How can I stay in shape if I can’t afford a gym or equipment?

We live in a pretty amazing time, as far as fitness is concerned. Gyms are all over the place, equipment sellers have storefronts or websites galore, and every day someone comes up with a new gadget to make you more fit. From YMCA gym memberships to heavy-duty home gyms with all the trimmings, you have a lot of options for getting fit.

But those things cost money! What if your budget doesn’t support equipment purchases, gym memberships, and smoothie cleanses? Are you SOL and destined to be fat and unhealthy for all eternity?

Holy Societal Expectations, Batman, of course not! Maybe it makes me a bad businessman, but I’ll be the first one to tell you that getting fit and staying that way doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. Hell, getting your daily dose of exercise doesn’t have to cost ANY money at all, and anyone telling you otherwise is trying to sell you something (it amazes me how often I honestly say that phrase).

Humans have been living on this ball of rock, water, and trees for a long time. No matter your beliefs, I think we can agree that people have been around longer than the Bowflex, right? Even though our forebears didn’t have the Greatest and Most Awesome Squatting Machine in the World to use three days a week for increasing volume sets, you know what a lot of them did have? Fantastic physical fitness. So how were they doing Awesome before Arnold got his first “Baby Lifts Barbells” play set?

Bodyweight movements and training!

Your body is pretty awesome. Seriously. That thing has thousands of moving parts and processes going on, and a lot of those we still don’t understand. I think it’s safe to say that it probably has the tools built in to keep itself healthy, and the success of bodyweight training as evidenced by Olympic gymnasts and “Paleo” workout routines is pretty convincing. The key to the success of bodyweight training is two-fold:

Train the Body as a Whole, Not in Isolation

Maybe you’ve noticed, but the body doesn’t naturally isolate muscles and movements when you try to do things. All the functional movements you go through on a day to day basis – like squatting, pulling, pushing, and lifting stuff – activate large groupings of muscles to get the work done. Functional movements are those that recruit the natural groupings of Prime Movers and Synergists without causing one or more Prime Movers to become isolated.

A Prime Mover, also called “agonists” or “major muscle groups”, are those that are responsible for most of the work being done around a joint. As an example, the basic Squat has three Prime Mover’s: the quadriceps (front thigh), hamstrings (back thigh) and gluteus maximus (biggest part of your butt). The movement here is simple: bend the legs and then straighten the legs under resistance, which is normally your body weight.

A Synergist, also called “helper”, “stabilizer”, and “neutralizer” muscles, are those muscles which assist the Prime Mover(s) in completing the motion of the joint. They do this by countering excess movement elsewhere in the body that would cause the movement to stall or fail. Jumping back to the Squat as our example, the Synergistic muscles here are the erector spinae, transverse abdominus, gluteus medius/minimus (abductors), adductors, soleus, and gastrocnemius. An even bigger list than the Prime Movers, these muscles are collectively responsible for keeping your back straight, stopping your torso from twisting at weird angles, keeping your legs from bending too far out, keeping your legs from bending too far in, keeping your feet flat, and staying balanced evenly on your feet.

In contrast to all this awesomeness is what’s called an Isolation Exercise. An isolation version of the Squat would be a leg-press machine. The machine targets the Prime Movers in the exercise (quads, butt, hamstrings) but then the machine itself provides all that mechanical stabilization and assistance that, in a normal squat, your Synergist muscles would be providing. This actually lessens the benefit, overall, of the whole exercise. You can have a 250lbs leg press, but fall over if you try to squat with just your bodyweight, because you ignored the synergist muscles.

Bodyweight exercises have the benefit of always recruiting the Prime Movers and Synergists for any given exercise, so you get the full benefit of every movement you do.

Be Consistent and Push your Limits

Now that you know you need to target your whole body (is it really targeting if you just aim for the whole thing?), you also need to commit to both being consistent and pushing your limits.

Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither was your awesome (or not so awesome) physique. Setting and following a consistent schedule of physical activity is a great way to get in shape. If you’re still looking for a quick fix…there isn’t one. I was obese, I’ve tried all the tricks, and they don’t freakin’ work. The only thing that works is Hard Work and Effort. You need to put both into your fitness regularly and consistently or you will not see results. But the bright side is the reverse is also true: if you put in work and effort, over time you will get fitter and healthier.

