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Take Your Gym Outdoors

Everything you need for a solid workout is just beyond your front door.
(No membership fee required.)

By Elsa K. Simcik

If you think Texas doesn’t have four seasons, well then, you’re mistaken. There’s hot, really hot, not-so-hot and perfect. The last one, for obvious reasons, is the most ideal. Folks, I have good news: perfect is just around the corner.

So instead of schlepping to the gym for your exercise, why not simply step outside? Don’t tell me you enjoy running on the treadmill to nowhere. Or maybe you actually prefer to lift weights in the company of Gym-Rat Roger. I know: You think you can’t get an effective workout unless you have all the weights, equipment and confusing circuit machines at the gym, right? Wrong.

“The great thing about training outdoors is that man and Mother Nature have already provided us with everything we need to get an effective workout,” says Mike Thornton, a Dallas-based personal trainer and creator of the outdoor program The Transformation Boot Camp.

When it comes to getting his clients in shape, Thornton gets creative: “Whether it be a park bench, a curb, a set of steps, a hill or even the good old-fashioned ground, we have everything we need at our disposal.”

Stay Inside for Zs; Head Outside for Cs

Thornton believes that all exercise programs (whether they’re indoors or outdoors) need to include what he calls “the Three Cs:” cardio, circuit training and core work. Start with cardio, move on to weights and finish with core. Why is the sequence so important? “This not only breaks up the routine to keep it from feeling monotonous,” Thornton says, “but it also keeps the heart rate going and turns the entire workout into a fat-burning bout.”

Thornton’s tips for getting a Three Cs workout outdoors are illustrated on the following pages.

Cardio

When the weather’s good, there’s no limit to the cardio exercise you can do outside — walking, running, biking, playing tennis, shooting hoops — but you can even take those classic exercises to a new level. In Thornton’s boot camp, for instance, he has participants do short sessions of cardio for 30 seconds to one minute at a time, several times. This way you’re doing interval training (short bursts that work to elevate your heart rate). And the best part? You can do it all outdoors.

  • Uphill sprints, downhill sprints. (Live in the flatlands? Try a parking garage.)
  • Jumping jacks.
  • Mountain-climbers: With your knees bent and feet about two feet apart from front to back, lean down and put your hands on the ground in front of you; alternate your feet from front to back.
  • Star jumps: Start in a standing position. Squat down halfway and explode into a jump as high as you can. As you jump, put your arms and legs as far out to your sides as you can; as you land, bring feet and arms back in.
  • Quick-feet: Run in place as fast as you can without pumping the knees.
  • Air-bombers: Start with quick-feet. After about 10 seconds, kick your feet out behind you and land in a push-up position; bounce back up to your feet quickly and start with quick-feet again.
  • Running steps on a flight of outdoor stairs.
  • High-knee pumps.
  • Squat thrusts: Start in a standing position. Squat down, place hands on the ground in front of you, kick both legs at the same time out behind you, bounce back to a tucked position and stand back up.

Will and Jacquelyn Fagan of San Antonio say they have everything they need for a cardio workout right around their home: "[We] live near a park," Jacquelyn says. "We like to run to the park and do lunges once we get there. There are also bleachers for football/rugby/soccer games, and we run up and down the bleachers just like in high school athletics. It's a great workout."

Circuit

Now this is where it gets trickier. You know you can burn calories and fat outdoors simply by moving your body. But how are you supposed to get tone and build muscle? Should you lift some potted plants?

Again, Thornton says Mother Nature has it all right there. You just have to look around and be resourceful. Here are some of this top picks:

  • Push-ups: While outside, try doing push-ups on the ground, against a wall or using two trees.
  • Rock side raises: Find two rocks that weigh about 1 to 2 pounds each. Lift out to the side. This can also be done without resistance and at a faster pace.
  • Diamond push-ups: Just like push-ups, but you bring the thumbs and index fingers of each of your hands together in a diamond shape.
  • Tree branch curl-ups: Beginners may want to use a low branch so you can pull up with your arms and still get help from your legs.
  • Tree branch diagonal pull-ups: Find a sturdy branch about shoulder level. Grip it with hands shoulder-width apart; bring your feet slightly in front of the branch and lean back, holding onto it. Pull your chest towards the branch.
  • Tree branch pull-ups: Same as tree branch curl-ups, but with palms facing down.
  • Bent-arm 90-degree holds: Find some type of resistance, such as a heavy rock, and hold it with your arms bent at 90 degrees.
  • Shoulder push-ups: Keep hips high for these.
  • Lunges: Reverse, forward, stationary, side.
  • Dips off a bench.
  • Prone cobra: Lying on the ground in a prone position, pull your arms up and squeeze your shoulder blades together.
  • Tree squats: Find a tree and sit up against it with your knees bent at a 90-degree angle. See how long you can hold it.
  • Burpees: Squat down about halfway and then explode into a jump as high as you can. Bend your knees a little as you land, and end up back in a squatting position.
  • Calf raises on a curb.
  • Butt-kickers: Either running in place or in a field, snap your heels up behind you as you run and try to kick your butt with your heels.
  • Russian Twists: start by sitting up with your knees bent, feet flat on the ground and your hands behind your head; lean back just a little and rotate your upper torso from side to side.

