bodyweight
There’s no question that maintaining muscle with nothing but bodyweight is a challenge, but it can be done. Building muscle with only bodyweight can be achieved as well, but it’s very difficult so if you have access to weights, that’s a better route to follow. To maintain or grow with only bodyweight you’ll need to do higher reps than you would do if you had access to weights – sometimes much higher reps! But as long as you put your muscles under sufficient strain you can stimulate enough growth to at least maintain your muscle mass. To really understand the process of muscle growth, read our previous post on Muscle Building: Physiology 101.
An Effective Bodyweight Workout
If you’re traveling, unless you’re working far out in the field or stuck in some place so small the city limits signs are both on the same post, you likely have access to a gym. Most gyms will allow walk-ins or even weekly/monthly memberships at a reasonable price. This means that with a few concessions for different equipment you can get the same workout you get at home.
But what if you are trapped in Hillbilly Hell and the nearest gym is a two-hour drive away? Here’s how to get an intense full-body workout with body weight alone.
If you haven’t read Muscle Building: Physiology 101 we recommend you do so now. It’s important to understand the chemical processes that cause muscle growth. By knowing this, you’ll also understand how to maximize results from resistance training. Maximum pump is essential, but you’ve only got body weight to do it with. This will likely mean higher reps – possibly running to triple digits.
The Workout – Upper Body
There’s a reason push-ups are a (literally) ancient standby. They work the chest, arms, and shoulders as primary muscles, as well as training the core, buttocks and upper thighs. Push-ups to failure will exhaust these muscle groups and depending upon how many you can do can even give you sufficient pump to stimulate muscle growth.
Do a handstand against a wall, so your heels are touching the wall for balance. Then lower until your forehead is almost touching the ground. Straighten your arms and repeat as many times as you can. While this exercise is no substitute for shoulder presses (also called military presses) due to the reduced range of motion, you’ll be surprised how strenuous it is. Muscles worked are shoulders and triceps.
While this guy is doing his handstand push-ups facing the wall, you might find it easier facing away. Place your hands on the floor about 40 cm from the wall, then kick up into a hand stand. Your heels will rest against the wall as you do push ups using your shoulders.
If you have access to parallel bars (try the local playground) these can be done with an emphasis on triceps and pecs. If you don’t even have access to a playground you can still do dips with a chair or even the edge of a bed. If you do have access to some kind of parallel bars hold your feet off the ground and lower your body as far as you can before straightening your arms again. If using a chair or other support, extend your legs out in front of you, rest your hands on the chair and lower your butt toward the floor as far as you can.
Chin Ups and Pull Ups
This is another one for the playground so if you don’t have access to some kind of bar, you won’t be able to do this one. Do not attempt to do this on a doorframe! They are not built for that and may tear free, resulting in possible injury.
The only difference between chin ups and pull ups is the grip. For a chin up, use a narrow grip (hands no more than shoulder width apart) with your palms facing you. Pull up, using a full range of motion. Lower to a fully extended position and repeat as many times as you can. Muscles worked are primarily biceps with some emphasis on lats.
For a pull up, note his hand position. Place hands wider than shoulder width apart with palms facing away from you. This will work your lats and biceps.
For a pull up, use a wide grip with palms facing away from you. This will primarily work your lats with a secondary emphasis on biceps.
Both forms also have some benefit for back muscles, especially if you observe very good form and squeeze your back muscles at the top of each rep.
The Workout – Lower Body
Reps will really be key here. Your legs are typically much stronger than your upper body. They carry you around all day. This means to get good pump you’ll need to be patient and prepared to rep until you lose count. Although, as you’re about to see there are ways to make bodyweight squats harder.
The Simple Squat
I won’t bore you with a description. Everyone knows how to squat. You can do these as part of a bodyweight workout but as already mentioned, you might need a good movie to watch while you wait for your legs to get tired. Here are a couple methods to make them harder and cut down on the number of reps you’ll need to do.
As the name suggests, add a jump at the top of the motion. You should be focusing on explosive power, jumping as high as you can. This also adds an effective aerobic element to your workout.
Shrimp Squats (or one-legged squats)
You’ll likely need to hold on to the back of a chair for this one. Balance on one leg and hold the other off the ground. Do your squats one-legged to failure, then switch legs.
These are more challenging. You can still balance with one hand on a chair if you have to, but they are more effective if you simply master the balance. Squat on one leg, but rather than tucking the other leg up underneath you as with the shrimp squat, extend the free leg out in front of you, holding it straight. At the same time extend your arms in front of you for balance. These squats are very effective and you might find you don’t need to do any more reps with these than you do with a traditional weightlifting squat.
Initially you can use a chair or other support for balance, but you should work toward doing pistol squats with no support. Having to balance works the muscles harder.
Where squats train the glutes and thighs, lunges are more of a thigh/core exercise and the motion more closely mimics leg extensions done on a machine. If you’re outdoors these can be done continuously, switching from one leg to the other as you ‘walk’ forward with each lunge. If you’re trapped in a hotel room, you can push back to your original position after each lunge, then switch legs.
Lunges are a simple yet effective thigh and glute toning exercise you can do anywhere.
Russian Leg Curl
Finding something heavy enough to hold your weight could be a challenge but if you can, these are a fantastic hamstring exercise and very challenging. Try tucking your feet under the edge of the bed in a kneeling position with your body upright and straight from the knees up. Slowly lower your body, using only your hamstrings and core until your chest is touching the ground. Now raise yourself back up the same way. These require so much strength that you may not be able to do them, but if you can you’ll get just as good a workout for your hamstrings as you would at the gym.
The Workout – Core
Lay on your back on the ground and hold your hands behind your head. Raise your right leg, bent at the knee and bring it as close to your chest as you can get it. At the same time, raise your left shoulder off the ground and crunch as hard as you can. Hold for a second or two at the top of the crunch. Lower and switch to the other side. Guaranteed sore abs if you’re not used to them.
Note her shoulder position. The purpose of the crunch is to work your upper abs, so lifting your shoulders and bringing your elbow as close to your knee as possible will make this exercise more effective.
Unless your lower body outweighs your upper body, you’ll need something to tuck your feet under. Most of us have the impression that sit-ups are the most basic of all exercises but many people do them wrong and miss out on the benefits. Keep your back straight and move from your hips. A proper sit-up works your lower abs. To work upper abs, see bicycle crunches above.
Now that you’re armed with a comprehensive bodyweight workout you can do almost anywhere, there are few caveats you need to be aware of. If you’re training with the goal of building any appreciable amount of muscle, weight training is a far better option. You simply can’t put your muscles under the same strain with a bodyweight only workout that you can with weights.
In addition, some muscle groups really suffer from neglect in a bodyweight workout: deadlifts, bench press, and military presses are all exercises that can’t be done effectively with bodyweight, although these muscles can still be trained and maintained.