The equipment that I recommend is inexpensive and highly portable. If you've ever hired a trainer who visited your home, then you've probably seen some of this equipment. While you could train exclusively with your body, these tools can certainly add a lot to your routine. Based on your particular goals, you should consider buying some if not all of the following items.
Resistance Bands - Learn More
The first piece of equipment that I recommend is the resistance band. I prefer the bands that come as a loop (usually a smaller loop and a larger loop). Bands typically come in different colors and resistance levels, so you might purchase a few different "levels" to add flexibility to your routine. Bands are only a few bucks, fit almost anywhere and will enable you to perform a variety of exercises that would not be possible with body weight alone.
Jump Rope - Learn More
The next piece of equipment is a jump rope. Most people already own one of these. I like the plastic jump ropes, but that is only a personal preference. Jump ropes can be coiled up and brought anywhere. What's great about jump ropes is that the routine can be modified for any level of cardiovascular fitness, whether you want to skip-jump and then jog in place or perform 20 minutes of solid speed jumping!
Pull-Up Bar - Learn More
A pull-up bar is a more expensive tool but Bodybuilding.com has them for $17.95. These mount in a doorframe and some models even double as a foot-lock for sit-ups or handles for doing push-ups without straining your wrists. While you could improve your grip strength and hang onto your door's frame with your fingertips, a pull-up bar distributes the load to ensure that you won't tear the entire wall down and provides a variety of grip options as well. If you're serious about building a strong back, this is something to add to your arsenal of portable equipment.
Medicine Ball - Learn More
The final piece of equipment that you might consider is a medicine ball. These are more expensive than the other tools that I listed, and a little less portable (it's not as easy to simply sling one around in a carry-on bag, and I'm not sure what the security screeners would think of one).
They do, however, provide the opportunity to work your muscles in a unique fashion. I will describe one specific exercise that can be performed, the squat jump, but you can use medicine balls to enhance flexibility and train explosively to improve upper arm and chest strength in a variety of ways.
There is additional gear that you might consider simply out of preference. There are special handles you can use to perform push-ups, wraps and gloves if you'll be training in a hostile environment such as your grandfather's gravel driveway, and ankle and wrist weights in case you're not satisfied with having a leisurely run around the neighborhood and prefer a torturous expedition instead. I also like the little annoying grip handles that work your forearms, because on long drives you can squeeze these ad nauseam until the children fall asleep.
While I'm sure you're excited to hear about the exercises that I have to share with you, we're not quite ready yet. Every house is built on a firm foundation and I want to make sure that our program gets a solid start. I'll be sharing some "portable" exercises with you, but in order to lay a foundation, let's discuss how to incorporate these movements into your program.
Designing A Program
When designing a program, I like to consider frequency, sets, repetitions, tempo, and duration. Intensity, or how heavy the weight is going to be, isn't as critical for these routines because we are limited in the amount of external weight that we can load (hey, we're "on the go" and don't have access to a gym!). I also believe in a full warm-up (including about 10 minutes of cardio) prior to training, in addition to stretches both before and after your lifts.
The first factor to consider is frequency. How often should you train? If you're on the road for only a short week then a few short yet intense workouts may suffice. If you are taking an extended trip or simply wish to add variety to your routine, then frequency becomes more important. While I'd love to say, "Train each muscle every 7 days" or "alternate upper and lower body every other day," it's just not as simple as that. Every person is different. If you were going to be skiing on your trip then I'd only work legs once per week (if at all).
If you are doing rock climbing then you might skip your vertical upper body movements like military presses and pull-downs. If you train to failure every workout then once or twice per week is going to be adequate in order to allow recovery. If, on the other hand, you are taking a more planned approach, you might consider starting out light and working towards an intense workout. Brian Haycock's "hypertrophy-specific" system does just that - you train your entire body three days per week, but you start purposefully light and gradually increase your workload until you are at the threshold of failure.
You are going to perform exactly three (3) sets of every exercise, right? Does that include warm-ups, or not? In reality, this is another factor that can vary greatly. If you are planning on performing these routines explosively (in a fashion similar to plyometrics) then you might have a single warm-up set followed by a single work set. Plyometrics are extremely damaging to your muscle tissue and not much volume is necessary to stimulate growth. If you are training to climb a mile high cliff face, on the other hand, then muscular endurance is going to be a critical factor. You should train several sets, maybe as much as 8 - 10, in order to prepare your body for the huge workload it is going to face on the mountainside.
