No-Equipment Workouts: Do More With Less

Smart instructors can offer a great workout anywhere, anytime, without any equipment.

by Christy Stevenson

If you’ve ever run out of BOSU® Balance Trainers or seen patrons haggling over the last set of 8-pound dumbbells, you appreciate the benefit of knowing how to program a class that doesn’t use equipment. Yes, in a perfect world, fitness instructors would have an endless budget for every latest and greatest fitness tool, toy and gadget. Our storage closets would be bottomless. And, thus, our members would always be able to lay their hands on whatever they needed for the next set.

This isn’t the typical scenario, but that’s not a negative. Every challenge is an opportunity to improve, and a limited equipment supply is no exception. Ultimately, the best fitness instructors are those who are able to create an effective, versatile workout that uses no equipment at all, because they can teach without limits!

Read on to weigh the benefits of developing a few workouts that utilize body weight only. Then discover the unique elements that equipment-free instructors need to keep in mind—and a 5-part formula for building the best workout for any class.

No equipment = no limits! It’s easy to take your workout anywhere—including into the summer sunshine—when you don’t need to tote extra gear.

Pros of a No-Equipment Workout

An obvious benefit of going equipment-free: You’ll never run out of equipment, no matter how many class members show up. Plus, equipment can be intimidating and requires a bit of a learning curve. Equipment-free workouts are a great way for participants to gain the strength and confidence to progress to more challenging classes that require equipment.

Here are some other perks:

COST-EFFECTIVENESS. This is possibly the biggest benefit of using no equipment. Even purchased in bulk, fitness equipment is an investment, and higher-quality pieces with better safety features come at a higher price. Then there are shipping costs, which are especially expensive for weights. Some items have notoriously short lifespans and must be replaced often to ensure safe usage, so equipment is not a one-time expenditure. And as class attendance grows, equipment needs likewise rise, multiplying the outlay. Fitness managers must constantly weigh the benefits of every piece of equipment purchased and assess whether it is helping or hurting the business financially.

MORE FLOOR SPACE. If you’re dealing with the very good problem of burgeoning class sizes, eliminating equipment frees up valuable space. Think of the square footage required per person when each participant needs a step, two sets of dumbbells, a stability ball, a yoga mat and so on. You can free up a lot of space around the perimeter of the room by eliminating stacks of these items.

MORE TIME TO EXERCISE. Think of how much time is spent setting up and breaking down equipment. Inevitably, patrons begin to put things away during the cooldown, skipping a vital part of the workout just to avoid the traffic jam at the equipment closet. Nixing equipment solves this problem; it also gains back time usually spent juggling equipment between one exercise and another.

FEWER POTENTIAL INJURIES. Any kind of exercise carries some risk of injury, and every type of equipment comes with potential mishaps: Who hasn’t had a patron trip over a step bench, snap a resistance band or fall off a stability ball? Taking away equipment takes away some of these risks. And when there is no equipment to set up and monitor, you can focus on cuing and fine-tuning form, which further reduces injury risk.

Cons of a No-Equipment Workout

While there are a few cons to address in order to provide the best no-equipment workouts possible, there are also ways to work around them.

LESS VARIETY. Equipment can add to the imagery of our workouts—a kickboxing bag becomes a worthy opponent, a step bench becomes a hurdle to hop over, a BOSU Balance Trainer becomes a Survivor-worthy challenge. Varying the equipment used can also keep you and your class members excited about the next class. Like kids, we all love a new toy! We enjoy challenging our minds and bodies to grasp new skills, and equipment allows us to do this. So, in no-equipment workouts it’s important to be mindful of ways to incorporate variety and challenge and thus prevent boredom.

FEWER OPTIONS FOR ADDING RESISTANCE. We all know how magically different a basic pushup can feel if performed using a BOSU—or how much harder a squat abductor lift is with a resistance band around the thighs.Dumbbells, barbells and kettlebells also provide extra weight that can dramatically increase strength gains. With equipment out of the picture, you must be creative and smart with your exercise choices to be sure you provide enough resistance to promote muscle growth.

A Formula for Full-Body, No-Equipment Workouts

No matter what level of fitness class I am planning, I always follow a basic formula for devising effective workouts, with or without equipment. This 5-part formula ensures variety and options for resistance training that can inherently disappear in a no-equipment workout.

