October 5, 2010

Why And How To Go Gymless. ~ Dan Slanger

McGuckin’s Hardware Is My Gym, or, One Less Tool To Hold.

I recently wrote a ranting ode to being anti-apparatus, which was my idiosyncratic synonym for ‘less is more’. From beneath the bombast came a few concrete practices: bike to the store, eat from bulk bins, and

workout at home with sandbags, dips, handstands, pull ups and (shoeless) hill sprints rather than pay the moneychangers in the temples full of treadmills with televisions.

Practices—more so than synonyms—make for the good life yet ‘workout at home with sandbags’ is not so clear a practice as ‘bike to store’. So here’s five whys and ways to workout at home (or, for that matter, at the hotel, office, or park) as well as a list of resources to learn all about skipping the health club for the jump rope.

Five Reasons To Workout At Home

(1) It’s cheaper. Clubs cost dues, gasoline, and incidentals—the trendy gym clothes we only wear for others’ eyes, the grande iced soy latte we only buy because we pass it on the way back. Our home, on the other hand, costs no dues, takes no car (well, actually there are at least two good ways to use a car for a home workout but I’ll save them for below), and involves fewer incidentals—we can, depending on our roommate situation (they’ll get used to it; tell them gym comes from the Greek word for naked), workout in just our underwear; and, at home, our palate keeps closer to the cheaper, healthier stuff we bought at the market. If money’s not tight, give the savings to charity or invest in a new fitness hobby (climbing gym, yoga classes) with real dividends in terms of challenge and community.

(2) It’s greener. We’re already filling our tank less and tossing fewer coffee cups and washing fewer clothes. Add to that however many kilowatts run all those treadmills and televisions—telling the soul to buy more, which, often, isn’t all that green, or cheap, or, well, happy.

(3) It’s hipper. I don’t really know what ‘hip’ means, despite once reading a book on it. But I think it has something to do with creatively changing this or that stale game in a way that seems to make more sense. When I started to work out at home six months ago, I realized just what a stale, unhip game the health club had become and how exciting and creative it was to find ways to work the same muscles without all the machines I had come to depend upon: An old duffel, a carabiner, and sand becomes a way to add weight to pull ups and dips. A rock outside a rented home becomes a weight for single leg squats while on vacation. A towel over rafters becomes a pull up bar. A backpack becomes a weighted vest for push ups. A car pushed across an empty lot (while a friend drives) becomes a great leg workout. As a general rule, using fewer tools forces us to (satisfyingly) find our inner artisan.

(4) It’s easier. No lines for the elliptical. No parking the car. No awful, distracting pop music piped. No wiping down machines—while we’re here, have to wonder how much more my immune system had to work when I was at the gym all the time. No need to fit the club’s hours or avoid the club’s peaks—which more or less line up with when any gainfully employed person can workout.

(5) It’s harder. There’s a reason the trainer tells her clients to trade machines for dumbbells and benches for balance balls: it takes more effort to stably arc a weight through the air than to push or pull on a machine. Health clubs have machines because they impress members and are easy to learn and teach so limit the club’s commitment to members. As Mark Rippetoe writes in the first chapter to his classic Starting Strength:

…with Nautilus equipment, a minimum-wage employee could be taught very quickly how to use the whole circuit, ostensibly providing a total-body workout with little invested in employee education. Furthermore, the entire circuit could be performed in about 30 minutes, thus decreasing member time on the exercise floor, increasing traffic capacity in the club, and maximizing sales exposure to more traffic…


barbells require the individual to make…adjustments…to retain control over the movement of the weight. This aspect of exercise cannot be overstated — the control of the bar, and the balance and coordination demanded of the trainee, are unique to barbell exercise and completely absent in machine-based training.

Gymless exercises, as we’ll see below, often involve balance work and so cultivate ‘this aspect of exercise’ that ‘cannot be overstated’.

How To Workout With Fewer Tools

I won’t rehash the excellent online communities devoted to sharing ideas for home based workouts and DIY exercise equipment. But here’s a list of themes the communities echo as well as a few examples from my own workouts and links to learn more—the ethic of freely sharing DIY gym ideas awakens the undergraduate Marxist in me.

(1) Use your own body for weight.

