Endorphin Mainline

Though I’m a big proponent of Olympic lifts, and I use free weights on a regular basis, there’s something to be said for getting a great workout using just your surroundings, gravity, and maybe a pull-up bar. We can’t always get to a gym, and one-time fees can be pretty exorbitant – but we always want to be able to get a good workout in. When you’re stuck out of town on business, surrounded by fast food joints, stressed out of your mind and close to breaking, a great workout can really make the difference and save our sanity. We can’t always eat good Primal fare or even get plenty of sleep, but we can always blast our body with an intense, Primal workout using only our own body weight.

Here’s how.

First, warm up with 15-30 seconds each of jumping jacks, mountain climbers, and lunges. This’ll get your blood flowing and your muscles prepared for the hell on earth to come (but hell in a good way!).

Step Ups (weighted – 12 per leg) (video for illustration purposes)
Find any surface capable of supporting your weight, like a bench, a chair, or a box. Stand in front of it and make like the name says: place the first foot on the bench and step up onto it, making sure to flex your knee and quadriceps. Bring your second foot up flat on the surface and step back down and repeat with the opposite leg. Increase the difficulty and intensity by carrying something heavy, like dumbbells, a small child, or a suitcase.

Wide Grip Push Ups (20 reps) (video)
Get in normal push up position. Now widen your grip. Do push ups as normal, but notice that the wide stance will target your chest more and enlist your triceps less while throwing in a bit of back work too. Again, if these are too easy for you, stack some sort of weighty object on your back.

Prisoner Squats (25 reps) (video)
The classic prisoner squat is performed with your hands behind your head (hence “prisoner”) using just your body weight. These are great for maintaining strength and learning proper squat form (butt pushed back and dropped, back straight, quads at least parallel to the floor at the bottom), but you can also add in some weight (suitcase, heavy books, whatever you can hold while maintaining form). Remember, go deep.

V-Ups (10 reps) (video)
Lie on your back (on the floor, or on a bench, anywhere really) with your arms outstretched above your head flat against the floor. Using your abs, bring both your arms and your legs toward each other, effectively forming a “V.” Be sure to keep your legs and arms straight, and to engage your abs throught the movement. Hold something heavy to make it harder. Pros can tuck a weight between their knees or ankles.

Shoulder Press Pushups (10 reps) (video)
Get in the push up position. Think of the classic push up as 180 degrees; push your butt up until you approach 90 degrees, almost forming an upside down “V.” The closer you get to a 90 degree angle, the more you’ll target your shoulders. This can be great training for a handstand pushup. An alternate version: put your legs up on a tall bed or a table and your palms on the ground, forming a 90 degree angle between the surface and the floor, almost like an overhead press.

Wall Squat (30 seconds) (video)
Get in the parallel squat position up against a wall. Hold it for 30 seconds.

Mixed Grip Pull-Ups (5 reps each grip) (video)
Hang from a bar with your right hand pronated (facing away from you body) and your left hand supinated (facing your body). Complete 5 reps then switch grips so that your right hand is now supinated and your left hand pronated. Complete 5 more.

Superman (up for 10 seconds, rest for 5 seconds; 6 reps) (video)
Lie on your stomach, hands and legs outstretched (like you’re Superman flying through the air). Using your belly/hip area as the locus point, lift off the ground and bring your arms and legs up as high as you can. Hold it, hold it, hold it. Rest for a bit and repeat.

Repeat for three rounds.

Go as hard and as fast as you can. Try not to rest in between exercises, but give yourself a minute or two in between rounds. The goal is to compete against yourself for time. Record your times. Keep a log. Make sure you’re always working toward – or against – something, and your workouts will never get stale. If things are getting too easy, add weights or increase reps. If things are too hard, do as much as you can. If you have to rest three times before completing the pull-ups, do it. The important thing is that you get the reps in. With time and perseverance, your times will improve. And the endorphin rush will keep you coming back for more.

