No Equipment, No Problem: How to Stay Fit While You Travel

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? !

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

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

But don’t you worry, it’s easy to get anything you lose all back once you resume regular exercising again

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

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

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

Wait, is there even a gym or park to work out at?

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

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 was more like a challenge to move my body through and within the world

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

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

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

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)

But with bodyweight training, you can do that by doing:

More reps: You can do the exercise a greater number of times

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

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

That’s where suspension trainers and resistance bands come in

I’ve written a lot about suspension trainers and how I love them on Lifehackercom, 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

Suspension trainers blow open the doors to a whole new world of bodyweight exercises and add twists to the ones you already do

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

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

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

Thursday: Workout A

Friday: Workout B

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

Take Your Workout to the Park

If you don’t have these handy tools at your disposal, your next best bet is a park

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

Here are a few workout ideas: try doing 20-second sprints barefoot on the grass and repeat 10 times

10-15 bodyweight squats

8-12 push-ups (use your knees if you have to)

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:

The best part is that these fun workouts can fit a variety of fitness goals

What matters is how you eat to complement your workouts

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

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

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

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

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

If you don’t have access to a gym or any equipment and want more structure to your bodyweight workouts, I encourage you to check out my friends at GMB Fitness

They’re like the Jedi Masters of the bodyweight training world

You’ll get stronger, be more agile, and if you couldn’t before, even learn to do pull-ups!

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