Ask Stew: What Is Your Go-To Workout Without a Gym?

Marine participates in half marathon in England.
Capt. Danielle Pozun, the assistant operations officer with 1st Intelligence Battalion, Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, runs during the Torbay Half Marathon in Torbay, England, June 26, 2016. (Lance Cpl. Timothy R. Smithers/U.S. Marine Corps photo)

Getting exercise without access to a gym or military base training facility is likely to be the new normal -- at least for the near future during the coronavirus pandemic. However, there are many people -- myself included -- who have not had a gym membership for decades and get along fine with some basic pieces of equipment and use of the environment around us.

Here is a question from someone with a light set of dumbbells in their home.

Stew, I was just curious what your favorite workouts are that require minimal pieces of equipment. I can get out of the house, but only have a few dumbbells. I'm missing my cardio machines, pool and full gym on base right now. Thanks -- Jim.

Whether you are on deployment at a forward operating base, on a ship or submarine, at a military base or at home with minimal equipment because your gym is closed, you need to have some "go-to" ideas for training.

Depending on your situation, these may or may not work as written, but you can make them happen with some creativity:

1. Run

If you're at home or somewhere with a safe place to run, get outside and run, walk or bike if possible. But pay attention to the journey as you may be able to add pieces of equipment or natural terrain, depending upon your environment.

Get on a running plan and keep your progressions each week reasonable (10%-15% increase in time or distance).

Here are some classic workouts that I typically do along my run, walk or bike journey:

  • A playground/pull-up bar. Usually on my runs, I try to find a place to do pull-ups to develop skills required for PT pyramids, super sets and max rep set workouts. These are classic calisthenics workouts focused around the pull-up, push-up and abs of choice, but you also can add squats, lunges and jumps if you prefer to make it a leg day or full-body workout.
  • Anywhere you can hang a TRX or suspension trainer will give you a force multiplier for any level of workout. You can use the TRX to make pull-ups easier by replacing them with rows. Or you can make push-ups harder by placing your feet in the straps to do atomic push-ups. This device can make any of the above workouts harder or easier, depending on your fitness level. Find a pull-up bar, monkey bars at a playground or even a tree to add hundreds of options to a workout.
  • Trails, sand, stairs or hills. Add in natural obstacles such as hills or valleys. You also can add things to lift or carry for load-bearing activities. "Carrying random things up a hill" (or stairs) is an actual workout we do mixed with hill sprints when our gym is closed. Backpacks, sandbags, pieces of logs, gear with handles and many other options can enhance a load-bearing leg day. Add squats, lunges, jumps and hill sprints for an added challenge in sand or hills.
  • Run and leg PT. No matter where you run or what cardio machine you use, you can mix in some leg PT every few minutes or at a certain distance. One of the classics is to run 400 meters at your goal mile pace (or two minutes on a cardio machine), then stop and do 20 squats and 10 lunges per leg. Repeat that for what is reasonable based on your running abilities, but typically I prefer 6-10 sets of this workout. If that is too many repetitions or miles, reduce reps and cut distance in half if needed. Perhaps only do the leg exercises on odd or even sets as well.

2. Resistance Training

If you have no equipment other than some light dumbbells, you can do the lightweight shoulder workout. These exercises of 10 reps each work the shoulder, even with only five pounds or less. Adding heavier dumbbells or kettlebells will be a smart investment if you plan on doing non-gym workouts for long periods of time. However, if you need more than that, there are some options that will help you add to your resistance exercise portfolio.

  • Weight vest. Make calisthenics and walking harder with a weight vest. If you are looking at reducing your repetitions in calisthenics, a weight vest is a good place to start. Adding a weight vest to a walk or rucking pace movement is another option for a cardio event. Add stairs, hills and sand, and you have an exceptional leg day piece of gear.
  • Sand bags. Try homemade sand bags, $5 play sand bags at hardware stores or sturdy sandbags with handles that you can drop and carry multiple ways. You cannot go wrong with sandbags to mimic many of the lifting movements, carries and drags.
  • Tire. Tires of all sizes exist for an inexpensive way to lift, jump and move moderately heavy weight. If you add a sledgehammer, a tire is a perfect piece of gear to beat on for full body movement. Flipping tires is a great way to simulate a deadlift, hang-clean or power-clean movement. Jumping on and off a tractor-sized tire makes for a box-jump replacement.

3. Do Not Forget Yoga, Pilates, Stretching and Mobility

These can be done just about anywhere with some floor space. The stretching and fluid movements of these activities will help you relieve stress and loosen the body from aches and pains of either doing nothing at all or significant amounts of work. Ending each day with a stretch routine is beneficial no matter what your level of fitness or current situation is.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you’re looking to starting a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to

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