Travel Strong

The Ultimate Muscle-Building Playground Workout!

playground workout

When I left home to travel I fully intended to find a gym in each location so I could continue to work on exercises like squats, deadlifts, presses and pulls. Sometimes this worked out, other times it didn’t.

Actually finding a decent gym with the equipment I wanted proved to be a nightmare, and of course there is the inherent cost involved. It’s one thing shelling out a couple of times during a short break, but if you’re travelling regularly or for an extended period of time the costs quickly get out of hand.

In the end, I found that forcing myself to find gyms while on the road lead to nothing but frustration.

Foolishly, I hadn’t packed a TRX either. So I turned to the next best thing – playground workouts!

Playground workout routines are awesome because you can train every muscle in your body with ease, and best of all, it’s totally free! 

On top of that, the exercises you can do in a park have a definite carry-over to the lifts you can do in the gym. So when you do eventually get back in the gym you might actually find that you’re stronger and more flexible than ever.

The Perfect Playground Workout Routine

Next time you find yourself without a gym, take a stroll and look for a playground or park with monkey bars (or anything else you can hang from), a swing set and a run-of-the mill park bench.

Using those simple bits of equipment, you can do this great full-body workout that will build muscle and lose fat. The workout is set up as a circuit, and here’s how it works:

  • Do 8-10 reps of each exercise before moving on to the next one.
  • When you have performed each exercise once, return to the first exercise and do another 8-10 reps of each exercise. This is your second circuit.
  • After that, do one third and final circuit.

Do this workout every other day to give yourself time to recover and relax.

This post is pretty long because I’ve included detailed descriptions of how to do each exercise with proper form, and an appropriate progression. The progressions enable you to apply the all-important principle of progressive overload that will allow you to continue building muscle once you are strong enough to do the basic variation of the exercise for 10 reps, for 3 circuits.

Once you know how to perform the exercises properly, you can use the tables at the end to keep track of your workouts and ensure that you are always improving.

But before you jump in to any workout, it’s crucial that you do a warm-up. I haven’t talked about warming-up yet on Travel Strong, but jumping right into a workout without preparing your body is the best way to get yourself injured, which is something we obviously want to avoid.

Start by taking a relaxed jog around the park, or jumping rope for 5-10 minutes (just until you break a sweat). Follow that up with some dynamic movements like high skips, leg swings, butt kicks, walking lunges, and knee hugs. Get the arms and shoulders primed for movement with arm circles, shoulder shrugs, and arm crosses.

Once you’re warmed up and ready to go, head over to the playground for this full-body strength-training routine.

1. Squat

Basic Exercise – Bodyweight Squat:

If you’ve been reading Travel Strong for any length of time you’ll know that I’m a huge fan of squats.

That’s because they build a great deal of lower body strength, will get you closer toward your goal of getting the body you’ve always wanted, improve your athleticism, and remind you how to do a fundamental bodyweight movement that you’ve most likely forgotten.

If that’s the case, here’s a refresher on how to do them properly:

  • Stand tall with you feet shoulder-width apart and engage your core (as if you were about to take a punch).
  • Hold your arms out straight in front of you. This acts as a counter-balance that will help with stability.
  • Keeping your chest up (like you’re trying to show somebody a logo on the chest of your t-shirt), sit back as if you were going to sit in a chair.
  • Keep your weight on your heels throughout the movement.
  • When you’re as low as you can go, push back up through your heels and squeeze your glutes to reverse the movement.

If this is too difficult for you, hold on to a swing set (like in the swing rows video further down the page).

Progression – Bench Jumps:

Set yourself up a couple of feet away from a sturdy park bench, and squat down just as above. From there:

  • Jump up as explosively as possible, using your arms for momentum.
  • Try to land on the bench as softly as possible with a mid-food strike.
  • Don’t jump back down, carefully step down.

2. Pull/Chin-Up

Basic Exercise – Eccentric Chin-Up:

I’m not going to lie, chin-ups (palms facing you) and pull-ups (palms facing away from you) are tough.

But they are probably the best bang-for-your-buck bodyweight exercise in existence, so working towards them as soon as possible is a really good idea. If a regular chin/pull-up is too tough for you, ‘eccentrics’ are the way to do just that. To perform an eccentric rep:

  • Position yourself under any sturdy bar, set of monkey bars, or rings.
  • Jump up as high as you can and grab the bar with an underhand grip.
  • Pause, and then slowly lower yourself back to the ground. This is the eccentric (or negative) part of the movement and you should aim for it to take 5 seconds.
  • Repeat for the prescribed number of repetitions.

I suggest going with an underhand grip because the vast majority of people find chin-ups easier due to the added emphasis on the biceps, so they make a good starting point.

