When it comes to working out on the road, the workout — that is, what you actually do — is considerably less important than the fact that you’re doing anything at all. Doing something active, any number of times a week, is infinitely better than doing nothing no times a week.1Both colloquially and mathematically.
We’ve written about this before, but to recap: the hardest part of building a habit of activity are behavioral and psychological. Making the time, saying no appropriately, replacing a flimsy “willpower” based system with something more robust, finding something you like to do even if it’s not completely “optimal,” and finding a strong “why” are all more important and more difficult than picking a workout.
Still, one of the most critical pieces of making an effective plan for anything, working out included, is knowing what you’re going to do in detail before it’s time to do it.2A note on this that Kennedy sent me when proofreading this article: “It’s funny, this intro reminds me a lot of the stuff that David Allen talks about in Getting Things Done: he says that of the biggest barriers to getting a project done is having poorly defined next steps, because when your next action steps are not stupidly clear, it creates friction and resistance. Allen was talking about work, but it’s also v. true in fitness.”
Even someone with a professional certification in working out (like me) can find themselves stuck and thinking about quitting without some sort of advance plan — and this is doubly true when you’re in a place without standard gym equipment, like a strange hotel room in a new city.
So, I’m writing a list in two parts:
- 35 bodyweight exercises to do in a hotel room (or anywhere else), broken up by movement/body part.
- Six ways to put them together into a reasonable workout, plus ways to progress in each workout (that is, how to make them harder over time, a necessary component of any long-term exercise plan), plus three example workouts for each.
As a warning, this article is fairly long because I want it to be one of those “teach you to fish” sort of things. If you’re currently thinking “I just want a workout to do right now, I can learn about how to make my own workouts later,” you’re right. Scroll down towards the end, pick one, and do it. Reduce the friction. Do the thing. We’ll still be here when you’re done.
There are, of course, many other ways to exercise than are listed here. This article is focused on things you can do in a hotel room with just what you have around you, because that’s what our readers seem to struggle with the most.3We’ve also written articles about strength training more generally (including things about weights), what to do after Couch to 5k, and running a half-marathon after a few years of not running, if any of those seem more your speed.
Like I mentioned above, this list is broken down into five fundamental movement patterns (push, pull, squat/lunge, hinge, stabilize), plus a sixth “full body” catch-all for things that don’t fit neatly into those categories. They’re all beginner or intermediate-level in difficulty, and include a quick description of the movement plus a link to a video of someone doing (and often also explaining) it, for the more visually inclined.
A pushing movement is using your upper body to push yourself away from something, or something away from you. Because your shoulder joint has an 180° or more range of motion—you can push straight down, straight up, everywhere in between—the options within pushing movements are mostly about changing the angles of your arms and position of your hands to preferentially recruit different muscle groups. Hands that are close together put more stress on the triceps, pushing closer to upwards means more stress on your shoulders (over your pectorals), and so on.
Get on an all-fours position with your hands shoulder-width apart. Move your feet outward, until your body forms a straight line from neck to toes (squeeze your glutes together to help with this). Lower yourself with your arms until your chest and thighs are just barely touching the floor, then rapidly push yourself back into the starting position.
- Push-up variations
You can modify the basic push-up in many ways to make it harder or easier: moving your hands wider (chest and anterior deltoid focus) or closer together (triceps focus), elevating your hands (easier) or feet (harder), widening your feet (easier), adding claps, arm raises, or crunches, and so-on. The above video has 25 different options.
- Chair dip
With your legs straight and a chair, bench, bed, desk, or table behind you, place both hands flat on that surface, and lower yourself down until your elbows are at 90 degrees. Then, push back up until your elbows are straight again. The higher your feet relative to your hands, the more challenging this movement is.
- Wall handstand
Get in an all-fours stance facing a wall, with your fingertips about six inches away from the wall. Then, carefully kick your legs up and over until your heels hit the wall, putting yourself in a handstand position. Hold this position while keeping your shoulders engaged and your spine in a straight line.
- Handstand push-up
From a wall handstand, lower yourself by bending your elbows until your head touches the floor4I like putting a pillow or folded towel on the floor where my head’s going to hit. and then push back up until you’re back in a handstand. Warning: this is challenging. Don’t be surprised if you can only do negatives5Where you lower yourself down as slowly as possible, but don’t push back up. or partial reps at first.
