How to Maximize Results At A Bad Gym (or no gym)

Most emotions aren’t real. Fear isn’t real, it’s merely a perception of a situation. Sometimes fear can be a good thing, like when it gives us more energy and a heightened awareness so we’re able to better defend ourselves. Other times fear can be crippling, paralyzing any chance we have of living a successful and happy life.

Stress and worry aren’t real, they’re our perception of a situation and of our reality. By in large they’re a destructive lie that we tell ourselves. A lie that pulls us out of the moment and into the future or the past making it impossible to be present and productive and happy.

[Tweet “Never resist.”]

Two words that can help you wade through the murky waters of life with it’s unavoidable delays and interruptions, going with its flow rather than fighting its current in vain. When something comes into your life that changes the vision you have for your life, don’t always fight to impose your idea of how things should be, instead adjust the vision, keep working, and flow with the current.

The same outlook, as I’ve recently learned on my journey throughout Italy, can and should be applied to our training. We have training goals and a vision of what we want to accomplish with our training, but there are other circumstances at play and we should sometimes flow with them rather than constantly trudging against them.

In short, let your surroundings dictate your training.

Your gym, not your goals, will dictate your mode of training. That is, wherever you are you have an opportunity to improve some aspect of your physique and performance; but you don’t have the benefit of choosing which aspect of your physique you’re going to improve, your surroundings do that for you.

For example, if all you have access to – like I do this week – is a gym with weights that aren’t all that heavy, then your goal should be to build muscle with slower cadences by doing “bodybuilding” workouts rather than focusing on explosive power as you (and I) would have otherwise.

We’ll go through 3 different surroundings I’ve had thus far on my travels, that would seem like they’re limiting me in what I can do, but all they’re doing is providing me with an opportunity to improve a different aspect of my body that I wouldn’t have focused on if I were at home in the comfort of my own gym with its platforms and bumper plates and boxes and racks.

Your Guide to Maximizing Your Results in a Shitty Gym

Again, shitty gym is a perception, what you’re going to find is that even in the most limited workout spaces there’s something great you can focus on and improve. Always be improving. To do this, you can’t always be resisting.

No heavy weights? Build Muscle.

Building muscle and improving strength are two completely different goals. To build maximal amounts of muscle, sure, it helps to get stronger, but what if the gym you’re training at doesn’t have a lot of weight? What if their dumbbells only go up to 80 lbs or they’re missing a squat rack, then what?

Focus on building muscle. Focus on maximizing tension with the lighter weight as to fail within a rep range.

How do you do this?

1. Use different cadences.

Have 3 different sets. One set where you’re spending 4 seconds on the eccentric contraction, aiming to fail at 8 reps. Another where you’re spending 3 seconds on the eccentric contraction and aiming to fail at 12 reps. And another where you’re spending 1 second (or going full speed) on the eccentric contraction and aiming to fail at 25 reps.

With the different cadences you’ll maximize the tension in the muscle to the point where you’ll use much lighter weights yet still fail at the rep count you’re aiming for.

2. The mind-muscle connection.

When you’re lifting, don’t try and reach the rep count, try and fail as quickly as possible. Do this by creating as much tension in the muscle as you can, by flexing while lifting, by squeezing the muscle at the top of the rep, by pushing your hands outward or inward on the bar during a bench press, for example.

Focus on the muscle throughout the exercise and try to fail as quickly as possible. Then, let the reps and sets dictate the weight you choose. This will drop the weights you’re lifting dramatically, while increasing the amount of tension you’re creating in the muscle.

How to structure your muscle building workout.

Use this model. Do two giant sets that are set up like the following workouts. You can plug in the exercises as you like, depending on what equipment you have available and what muscle you’re working on.

Oh, and focus on one or two muscles at a time. This way you can really burn out a muscle with the lighter weights, enabling it to fully recover, before hitting it again. Your split could look like this:

  • Chest
  • Back
  • Legs
  • Shoulders
  • Arms

The make-up:

  • A1. Exercise – goal reps: 8 ; cadence: 4 sec eccentric (everything else 1 sec)
  • A2. Exercise – goal reps: 12 ; cadence: 3 sec eccentric (everything else 1 sec)
  • A3. Exercise – goal reps: 25 ; cadence: everything full speed but under control (rear delt raises, push-ups etc…)
  • repeat for 4 sets

Have 1-2 giant sets like this depending on the muscle you’re working (more for the legs). That’s your workout.

