Stalking the Wild Picnic Table

My inbox is flooded with emails from people asking what to do when they’re traveling or otherwise away from the gym. Bringing a kettlebell along is usually not an option and folks using barbells and dumbbells can be stymied when faced with a week or two away from the gym. Further, while many people these days are discontinuing their pricey gym memberships neither they wish to purchase expensive workout equipment.

Well, the good news is that none of the above is necessary–or even desirable–for optimal fitness. The greatest, most efficient piece of workout equipment yet devised is absolutely free–it’s your own body. There’s only one problem: most people have no idea how to use it! Conventionaly assumed a humble beginners’ activity–who then progress to more complicated machinery–I propose the reverse to be true: most people who consider themselves at an advanced level of fitness are unable to perform the most basic of body weight movements (and if they can do them, they exhibit such grievous form and technique as to be painful to even watch, much less empathize with the traumas their joints are undergong!)

In the more enlightened fitness circles, there is a trend afoot, which is to pull your own body weight, but it’s been my observation that these well-intentioned Pied Pipers are generally doing more harm than good since they aren’t knowledgeable in the ways of protecting the joints, primarily knees, elbows and shoulders.

If the unanticipated demand for my body weight training certifications is any kind of indicator, apparently others out there are seeing the same thing. People are not only eager to learn how to perform these classic exercises themselves but, more importantly, they want to learn how to properly instruct others. Best of all, once you learn and understand my body weight training system, every playground, tree and picnic table becomes your gymnasium. When you master the basic principles I teach, your fitness freedom is bounded only by the imagination.

I love body weight training and the freedom it provides. I’ve been figuring out this shit since sixth grade! I’ve learned from yoga masters, Special Ops soldiers, my own military experience, my years as a wrestler and martial artist, plus reading and studying all I can get my hands on. Many of the techniques I practice go back thousands of years, beyond even the golden age of Greece.

On a recent trip to Hawaii, my comely teen protege and I visited the beautiful Waipio Valley. After the strenuous descent, and even more strenuous ascent (in flip flops!) we encountered a large picnic pavilion overlooking this breathtaking valley. Now, you’ve seen similar pavilions within every city and state park and highway rest stop, well, everywhere. Most people use them as a flimsy excuse to sit down again and eat but the old coach recognizes exercise-rich potential when he sees it! These tables are ideal for impromptu roadside workouts. In fact, some of my most productive, memorable workouts have gone down in far-flung picnic pavilions out in who-knows-where obscurity. I’m not standing in line waiting for the bench press, Dog! I’ll not fret about that pool of sweat someone left on the leg curl machine! I needn’t even wipe up any of my own sweat I might be leaving! ( In fact, the humble gym towel is a great workout tool in itself and I’ll show you a dozen ways to put it to use for a great upper body routine!)

You see, as a dog sees the whole world as a potential chew toy, I see the whole world as a potential workout implement…but back to Hawaii and our impending workout.

After dabbing my brow of the residual sweat from the rigors of the hike, and then a deep drink from the men’s room faucet, I swiftly scanned the pavilion roof for a ledge or pipe where I could suspend myself for Pull-Ups–one of my favorite exercises. Hot dang, there was indeed a large, exposed beam running alongside the roof. Some pavilion roofs are hulking steel structures lacking a purchase for the fingers, but this one was perfect: a sizable, rough beam provided a good grip. Because of the grip, ledge (or tactical) Pull-Ups are especially challenging, very closely simulating the type of pulling needed to scale a wall or pull yourself through an open window…as I’ve done many times when locked out of the house during my thrice-married career. When you’ve been in as many impassioned relationships as I have, you develop mad cat-burglar skills out of necessity!

After Pull-Ups, next up on the list is the Dive-Bomber Push-Up, which is smilar to the Hindu push-up but for the reversal of the torso trajectory. The Dive Bomber, also known as the “Roller-Coaster” provides a strong shoulder component to nicely balance the Pull-Up’s vertical pulling. I followed the Push-Ups with one of a favorite lower body exercise, the Pistol. While I’m fairly flexible and can easily hold my non-working leg up for Pistols, for many people that’s a limiting factor. No problem-o, Pistolero, standing on the edge of a picnic table (or ledge) allows you to hang the leg down, so you can get a good squat workout even if you’ve with stiff hips and hamstrings. Indeed, I consider the picnic table the ideal pistol platform.

A picnic table will also support a superb lower back and hamstring exercise I include whenever possible, which is the bent-leg version of the Glute-Ham Raise. To perform, kneel on the picnic table bench, facing away from–and hooking the heels on the bottom ledge of–the table-top. Your legs will be bent 90-degrees (or more, depending upon the height of the table). As you lean forward from the waist, do not allow the hips to move backward. You will feel a tremendous contraction in the hamstrings as they work to stabilize the hips; the more the leg bends, the more difficult the movement. The hamstrings are work isometrically as stabilizers and the whole experience is fairly brutal. As such, this is one of my preferred body weight hamstring exercises. In the video below, the picnic table offered extremely unfavorable leverage and my hamstrings were literally in their most contracted position, where their strength is weakest, and received a hellacious workout. Carefully pad the knees with this one (I used my flip flops) as considerable pressure is placed on the patellas.

Finish up your workout by enlisting a belt, rope (or partner) to anchor the feet for Back Extensions. I usually tie an old jiu-jitsu belt around the bench, pad my hips with a towel, and perform either static holds or go for reps.

Another picnic table opportunity is the Dragon Flag (pictured above), a deservedly favored abdominal exercise of Bruce Lee. While the abs are working very hard as stabilizers, the Dragon Flag builds strength in the entire body.

Once again, with a picnic table, your imagination is the only limit. I have, upon occasion even turned a picnic table on end and held onto various bits to do my Pull-Ups, a la Sarah Connor exploiting her jail cell bunk as a Pull-Up device in The Terminator.

Besides picnic tables and the overhead kiosk itself, you might look around and see adjacent logs, boulders or large stones for the pickins. One of my most beloved strength exercises with stones is the Continuous-Underhand-Clean-and-Overhead-Press. This is a genuine whole-body builder and, when done in high reps, becomes quite cardio. One of the rules of the ancient Polynesian practice of stone lifting was not letting the stone touch the body during the process, which adds a whole new level of difficulty.

As you can see, no matter where circumstances may find you, there really is no reason to miss a workout.

Attend my body weight trainer certification and you’ll learn how to safely and properly perform all of these exercises and more. If you’re not yet capable of these movements, you’ll learn the progressions to get you there. My next Body Weight Trainers certification is in Germany 14 June (conveniently located near Frankfurt) and while there is a good group already signed up, we’re very accommodating here at MaxwellSC and would love to make space for a few more friends.

Let me know about your next roadside workout!

In Stength & Health,