If you belong to a big box gym this time of year, you know it tends to get more crowded than a college bar offering dollar drafts. Packs of runners gallop on every treadmill, and meatheads drip sweat in front of every weight rack. Until a few people fall off the fitness resolution wagon, you're screwed.
One problem is that most people—particularly beginners—draw upon the same set of go-to exercises. They run a few miles on a treadmill, maybe knock out a few sets on the bench press, and call it a night. This leads to a zombie-like attraction to just a handful of areas in the average gym.
"People have this idea that certain pieces of equipment are magical," says Cliff Harski, training director at Fitwall. But most weights and pieces of machinery are there to do one of two things—work your muscles, or work your heart rate, Harski says. And if you know what you're doing, you can pull off those two feats literally anywhere using simple, timeless movements.
Consider your average soldier, says Greg Spatz, a doctor of physical therapy with Resilient Performance PT in New York City. Spatz works with various branches of the military and points out that soldiers don't always have access to fancy gyms in most places they get deployed. "And yet," he says, "they manage to be some of the fittest people in the world."
For trainers like Spatz and Harski, a good workout comes down to a few very simple, excuse-proof principles. First, claim a small chunk of real estate—and by small, we mean as little as three by six feet. That's enough to do bodyweight movements like air squats, pushups, hip raises, and planks, says Harski.
Worst case: You set a timer for 30 minutes and do as many reps and sets as you can. (3 sets of up to 20 reps is a good starting point for any of these moves.) When possible, adding some free weights to the mix will also help. If your fellow gym-goers raided all the dumbbells, look for kettlebells—in many newer gyms, they're just as abundant and not always as popular.
With just a couple of free weights in hand, it's easy to achieve the same results you'd see from more popular exercises that require weight stations and bulky equipment. For instance, a kettlebell floor press can substitute for a barbell bench press. Same goes for a dumbbell or kettlebell row instead of a barbell row, or a goblet squat instead of a barbell back squat.
It also pays to show some love to the cardio machines that everyone else hates, Spatz says.Those tend to be the stairclimber, fan bike, versaclimber, and Jacob's ladder, which force you to work harder than the treadmill. For example, you've probably heard of "Tabatas," a fast and loud 20-seconds on, 10 seconds off protocol that researchers found can skyrocket your fitness in just four-minutes—if you're willing to go as hard as possible. The study was done using fan bikes because the machines allow you to go full bore without getting hurt.
Finally, if you're ever unsure of what to do, all you need to recall are five fundamental movements: the squat (bending at your knees), the hip-hinge (bending at your hips), the push (pressing weight away from your body), the pull (pulling weight into your body), and the plank (locking down your core to resist movement in your spine).
For example: lunges, then deadlifts, then pushups, pullups, and a plank. No matter which exercise you choose, those movements will make sure you get a full-body workout. Or if you're not looking to think at all tonight, just follow the plan below; it hits all of your major muscle groups and will help you add muscle and build strength while burning fat, all without having to fight a meathead for equipment.
Hold a dumbbell or kettlebell in each hand and lie face-up on the floor with your knees bent and feet flat. Start with the weights pressed above your chest. Lower the weights until your upper arms and elbows touch the floor, then press the weights back up.
Stand facing a bench with a dumbbell in your hand. Bend at your waist so your torso is close to parallel to the floor, your back straight. Place your free hand on the bench. This is the start. Now pull the weight to the side of your torso. Lower it. Do all your reps then repeat on your other arm.
Get on all fours, your arms straight, knees and hips bent 90 degrees. Keep this position as you push into your hands and "lift" your chest up, so your upper back is rounded. Flex your glutes. Hold the position for 30 seconds, breathing deeply throughout.
Hold a dumbbell or kettlebell in front of your chest, cupping the weight with both hands. Keep your elbows pointed down toward the floor, and squat. Then push back up.
Half-Kneeling Overhead Press
Hold a dumbbell or kettlebell in your left hand and kneel, your right knee up and in front of you and left knee on the floor. Bring the weight up to your shoulder, your hand in front of your shoulder and forearm vertical. Now press it overhead. Lower it back to your shoulder and repeat. Do all your reps then switch sides.
Bent Over Reverse Fly
Hold a light dumbbell in each hand. With your knees slightly bent, push your hips back and lower your torso so it's about parallel to the floor, your back straight. Your arms should be hanging vertically. Now raise your arms directly out to the sides. Stop when your arms are horizontal, then lower the weights.
Lie on one side with your legs straight, and prop up your upper body on your forearm. Raise your hips off the floor so your body is perfectly straight from your ankles to your shoulders. Hold the position for 30 seconds, then repeat on your other side.