The beauty of a bodyweight workout is that it’s available anywhere at anytime, no equipment needed (except maybe a pull up bar – but you could always just find a low hanging branch or an exposed pipe or something). While they probably won’t pack on the muscle, you will get stronger, especially if you’re a newcomer to exercise. And if you’re a regular gym-goer, this bodyweight routine will maintain your strength, and the intensity of the circuit will improve your fitness. They’re infinitely adaptable, and the relatively low resistance means you can try new exercises out without worrying about injury.

This particular routine will get you results. Your legs will be screaming and your arms will be jelly, but it’ll be over relatively quickly and you will feel incredible after. Lifting heavy weights is great, and sprints are crucial, but there’s something about “destroying” your body with a series of intense bodyweight exercises in quick succession that feels truly raw and Primal.

Drop me a line with your best times!

Further Reading:

Prison Workout

Kettlebell Workout

Sandbag Workout

Slosh Tube Workout

Sprint Workout

15-Minute Workout

Medicine Ball Workout

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TAGS:  mental health

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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44 thoughts on “Endorphin Mainline”

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  1. Or.. just do burpees until you collapse. 😉 Nice bodyweight post Mark! I have been thinking about ways to do pullups to try next time I travel. I think I am going to try the classic doorframe method and pray I don’t break something.

    The SoG

  2. Mark, I have a question. I really like this style of exercising, but, I tend to find that I ‘keel-over’ when doing it, i.e:

    * tunnel, followed by loss of vision
    * extreme weakness – can hardly move a muscle
    * cold-sweats – I go very white
    * dizziness
    * slurred speech and foggy thinking
    * severe nausea

    I had it just today after doing bodyweight lunges, it builds up, peaks, and falls away over about 4-5 mins.. and it’s not a result of going too hard – I get it at 60-70% max effort too. It’s happened for 10+ years now (I’m 30):

    * during kickboxing classes
    * after swimming
    * in the gym when doing weights
    * in the gym after rowing on a concept rower

    I *don’t* get it running around playing sports like soccer – even if I go flat-out..

    I’ve had it checked out by docs – my heart and everything, but they didn’t come up with anything. Wonder if you could shed any light on it?

    Many thanks,

    Primal Chap

    1. Something similar used to happen to me after physical exertion. Usually I could work out for twenty minutes to half an hour (though sometimes only a couple sets would be killing me) and then I’d have to stop because I felt terrible. It felt like my ears had popped and blood was rushing to or out of my head such as when standing up after lying down for a long time and I felt dizzy, sick, unnaturally exhausted, and somewhat out of it. I looked in the mirror during these times and I actually looked pretty sickly: pale or with an unhealthy looking pallor and very dark under the eyes. Once in high school I tried to push through the feeling in the weight room during lunch and ended up throwing up in the sink in my science class after and the people I sat near told me I looked terrible and my teacher actually got one of them to walk with me to the office to call my mom for a ride home. That was the worst instance, though I threw up a little bit other times, usually when working out with too much food in my stomach. Most other times the feeling would be mild but uncomfortable and the only cures I had were to drink something sugary (water helped but barely) or eat something (apples worked best) and then wait it out or resort to self medication by smoking a couple hits of weed. It was kind of ironic to get stoned right after a workout but it always made me feel better. Eventually I didn’t need anything but water after a workout though, or tea (especially green matcha) maybe with a bit of honey as it seems to be just as good if not better for a workout drink. The negative symptoms have disappeared unless I really push myself, and then I only feel slightly dizzy and sick and it’s over very quickly allowing me to resume the workout. I’m not quite sure of the reason but I think my problem was an unhealthy lifestyle of constant pharmaceutical drug use, energy drink dependency, and sleep deprivation that I’m assuming was burning me out, messing with my metabolism and blood sugar levels, and causing nutrient deficiencies. I don’t know if there was a correlation since the dizziness and whatnot resolved before I fixed up my all my bad habits but I believe it was after I started eating better, sleeping more, and taking vitamins that I felt better working out even though I was still “living it up” every day. Also about the same time I started feeling better the weather was getting warmer so I was biking to and from school and all around at lunch and my spare period every day whereas before I didn’t get much cardio so that may have contributed. This is all speculation though and since you’re on this site and you mention a lot of physical activity I’m assuming you already have a healthy lifestyle so maybe this doesn’t help..