Perform exactly 4 reps for strength, 10 reps for mass, and 15 reps for endurance, right? By now, you know I'm not a fan of cookie-cutter programs. You deserve what works best for you, and I apologize, but I don't have the exact formula that will determine this. Do you find that you fatigue quickly when bench pressing? You might need fewer reps than the norm - maybe 8 reps will suffice for hypertrophy. Do you find that your shoulders seem to keep going, if you can just bite your tongue to take the pain of that lactic acid burn that makes your upper arms start shaking? Then your shoulders might be built for endurance, and you might be surprised to find that an 8-rep set induces the same strength gains that 4 reps do for your chest. Learn your body and train based on the feedback that it provides.
Tempo is going to be a crucial factor when performing these exercises. In many cases, we simply don't have the external weight that we would in a true gym. Therefore, we need to make one of several modifications. If your goal is strength, then you should perform these exercises explosively. By exploding and forcing acceleration as you exercise, you are enabling your central nervous system to become extremely efficient at coordinating motor units - in other words, it learns to flip on the intramuscular nitro and this translates to strength gains.
If your goal is hypertrophy or mass, then time under tension is the key - think about the last time you tried to impress your friends by bench-pressing all of the plates in the gym. It probably took about 5 seconds before you finally set the bar back down (and said, "Hey, look, it moved, I swear!") and you felt sore the next day (despite not even finishing the rep!). This is due to your time under tension - you only attempted one rep, but you contracted for a full five seconds during that rep! When the external loading (i.e. weight) is less than you are used to, slow down the tempo to force the muscle to contract longer.
All of the factors we discussed - sets, reps, tempo, etc. - will determine the duration of your workouts. I like to keep workouts less than an hour. This means the actual "work" part - I don't include warm-ups and stretching, but I don't like lifting longer than an hour. If you have other activities such as cardio, you might consider splitting your routine into a morning and an afternoon. Remember, when training, we are pursuing the training effect. It is the training you perform today but more importantly the recovery you allow yourself tomorrow that ultimately provides the training effect. If your workouts are too long, then split them over several days. What type of split? Whatever works best - upper and lower, push and pull, or vertical, horizontal, quads, and hips.
A detailed discussion about stretching and control drills is outside the scope of this article. I do recommend taking that jump rope I mentioned earlier and skipping for about 10 minutes before training. This will increase your core temperature and ensure blood flow to your entire body. I also like to perform light stretching prior to training a particular muscle (after the cardio, as I do not advocate stretching a cold muscle) and heavy stretching afterwards.
If you know how to perform control drills, which are exercises that can help strengthen the rotator cuff, improve range of motion in your hip, elbow, shoulder, and knee joints, and further prepare your body for a lift, then I encourage you to perform these before and during your sets as well.
Now let's get to it! You'll find that choice of muscle groups may not conform to the system that you are used to. I like to look at exercises as functional rather than muscle-specific, so to me the back is actually two training groups: rowing or horizontal pulling, and pull-downs or vertical pulling. I also divide the legs between quad-dominant (i.e. squat) and hip-dominant (i.e. stiff-legged dead-lift) movements.
The first group I will discuss is the horizontal upper body movements, or chest presses and rows. You are probably familiar with the push-up, which is a great exercise for the chest. You can also perform these one-handed (place on hand behind your back and spread your legs more until you have appropriate balance and strength) in order to place more tension on your chest (this is also great to correct an imbalance - simply train the weak side first and don't perform more reps on the strong side than you can complete with proper form on the weak side). If you have your resistance bands, then a set of standing chest presses can leave your pecs on fire.
The resistance bands are also useful for targeting your back. Simply wrap the bands around your feet, push your chest up and out to align your spine, look straight ahead then perform your modified cable rows! Remember to squeeze your shoulder blades together (scapular retraction) and focus on pulling with your back rather than your arms, or you will turn this into a bicep workout instead.
Another upper body pair to train is your shoulders and pull-downs for your back. Shoulders can be trained a variety of ways. You can use the resistance bands and simply step inside the loop, then extend your arm away from your body to perform side raises. A push-up with an extremely wide hand position will also target shoulders. The most effective shoulder workout I know of should be performed over mats or with a partner. It is the invert push-up. Find a wall or someone willing to stand for several minutes with your feet mere inches from their face, then get into a hand-stand (with your partner holding your ankles or the wall as your support).