1. BALANCE UPPER BODY, LOWER BODY AND CORE

A full-body workout is just that, so it’s important not to neglect one of these major aspects. Here’s how:

COMBINE ELEMENTS, choosing exercises that work all three areas simultaneously. Burpees, animal flow–based moves, and compound exercises (like low lunge to high plank to pushup) are all examples of exercises that work the full body in an integrated fashion.

ROTATE EXERCISES, making sure you follow an upper-body move with a lower-body move, and then do a core exercise after that.

MIX UP THE TIMING, maybe devoting longer time increments to each exercise—for example, 15 minutes to lower body, 15 minutes to upper body, 15 minutes to core.

The possibilities are endless, but the point is to mix and balance the major body zones. Even in a cardio-focused workout like dance fitness or cardio kickboxing, where there is a heavy emphasis on leg work, you should pay attention to how much you are incorporating upper-body and core elements, as well.

2. MIX PLANES OF MOVEMENT

In classes that are not restricted by equipment, planes of movement can vary from exercise to exercise. As you sequence the exercises or choreograph a routine, consider this question: Have I broken out of the sagittal plane?

Sagittal plane is the plane in which we walk, run and lunge, so it tends to be our “go-to.” But it’s essential to incorporate exercises that move us in the frontal plane (lateral movements like side squats, abductor lifts, side arm-raises, jumping jacks); transverse plane (rotational, twisting movements like cross punches, oblique twists, underswitches); and oblique plane (diagonal-like movements like windmills or samba hips).

This doesn’t have to be as complicated as it sounds. Simply aim to move in all the space available: Choose exercises high in space (like tuck jumps) and low in space (like low planks). Include exercises that move you forward, backward and side to side, plus some that require trunk rotation. By utilizing all planes of movement, you are sure to deliver a true full-body workout.

3. INCORPORATE VARIOUS BODY POSITIONS

If you are doing numbers 1 and 2, you are most likely already doing number 3 without even trying. These are the basic body positions:

  • standing
  • on all fours, or on twos (side)
  • sitting
  • lying down (prone, supine and side)

Every exercise falls into one of these categories, and in some modalities one position is dominant throughout. For example, participants are standing for most prechoreographed cardio formats. With formats like these, be mindful to incorporate the other positions, even if it’s just during the cooldown. In contrast, some modalities lend themselves easily to multiple positions: In a HIIT format, for instance, you can be doing V-ups for the core (seated), then switch to burpees (standing, on all fours). Varying body positions is a no-fail way to add challenge and variety to your workout.

4. VARY THE TEMPO

Whether your workout utilizes equipment or not, playing with tempo is a sure way to keep your muscles guessing. It also allows you to alternate between eccentric and concentric emphasis. With pushups and squats, for example, you can go down for 3 counts and up for 1 count—or try 2 and 2, 1 and 3, or 4 and 4 for the counts.

You can add in isometric contractions, too: Lower for 4 counts, hold for 8 counts, rise up for 4 counts. And add double-time pulses at the end of a slow tempo of reps to maximize the effectiveness of nonweighted exercises.

To maintain musicality, work with counts of 4, 8, 16 or 32. Varying tempo can create that sensation of resistance as your muscles struggle with endurance and the pull of gravity. Remember, faster isn’t necessarily harder. Incorporate super-slow movement to increase the demand on core muscles.

5. PLAY WITH PARTNERING

When you really want to add extra resistance without equipment, have your class members turn to one another. WARDING, or maintaining bodywide tension against an external force while performing an exercise, is a simple way to increase resistance and enhance core stability with no equipment. For example, a participant can push against his or her partner’s back to provide gentle resistance during a pushup, or class members can stand back-to-back for an isometric squat hold.

Be sure participants are comfortable with one another before asking them to perform partner work, and offer options for anyone who doesn’t want to work with a partner. Generally, partner work will enliven the class experience.

Learn How to Say No (to Equipment)

Whether you teach a prechoreographed format or freestyle format, whether the class is dance-based or athletic-based, knowing how to deliver an exciting, effective workout without equipment keeps you versatile and viable in any teaching environment!

Meet our experts

AFM_Author_Stevenson Christy Stevenson, AFAA-certified instructor, FiTOUR ProTrainer and fitness writer/presenter, has worked in the fitness industry for more than 16 years. She owns the YouTube channel Real Fit for Real Life. Follow her on Instagram @realfitforreallife.

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