Many people seem to have forgotten in the modern age that fitness is something that can be done almost anywhere you want. Most of us compartmentalize our fitness to the gym, rarely thinking of the activities that kept us so active as kids. Climbing the jungle gyms of our schoolyard at recess, jumping over low walls to get to the next spot for a t-ball game, even simply chasing each other around the yard all kept us in great health as children and are tools we can use to get back in shape again as adults. Simply adapting some of those outdoor exercises to your own personal fitness goals can open up new and enjoyable avenues to get in better shape.
Just getting yourself outdoors can add excitement to what might have become an otherwise dull routine. Many of my clients just hate the thought of leaving one building for another crammed with people, just to get in shape. One of the great things about being outside is the sense of freedom many people feel. That's more than just getting away from the cramped space of the gym. Being outside can also easily bring back happy memories of childhood that have the added effect of energizing the mind and body as well. As many of you know, it is a lot easier to work out when you already feel good.
Basic Outdoor Activities
Begin by finding a park or area clear of traffic so that you don't have to split your focus between safety and training. Many parks now include a variety of apparatuses designed to be used in conjunction with exercise, either laid out on a path or in a central location. For those places that don't, utilizing benches, picnic tables, fences, even trees can help enhance your routine beyond simple push and squat exercises. Simply climbing over picnic benches repeatedly can easily push even a conditioned athlete to pouring sweat. Adding yogic style exercises can also work one though the different heart rate ranges of both cardiovascular as well as fat burning, in addition to training muscles similarly to weightlifting.
Here's a simple exercise that can be part of an outdoor workout: start in a downward dog position. Then, walk your hands out to a push-up position and then from there to a plank position with your forearms on the ground. Without pausing, move yourself back to downward dog and then back out to plank. Usually five rounds of that leaves my clients trembling and sweating regardless of their conditioning. Bring that outside, and put it as an interval in the middle of a run through the park, and you will have taken your usual jog to a new level.
Another thing you can do is to add variations of Parkour or free running exercises, using apparatus that you find in the course of a run as "exercise stations". Many Parkour enthusiast believe that this style of movement and activity has been around since the dawn of human existence. But the origins of modern Parkour can be narrowed down to a few individuals whose true gift to us might have simply been getting us back to what we have forgotten. Georges Hebert was a French physical educator, instructor, and theorist who fell in love with the ways indigenous peoples of other countries had of achieving and maintaining their fitness. He saw their ways of being fit as better balanced than the popular theories and modalities at that time. He came up with what was called the Natural Method, closely mimicking the inspiration he found in those indigenous cultures abroad, as well as exercises he believed were used to achieve the balanced look found in ancient Greek statuary.
Basically, this means doing the things your body needs to do naturally, like running, jumping, swimming, crawling, etc. and focusing on exercises that support and increase strength towards those activities, like obstacle courses where those same activities become exaggerated. For all intents and purposes, the Natural Method was what would be considered functional training in today's terminology. From physically seeing the benefits of these same teachings upon the French soldiers in Vietnam, Raymond Bell began to teach his grandson those methods. David Bell took his grandfather's teaching and expanded on them to include activities that have taken on a ballistic acrobatic style. Many of the same people taught by Bell have become famous from displaying Parkour in television and movies, most recognizably in District 13 and the James Bond Casino Royal. Obviously what you see there are examples from the top athletes in this sport, but you can, as an interested amateur, start by performing variations on the theme that better fit your levels of fitness while initiating a specific process that can eventually lead towards that goal.
Here's how you can do that. Remember that picnic table? One way that I like to incorporate Parkour in exercise is to add a variation on a Kong jump (a standard move in Parkour). Kong jumps are closely related to the box jump, except that, instead of jumping up onto a box or landing platform, you are jumping onto almost anything that provides a spot to land your feet. You jump onto a surface (say the picnic table top or bench) from a nice deep stance or squat, landing with your knees bent to absorb the shock. Think of how a cat will leap up onto something and always land lightly legs bent—that's the motion you are trying to mimic. To make it less impacting on my clients, I'll pick platforms that reflect their agility or strength-to-body-mass ratio. Even jumping from a squat onto a foot-high surface is tough for someone who breaks a sweat going for a light walk. The trick here is to know your limitations. Any form of chronic injury in the legs can eliminate this activity from your routine. If that's you, sticking to simple climbing where you can enlist the use of your arms to assist might be a better alternative.
