How to Build Muscle Outside the Gym

Working out can be a chore. Here’s how to mix up your fitness for maximum results, and maybe a bit of fun too

We’re told that the only way to get in ‘shape’ is to pick a workout programme and rigidly stick to it. To turn up. To put in the hard yards. Do this consistently without giving into the temptation of a morning in bed or some midweek beers and you’ll be rewarded with a chiseled physique.

 All of which is… fine. For some people. For others, this joyless rigidity can be slightly sick-making. Because here’s the thing: bodies were meant to move. You’ve heard about ‘functional fitness’, you’ve heard about the importance of mobility. But what about having fun with your workout?

From bouldering to squash and open water swimming, the following suggestions won’t just help you build the body you want, but teach you new skills along the way. This article isn’t interested in your six-pack, it’s interested in you finding a new passion. And if you happen to get in shape as a result, more the better.

Best for your back: Bouldering

“When I was a youngen going to the gym was always centred around getting hench and filling out my medium slim fit Uniqlo tees – not having fun,” says Rotimi Odukoya, founder of climbing initiative ClmbxR. “It was an isolating experience. Weights vs me. Bouldering? Bouldering is like being childlike without feeling judged.”

Odukoya’s been climbing – and encouraging others to climb – for a while now and says that the first time you climb you’ll be instantly aware of the muscles that are impacted, from your fingers, to your forearms, back, core, shoulders and legs. “It’s a full body workout that requires both mind and body engagement,” he says.

 As you advance, pushing and pulling yourself up rock walls will require a strong upper back – especially when you find yourself hanging backwards from a high overhang. The stronger your back gets, the better you’ll be at developing advanced skills like ‘lock off’ strength, campusing and dynamic climbing. Don’t know what those terms mean? Us neither. Why not book a session and find out?

Best for your arms: Squash

Want arms like Serena Williams but can’t be bothered with the rigamarole of tennis? Allow us to introduce the much sweatier squash. Not just the domain of Wall Street yuppies in films from the 1980s, squash is a great overall workout that can be enjoyed solo as well as with a partner.

“With squash your upper body is constantly twisting, turning, contracting and extending as your arms follow to hit the ball, while your lower body engages in short sprint bursts as they frequently have to change direction,” explains Farren Morgan, head coach and tactical trainer at The Tactical Athlete.

Where your arms come in is having to whack a ball multiple times per second. “Squash specifically targets a wide number of muscles in your arms and shoulders including your bicep, tricep, shoulder girdle, pectorals, deltoids, as well as your wrist flexors and extensors,” says Morgan. Morgan goes on to explain that because of the high intensity of squash you’ll likely get more volume through your arms than you would in a normal gym session – and, because you aren’t hefting dumbbells around, your much less likely to injure yourself in the process, too.

Best for your legs: Spinning

What? Spinning is good for your legs? Yes, OK. We aren’t blowing minds here, but sometimes the obvious lessons are worth reiterating.

“Spinning works the quads and also the hamstrings,” says PT Mollie Millington. There are multiple benefits to be had within that, however. Use clip-in shoes to demand more from your hamstrings. Hills will likewise make the hammys work harder, as well as the glutes. While sprints will increase the overall power in your legs.

As for why spinning is better than the gym, “Squats are probably the easiest exercise to simulate [hamstring and glute growth],” explains Millington, “but you wouldn't be able to do as many squats as you can ride in a spin class! Hamstring curls and quad machine will also work similar muscles but only one group as a time.” In other words, for a fast, effective all-round leg blaster, you’d be hard-pressed to outpace your local spin class.

Best for your core: Volleyball

Know what’s an underrated film? Top Gun. But you don’t have to be Tom Cruise to appreciate smacking a ball over a net with your hands. Just ask Alex Jenkins, a National Team English Volleyball Athlete, and personal and team athletic development specialist. 

 “Like most explosive sports volleyball places demands on the strength and ability of the body to produce force in repetitive actions,” he says. “Generally the body composition of volleyball players is a low body fat percentage, a relatively strong body build and a strong core.”

Is a strong core the reason why so many men seem to like playing volleyball with their tops off? We forgot to ask Jenkins, but he did tells us “Volleyball is great for the core because of the need to transfer energy from the floor (jumping) through the body and up to the hand (hitting/contacting the ball). A volleyball training session or match can be considered a pretty great way to condition the core!”

 Short shorts optional.

Best for overall health: Sea swimming

Relax, this isn’t another Guardian op-ed about the rejuvenating powers of open water swimming. While it is undoubtedly a balm for your mental health, here we’re more interested in how splashing about (safely) in wild waters gives your system a boost from top to toe.

“Cold water swimming is great for low impact stimulation of your joints. It also reduces inflammation, whilst giving you a full body workout,” explains Laura Owen Sanderson, founder of We Swim Wild.

Interestingly, cold water swimming can reduce your stress levels and help you focus, both of which directly translate into an ability to not only lift better, but recover more effectively too. And because muscles are built while we sleep, being in a clear headspace before bed is vital. Swimming’s also pretty tough, too…

“Swimming in cold water is a more strenuous workout than the gym pool,” says Sanderson. “It involves rhythmic movement, and increases intensity, improving your stress response, core conditioning and immune system. Building up your cold tolerance can lead to a far more invigorating and worthwhile workout, as opposed to pool training or traditional full body conditioning workouts.”


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