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Stay Fit at Home

An Alpinist's Do-Anywhere Bodyweight Workout

8 minimalist strength exercises from alpinist Anna Pfaff, for when you're waiting out the weather—or a pandemic

To stave off boredom and maintain her fitness, Pfaff modified a strength routine developed by Steve House so that she could work out at base camp. (Photo: Savannah Cummins)
To stave off boredom and maintain her fitness, Pfaff modified a strength routine developed by Steve House so that she could work out at base camp.

On an expedition to northern India’s Zanskar range, Anna Pfaff, an alpinist and a trauma nurse based out of Truckee, California, was stormbound for nearly the entire trip. Of the 24 days she and her teammates spent in the Raru valley, they climbed just five. The rest of the time, they waited out rain, snow, hail, and wind in camp. “We would try to climb, then would be forced to retreat,” Pfaff says. “It would be like the wall of hate descending upon us—weather, weather, weather.” 

To stave off boredom and maintain her fitness, Pfaff modified a strength routine developed by Steve House, a renowned alpinist and founder of the Uphill Athlete training program, so that she could work out at base camp sans equipment. The gains were equal parts physical and mental, Pfaff says. “When you sit for a week, you’re going to lose fitness. But this allowed me to take control, and be like, OK, I did something, I feel good,” she says.

While Pfaff may not be stuck at base camp at the moment, she—and the rest of the world—have put far-flung adventures, gym workouts, and pretty much everything else on pause during the coronavirus pandemic. The workout she developed in India is now more useful than ever.

You can easily do Pfaff’s minimalist strength routine in your living room or backyard. Set up stations for each exercise. Use a sleeping pad, yoga mat, or towel as a cushion against the ground, and get creative for weights: rocks, household items like cast-iron pans or canned food, and full water bottles all work well. Start with a 15-minute warm-up. (“Brisk walking or light jogging will do it,” Pfaff says.) Cycling through all the exercises for two to three sets should take 30 to 45 minutes.

The Moves

(Hayden Carpenter)
(Hayden Carpenter)

Push-Up

What it does: Strengthens the chest, triceps, shoulders, core, and back muscles.

How to do it: Start in a standard push-up position, with your arms straight, hands below your shoulders, and feet together. Maintain a rigid plank. Your body should form a straight line from your head to your heels. Bend your elbows backwards along your sides—this emphasizes the triceps—and lower your body until it’s roughly parallel to the ground. Then push back up to the starting position for one repetition. For more of a challenge, wear a backpack full of heavy objects.

Volume: Three sets of ten reps


(Hayden Carpenter)
(Hayden Carpenter)
(Hayden Carpenter)

Kayaker

What it does: Strengthens the deep core muscles and the obliques through a counterrotational movement.

How to do it: Sit on the ground, with your knees bent to 90 degrees and your feet lifted a few inches so that your torso and thighs form a V shape. Hold a rock or other heavy object in front of your chest. Slowly lower it to one side and lightly tap the ground. Rotate your shoulders to follow the weight, and resist any movement in your hips and legs. Lift it back to center, and repeat on the other side for one repetition. Remember to breathe, and keep your back straight throughout the movement.

Volume: Three sets of ten reps 


(Hayden Carpenter)
(Hayden Carpenter)

Squat Jump

What it does: Strengthens the quads, glutescalveshamstrings, and core, while training explosive power in the legs.

How to do it: Start in an athletic stance with your feet shoulder-width apart. Hold your chest and head high, pull your shoulders back and down, and keep your spine stacked in a neutral position. Then lower into a squat until your thighs are near parallel to the ground (or as low as you can go with good form). Engage your core and glutes, then jump vertically as high as you can. Land softly, immediately lower into another squat, and repeat.

Volume: Three sets of ten reps


(Hayden Carpenter)
(Hayden Carpenter)

Side Plank with Rotational Reach

What it does: Primarily targets the obliques and shoulders through a rotational core movement.

