The definitive guide to strength training on the road

I recently wrote about what the best workout for most people is.

Short version:

  1. It depends on your goals and what you’ll actually do consistently
  2. It should probably include some kind of strength training

Of course, strength training can be complicated and intimidating even for non-travelers; once you add in the logistical hurdles that travel brings, it can seem a lot more daunting than it needs to, which often leads to no strength training getting done.

But: strength training is incredibly, incredibly important. The list of benefits that strength training can provide is so preposterous that I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t read the research myself:

And that’s just in the nominally healthy — it can also improve outcomes and quality of life for people with cancer, heart failure, chronic kidney disease, diabetes and obesity. It might be the single best thing you can do for your health, period.

All of which is to say, it’s worth finding a way to do strength training on the road. At the end of that article about choosing an exercise discipline, I said that how to do strength training while traveling is an extensive topic for another day. Well gang, TODAY’S THE DAY.

How to strength train while traveling

Essentially, you have two options when it comes to strength training (both generally and on the road):

  1. Lifting weights, and
  2. Other non-weight based systems that use elastic bands, improvised equipment, and/or bodyweight in combination with calistentic or gymnastic movements.

Both have their pros and cons — weights are definitely more efficient and probably more effective for most people, and are what I would recommend for almost all non-travelers, but it’s not easy to find a gym on the road, and you’re not going to be able to toss a squat rack in your carry-on. Bands and bodyweight training, on the other hand, are much more convenient, with more portable equipment, but in all likelihood not as efficient or effective for most people.

We’ve said before that the best workout is the one that you’ll do (and the best diet is the one that you’ll follow), and therein lies the issue. Both weight-based and non-weight based strength training are decidedly possible for both full- and part-time business travelers; which one you choose depends on your personal situation and preferences. Weights are better if you can manage the logistics, but if you can only swing band-and-bodyweight training (or even just prefer it), we’ll cover how to get the most out of those as well.

You should really try to find a gym

To understand why weights are generally the more effective and efficient form of strength training, we’ve first got to talk about how and why strength training works in the first place — and what strength training is and is not.

Strength training is sometimes referred to as resistance training, because strength training uses increased resistance to make movements more difficult. Performing those movements against resistance — whether that’s from weights, bands, or simply gravity — positively stresses the muscles, bones, and ligaments involved, which then kick off a whole host of enzymatic and hormonal processes that help those structures recover from this stress.

As part of that recovery process, those structures actually become stronger and more efficient than before through a process called supercompensation. In effect, the body says to itself “well, we were working at near maximum capacity and we unable to do so for very long; we should really increase our ability to do that work.”

Interestingly, in addition to creating stronger muscles and denser bones, the enzymatic and hormonal processes created by strength training do other things in the body — your body is efficient, and almost every hormone and signaling pathway has multiple uses. These ‘side effects’ create a variety of other positive changes in the brain, central nervous system, and endocrine (hormonal) systems. As a result, your entire body (and your brain!) get the benefit of strength training; not just your muscles.

But, in order to keep triggering these processes and increasing fitness, you have to create progressive overload, where you keep slightly increasing the amount of work you do each time you do the movements to the movements. So, unless you continue to push your work capacity as it increases you’ll trigger smaller and smaller biochemical cascades, leading to less and and less progress over time.1This is — of course — a massive simplification of how these recovery and adaptation processes work to make the body stronger and better, but the full version is the subject of multi-hundred-page books with section headings like “Neurotrophic Factors and Strength Adaptation,” “The Repeated Bouts Effect,” “Endocrine Signaling In Peripheral Tissues,” and “The Pathways Governing Osteoblast Proliferation,” so we’ll be going with the simple version for today’s purposes.

If you’re not creating progressive overload, you’re not strength training, period. Even if you’re using weights — there are a number of exercise modalities that involve weights or extra resistance that can be useful and valuable in other contexts (and can even build strength in the untrained), but without progressive overload, they’re not strength training, and they won’t give you the benefits of strength training. To quote strength coach Mark Rippetoe:

“Exercise and training are two different things. Exercise is physical activity for its own sake, a workout done for the effect it produces today, during the workout or right after you’re through. Training is physical activity done with a longer-term goal in mind, the constituent workouts of which are specifically designed to produce that goal”.

