You’ve worked hard to stay in shape at home, but your looming backpacking trip, vacation, business trip, relocation, or remote work lifestyle threaten to mess up everryyyything. And now you’re freaking out because you’re not sure if you can travel and work out, and you’re worried you’ll lose all of your progress–and oh, the horror, what if there is no gym?!
Everything is going to be okay.
It probably feels like you’ve got 99 problems right now, but I’ll tell you that not having a gym isn’t one of them. Because soon we will discuss a huge silver platter of options for you to work out while traveling that can fit a variety of fitness goals. If anything, you may find that changing up your home routine would actually benefit you. Just know that…
Traveling Does Not Mean You Will Lose All Your Hard Work
Admittedly, traveling and working out can be really difficult to balance. The uncertainties of what’s available and charging into the new and foreign can really dump all over your workout routine (and eating habits), so I totally feel you and your worries about staying in shape, wherever you find yourself.
The good news is, that bigger bump in your arms, your slimmer-looking waist, the nicer fitting clothes, or your Hulk-like super strength won’t go away that quickly. Studies on when your fitness starts to decline vary, based on what you do as a workout (running versus lifting weights) and how long you’ve been training. Most peg the start of getting out of shape to be about four weeks for weights and about two for cardio, but this is assuming you only sit on your ass and refuse to do literally anything else. If you’ve been training for a long time, it may take more time than that.
But don’t you worry, it’s easy to get anything you lose all back once you resume regular exercising again. Because “muscle memory” and all that.
Still, it may not even need to come to that if you’re dedicated. In fact, it’s possible to travel and work out consistently, without a gym, and get stronger doing so. I did it with some periods of not working out in-between, and so can you. But I’m not going to sugarcoat this: It’s difficult as hell and you’re going to need all the mental and emotional energy you can muster. Why?
Fitness Requires Routine, But Travel Is Anything But That
A fitness routine works at home because you don’t have to think much of it. You know what you’ll wear to the gym, what’s available at your gym, or which running route to take for your run.
The very things that make traveling so restorative and endearing, however, are those that send your fitness routine tumbling. With all the unfamiliar and exciting things of travel demanding your attention, you end up with less brain space to think about how to work out, when to work out, and what to do when you work out. Instead, it’s all about what do I eat? What should I see today? Wait, is there even a gym or park to work out at? Why did that guy yell merde! at me?
You get overwhelmed, and if you’re someone who loves–no, needs–fitness, not working out can quickly preoccupy you with feelings of anxiety, guilt, and dread. That’s a dark and evil headspace we don’t want to be in, so my advice is for you to learn to be okay with less than ideal conditions and to treat the world as your gym.
The World is Your Gym…BRAH
When I say “less than ideal” conditions, I mean that you shouldn’t let a bad hair day, the single flap of a butterfly wing, or any slight miscalculation in your day make you give up on working out completely. I talk about this idea of “making a concession” in another article of mine here (Read: Workouts Don’t Have to Be Perfect, Just Do Something). Basically, things aren’t going to be perfect, especially when travel can throw everything in a dumpster fire.
And when you treat the world itself as endless fitness possibilities, you start to see that you can use a tree branch for pull-ups, stairs for bear crawls, a bench for step-ups, and so on. You feel like a child again just looking for ways to push the boundaries of the possible. You can experiment and try things, and because you’re a kid, you don’t care if it’s not perfect. You’re just happy to be laughing, playing, and testing your body in new environments. This idea of whimsy helped a gym rat like me have fun with fitness again. It became more than a personal obligation. It was more like a challenge to move my body through and within the world.
Remember the top photo of this article? That’s me just doing a pull-up on the edge of a dilapidated bunker…over the side of a cliff, because why not.
Use Bodyweight Workouts to Build or Maintain Strength
Okay, time to get into the how for working out without weights or a gym.
Whether you want to keep in shape, get leaner, lose some weight, or get stronger, working out with just your body is an awesome, viable option–and the main one I recommend. It all depends on how hard you make them on yourself–the more intense and challenging, the better. There were times I was able to find a gym, sure, but I relied primarily on bodyweight workouts.
Some exercises like push-ups and bodyweight squats don’t require any equipment, but you do need a pull-up bar for pull-ups or a bench for single-leg hip thrusts, natch. Heck, you can even use a door for some back exercises.
There are more bodyweight exercises than you think. So here’s a handy chart of the various bodyweight exercises by DAREBEE, which is also an incredible resource for bodyweight workout ideas for beginners, as well as intermediate and advanced fitness folks.