How to do it: Find a rock you can hold with one hand, or fill a Nalgene with water. Start in a side-plank position, with one hand planted on the ground below your shoulder and your arm straight. Situate the weight in front of you and in line with your shoulder, about an arm’s length away from your body. Stack your feet or stagger them for easier balance. Engage your core, and raise your hips so that your body forms a straight line from your feet to your head. Then lift the weight from the ground with your upper arm and raise it toward the sky. Slowly lower the weight to lightly tap the ground for one repetition. Keep your hips steady (don’t let them sag) throughout the movement, but allow some rotation in your shoulders and upper body. Squeeze your inner thighs together for added stability.

Volume: Three sets of eight reps on each side 


(Hayden Carpenter)
(Hayden Carpenter)
(Hayden Carpenter)

Windshield Wiper

What it does: Strengthens the complete core, with a focus on the obliques and rotational control.

How to do it: Lie on your back, with your arms out to either side, palms down for support. Raise your legs straight up, with your feet and knees together so that your legs are perpendicular to the ground, or keep your knees bent to 90 degrees to make it easier. From this centered position, slowly rotate your hips to lower your legs to one side until your feet or knees almost touch the ground, then reverse the movement back to center and repeat on the other side for one repetition. Continue swinging your legs back and forth, slowly and in control. Press down with your hands to keep your shoulders and back flat on the ground. Wear heavy boots, or squeeze a rock between your feet (be careful that you don’t drop it on yourself!) to make it harder.

Volume: Three sets of ten reps


(Hayden Carpenter)
(Hayden Carpenter)

Spider-Man Plank

What it does: Targets the deep core muscles and engages the obliques, glutes, quads, and shoulders.

How to do it: Start in a low-plank position, with your forearms on the ground shoulder-width apart and your elbows directly below your shoulders. Your body should form a straight line from your heels to your head. Keep your back flat—no sagging, arching, or rotating the hips—and your head up so your neck is in line with your spine. Hold this position, then lift one foot and slowly bring your knee out to the side and up to touch the back of your arm. Reverse the movement to the starting plank position for one repetition. Repeat on the other side, alternating sides each rep. Maintain proper plank form throughout the movement.

Volume: Three sets of ten reps on each side


(Hayden Carpenter)
(Hayden Carpenter)
(Hayden Carpenter)

Step-Up 

What it does: Strengthens the quads, glutes, hamstrings, and calves. This is one of the best exercises to mimic uphill movement.

How to do it: Find a sturdy object with a flat surface that is midshin to just below the knee in height, such as a boulder, stump, bench, or chair. Step up with your right foot, then your left (the leading leg should do all the work). Step down with your left foot, then your right. Complete all reps leading with the same foot, then switch and repeat, leading with the other. Keep your torso upright and your hips and shoulders level throughout the movement. Be mindful that your knees don’t collapse inward, since that pattern is correlated with knee pain. For an extra challenge, wear a loaded backpack.

Volume: Three sets of ten reps on each side


(Hayden Carpenter)
(Hayden Carpenter)

Pull-Up

What it does: Strengthens the upper body, including the lats, biceps, forearms, shoulders, and core.

How to do it: Find a weight-bearing handhold, such as a pull-up bar, portable hang board, rafter, beam, or tree branch. Grip the object or edge, with your hands shoulder-width apart, palms facing away from your body. Hang with straight arms, and engage your shoulder blades to protect your shoulder joints. Slowly pull up until your chin is over your hands, then lower back to the starting position for one repetition. Relax your neck, and bring your shoulders away from your ears. Keep your back engaged and your body as still as possible throughout the movement. Wear a loaded backpack to make it harder. 

Volume: Three sets of your maximum number of reps. If you can comfortably do ten, consider adding weight.

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Filed To: CoreExercisesLegsArmsChestAbsWorkoutsCoronavirus
Lead Photo: Savannah Cummins
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