I live in San Francisco. Little did I know before moving here that the quality of gyms would be horrible for bodybuilders. I’ve found everything EXCEPT a good bodybuilding or powerlifting style gym here. Oh trust me…there are all sorts of gyms that cater to niche markets. Gymnastics gyms, pole dancing gyms, yoga, boxing, fitness classes, cycling, TRX, rowing, and the list goes on and on. Hell, knowing San Francisco and the startup culture there is probably a gym where you pay to jog with someone else’s dog in a group fitness class. The owner then pays the gym for the dog walking. Double the profit. Silicon Valley Bank probably will send me a million in capital for these two sentences alone. I’m only being facetious, but you name it they have it. Apparently it’s too hard to ask for a gym near the Marina or Russian Hill (i.e. good parts of the city) that has a squat rack, your typical machines, and actually allows you to lift.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s a chain called “Crunch Fitness”, but they’ve recently banned deadlifting and adopted the Planet Fitness mentality. If you enjoy a cramped gym Monday-Thursday with shit equipment (hex plates) and people staring at you funny if you even attempt a compound movement, this place is for you. The only redemption this city has for good gyms are World Gym and The Dungeon (no website. It’s invite only), but both are too far away for us northern city dwellers.
Ok, enough SF rant. Let’s get to the bottom of the issue. I’m assuming at some point that you will be in a gym that doesn’t have all the necessary equipment to get your typical pump on. You probably have 1 squat rack, some bars, maybe no dumbbells, and maybe no machines at your disposal. Maybe you’re travelling and all you have a is a bar, some weights, and a rack. Maybe you’re at a CrossFit gym where they don’t believe in machines for religious reasons. WHATEVER the reason, this article is targeted at those who have minimal equipment. I’m going to run through each muscle group and the comparable exercises I’ve come up with for each. I will continue to update this article as I discover new ones….or until a person in SF reads this article and gets a smart idea to build a gym and take my money.
- Bench Press
This is pretty easy to dream up. If you have a bench and a squat rack, use it like your normal bench shrine by pulling up the bench to the edge of the squat rack and using the adjusters to get it set for your desired height. If you don’t have a weight bench, then use the ground and the rack. If you have neither, figure out something flat and heavy that you can press up and down I suppose.
Don’t have dumbbells, but they decided that kettlebells were a far more effective muscle sculpting tool? I personally think they are the disliked awkward stepchild, but hey I’ll take what I can get. Lay down on the ground or bench (if you’re lucky) and do your usual flies. If you’re lying on the ground try to get the kettle bell bottom to lightly touch the ground. Try bands if you don’t have those.
- Incline or Decline Bench Press
So you’re at a gym and all they have is your standard flat bench and squat rack? Well, you can still do an incline OR a decline workout. First, take the bench and bring it up close to the rack. Use the weight holders on the squat rack (no idea the actual name for them) and adjust them to your incline or decline height. Set the bar. Now you need to get the bench right. Take some weights or a plethora of yoga mats and stack them on the site nearest the bar (incline) or furthest away from the bar (decline). Now you have your elevation. With the decline, you sometimes need to lock your feet in. I’ve used a ton of things to lock myself in. Ideas: Use kettlebells and slip your feet into them, have a person hold your feet, use a tight band and put it underneath the elevated side of the bench and put your feet there. I’m sure you can think of something, but this tackles the problem of not having a true incline or decline bench. Good for: Crossfit Gyms
This one’s pretty easy to conceive. The best way is to use two bars if available and then dip as usual, but if you don’t have the luxury there are ways to get around it. Try pulling two chairs close together and pressing from there. In CrossFit gyms I’ve done ring dips and ring pushups. While not ideal, I suppose they get the job done.
Incredibly simple. If you don’t have machines this is your best bet to get a big back movement in. Use a barbell, kettlebells, whatever is available and pull it towards you waist.
- Seal Row
My second favorite exercises for a big back and it doesn’t require a machine! Take two equal height benches or boxes and set them near each other. Then put a bench on top of it. You can strategically place this near the squat rack so you have a place to unrack the weight and setup.
Grab something heavy and shrug. Simple as that.
- Pull Down
How about you switch this one for pull up. Use rings if you’re in a CrossFit style gym. Keep the rings close for close grip and wide for wide grip. Same goes for if you’re using a standard pullup bar or even a tree.
- One Arm Row
This one is usually done with Dumbbells. I’ve taken to load up one side of a barbell and grabbing the edge left open from the weights and doing a row with it. Very effective. Make sure you leave your hand some room after you load on all the weights hulk.
Self-explanatory. The best movement for most leg development. Gyms usually won’t yell at you for this one, but it does require at least a barbell.