Progression – Regular Chin/Pull-Up:

Once you can do 8 eccentric reps with perfect form, you can progress to regular chin/pull-ups. Again, you will probably find chins easier, but feel free to do pull-ups instead if you prefer. Some points on form:

  • Start from a dead-hang position. This means your arms should be fully-extended, and you shouldn’t be swinging.
  • Quickly pull yourself upwards until your sternum touches the bar. It helps to think of pulling the bar towards you, rather than the other way around.
  • Pause briefly, and then lower yourself back down into the dead-hang position. You don’t need to do this as slowly as you did during the eccentrics – shoot for a 3 second descent instead.
  • Throughout the movement focus on keeping your shoulder blades together and depressed (as if you are trying to put your shoulder blades into your back pocket).

3. Hip Thrust

Basic Exercise – Glute Bridge:

Look, I get that you’ve probably got your hangups about thrusting your hips into the air in a public space, but get over it. Nobody cares, and given that you’ll be doing them amongst a whole bunch of other exercises, you’ll look a little bit less weird.

Besides, glute bridges are insanely important. Essentially, they work all of the muscles we’ve weakened by sitting all day, and they’ll help correct ugly postural imbalances such as anterior pelvic tilt (otherwise known as ghetto booty).

As much as you might think you know about thrusting, here’s how to do it right:

  • Lie down on your back. Bend your knees and position your feet flat on the ground about hip-width apart.
  • Drive up through your heels and upper back to lift your glutes (which are your butt cheeks, for those of you who hadn’t figured that out) off the ground.
  • Drive your hips up as high as possible, while squeezing your glutes hard and bracing your abs.
  • Squeeze your glutes for second or two at the top before lowering yourself back to the ground and repeating the movement.
  • You should feel this move in your glutes and hamstrings and not in your lower back.

Progression – Single-Leg Glute Bridge:

I neglected glute bridges for a long time and was shocked at how difficult I found the single-leg glute bridge the first time I tried it. Make sure you’ve got the regular glute bridge down before trying this variation.

  • Set up like you would for the glute bridge and then raise one leg up off the ground.
  • You can bend the raised leg to 90 degrees or point the toe up toward the ceiling. Just make sure not to swing the raised leg as you lift.
  • Drive through your heel and upper back. Squeeze your glutes and core just as you did before.

4. Push-Up

Basic Exercise – Elevated Push-Up:

Ah, the push-up. This is probably the best true bodyweight exercise because it requires absolutely no equipment. On top of that it’s easy to add progressions and regressions as necessary.

For anybody who struggles with conventional push-ups, so-called ‘girl-push-ups’ are not the answer. For those who don’t know, ‘girl-push-ups’ are performed with your knees on the ground. But they suck. First and foremost, they imply that girls need a different push-up to men; they don’t. Women can do push-ups just as well as men, if not better. Don’t believe me? Here’s Jordan Syatt’s client knocking out regular push-ups with perfect form:

The second reason I’m not a fan is that they prevent women from learning how to do a proper push-up and therefore remove the possibility of progressions that make the push-up such a wonderful exercise in the first place.

OK, rant over.

A better place to start is with elevated push-ups. Elevated push-ups involve placing your hands on a raised surface, such as a park bench or wall, lowering your chest to said surface, and then quickly pushing yourself away from it. Elevated push-ups are great because you can gradually lower the height of the surface you use until you can do a regular push-up from the floor.

To do it right:

  • Stand a few feet away from the surface you intend to use.
  • Place your hands on the bench or wall just beyond shoulder-width. Your elbows should be close to your body throughout the movement.
  • Keeping your body straight (by squeezing your glutes and abs), lower yourself until your chest touches the surface.
  • Pause, and quickly return to the starting position.
  • You should be on the balls of your feet throughout the exercise.

Progression – Regular Push-Up:

The regular push-up is done exactly the same as above, except it’s done from the floor.

Nothing else to it.

5. Single-Leg

Basic Exercise – Lunge:

Single-leg exercises are a great addition to the squatting you will have done earlier in the workout. Not only will these exercises further strengthen your legs, core and numerous other muscles, they will also challenge your stability and balance between limbs.

The lunge is the easiest single-leg exercise to learn, and here’s how to do it:

  • Stand tall with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  • Step forward with one leg into a wide stance.
  • Lower your hips until both knees are bent at approximately a 90 degree angle. Your front knee should not extend over your ankle, and your back knee should hover above the ground.
  • Keep your weight in your heel as you push back up to starting position. Repeat for 8-10 reps on each side.

Progression – Split Squats:

Split squats aren’t all that different to lunges, really. The difference is that your rear foot will be elevated on a bench.

Some important things to remember:

  • Try to keep the knee of the standing leg in line with your second toe as you perform the exercise. 
  • Don’t lean forward, stay as upright as possible, and try to prevent your weight from shifting onto your forefoot while performing your reps. The brunt of your weight should always be on your heel.
  • Attempt to squeeze the glute of the trailing leg throughout.

