Outdoor Gyms

Admittedly, sometimes especially in the winter, it can be pretty grim. 70mph winds outside, torrential rain, mud everywhere. Even today in the ‘summer’ the weather is mostly rain and wind. It’s a bit shit to be honest and tough to even get out of the house. Don’t worry, like Annie says, the sun’ll come out tomorrow, although tomorrow might be four months away. For me though, for a good chunk of the year, even in Scotland, an outdoor gym is far preferable than the indoor variety. I’ve had several in the last twelve years or so. Here’s what I’ve learned to working out Last Wolf Outdoors style.

Its free!

Duh, that’s obvious? Yeah it is, but if you’re still paying £40 a month to not use your Bannatynes membership pay attention. Bruce Lee said that running was the king of exercises, meaning that it is a complete exercise covering most parts of the human body. What he doesn’t mention is that anyone can do it with little or no equipment. Although I never met him, I’m pretty confident he didn’t mean running on a £2000 treadmill in an air-conditioned corporate money making hellhole that is as interested in your health as Bruce Lee was interested in eating crisps on the couch watching cat videos.

You can work out anywhere.

If you don’t mind being seen exercising of course and if you pay for a gym membership, you don’t. Your garden, the patch of grass next to your house, wherever, the location doesn’t matter. My friend used to lift the garden shed. Shedlifts, honestly. I used to do sprints and bear crawls around the local football field every night, the lines make good markers but you will get some funny looks. Odd that if 11 or 15 men were doing this rather than one, passers-by wouldn’t bat an eyelid. We are all perfectly used to seeing runners in their lycra gear, gadgets and ever present water bottles, yet performing burpees in the park looks weird.

Another thing I used to do was go to the beach and throw rocks. One winter a storm forced hundreds of rocks up onto the shore and covered the coastal path. I made it my mission to put them all back in the sea. I failed. “Exercise or civic duty?” A local dog walker asked. Most people will look at you funny when you throw rocks, do burpees or bear crawls outside, but yours is a spiritual and mental quest as well as a physical one. Learn to ignore theirs.

Survey the area thoroughly first, you don’t want to put your hands in dog shit or glass if it’s a well-used area. Nettles or thorns aren’t great for bare hands or feet either. Use common sense and probably best to not drink any of the available water either.

Woods are best

But if you are secretive and don’t want people thinking you are an utter lunatic, if its available to you, take yourself somewhere quiet and out of the way. This is the ideal as it leaves you open to explore all kinds of movements under your own circumstances without fear of being socially branded. Want to wear a ski mask and sweat suit, no problem. Want to dig a hole in the ground to bury yourself in, go for it. Broad sword swings in a suit of armour is encouraged.

Find a clearing in trees, the further off the main path the better. You don’t want to be having to stop to let dog walkers past all the time or come face to face with a slobbering Labrador. Pine forests will stay drier and don’t really get muddy. This is really the ideal floor to work out on, its soft, safe and you can see what is on top. If there is lots of leaves lying around, you never really can tell what’s under the surface. Grass is good, though long grass is problematic and can be quite unsafe. You might want to do several different workout styles in different venues though. The gym I used most in my life, Deadwood 1, was about a mile down a country path. This afforded a good warm up run and then I turned off into the pine trees for a few hundred meters or so. The main path was only really used by dog walkers or fly tippers. My wood gave me plenty of space but I could also see anyone coming in. I actually only ever saw one other person on that road and they walked past my gym entrance without even a glance in. 

The entrance to Deadwood 1 is just on the left before the path starts to slope upwards.

Things to look for

One of the good things about outdoor gyms is you have to use your imagination, the rowing and squat machines aren’t sitting hygienically waiting for you. Improvise, look for logs to press or squat with. Try and deadlift fallen trees. Although you’ll never really know what weight they are you can assume that their really fucking heavy. Ever tried lifting a dead tree? Give it a go and see tough guy. Look for low hanging branches that can take your weight for pull ups or leg hangs, pine trees aren’t great for this. Actually, are the trees climbable? Climbing is great exercise, time yourself. Deadwood 1 had an old smashed pipe running through it. I assume it was part of the nearby quarry or part of the field run off. I used the different sizes of pipe for different exercises. Smaller ones you could curl, bigger ones could be carried. Speaking of carrying, look for rocks. A pile of rubble can be very useful. Throwing a rock in a field is great messy fun.

