Natural Outdoor Workouts: A Comprehensive Beginner’s Guide

An easy-to-follow and comprehensive 4-step guide to how to get started with natural outdoor workouts, the whole food diet of exercise.

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The Whole Food Diet of Exercise

Working out at the gym is the processed food diet of exercise.

Gym machines are like nutritional supplements. They isolate certain movements your body “needs” in ways that don’t exist in real life. And for workouts, we’re expected to pick the right supplements, blend them together into a workout, and swallow it.

Yuck.

No wonder so many people dislike going to the gym. And no wonder Kim and I and a growing community have ditched the gym to go back to a whole food diet of exercise: natural movements done in nature.

In this outdoor workout guide, we’ll give you a recipe for doing the same.

Chris running up the dunes for an outdoor workout in Lamu, Kenya.
Rather than do leg extensions at a hotel gym, we sprinted up sand dunes in Lamu, Kenya

Step 1: Pick Your Equipment

The Ingredients

Here are our favorite types of outdoor workout equipment and environments, ideas for exercises, and toys to bring with you.

  • Natural outdoor workout equipment
  • Improvised outdoor workout equipment
  • Man-made outdoor workout equipment
  • Toys to bring with you

Natural Outdoor Workout Equipment

  • Grass: The ideal soft surface for springing, bounding, jumping, lying down, and pushing up on.
  • Hills: Sprint and jump up them for extra difficulty. Or try sprinting down not-very-steep ones for a surprisingly tough challenge.
  • Trees: Practice handstands and planks against their trunks and hang off their branches.
  • Rocks: Throw, roll, and swing them. And squat, lunge, run, and jump holding them. See our rock workout exercises post for ideas.
  • Friends: Use their bodyweight to weigh you down with piggybacks or push-ups. Have them resist or assist you in various movements like pull-ups, squats, and core exercises. See these 7 partner exercises for ideas.
  • Sand: All of the above is extra challenging and fun when done on sand. And it’s even better when you can cool off with a swim after.
  • Bodies of water: Swim in it when it’s deep (or walk underwater). When it’s shallow, use the buoyancy to practice exercises like handstands, L-sits, and planches that would be impossible otherwise. And use its resistance to make plyometric exercises tough but safe. See our outdoor pool circuit workout for inspiration.
Kim using the swing for an outdoor workout exercise
Swings make for excellent outdoor workout equipment.

Improvised Outdoor Workout Equipment

  • Stairs: For everything you can do on hills while working on coordination at the same time and having a flat surface to push off.
  • Benches and low barriers: Step-ups (forward and backward), jumps, push-ups with either your feet (harder) or hands (easier) on them, and dips.
  • Walls: Even better than trees for leaning your hands, feet, and back against.
  • Playgrounds: Monkey bars and ladders may be made for kids, but are useful for adults, too. Plus, the ground’s usually soft, so they’re good for jumping exercises.
  • Swings and Hammocks: Use them as you would with a TRX at the gym.
  • Pools: Work out in them in all the ways we described for natural bodies of water under natural workout equipment.
View of INDER workout area in Belen, Medellin.
Large, free outdoor workout area in Medellin, Colombia.

Man-Made Outdoor Workout Equipment

  • Pull up bars: Hang from them with both arms, one arm, or your legs with all different types of grip, then pull up.
  • Monkey bars: Do rows below them, pushups above them, and hang between them.
  • Dip bars: For pushups, dips, rows, and supported one-legged squats. Also great for various straight-arm exercises like L-sit, planche progressions, and handstands.
  • Stall bars: Those ladder-looking things can be used for stretching and super-tough core exercises like leg-raises, dragonflies, and flags.
  • Those outdoor workout machines: We’re talking about the machines that look like gym equipment but are outdoors. They can be helpful for getting started with outdoor workouts. Advanced athletes can also find creative ways to use them in ways they weren’t intended.
Chris using a rubber band to do pull-ups.
I make pull-ups a little more challenging by using these elastic bands which Kim and I take on almost every trip.

Toys to Bring With You

Spice up your outdoor training with these toys:

  • Your phone: For timing your workout with free interval timer apps, monitoring your form with the camera, motivating you with music, and googling new exercises.
  • Mat, blanket, or towel: For when the ground is too dirty, scratchy, or hard.
  • Elastic bands: The ultimate outdoor workout toy. Beginners can loop them above you to assist you in fighting gravity. More advanced exercisers can strap them below them. Or strap them around your waist then have a friend hold you back while sprinting. They’re also invaluable for mobility exercises. And they’re light and cheap on Amazon.
  • Parallettes: Portable, lower-to-the-ground dip bars. Buy them if you want, but they’re also cheap and easy to make with PVC.
  • Skipping rope: For warming up with regular skips and for intense workouts with double-unders. Speed ropes are super portable.
  • Wireless headphones: Because wires are incredibly annoying when doing outdoor workouts. We love our Plantronics headphones even though lots of reviewers seem not to.
  • Phone pouch: So your phone doesn’t bounce around and fly out of your pocket. Kim and I both have this pouch.