There’s nothing wrong with exercise with weights, to be clear, and it’s a hell of a lot better than doing nothing. But all of the the benefits we talked about earlier come from strength training, not exercise with weights — so today we’re talking about how to do strength training on the road, and not anything else.

With that out of the way: the reason why gyms and weights tend to be more effective and efficient for strength training is that it’s significantly easier to granularly control the level of resistance and the amount of work being done by changing the amount of weight you’re moving, which makes it easier to create ideal amounts progressive overload. As Henry Rollins says in The Iron and the Soul: “two hundred pounds is always two hundred pounds”, and weights allow you to consistently add two hundred (or one hundred, or twenty, or two and a half) pounds of resistance to an exercise.

Bodyweight exercises rely on increasing repetitions (which is another way to create progressive overload, but a more difficult one to utilize above a certain skill level) and changing leverage by changing the way an exercise is performed (which has its own skill-related issues), and bands don’t allow for particularly granular changes in resistance, which makes it much harder to control and therefore tougher ensure progression and maximum benefit.

But: bodyweight is better than nothing

Here’s a philosophical question I struggle with: as someone who makes fitness recommendations, is it better for me to recommend the thing that has a much higher likelihood of adherence but won’t be quite as effective for most people, or to recommend the thing that is most effective but harder to actually accomplish? Should we somehow blend those considerations and recommend the thing that’s going to get the best average result? The best median result?

I think the answer is to just talk about the tradeoffs and remind people that improvement is not an all-or-nothing proposition. If you’re unable to find or get to a gym, or if it’s logistically difficult enough that there’s a very low chance that you’ll actually do it, bodyweight exercises are still worth doing.

While weights are probably more efficient and effective for most people, every benefit of strength training can be achieved through non-weight methods. Using weights doesn’t automatically transform an exercise modality into strength training, and not using weights doesn’t automatically disqualify it. The thing that matters is progressive overload. It’s harder to create progressive overload without weights, and therefore often less effective and efficient, but it’s not impossible — and it’s often much easier to logistically to train without weights, especially for business travelers.

Be honest with yourself and recognize when doing the “optimal” is too hard and likely to lead to failure. You can accomplish quite a lot and also not be working in the most efficient way possible. Strive for optimal, but also accept your current situation and its constraints — be they logistical, behavioral, or psychological.

Doing anything is better than doing nothing; doing non-weight exercises is better than “lifting weights” when “lifting weights” is actually doing nothing. If you can lift weights, you should. If you can’t, do the best form of strength training that you’re actually going to do.

There’s no shame in being unable to hit the weights for any reason— not lifting because there’s no gym available is no different than not lifting because you can’t get yourself to get up and go to the gym, or because you’re intimidated, or whatever. All are solved the same way: do the best you can with what you have, and make a plan to make it better in the future.

How to find a gym (and get your company to pay for it)

Again, no shame if you decide not to seek out a gym right away (or ever). I’d encourage you to work towards it if the issues are behavioral or psychological; if they’re logistical or physical, skip right ahead to the section on equipment for bodyweight/non-weight exercises. But if you’re ready to jump in, or just interested, and are starting to seek out a gym, there are a few basic questions to ask:

