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How to Take Total Control of Your Own Training Program While You Travel

So, you’ve joined a gym and had a personal trainer write you a training program…and it’s been working well. Now it’s time to go travelling and suddenly, your rigid program doesn’t work anymore. You’ve got no access to the old gym’s familiar equipment and your situation is constantly changing. Now you, and you alone, are responsible for your health and fitness routine.

Don’t worry, it’s easy! Follow these six simple steps to take total control of your own travel fitness.


Step 1. Mentally separate your body into 8 major muscle groups. Each muscle group needs to be exercised to create a perfect balance.
Anatomy Illustration

The 8 major muscle groups are:

  • Chest 
  • Back
  • Legs
  • Shoulders
  • Biceps
  • Triceps
  • Calves
  • Abdominals (Abs)

Step 2. Organise your major muscle groups into a program. 

The way your muscle groups are separated or grouped together will form the basis of your program, and you can change this as often as you want and do it any way you like – as long as each muscle group is in balance with all the others. 

How you do this will depend largely on a few things. What days can you workout? How long do you have for each workout? What equipment do you have access to? What other travel activities have you planned?.. (legs workout before a mountain hike – ouch!)

The most basic program trains all 8 muscle groups in one workout. This is called a full-body workout. This is the simplest program, but it has its flaws. One of them is that if you want to train on consecutive days – you can’t! This is because your muscles need time to rest and recover after workouts (more on this later). Also, full-body workouts are inherently longer than split workouts, and it’s impossible to train your whole body as intensely as you can for only a few muscle groups. 

A 2-day split is, by far, the most versatile training program for travellers.

Breaking your muscle groups up into 2 workouts is called a 2-day split. Breaking them up into 3, 4 and 5 workouts is called a 3, 4, and 5-day split, respectively. It’s common for people to have their own favourite way of splitting muscle groups, such as the Push-Pull program. Chest, shoulders, and triceps (push muscles) can be trained together in various combinations while back and biceps (pull muscles) can also go nicely together. 

In my opinion, a 2-day split is, by far, the most versatile training program for travellers. Muscles need 48 hours rest after a workout before they can be trained again. This means that a 2-day split will allow you to train on any day you like, and rest on any day you like, in any combination. Simply come back and do the workout that you didn’t do last time. With a 2-day split, each muscle group will be ‘hit’ once, twice, or three times per week depending on how many days you train. Perfect!

Examples of a 2-day split include:

Day 1: Chest, Shoulders, Triceps (Push muscles), Calves, Abs 

Day 2: Back, Biceps (Pull muscles), Legs, Calves, Abs

Notice that Calves and Abs are on both days. Many people believe Calves and Abs can be trained every day, like your core muscles, because they’re different.

Another example of a 2-day split (used by Arnold Schwarzenegger):

Day 1: Chest, Back, Legs, Calves, Abs

Day 2: Shoulders, Biceps, Triceps, Calves, Abs 

One more example:

Day 1: Chest, Back, Shoulders, Biceps, Triceps (Upper body)

Day 2: Legs, Calves, Abs (Lower body) 

An example of a 3-day split:

Day 1: Chest, Shoulders, Triceps (Push muscles)

Day 2: Legs, Calves, Abs

Day 3: Back, Biceps (Pull muscles)

A 3-day split has the potential for shorter workouts than a 2-day split. Each muscle group will be hit once or twice per week depending on how many days you train.

An example of a 4-day split:

Day 1: Chest, Triceps

Day 2: Back, Biceps

Day 3: Legs, Calves

Day 4: Shoulders, Abs

An example of a 5-day split:

Day 1: Chest

Day 2: Back

Day 3: Legs

Day 4: Shoulders

Day 5: Biceps, Triceps

…with Calves and Abs on any or all days.

Rest days are very important. In each of the example programs, I haven’t stipulated when to take them. Simply slot one in whenever you want to or need to around your travel plans, and come back to the next workout. Easy.

Now you’re in control of when and what you exercise! Next, we’ll look at how


Step 3. Know what your goals are.

Up until now, the process for organising exercises into workouts is the same for everyone, the whole body is trained in full-body or split workouts

Now it gets personal. 

You need to know exactly what you want to achieve. Would you like to lose body fat? Maybe add some muscle mass? For most people, it’s one of these or both. Are you rehabbing an injury? Perhaps you need more strength and endurance for your up-and-coming trekking holiday?  Some people just want to maintain their health and feel good while they travel.

