Create the Perfect Backyard Gym

Use the gear in your garage or backyard to craft an intense total body circuit that will keep you in top shape all spring and summer long

By: Hollis Templeton 

Take Your Workout Outside

Photo Credit: Thinkstock

It’s a warm spring day and you’d give anything to be soaking up some rays instead of plodding through your strength training routine inside a stuffy gym. But with beach season right around the corner, you can’t just give up and go play. Instead, have the best of both worlds: Craft a killer workout that you can perform barefoot in your own backyard without dropping thousands of dollars on fancy fitness equipment. (Bonus: If you prefer an indoor workout, try this quick routine you can do in your living room!)

The catch: creativity—and a little rummaging through the garage—are required. We found three trainers to teach you how to use backyard staples to create a total body circuit that will build muscle, beat boredom, and boost your mood.

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Sidewalk Chalk

Trainers agree that the key to an effective outdoor workout—versus futzing around in the backyard—is setting up a circuit. Use chalk to write a list on the driveway or sidewalk of the exercises you will perform and how long or how many reps you will spend at each station. Here are a few suggestions for how to structure your workout.

16-Station Circuit
Kelli Calabrese, CSCS, a clinical exercise physiologist and author of Feminine, Firm & Fit, suggests this heavily varied routine: Set up a circuit of 16 different exercises. Spend 45 seconds at each station, then rest for 15 seconds before moving to the next. Repeat for a total of 3 circuits. For a greater challenge, perform the circuit for a total of 4 times, or sprint around the perimeter of your property or jump rope for 2 minutes between each station.

The PPT Rule
PPT stands for push something, pull something, and tote something, and it’s one of the techniques Brandon Richey, CSCS, owner of Brandon Richey Fitness in Buford, GA, uses to help his clients craft nine-drill outdoor circuits. How it’s done: Perform three exercises from each category. “Pull” moves include kettlebell drags or kettlebell swings (more on these later). Examples of “push” exercises are pushups or wheelbarrow runs. “Tote” moves are things like the farmer’s walk or an overhead kettlebell press.

Body Weight Blend Circuit
David Jack, a performance coach and director of Teamworks Fitness in Acton, MA, suggests alternating body weight exercises with moves that require a fitness object. Spend 20 to 30 seconds at each station, rest and recover for another 20 to 30 seconds, then move on to the next exercise.“Set it up how you want to work out, and remember that form is always a critical factor,” says Jack. “Just go out and have some fun with it, feel the sun, get your toes in the grass, and have a blast.”

Manual Labor Circuit
Jack also suggests that if you have yard work to tackle, turn it into a workout. Create a circuit of timed intervals for each task on your to-do list. For example, remove as many weeds as you can for 2 minutes, then rake vigorously for 30 seconds, then load a wheelbarrow and book it to your drop-off point, then restart the circuit. Bonus points if your spring cleanup includes moving rocks.

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Swing Set

Your kids might use it for play, but a swing set is the perfect place to work on seriously toning your abs, hips, and lower back. “The instability of the swing causes the muscles of the core to engage as stabilizers more than if the exercises were performed on a stationary object such as the floor,” says Calabrese, who suggests the following moves.

Pushup: Place either your hands or feet on the swing.

Lunge: Face the swing with your front foot on the swing or away with your back foot on the swing.

Pullup: Lie under the swing and use it to pull yourself up.

Squat: Stand on the swing holding onto the chains and perform a squat.

Chest fly: Using two side-by-side swings, place one hand on each while in a pushup position. Move the swings together, then apart.

Knee tuck: Get in a pushup position, hands on the ground and ankles on the swing. Draw your feet in, tucking your knees toward your chest.

Also try performing a pullup, chinup, or hanging leg raise using the bar at the top of the swing set, Calabrese suggests.

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Get a stopwatch and start at the base of a hill. Sprint the hill, noting your time, then walk down. With each sprint, aim to shorten your time. To intensify the move, bear crawl the hill as fast as possible, suggests Richey. To do this, get on all fours and walk on your hands and feet. “The key is to keep your knees off the ground and your hands flat, as they would be if you were performing a pushup,” he says. “This is a tremendous drill for building core strength. I highly recommend this drill for folks who need to improve their mobility and functional level of strength.”

Calabrese suggests lying on a hill while performing situps or using the incline for lunges. Doing either exercise facing downhill makes the move easier, and facing uphill makes the exercise more challenging, she explains.

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Lug Nuts

Performing 100 body-weight squats at once is a daunting task, but distracting yourself with a simple game will help you power through a thigh-burning superset. For one heck of a leg workout, Richey suggests this exercise:

Line up 10 lug nuts, bolts, checkers, bottle caps or similarly sized objects in a row on a flat surface. Walk up to the first piece and squat to pick it up. Remember to use proper form, flexing at the hips and knees each time and standing all the way back up, advises Richey. When the first piece is in your hand, walk to the second. Squat and drop the first piece, come back up, then squat to pick up another piece. Continue this pattern of dropping and picking up until you’ve made your way through all 10.

