5 Nontraditional Ways To Workout With Minimal Gym Equipment

By now we know that in order to lose weight, build lean muscle and get strong, resistance training has to be routinely performed. For many of us who resistance train, barbell and dumbbell exercises form the foundation of our workouts and rightfully so. However, there are some of us who may not always have access to a gym to perform a barbell squat or deadlift. Furthermore, there are also people who have to travel for work so much that they end up spending more time in hotels than at their homes.

Not having access to a gym can be discouraging for fitness enthusiasts and while a hotel gym is encouraging for those who travel a lot, many of them lack the basic equipment. The good news is that resistance training can be performed and even made challenging without the use of barbells, cable machines and dumbbells.

Here are 5 nontraditional ways to resistance train:

1. BODYWEIGHT TRAINING : This is unquestionably the easiest and simplest way to workout the body because all you need is your bodyweight and decent amount of room. The human body is designed to move in a plethora of directions and planes so multi-planar movements are made available. Keep in mind that in order to illicit a good physiological response from bodyweight exercises (Here’s my top 10 list), a structured program which allows for supersets, progressions and a short amount of rest is recommended. For example, if you can easily do 20 push-ups with minimal effort, try progressing to both feet elevated on a bench or lift one leg up.

Sample Bodyweight Training Program: Perform the exercises in each group 3 times, completing a group first before moving on to the next.

A1) Bodyweight Squat

A2) Push-Up

A3) Plank

B1) Reverse Lunge

B2)  Pull/Chin Up (If no access to a bar, then substitute for Scapular Wall Slide)

B3) Side Bridge

C1) Burpees

C2) Jumping Jacks

2) TRX SUSPENSION TRAINING : TRX training has become a mainstream phenomenon and it’s here to stay. Just like bodyweight training, TRX training can be done virtually anywhere, however it allows for more progressions and challenges than bodyweight training. What I like about the TRX is that nearly all the exercises force the core musculature to work a little harder than in a traditional setting because the body will always try to resist movement in every plane.

Sample TRX Workout: Perform the exercises in each group 3 times, completing a group first before moving on to the next.

A1) TRX Squat OR Single Leg Squat OR Overhead Squat

A2) TRX Push Up

B1) TRX Bulgarian Split Squat

B2) TRX Inverted Row

C1) TRX Roll-Out

C2) TRX Mountain Climbers

3) KETTLEBELL TRAINING : Although Kettlebells have been around for quite some time and a bit popular than the TRX, it appears that the only exercise I see most Kettlebell users do is the Kettlebell Swing. The Swing is by far the most popular KB exercise and a great one too. But there are  a multitude of exercises that can be performed with the KB. It’s important to know that handling of a KB requires thorough practice and possibly  coaching so if you’re unfamiliar with some movements, take time in learning the nuances first.

Sample Kettlebell Program: Perform the exercises in each group 3 times, completing a group first before moving on to the next.

A1) KB Front Squat (Unilateral or Bilateral; If Unilateral, perform the same number of reps on other side)

A2) KB Row (45-degree trunk hinge. Unilateral or Bilateral; If Unilateral, perform the same number of reps on other side)

B1) KB Single-Leg RDL (Contralateral)

B2) KB Push Press (Unilateral)

C1) KB Clean

C2) KB Swings

4) RESISTANCE BANDS :  Another inexpensive way to workout from a nontraditional perspective is the use of bands. Although the resistance bands with handles are the most popular, other versions like the thera-band and monster bands also exists. The resistance and monster bands allow for the most variety. Bands have the biomechanical advantage of constantly keeping tension in the muscles due to the elastic nature of them. This tension inevitably puts more emphasis on the concentric portion on the lift because it discourages you from relaxing or resting too long during the eccentric phase.

Sample Resistance Band Workout: Perform the exercises in each group 3 times, completing a group first before moving on to the next.

A1) Band-Resisted Squat

A2) Band-Resisted Push-Up

B1)  X-Band Walk

B2) 1-Arm Band Row

C1)  Band-Resisted Trunk Twist

C2) Band-Resisted Plank

5) GLIDERS: If you’re unfamiliar with this accessory, it looks just like one of those plastic plates you eat from at barbecues and cookouts. In fact, glider training can be successfully substituted with paper plates and they work on just about any floor surface. However smooth, bumpy-free concrete floors allow for the most rhythm and variety. The unique challenge with glider training is that you’re forced to work a little harder during the concentric phase because your feet and hands must drag or move the glider each time.

Sample Glider Training Program: Perform the exercises in each group 3 times, completing a group first before moving on to the next.

A1) Glider Alternating Reverse Lunge

A2) Glider Push-Up Fly (Modified or Regular)

B1) Glider Supine Hamstring Curl (Unilateral or Bilateral)

B2) Glider Prone Crunch

C1) Glider Bodysaw

C2) Glider Mountain Climbers


  • Make sure you warm-up the body dynamically and via some soft-tissue work to promote the flow of blood and oxygen to working muscles.
  • Notice I did not include specific number of reps because I want you to use good  judgement in determining that for yourself. If you perform 15 bodyweight squats on your first set and feel little to no challenge, perhaps you should perform 20 on your next set.
  • Because you won’t be doing any max effort work, keep your rest time between exercises and sets as minimal as possible. I recommend no longer than 90 seconds.
  • Another great way to make nontraditional training challenging is by documenting your workouts. This allows you to set new challenges and prevent you from regressing. For example if you rested 75 seconds between your TRX sets in week 1, increase the challenge by resting for 60 seconds in week 2.