At the ‘entrance’ to Deadwood 1, in reality a fly tipped gap in the hawthorn, there was a lot of manky old tyres. I piled them into a stack to hit with the sledgehammer I brought with me. Or I would stand at the top of the hill and throw them down and then back up again like in Superman 3. Lay down obstacles to jump or leap over. Big rocks and bigger fallen trees are useful for box jumps or elevated press ups. Everything isn’t laid out for you with attached safety warnings and programmable programmes, and this is a good thing. Push that wheel. Get creative.

Photo of Deadwood 1 from 2013, taken on my old Blackberry. The green in the distance is the main path.

You are not surrounded by people

This is a biggie for me as I never do well working out in front of strangers. But it also means there isn’t lots of people looking cute, checking each other out or sitting on their phones hogging the equipment. I’ll drive past gyms at their peak times and they are so busy, particularly during certain months of the year, you’d be lucky to get on any of the machines in your schedule. This puts me off using gyms as I don’t really have a lot of time to wait for someone else to finish. No waiting in the outdoors gym, no annoying queues and nobody looks at you weirdly when you dare to warm up properly, stretch in the corner when you’re done or scream like a maniac when you’ve just pb’d your lifts. “Could you please stop shouting sir you’re upsetting the ladies Pilates class.”

If you are the kind of person that craves the attention you get in the gym, by all means go to one and be around people. No one in the woods cares about your biceps or yoga pants. Which inevitably leads to…

No distractions

This is a big irritation for me in commercial gyms. No TV screens, no terrible music that you hate. If I’m trying to squat my own bodyweight I don’t want to see the news, or sports, or hear whatever shit music is on. If I’m not listening to Revenge or Archgoat, all I want to hear is the sound of my own exertion. Of course it also means there is no handy clean towels, sanitary water provision, shower room or Jacuzzi but fuck all that unnecessary shit anyway. You get what you pay for.

Make it interesting

One of my regular gym spots when I moved away from Deadwood 1 was atop the defensive ramparts of an Iron Age fort, which is possibly even older than that. I’d take my hammer or wear the weighted vest and run up the hill and do a variety of workouts on top. Box jumps or dips on the rocks, shadowboxing round a small fire. I really feel the history in the land and the stones and ditches left. To be using ancient historical sites in such a manner I think is far more respectful than turning it into a quarry and then ultimately a landfill site which is what it became.

What’s nearby? An old castle, some ruins, a mountain, Indian burial ground? Train like you’re an immortal. Gimme the prize! There can be only one.

Photo from Canmore taken in 1971. You can see the old quarry in the top right. This is now filled in. The entire area would have been of historical significance. Little is left, though you can make out where some buildings would have been still with a little imagination. The new quarry begins almost to the immediate left of the picture.

Fresh air

Oh man, the smell of anywhere outdoors beats the hell out of the smell of multi-sweaty workout folks. I’ll take the slurry pit. Mixed deodorants and such like give me a headache and flashbacks to high school changing rooms. But think of the benefit to your lungs. Working out is for the entire body, you may only see the external effects, but the internal ones are just as important. No climate control or air conditioning out here, just air. And that’s all you need.

Who cares what I’m wearing…

That’s me quoting Annie again. Tatty old shit doesn’t cut it at the modern gym, and yes you do look like you’ve just crawled out the bin in that stained Lonsdale hoody and worn out tracky breeks. Guess what, the woods care not. Hell, do your yoga naked if you want. I have.

You toughen up quickly

Yes, your hands are going to hurt, your feet probably too if you go barefoot. You should be barefoot by the way, what the hell would the point be of all this feeling the earth beneath your feet be if you’re wearing £100 Nikes? But you’d be surprised how quickly your skin hardens and your body adapts. You get used to the cold and damp. Your feet and hands get calloused and rough but ready. You are making your body useful again. Like your ancestors. Like how people used to get their exercise through their work, negating the need for exercise, gyms and the fitness industry because nobody was sedentary. If you were, you died. This is the real world, not squat machines and comfortable lat pull downs, and you will feel the benefits in the real world. A few months of doing this you’ll feel like you were carved out of wood. Ever worked out in the snow? It’s a great feeling and you can imagine you are Rocky training to battle Drago and save America.

The shower

As dried leaves, or twigs and pines pile up all over you, with mud on your face, hands and clothes, your body is getting used to the natural world again. Somehow it feels right and that is because you used to do this. This is what it was like when you were a child and it feels good. But the shower you eventually have when you get home feels incredible and is well deserved. You could have the worst shower in the world but it feels like a total winner when you get in it after one of these workouts. You’ll appreciate it so much more.

Whatever you do, do it outdoors.

And safely.

G.W. Harlan

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