Pulling movements are any movement where you use your upper body to pull yourself towards an object, or pull an object towards yourself. Because one of these requires something to pull and the other requires a sturdy place to hold onto as you work against gravity, it’s one of the harder ones to effectively do in a hotel room.
- Doorway row
Place your chest and feet against one side of a doorway. Grab on, and lean back until your arms are straight (or you hit the other side of the doorway) . Then, pull yourself back to vertical using your back and biceps. For added challenge and more range of motion, do this with one arm and the doorway to your side (like in the video above).
- Table row
This is what’s called an inverted or horizontal row. You would normally do it on a racked barbell or purpose-built horizontal bar in a gym, but here, we’re going to perform it on an improvised piece of equipment: the underside of a sturdy table or desk. From underneath the table, grab the edge and straighten your ledge so you’re hanging underneath it (be sure to do this in a way that won’t flip the thing over onto your face). Pull yourself up until your chest touches the underside of the table, then lower yourself back down in a controlled fashion.
- Suitcase row
This one isn’t actually a bodyweight movement — it’s an improvised equipment movement. Use a suitcase to do a one-armed row (like you would with a dumbell) by bending at the hips and knees until your hand is firmly grasping the side handle of the suitcase while it’s sitting on the ground, and then pulling it up towards your chest until it touches, keeping your hips, knees, and shoulders square. Add or remove heavy stuff from the suitcase to adjust difficulty.
- Towel row
I recommend watching the video for this one. You’ll be doing a row like described above while holding onto a towel or bed sheet that’s pinned in between a closed door and its door frame. It seems a little scary, but it’s actually very stable as long as the towel or sheet isn’t slipping around, and has the added benefit of letting you adjust the angle at which you’re pulling.
This requires a pull-up bar or sturdy door frame with a thick lintel. Grab the bar, and pull yourself towards the bar using your back and biceps, with your upper back tight and your body in a straight line. Lower yourself back down in a controlled manner. If your palms are facing away from you, that’s a pull up. If they’re facing towards you, that’s a chin-up.
Squats and lunges both involve bending at the hips and knees to develop strength in the thighs and glutes. Many “Functional Movement” people split the squat and the lunge into two different movements, but for all but the most advanced athletes, they can be considered variations on the same theme.
With your feet shoulder width apart and your toes pointed straight forward or slightly outward, bend at the hips and knees, keeping your knees out and your back relatively vertical, until your hips are below your knees. Then, push through the middle of your foot (not your heels or toes) as you stand back up.
- Jump squat
This is like a regular squat, except instead of standing back up gently, you explode from the bottom of the squat into a jump.
- Split squat
Put one foot on a chair, bed, or bench behind you with your toe facing away from you. Then, bend at the knee with your front foot until your back knee touches the ground, keeping your chest up and your knee directly over your toes. Then, use your glute and thigh to push yourself back into the top position.
- Shrimp squat
The shrimp squat is like a split squat with no support for your back foot. Grab one foot and hold it behind you, then gently lower yourself until your back knee touches the ground. Keeping your knee over your toes, push back up into a standing position. This requires quite a bit of balance and strength, so feel free to put your other hand on a wall or chair to help you out as you’re getting the hang of it.
- Pistol squat
The pistol squat is like a shrimp squat, but with your non-active leg extended straight in front of you rather held behind. Extend your front leg, and then squat to full depth and back up on your rear leg. This also requires quite a bit of balance and strength — you can use a door frame or a pole to support yourself as you learn.
With your feet shoulder width apart, take one long step forward. Then, bend at both knees until your back knee is almost touching the floor. Push back up into the starting position. These can also be done backwards (one large step back to start), or in a “walking” fashion, where you continuously take large lunging steps forward.
- Curtsey lunge
Get into a standard lunge position, and then move your back foot laterally until your legs are slightly crossed. Keeping your hips forward and square, bend at the hips and knees until your back knee touches the ground, then push back up. If you’re doing this correctly, you should feel it in the glute of your rear leg.
Put one foot on a sturdy raised surface, like a bed, chair, or bench. Step up onto the surface, then gently step down by doing the same movement in reverse. The higher the step, the harder this becomes.
Hinging is short for hip-hinging, and that’s a good description of these movements: folding and unfolding at the hip. Hinge movements are the the second movement type that’s a bit more difficult to accomplish with no equipment at all, simply because it’s difficult to create a body position where there’s enough gravity to meaningfully exercise your glutes, hamstrings, spinal erectors and other posterior chain muscles.
