You’re sitting at home, wanting to stay fit, and clicking through page after page of sold out workout gear on Amazon. Pull-up bars, perfect pushups, and the dumbbells disappeared long ago.
All hope isn’t lost.
Some of the most effective gear is staring you in the eyes, hoping you’ll weave them into your daily movement routine. You have countless options, but some are more useful than others.
When I choose my primary fitness gear I look for a few things:
- Portable: whatever I chose must fit into a day pack.
- Multi-use: if I’m going to lug gear around, it should have more than one use.
- Travel-friendly: I fly with a single carry-on so fitness equipment has to fit under my seat.
I pack light. AND I manage to bring along my portable gym.
My go-to options are not only affordable and travel friendly, but highly effective.
If you have the luxury of space and weight, consider adding the other options for an ultimate home gym.
1. Resistance Bands
You’d be hard-pressed to find a piece of gear more versatile than the resistance band. Essentially a super rubber band, the good ones vary in tension from as little as 10 pounds up past 200.
This is hands-down my favorite item. Or I should say items. I bought a set of three and take them everywhere with me.
These bands offer great bang for the buck:
Convenience. Throw it in your carry-on bag and you have a mini gym with you anywhere you go. In seconds I can make a bodyweight workout for more challenging and efficient. My New York City apartment is crammed, and these easily fit into any nook I shove them into.
Resistance and assistance. You can make body exercises easier or harder with any band. For example, attach the band to a pull-up bar and put one knee through it to make pull-ups easier. Conversely, if you attach the band to something on the ground, each rep becomes harder.
Different sticking points. I’m not sure the scientific term for this. Unlike a barbell or dumbbell where the end of each rep is the easiest, bands apply the most resistance at the very end of the motion. This strengthens the weakest part of the exercise that usually gets little attention.
Fuller range of motion. Gravity no longer limits the angles of your exercise like it does using free weights. I can recruit stabilizer muscles and different neurological pathways to level up my overall fitness. I’ll be stronger when I return to the gym thanks to extra attention my stabilizer get.
Stretching. Not only can I bust out a great workout, but I can use the elasticity of the band to get a far deeper stretch and in less time than I otherwise would. It’s like having your own personal masseuse.
My only complaint is that I need at least two (of the three I own) with me to get a good full body workout. Certain muscle groups, like the legs, can handle orders of magnitude more resistance than others, say the biceps.
Resistance band brands come and go all the time. My first pair lasted three years, and my current ones are going on year seven.
If I were looking for the best value band set right now I would go with:
There’s a couple things to know when choosing a product:
- Check the pounds of resistance. Cheaper brands still claim to be “heavy duty” but they provide little resistance in comparison.
- Loop bands are a different type of product and not at all a substitute. Avoid these.
Band sets from other established brands like Rogue Fitness and Serious Steel cost double to triple for only marginally better quality.
2. Blood Flow Restriction (BFR) Bands
Is there a usefulness-to-portability ratio?
If so, these things would beat out any other piece of fitness gear. I don’t travel without them.
The more I researched BFR, the more I found regarding its decades of clinical use for strength training, injury rehab, and workout recovery. This hack deserves its own post, but in a nutshell this style of training allows blood to pool in the muscles but not immediately return to the heart.
Why on earth would you do that? Is it safe? Is this a tourniquet?
You have all kinds of beneficial growth factors and metabolites in your blood. When you release the bands, the pooled blood floods the body with powerful growth signals. A slight modification of the protocol goes by the name occlusion training or kaatsu. You’ll encounter 760+ studies on BFR training and its cousins since Japanese doctors began using them in 1950.
No, the bands are not tourniquets. The bands are kept FAR looser than tourniquets so that blood can always reach the muscles.
I wrote a guide on everything you need to know about blood flow restriction training and the best BFR bands to get. Why do I like BFR?
Extreme portability. I can easily fit two bands in one of my pockets along with my phone, wallet, and other things. These things take virtually no space.
Practical. These babies fit into workouts and everyday life alike. You can use them alone, add them to the end of workouts, throw them on while watching TV.
Low-impact. Injury can completely derail all fitness progress. BFR bands add very little load and are safe enough for use by patients in physical therapy. BFR training doesn’t create rampant inflammation or tax the recovery systems, making it an ideal form of low-impact, low-stress training.
Strength building. BFRT has been shown to stimulate growth hormone production, decrease muscle-inhibiting myostatin. Both effective ways in quickly building strength.
Ultimate recovery. This style of training is also associated with improved microcirculation, nitric oxide production, VEGF, and all kinds of powerful brain and body boosting effects.
How I use them in workouts:
- Choose between upper and lower body for your workout. Put the bands as high up on your arms or legs as possible.
- Tighten the bands to what you’d estimate to be a 7 out of 10. You can test the tightness by pressing your finger into your hand and watching how long the skin takes to return to normal color. It should stay white for about two seconds.
- Do 15-30 reps with minimal rest between sets. Most practitioners recommend between three to five sets.
- Remove after 10-20 minutes.
- Walk/commute upgrade. If I know I’m not going to get a workout in, I’ll put them on my legs to get more out of my daily walk/commute.
- Warmup & cooldown. A great way to flush out the toxins, lactic acid, and harmful metabolites from strenuous workouts.
I’ve used this hack since 2013 for workouts and recovery.
Professional athletes have used it for even longer.
I get why. Unparalleled bodyweight workouts, faster recovery, and low impact. An all-around win.
Mine are still going strong many years later. When I upgrade I’ll go with these ones:
Think of BFR bands as THE upgrade to a bodyweight workout. Or use it to build muscle fast at home. I’ve heard more than one clinician call BFRT the best fitness tool of the 21st century. Workouts with these things will kick your butt… in the best of ways.
3. Water Dumbbells
I’m a stickler for tradition. I have a hard time giving up my old staples in favor of upgrades, biohacks, and new technologies.
Dumbbells are the opposite of portable. But the inflatable water variety are not.
If water is your only option, go for it. I the smaller size, durability, and heavier weight of steel dumbbells when available.
I’ve heard good things about certain brands, but because I have a pair of good old fashioned steel dumbbells, I cannot vouch for a specific water dumbbell.
When your gym closes indefinitely, and the other workout options don’t quite satisfy you, cold, hard steel (or water) dumbbells will.
For steel options, I recommend choosing an adjustable pair for the sake of size and efficiency. One day I’ll have the space and budget for an entire set, but until then I am fine adjusting them myself.
Honorable Mentions: Gymnastics Rings, TRX, Jump Ropes
None of these honorable mentions offer as many workout and recovery possibilities. They each have value, but they aren’t staples in my repertoire.
Jump rope: I carry a jump rope with me when I have extra space. The way I’ve seen them used, jump ropes are one-trick ponies with slight variations on their use.
TRX: I’ve heard good things about the portability of TRX and I like it to improve my bodyweight workouts. TRX takes far more space than any of the above options and I couldn’t fit it in my carry-on with everything else.
Gymnastics rings: In the rare event I check a bag, I will bring my gymnastics rings along. I love them but they are wooden which makes them heavy. At my destination, finding a place to hang them for use is harder than I expected, so don’t get as much use.
Pick Your Fitness Gear and Get Started
You can’t go wrong with resistance bands, BFR bands, or dumbbells for utility.
With a little more free space and weight allowance you can pack gymnastics rings or TRX.
My ideal setup includes all of the above, but my bands get the most use.
What’s in your travel-friendly setup?