The Primal Stance on Exercise Equipment

Personal GymPrimal living in today’s decidedly post-Paleo world requires making at least a few concessions. We simply cannot live in exact accord with the ways of Primal man. For most of us, it’s just not feasible to live completely off the land (too many humans and their developments getting in the way). And besides, even if we could revert to total hunter-gatherer mode, would we? As much as we try to follow the Primal Blueprint, we have grown accustomed to the benefits (yes, there are some!) of living in the modern world. Plus, there are certain creature comforts – like evolutionary knowledge, nutritional science,  and developments in kinesiology – that rely on modern science and inform, drive, and continually legitimize the fundamentals of the Primal Blueprint. After all, Grok lived the way he did because of necessity; we attempt to emulate his lifestyle as a personal choice.

So what does all this have to do with workout gear? Well, workout gear – weights, protective gear, equipment – can be a boon to anyone trying to follow the Primal Blueprint – even if Grok never had access to any of it. That’s not to suggest that getting a good Primal workout absolutely requires top of the line equipment and workout gear; on the contrary, there are viable fitness options for the Primal Blueprinter without access to expensive workout equipment. And if you do decide you need the equipment, don’t feel pressured to buy the top of the line, boutique stuff. You’re in this for health and Primal fitness, not to continue the consumer culture that so often opposes the Primal way.

Oftentimes, we’ve been so conditioned to think we need special equipment to work up a decent sweat (the endless barrage of gym commercials, ridiculous exercise equipment infomercials starring Chuck Norris and Suzanne Somers, and sexy high- production value Nike commercials certainly don’t help) that we find ourselves making excuses for laziness if we don’t have the right gear. When we rely on external sources for our fitness, it becomes a whole lot easier to plop down on that couch and complain about the ten minute drive to the gym. We’ve outlined plenty of equipment-free fitness options in the past: the Prison Workout, a video on outdoor exercises, the call to “get back to nature.” These are all totally viable gear-less workouts, but they’re not the end all, be all.

So what else can we do without equipment?

Because many of us can’t even fathom exercise without equipment, a good way to think about new ways to exercise is to come up with replacements. Just like we often think about “grain alternatives” or “Primal pasta substitutes,” try thinking about alternatives for the exercises you normally perform with equipment.

You don’t need an ab roller. You don’t need some crazy contraption that administers slight electric shocks to your abdominals while you sit and watch “The View.” And you certainly don’t need any equipment being hawked by a washed-up, mustachioed action star or a former “Three’s Company” starlet. Okay, maybe those things work. Maybe using these silly total-body workouts in a box will do something for you (we’re not convinced, but I suppose those hot infomercial bods don’t lie!). But why fork over three easy payments of $49.95 for something you could just as easily replicate at the local jungle gym – for free? Want to work out your abs? Hang from a bar and touch your elbows with your knees. Thinking about getting that $200 tangle of cables and ropes to work your lats? Do some pull-ups with various grips instead. Repeat after us: you don’t need to drop money on a redundant piece of gimmicky equipment that’ll probably just end up collecting dust anyway.

You can get creative and find your own, inexpensive (or even free) equipment in this great big world, anyway. Just look around. Those body weight squats and pushups getting a little too easy for you? Try carrying your dog while you squat, or giving your kids a ride on your back for push-ups (we would suggest you only do this with your own kids). Keep your eyes peeled for sandbags. Construction companies often leave them lying around or discarded, and they provide a great, pliable weight for just about any exercise (we suggest squat thrusters: performing a squat and then tossing the sandbag in the air at the peak… kills the quads and shoulders). Because they flop around, you’re forced to adjust and use your stabilizer muscles. Plus, you can adjust the weight by adding more sand or even getting the bag wet.

Despite the advantages of equipment-less exercise, certain traditional exercise equipment can make for an optimum Primal fitness experience. We have the luxury of combining proven evolutionary practices with modern technology, but nowadays, with the purse strings tightening, we’re often left wondering just how to afford Olympic weight sets, running shoes, and other equipment to take advantage of our opportunities. Well, we have a few suggestions.



