Urban Workouts

Remember Blair Morrison? He’s the dude who got Primal in the Netherlands for his entry into the PB Fitness Video Contest, and also placed 7th at the 2009 CrossFit Games. Blair wrote to me with his latest workout video – which will close this post – and a reminder: don’t forget about urban Groks!

I live in Malibu, just outside of LA proper, and it’s not exactly an urban environment. LA itself isn’t a classic urban landscape; it’s more urban sprawl than anything else. We’ve got hundreds of miles of wilderness – mountains, beaches, trails, canyons – to climb, run, crawl, or hike, but very little skyscraper to scale or subway turnstile to hurdle. We give a ton of attention to the great outdoors, partly because of my affinity for it and partly because it fits the Primal theme really well. For today, though, I want to address the urban warriors among us. If you’re lucky enough to live in a vibrant, bustling cityscape teeming with ledges, poles, fences, staircases, and tall buildings, you owe it yourself to expand your workout regimen to encompass your (un)natural environment.

Whenever I visit a new city, I like to go for a walk. Cities are meant to be traversed by foot, in my opinion. Sticking to taxis or buses erects a barrier. You gotta put foot to pavement and really connect with a city, especially if you’re just visiting (no time to spare). On my walks, I invariably find myself scoping out the scenery for possible workout “equipment.” I do this everywhere I go, in fact, not just in cities. It may mean I annoy my wife with my roving eyes (hey, at least I’m just scoping out park benches to jump, rather than beds to lie in!), but it also means I’m never unequipped for an impromptu workout.

There are no immutable laws governing urban workouts, because every environment is different. In LA, for example, an urban workout probably means climbing a fifteen-foot tree in front of some suburban house, doing pull-ups at the top branch, and running from an eventually pound-bound pit bull that’s broken loose. Or hitting the Venice drum circle for a bout of Primal dancing. But there are certain features that every urban environment should offer to the intrepid, kinetic explorer, and these include:

Ledges, overhangs, horizontal overhead poles – Perfect for pull-ups and muscle-ups. Hit some knees-to-elbows if there’s room to swing.

Vertical poles – Climb these. Pigeon droppings make for a worse payoff than wild coconuts, but at least you’ll build great grip and pulling strength. Traffic lights are pretty easy to climb (plenty of handholds).

Benches, turnstiles, weird public-owned stone cubes masquerading as art – Leap these. Box-jump them. If the bench is mobile, lift it. If you’ve got stones, try to lift the stone.

Hills – Sprint them. Grok crawl up them, then back down. Don’t worry; you can wash your hands after.

Stairs – You can also sprint these, but I like climbing them hand over hand (if there’s room to grab, that is) from underneath, ninja style. Just don’t let go at the top.

Construction sites – Sure, they’re slightly dangerous and it’s probably illegal to trespass, but there’s so much to do! Heavy slabs of metal to drag and deadlift, shards of concrete to hurl, structures to climb, and if you’re unwilling to go all the way in, you can usually find sandbags lining the perimeter.

Cars – Outrun them. Yes, I’m serious. No, I don’t mean in the street, neck-and-neck with the hulking metal beasts, but on the sidewalk, using the cars as motivation. And if you see a pregnant mother trapped beneath a wrecked one, you can always call upon your ATP and lift the back end.

Dumpsters – Push and pull them, treat ‘em like big stinky weight sleds.

Buildings – Scale them, if you dare. Enter them to reveal massive staircases (see “Stairs” above).

Little old ladies trying to cross the street – Carry them! It’s much faster than simply lending them an arm and walking them to the other side. Plus, it works your core.

And that’s just what I could think of off the top of my head. There are plenty of other options, many of which are just waiting to be discovered. The key is to keep your eyes open and your mind fixated on exactly how this feature or that object could be used to exert force or manipulate resistance. It may mean thinking outside the box or looking at the environment from a totally different perspective – you’ll have to see the urbanity as something to be accosted, assaulted, and conquered, rather than avoided or merely walked past. It’ll probably also have you end up looking a bit crazy, but if you’re eating Primal, you’re probably used to the weird stares from passers-by.