- Front Squats
I hate not having a leg press or a leg extension, but I make due with these. I’ve gone from doing squats then leg press to squats and then front squats. It’s brutal, but it’s effective. All you need is a barbell or some sort of weight out in front of you. Don’t grab something so awkward that you can’t keep a straight back or proper form though…
Easy! And just as powerful as your leg extension machine. Use whatever weights you have available. You could even use two barbells or just plates if you don’t have the bars or dumbbells.
- Hamstring Curl
This is where I’ve gotten very very creative. Hitting your hamstring with a good contraction is honestly very tough without a lying or seated leg curl machine. However, an alternative is a glute ham raise. Most gyms that don’t have the machine probably don’t have the equipment for a proper ham raise either. My method for accomplishing this is to load up a barbell on the ground. I push the barbell back against a rack and slide plates like a door stopper on to each side to keep it from moving away from the rack. Then I slide my feet sideways underneath the barbell and then lock them in by turning them vertical again. In this position my feet are locked and my stomach is laying on the ground. Lie all the way down on the ground on your stomach and pull with your hamstrings towards the bar in a glute ham movement. To add leverage and to lock my feet against the bar I usually use a soft foam roller right behind my knee cap. Alternatives are Romanian deadlifts and good mornings, but I honestly don’t feel them as well in the lower part of my hamstring.
Here’s a video of me doing them: https://instagram.com/p/5DfIygxQd8/?taken-by=zelshzach
- Romanian Deadlift
Easy enough to understand. Use a barbell if you have one. If you don’t have one…use whatever weights available and look up how to do the exercise.
- Good Morning
A very unappreciated movement unless done correctly. This one is just as effective for me as any other glute machine I can find. Lightly load up a barbell and then pivot at your waist. Try to keep the legs straight with maybe a slight bend. Clench the butt cheeks to bring the torso back up.
- Glute Bridge
This is also a very raw and good movement for the glutes. You can use a barbell for this, however, the part that’s tough to find is the pad to protect the pelvis. Use a yoga pad if they have it. If not, use one of your own knee wraps. Pool noodle if worse comes to worse haha.
- Honestly…who uses machines for this anyways? Find something heavy and curl the shit out of it. Barbell, KettleBell, your best friends dog, whatever! You don’t need a good gym to hit this body part well.
- Close Grip Bench
Don’t have an actual bench? Press from the floor with a barbell and some weight on each side. It absolutely destroys triceps if you’re doing it right.
- Overhead Tricep extension
This is fairly easy to figure out as well. Use a kettlebell if available or a barbell. Do it just like a tricep extension with a cable/machine, but do it overhead.
- Tricep Dips
This can be done basically anywhere so you have no excuse. Use sturdy chairs, a bench, the edge of a sidewalk and dip with your triceps. To heighten the intensity, put some weight in your lap. It’s not very comfortable, but it helps if this is the only exercise that you can do.
- Military Press
Press something up and down. You honestly don’t need dumbbells or anything fancy to hit your shoulders because there are so many good variations with simply a barbell. Do your normal strict military press. Try it seated. Try it super wide grip. Try it behind the back. You’ll hit every piece of the shoulder with this one bit of equipment.
- Calf Raise
This is a great exercise to do for calves regardless of the machines you have available. Use weights on your back. Go up and down with your calves. Easy as that.
- Donkey Calf Raise
One of my favorite movements in a good gym with all the bells and whistles is a donkey calf raise. You’ve probably seen a picture of Arnold doing this one with two women on his back. Well, same scenario here. Grab two women, pivot at the hips, and start calf raising haha. No, but really, have someone load some weight on your back if possible. Another more upright way that I’ve performed this movement is to get under the squat rack and barbell and approach it just like a calf raise. However, I lean INTO the rack with my feet slightly out behind me. I use the rack sort of like a smith machine to guide the weight up and down while I push with my calves. It’s a nice variation to a normal calf raise.
- Seat Calf Raise
Sit down. Put weights on your knees and lap. Do your normal seated calf raise. Pretty simple although not as easy to do as a machine. If you need a better ROM put something underneath your toes to press against.
Honestly, it’s simple to come up with exercises to hit body parts. These have all worked great for me and I continue to see growth. In fact, with no leg press or leg extension, I’ve had a ton of progress in the quad and squat strength departments. Just because you don’t have a nice gym doesn’t give you an excuse not to workout. Nor does it give you an excuse not to get huge. Checkout @kulbila_fitness on instagram if you don’t believe me. Dude is massive from lifting stones up and down. Ya….you read correctly….he lives in Ghana and lifts with makeshift weights made out of rocks. Now go workout and stop complaining like me.