Seriously, guys – before you buy any exercise equipment at retail prices (or even from eBay), do a search for the item on Craigslist. Some people balk at the thought of buying big ticket stuff without a guarantee, but with basic exercise equipment you really don’t need to worry. Weights are weights – they don’t break. And you’ll get the best prices, because Craigslist is full of people trying to sell stuff quickly (plus, there’s no user fee). You don’t pay for shipping, and you’ll get to see the item in person before you hand over any money.

Pro Tip: check the “Free” section.

Thrift Shops/Garage Sales

Garage Sale Sign

The real life Craigslist. Again, used exercise equipment is fairly safe to buy. Think about it: this stuff is designed to withstand constant use and wear and tear. Garage sales are all about cleaning house, and that means low prices. You might have a husband who grew up with these kettlebells, but the nagging wife is sick of them cluttering up the house. Which is he going to choose? All you married Blueprinters know the answer. Tough luck for the seller, great opportunity for the buyer.

Same with thrift shops – these places don’t specialize in any one area. They sell books, clothes, old videos, and analog televisions. Do you think they’ll be aware of the current market price for Olympic weight sets? No way. They get this stuff for cut rate prices (or completely free) and they’re just interested in making room for new wares.

Play It Again Sports

For you Primal Blueprinters who like the name-brand, high-end fitness gear, try your local Play It Again Sports location. Essentially thrift shops that focus on fitness equipment, Play It Again Sports franchises carry all the top brands at inexpensive prices. There are roughly 800 locations nationwide, so check out the online store locator to see if there’s a location near you.

Share your thoughts and tips in the comment boards!

InfoMofo, salomon88, hrtmnstrfr, lantzilla Flickr Photos (CC)

Further Reading:

The Prison Workout

Getting Back to Nature

Video Proof You Can Exercise Outdoors

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28 thoughts on “The Primal Stance on Exercise Equipment”

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  1. Really cool post. I find it helps so much to have a bot of fitness equipment at home for times you don’t have time to hit the gym and don’t feel like a sprint based workout. I have a 16 pood Kettlebell which I picked up pretty cheap and I can get an awesome workout from it (Swings, Cleans, Pressed, OH Squats etc) its neat, won’t break and versatile. For me a Kettlebell is a must….

  2. I own my own exercise studio, in which I have sunk about 30K — it’s amazing. That said, I do most of my exercise out doors and use my studio maybe twice per week. The whole world is a gym if you know what you’re doing and are creative enough to do it!!!

  3. CrossFit has an excellent free article on their website about outfitting your own garage gym that can be applied, even if you don’t do crossfit. You don’t really need much, since most of the most beneficial exercises are relatively small in number. I can’t remember the last time I used a leg extension machine….or even a Machine PERIOD for that matter….

  4. My home gym consists mostly of things bought at Lowe’s or Home depot or things purchased at garage sales or graigslist. Sure I can afford fancy equipment but my home gym just feels “old school” with all the rust and old equipment. Some of my favorite equipment includes – My pull up bar (a steel pipe from lowe’s, hung with 2 chains from the ceiling by eyelets – My kettlebell and my weighted vest(bought new but primal and unconventional) – My bench press bench (obtained from a thriftstore. Rusty and old as dirt but works great!) – My stair stepper (also obtained from a thrift store. Very old and great for doing climbing sprints!) – a series of plates and bars (all obtained from thrift stores and garage sales)- and last but not least, my beat up old punching bag (i beat it up over the years which gives a sense of pride) and jump rope. I have always felt that I get better workouts from my mome gym than any fancy gym with fancy equipment.

  5. P.S. I have always loved the feel of ancient boxing gyms! Rusted out old iron and years of sweat! That is how I have always tried to model my home gym.

  6. My “gym” consists of 2 dumbbells, a jump-rope, the mountain I live on, and the beach near by, which comes to a grand total of less than $15. While of course I am enticed to work-out in a cramped gym that smells of other people’s sweat, worrying about the bacteria on the equipment, and competing (subconsciously, of course) with all of the hot-bodied gym rats, I find that I prefer to workout outdoors with the fresh air clearing my head and my stress, while soaking in a bit of Vitamin D. When the weather isn’t quite cooperating, I just grab my jump-rope & dumbbells. At the estimated $500 a year that a gym membership costs (ref: MSN Money), my grand total of $15 is looking pretty good to me.

  7. Great post Mark. Another way to make bodyweight exercises harder is to explore altnerative versions that make them harder – for example, one-legged squats and press-ups with a clap. If you’re feeling really adverturous, check out the planche and front lever, which are gymnastics exercises. All you need is your own bodyweight but they are very challenging!