Just have fun! Living in the city doesn’t mean you have to work out at the gym… just ask Blair, who seems to get along okay without one.

Last, I’d be remiss not to remind you to be careful! Injury avoidance is top priority with Primal Blueprint Fitness, so take caution with your urban workouts just like you would any other.

Any Primal urbanites got workout tips to share? Do so in the comments!

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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56 thoughts on “Urban Workouts”

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  1. and after getting caught doing some of these, you can work on your Sarah Conner jailcell workouts!

  2. Wow. Loved the work out. Some excellent ideas. I really loved the under stair climb and the toes to bar. Cool stuff

  3. What you’ve just described is pretty much what it’s like to be a Parkour practitioner. We are always on the look out for new ways to use the city.

  4. Hooray! I live in LA and do an urban workout every morning.

    Before I started on the PB, I was trying to get fit by chronic cardio, and I only saw my neighborhood as a monotonous racetrack. Now my neighborhood feels more exciting and adventurous than any gym or parcourse. There are specialized exercise stations lining every side street!

    Mark’s list above is a great start. From my own experiences, I also recommend:

    * Flagstone quick-stepping. Plant your feet on each of these little paving slabs leading to the curb, running back and forth as fast as you can.

    * Curb running. Run tightrope-style along the very curb of the sidewalk, careful not to step into the street on one side or the lurking dog mess on the other. Vibrams or barefoot recommended, lest you risk a twisted ankle.

    * Stretching on parking posts. These are just the right height to prop up a leg or support a calf stretch. Even better if you can find one in the sun and do your stretches while you get your fill of sunshine.

    * Root running. A lot of urban trees have massively overgrown root systems. If you’re lucky enough to find a street lined with these, try running as far as you can staying only on the roots. Once again, barefoot or Vibrams recommended.

    * Jogger chasing. People have “chased” me — as in, tried to match my pace — and there is nothing that gets the heart pumping faster than trying to outrun a pursuer! I try to return the favor when I can.

    * Sea legs. While keeping your torso upright over the center of the sidewalk, run for several steps with your legs on one side of the center, then on the other, so you’re swaying as if running on a boat deck. You will feel this in your core, I guarantee.

    There is so much more to do out there. I’m only just learning to see the opportunities myself. Thank you, Mark, for the shout out to the urban Grok posse!

  5. I was expecting the Urban Workout to include lifting manhole covers and playing Ultimate with them Mark! Lifting buses or cabs at least.

    In all seriousness, don’t forget about wheeled transportation for a workout. I used to bike some serious hills after coming home and I would race the cars to the intersections. I had my helmet on of course…

  6. I don’t do anything like this but I often use benches, fallen trees and railings on the local commons as bits of equipment (I’m in London). There’s a lot you can do that is more interesting than just going for a run.

  7. Definitely a good idea, running or jogging all the time gets boring.

    I like hiking uphill – excellent workout. Of course, you need to be away from the city for that.

  8. that was great — i got several “lol”s out of it. Mark, i think your playfulness is one of your best attributes! (btw, i live in a city environment….)

  9. My only issue with exercising outdoors in an urban environment is second hand smoke. It seems like the larger the urban area, the more intense people are smoking. In my own city (Portland, OR), I can barely run to work without choking on multiple clouds of cigarette smoke.

    I also worry about air pollution. When you run, you pull air (and subsequently pollution) much deeper into your lungs exacerbating the risk for lung health problems.

    Men’s Health ran a good article on urban air pollution:

  10. I don’t live in the city, but I hope to do lots of traveling over the course of my life. When I visit places like LA, NY, etc. I will be sure to scope out these types of things that will allow for a fun workout!

    It is amazing how there are truly unlimited ways to exercise. I currently workout at the gym (not so much when Spring is truly here!) and look forward to it everyday. When I quit the gym I can only imagine how much more fun and exhilarating of an experience it will be!

  11. City-scape isn’t ideal, but you work with what you’ve got. The main point is to keep it random and keep it fun. The problem for alot of city dwellers is that there’s just too many people round watching you, so if you have thin skin and can’t stand being thought of as “weird” or eccentric, you have to get over it. You’re life is yours and you can do what you want with it.