  1. Does it have barbells and a squat rack?
    Barbells and other kinds of free weights produce better strength training results than weight machines. Using free weights allows the muscles to activate more during the exercise for many different exercises, which then creates more beneficial metabolic effects per exercise done.
    But again, if you don’t feel comfortable with barbells yet and you’ll actually use the machines, use the machines — but still pick a gym with barbells. Even if you’re not going to use them, places with ample barbells and squat racks tend to be geared towards people who are serious about their health and aren’t just at the gym to grab a free bagel and say they went to the gym. That kind of gym is the kind of gym you want to go to.
  2. Is it convenient?
    Convenient can mean different things, but the key question is really: is it harder to not go than it is to go? In the past, I’ve joined a gym that was twice the price of another because I literally had to walk past the first one on my way home and the second one was a quarter of a mile out of the way.
    When you’re traveling for work, in a foreign city, with limited time and energy to figure out these kinds of logistics, you should be willing to pay a massive premium to make your gym more convenient. If it’s not between your hotel and your client or within about half a mile of either of those two points, it’s probably too far out of the way.
    Hotel gyms, while often the most convenient, rarely have the kind of equipment that would be useful for anyone who isn’t completely new to strength training. Generally speaking, if you’re committed to weight-based strength training, I’d encourage you to start in a hotel gym to lower the logistical barrier to entry, but go somewhere with barbells as soon as possible — and that almost always means leaving the hotel gym. (That being said: they’re often a very good place to do non-weight based strength training, which is worth thinking about. More on that in a second.)
  3. Is it reasonably priced?
    This is an interesting consideration for business travelers. If you’re paying out of pocket, join a gym you can afford, but not necessarily the cheapest one you can find. Price is only one factor of many important ones, and if you pick a gym that’s three miles out of the way or one that is missing crucial equipment to save $20 per month, you’re not going to be saving any money in the long run. The distance means you’re not going to go as often (or at all) and the lack of equipment means you won’t be able to train as effectively when you’re there. It helps to think about the cost on a per-quality-session basis — how much does it cost per good training session? Optimizing for that number, rather than sheer cost, tends to do a good job balancing the multiple factors at play.
    If you’re not paying out of pocket, ignore some of the advice above and just pick and pay for the most convenient gym possible with the equipment you need (assuming it’s within your budget). If you’re not sure if your company will reimburse you for gym fees, ask. Most larger consultancies and other firms already have rules in place around this, but if yours doesn’t, consider pointing out that resistance training helps decrease anxiety, improve cognition, improve sleep quality, and decrease fatigue, which in turn makes you more productive and effective at work; and that the price of a gym for a week is an order of magnitude less than the amount already being paid for your hotel and flights.

One other point: I generally wouldn’t recommend joining a large national chain like LA Fitness and simply hoping that there will be one near your hotel or client. Too often, the chain gyms end up being too far out of the way for you to go regularly — and since you’ve already spent money on that membership, sunk cost effects make you less willing to pay for access to another gym. It’s not “rational,” but none of this really is. Again, think cost-per-session, not just total cost, and spend a little more for short-term contracts or day passes.

“Bodyweight” doesn’t mean no equipment

Deciding that weights aren’t for you doesn’t free you from the burden of equipment. Without some equipment, in fact, it’s prohibitively difficult to train every major muscle group — that equipement might be portable and packed ahead, improvised, or discovered, but you’re going to need something.

This is largely because there are very few non-equipment ways to perform pulling motions, and a strength training program is incomplete without pulling motions. Pulling motions are important because while each individual muscle can only contract or relax, your musculoskeletal system effectively works in pushing and pulling pairs, and only strengthening one half of those pairs can lead to pain, dysfunction, and all manner of other issues.

Consider your elbow. You can extend it, engaging the triceps on the back of the upper arm, and you can flex it, engaging the biceps on the inside of your upper arm. Both movements happen when a muscle contracts, but they move the arm in opposite directions. Pairs of muscles like this are called antagonistic pairs, and every major skeletal muscle has one or many paired antagonists that must relax when it contracts. In order to avoid strength imbalances and dysfunction, you want to strengthen all muscles in a agonist-antagonis pair relatively evenly (you don’t have to do both in every training sessions, to be clear, but you should work to make sure they’re of similar strength).

But: working each muscle individually doesn’t produce the biochemical reactions we’re looking for as effectively as large, multi-joint compound movements. So instead of thinking about muscles as antagonistic pairs, it’s more useful to think of them as pushing and pulling groups tied to the upper and lower body. When you want to push something away from yourself with your upper body, you engage your chest, shoulders, and triceps to do so; when you want to pull something towards yourself, you instead engage your upper back, lats, and biceps.