Just like there’s no Easy Button, there’s also no Lazy Button. Accomplishment happens when you push yourself outside the zone of things you’re comfortable with and take on new challenges. This is as true in fitness as it is in business and other parts of life. When you exercise you do this by adding weight, reps, sets, or in some way making your workout more challenging. At the beginning it will be as simple as adding 1 rep to each set every week, but down the road it will be going from push-ups to handstand push-ups, or going from squats to box jumps. If you don’t push yourself to hit the next level, and the next, and the next, you will stagnate (sooner rather than later, too). Once you hit that plateau, you stop getting stronger or fitter; you stop seeing results.

Where to Workout and Stuff You Need

The great thing about most bodyweight movements is that you can do them anywhere. The sample workout below includes squats, push-ups, pike presses, sit-ups, and handstand push-ups. None of these need any equipment to do effectively; and are able to be performed at home, at work, or outside equally. The only recommendation I have is have a pillow (or similar) handy for the pike press. While it isn’t necessary, it may make it more comfortable to complete the Negative/Eccentric version of the exercise if you have something to place under your head.

That being said, there are two movements which do require some kind of “equipment” listed below: pull-ups and inverted rows. For the pull-ups, just about any sturdy bar will do. It has to be far enough off the ground that you can hang from it with either legs straight or legs bent at the knee, able to hold your weight for an extended period of time, and needs about 10 inches of clearance above it so your head doesn’t smack into things at the top. We’re looking for something 1-2 inches in diameter, if it’s a bar. The inverted row has similar needs, only the bar should be about 4 feet off the floor, since you’ll be laying under it and not standing/kneeling at full extension.

You can find a good pull-up bar at a local playground, but try to go either with your kids or when there’s very few kids present. This is, sadly, especially true for the guys as people look at us weird when we’re at a playground without kids of our own. No matter who you are, try not to wear trenchcoats or drive panel vans when you go there, just to avoid any misunderstandings. Another option is the support beams in gazebos or other structures at your local park (or maybe you have one in your backyard). As long as you can get a good grip on it, you can do pull-ups on wooden beams too.

For inverted rows, you can use a sturdy table (I recommend a wooden one), that sits about 3-4 feet off the floor. Just lay with your feet under the table and your head sticking out from one side, reach up and grab the table edge, and voila! Now you can do rows from ground to chest touching the table at your leisure.

That’s it! You don’t need anything else to get going besides the will to do so!

Example Workout Plan

Now that we’ve covered theory, lets talk about practice. Below I’ve laid out a 12 week progressive bodyweight workout that pushes your limits gradually over time. It’s been broken down into Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced routines depending on where you’re starting. There are some guidelines included with each level to help you determine where to start if you’re not sure.

Note About Adding Reps: In the Progression section of each routine you will eventually start adding more reps to the sets of exercises. You do this by adding one rep to each set starting with the first set and adding reps to each subsequent set until your sets are even again. You can add reps every workout as long as you are making progress. Once your sets are all at the same reps, you go repeat the process to keep increasing work.

For example, in Week 1 John is able to finish 3 sets of 5 push-ups. In Week 2, he manages to add another rep to his first set, so his push-up work is now 3 sets at 6/5/5 reps, respectively. In Week 3, John adds another rep to his second and third sets, and is now doing 3 sets of 6 push-ups. Since he has now added reps to every set, he can again start adding reps to earlier sets.

Do Not add reps to movements in which you are still doing Negatives. You only add reps once you can do the moves without any Negative reps being needed to fill out the set.

In the Handstand Hold, you must complete the required hold time within 2 minutes of starting or it’s considered a miss for the day and you do not add more time next workout. These 2 minutes form one Set.

All of the workouts below are performed at maximum every other day with at least 24 hours of rest between the workouts. You need recovery time to make gains and not over-train.

