Could you push yourself to do that extra rep in the gym if you believed that someday your life just might depend on it?
What if a few extra sets could help you outrun a predator, climb to safety, or hunt down your dinner?
These questions might seem a bit silly. Nowadays, most of us are more likely to sprint for a closing elevator door than to flee from a grizzly bear. And we throw out our backs picking up our kids, not climbing trees or hurling spears at antelope for dinner.
Still, if the world were suddenly turned upside down and you were forced to fend for yourself in the great outdoors — or survive the great unknown — wouldn’t it be nice to know that you could meet the challenge?
“You need much more than a big bench press to survive these types of worst-case scenarios,” says Nick Tumminello, a strength-and-conditioning coach who has designed programs for Mixed Martial Arts warriors, cage fighters, and other tough customers.
In the gym, as you log miles and perform reps, it’s easy to forget there’s plenty of real-life purpose to being fit. Tumminello has designed a demanding, full-body workout to remind you what your body is capable of.
While the scenarios may seem far-fetched, if you embrace the premise behind each move, you’ll have a better sense of what’s in it for your body. And by imagining a worst-case context — stranded in the wilderness, surrounded by hungry predators — you may just attack your workout that much harder and reap the strength gains that go along with it.
Even if the worst never comes to pass (and let’s hope it doesn’t), these exercises will strengthen your entire body and help you get better at movements you perform throughout the day.
So the next time you have to lift your toddler, cram luggage into an overhead compartment, or carry heavy bags of groceries, it’ll be a breeze.
For each exercise, do three sets of eight to 12 reps, with a 60-second rest between sets. Start by finding a weight or variation that allows you to perform about eight reps of each movement, and then focus on doing more reps each time you repeat the workout. Once you can do 12 reps, it’s time to add resistance or try a more challenging variation.
Targets: Back, biceps, forearms, and abdominal muscles.
Prepares you for: Pulling yourself up a tree to evade an angry
wolverine (or pulling yourself up a tree to rescue your runaway cat).
- Stand beneath a chin-up bar and grasp the bar with your palms facing you and arms fully extended.
- Engage your lats, abs, and glutes, and pull yourself up until your chin clears the bar. Be sure to keep your body neutral; no swinging or “kipping” to get over the bar.
- Contract your shoulder blades at the top of the movement, then lower yourself in a slow, controlled manner until your arms are fully extended.
Make it easier: Do band-assisted chin-ups.
Make it harder: Perform weighted chin-ups, holding a dumbbell between your feet or with a weight plate hanging from a belt.
Targets: Chest, shoulders, and triceps muscles.
Prepares you for: Lifting your heavy canoe over your head (or pushing a heavy box of holiday decorations onto a high storage shelf).
- Position yourself in front of a bench or box, facing away from it. Place your hands on the bench with arms straight, and extend your feet in front of you.
- Bend your elbows to lower your body toward the floor until your arms form 90-degree angles. Pull your shoulders away from your ears and keep your elbows tracking straight behind you so they don’t flare out to the side.
- Pause briefly at the bottom, then squeeze your triceps forcefully to fully extend your arms and return to start.
Make it easier: Bend your knees to bring your feet closer to the box.
Make it harder: Do weighted dips on parallel bars, holding a dumbbell between your feet.
3. Landmine Rotations
Targets: Abdominals, obliques, and intercostal muscles.
Prepares you for: Lifting and carrying a heavy log for firewood (or moving furniture and doing yardwork).
- Place a barbell on the ground with one end against the wall, preferably in a corner.
- Grasp the other end with both hands and hold it at arm’s length. Rotate your body by pivoting your feet, and lower the barbell to one side.
- Keeping your arms straight, reverse direction to rotate the barbell to the opposite side. Use your core muscles to perform the movement. Do not excessively bend your elbows or knees.
Make it easier: Use a lighter barbell, or perform a twisting crunch on the floor instead.
Make it harder: Add weight to the barbell.
4. Double Farmer’s Walk
Targets: Core and upper-back muscles, grip, and cardiovascular system.
Prepares you for: Carrying containers of fresh water to your shelter (or carrying groceries from your car to the kitchen).
- Hold two heavy dumbbells, kettlebells, or weight plates at your sides.
- With glutes squeezed, abs braced, and shoulders pulled back, walk forward, heel to toe, in a straight line. Keep your chest tall and imagine tucking your shoulder blades into your back pockets.
- Walk forward about 20 yards, then reverse direction. Repeat three there-and-back rounds, with 60 seconds of rest between rounds.
Make it easier: Carry a lighter weight.
Make it harder: Increase the weight or carry weight in only one hand to challenge your balance. Alternatively, carry a heavy sandbag over one shoulder or extended in front of you with both hands.
Targets: Legs and cardiovascular system.
Prepares you for: Outrunning a predator and catching prey (or chasing down a commuter bus).
- Run as quickly as you safely can for 100 meters.
- Walk back to your starting line. (This is your rest period.)
Make it easier: Take a longer rest between sprints, sprint a shorter distance, or run on a soft surface, such as a grassy field.
Make it harder: Sprint up a hill, up a flight of stairs, or on a treadmill set to an incline.
Targets: The entire lower body, as well as your cardiovascular system.
Prepares you for: Long days spent walking to find food, rummaging for shelter, or outrunning wild animals; long days spent chasing your kids or sprinting to catch the bus.
Perform three rounds of the following four-movement complex, doing 12 repetitions of each exercise per leg. Rest 60 seconds between each round. (Note: If any of the following movements cause discomfort in your knees — or pain anywhere — feel free to skip them.)
- Assume a staggered stance with your hands on your hips or in with arms extended in front of you, depending on your comfort and balance.
- Squat down by bending the knee of your front leg, with your knee tracking over your toes. Keep your chest proud and don’t allow your knee to cave in.
- Descend until the knee of your rear leg almost makes contact with floor.
- Return to your starting position.
- Do 12 split squats, then repeat on the other side.
Alternating Drop Lunges
- Stand with your feet side by side.
- Step back with one foot and drop down until your back knee almost touches the floor and your front knee forms a 90-degree angle. Use your back foot for balance and use your front leg to support the majority of your weight.
- Step your foot forward to return to the starting position, then repeat with the other leg.
- Alternate legs for a total of 12 lunges per side.
Single-Leg Step-Up With Leg Drive
- Stand in front of a step or bench with your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Place one foot on top of the step and straighten it to lift yourself up.
- Follow through with the rear leg, raising it in front of you with the knee bent.
- Pause for a second and carefully step down, one foot at a time.
- Repeat with the opposite leg.
- Do 12 single-leg step-ups per side.
Alternating Jump Lunges
- Stand in a staggered stance with your knees bent at 90-degree angles.
- Lower your rear knee to the ground in a lunge and then explosively push up into a jump.
- Switch the position of your legs in midair and land in the lunge position with the opposite leg forward.
- Repeat and switch legs on each jump for a total of 12 lunges per side.