Get Strong Without Ever Going to the Gym Again

You can do this yoga-meets-wrestling series of movements anywhere, with results that put the weight machines to shame

Video loading...

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

Human evolution, you’ll be happy to hear, has officially let you off the hook: It’s normal and healthy to hate the gym. Here’s even better news: There’s a way you can never go back and still get into true Olympian shape. You just have to learn one simple movement flow: the Traveling Maxercist.

Your true enemy when it comes to fitness isn’t laziness. It’s ancestry. We’re hunter-gatherers at heart—creatures of movement—which makes us hardwired to respond to variety. Our eye is out for new frontiers, not the old terrain we’ve already picked over. It’s made us the most restless animal ever to walk the earth, so hungry for fresh hunting grounds that we’re not even satisfied with our own planet. Two million years of adaptation have developed a brain that rewards us with a burst of endorphins whenever we push into the unpredictable, even if it’s just running outside on a trail in the wind instead of on a treadmill. That glow of exhilaration that warms you from the inside out is your body’s reminder that this—the variety of pace, terrain, temperature, and strength demands—is what’s best for your body and the species.

That’s why when old-school gyms needed trainers, they hired fighters. Nobody knew natural movement better than boxers, because they either got it right or got demolished. When young Teddy Roosevelt showed up at Wood’s Gymnasium in Manhattan as a sickly teenager, “Professor” John Wood shoved Teddy right into the hands of John Long, a professional pug. Together, the fighter and the novice tackled “beautiful and effective combined exercises”: swinging on parallel bars, twirling Indian clubs, vaulting gymnastics horses, shuttle running with a medicine ball. Teddy learned about strength rings: two circles of steel that opponents grip between them. The object is to yank and twist until the other guy loses his grip or footing. “They bring into play every joint and muscle of the body,” one of Wood’s students affirmed, and it was an approach that Roosevelt never abandoned; as president, he’d invite soldiers into the White House to spar with him using cudgels. Even in his fifties, Roosevelt was strong and agile enough to swim the Potomac and climb the cliffs of Rock Creek Park—often in the same night. 

Until the 1970s, that’s what gyms were like: big, open warehouse spaces that allowed skillful movement, range of motion, and body-weight exercise. But functional movement has one major flaw, at least if you’re a gym owner. Mobility is murder on profit margins. You can have only so many clients lurching around with medicine balls and wooden clubs before they start klonking each other into the emergency room, which means you’ve got to limit how many paying customers come through the door. To really cash in, you’d have to figure out a way to make everyone stay put. You’d have to come up with something that looked enough like natural movement to get people to pay but without all the messy mobility. Something stationary. Something like…

Bodybuilding. It was perfect. Especially because, in 1976, a little indie film transformed it from weird underground cult into Hollywood gold. Before Pumping Iron, the entire audience at bodybuilding’s premier championship could fit inside a school bus. Its biggest star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was barely getting by as a pinup model for brown-wrapper men’s mags. “It was a tiny little world,” Charlie Butler, Pumping Iron’s director, would say. “So he was the king of 300 people.” 

Until the 1970s, gyms were big, open warehouse spaces that allowed skillful movement, range of motion, and body-weight exercise. But functional movement is murder on profit margins.

But behind the beefcake, drama was brewing. Lou Ferrigno, the deaf and brooding Brooklyn giant with the domineering dad, was determined to dethrone Arnold, the golden prince of Venice Beach. Ferrigno was tormented, hungry, and huge. Arnold was handsome, charming, and diabolical. Surrounding them was a crazy court of knights and jesters, all oiling each others’ backs while looking for a spot to sink the knife. Butler couldn’t believe his luck. He’d stumbled across the spiciest of melodramas, a Macbeth in banana hammocks played out by a hard-partying pack of near-naked men. It made an amazing movie and a nice bit of stage magic; we saw Lou and Arnold and Franco and believed we were being shown the path to amazing fitness, when actually we were witnessing for the first time what anabolic steroids could do to the human body. 

Looking back, the fraud should have been obvious. Didn’t it seem weird that every man in the film was more developed than any other man on the planet had ever been? But that’s why Pumping Iron was such a sensation. No one had ever seen a body like Arnold’s, and for good reason: The drugs hadn’t existed. Nobody can pack that much muscle mass onto a human frame by natural means, as Harvard researcher Dr. Harrison Pope would prove in his exposés of bodybuilding techniques; it’s just not physically possible. If you really want to look like Arnold, you’d better invest in injectables and find a vein.