  3. A large majority of my workouts involve walking to warm-up and then calisthenics. Gives a great “toned” look rather than bulking up (which I, personally, don’t want) and can be done anywhere – which for me generally means outside in the fresh air and sun. The great thing about the above exerices and similar ones is that you can constantly change them so you never get bored!

    1. It seems to me women are conditioned to be afraid to build muscle. Unless we take loads of supplements and steroids, we’re not going to get bulked up the way men do… unless you have abnormally high levels of testosterone. I can do just as many pushups as most of my buddies and my arms look toned and firm, but not huge and scary and bulky. Even when I was doing hardcore bar-bell workouts and bicep isolation exercises (I don’t waste my time anymore), and climbing ropes, I didn’t bulk up. So yeah, get outside and get some fresh air, but don’t be afraid to throw down some pushups, jump on the monkey bars or throw a sandbag around. Women can and should lift weight just as men should.

  4. Great timing. I was just looking for some ideas for a workout like this to add a little variety to my regular pull-up and push-up workouts. I think I’ll stop looking and just use yours for now. Thanks!
    What I particularly like about these body weight (or minimal equipment) workouts is the fact that there is no overhead, i.e., I can just do it any time I feel like it, no drive to the gym or setting up equipment.

  5. Primal Progress,
    Have you checked your blood pressure during these episodes? You might want to check your blood pressure before during and after to see for any dangerous spikes or drops. I am not a doctor.. just a thought.

    The SoG

  6. A key component to these workouts is a stopwatch. Time yourself, keep a log, compare results.

    Examples of good bodyweight workouts.
    100 burpees for time is a killer workout.
    Tabata intervals of anything is a killer workout, one I’ve done a few times is tabata squats, pushups, situps. What is tabata? 8 rounds of 20 seconds all out work, 10 seconds rest. So for the aforementioned workout do as many squats as possible in 20 seconds, then rest 10, repeat 8 times, take a 1 minute rest, do as many pushups as possible in 20 seconds, rest 10 seconds, repeat 8 times, etc etc. Have a pen and paper handy to record results.
    4 rounds for time of run 1/4 mile, 50 air squats.
    As many rounds as possible in 20 minutes of 5 pullups, 10 pushups, 15 squats.
    In other words, take any bodyweight exercises, and either sprint through them for time, or work for a certain amount of time and sprint through them for reps.

    Primal: Sounds to me like you’re not eating enough, those all sound like low blood sugar to me.

    Jane: ‘Tone’ is a result of low body fat and has nothing to do with low intensity work. You can NOT accidentally bulk up, you would need to stuff your face constantly to achieve that. I know a dainty 105# girl who can deadlift 415#s, she’s quite ‘toned’ and obviously not bulky. You will see far greater results from lifting heavy things and exercising with high intensity.

  7. It’s awesome to see a post covering primal workouts. I love this type of stuff. I currently am following a Beginner Dumbbell program from StrongLifts.com, and I have seen pretty good strength gains. In the distant future, I’d like to replace my dumbbells with a barbell for weightlifting.

    I subscribe to the philosophy that both weightlifting and bodyweight exercises are awesome. I personally find weightlifting works a little better for me, but I at least try and make 1 of my three strength workouts a week bodyweight. I give this a try Friday and report back.

  8. Great post Mark, thanks, I love Primal workouts like this, they don’t take a lot of time away from my family yet pack a very powerful punch.

  9. I agree, perfect timing for this peice! I was looking for some more ideas for my husband during our routines. He has bad knees and those wall squats would be good for him. It’s amazing how all these exercises float out of my brain when I’m trying to put a routine together! And those V ups would be good for me!

    Thanks 🙂

  10. Ryan, do you have a timer for your tabata drills? I’ve been looking for one and the closest I can come to something that will beep each round is one for boxing. I can’t change the intervals it beeps at though, two options for rest- 20 or 30 sec, two options for work 2 or 3 min. Not going to work for tabata!

  11. Michelle-

    The Gymboss timer is specifically designed for interval workouts. You can set it for Tabata or any other intervals. It also works as a “normal” timer. Just go to gymboss.com and check it out. I’ve been using one for years!

