Photo: rotsukhon lam (Shutterstock)
Now that you know how to scope out a hotel gym, the next step is knowing what to do when you get there. Hotel gyms tend to be pretty bare bones, so you’ll have to make the most of limited equipment and, often, lighter weights than you may like. But that doesn’t mean you have to do a half-assed workout.
Recently I went on a trip where I chose the convenience of hotel gyms over the (also valid) option of trekking to a local full-featured gym. I decided that I’d have fun with the challenge, creating a collection of routines with limited equipment to share with you guys when I got back. I was okay with the possibility that these might not be the world’s most effective workouts, but let me tell you: These are killer if you want them to be.
These are workouts, not a workout program
First of all, what I’m describing are workouts and not a program. You can certainly do these workouts at home if you like, but they don’t build on each other with a consistent focus or a steady progression. They just give you a way to stay busy, strong, and healthy for however long your vacation might last.
Another important thing to know is that whenever you do exercises that are different than what you’re used to, you’re going to be especially prone to delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS. In other words, you may wake up the next day feeling stiff and sore. (We have some tips for easing soreness here.) To avoid that, consider doing a shorter or lighter workout than you think you need on your first day.
The hotel gym workout structure
Instead of doing a bunch of different exercises for the traditional three sets of 10, I decided to pick just a few exercises and do them each for more sets. I also wanted to be sure that I would be in and out of the hotel gym in a predictable amount of time, since I’d be doing this each morning while the rest of my family was waking up and getting ready. So I was already leaning toward something that was time-based.
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I liked the approach in Brian Alsruhe’s RPM program, in which each workout is made up of four 10-minute blocks. (If you want a legit, progressive program that has this structure for each workout, check his out.) In each 10-minute block, you do the exercise at the beginning of each minute, then rest for the remainder of the minute, then go again as soon as you see another set of zeros on the timer. Here’s an online timer that will beep every minute for 10 minutes.
This approach is pretty common in Crossfit and other functional fitness spheres, where it’s known by the acronym “EMOM” (for Every Minute, On the Minute). I especially like it for hotel workouts because it makes the most of light weights. You accumulate fatigue from each minute as you go into the next, making even small dumbbells feel heavy by the end.
I used 10-minute EMOMs for my hotel workouts, but if I were pressed for time I could have done 5-minute EMOMs for the strength moves and easily been in and out of the gym in half an hour. So I’ll present that as an option as well.
So here’s how each workout goes:
- One 5- or 10-minute block of push exercises
- One 5- or 10-minute block of pull exercises
- One 5- or 10-minute block of leg exercises
- One 10-minute block of conditioning (or 5-10 minutes of core)
That adds up to 40 minutes with the 10-minute option, or 20-25 minutes if you’re doing the five-minute blocks. Add a few minutes to transition between exercises, and your time commitment is about 30 minutes for the short version, and still well under an hour for the long version. If you have more time, you can do extra cardio on a bike or treadmill at the end. (I didn’t do any special warmup to get ready, but you can add a few minutes of cardio or jumping jacks at the beginning if you like.)
In my version, unlike Alsruhe’s, everything is up for modification based on what you prefer or what’s available in that cramped little room. Do the exercises in whatever order makes sense to you (he does legs first). Figure out an appropriate weight as you’re setting up and warming up for the exercise (he has recommended percentages). And I’ll let you choose the reps based on what feels challenging but still allows you to recover by the end of the minute.
If you’d like a rough guideline for variety, pick one exercise each day to be the “heavy” one, and do the others as light or medium. Here’s how I’d rate the reps for each and how they should feel:
- Heavy: 3 reps per set, and whoo boy, you need to sit down now
- Medium: 5 reps per set, feels pretty solid and you’re happy for that 30 seconds of rest.
- Light: 8+ reps per set, not bad and you could keep going after a very short rest.
Workout #1 – Dumbbells only
Here’s one I did in a gym that only had a rack of dumbbells. If you’re a bigger/stronger person than me and the dumbbells in your gym feel pretty light, go for more reps on the lower body exercise.
- Push: dumbbell bench press for 5 reps per set (I used 35 pounds to start, and then dropped to 30 toward the end).