Practically, this means that to train the muscle groups evenly with multi-joint movement, you can structure your training sessions around hitting four-plus-one movements:

  1. Upper body pushing
  2. Upper body pulling
  3. Lower body pushing
  4. Lower body pulling
  5. Plus one: core stability

This is relatively straightforward with weights: deadlifts for lower body pulling, squats for lower body pushing, bench and shoulder press for upper body pushing, pull-ups and rows for upper body pulling. Unless you have aesthetic goals around having large, defined abs, direct core work is unnecessary because of the loading patterns of the squat, deadlift, and shoulder press (hence plus-one).[mfn]Two exercises each for the upper body because the shoulder has a larger range of motion than the hip, and it’s valuable to train both vertically and horizontally — pull-up and shoulder press train the vertical, bench and rows the horizontal. Also, the upper body tends to need a little bit more volume of training than the lower body in general to get the same results, so doubling up on upper body exercises tends to sort that out. Not so with no equipment.

Without equipment, pushing motions translate quite well (push-ups and bodyweight squats), but the pulling motions just don’t. You can do some kind of bridging to kind of replicate lower body pulling, but it’s hard to increase resistance; and you can basically pull yourself along the ground like a snail to replicate the pull-up, but it’s odd and uncomfortable and also requires a decent amount of space. So: equipement.

When it comes to non-weight equipment, you’ve got two categories:

  1. Fixed things that you pull against, allowing you to use your bodyweight and leverage to add resistance, like pull-up bars, and
  2. Moveable things that add resistance the same way weights do, like bands and improvised weights.

The former is probably a better choice from an efficiency standpoint, but again: much harder to pack in a bag and be truly self sufficient with. There’s a foldable door mounted pull-up bar that was Kickstarted and is closing in on shipping as I write; I’m sure I’ll pick one up once they start selling them to the general public and review it. For now, the best option is this kind of bar that twists to expand and will fit diagonally in the bottom of a carry-on, but a) they tend to slip and not be particularly stable and b) I’ve heard stories of them getting flagged as a potential weapon/hazard by TSA. There are also these over-the-door handles that are decent for chin-ups, but not particularly useful for other kinds of pulling motions, and portable gymnastics rings, which are incredibly effective (perhaps more so than a bar), but a) too difficult for most people without some strength training experience and b) harder to get set up on the road than almost any other option. I personally view TRX-type rigs as worse, more expensive rings — they’re more finicky and less adaptable, and anything you can do with a TRX rig you can also do with a set of rings that come with a door anchor, for about one fifth the price.

Fortunately, it’s often fairly easy to find something to do a pull-up from: almost all hotel gyms will have something, and most public parks will have either a dedicated pull-up station or at the very least some monkey bars you can use. In a pinch, you can even do pulling motions hanging from the bottom of a table.

There are other ways to add resistance without weight, most notably resistance bands. Options abound; grab whatever seems interesting, although you’ll be able to do a wider variety of work if you grab the kind that has handles, ankle straps, and a door anchor.

If you forget or don’t have those (or are reading this on a Tuesday night on the road wondering what you can do right now), you can always just pick up and pull on some heavy stuff, like your suitcase. All of these options are lackluster even relative to using your bodyweight to add resistance, largely because it’s hard to track and granularly change how much resistance you’re adding to a movement with elastic bands and improvised equipment. But again, they’re a hell of a lot better than nothing.

Building a routine

Because of the various demands of business travel, we want to find the strength training plan that will give us most of the possible benefit in as little time as possible — the most bang for our buck, so to speak.

Like we discussed earlier, that means trying to use as many muscles and muscle groups as we can with each exercise, which means that we’re looking for a training plan centered around multi-joint compound movements that cover pulling and pushing for the upper and lower body, plus core work. This is true no matter the equipment we’re using.