Beginner

  • Who: If you can’t do push-ups or pull-ups, start here.
  • Routine:
    • Push-up (3 sets of 5)
    • Sit-up (3 sets of 10)
    • Squat (3 sets of 10)
    • Inverted Row (3 sets of 5)
    • Pike Press (3 sets of 5)
  • Movement Notes:
    • Push-up: Every set, do as many regular push-ups as you can, and then finish the set(s) with Negatives. Do Not do push-ups on your knees!
    • Sit-up: Sit with your knees apart, bottom of your feet touching, in a “butterfly” position. Each sit-up should go from shoulders touching the ground, all way up to hands touching in front of your feet. Do Not anchor your legs underneath something.
    • Squat: Squats should go from fully standing with hips beneath the shoulders, down to hips below the knees and weight in your heels. Keep the back, butt, and belly tight throughout the movement.
    • Inverted Row: Keep your body planked (i.e. straight aligned from head to toe) during the movement. Do not bend the back or belly.
    • Pike Press: Keep your body piked in the Downward Dog position, hips in the air and legs locked straight, throughout the motion. Use your arms to complete a lowering motion so your head touches the floor each rep, and then press back to locked elbows.
  • Progression:
    • Push-up/Inverted Row/Pike Press: Add +1 rep per set as often as possible
    • Squat/Sit-up: Add +2 rep per set as often as possible
    • You are ready to move on to the Intermediate routine when your sets are at least…
      • Push-up/Inverted Row/Pike Press: 3 sets of 10
      • Sit-up/Squat: 3 sets of 20

Intermediate

  • Who: If you’ve got push-ups, but pull-ups give you trouble, start here.
  • Routine:
    • Push-up (3 sets of 10)
    • Sit-up (3 sets of 20)
    • Squat (3 sets of 20)
    • Inverted Row (2 sets of 10)
    • Pull-up (1 set of 5)
    • Pike Press (2 set of 10)
    • Handstand Hold (1 set of 30 seconds)
  • Movement Notes:
    • Pull-ups: Keep your body planked during the movement, and lean back slightly as you do them to activate the latisimus dorsi (i.e. mid back muscles). Always start from full hang (elbows locked straight) and end with chin above bar. Do as many full pull-ups as you can each set, and then finish with Negatives.
    • Handstand Hold: Using a wall for balance, kick to handstand with arms locked straight and body as straight/tight as possible. You may come out of the handstand as needed, but hold for as long as possible each set. You are done when you’ve completed the total time prescribed in the routine.
    • All others, same as prior routine
  • Progression:
    • Push-up/Inverted Row/Pull-up: Add +1 rep per set as often as possible
    • Squat/Sit-up: Add +2 rep per set as often as possible
    • Handstand Hold: Add +5 seconds to the target total as often as possible
    • You are ready to move on to the Advanced routine when your sets are at least…
      • Push-up: 3 sets of 15
      • Inverted Row: 3 sets of 15
      • Squat/Sit-up: 3 sets of 30
      • Pull-up: at least 1 from full hang to chin above bar, no assistance
      • Handstand Hold: 60 seconds total within 2 minutes

Advanced

  • Who: You can do 10+ consecutive push-ups and at least 1 pull-up from full hang
  • Routine:
    • Push-up (3 sets of 15)
    • Sit-up (3 sets of 30)
    • Squat (3 sets of 30)
    • Pull-up (3 sets of 5)
    • Handstand Hold (2 sets of 60 seconds)
    • Handstand Push-up (1 set of 5)
  • Movement Notes:
    • Handstand Push-up: Set-up like the Handstand Hold. After coming to full extension, lower the body in a pressing motion until head touches the floor, and then press back to Handstand Hold. Do as many full movements as you can each set, and finish the set with Negatives.
    • All others, same as prior routine
  • Progression:
    • Push-up/Pull-up/Handstand Push-up: Add +1 rep per set as often as possible
      • Once you’ve added 5 reps to every set, reduce reps in all sets by 5, and add another set at the same reps.
    • Squat/Sit-up: Add +2 rep per set as often as possible
      • Once you’ve added 10 reps to every set, reduce reps in all sets by 10, and add another set at the same reps.
    • Handstand Hold: Add +5 seconds to the target total as often as possible
      • Once you can do 1 set of 90 seconds, drop the time down to 60 seconds and add another set.
    • You are ready to move on to even more challenging routines once you’ve reached at least 5 sets of every exercise.