Fit vs. Fat

Goals will help you choose your exercises, sets and reps and rest periods. Write them down, and make sure they are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound.


Step 4. Choose your strength exercises for each muscle group and add some cardio. 

This really is what sets Traveller’s Gym apart – the ingenious ways we do the same movements we would do in a commercial gym to build and strengthen each muscle, using only whatever is available on our travels. In a lot of times that means no equipment at all. 

For strength training, you need to know what muscle/s an exercise works and simply slot it into your program for that muscle…push-ups for chest, lunges for legs, etc. Choose your exercises to match your goals – understand why you’re doing every exercise you do and the way you’re doing them.  

While you’re doing your exercises, feel them. Feel every single rep. Get out of the habit of focusing on lifting weights, and into the habit of consciously contracting and relaxing muscles while feeling your joints move through their range of motion during exercise. If you’ve ever had a personal trainer and asked them “What muscle is this exercise working?” – you weren’t doing this.

There are two types of strength exercises: Compound exercises and Isolation exercises.

Compound Exercise Example - Lunges

Compound exercises are ones that move more than one joint and employ more than one muscle. 

Example: squats and lunges in all their various forms move the ankle, knee, and hip joints and will target all your leg prime movers and core muscles at once. 

Isolation Exercise for the Hip Extensors

Isolation exercises move only one joint, and target specific muscles.

Example: hip extensions only move the hip joint and hone in on the hamstrings and butt.

If you want efficiency in your workouts by building more strength and burning more fat more quickly, it’s best to stick to the ‘big’ compound movements, especially when you’re starting out. If you want to strengthen and shape a specific area, then target that muscle with an isolation exercise. After you’ve built general strength through your tendons and ligaments using compound exercises, you could try picking one compound and one isolation exercise for each muscle group in your workouts. 

I’m also going to break exercises down into 3 categories, specifically for travellers. These are: Constant, Frequent, and Opportunistic

Triceps Push Ups

The Constant category is all exercises that don’t need any equipment whatsoever and can be done anytime, anywhere. You should learn at least one Constant exercise for each muscle group so you’re never caught short – no excuses. 

Restance Bands Triceps Extensions

The Frequent category is all exercises that you learn how to do with stuff that’s found just about anywhere, such as stairs or a chair, or equipment that you travel with, such as your resistance bands. You can do all these exercises whenever you have your equipment with you. 

Gym Cable Triceps Extensions

Finally, the Opportunistic category is all the exercises you can do with the equipment that’s available to you at the time, such as benches, steps, rails, park equipment, swimming pools… For variety’s sake, Opportunistic exercises will often take precedence over frequent or constant exercises. Stumbling into a commercial gym or a hotel gym every now and then is very opportunistic!

Don’t forget to warm up before you start your workout and do 1-2 warm-up sets for each movement, and Somatic Stretch afterward or at other times to improve range of motion, mobility, and balance. Your core muscles need to be activated whenever you’re working out, and these can be trained using Pilates principles and exercises at any time.


Step 5. Once you decide what split you’ll use and what exercises you’ll do, it’s time to put it into action Reps, Sets, Resistance and Rest.

If you do an exercise once, such as one squat, that’s one repetition, or rep. When you do as many reps as you can and stop, that’s one set. Generally speaking, sets of 8-12 reps will build more strength and 12-20 reps will build more endurance. As long as you’re in this ballpark and feel every glorious rep through your muscles and joints, you’ll soon learn what feels right for you. Stop the set when you get that wonderful feeling of completion in your muscles and before you lose the smooth form of the exercise.

Resistance Bands

The resistance of an exercise can usually be controlled by the weight of objects you choose to lift or the thickness of the bands you use.

In the case of bodyweight exercises, it is controlled by the depth of the movement. For example, for push-ups, you might start by going half-way down and progress to all the way down as you get stronger, or start on your knees and progress to your toes. Slowing down a movement will also increase the tension through your muscles.

If you can control the resistance, choose as much weight as you need to be able to do the number of reps you’re aiming for, but not more. Hint: It’s usually a lot less than you think. Most people would have a much better workout if they halved their weights and did the exercises properly. 

If you can’t control the resistance it will determine how many reps you’re able to do. Choose how many sets you do each workout accordingly. For each muscle group, aim for a total of 30 – 50 reps each workout. 8 to 15 reps for 3 to 5 sets will do it.

Generally speaking, people who want to lose body fat will use lighter weights and more reps with longer cardio sessions, such as beach walks. They also eat enough protein to maintain their muscle mass and metabolism, with less carbohydrates (carbs) so their bodies burn fat as a fuel source.  