- Pull: dumbbell pullover for 8 reps per set (I used a 20 pound dumbbell).
- Legs: kickstand Romanian deadlifts, using the front leg as the working leg and the back leg for support. I used a pair of 40 pound dumbbells for 3+3 reps (three on the right, three on the left, then rest).
- Conditioning: 5 thrusters (with a pair of 25-pounders) every minute. This one is less about the strength it takes to move the weights, and more about doing enough work to get your heart rate up. Think of it as HIIT.
When you’re doing single-leg work, like the kickstand RDLs, you could get in more reps by doing them on one leg each set. So, in this example, I could have done 6 reps on the right as one set, then 6 reps on the left in the next set. You’ll want to do an even number of sets, of course: if you’re on the 5-minute version, do this set for 6 minutes so you get three sets on each side.
Workout #2 – Dumbbells only
I didn’t get a chance to do this one, but it’s what I would have done if I had another strength day at the dumbbells-only hotel:
- Push: dumbbell incline press for 3-5 reps.
- Pull: Kroc rows (or regular dumbbell rows) for 5-8 reps. Kroc rows are great because you can go heavy and explosive, but if the dumbbells are too light for you, regular rows are fine.
- Legs: Bulgarian split squats, with your back foot elevated on a bench, for 5-8 reps per leg.
- Conditioning: 100 burpees or 10 minutes of burpees, whichever comes first. You can do these EMOM if you like: 10 (or however many you can manage) each minute.
I’m going to give an alternative for the conditioning, because I know a good chunk of you are going to skip the burpees. If you want the easy way out, hop on the treadmill and do a 20-second sprint at the top of each minute, then walk for the remaining 40 seconds.
Workout #3 – If you have a cable machine
One of the hotels I stayed in had a cable machine, pull-up bars, dumbbells, kettlebells, and more. I couldn’t do a dumbbell-only workout with all of that other stuff around, so here’s what I did instead:
- Pull: pullups for 3 reps each minute. (For comparison, I can do 10 pullups on a good day. You’re not trying to max out here, just going for a number you can do on repeat.) You could also do a pulldown exercise with the cable machine instead.
- Push: standing overhead press with kettlebells, 5 reps each minute. You could use a pair of dumbbells, but kettlebells are fun for variety, so I used the gym’s two heaviest kettlebells, which were 25 and 30 pounds. Yes, the weight was uneven; I switched sides every set.
- Legs: zerchers on the cable machine, 5 reps each minute. You know that straight bar attachment that cable machines often have? I hooked up both sides and held it in the crooks of my elbows for a nice heavy squat.
- Conditioning: bike intervals. Or more accurately: I did a 10 minute climb ride on the Peloton. (This hotel had an actual Peloton.) You could also grab a 10-minute ride from YouTube to use on a regular bike, like this one.
More hotel gym workout ideas
Want more options? Swap in any of these for push exercises:
- Z-press (seated on the ground, legs straight) with a pair of dumbbells or a single dumbbell
- Pushups, with hands or feet elevated as needed (hands up is easier, feet up is harder)
- Dips between two benches (or on dip bars, if available)
And here are some more pull ideas:
- Cable rows, squatting with both hands or half-kneeling with one
- Renegade rows with dumbbells
- Chest-supported rows on an incline bench
Here are some options for legs:
- Goblet squats
- Step-ups (with or without dumbbells)
- Somersault squats, great to work the quads if yesterday was a hinge that worked more hamstrings
- Walking lunges
Cardio machines are great for conditioning, so you probably don’t need more ideas for that—just grab an interval workout from YouTube or the fitness app of your choice. But another option would be to do core workouts as your fourth block of the day. Some options there:
- Farmer’s carries EMOM with the heaviest dumbbells you can find (I would say this is a combination of core and conditioning)
- Dedicate one minute to crunches and the next to supermans, then repeat.
- Do any of the three-move core routines from this post. Three rounds fits nicely into 9 minutes.
For a sustainable routine during your vacation, I would recommend doing one of these full-body strength workouts every other day, and then the days in between, either rest or do some low-intensity cardio (for example, 30 minutes of jogging or incline walking on the treadmill).
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