Alex Ho, personal trainer and endurance athlete, runs Andy Goldsworthy's Wood Line in the Presidio.
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Jenn Pattee, owner of Basic Training boot camp and an ultramarathon runner, works out on structures next to the Exploratorium.
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Greg Bianchi, owner of Bianchi Fitness and a track coach, conquering Twin Peaks.
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Personal trainer and competitiver grappler Carey Rockland scales the mokey bars at St. Mary's Playground.
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VyAyr Fitness owner and Iron Man competitor Kristi Dowler powering up at East Beach.
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FURTHER READING: One woman's strange, sweaty race to fitness.
A new and unruly class of fitness freaks is taking to the streets (and playgrounds and trails) of San Francisco, reclaiming public space as one colossal concrete jungle gym. There are no fees, no membership, and no treadmills, just a loose philosophy: The city is ours, fancy equipment is lame, and a workout works best when it's improvised and outdoors. With these rules in mind, we asked sixteen trainers to hack San Francisco for its best unsanctioned excercises.
Veer off-road: Trails and trees over treadmills and weights.
Where: Glen Canyon Park, Presidio, Golden Gate Park, the Dipsea Trail
1. Log Flips (Suffer Meter: 4 out of 4, Beast Mode): Somewhat similar to the tire flipping that CrossFit popularized, this incorporates the same muscle groups (hamstrings, glutes, lower back, arms, core, and shoulders). The weight and size of the log depends on what you can safely handle, but choose one that’s challenging. Stow Lake area has a good variety of logs. Assume a four-point stance like you’re playing football. Flip the log end over end using explosive hip drive to get the log up to chest height, then drive it up and over by using your shoulders and pushing through your legs. Rest for a minute and repeat. —Annah Hayes, Bootcamp SF
2. Stump Dodging (Suffer Meter: 2 out of 4, Workin' It): Anyone can go for a trail run, but to spice it up, dominate the natural environment with rogue workouts along the way: Dodge trees, catapult off logs, or find a stump and do box jumps, which require more balance on a stump than on concrete. Lands End is great for these exercises. To prevent injury, start simple, perfect the basics, and then get fancy: Use a tree for a handstand or handstand push-up. Being upside down gives you a different proprioceptor awareness. It’s all a little taboo, but it gives us freedom—the freedom to get dirty. —Peter Morales, owner, Ignite Dynamic Training
3. A Wooden Slackline (Suffer Meter: 2 out of 4, Workin' It): Unlike on a treadmill, you can’t zone out on a trail. Natural obstacles and changing surfaces demand focus—your muscles are constantly readjusting to that rock or dip in the path. And when you go off-roading, the path back is never the same experience as the path out. Andy Goldsworthy’s Wood Line in the Presidio makes for a great natural balance beam. It’s a long zigzag line of horizontal trunks that you can run along, more fun than a flat balance beam and safer than a slackline. Watch out, though: The trunks are curved and inclined, so if you don’t have good core strength and focus, you’ll fall flat on your face. —Alex Ho, personal trainer
4. Monkey Moves (Suffer Meter: 3 out of 4, Ass Kicker): Tree climbing is a good makeshift exercise when you tire of running the Presidio’s trails. It involves all of your senses and all planes of movement, and, unlike with a rigid pull-up bar, people don’t tend to have negative associations with trees—in fact, trees tap into playful childhood nostalgia, making you more willing to go out of your comfort zone. Find a sturdy branch that’s easy to grip. Start with a jump to grab the branch, pull your body weight up, pull your legs up and wrap them around the branch, then jump down. It’s like a mini–circuit workout. Seek out groves of eucalyptus in Sutro Forest—they’re great because they’re strong and smooth and they smell good, but be careful not to damage them. —Jenn Pattee, owner, Basic Training
5. Glute Balance (Suffer Meter: 2 out of 4, Workin' It): You can usually find some sturdy, smooth logs in Golden Gate Park near the Stanyan Street entrance. Lie on your back on top of a fallen tree, with your knees bent and your feet balancing on the log. Tuck your shoulders beneath you, hands gripping the sides, and stabilize your core as you lift your hips into bridge. Engage your glutes to keep from falling off . Brace your abs and lift your right knee toward your chest. Hold for two counts, and then lower your right foot. Repeat with the other leg. That’s one rep. Do two or three sets of 5 to 10 reps. —Hayes
6. Rock Skipping (Suffer Meter: 1 out of 4, Cakewalk): Use rocks as substitutes for cones to make your own agility circuit at Corona Heights Park. Jog from one to the next in any movement but straight forward— grapevine to one rock, side-shuffle to another. We’re used to forward locomotion, so lateral movements strengthen the hips and are great for injury prevention. Plus, picking which rocks to use makes you recognize order in a chaotic environment, which is good mental training for adventure racing. —Chris Esquivel, personal trainer
Take back the streets: That’s not a bike rack, it’s an ab machine.
Where: the Embarcadero, SoMa, Jack London Square, Downtown San Rafael.