Step 2: Pick Your Type of Workout

The Recipes

Once you’ve found the outdoor workout equipment to use as ingredients, it’s time to pick a recipe that combines them into a complete training.

Here are some of our favorites. Mix up these types of outdoor workout to get the best fitness results and so they never get bland.

  • Circuit training
  • High-intensity interval training (HIIT)
  • Challenges
  • Strength training
  • Plyometric training
  • Mobility training
  • Steady-state training
  • Recreational sports

Circuit Training

Circuit training is cycling through a handful of exercises that each target different muscle groups, doing each exercise for a set amount of time or number reps before moving to the next.

People like circuit training because the variety keeps them engaged, it can combine strength and cardio work, and it’s good for groups. Boot camps are a prime example.

Example Workout:

YouTube video

Our pool circuit workout, which is four rounds of the following:

  1. Wet Step-Ups: 8 reps each leg
  2. Press-Ups: 8 reps
  3. Squat Jumps: 8 reps
  4. Pool Planche Pushups: 8 reps
  5. L-Sit Flutter Kicks: 20 flutters

Circuit Training Tips:

  • Mix the muscles. When doing an all-body circuit, avoid doing two consecutive exercises that work the same muscles.
  • Write it down. It can be hard to remember what exercise is next when all your blood’s gone from your brain to your muscles.

High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)

HIIT workouts are the easiest outdoor workout to put together. You just do some exhausting exercise for a while, rest, and repeat. That’s it.

HIIT is also the most time-effective outdoor workout. In twenty minutes or less, you can get the same cardio benefits as an hour-long jog and make some strength and agility gains on top.

But there’s a catch. To really benefit from HIIT you’ve got to go so hard that those short windows or work feel interminable.

Example Workout:

The simplest but most effective HIIT workout we know:

  • Do as many burpees as you can for one minute.
  • Rest for one minute.
  • Repeat ten times.
  • Count how many you do and try to beat it on your next workout.

Or, for something less monotonous, try the new HIIT workout routine that’s become our #1 go-to, the Pant-athlon.

HIIT Tips:

Challenges

In a challenge workout, you race yourself to do a predefined number of repetitions of an exercise or a circuit as fast as possible. They’re a great way to measure your progress and push yourself.

Example Challenge Workouts:

Run up and walk down a big, steep hill—or a long stairwell or huge sand dune—ten to twenty times as fast as you can.

Do 100 chin-ups or pull-ups in the shortest amount of time possible.

Challenge Workout Tips:

  • Keep Count: It’s easy to lose count when doing a challenge so use pebbles, write in the dirt, or make a note on your phone to keep track.
  • Record: Keep track of your results in a journal or your phone’s note app so you remember what you have to beat next time.
Kim demonstrating a turkish get-up with a rock for strength whole body work
Kim using a rock she found in the park for total-body-strengthening Turkish get-ups.

Strength Training

Strength training isn’t bodybuilding. It can be if you want, but more important than build bigger muscles it strengthens the muscles you already have—and your bones and tendons, too. (For instance, Kim found via DEXA scans that her bone density improved significantly once she got into weight training.)

A stronger body burns more calories, is less prone to injury, and deteriorates less with age so everyone needs to incorporate strength training into their outdoor workout routine.

Example Workout:

See our post on How to Get a Crazy Full-Body Workout with Stones and Rocks for an example of a fun and unconventional outdoor strength workout.

Tips:

  • Focus on form. You’ll get stronger faster and avoid injury by doing fewer reps of lower weight with good form.
  • Do 3 to 5 sets of each exercise to work your muscles enough but not too much.
  • Rest between sets. Give your muscles ample time to recover (1 to 5 minutes depending on intensity). For time-efficiency, consider “super setting”—alternating between exercises that target separate muscle groups.
  • Vary the number of repetitions for best overall fitness gains. Do heavy weight and low repetitions (1-to-4) some days, medium weight and reps (5-to-8), and low weight and high reps (8-to-12 or more).

Plyometric Training

Plyometrics are explosive exercises like jumping, sprinting, bouncing, and throwing that increase your strength and speed.

They’re particularly helpful for increasing the level of difficulty of outdoor workouts when you can’t access heavy weights.