Just a barbell? Get Stronger.

Other gyms you’ll find will only have a barbell, which is great because if a gym should only have one thing that thing should be a barbell. But your focus must change from building muscle to improving strength and power. Your exercises will change, as will your split. You’ll go from 5 days a week training, to 3. The cadences will change, now you’ll be lifting in a fast, explosive cadence, working on your fast twitch fibers.

Here’s a mock-up of how a training session will go if all you’re working with is a barbell.

Warm-up: 24’s

That’s 6 reps x 4 using a light weight with the purpose of warming the body up and getting the heart rate going. Exercises:

  • Hang cleans
  • RDLs
  • Military Press
  • Back Squat
  • Repeat for 3 sets

Set 1: Power, for lower reps with a heavy weight.

Perform 2-3 warm up sets with a lighter weight. This will be your deadlifts, squats, cleans, snatch, bench press, push-press and so forth. remember when training strength you want to leave 2 or so reps in the tank. Focus on an explosive lift rather than the slower cadence of a bodybuilding workout.

  • Reps: 6,4,2,4,6,8
  • Rest: 120 seconds

Set 2: Power Superset or Giant Set

You can work around with this one. Have two or 3 exercises back to back. Again, focus on bigger, compound muscle groups and power and athletic movements. Again, bench press, squats, cleans, push press, hip thrusts, upright row and so forth are all great options.

  • Reps/sets: 3×6-8 reps.
  • Rest: 60 seconds

Set 3: Finisher

End the workout off with a finisher set(s). You can do your plyometrics here, some abs work, and some endurance stuff or sprints. Sprints are a great option if you’re near a hill or a track.

  • Reps: depends on your finisher. You can do a drop set of 10,9,8…1 reps. You can up the reps to 30 reps and do 3 sets. The options are endless with finishers, but what you’re looking for is a burnout or some kind of athletic conditioning. This is a great time to do a circuit of some sort.
  • Rest: again, depends on the set, but keep them shorter and allow for less recovery time.

Out in the country? Get fitter.

Last week I was out in the mountains of northern Italy, no gym, no weights, just a soccer field in one of the villages nearby where I’d get up to 4 times a week to train. The thing about the country is that your “fitness” is tested everywhere. You don’t need the same training schedule when you’re hiking up mountains daily or swimming or going on adventures. The adventures are your training.

So, again, don’t resist. If you don’t workout at all during the week in the conventional sense of working out and instead hike and climb and run and swim, then take that opportunity to enjoy your surroundings while staying healthy.

In any event, I did get to that soccer field 4 times – and it was actually a 9 day period, so not quite 4 times a week – and here’s a good way to structure your bodyweight workout.

Set 1

  • A1. Pull (chin-ups)
  • A2.Push (push-ups)
  • A3. Lower (split squat
  • sets: 3-4 – reps: failure or close to it
  • rest: 45 seconds

Set 2

  • B1. Lower (step-up, squats, squat jump)
  • B2. Push (Russian push-up, walking push-up)
  • B3. Hip (single leg hip thrust)
  • sets: 3-4 – reps: failure or close to it
  • rest: 45 seconds


  • Pull-ups: 10,9,8…1 with minimal rest


  • 5 build ups


  • 3 exercises of your choice (hanging leg raise, plank, v-sit, crunch etc…)
  • 3 sets.
  • Choose the reps/times
  • rest: 20 seconds

There’s Always an Opportunity to Improve

There’s always an opportunity to improve, the key is to figure out what aspect of your physique and your body and your performance that you can improve best with the tools you have to work with. So don’t try to gain mounds of muscle if all you have is the great outdoors, use this space to bring your fat down, to become a better athlete and to get in better shape.

If you don’t have a lot of weight, focus on muscle, if all you have is weight, focus on strength. There’s an opportunity to take your physique to the next level, use your surroundings to make that a reality.