Last spring I joined my wife, Sara, in Japan for a half marathon she was racing in Marugame, a small city in countryside. The path around our hotel was great for us to complete her final tune-up runs, but maintaining the strength training I’ve done over the past three years was more difficult to accommodate. Although I was really hoping for access to a hotel fitness center, Marugame was so remote that I couldn’t find a gym within an hour’s drive.
On the plus side, this wasn’t the first time I’d been in a situation like this. As someone who travels often, I’ve become accustomed to the unpredictable. I’ve even learned to embrace the challenge. Not having access to the heavy weights I have at home creates an opportunity for me to get creative and change up my workout routine.
Instead of focusing on everything I didn’t have, I stood in my hotel room in Marugame and started looking around for items I could use in a quick sweat session. I’d packed light for the trip, bringing only a carry-on and backpack, so I decided to make use of those.
Aesthetically, my makeshift strength-training equipment left much to be desired, but it got the job done. After a few reps, I was actually surprised by the burn I was feeling doing curls, presses, and triceps extensions with my weighed luggage. The next day I was shocked to wake up to super-sore arms. The workout was actually much more effective than my typical heavy, weighted EZ-bar, dumbbell, and barbell arm-day exercises.
I don’t only lean on luggage though. I’ve also used some other travel workout tools over the years to optimize my on-the-road workouts. The truth is, you don’t need traditional gym equipment to get in a good workout. All it takes is a little creativity, an open mind, and a new training stimulus to start seeing results. Here are a few of my go-to favorites:
1. Exxentric Kbox
When Sara and I travel by car, we always pack our Kbox, a resistance-based flywheel training device. I love it because it works on eccentric strength—the slowing down or elongation part of the movement, like the lowering portion of a biceps curl—which is key for making strength gains. From squats and deadlifts to curls, I use it for full-body training.
Dumbbells are ideal for training on the road. They’re fairly easy to port and they’re versatile. I love bringing a 20-pound dumbbell because it isn’t too heavy to travel with by car, yet it is weighty enough to pack a strength-training punch.
I can get a really good arm workout with just one 20-pound dumbbell. The key? Keep rest between sets to a minimum (I usually just alternate between arms sans rest) and maintain proper form until the intended muscle is exhausted. Do this and your arms will be wrecked in the best possible way. Prefer to use two lighter dumbbells? Try this two-dumbbell, strength-training sequence.
I already mentioned how I used my carry-on luggage to get in an arm workout, but I also like to use my backpack for everything from squats and lunges to triceps dips and bent-over rows. If things are feeling easy, or if you just want to up the ante, fill your bag with heavy books or full water bottles.
I generally prefer training with weights, but if you’re a fan of bodyweight workouts, TRX might be for you. The suspension setup is great for travel because you can attach it to nearly anything. And it’s a great tool for runners to use for cross-training—you can use a TRX to enhance single-leg squats and suspended lunges.
5. Your Kids (No, Really)
Not sure what to do for back day or how to chisel your chest on the road? Get in the push-up position and grab a kid for added weight. I like to do “drop sets” (where you complete a certain number or reps, then reduce the weight and push out more reps until failure) with two of my kiddos on my back. I do as many push-ups as I can, then have my 10-year-old get off. I do more push-ups with my 8-year-old until I feel close to exhaustion, then I have her get off. I finish with a round of bodyweight push-ups.
You can do the same thing with pull-ups. Doing pull-ups with a 60-pound kid on your back provides added resistance to make the move more challenging. Have them hop off your back once you’re at failure, then complete as many bodyweight pull-ups as you can before resting.
This article is not intended to substitute for informed medical advice. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.