Example Exercises:

Sprints, overhead throws, box jumps, clapping push-ups, jumping pull-ups.

Tips:

  • Don’t jump right into them. Only get into plyometric exercises once you can do the underlying strength movement very easily and with perfect form. For example, be able to do 30 lunges before trying jumping lunges and be able to do 30 push-ups before doing clapping push-ups.
  • Start your workout with them. When you combine strength training and plyometrics in a workout (which is common), always start with plyos because they are the most demanding on your body. This reduces injury risk.
  • Lots of rest, fewer reps. Your muscles won’t feel as sore or tired from plyometric training as they do from weight lifting, but your nervous system, tendons, and bones are feeling it. Be sure to rest at least two minutes between sets and don’t do repetitions to failure.
  • Don’t do plyometrics on cement. Save your joints by only doing them on soft surfaces like grass or dirt.
  • Also see our post on Why and How You Should Start Sprint Training.

Mobility Training

As they say, ‘If you don’t use it, you lose it.”

Mobility training actively engages your muscles at their most stretched out position. This tells your brain, “Hey! Don’t forget we need to be able to move this muscle in this position.”

Since mobility training isn’t as intense as the previously-mentioned types of workout, you can do it as an active rest day or as part of your warm-up.

Example Mobility Workout:

YouTube video

Do a few rounds of this 50-second routine. You won’t look as smooth as this guy, but with regular body brushing you’ll get there (or close).

Tip: Brush your body like you brush your teeth. Just like you take a few minutes out of each day to brush your teeth every day and prevent them from getting sore and decaying, spend a few minutes brushing your body with a mobility routine for the same reason.

Kim running in Knysna, South Africa.
Way better than a treadmill.

Steady-State Training

Steady-state training is any form of exercise where you’re maintaining a constant, high heart rate for twenty minutes or more. It improves your cardiovascular system.

Examples:

Jogging, hiking, cycling, or rowing.

Tips:

  • Don’t push too hard. Counterintuitively, if you push yourself too hard, you’ll get less aerobic benefits. Try to stay at a point where you’re huffing and puffing but can still talk in full sentences while exercising.
  • Don’t exclusively train aerobically. For some reason, runners and cyclists are the most susceptible to believing that just running or cycling is enough to stay fit. That’s like eating only veggies to have a healthy diet. Balance your fitness routine with strength, mobility, and interval training as well.
Chris bumping the volleyball

Recreational Sports

Playing outdoor sports basketball, tennis, beach volleyball, and soccer counts as a workout.

Softball and golf don’t count.

Tip:

  • Don’t be too recreational. Push yourself physically during drills and games, even if many others are half-assing, to get even the most fitness benefits from your time.
Kim working out at the bars in Essaouira, Morocco.
Kim getting serious with the locals at the beach in Essaouira, Morocco.

Step 3: Work Out

Dig In

Now that you’ve got a tasty outdoor workout in front of you, it’s time to dig in and get sweaty.

  • Warm up
  • Work out
  • Cool down

Warm Up

Nobody likes warming up, but it’s a necessary evil. It enables you to perform better in your workout (and therefore get better results) and reduces your injury risk.

Keep in mind that it’s called a warm-up, not a tepid-up. If you’re not warm to the point of breaking a sweat, you’re not ready to start working out.

Example Warm-Up:

Try three-to-five minutes of continuous animal movements like crab walking, frog jumping, and bear-crawling. Go forward, backward, and side-to-side.

Doing such unusual movements in public feels embarrassing at first. You’ll get used to it. Learning to care less about what others think is one of the bonus benefits of working out outside.

Tips:

  • Jog to your outdoor workout spot. You’ll already be partly warmed up by the time you get there.
  • Don’t static stretch. Stay in constant motion during your warm-up by bending, extending, and swinging your body parts in extended ranges of motion.

Work Out

Focus on Form

Prioritize good form over speed or strength to get stronger and fitter faster and avoid injury setbacks.

Maintaining good form is deceptively hard, especially when you’re pushing hard and don’t have mirrors to watch yourself, so don’t expect perfection. Do your best and try to do a bit better every workout.

Helpful Cues:

  • Squeeze your butt. Pretend you’re holding a pencil between your cheeks on all upper-body and core exercises. This keeps your core tight and body straight.
  • Sit back. On squat-related exercises, focus on sitting back. Better yet, actually sit back onto a bench, rock, or stump to reinforce the correct movement. The lower the thing you sit onto and the lighter you touch it, the harder the exercise will be.
  • Relax your neck. As if your neck were in a brace, keep it relaxed and straight with your head looking straight forward.
  • Create torque. When your feet are planted on the ground for a squat, try to twist your heels inward and toes outward without actually moving your feet. Similarly, when holding a bar, twist both hands out as if you’re trying to break it in half. And when your hands are on any surface, try to twist the ground outward.