  8. Indeed. I find the typical rule of thumb is the more complicated the machine, the sooner I stop using it. I can’t count how many pumping/gliding/wire contraptions I’ve tossed out, but I still have and use the dumbbells I bought in high school. Those things have stayed with me through two marriages!

  9. My workout yesterday consisted of 5 minutes of Turkish Getups with a 24kg kettlebell, and 4x 100 yd sprints up a moderate hill alternating with 5 pullups with a 12kg kettlebell hanging off my foot. 20 minutes max. I vary my workouts daily with kettlebells, bodyweight, but still get into the gym a couple of times a month to do some heavy deadlifts and barbell cleans and presses. I also run up the stairs in my building or do pistols in my office. I’ve been doing this for the last 8 months after being a gym rat for the last 8 years and have never felt better. I love just the doing without the planning and travel, plus working out outdoors is great.

  10. Son of Grok I hear you about the old school gym, but for some of this equipment it really is worth it to invest more money and let the “old school” fade for a minute. I can’t believe you’re bench pressing on a rusty bench from a thrift store… what will you do when the bench fails and you fall to the ground with a barbell in your hands?? Better not to bench press at all than to trust your life to a rusted out thrift store relic.

    Seriously, I’m 100% with you on keeping it real and all that, but there are things that really don’t make sense without the right tools.

  11. Haha. I agree with you on the safety aspect Kevin. I assure you that my bench, though dated is structurally sound!

  12. Many years ago, Jack LaLanne put together a booklet on his “Set-o-Matic” exercises which were designed for people to do just about anywhere using regular household items:

    I use a different routine these days, but I tried it out for several months back in 2003 and was quite pleased with how easy it was to get a decent level of resistance training without having to go to a gym. And Jack just turned 94 last month – so he’s definitely on to something!

  13. This article sounded genuine at the start but loses all credibility when naming a retail brand “play it again sports” at the end. Hope you got some money out of the deal.

  14. Looks like CrossFit Morris County; pull up bars, boxes, kettlebells, dumbbells, barbells, a concept 2 erg, jump ropes, sand bags, med. balls, tractor tires, kegs, home-made sleds, and boxes. We train movements not muscles and train for truly functional fitness. My equipment was either purchased on the cheap, found, made, or given to me. We are really getting after here. If you’re NJ, look us up. If your from MDA, you’re in for FREE!!

  15. Mark – Thanks for a timely post! Your training and exercise programs have to do with YOU, not with your equipment. Not to get all literary, but the equipment thing is a great metaphor. For example, inspiring teachers help, but a self-motivated student can get the job done on her own. A person with passion and commitment can become a skilled pianist even if his family can only afford an ancient, rickety upright. Training has everything to do with your work ethic, not with the latest-and-greatest new piece of gear or equipment.

  16. Good post Mark and I do agree with what you are saying. You don’t need equipment to do a good workout. However, I do prefer working out at the gym. I tried doing my workouts at home a few years back and found it just wasn’t the same as the gym. I found it harder to motivate myself and quite distracting when working out at home.

    I’ll never make the excuse that I can’t exercise if I don’t get to the gym. However, where possible I will always do my workouts in the gym.

  17. You own gym looks awesome! Mine is in the attic! Just a cheap bench a Kettlebell. 2 8 kg and one 16Kg. I go to the gym for fitness classes and use some machines (less and less)

  18. I have working out for a long time. You do not have to spend much money on equipment. People ask me often what I do to stay in shape. I tell them: cardio with interval training, some lifting (use items around the house or store bought weights) and some specific muscle training: situps,etc… It’s worked for me!

  19. Mark, I wish more people would read your advice and follow it. They would be very happy with the results!

  20. Wow, fantastic weblog structure! How lengthy have you been running a blog for? you make blogging look easy. The full glance of your website is magnificent, let alone the content material!

  21. I personally find it much easier to commit myself to a gym. One can switch equipment out at will, have many lifting options, plus the support of other members if you have questions. Plus you can show off your Grok T-shirt to everyone! I live in a very small home and would rather pay a monthly fee (no contract) to use other people’s equipment which is upgraded yearly. That said, I still love pullups and pushups!