Staying fit on the road is a challenge, especially when your entire life has to fit into a 26 litre day pack. While I stretch the carry-on limit pretty far, I suspect the cabin crew would object to me stuffing an Olympic barbell and a couple hundred kg of plates into the overhead lockers. I could get a gym membership, but that doesn’t really jive with the transient bum thing.
Fortunately, I’ve found a way to cram an entire gymnasium into my pocket. My portable travel gym only cost $1, and contains multitudes of chest-heaving, full-body workouts. I can bust it out in my hotel room, a hostel, or on a beach, wherever I am in the world:
How it Works
Take one regular deck of cards. Each of the suits represents a different exercise, as follows:
Shuffle the cards, and flip them up one at a time. The number on the card is how many repetitions you have to perform, so a six of diamonds would be 6 pushups. Jacks are 11 reps, Queens 12, Kings 13, and Aces 14. Take as much rest between cards as you need. By the time you finish the deck, you’ll have done 104 reps of each exercise, and probably be cursing my name.
Fun for the Whole Family
Once the initial pain fades, you will discover many joys:
- Every single time is different, so you’ll never do the same workout twice.1 I’ll never forget landing the four Hearts face cards in a row, but at least it wasn’t a Royal Flush.
- It’s infinitely customisable. I like to do bicep curls using my backpack or a heavy chair. If you don’t have a chair or you want to be a bodyweight purist, you can make spades represent burpees, or lunges, or whatever floats your boat. There’s an enormous wealth of exercises out there, so pick the ones you like.
- It’s low-mental effort. You can flop your deck out while you watch TV on a rainy day, listen to podcasts, or whatever. You’re not doing max-effort grinding reps, and you don’t have to meticulously record anything. I worked my way through several seasons of Archer like this. Rampage!
- The deck of cards workout is perfect for training alone, but even more fun with a friend.2 Me and my buddy tossed it into our training a few years back when we were getting in shape for a fight. We alternated cards and went through the deck twice, spurring each other on with plenty of friendly abuse, and only resting as long as the other took to complete his reps.
Moving on Up
Start a timer on your phone as soon as you flip up the first card. Your progression is measured by the time it takes to work your way through the deck. When it gets too easy—say, under 20 minutes—you can move on to slightly harder exercises.
The great thing about bodyweight training is that there are variations of each move that scale up and down to any ability level.
To make squats harder, move your heels together (close squats) or do them one-legged (pistols). I like to do close squats at double the number of reps on the card.
You can make leg lifts easier by tucking your knees, or harder by hanging from something, holding a weight between your feet, or doubling the reps.
For curls, you can hold the chair/bag at different leverage points to make it harder or easier. Alternatively, switch to table rows, or if you’re a badass, do pullups for half the reps on the card.
Is the Deck of Cards Workout For You?
These sort of workouts are fun and easy and convenient, but they’re not the smartest way to build muscle or gain strength. They are better suited toward:
- Strength endurance
- Active recovery (done with light, easy exercises)
- As a conditioning ‘finisher’ after a strength workout
I use the deck of cards workout when I’m pressed for time, when I don’t want to do anything heavy, can’t muster the energy for a full workout, or just because I feel like it. I already have a decent base, so it fits with my goals.
If you’re a novice and want to build muscle and strength, it’ll work to some degree, but you’ll see much better results with a structured program.
This is where calisthenics and gymnastics strength training come into the picture.
I used to think bodyweight fitness was all about cranking out six million pushups and situps before breakfast. It turns out this is a total misconception.
If you see someone strong doing cool tricks on pullup bars, rings, or upside down on their hands, you can guarantee they built those skills through structured strength training, not the cute circuits or aerobic workouts that are so often associated with bodyweight moves.
Building calisthenics strength and skills is my main fitness focus at the moment, and I’ve made some decent progress in the first six months or so.
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Calisthenics is a perfect fit with my lifestyle—it requires almost no equipment, doesn’t cost a cent, has a ton of variety, and is excellent for health and body composition. I’m super excited about it, and don’t really miss lifting weights at all.
Consider this post an appetiser to the main course. Once I’ve been practicing long enough to master some of the moves and fully appreciate the pros and cons, I’ll write a full review with recommendations for getting started, useful resources, and any mistakes and learning lessons along the way.
UPDATE: Here’s The Lost Art of Calisthenics
- There are 8*10^67 permutations of playing cards, which is more atoms than there are on earth. Every time you shuffle, you’re almost certainly making history with a combination that has never been dealt before. Mathematical!
- I’m pretty sure I got the back-and-forth buddy training thing (and possibly the deck of cards idea itself) from the cesspit of hatred and insanity that is Jamie Lewis’ blog, Chaos and Pain. Extremely NSFW; read at your own risk.