    1. You said it perfectly… “You’re life is yours and you can do what you want with it.”

      I used to hate it when people stared at me. Today, I love it. It means I am unique and not like everyone else.

      I just watched the video and wow… that literally looks like a ton of FUN! Got to love physical activity!

      1. The Nazi is right. I caught it as the comment was in the middle of posting…but alas, there is no “edit” function for comments.

        1. Jenna, you don’t happen to post on another forum with that same avatar pic do you?

  12. So true…cities are made to traverse by foot. That’s one of the reasons I love NYC. With the exception of going from, say, lower Manhattan to Central Park (I’d take a Subway), we always walk everywhere. It’s much more fun to take in the sights, sounds, smells, and people when you are walking…especially in a place like NYC — a people watchers’ paradise. My wife and I might be heading to Seattle soon; any suggestions of where to go, stay, etc?? We certainly won’t leave any coffee house stone unturned.

  13. Be careful jumping certain turnstiles (like in subways). In most cities it’ll land you a hefty fine.

  14. I really enjoyed that video- as someone who is looking into Crossfit, and hesitant to pay the $180 per month for classes, this is inspirational.

    It also totally reminded me of the Kevin Bacon dance sequence in Footloose. Actually, that was sort of Primal too, wasn’t it? Hmm.

  15. What was the weight he was carrying around and swinging like a KB? At first I thought manhole cover but don’t think that was it.

    1. That’s pretty funny, those “person”hole (nod to Carlin) covers are about 50kg… I doubt he’s nearly that strong.

        1. The weight is a post anchor for weighting down chain link and other fences down near the water. It weighs 25 kg, definitely not strong enough to do that with 50 kg…

  16. I was just curious, would you consider this a typical HIIT workout? Not to discredit Blair but I was not able to tell if he was going at the intensity of a HIIT workout.

  17. You know in watching this I think there’s some similar translation that can be done for rural / farm areas (I live in Nebraska). Hay bales, tractor tires, climbing trees, pulling tree stumps….time to score that video! =]

  18. There are so many other possibilities, including most prominently “borrowing” kids’ playground equipment: Monkey bars, running up slides, jumping onto and off of high ledges, shimmying up fireman-style poles. This is best done in early morning, before the kids arrive. Other good urban equipment I use in Chicago includes park benches, which I jump onto and over, or if they’re lined up along a sidewalk, jump from one to the next. Bike racks that are U-shaped are great for modified pull ups for people like me who have modest upper body strength, or can be used for dips like parallel bars. Every sidewalk and alley has things hanging above to try to jump up and touch for some fun plyometrics. Of course in Chicago, we’re also lucky to have miles of beaches that I use in summer for swimming, running in the sand, volleyball, and running long jump contests. I have to say I’ve never actually tried climbing a pole, although I’ve done a few trees.

  19. I gotta get outta the gym! this & Primaldelphia (more attainable for me) are uber-movitational!

  20. hi mark, great article.

    was wondering if you ever include isometrics in your workouts, and also if you could possibly post on this in the future. i myself have experienced some great strength gains from them, and have noticed my explosiveness on the basketball court has risen considerably as well.

  21. Wow this opens up a world of possibilities. Living in DC, I always just resorted to hitting up my Crossfit box to get a good WOD in. It’s closed on weekends though, so I’m always looking for ways to spice up my workout using my surroundings. Great ideas. Great video. Great post.

  22. This is a wonderful article that I will be sharing with my clients. As a Fitness By Phone personal trainer, it can be tough to motivate my clients who live in different cities. This opens up so many possibilities! Although, I don’t know if I can, in good conscious, tell my clients to pick up old ladies and run them across the street:)

  23. This post really tickled my funnybone for some reason–I am imagining how mortified my teenager would be if I started doing this with her around. Good for her character, I think.

  24. It’s funny, for years I complained that I didn’t have a cardio machine in my little condo. Then one day I finally realized that I have a giant staircase in the building.

    Now I just hit the stairs most morning!