Fine-tuning The Pull-Up

The pull-up is one of the most popular bodyweight exercises and widely regarded as the perfect complement to the push-up. It’s also one of the premier exercises for upper body strength and development as evident by its use in assessing upper body muscular strength and endurance by various sectors of the world including our armed forces. Unfortunately most people have loathed pull-ups from the time they were asked to perform them as part of the mandatory physical fitness test in high school. It is for this reason many people substitute other pulling exercises like seated rows for pull-ups in their strength training programs.

Another reason most people don’t do pull-ups is because of the gravity component. Isaac Newton‘s laws of gravity says in part that whatever goes up must come down. Gravity is that force that attracts or pulls a body towards the earth. This means every time a person does a pull-up, they have to resist gravitational forces trying to pull them down. According to Newton, the mass or object has a direct correlation with gravity. This is why lighter individuals can generally perform more pull-ups than heavier individuals. But that doesn’t mean heavier individuals can’t or shouldn’t perform pull-ups. It’s a matter of mastering the technique and repeated practice sessions.

There are several modifications that allow the pull-up to be made possible. But before I get into that, let’s get a basic anatomical and biomechanical understanding of this bodyweight exercise.

The pull-up is a multi-joint, closed-chain exercise that requires just a bar for its execution (modern day cable pulley stations now have specially-designed pull-up handles for ease). It is performed with an overhand grip with the latissimus dorsi as the prime mover and the biceps and forearm as secondary small muscles. Because the lats internally rotate the shoulder and humerus, posterior muscles like the teres major and trapezius also get some work. The flexion of the elbow joint at the top causes the contraction of the biceps while the brachioradialis get engaged via extension of the wrist.

A standard pull-up requires the body to begin hanging with arms fully extended from an overhead bar or pull-up handle bars. The movement begins with pulling of the body upwards until the chin clears the bar followed by a controlled lowering back to the starting point. Though debatable, I prefer the elbows to remain slightly bent at the bottom so there is constant tension in the muscles being worked. Grip width varies in individuals and is usually determined by the most number of repetitions that can be completed. Although there isn’t a universally accepted grip, the shoulder-width grip or slightly wider is generally utilized. Crossing of the ankles, extension/flexion of the knees and hips don’t necessarily make a difference and are usually based on individual preferences. But ‘kipping’ (generating upward forceful movement of the legs to gain momentum), which was popularized by the CrossFit movement, should be avoided because it devalues the engagement and importance of the upper body work. (I’ll address the controversial training methods of CrossFit in one of my subsequent blogs).

Unlike a pull-up which uses a pronated grip, a chin-up uses an underhand (supinated). Both exercises are similar in nature but their names shouldn’t be used interchangeably. The chin-up emphasizes a greater degree of biceps contraction than lat work while the pull-up does the exact opposite: more lat contraction and less biceps work. This is because the elbow flexion line of pull in the chin up is greater than in the pull up due to ‘tucking in’ of the elbows. In other words, if one were pictured at the top of a chin-up, it would look like the top position of a barbell biceps curl.


So what if a person can’t do a single pull-up? All hope isn’t lost. Here are 4 ways to make the pull-up a little easier:

1. Partner Assistance: This method requires a partner to hold on to the legs, ankles, waist or hips of the person doing the pull-up. By doing so, the exerciser pulls only the torso of the body resulting in less weight. The partner can also provide just enough ‘forced rep’ to help the exerciser get the full ROM. It is important that the partner let the exerciser ‘pull-up’ with as much effort as possible and only assist when a sticking point is reached.

2. Strength Bands: This is becoming one of the more common modifications of the pull-up. It requires the use of strength resistance bands which come in different sizes and tensions. One end of the band is looped over the middle of the pull-up bar while the other end goes over the feet or knees. Although the challenge is greater at the top where the band is slack, the bottom of the pull-up, where most people struggle, is where it’ll be most helpful. It is important to know that the greater the tension of the band, the more assistance it provides. Also multiple limbs (both feet, both knees) on the band require more effort and use less assistance than single limb (one foot, one knee). I utilize strength bands for pull-ups with most of my clients.

3. Assisted Pull-Up Machine: Every commercial gym has at least one assisted pull-up machine. It is ideal for deconditioned individuals and rehabbing patients. Its premise is similar to that of strength bands in terms of assistance from the machine. A decent amount of weight should be selected for a challenging number of reps with good form. The resistance should continually decrease over time until the person is able to perform one or two unassited pull-up.

4. Lat Pulldown: This is best regression of the pull-up. It essentially uses the same exact muscle groups but allows the lower body to take a break. So which is better, the pull-up or lat pulldown? It’s a matter of preference, training goals and comfort level. If your goals are to maintain an optimal level of fitness, either one is fine. However the lat pulldown pales in comparison to the pull-up in terms of greater isometric contraction in the hands leading to enhanced grip strength and forearm development. A 2009 study in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research showed the pull-up as having an impact on lean body mass. This comes as no surprise since the pull-up is a staple in strength training and hypertrophy programs.

The pull-up has been around for many years and is certainly here to stay. But because of the level of difficulty, many people refrain from doing it often. It is a fantastic exercise for developing upper body strength, improving grip strength, increasing lean body mass and even using various trunk stabilizers to keep the abs engaged. If you’ve never done a pull-up before or can barely do a few unassited reps, try one of the aforementioned modifications the next time you’re at the gym. Your body will adapt over time and soon you’ll find yourself doing unassited pull-ups. If you’re an elite trainee than can do a lot of pull-ups with relative ease, increase the challenge by attaching additional resistance (in the form of weight plates) via a dip belt. Another way to make it challenging is by pulling the chest towards the bar as opposed to just clearing it. This requires more effort thereby making the lats and forearms work a little harder.