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Sledgehammer Swing
For a rotational exercise that will help build core strength, Richey suggests picking up a sledgehammer and whacking a tractor tire or weighted car tire—anything that can take the impact but remain stationary. To perform this move, pick up a sledgehammer and hold it like a baseball bat, then swing at the tire. Perform the exercise three ways: swinging from the right, swinging from the left, and overhead in a wood-chopping motion.

Tire Pull
If you’ve got a smaller tire on hand, tie the end of a rope around it, make a loop handle at the other end, and drag the tire across the yard, pulling it with your arms behind you, suggests Jack. Alternatively, you can tie the rope around your waist and use your entire body to haul the weight, he says.

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Plastic Cones

“Build-up type sprints are a great way to ease into full 50-yard sprints,” says Richey, who suggests this backyard speed drill: Put six cones in a straight line each 10 yards apart. Starting at the first cone, begin running at a slow pace. When you hit the second cone, speed up. When you reach the third, accelerate even more. Do the same at cone four so that by the sixth you are running at top speed. Jog back to the first cone and rest for 20 to 50 seconds, depending on your fitness level. Do 8 to 10 runs.

Letter Drills
Use cones, shoes, or other markers to form shapes or letters in the grass, suggests Jack. Then trace the lines of your formation by running forward, backpedalling, or side shuffling, switching up your movement when you hit a new point. An “M,” for example, could be executed by running forward to the first point, then backpedaling to the next, and then repeating.

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Wheelbarrow Runs
“Load a wheelbarrow with feed, sand, or mulch, and run with it as fast as you can for 20 yards,” says Richey. Take a 1-minute rest between each run, and as you get better, reduce your rest time by 15-second intervals, he suggests.

Wheelbarrow Walks
Alternatively, slow down your pace and perform a farmer’s walk with the wheelbarrow, or try moving in a figure eight 8 pattern, suggests Jack.

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For a total-body exercise that will get your heart rate up, Jack suggests this move: Unravel a 30 to 40-foot rope or detach a garden hose from the spigot and pull it out across the yard. Grab one end and snap the rope or hose by swinging your arm up over your head, creating a wave.

Or secure a 10-foot rope to a tree limb or other anchor point and use it as a makeshift TRX suspension trainer, says Jack. Tie loops on both ends, wear training or gardening gloves to protect your hands, then try squats or inverted rows. Or put your feet in the loops to perform suspended pushups.

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Watering Cans

For moves that require dumbbells, use watering cans or buckets filled with water as your weights. The water will make the buckets or cans shake, forcing you to stabilize them as you perform an exercise, explains Jack. Here are a few moves to try:

Farmer’s Walk
Reverse Lunge
Dumbbell Row
Lateral Raise
Standing Dumbbell Curl

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Feed Bag

Hoist a bag of seed, sand, rock salt, or fertilizer onto your shoulder to intensify quad-strengthening exercises, suggests Jack. Try a body weight squat or Zercher squat, and for a bigger challenge, perform a curl to front squat to press.

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PVC Pipe

Use PVC pipe that’s about 4 inches in diameter and 5 to 9 feet long to make a slosh pipe, a kind of barbell for core-strengthening, suggests Jack. Seal one end of the pipe, fill it halfway with water or sand, and cap the other end. The shifting material inside will make the slosh pipe hard to stabilize and balance as you walk with it overhead or out in front, or as you do lunges and squats.

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Grass and Sky

Some indoor equipment begs for being used outside. A medicine ball routine, for example, is best performed without the limitations of walls and ceilings, says Jack. Throw the ball up, toss it behind you, or slam it on the ground as hard as you can—don’t worry, there’s nothing to break.

You’ll also get a better kettlebell workout when you’re not worried about scuffing up the gym floor. Here are two moves that Richey suggests integrating into an outdoor workout:

Kettlebell Swings and Sprints
Designate a distance of 20 to 30 yards, marking start and end points with cones. Perform 15 to 20 kettlebell swings with a moderately heavy to heavy weight (that’s about 35 to 45 pounds for women and 45 to 55 pounds for men). Keep your abs and glutes tight and compress your body to control the bell. When you’re done with your set, place the kettlebell on the ground and sprint or side shuffle between the two cones, then rest for 40 to 45 seconds. Perform 8 to 10 sets to start, and then build on that as you become more comfortable with the exercise.

Kettlebell Drags
Place two cones 20 yards apart and set a light to moderately heavy kettlebell (about 25 to 35 pounds for women and 35 to 45 pounds for men) next to the first cone. Get into position as if you were getting ready to swing the bell, bending over to grab it with both hands. Maintain a wide stance with your feet. Walk backward as you drag the bell on the ground, keeping your feet wide, hips back, butt down, and arms straight. Make sure you’re not on your tippy toes and that you’re using your hips—not your back—to pull the bell, advises Richey. When you reach the second cone, turn around and come back. Rest for 60 to 90 seconds. Perform this routine 4 to 5 times.

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