Now, perform those inverted military presses! (If this isn't challenging enough, you can push off of the ground and clap to make it a plyometric exercise - I promised no push-up claps, but I didn't say anything about inverted push-up claps!) The pull-up bar comes in handy when you are ready to train back. There are really two ways that I know of to train your back in a vertical fashion. One is to perform pull-ups, and the other is to wrap a resistance band around a pole, lay flat on your back, and then execute resistance-band pull-downs (easier said than done!). I prefer to take my portable pull-up bar, whip it onto a doorframe, and then bang out several reps with varying grips.
At this point, your biceps and triceps have already been thoroughly warmed up and actually don't require additional training. Your pressing and pushing movements involved your triceps, and your pulling movements involved your biceps. If you insist on training these muscles directly, or if you are performing the routine on the beach and want an excuse to flex your biceps to astonish curious passers-by, then the resistance bands are all you need. Simply place your foot in the loop of the band and step on it, grab the other end of the loop with your hand, then either curl the resistance band up, or perform an overhead triceps extension. For a challenging routine, try alternating between curls and extensions (supersets) with no rest until your arms feel like burning limp noodles.
If you enjoy pain like I do, then you'll be dying to train your legs. While we don't have the luxury of loading up plates on a barbell and squatting until we see stars, there are plenty of options while on the road to leave those legs ripped with muscle. If you decided to purchase the medicine ball that I mentioned earlier, then you might consider a round of squat jumps. These will train your legs and your heart and lungs. Place the medicine ball behind your neck, on your shoulders, and squat down low. Now, explode upwards into the air. When you land, squat back down, but try to explode back up as quickly as you can. A few sets of 10 of these will leave you crawling and screaming "agua!" at the top of your lungs.
If you didn't invest in a medicine ball, have no fear - there are plenty of options available. One popular method for training your quadriceps is the "ski squat". Simply stand about 6 - 12 inches in front of a ball, then lean back into it and sink into a sitting position. Hold that statically for several seconds (I like to work up to 30-second "sets") and you'll feel your thighs doing the work. If you're really daring, you can slide down a few inches after each "set" and see how low you can go!
If you have the balance, coordination, and leg strength, then a great exercise is the one-legged squat or "King squat" (named after Ian King, who is the first person who introduced me to this technique). Extend one leg to parallel (so you are standing with one leg in the air forming a right angle with the other). If you have the balance and flexibility, go ahead and grab the foot on the extended leg. Otherwise, grab a wall or the nearest stranger to support you. Now, lower yourself on the other leg (the leg in the air won't help you here) as far as you can go without losing your balance and without your extended leg going below parallel (some people can sink until it touches the ground). Pause to appreciate the pain at the bottom then drive back up to complete a rep. You'll probably hate me after trying these but they can certainly do wonders for your thighs.
Many people recognize that calves are an endurance loving muscle, as I constantly see routines where they are worked with high repetitions. It surprises me when I find that people are confused about training calves when they are on the road. A simple jump-rope session or a few hundred one-legged hops where you don't let your heel touch the ground will certainly whip your calves into submission. If this doesn't benefit you, try lifting one leg like a flamingo then rising up on your other toe. Lower yourself flat and repeat, but do this to a very slow cadence - take about 4 seconds to rise and 4 seconds to lower yourself. A few sets of this, and if your calves aren't on fire then we can trade because mine turn to jelly!
While many people focus on their quadriceps, I encourage you to consider putting hamstrings at the front of your program. Weak hamstrings can create lower back pain and destabilize the knee joint. You can bend your leg instead of extending it to perform a King dead-lift (as opposed to a King squat) and this should give your hams a run for their money. A resistance band is also a useful aid. Step on the loop with one leg and wrap the other end around your other ankle. Brace yourself against a wall, then kick your leg back and raise your ankle as far as it can go.
This will not only work your hamstrings, but your glutes as well. I won't spend too much time discussing core strength because abdominal routines are so popular during the summer time that you would be hard pressed not to find a dozen positions to try. What I can encourage you to do is remember that balance is important, and when you are training abdominals, you should also target your lower back. Training lower back is as easy as stretching out on your stomach then raising your arms and legs as high as you can take them (a hyperextension). You may also use the resistance bands to perform stiff-legged dead-lifts and good-mornings.
These exercises are not the only solution to training on the road, but they can give you a general idea of what is available. Your routine can be as complicated as you are creative or as simple as the equipment is inexpensive. It is up to you to decide what will work best for your body. Being on the road or having limited access to expensive equipment is no reason not to train. You now have the knowledge to invest in a program that is right for you, so that your peak physique is within reach even when you're "on the go."