- Bridges/Hip thrusts
Start on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the ground. Push your hips upward and squeeze your glutes to lift your pelvis as high as possible, then slowly lower yourself back down. If you have trouble feeling this in your glutes, moving your feet closer together while keeping your knees pointed outward (what Bret Contreras calls a frog pump can help.
- Donkey kick
On all fours, kick one leg into the air, keeping your knee at a 90 degree angle and your back flat (you should be using your glutes and hamstrings, not your lower back). Hold for a strong glute squeeze at the top and lower back down.
- Leg curl
Kneel facing away from something heavy, stable, and low to the ground.6Those massive dressers in many hotel rooms work well. Hook your heels under this weight, and keeping your glutes squeezed and body straight, gently lower your chest towards the floor until you catch yourself with your hands. Then pull yourself back upward with your hamstrings — if this is too challenging, use your hands to give yourself a little pop of momentum on the way up.
- Bodyweight hinge (Good morning)
With your feet shoulder width apart and your knees straight but not locked, bend forward at the waist, keeping your back flat, until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings. Then use your hamstrings and glutes to quickly raise yourself up to vertical.
- Single leg hinge (Single leg deadlift)
This is just like the two-leg hinge, except you leave one foot on the ground and let the other leg move backwards as your chest bends forward. It’s slightly more challenging for balance and biomechanical reasons.
When people think of “abs” or “core,” what they’re really talking about is a whole complex of muscles mostly in your trunk that exist to help your body stabilize itself instead of twisting or flexing under stress. Because of this, these motions are (mostly) focused around building strength in muscles that keep your trunk stable.
- Hollow holds
With your back flat on the ground and your lower back pressed into floor, squeeze your belly button to your spine and extend your arms and legs away from your body. Then hold that for 5-30+ seconds. I would recommend you watch the video for this one — it’s very challenging to get right, and Ryan demonstrates a nice progression for learning the technique.
- Dead bugs
On your back, hold all four legs and arms up in the air, then lower one arm and one leg from opposite sides of the body. Raise them back up, and repeat with the other side.
- Flutter kicks
On your back, with your hands either under your butt (easier) or by your side (harder), raise your legs 12 inches off the ground and kick them up and down in an alternating pattern. You can also make circles, Zs, numbers, or letters. You can even just hold your legs static in a leg raise — motion just makes it a bit more challenging and interesting.
On your elbows and toes (imagine a push-up position, but on your elbows) hold your entire body in a straight line with your abs engaged and your glutes and thighs squeezed together, for 10-60+ seconds.
- Side planks
Just like a regular plank, turned 90 degrees — one one elbow and one foot, squeeze abs, glutes and thighs and hold your body in a straight line.
Start by placing your hands on the ground as close to your feet as you can manage. Then, slowly walk your hands out, keeping your core engaged and your glutes squeezed together, until you’re lying flat on your stomach. Then walk your hands back up into the starting position.
Lie on the ground with your feet flat and your knees bent. Using your abs (not your hip flexors, lower back, or arms pulling on your neck) to lift your torso up until you’re in a sitting position. You can pin your feet under a heavy object for an easier time.
This section is really a catch-all for anything that isn’t easily categorized into one of the other categories — “full-body” really just means “more than one movement,” not necessarily “works your entire body.” The best way to be sure you’re successfully getting a well-rounded workout is to combine multiple movements — see below on how you might do that.
- Bear walk
This and the next two come from Ryan Hurst over at GMB Fitness, a great site for anyone into bodyweight movements. Instead of being rep focused, like many bodyweight moves, they’re movement focused: you move your body around using a specific movement pattern. In the bear walk, you get on your hands and feet with your elbows and knees extended (in an “A” position), and walk with all four limbs: hand 1, foot 1, hand 2, foot 2.
- Monkey walk
From a deep squat, place your hands on the ground with one hand between your feet and the other on the outside of one of your legs. One knee should be between your arms, and you should have a slight twist in your torso. Then, with straight arms, shift your weight onto your hands and hop your feet sideways so that your other knee is between your arms, and your other hand is between your feet. Reset your hands and repeat.