Tips:

  • Bring a friend for conversation, to help with technique, and even to use as a weight. See our favorite partner workout exercises.
  • Film yourself to correct your form. You may think you’re moving as gracefully as a ballerina but actually looking like a drunk dancer.

Cool Down

Do a slower-paced version of your warm-up to cool down.

If you want to do some static stretching (which is of questionable usefulness other than it feels good and gives you bragging rights for being bendy) this is the time to do it.

Kim relaxing and reading her book by the pool at Felix Unite, in Orange River in Namibia.
Kim relaxing after a tough paddle down the river at the border of South Africa and Namibia.

Step 4: Keep Getting Fitter

Rest and Digest

Getting fit doesn’t stop once you’ve finished your workout. It comes from the workout-life balance of a fitness lifestyle.

Sleep, eat, and recover right to get the most out of your hard work and get ideas and inspiration for your next workout from experts.

  • Sleep right
  • Eat right
  • Recover right
  • More natural workout resources

Sleep Right

If you have to choose between sleeping better and exercising better, choose sleep. It’s more important.

How important?

Here’s an excerpt from Why We Sleep, the book that opened my eyes on the incredible importance of shut-eye:

“It enhances your memory and makes you more creative. It makes you look more attractive. It keeps you slim and lowers food cravings. It protects you from cancer and dementia. It wards off colds and the flu. It lowers your risk of heart attacks and stroke, not to mention diabetes. You’ll even feel happier, less depressed, and less anxious.”

Dr. Matthew Walker, Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams
Kim eating gelato in Chipiona, Spain.

Eat Right

As you’ve probably heard a million times already, your diet plays a much bigger role in affecting your weight than exercise.

If you’re struggling to eat healthily, here’s an unconventional suggestion: Focus on controlling when you eat instead of what you eat.

First, cut off all snacks. Limit yourself to three feeding periods a day. Second, when you’ve cut your snack addiction, cut back to just two meals a day. Then, try not eating at all. Every once in a while, do an extended fast.

Not convinced about fasting? Maybe our benefits of prolonged fasting (and disadvantages), my story about what to expect from a 3-day fast if you’ve never fasted before, and the fasting tips we learned the hard way will convince you.

Recover Right

To improve recovery between workouts get your blood flowing through your muscles by walking, not sitting too long on your couch and desk, and incorporating a daily mobility routine.

And learn to listen to signs of your body telling you when it’s ready to work out again and when it isn’t. If you’re not performing as well as you had in a previous workout, that’s a sign your body might not have fully rested and recovered. In those cases, you might want to try a different type of workout.

More Resources

  • GMB. These guys are by far our favorite source of ideas and inspiration for outdoor workouts and natural fitness. They have a fun podcast, too.
  • Natural Born Heroes. This book by Christopher McDougall isn’t as game-changing as his previous, Born to Run, but has some inspiring sections on working out in natural ways.
  • Tom Merrick, a.k.a. the Bodyweight Warrior. Merrick’s Youtube videos are super informative and easy to follow. They are perfect for beginners or people looking for more advanced skills as well.
  • Diana Mirgon creates simple and easy-to-follow HIIT and circuit workout videos on Instagram with little to no equipment. Most of her content is outdoors using parks and public spaces making it incredibly accessible.
  • Redefining Strength‘s YouTube channel has seemingly endless ideas for bodyweight workouts.
  • This video might inspire you to get outside and exercise:
YouTube video

Get Cooking!

As is the case with nutrition, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for exercise. Everyone’s got their own tastes and everyone’s body responds differently to specific exercises and routines. So use trial and error (and creativity) to find the outdoor workout plan that works best for you.

If you have any questions about anything in this natural outdoor workout guide, let us know in the comments. We’d love to hear from you!

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👋 I'm Chris. Everything you read on TheZag.com is my fault. This site is like a gym for your comfort zone, full of challenges to make your status quo sexier. Join my 'Consider This' newsletter for a fun new challenge every 10 days. Try it!

  1. Logan Brown Avatar
    Logan Brown

    Great workout ideas, Chris! This pandemic has taken a toll on people’s physical and mental health. It is important to engage in physical activities now that the stay at home order is being gradually lifted. Anyways, outdoor exercises are much safer than indoor gyms.

    1. Chris Avatar
      Chris

      Yeah, it’s been refreshing to see more people than ever working out outside these days. I hope they keep it up even as pandemic-related restrictions and risks go down.

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