  12. Ooowwww… just did this tonight. Well, most of it. Didn’t quite make the rep count on a few of them (wide pushups, pull ups, and supermans)

    First real ‘workout’ I’ve done in years. Been doing the occasional batch of pushups/crunches/lunges, but nothing grouped. Bit of jumping right into it, but damn… I feel good. Darn tired right now, but good.

    Making a change on the diet too… chunk of grilled chicken and squash for dinner.

  13. 1 – a nice way to add oomph to press-ups is to run a resistance band over your shoulders and hold it down with each hand. Very simple, much easier than balancing a weight on your back, and adjustable – pull it tighter to add resistance. And harder than you might think!
    2 – totally endorse the timing of key bodyweight workouts, and trying to set faster times. it is a great motivator, and also lets you know/confirms if you are not quite 100%, if your time slips back.
    Great post, great comments everyone (not Jane, sorry that one was way off beam and not helpful to any readers of this blog).

  14. Thanks Clint, Pete, and Mike :). I saved those links on my computer and I’ll try downloading tonight. I shouldnt even be here on my lunch break!

    I’ll check out the gymboss as well for summer. Pretty soon my basement workouts will be outside and lugging my comptuer around as a timer just doesn’t sound fun!

    Thanks again!

  15. I got a Seiko S052 Stopwatch & Interval Timer.


    You can easily set it to run a 20 second interval followed by a 10 second interval repeating as many times as you like (If I’m doing a 3 exercise tabata workout that would be 28 ‘laps’ including a 2 lap or 1 minute break between each exercise). You can of course change the numbers on the 20 and 10 second intervals to whatever you want. It makes different sounding beeps depending on which interval is ending. Its a great stopwatch, about 60 bucks.

  16. Wonderful timing! I am recovering from a herniated disc and am just beginning to get back into exercising. I can not add any weights to my workouts but body-weight stuff is great. I was looking for some suggestions like this. Another great thing about this kind of workout is that it uses natural movements and does not overload any part of the body with weight that it is not meant to bear. This leaves me longing to get going and I can’t wait to get back up to my pre-injury fitness level.

    ps: If anyone out there is still doing ‘crunches’….STOP NOW! The spine is not intended to repeatedly bend forward. Exercises like planks and supermans will work your abs without stressing your spine. Don’t do anything that straightens the lumbar spine(lower back).
    *My most recent ‘life lesson’. 🙂

  17. new_me, I found that deadlifts are AMAZING to repair a damaged spine (along with supermans). Just don’t overtrain. Changed my life, srsly!

  18. Primal = functional! Great post. These weight bearing exercises are fantastic functional exercises that can help one get fit, perform their daily activities with greater efficiency and decrease the chances of getting injured.

  19. One place I used to live was sold, and me with it. The new owners were retired farmers and brought two farm cats with them. Those guys adopted me and used to bring me little primal presents, mice, voles, and once one went out onto the roof and hooked a bat out of the air. The downside was when their gifts were only partly dead. 🙁

  20. Question, what’s the time limit for the 100 burpees?

    my time is 11:30-11:38 mins.


  21. Great post. i travel a lot with work and when I am not I am basically strapped to my desk getting new business. I often take 10 minute breaks go for a walk or really try to kill it with body weight exercises.

    I’ve even been able to sell people on doing push-ups in their office when their stressed. Saves me so why not them?

  22. So i did the body weight workout today in/outside my office as soon as i read the post. Awesome little workout…could use some modifications to intinsify it. But it took me 22 minutes, and i only had about a 10 second walk to the pull up scaffolding.
    @Douglas i usually do 100 burpees around 7:30ish…train smart my friends

  23. It’s actually a great and useful piece of information. I am satisfied that you just shared this useful info with us. Please keep us informed like this. Thanks for sharing.

  24. I heard you on the radio and you were talking about walking/running barefoot. Could you explain about the the shoes you wear?

  25. My chiropractor recommended this website to me and I am wondering, would the Insanity workout videos “count” as a good workout for the HIIT day?

  26. In my opinion, body weight exercises are king. I don’t care how much you can bench you are more likely to build lean muscle mass with bodyweight exercises than you are with weights.