- Frogger walk
From a deep squat, place your hands on the floor 2–3 feet in front of you, and with straight arms, shift your weight onto your hands and hop your feet forward until they’re just behind your heels. Pick your hands back up and sit back into a deep squat, then repeat. As you get better at this, you can kick your feet higher into the air on the hops.
- Burpees7One of my favorite fitness fun-facts is that these were invented by a man named, honest to god, Royal H. Burpee.
From a standing position with your feet shoulder width apart, place each hand a foot or two in front of your feet, and then hop your feet back into a push up position. Lower your chest to the ground, then push yourself up rapidly, hop your feet back forward into a squat position, and jump into the air.
- Jumping jacks
This seems like a silly one to end with (or even include), but it remains one of the best, easiest to do correctly, aerobically-focused movements you can do without any equipment or space. Stand with your feet together and your arms at your sides, and then jump while raising your arms and spreading your feet, landing in an X position. Jump again and bring your arms down and your feet back together.
Combining movements into workouts seems like it might be complicated, but it’s not so bad — you basically just need to decide three things: what the focus of your workout will be, how long you want it to be, and which movements you’ll use to get there.
All three start by deciding what you’re trying to get out of working out to begin with — because you’re using bodyweight resistance movements to work out, some amount of ‘strength work’ will always be on the bill. There are ways to make a bodyweight circuit mostly a cardiovascular challenge (as opposed to a muscular one), but if you want to do more direct ‘cardio’ work, it might be simpler to go for a walk or a jog.
Given that, the nature of bodyweight workouts means your options are basically some blend of strength (resistance) training, muscular endurance training (sort of a type of strength training), and aerobic (‘cardio’) training.8Understanding “muscular endurance” as distinct from “strength” and “aerobic” training is something that requires an understanding of your body’s energy systems, which would take quite a long time. For the nerds and wonks out there, what I actually mean is training in a way that stresses your ATP-CP as well as your Glycolytic system.
From there, it’s all about duration and movements. What follows are six structure options, organized from most strength-focused to most aerobically-focused, each with a few sample workouts that mix and match the above movements, and some thoughts on how to structure them into a long-term progression.
You’ll notice that all of these sample workouts are basically “full body” workouts that use movements from many of the categories in the above list, often one of each. With simple bodyweight movements alone, it’s pretty tough to accumulate enough stress that you’d need to split them up into any of the ‘split’ patterns you see in weight lifting programs, like push/pull/legs or upper body/lower body.
1. Sets Across
A “sets across” or “straight sets” approach is where you structure a bodyweight workout the same way most weight-based strength workouts are structured: by doing multiple sets9That is, groups of many repetitions (reps) of a single movement. of the same sub-maximal10Sub-maximal in this context means pretty much what it sounds like it would mean: you’re not trying to do the maximum amount you could possibly do. If you were, you would eventually reach failure, where you physically can’t do the movement anymore.
number of reps of a movement, then moving on to another movement. This is in contrast to a circuit workout, where you cycle through multiple movements in a circuit.
If you’re not sure where to start and want to focus on strength or muscle size over aerobic capacity, start here. Perform all of the reps in a careful and controlled manner, and don’t worry — your heart will still be pumping at the end.
Do at least one exercise from each of the five basic (non-full body) categories above, for 3–5 sets of 5–8 reps. Each exercise is completed before moving on to the next one.
- Complete 5 sets of 8 reps of:
- Complete 5 sets of 5 reps of:
- Complete 3 sets of 5 reps of:
2. Set(s) to failure
This is another strength-focused scheme that asks you to do each set of each movement to complete muscular failure, and often only one set of each movement.11When you’re just doing one set, you’re often also doing those reps “super slow“. In general, slower and more careful reps are usually better when it comes to bodyweight-based strength workouts.
The idea here is that work you do at or approaching muscular failure is more effective for hypertrophy than a bunch of sub-maximal work. There’s some truth to this in the science, but I mostly like it because it’s a highly efficient way to get a lot of productive working out done in very little time — an entire workout can often take less than 10 minutes.
Do one or two exercise(s) from each of the five basic categories above, for 1–3 sets of as many reps as physically possible. Each exercise is completed before moving on to the next one.
