Breaking Away

When the best weather of the year arrives, you want to be out there soaking it up. Here’s what you need to know to make your outdoor workouts as effective as they are fun.

When the first fine days of June beckon, runners and cyclists head outside with the enthusiasm of kids escaping school for three months of summer break. They welcome the opportunity to bask in the sunlight, fresh air and stimulating scenery. Most gym-goers relish the idea of taking their workout outside, too. But how? Even if you do jog or bike, the options for comprehensive, gym-like workouts are limited. After all, it’s not like you can drag free weights, machines and other needed equipment outside.

So how can you bring your exercise routine outdoors? Actually, whenever you’re outside you have some excellent equipment available – you. By using your body weight alone – or along with convenient outdoor props such as trees, curbs and benches – you can approximate or complement your usual strength-training routine in ways that make your gym workouts even better.

The secret, explains strength-training expert Pavel Tsatsouline, author of The Naked Warrior (Dragon Door, 2003), lies in knowing how to redistribute your weight and apply leverage to increase or reduce the intensity. “For instance, when you do a basic pushup you lift about half your body weight,” he says. “But if you elevate your feet on a park bench, you can increase the load to 70 percent of your body weight.”

Tsatsouline asserts that by just using two basic body-weight exercises – the pushup and squat – you can enjoy enough variation to build three types of strength: endurance, explosive power and maximum strength. For example, you can use classic high-repetition pushups (15 to 50 reps on your toes or knees) to develop muscular endurance. For explosive power, try blasting off the ground high enough to clap your hands between each repetition.

For maximum strength, Tsatsouline recommends attempting some one-arm pushups or elevating your feet (and just your feet) on a park bench. To work the lower body, use high-repetition body-weight squats for muscular endurance; one-legged squats for lower-body strength. Try vertical jumps and broad jumps to develop explosive power.

With a little creativity, you can add all kinds of combinations to your outdoor routine. And finding natural props to facilitate your training is generally a snap. On the following pages, you’ll find a simple workout plan to get you started. It uses variations of pushups and squats to mirror many traditional gym exercises.

As with any exercise program, consult your doctor before attempting unfamiliar exercises, particularly if you have an injury, chronic weakness or illness. Begin slowly and work your way up to recommended reps.

Oak-Tree Raises

A tree is a great place to perform heel raises –good for conditioning the calves and stretching the Achilles tendon. Stand about three feet from a tree, extend your arms and lean forward, placing your palms on the trunk while keeping your heels on the ground. Keep your spine, legs and arms in a straight line. Slowly rise up on the balls of your feet, lifting yourself as high as possible. Hold for two seconds and then lower slowly. To make it harder, wrap one foot around the opposite calf (shown) and perform the exercise one leg at a time. Repeat 15 to 20 times and do three sets.

Oak-Tree Squats

Use a large tree for support while doing this “phantom chair” exercise, which provides a great workout for your hip extensors (back of the legs and butt muscles) and knee extensors (front of the thigh). Lean back against the tree, keeping your knees bent and feet shoulder-width apart, toes pointed out slightly. Slowly bend your knees until the tops of your thighs are parallel to the ground and your knees are directly over your ankles (don’t extend your knees beyond your toes). Keep your lower back pressed firmly against the trunk. Hold this position until your muscles fatigue, and then slowly straighten your legs and rest for one minute. Repeat three times.

Trunk Training

This exercise works your entire midsection. Begin in the pushup position. Keeping your hands stationary and on the ground, jump forward so that your knees end up under your elbows and you are in a tucked position, knees bent, heels under your buttocks and toes right behind your hands. Stand and then immediately reverse the movement so you end up in the pushup position again. Repeat 10 to 20 times and do three sets. Need more of a challenge? Add a pushup between each rep.

Park-Bench Dips

Use the seat of a park bench to exercise your triceps and latissimus dorsi (mid and lower back). Facing away from the bench, bend your knees and hold the edge of the bench seat with arms shoulder-width apart and fully extended. Keeping your feet directly below your knees will make the exercise relatively easy; to make it harder, stretch your legs out in front of you. Bend your elbows and slowly lower your buttocks. Descend as low as you can without touching the ground, and then extend your arms to raise your torso back to the starting position. Perform three sets of 10 to 15 repetitions each.

Fencepost Rows

This exercise works the back much like the seated row at the gym. Find a sturdy fencepost or small-diameter tree trunk and wrap a towel around it at waist height. Grab an end of the towel in each hand and stand back about a foot. Squat slightly, carefully hanging backward on the towel and keeping your arms straight. Slowly pull yourself toward the tree. You can change the difficulty by adjusting your position – squat lower, or move your feet closer or farther from the tree. The steeper the angle, the more difficult the exercise. You can also grab both ends of the towel with one hand. Try five to 10 sets of five reps each, or three sets of 10.

