Minimalist Fitness: How to Get In Lean Shape With Little or No Equipment

Two common barriers for people who want to exercise and get in shape are a lack of time and money needed for fitness.

Who has the time to go to the gym, or buy expensive equipment, or take long bike rides?

Well, if those are the things stopping you, you’re in luck.

It takes no equipment to get a great workout and get in shape, and with one or two pieces of simple equipment, you can turn that great workout into a fantastic one, you magnificent beast, you.

And with little or no equipment required for a fantastic workout, you can do it at home, or wherever you are. Even if you’re in solitary confinement.

It’s hard not to find time for this type of workout — you can do it while watching TV, for goodness sake!

The Pros and Cons of Bodyweight Exercises

Using just your bodyweight, you can do a large number of challenging exercises. I designed a workout that I do when I can’t make it to the gym, for example, and I can testify that it’s incredibly challenging (more on that below).

If you add just one or two pieces of equipment: a dumbbell, a kettlebell, a jump rope, a medicine ball, or a chinup bar, for example, you can increase the challenge even more.

Now, I’m not putting down lifting weights — I truly believe in lifting heavy weights when you can, but there are tremendous benefits from bodyweight exercises as well:

  1. No gym fees or need to buy expensive equipment.
  2. You can do the workout anywhere, anytime.
  3. Most exercises involve many muscles working in coordination, resulting in great overall fitness and strength.
  4. For people who are just starting with strength training, bodyweight is often more than enough to begin with. And it gives you a good foundation of strength you can build on later.

Bodyweight exercises aren’t the only thing you should ever do, however, for several reasons:

  1. After awhile (a couple months perhaps), they aren’t all that challenging. You’ll need to continue to build your strength by adding weights. You can do that with some simple equipment (see below).
  2. If you don’t have at least one or two pieces of equipment — a chinup bar or a resistance band perhaps — some muscles don’t get worked out as much as others. That’s not a problem over the short term, but over the long term you’ll want to make sure you get a balance.

I suggest starting with bodyweight exercises, and then slowly transitioning to a combination of bodyweight and weight training to get a good balance. And even if you’re doing a complete weight training program, you can always use bodyweight exercises anytime you can’t make it to the gym.

My Workout — Just a Sample

What follows is a little workout I’ve been doing recently when I can’t go to the gym — it’s just a collection of exercises that use compound muscles and joints to give me a total-body workout with nothing but my bodyweight and my chinup bar.

However, this is not the only workout you can do — not by a long shot. This is a sample, but you should look at the next section for a much wider variety of challenges.

How to do this workout: do a bit of a warmup — jumping jacks, jump rope, or just jogging in place for a few minutes will get your heart rate going. Then do the exercises in order, for 30 seconds to two minutes (depending on what kind of shape you’re in), with as little rest in between as possible. If you’re new to exercise, feel free to rest fully between exercises, but if you’re in decent shape, doing them one after another is a great workout. Like me, you’ll probably have to stop to catch your breath a few times — it’s a tough workout!

  1. Pullups (palms facing away from you). Chinup bar required (here’s the one I use). (Video.)
  2. Pushups. As many as you can (video). Do modified pushups if you can’t do full pushups, with your knees on the floor (video). If those are still too hard, do wall pushups, leaning against the wall or a chair.
  3. Jump squats. Basically you squat down until your thighs are parallel to the floor, then jump up as high as you can, and repeat. (Video.)
  4. Bicycle crunches. I don’t normally recommend crunches, but these use a good combination of core muscles. (Video.)
  5. Jumping lunges. (Video.)
  6. Burpees. (Video.)
  7. Hanging knee raises. Chinup bar required. (Video.)
  8. Hindu pushups. (Video.)
  9. Russian twists. (Video, but you don’t need to use the medicine ball as shown.)
  10. Diamond pushups. (Video.)
  11. Chinups (palms facing toward you). Chinup bar required. (Video.)

Create Your Own Awesome Workout

Now that you’ve seen my sample workout, you can create your own by picking whatever exercises tickle your fancy. Just choose 5-12 exercises and do them all, either with or without resting. Once that gets easy, do a second circuit.

A few suggestions:

  1. Choose a variety of exercises that work out all the parts of your body. Don’t do all variations of pushups, for example. You should be doing some pulling exercises (like pullups), some lower-body exercises, like lunges and squats, and others that work out all of your body, like burpees.
  2. If you want a real challenge, mix cardio exercises (see below) with the strength exercises.
  3. If you have some of the equipment listed below, definitely use them. Or buy one or two pieces of equipment … but there’s no need to rush out and buy a whole bunch of things. You can get a great workout without equipment, at least for awhile.
  4. If you’re just starting out, take it easy and gradually build up. Don’t get discouraged, and don’t overdo it!
  5. As you get stronger, gradually add weights. Dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells, and medicine balls are some good ways to do that. It’ll take a couple months of bodyweight exercises, though, before you really need to move to weights.

Basic bodyweight exercises

There are many, many variations of bodyweight exercises, but here are some of the more common ones:

Exercises requiring minimal equipment

You don’t need to buy all of this equipment, but if you have any, these are great. Or buy one or two pieces in order to add an extra challenge to your workout:

Cardio exercises