Notice that many of these exercises use your whole body, which means you get your heart rate up and burn more calories. A push-up, for example, challenges your chest, arm, and core strength at first, but in reality, you’re also using your shoulders, neck, thighs, legs, and back, too. Put several of these exercises together, do them within a set time period (say 50 seconds of work and then 10 seconds of rest), and you create a kick-ass workout called a circuit.
Bodyweight workouts alone have helped me and countless others stay in shape, but they need to be adapted to your fitness level so you don’t hurt yourself. Good form still matters. It’d be easier if someone could critique you, but there are plenty of resources online as well. If you’re not sure about your form for a push-up, for example, I’ve written an article here about it.
Another thing: When you’re just starting out, it’s important to do a variation of the exercise that you can do. For example, if you can’t do a full push-up, do push-ups on your knees or rest your hands on a bench. Additionally, something like this is a great beginner workout (courtesy of Nerd Fitness):
A routine like that can be done as many times each week as you want. Obviously, it’ll only work if you make this part of your schedule and carve time out to make sure it happens. Just commit yourself to 30 minutes and set your workout time as a calendar appointment.
Is Bodyweight Training Effective for Weight Lifters?
If you’re coming from a weightlifting background, you might wonder if bodyweight training does diddley-squat to get you stronger or even continue your goal of achieving a certain physique. I actually wrote about this in a Lifehacker post here, but the short of it is, yes, I believe it can.
When I first set out on my nomad adventures, I was absolutely terrified that I would lose all of my hard-earned gym progress. But it took hard work and bodyweight workouts about five to six times a week to lay those concerns to rest. As a result, I got stronger, built more endurance, and was able to improve myself in ways that wouldn’t have been possible if I had just stuck to a gym routine.
I wouldn’t expect your deadlift numbers to shoot through the roof from bodyweight training, but it can help maintain your fitness and develop your strength in other ways. When you work out more often with bodyweight exercises, too, you develop a better range of motion in some joints and enhance your form and technique because of the constant practice.
In the end, however, you do need progressive overload, which is basically adding a new sort of stress to your muscles, in order to add more muscle and strength (if that’s the goal). In the weight room, you do that by piling on weight. But with bodyweight training, you can do that by doing:
- More reps: You can do the exercise a greater number of times. So instead of just doing 10, try doing 15-20 reps.
- More sets and reps: Together this is your workout “volume” and more volume means generally better results. Generally, you want to aim for at least 4 sets of a type of bodyweight exercise.
Additionally, you get to the point where the same ol’ push-up isn’t challenging enough. Here small tweaks can make them harder. For example, if you rest your feet on an elevated surface (a chair or park bench) when you do a push-up, you challenge your muscles in a whole new way. For lower body exercises, try doing one leg instead of two.
Simply changing the angle or position of your body, your grip, or your stance and pausing in the middle of your exercise are some smart ways to keep challenging yourself and improving your results. And of course, quality of your exercise and workout always trumps quantity.
Two Tools That Will Level Up Your Bodyweight Workouts
Eventually, bodyweight workouts can get stale because:
- You need more and more stimuli to keep your body challenged.
- You simply get bored and stop doing it.
That’s where suspension trainers and resistance bands come in.
I’ve written a lot about suspension trainers and how I love them on Lifehacker.com, but if you’re just learning about them, they’re a pair of straps with handles. TRX is the popular brand name, and more recently, I’ve started using monkii bars, which might tickle your fancy if you’re on the minimalist trend. There’s an even cheaper option here, but overall, suspension trainers are going to cost you a little moola. If you take care of them, though, they can last for years. I’ve had mine for over seven years.
Suspension trainers blow open the doors to a whole new world of bodyweight exercises and add twists to the ones you already do. I bring them everywhere with me (along with a couple of other fitness items). With them, you’re able to isolate specific muscle groups, like biceps and triceps, and turn your normal push-ups into “atomic push-ups” or something equally as fancy-sounding.
CHECK MY WORKOUT: My suspension trainer workout program
The best parts are that they’re easy to take with you anywhere and setup is a breeze. The straps come with attachments that let you hook them up to a door frame for indoor workouts, like in a hotel room, or outdoors at a park. Just hook them up to a tree branch, a lamp post, a pull-up bar, or any number of unusual (but sturdy) places and you’re good to go. (Part of the fun is figuring out all the ways you can hang suspension trainers.) Once set up, you hang onto the straps and choose from one of many exercises from this chart by stack52.
And because you can lean your bodyweight into them or hang on for dear life, you get a new challenge level that you can’t get with body weight alone. Combine this with resistance bands, which are these multi-colored elastic bands you can use to work out smaller muscle groups or make other ones harder, and you essentially have a full “gym” that you can take anywhere.