6. Row

Basic Exercise – Swing Rows:

Rows are an awesome exercise for building strength in your back, and will improve your chin/pull-ups dramatically.

The video below is pretty self-explanatory, but keep in mind that your body should be tight and straight. Try to think of pulling with your elbows rather than your hands to ensure you are using your back rather than your arms.

Progression – Inverted Rows:

To perform inverted rows you need to find a bar that’s low to the ground. Usually a set of ladder rungs will do the trick, but anything else you can hold on to will be fine.

Pull your body to the bar in the same manner as you would when doing swing rows, pause and return to the starting position. Make sure you touch your chest to the bar on each rep. The video below is a great demonstration, but he actually misses the bar on some reps, so I would argue they don’t count!

7. Hip Hinge

Basic Exercise – Hip Hinge:

You should be able to progress from this one pretty quickly, but it’s absolutely crucial that you really nail this movement pattern before moving on.

A hip hinge is one of the most fundamental movements you need to master. In the long run, it will set you up for safely lifting anything from the floor, deadlifting, swings, jumping and landing, skipping, and many other exercises.

As the name suggests, a hip hinge, put simply, is your hip acting as a hinge for your upper and lower body. But for people who haven’t done the movement before it can be tricky to learn. For reference, here’s how it looks:

Notice that she isn’t squatting up and down. Her hips are simply moving forwards and backwards.

Additional pointers:

  • Start by standing tall, bracing your abs as if you were about to take a punch, and squeezing your glutes. Maintain this throughout the movement.
  • Bend the knees very slightly, and then proceed to push your hips back. Not down, back.
  • Throughout the movement your back should be straight. If you were to have a broom stick placed on your back, the three points on contact should be your tailbone, in between the shoulder blades and directly behind the head. Keeping your abs tight and your chest up – as if you were trying to show somebody writing on the chest of your t-shirt – will help with this.
  • Once you reach a position where you feel a tug in your hamstrings, or where your back is parallel to the ground, thrust your hips forward (not up) to return to the starting position.

Progression – Single-Leg Romanian Deadlifts:

Say what?

It’s not as complicated as it sounds. A Romanian deadlift (RDL) is a hip hinge, which means you will be doing exactly the same as above, except the exercise will be performed on one leg. This is an incredible exercise for the hamstrings and glutes, and will also help you develop your balance.

I think it helps to see this in action, so I’m going to let Bret Contreras walk you through this one:

8. Core

Basic Exercise – Reverse Crunches:

Reverse crunches are fairly simple, but incredibly effective. I prefer them to conventional crunches because they are harder to mess up – which is something most people manage to do with regular crunches.

To do a reverse crunch:

  • Lie down (face up) on the ground or on a bench with your hands at your sides.
  • Lift your legs off the ground and bend your knees 90 degrees (easier), or extend your legs straight out in front of you (tougher).
  • Contract your abs to lift your legs and hips off the ground (or bench).
  • Slowly lower your legs and repeat.

A tip I picked up from Eric Cressey: To add difficulty to the reverse crunch, exhale when your legs are stretched out in front of you and pause for a few seconds before inhaling and drawing the legs back in.

Progression – Hanging Knee Tucks:

Once you can comfortably do 10 straight-leg reverse crunches with an exhale, you can move on to hanging knee tucks.

  • Start by hanging from any bar or set of rings.
  • Raise your knees to your chest by flexing your abs.
  • Lower the legs down slowly and return to the starting position.
  • Avoid swinging by keeping your abs braced throughout the movement, and pausing in the starting position.

Putting It All Together

Holy information, Batman!

I know that was a lot to take on board, so I’ve put these nifty little tables together that you can print off and use to keep track of your workouts. Simply make a note of the number of reps you managed in each circuit.

Always try to improve on the previous workout, even if that’s by just 1 extra rep! Once you’ve hit 10 reps on a given exercise, move on to the next progression.

Basic Program

ExerciseTarget Reps1st Circuit2nd Circuit3rd Circuit
Bodyweight Squat8-10
Eccentric Chin-Up8-10
Glute Bridge8-10
Elevated Push-Up8-10
Lunge8-10
Swing Rows8-10
Hip Hinge8-10
Reverse Crunch8-10

Progressed Program

ExerciseTarget Reps1st Circuit2nd Circuit3rd Circuit
Bench Jumps8-10
Chin/Pull-Up8-10
Single-Leg Glute Bridge8-10
Push-Up8-10
Split Squat8-10
Inverted Row8-10
Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift8-10
Hanging Knee Tucks8-10

Note that each exercise only has one progression.  If these become too easy for you, there are plenty more bodyweight exercises that can make this workout even more challenging! There’s no limit to what you can try by yourself, but I’ll soon be offering personalised advice to a limited to number of people on my mailing list, so make sure you’re signed up so you are among the first to know!

Any questions about this workout or concerns about exercising in public?

Let me know in the comments!

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