Bench presses become push ups (with, as more resistance is needed, backpack filled with bags of sand or progressions toward one arm push ups). Lat pull downs become pull ups (with weighted backpack or DIY dip belt or progressions toward one arm pull ups). Leg presses becomes body weight squats (again, with weighted backpack or progressions toward single leg squats). Shoulder presses become handstand push ups (for most of us, no added weight or progressions will be needed for awhile, these are tough (but fun!)). Ab machines become plank work. We can keep the repetitions high for endurance work and then add weight or progressions for lower reps to work on strength and power. Either way, we’re finding smaller, stabilizing muscles the machines never knew we had and we’re free to do our workouts anytime, anywhere. So move it to a park or field every once in a while. The pull ups and dips can be done on playground equipment or just a tree and a DIY suspension trainer. Bring your backpack full of (bags of) sand or dirt for weight or make it an endurance day. Might feel silly the first few times but that goes away and becomes a gift—a gift of becoming less self-serious and self-conscious but also a gift of inspiration for others to likewise get out and play.

(2) Make your own equipment.

The hardware store becomes our sporting goods store. (This is good. Hardware stores are awesome. I worked at one for two years and scales fell from my dependent eyes as I saw all the ways we can build and fix our own stuff rather than throw away and buy new or pay a middle-person to fix.) Here’s a comprehensive and constantly updated list of DIY equipment ideas as well as a link to the following favorite: DIY suspension trainer. Also, if you do want to keep some traditional strength equipment in your routine (which I would recommend), before buying new, hit up Craigslist, where lots of truck-less, relocating folk would love for you to take their perfectly adequate equipment off their hands before they move.

(3) Skip the treadmill for sprints and drills.

Treadmills are, well, treadmills. Let’s get off them and get a better workout while we’re at it. Let’s do sprints. Find a field or a hill or just a length of sidewalk between 200 and 400 yards. Run the length as fast as you can then walk or jog back. Do this ten or more times. Takes maybe twenty minutes but taxes the heart and lungs and legs more than the forty endless minutes on the mill, mocking us with all its whirls and beeps. (And maybe ditch the running shoes, too.)

If it’s cold or raining or we just don’t feel like sprinting (because it’s hard; and effective), we can do some drills inside. Perhaps burpees for a minute, push ups for a minute, body weight squats for a minute, rope-jumping for a minute. Rest. Repeat. There’s a lot of fun and variety to be had here.

(4) Keep it short and not so sweet.

The DIY gym crowd tends toward shorter, more intense workouts. Obviously we can make our at home workouts whatever best fits our goals, schedule, and pleasure but I’ve appreciated the switch from longer, middling efforts to always under an hour all out efforts. I feel fitter and of course have more time for other pursuits.

(5) Put the gains to good use and include some leisurely pursuits.

On the note of ‘more time’, gymless workouts tend to be a nice compliment to leisure time sports and adventures. As mentioned above, the exercises involve balance work, which helps work the muscles and tendons that prevent injuries when sliding into second or hiking up a summit. Also, while we certainly can build muscle size with pull ups and push ups, body weight work often makes muscles stronger but not (so much) bigger. Alternatively, the body building workouts emphasized in health clubs tend to make muscles bigger but not (so much) stronger. Since a lot of sports (like climbing, for example) benefit from having a high strength to size ratio, I’ve found the home based workouts better compliment my leisure pursuits. [Do note the ‘so much’ qualifier here. Much more could be—and should be—said here and hopefully comments will help qualify the claim, which is that body weight work results in a more ‘functional’ fitness than the routines commonly pushed in health clubs. I’m certainly not an exercise physiologist but, eh, seems to fit my so far brief experience with working out at home. I look smaller and less ‘pumped up’ but feel stronger and more stable. But, again, there are ways to workout at home with either end in mind.]

For More

The purpose of this post is just to wave the gymless idea in the air and then point to where the real ‘how to’ information is at. The DIY gym culture is rich and deserves a Google and YouTube search, but here’s a favorite site to get going:

Ross Enamait, author of Never Gymless, keeps an excellent blog and user forum devoted to training at home and DIY exercise equipment.

Please add links and other resources as well as comments and questions in the comments section.

Here’s a video of Ross Enamait demonstrating some home based workout ideas:

Dan Slanger recently moved to Boulder to be with mountains and friends. He bikes and meditates and his one big desire is to want what he has.

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