Traditional three-day-per-week beginner/intermediate routines usually look something like:

  • Monday
    • Lower body pull, 1-3 sets of 5-8 reps2For the unfamiliar, “reps” are individual repetitions of an exercise, done one after another with very little rest between movements, while sets are sets of repetitions, done with a moderate amount of rest between sets — usually in the 1.5 to 5 minute range for strength training.[/mfn
    • Upper body push (vertical), 3-5 sets of 5-8 reps[mfn]One of the additional variables you can work with in strength training (beyond increased resistance) is the number of repetitions in a set. Different rep ranges are good for different goals; generally lower rep ranges (1-3) are better for building strength relative to body weight, while higher rep ranges (8+) are better for muscle growth. The 5-8 range recommended for most beginners is a good ‘all-purpose’ rep range.
  • Wednesday
    • Upper body push (horizontal), 3-5 sets of 5-8 reps
    • Upper body pull (horizontal), 3-5 sets of 5-8 reps
  • Friday
    • Lower body push, 3-5 sets of 5-8 reps
    • Upper body pull (vertical), 3-5 sets of 5-8 reps

Most free weight programs don’t include core work, because squats and deadlifts tend to be plenty, but most non-weight programs will add supplemental core work on one or two of those days.

You’ll also sometimes see two-day-per-week programs that look more like this:

  • Monday
    • Lower body pull, 1-3 sets of 5-8 reps3You may have noticed that we’re recommending fewer sets of lower body pulling. Lower body pulling tends to be highly taxing on the central nervous systems, so it’s usually done for fewer sets than other exercises.
    • Upper body push (horizontal), 3-5 sets of 5-8 reps
    • Upper body pull (vertical), 3-5 sets of 5-8 reps
  • Thursday
    • Lower body push, 3-5 sets of 5-8 reps
    • Upper body push (vertical), 3-5 sets of 5-8 reps
    • Upper body pull (horizontal), 3-5 sets of 5-8 reps

Because a large majority of business travelers are on the road either Sunday night to Thursday night or Monday morning to Friday morning, this can be a lot more manageable — doing the sessions either Monday morning and Thursday morning or Monday night and Thursday night, depending on when you travel. I personally prefer three day-per-week setups (and the general consensus is that they’re a little more effective), but they’re going to mean spending some of your limited time at home working out, and if you’re using weights, finding a home gym and maintaining a membership.

As always: do the one that you’re actually going to do. For most business travelers, I’m guessing that’s the two-per-week version (and, according to the HHS, two sessions of strength training per week will give you a majority of the benefits anyway — three gives you more benefits, but at a diminishing rate of returns).

Turning that routine into a plan

Now we’ve got to turn those general routines into a plan that includes specific movements.

For weights, every one of those types of movement has a clear best version:

  • Lower body push == Squat
  • Lower body pull == Deadlift
  • Upper body push (horizontal) == Bench press
  • Upper body pull (horizontal) == Row
  • Upper body push (vertical) == Shoulder press
  • Upper body pull (vertical) == Weighted pull-up/chin-up

Slot those exercises into the above routines, google around if you’re not sure how to do them, do 3-5 sets of 5-8 reps for each exercise, and you’re on your way. To create progressive overload, do the same exercise every session but add more reps or more weight.

I know that’s a simplistic explanation, but literal books have been written about this stuff, and we’d be unable to even scratch the surface if this article was twice as long. Instead, I’m just going to leave it at that and leave you with a few resources: I started out lifting in earnest using Stronglifts 5×5 (includes great tutorials on the squat, bench, deadlift, row, and overhead press), but many people swear by Starting Strength (which is objectively a better resource, but Stronglifts is what I had and what got me working). Since then, I’ve tried a number of different programs like The Juggernaut Method, 5/3/1, Bulgarian-style training, and others, but generally find myself coming back to Martin Berkhan’s version of Reverse Pyramid Training for ease of use and quality of results.

If you’ve never tried lifting weights, I’d highly encourage it. We’ve already discussed why weights are more effective, but there’s also a lot more out there about how to use them well — that’s because the current form of weights have been basically standardized for the last 50+ years, there are a handful of well defined movements and motor patterns to learn that will give you all or almost all of benefits, and people much smarter than me have done a lot of thinking about the best ways to combine them into successful routines.