Here is another activity reminiscent of Parkour as well as gymnastics—climbing on parallel bars. Many places have sturdy railings that are close enough to each other that you can place your hands on one bar and climb your feet up to the other (look for bars on either side of narrow walkways, or shallow stairs). At the top you look like you are in the same yogic down ward facing dog position like you started to earlier exercise with. Part of what makes Parkour unique to many fitness routines is that on many of the exercises there is an added amount of fear. While professionals might jump from roof-top to roof-top, for the amateur just putting your feet at equal height to your head two to three feet off the ground can cause the heart rate to jump up to sprint levels quickly.
If that is too tough, and the bars are closer, try simply holding your body-weight off the ground while you raise your legs to drape each leg over the bar next to it,and then swing them back down again. This not only works some of your upper body in the arms, shoulders, and even chest; it will also work the lower abs (often neglected in traditional workouts), quads, and hamstrings. Some of you will find just holding your body-weight off the ground to be a lot of work, so try to do a light jump up to position then lower yourself down after you bring your legs off the bars. Many of these moves can closely resemble various forms of gymnastics that you have seen during the Olympics. Just make sure to balance them with exercises that work the back, like using one of the bars for inverted pull-ups (where your feet touch the ground while you hang below a bar, pulling yourself up and slowly lowering yourself back down).
For those readers that also do mixed martial arts and traditional martial arts, many of the ideas behind the Natural Method and Parkour are extremely applicable. Obviously, just doing your respective martial arts will condition you towards being better at that particular art, but adding semi-ballistic agility and increasingly harder body-weight exercises to your routine can easily and quickly cause changes for the better in your game. Box jumps have been used for decades before mma in boxing and are easily applicable towards the both sports in their ability to develop strong legs and cores, while increasing ballistic and sprint cardio output. Adding Kong jumps to your routine also adds more than just using lower body; it adds the use of your hands, arms and core. Using both lower body and upper together in a ballistic exercise are excellent ways to becoming more functional in your training, as stuffing a take down requires both and is becoming an increasingly important skill set in MMA.
Another application for martial arts is balance exercises. Balance is one of the biggest fundamentals for good martial technique. Imagine kicking, or even sweeping an opponent without good balance. Adding exercises where the balance is reduced to one leg or one leg and one arm can add more coordination to your skill set, while improving your fitness. Try just balancing on one leg while reaching to touch the other toe with the opposite hand. Try both bent-knee and almost straight-leg (not locked out in the knee joint, though) to see how each variation changes the muscles used. You can also do an opposite leg and arm raise from a hands-and-knees position. For an extra push, you can raise the arm and opposite leg from a hands-and-feet position. To make any balance exercise even more difficult, try raising the platform. For example, the single-leg balanced toe-touch can be done on a curb or low-level balance beam to make the exercise more difficult. At one of the parks I take my class to, they have raised unstable mini-platforms that accommodate only one foot at a time, with a pole next to it to grab if things go south. Typically I'll call on the best of my clients to do their single-leg balance work there. Just doing what one might consider easy on the surface, tends to make my clients sweat and strain like they just ran a hundred yards.
This is the key to park/guerrilla fitness. Use your imagination to transform ordinary surfaces into platforms of exercise. Add a couple dumbbells and the ideas are endless. Every form and modality of exercise can be accomplished, from anaerobic to aerobic, 85% of your vo2 max to 60%, ballistic to balance. Use your favorite search engine to look up gymnastic, Parkour, yoga, and balance exercises and put together your own routine. As always, be safe, and know your limits so that you can enjoy what this world can add to your fitness life.
About James Parker: James Parker is a mixed martial artist, an MMA conditioning coach, a personal trainer, and a freelance writer in Los Angeles, Ca.