Got problem areas? You don't need precision gym equipment to work on specific muscle groups. Tree trunks, benches and rocks will do just fine.

Prone cobra and tree branch pull-ups will help strengthen your back. Puny legs? Try lunges, burpees, butt-kickers and calf raises on a curb. Dips off a bench will give you triceps of steel. Now that you've seen these, try adapting some of your favorite exercises for the outdoors.

Amy Janak of Dalls says that she made up her own outdoor arm workout: "When I take [my dog] to the park, I'll use the park bench to do arm presses by keeping my arms on the bench, then I pull my body away from the bench and lunge down for a good arm workout."

Scott Womak of Austin says that he gets in plenty of lifting just working at his deer lease, filling feeders. "Each feeder holds 300 pounds of corn. Each bag weighs 50 pounds, so there are six trips up a ladder carrying 50 pounds over your head, quite a workout by the end of the day," he says.

Core

A lot of us skip this part of our workout even if we have a gym membership. But really, working your abdominals and lower back is just as important as the two other Cs since it can help prevent lower-back pain and other injuries.

Thornton has plenty of ideas for this one—some you've heard of and some that are a new twist on ab exercises.

  • Russian Twists: start by sitting up with your knees bent, feet flat on the ground and your hands behind your head; lean back just a little and rotate your upper torso from side to side.
  • Killer Sit-ups: Sit up about three-quarters of the way and squeeze your abdominal muscles for about two to three seconds; then lower yourself back down as slowly as you can.
  • The Plank: Lie face down; then raise yourself up on your toes, resting on your elbows. Keep your back flat and hold the position.
  • Crunches: Do any or all of these: reverse, double, raised knee, oblique.

The Upside of Outdoors

Exercising outside is about more than just getting a workout that’s equivalent to one in a gym; it’s about enjoying your workout, too. “The most important thing is to make it fun,” says Thornton.

And for most people, the outdoors does equal fun. Kristen Jones of Dallas says, “In a gym, especially for a woman, it’s somewhat intimidating.” And when it comes to cardio, she says, “I think, ‘Can I really do the stair stepper one more time?’” She opted for Thornton’s Transformation Boot Camp instead. She says she loves the fact that it’s outdoors and that they’re always doing different things, from sprint drills to push-ups on a park bench. And the fact that she’s lost 11 pounds in the process means that she has no plans to return to the gym anytime soon.

Scott Womack — proponent of the deer-lease workout — says that this type of exercise is just more satisfying to him. “It sounds hard, which it is, but it is kind of fun because we are outdoors with our family and friends having a good time away from most cell phones, computers and traffic,” he says.

Womack also says that when he’s not hauling heavy bags of feed at the deer lease, he prefers to exercise at Austin’s scenic spots like Town Lake. “There is no doubt I can do more outside than in a gym. I hate treadmills, elliptical machines and stationary bikes because I do all this work and I go nowhere,” he says. “When we go to Town Lake, there is always something new to look at so I don’t think about what I am doing; I think about what’s going on around me.”

Amy Janak adds: “I look at it this way: I’m stuck indoors all day at work. There’s something nice about enjoying the weather and nature for at least an hour or so every day.”

Even if you’re not ready to venture out to your neighborhood park, you can exercise a little closer to home. Patricia Jentsch, a fitness and nutrition coach with WELLFit Personal Training Group in San Antonio, likes to go right into her clients’ backyards. She explains that by utilizing their surroundings to perform the exercises, they’re better equipped to do them on their own.

As for making sure they’re getting a well-rounded program, Jentsch says she’s into “old-school calisthenics” like running, sprinting, jumping jacks, push-ups, crunches, walking lunges and mountain-climbers. “I utilize steps, bars, walls, rocks and hilly areas for running intervals,” she says.

Jentsch knows that if people are bored, they’re not going to work out. “Mainly, I feel outdoor workouts offer a lot more variety,” she says. “It takes away from the humdrum of an indoor gym. Also, it doesn’t cost you a dime to work out outside.”

So let the treadmill gather dust until winter. Grab your sneakers, get outside and enjoy Texas. After all, it’s perfect.

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