Both of these formed the bulk of my workouts the last year or so, which had benefits that actually carried over to the gym, too. My numbers aren’t going to blow anyone’s mind, but they are going up–which is what matters.
How Often Should You Work Out?
Because bodyweight workouts provide less wear and tear on your body compared to heavy weights, you could do them every day if you wanted. I worked out 5-6 times a week with plenty of walking during my travels. Here’s an example of what you can do with just two workouts:
- Monday: Workout A
- Tuesday: Workout B
- Wednesday: Off
- Thursday: Workout A
- Friday: Workout B
- Saturday and Sunday: Happy fun time
If you’ve been training in the gym for a long time before now, you might find yourself getting stronger simply because you’re letting your body recover better and faster. See how you feel because rest is still important. Sometimes I found myself really beat up because I walked 8-10 miles a day and would rest appropriately.
There’s no wrong answer here.
Take Your Workout to the Park
If you don’t have these handy tools at your disposal, your next best bet is a park. Nearly every city has a park of some sort. On Google Maps, they appear as a large or small swath of green land. Once you find one, you immediately have access to huge variety of possibilities. A simple playground, for example, is the motherlode for fitness. If you’re lucky, you might come across parks that have their own set of outdoors gym equipment (I found a lot of these in Seoul!)
Suspension trainers and bodyweight workouts at the park would be sweet, but you can also do sprints, walking lunges, or cartwheels on the grass. I’m serious about the last part. Here are a few workout ideas: try doing 20-second sprints barefoot on the grass and repeat 10 times. Or do walking lunges for 100 or 200 meters. Or even try this:
- 10-15 bodyweight squats
- 8-12 push-ups (use your knees if you have to)
- 20-30-second bicycle kicks
- 20 jumping jacks
- 12 lunges per leg
- 15-30 second plank
- No rest between exercises, 1 minute rest between sets, repeat for 5 rounds
Even better if that park has a playground because you’d most likely be able to do some sort of pull-up. If you can’t do full pull-ups yet, do inverted rows or work on negative reps, where you jump up and slowly let yourself descend. Both of those intermediary exercises help you build up to your first pull-up! And if you get creative enough, you can incorporate these moves into your workout, too:
Believe it or not, the monkey bars can absolutely hammer your grip strength, arms, abs, and back muscles, especially now that you probably have more weight to hold up than when you were a kid. Additionally, here’s a playground workout you can do:
Work Out With YouTube Videos or Monthly Subscriptions
If it’s late and you don’t want to head to the park or something, you might as well stay in and work out in the comfort of your room. Even if you’ve got a small room, there are plenty of workouts on YouTube that are paced really well and don’t require much space. Here are a few examples:
And while you can follow along on a bodyweight or yoga workout, you could also look into monthly subscription services like DailyBurn or FitnessGlo, which are like the Netflix for fitness. I’ve also written about apps like Beatactive that syncs up some killer EDM music to a workout, too.
If You Absolutely Need a Gym, Some Places Have Public Gyms
I’d be remiss to not mention that I did find gyms occasionally and was able to fit in one gym session each week among my bodyweight workouts.
What I learned from searching for gyms all over the world is that most popular commercial gyms offer day passes between $25 to $30 each day. At gyms abroad, such as the Gold’s Gym I encountered in Tokyo, be prepared to bend over and hand over your wallet.
Memberships abroad are expensive. I think it really just drives home two points: fitness, especially lifting weights, is niche and often a luxury. Combine that with the fact that you’re a foreigner and you could find yourself paying over $100 a month easily. In some cases, you wouldn’t even be able to sign up for a monthly membership without having a bank account in that country.
If you’re on the verge of going crazy because you need a gym, it’s worth looking into city-funded gyms, which were plentiful in Tokyo and Taipei. I also found a private one in Seoul that was perfect. It doesn’t hurt to ask the locals, which is how I found out about public gyms and the gym in Seoul. Public gyms are open to anyone or sometimes only to the residents of that area, but I’ve definitely just mentioned that I was staying in the area and got in okay–they don’t seem to need to verify it. These alternatives are a much cheaper option, no matter if you want a daily or monthly pass.
If you’re traveling within the States, start by checking with the local Department of Parks and Recreation or researching the city’s website (like this one in Edmonton, Canada, this in New York City, or this one in Chicago, Illinois) for information on public gyms, fitness centers, community colleges with public access, or community centers.
My expectations for a gym when I travel are so low now that I do a freakin’ happy dance any time I come across a gym that has a squat rack, or a nice set of dumbbells, and also doesn’t ask me to pay out the wazoo for access. You may not always be that lucky, so for those times bodyweight and suspension trainers would be your new religion.
Cover photo by Karen Hong Photography.
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