No Gym, No Problem

By: Derek Barber, March 26, 2024


Not having access to a conventional gym needn’t be a barrier to experience the benefits of resistance/strength training. In fact, there are many downsides to most facilities and many upsides to training at home, in a park and so on. One only needs a basic understanding of a small handful of exercise science principles, a little space and perhaps a few versatile tools to have virtually endless movement possibilities.

What do most gyms provide, really? For some folks, it can be a net positive so this article isn’t meant to discourage them. For others, however, the commute, crowds, questionable hygiene practices, minimal space, cumbersome expensive machines with few or only one application that actually encourage disembodiment to list just a few drawbacks is a poor cost/benefit calculation. If that sounds like you, read on.

Let’s begin with what the body does. Movement is the physical expression of our human form at a given moment that combines what I call the Five P’s.

  1. Position (standing, single leg, split/asymmetrical stance, kneeling/half-kneeling, prone [face down] and supine [face up]
  2. Posture (flexion [bending], extension [straightening] and rotation [twisting]
  3. Pattern (squat, bend, lunge, step, push, pull)
  4. Plane (sagittal [front to back], frontal [side to side] and transverse [rotation]
  5. Performance (endurance, strength and power).

All else is arguably a combination or derivative of these variables. Cyclically training these qualities at your edge will provide any physiological improvements you may want, including changes in muscle mass and bone density. Many gyms make it difficult, if not impossible, to train more functionally (in some cases it’s even against their rules!) so you may actually find it easier to do elsewhere.

The only logistics required to train all the aforementioned aptitudes in a program are a little space (even a 10 square foot space will do), some variable weight-bearing surfaces most commonly at knee and hip height like couches, chairs, stairs etc. and a vertical surface to attach tools and a little equipment. The tools of the trade that afford the most balance in terms of options, cost, space and durability are flooring/mats, foam rollers, furniture sliders, yoga blocks, suspension trainers/gymnastics rings, parallettes, plyometric boxes, kettlebells, barbells/bumper plates, and bands/cables. Most or all of this can be acquired for a year’s dues at a decent gym.

When it comes to execution, the K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple Silly) principle is your friend. Science has demonstrated that a concept called work-matched overload is most, if not all of muscle-building (hypertrophy). What this means is that as long as you’re beating your last training effort in work performed (reps x weight), muscle will take care of itself. But if you want to get strong, you need to keep the reps low (below eight, preferably below 5) and do more sets with longer rests. When it comes to bone density, look to load the axial skeleton (think everything that your spine touches) which usually just means keeping weight at or above your waist. Cycle through the five P’s often enough to derive the positive adaptation but don’t stay so long that you start to decondition the other aptitudes (generally two to six weeks of each exercise variation). For maximal coordination, look to minimize assistance when it comes to balance and stability and your mobility will naturally improve. Consider weight as a spectrum from assistance (taking away body weight) ←→ resistance (adding an external load).

If you enjoy gym culture, more power to you, but if you’d rather not be beholden to it, there are options and you may be surprised how liberating it can be. I encourage folks to train outside to also experience the values of grounding/earthing, sunlight, fresh air, stress inoculation and thermoregulation so don’t overlook your yard or a park as an invaluable environment to improve your health!

If you would like to explore what it could look like to free your movement practice, please feel free to contact me for remote coaching.