People who want to ’bulk up’ will lift heavier weights for fewer reps, while keeping cardio to a minimum. They also eat enough protein to build muscle (hypertrophy) and enough carbohydrates not to use proteins as energy. To build pure strength, people will use very heavy weights for 4-6 reps.

Each muscle needs a rest between sets. You can do this in a number of ways. One way is to stop and rest completely for about thirty seconds to a minute before you do another set of the same exercise. The way I recommend, and almost always do, is to move straight on to an exercise for a different muscle group, going back and forth between the two. This is called a Superset. You can also move around exercises for 3 or more muscle groups in a circuit with little or no rest. This allows you to do more in a shorter period so you can get back to sightseeing.  

Cardiovascular exercise, or ‘Cardio’, is aerobic exercise that moves your body and raises your heart-rate. Examples of cardio include walking, hiking, running, swimming, surfing, snowboarding, skiing, cycling, dancing…the list goes on and on. Generally, longer sessions of gentle cardio where you’re breathing more but still able to hold a conversation is your Fat Burning Zone, while shorter, more intense cardio is going to push your fitness. As long as you’re getting at least 3 cardio sessions per week you’re going to be looking after your health. Fortunately, this is an area where travellers have an abundance of opportunities. Don’t over-think it. Get out there, get active, see the world.


Step 6. Monitor your Progress, and fix what isn’t working

When you workout, starting from wherever you are now, you gently apply more stress to your body than its used to. This will cause micro-tears to your muscles and your body will ‘say’ to itself “If I have to do that again, I’d better get ready for next time” (adapt). 

In the day or two after a workout, you should feel a light sensation that lets you know you’ve done something, but not more than that. This is the Sweet Spot you’re aiming for. 

Afterwards, your muscles will need 48 hours to recover. If you eat well and rest, giving your body the nutrients and time it needs to develop, it will come back stronger next time.

Ideal Frequency and Intensity

Intensity

Training without enough intensity won’t give your body anything to evolve from. It’ll stay where it is. You’ll know this is happening because you won’t feel your workouts at all, and you won’t get results.

On the other hand, training with too much intensity causes too much damage for your body to repair and WORSE – makes you prone to injury. You’ll know this is happening because you’ll feel intense pain after workouts that affects how you’re able to do things. This is completely unnecessary for travellers. 

Wrong Workout Intensity

Frequency

If your rest periods between workouts for a given muscle group are too short, you won’t give those muscles enough time to repair from the previous workout and grow back stronger. You could even start losing muscle and strength. If this happens, you are over-training (a very common problem for keen beginners) and the first thing you need to do is take a week or two off. If you struggle with this, the chances you are over-training are even higher. 

If your time between workouts is too long, you will lose all the gains you made as your body de-conditions. That’s why consistency with your training while you travel is so important. A one-month holiday without training could ruin all the gains you made in a year back home. To make matters worse, you could come back and try to do what you were doing last time (when you were conditioned) and injure yourself.

Wrong Workout Frequency

Nutrition

Add some nasty holiday food to the above scenario…

The general consensus in the fitness industry is that good nutrition accounts for about 70% of someone’s fitness results.

Proper Nutrition

Consistent, proper nutrition is one of the major hurdles for reaching optimal health and fitness while you travel. The challenges can include higher cost of healthy food and more convenient junk food options, over-eating and drinking, and lack of fresh food, cooking facilities, and preparation time.

For travellers, having a consistently healthy diet can be difficult, so it’s important to eat the right quantities of the very best food available to you. Preparation goes a long way, too. Carrying meal replacement shakes and other forms of reliable food can be a good option when nothing but junk is available.

Wrong Nutrition

Keep Your Workouts Fresh

The final factor to consider when you’re taking complete control of your own exercise program is the importance of keeping it fresh. Your body will only adapt to what it needs to survive. If you do the same thing over and over, it’ll know what’s coming next time and not bother making improvements.

If you’re enjoying your workouts and getting consistent results, keep going! It’s working. But, if you’ve been doing the same-old, same-old for a while now and you’ve noticed that you’re not improving, make a change to one of the following:

  • The program
  • The exercise
  • The weight
  • The reps
  • The sets
Plateau Graph

Fortunately, this is rarely ever a problem for travellers who use the infinite range of exercise options available to them and prioritise their exercises into Opportunistic, Frequent and Constant categories.

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