- Complete 3 sets of as many reps as possible of:
- Complete 2 sets as many reps as possible of:
- Complete 1 set of as many reps as possible of:
3. “Classic” Circuit
This and the following three schemes are all circuits, which means that instead of doing all of your reps of one movement and then moving on (eg: push up, push up, push up, sit up, sit up, pull up, pull up, pull up), you do them in a circuit, moving through each movement once before resting or repeating (push up, sit up, pull up, push up, sit up, pull up, push up, sit up, pull up). While none are particularly complex, the basic circuit is the simplest: move through the movements at a pace that’s somewhere between “challenging” and “as quickly as possible,” and rest only between rounds, if at all.
Do as many rounds of possible of three to six exercises (with no more than one exercise from each category above) in 12–20 minutes. Each round should be the same, and consist of 5-15 reps of each exercise.
- Complete as many rounds in 12 minutes as you can of:
10 Butterfly kicks
10 Table rows
- Complete as many rounds in 12 minutes as you can of:
- Complete as many rounds in 20 minutes as you can of:
5 Handstand Push-ups
10 One legged squats (split/shrimp/pistol), alternating
4. Rounds For Time
Most circuits have you do a fixed number of reps and consider your “score” the amount of time it took you to do it — often referred to as “AMRAP”, or “As Many Rounds/Reps as Possible” — Rounds for Time or “RFT” Circuits flip this, by asking you to do a specific number of rounds of a circuit as fast as possible.
Do 3–8 rounds of 3–8 exercises (with one-ish exercise from each category above). Each round should be the same, and consist of 8–10 reps of each exercise.
- Complete 7 rounds for time of:
7 Leg curls
- Complete 5 rounds for time of:
3 Minutes Rest
- Complete 1 round for time of:12This is “Angie”, one of the classic Crossfit benchmark workouts. It could fit in a couple of these categories, but I think this makes the most sense.
All circuits can be adjusted to be more aerobically-focused or strength-focused by choosing different movements. This riff on a classic circuit, the Every Minute On The Minute or “EMOM” circuit, is more suited to a strength-focused approach, because unlike most other circuit styles which encourage continuous movement, EMOM circuits have you do something every minute at the beginning of the minute — hence the name — and then rest for the remainder of that minute.
At the beginning of every minute for 12–20 minutes, complete 5-15 reps of an exercise. Cycle between three and six exercises (with no more than one exercise from each category above).
- Every minute on the minute for twenty minutes, complete as many as you can of:
- Every minute on the minute for twelve minutes, complete as many as you can of:
5 Handstand Push-ups
10 One legged squats (split/shrimp/pistol), alternating
- Every minute on the minute for as long as possible, complete:13This is a fun variant of the EMOM where you go until you’re no longer able to complete the prescribed reps in one minute.
7 Jumping jacks
A “countdown” circuit is just like a standard circuit, except each round you perform fewer reps of each movement. This is nice because it allows you do more while you’re still fresh, and then less as you become fatigued, with the intention of feeling like each round is equally difficult (as opposed to a standard circuits, where the later rounds can feel much more difficult). There are many countdown schemes, but the ones I see most commonly are 21-15-9 and 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1.
Cycling between three and six exercises (with no more than one exercise from each category above), first do the highest number of reps in the countdown (e.g. 10) for each exercise, and then continue until you’ve completed all exercises at each rep number.
- Complete 21-15-9 reps of:
- Complete 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 reps of:
- Complete 50-40-30-20-10 reps of:
When, how often, and other closing thoughts
As far as when and how often, this article is already brutally long as it is, so I’ll keep it short: work out as often as you can, when you can. Anything is better than nothing, anything on a regular schedule is better still, structured progression on a regular schedule is the best of all.
Pick a time that you know you’ll be there, and then put it on your calendar, and treat it just like you would a meeting or call. When the time comes, do the thing. As infrequently as once a week for starters, all the way to every day if you can.
The nice thing about working out in your hotel room is the ease of access — even the most complicated workout you could make from these pieces requires require virtually no equipment, no setup, no travel, and less (often much less) than an hour of your time. The not-nice thing is that it’s the same place where your bed and TV are.
If, after a few tries, it turns out you really hate doing a DIY workout in your hotel room — you don’t like bodyweight circuits, it’s too claustrophobic, you don’t want to have to count or time yourself, no worries. Go find something else. Ideally, you would find something you like doing, but something you don’t hate may be enough to start. Whether it’s a DVD you can follow along with in the hotel gym, running, a class, a sport, or whatever else, the best workout is the one that you do, and the most “optimal” workout in the world is only optimal if you actually do it.
Go forth and get moving.