This is also why having a pull-up bar and/or rings for non-weight based strength training is also probably the best secondary option for most people: it’s one of the more effective choices, and it’s also a highly understood system that has a multitude of well defined routines that all, generally speaking, work quite well. More on that: right now.

When you’re working with just a pull-up bar or rings, there are clear best versions of most of the types of movement we want to hit:

  • Lower body push == Squat
  • Upper body push (horizontal) == Push-up
  • Upper body pull (horizontal) == Horizontal row/Front lever/Front lever pull-up
  • Upper body push (vertical) == Handstand push-ups
  • Upper body pull (vertical) == Pull-up/chin-up

The only open question is the lower body pull. The common answer is either bridges or single-legged bodyweight “deadlifts”, although you’ll get some different answers depending on who you ask. More generally, there isn’t really non-added-resistance movement that maps perfectly that’s not just picking up something heavy. If you don’t want to just pick up something heavy over and over (although: maybe do? A full suitcase, perhaps?), it’s fine; you’ll still be far, far ahead of the curve with bridges or single-leg deads.

Progressive overload with bodyweight is a little trickier. The most common way to progress is to move through more and more difficult versions of the same movements (this, incidentally, is another reason why bodyweight work tends to be less effective: instead of learning one motor pattern and adding resistance via weights to create overload, you have to learn new motor patterns and then perform them at the limits of your strength, which, for reasons I feel are obvious, is harder to get right.)

A lot of the above movements are, in fact, the harder/more progressed versions and most people won’t be able to perform them right away (handstand push-ups being the obvious example). If you can’t do the listed exercise, you instead start with a scaled down version (in this case, a pike pushup), and slowly work your way up to the full movement (handstand pushup). As with weights, literal books have been written about these progressions and this article is already long enough, so I’ll just point out some resources.

Like I mentioned in my previous article about choosing workouts, reddit’s r/bodyweightfitness has some shockingly good beginner routines; a couple of other relative classics in the space are the books Overcoming Gravity, which I highly recommend, and Convict Conditioning, which was my first foray into bodyweight work. Like Stronglifts, it worked and it and it got me moving, but Overcoming Gravity is the decidedly better resource.

If you’re working with resistance bands, there are resistance-band version of all of the major movements we’re trying to accomplish. Most are fairly straightforward, either directly replicating the equivalent weighted movement, or adding resistance to a bodyweight movement:

  • Lower body push == Banded bodyweight squat
  • Lower body pull == Band deadlift
  • Upper body push (horizontal) == Banded push-up
  • Upper body pull (horizontal) == Band row
  • Upper body push (vertical) == Band shoulder press
  • Upper body pull (vertical) == Band pull-downs

Most of these require handles, a door anchor, or both. As with both bodyweight and weight based strength training, we’re looking to work in the 3-5 sets of 5-8 reps range, progressing by adding resistance, which is one of the things that makes bands quite difficult.

Bands don’t add fixed resistance in the same way that weights do — they add variable resistance based on how far the band is stretched. If you’ve ever played around with them (or with any kind of rubber band), you know what I mean: the resistance gets higher the farther you stretch the band. Because of this, it’s easy to add resistance by stretching a band further, but it’s incredibly difficult to exactly measure how much resistance you’re adding, which makes it hard to consistently progress. Nevertheless, it’s better than nothing.

No excuses

If get one thing from this article, let it be this: you can find a way to do strength training while traveling for work. There are multiple modalities, multiple forms of equipment, multiple solutions. Build your own plan from the advice above, or seek one out online — whether it’s one listed above, another one you find somewhere reputable (given it follows the basic shape of the above recommendations), or even one of those DVD-based programs like P90X (assuming you’re increasing the resistance). Some are easier to actually do, some are more effective, the ones that are more effective are usually the least convenient. So it goes — if your current amount of knowledge and action is zero, any structured plan that you consistently follow will be a massive upgrade — so find the version that you’ll actually do, and get it done.

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