By Greg Merritt Flex
Picture yourself in Tahiti, lounging on a white-sand beach, or — a lesser fantasy — maybe you’re on a business trip or simply home for the holidays. Wherever you are, training in a gym may not be convenient. In addition, those who train at home may be looking for new exercises to enhance their limited repertoires.
In this article, we’ve compiled the best lifts that don’t require a gym. When performed as prescribed, these exercises will improvise a hardcore workout virtually anywhere. In fact, the exercises and techniques may prove so effective that you’ll want to purposely avoid the gym on occasion just to give your muscles an iron-free shock. Go ahead, there’s no weighting.
Your back can be a difficult area to train without gym equipment. However, if there’s a reasonably strong person with you, you can do the same lat pumping exercise done by many competitive bodybuilders before stepping onstage: towel rows. Sitting with your knees bent and with the soles of your feet pressed against the soles of a partner, each person grabs a towel from opposite ends. As you pull the towel into your abdomen (approximating a seated row), the other person resists enough to provide a steady even movement. The roles are reversed for the next half of the rep, alternating back and forth. Aim for reps in the 15-20 range, reducing the resistance as you tire.
When training alone, the best back-training option is chins. A great place to find a sturdy overhead bar is a playground jungle gym. If you’re not strong enough to perform more than five reps, look for a slightly lower bar, such as a parallel bar. Hanging beneath it, do high-rep two-arm chins or low-rep one-arm chins.
For legs, we turn to two standard exercises: squats and lunges. When performing deep knee bends (without weights), squat until your butt touches your ankles. At the top, stop short before locking out. Get used to this movement, because you’re going to do this a lot. Aim for at least 50 reps; 100 is even better. Sound easy? It’s doubtful you’ll think so once you hit the century mark; if you reach it, keep going. During no-weight lunges, step up onto a chair, stretching forward with each rep. Again, aim for at least 50 reps per leg without resting.
No-weight calf raises can be done virtually anywhere. Stand barefoot with the balls of your feet on the edge of a step. Holding a rail for balance, rise up and down as far as possible on the balls of your feet. This exercise can also be performed on a flat surface, focusing on the contraction and relying on the strength of your feet and calves for balance. This can be done either standing or squatting. The latter method approximates seated calf raises and thus targets your soleus. Aim for at least 30 reps, squeezing hard during contractions. Another option is one-leg calf raises, performed by hooking one foot behind the opposite ankle and holding something sturdy for balance. By doubling the resistance of their two-leg brethren, one-leg calf raises require fewer reps.
For pectorals, we return to the gym-class favorite: the pushup. As with bench presses, the pushup stresses the pecs, front deltoids and triceps. Keep your palms flat on the floor, placed slightly beyond shoulder width. Keep your body straight as you lower your chest to the floor. If high reps come too easy, increase the difficulty by having someone apply pressure to your back or by doing them between two chairs. Focus on your lower pecs by elevating your upper body or on your upper pecs by elevating your feet.
If you can find an object that is at least half the weight of the dumbbell you’d normally train with, use it to pump out front, side and rear laterals. A piece of luggage is often the best “weight” available, because you can increase or decrease the resistance by changing the bag’s contents. Don’t try to match the weight of two dissimilar items. Instead, do one-arm laterals.
Hand and forearm muscles can be worked anywhere with a grip-strengthening device. Alternately, squeeze a tennis ball for high reps. Grip squeezing won’t add much muscle mass, but it can aid your ability to hold a heavy barbell or open a stubborn jar lid.
For abs, we recommend variations on the crunch. Regular crunches target the upper abdomen, reverse crunches focus more on the lower abdomen, and twisting crunches work the front abs in conjunction with the obliques.
There are many options for triceps. Close-grip pushups are performed similar to regular pushups, except with hands placed side by side. Lock out each rep. Dips between benches are done by grasping a bench behind you and resting your heels on a bench in front of you. (Two chairs or a bed and a chair will suffice as “benches.”) Dip down as far as possible. As with laterals, an improvised weight can also be used for one-arm dumbbell extensions. Additionally, the same person who helped with towel rows could provide resistance for towel pushdowns, pulling up just enough to make your reps difficult, but fluid.
Biceps can be worked with a towel and two helping hands; your partner pulls down as you curl. Biceps can also be targeted via underhand chins or an improvised dumbbell. In the latter case, pump out concentration curls, flexing throughout.
WEIGHT TRAINING PRINCIPLES
USE HIGH REPS Outside the gym, forget about training heavy. Instead, do 15-30 reps per set. For exercises such as the deep knee bend, you may need 100 reps or more.
FLEX YOUR MUSCLES Tense your muscles throughout each lift and flex hard during each contraction. This can make a seemingly easy exercise more difficult.
SLOW DOWN A tendency with calisthenic and bodyweight lifts is to go fast and let momentum take over. Instead, use slow controlled movements.
SPEED UP In contrast to slow exercises, speed up your workout pace by reducing the typical rest time between sets.
Sometimes a break from training is just what a hardgainer needs to fully recuperate and refuel his drive to grow. Still, you should always have the option to train when you can’t make it to a gym. These exercises are in no way a long-term replacement for weight training. Used as an occasional substitute shocker, the high-rep gym-free workout is a convenient way of telling complacent muscles, “Vacation time is over. Get back to work!”
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