We weren’t shown that, of course. Pumping Iron didn’t film the furtive injections of Dianabol and estrogen, the man-breasts and shrunken testicles, the home experimentation with drugs linked to cancer, dementia, uncontrollable anger, and strokes. Instead, we were delivered a new male body fantasy—supersize me—and a new standard of fitness: What you look like is more important than what you can do.

Instead, you isolate one body part and tear it down, repeating the same movement over and over until the muscle begins to tear. Basically, you’re injuring yourself; the soreness and swelling you feel is an emergency reaction as blood rushes in to immobilize the damaged area. Pain, perversely, was now a selling point. In the short term, all you did was temporarily pump the muscle up like a balloon. In the long term, you ignored many important surrounding muscles. This leads to imbalances that will inevitably leave you injured as soon as you put your new physique into action playing an actual sport. But so what? Isolation got you huge, and that’s what mattered. Feel the burn. Get big!

The timing couldn’t have been better. Just as gyms began pushing the stay-put approach, the perfect stay-put device fell into their laps. In 1970, a bizarre character from Florida showed up at the Mr. America competition with his pet invention, the “Blue Monster.” Arthur Jones was a chain-smoking high school dropout turned big-game hunter who’d married six wives, shot 63 elephants, and spent his downtime trying to overfeed his 14-foot alligator to Guinness World Record size. He was also a self-taught mechanic who’d built an exercise machine with a kidney-shaped cam. Because the gear also resembled a seashell, Jones renamed his creation the Nautilus.

Nautilus machines were ideal for keeping people stationary. They were so compact that you could fit four people into a small space without worrying they’d smack into each other. You didn’t even need to carry a weight over from a rack; you just sat on a padded seat and reached for smooth plastic handles. “The idea of a health club really changed. It became big business. It was Arthur Jones that started that,” a Nautilus colleague would recall in an obituary after Jones died in 2007. “Mr. Jones’ invention,” the article went on to say, “led to the ‘machine environment’ that is prevalent today in health clubs.”

Okay. But given modern lifestyles, isn’t the gym better than nothing?

No—because to most people, it is nothing. That’s statistical fact. The average annual dropout rate at health clubs is astonishing. More than 60 percent of members who enroll in January are gone by April. Rather than being ashamed of offering a product that over half its clients find tedious, repetitive, and unpleasant, health clubs bank on it. Gyms routinely oversubscribe by up to 500 percent, taking money from five times as many people as could ever fit inside. Sure, it gets a little crowded after New Year’s (“cattle call” gets thrown around a lot), but every other person soon disappears. That would cripple most industries, but thanks to the power of guilt and magical thinking, people keep coming back for more. Even during the darkest days of the recession, health clubs continued making a mint off a product that the majority of its own customers hate.

Steve Maxwell isn’t shocked by the dirty secrets of gym owners, because for many years, he was one. Maxwell trained pro athletes and pudgy newcomers alike in his popular Philadelphia sweat shop, and one thing he realized is the stupidity and dishonesty of the “willpower model.” We keep blaming people for not going to the gym by saying they lack discipline, Maxwell says, but if you’re relying on willpower to get in shape, you’re doomed. “If you hate something, you ain’t doing it. You may come roaring out like a lion, and maybe even stick it out for a surprising amount of time, but the writing is on the wall.”

So quit making promises you won’t keep, he suggests. Instead, try the “Traveling Maxercist,” an exercise flow he created that works every muscle and movement chain in the body and is so well rooted in the pleasure of natural movement that willpower may no longer be an issue. For inspiration, Maxwell looked to the first and most formidable of the ancient Olympians: wrestlers.

“I originally came upon the Maxercist concept while attempting to figure out exercise combinations to simulate the stresses of a prolonged grappling or MMA fight,” he says. “It was my desire to include all elements of human movement encountered in a grappling match: pushing, pulling, static strength, strong core activation, grip, [plus] hip, spine, and shoulder mobility … all while under a high cardio stress.”

But as complicated as it sounds, the Traveling Maxercist couldn’t be simpler. The basic positions are modeled on familiar yoga poses, and the only real trick is concentration: The end of each movement is the beginning of the next, so you can’t zone out the way you would on a bicep bench. “You must focus on what you’re doing and concentrate on connecting the movements together into a super-flowing kinetic chain,” Maxwell explains. “This requires a filtering out of external stimulus—you must be here now—and that’s excellent practice for high-level athleticism.” 

Think you can survive the Traveling Maxercist? Scroll up to the video for complete instructions.