Airborne Lunge

An easy-looking but tough exercise that helps pave the way toward one-legged squats, one of the most elite body-weight exercises. Begin by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart. Bend your left leg and raise your heel toward your buttocks. Squat with the right leg until your knee (but not your foot) touches the ground, then go back up. It helps to reach forward and bend over slightly as if reaching for the ground. Make sure your right heel stays planted. Complete two reps and switch legs. Try to do three to five sets. Use caution if you have bad knees. You can also use a bench for balance.

Turf Training for Tension

Tsatsouline stresses that maximum strength comes from developing maximum tension. A good way to do this: a variation of the classic pushup. This exercise not only builds your pushup power, but it also teaches you how to load tension into your muscles before an exertion. Choose an even spot on the ground and do five traditional pushups (on your toes or knees), but relax completely between reps, even laying your hands to your sides. You’ll notice that you have to tense your muscles just before pushing yourself back up. Now do another five “full-relaxation” pushups, but this time, maximally tense your entire body before pushing up. You’ll notice you have much more strength. If this is easy, begin working on your single-arm pushup by placing your right hand in the center of your body with your left on top of your back. Spread your legs apart for stability and press off the ground.

Backyard Calorie Burning

Getting your aerobic exercise when you’re outside can be easy, but if you don’t enjoy cycling or are not comfortable running beyond the confines of a treadmill, here are three rebounding exercises that can burn a barbecue’s worth of calories …

Sprinters’ Start Jumps:

Begin in a racer’s starting position with your hands on the ground, arms extended. Bend your right leg to the front of your body, under your chest. Extend your left leg back behind you, knee bent slightly and supported on the ball of your foot. Then jump to alternate leg positions, bringing the left leg forward and the right leg back. Rest your weight on your arms as you jump, alternating legs in a half-second cadence. Repeat 20 to 30 times with each leg and complete two sets.

Squat Jumps:

Stand with your legs shoulder-width apart, toes turned outward. Place your fingers lightly behind your head. Keeping your back erect, bend your knees and hips, lowering into the squat position. Make sure your knees remain in line with your feet and do not extend beyond your toes. When the tops of your thighs are nearly parallel with the ground, extend your legs powerfully and leap as high as you can. Flex your knees when you land to cushion the impact. Check your form and repeat five to 10 times in a one-second cadence. Rest 30 seconds between each round and complete two sets.

Split Jumps:

Standing with legs hip-width apart, step forward with your right foot, left leg behind you, knees slightly bent, spine erect. Lower your hips so that your left knee drops toward the ground. Your left leg is supported on the ball of your foot while your right knee bends until your thigh is parallel to the ground. Make sure your right knee remains over your ankle but not your toes. From this position, jump explosively switching legs in flight so that you land in a lunge position with your left (or opposite) leg forward. Then alternate legs in a half-second cadence, repeating eight to 12 times to complete two sets.

Heading Out?

Follow these tips for a safe, comfortable open-air workout.

  • Make sure you have access to plenty of water: In the heat, you’ll need about 8 ounces for every 20 minutes of exercise. Keep about 16 ounces of water in an athletic water bottle for immediate use and another 24 to 48 ounces in a thermos in order to keep it cool. You can also opt for a water carrier that fits like a backpack (see Equipped on page 64).
  • If you follow the above advice, try to choose an outdoor exercise area with a bathroom nearby.
  • Use a sports watch with a stopwatch function to keep track of your exercise intervals and water consumption.
  • Wear a terrycloth wristband to wipe your brow.
  • Dump the baseball cap for sun protection: Most are made from heavy cotton that keeps heat from escaping and absorbs sweat like a sponge. Go for a runner’s cap made of breathable material like CoolMax with mesh sides for better ventilation. Keep the colors light: white, yellow or blue.
  • Always wear sunglasses to protect your eyes and attach a strap to keep them from falling off. You also may want to invest in a wraparound style. They keep the glare out of both your front view and peripheral vision. Look for brands with rubber ends, as they prevent slippage when you sweat.
  • Apply plenty of sunscreen on your face and any exposed skin, such as arms and legs. Make sure it’s SPF 15 or higher and waterproof, so it won’t dissolve in your sweat.
  • Pin your house key and car keys in your pocket so you won’t lose them.
  • Stuff a washcloth or rag into a fanny pack so you can wipe your face and sunglasses as needed.

Contributing editor Fernando Pagés Ruiz works out in the great outdoors of Lincoln, Neb.

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