7. Bench Hurdles (Suffer Meter: 3 out of 4, Ass-Kicker): There are dozens of ways to get ripped using a bench. Find two benches near each other for over-under reps. Army-crawl under one, keeping your back flat and your abs engaged, then hurdle over the second bench by gripping the top of the bench with your hands, then squatting down and jumping over it, lifting with your hips. It combines strength with endurance and engages multiple muscle groups, so you can’t sleepwalk through it. The Long Modified Bench art installation (upper right) at the Exploratorium is perfect for this one. It makes you reconsider what’s possible with a bench—plus the ground is padded, and it’s set away from pedestrian traffic. —Pattee
8. Inverse Push-ups (Suffer Meter: 4, Beast Mode): Ah, the tried-and true push-up—which you can dress up or down for different results. Golden Gate Park has tons of scenic bench options. An inverted-T push-up will ignite your core: Start with your feet on a bench and your hands on the ground. Do a push-up; then open your chest for a side plank with one arm reaching to the sky, incorporating the core by forcing your body to stabilize. Repeat until you fall over. —Stevan Krstic, owner, Koi Fitness
9. Green-light Pull-ups (Suffer Meter: 2 out of 4, Workin' It): Use stoplights as cues to speed up or slow down when you’re jogging along a long, flat street like Mission, stopping at each red light for a breather—and a set of pull-ups. The lowest bar on the light post is sturdy, round, and hand-friendly. This is also an easy exercise to work into your daily routine—while you’re waiting for the bus, or at each stoplight on your way to lunch. —Pattee
10. Bike Rack Dips (Suffer Meter: 2 out of 4, Workin' It): A simple triceps dip on an empty bike rack instead of a bench allows you to sit deeper, firing up your triceps more intensely. There are a few different bike rack shapes in the city—look for the angled ones that are about hip height or the round ones, which you can grip at the apex. The Castro has a lot of them. Hold firmly with your knuckles facing out. You can modify your leg position, either bending your legs with your knees at 90 degrees (easier) or keeping your legs straight with your heels on the ground (harder). —Mike Giometti, owner, Mike’s Bootcamp
11. Battery Circuits (Suffer Meter: 2 out of 4, Workin' It): The old military batteries at Baker Beach and in the Marin Headlands function as all-in-one circuit training centers. They’re usually empty, and the walls block the coastal wind and have ledges for free-form climbing. Plus, they offer steps for running up and bars for pull-ups or triceps dips, and they’re a stone’s throw from miles of running trails. —Esquivel
12. Pier Intervals (Suffer Meter: 2 out of 4, Workin' It): Use the piers along the waterfront to curate a high intensity interval workout. Start at the Ferry Building for round one of Bulgarian split squats—think lunge position, but with your back leg elevated on a low ledge. Steadily lower down and rise back up again to work your glutes. Then do a set of one-armed push-ups on the guard rails and box jumps on the cement blocks that line the Embarcadero. When you’re ready, move on to the next pier by way of a grapevine through the crowds for your next set of intervals. —Catherine Wohlwend, Bootcamp SF
Stairways to hell: Gaining power is literally an uphill battle.
Where: Filbert Street Steps, Lyon Street Steps, South Side of Divisadero, Joaquin Miller Park
13. Downhill Dog (Suffer Meter: 1 out of 4, Cakewalk): Hills can juice up an outdoor yoga session by adding a cardio challenge. Use them as a makeshift prop: If your hamstrings are tight, sit facing downhill, the incline serving instead of a rolled blanket, as you do a seated forward bend. You’ll find other props on your ascent, like a short wall at the Summit park on Russian Hill, where you can use the Transamerica Pyramid as a focal point instead of a candle. The city noise helps you put a good yoga lesson into practice: acceptance of things outside of your control. —Laurie Sleep, Hiking Yoga
14. Stepdancing (Suffer Meter: 2 out of 4, Workin' It): Dominate concrete stairs for more than just a calf-killer. Go up one set of stairs, like those on Lyon Street, in as many variations as you can think of—crossovers will work your hips, bunny hops your core; or crawl or wheel- barrow your way up for serious biceps power. —Sandra Possing, Basic Training
15. Eight-Minute Quads (Suffer Meter: 3 out of 4, Ass-Kicker): This move is called the Waterfall: Stand at the top of a set of stairs with your weight on your heels, take one step down, sit down, then stand up—and repeat. It sounds simple, but it’s a sneaker, working the glutes, quads, and abs—which are essential for lasting strength as opposed to short-lived explosive power. To make it tougher, add a 12-pound kettlebell (or sub it out with a nearby rock) and hold it in front of your sternum. The Filbert Street steps offer bay views and the chance of finding a rock if you need one. —Brandon Irvin, owner, Urban Fitness
16. Crocodile Crawl (Suffer Meter: 2 out of 4, Workin' It): Don’t underestimate the number of ways that you can climb a hill. The crocodile walk works many muscles beyond the ones in your legs: Get in plank position and move your right knee laterally to touch your elbow; then do a push-up. Repeat on the other side, moving forward as you go, as if you’re stalking prey. The steeper the hill, the greater the workout. Go-getters can try Bernal Hill. —Pattee
17. Stair Ninjas (Suffer Meter: 3 out of 4, Ass-Kicker): For a sadistic workout, do a different exercise on each set of Liberty Hill’s six staircases. Some people have a love-hate relationship with the inchworm, but it’s worth the burn for back and hamstring flexibility and core strength. Do it up a short set of stairs by hinging at the waist and walking your hands out to push-up position while keeping your legs straight, then walking your feet in toward your hands. Repeat. If you’re in it for a ball-buster, bear-crawl up the next set. —Greg Bianchi, owner, Bianchi Fitness
Reclaim recess: Playgrounds make the best obstacle courses.
Where: Helen Diller Playground, Julius Kahn Playground, San Pablo Park
19. Slide Ride (Suffer Meter: 4, Beast Mode) Playgrounds provide unpredictable and dynamic urban workouts. Going down a slide might be fun, but climbing up one in a crab crawl is straight-up brutal. So is lying facedown and climbing using only arm strength by clutching the handrail, being sure to engage your shoulders and activate your back muscles. Once you’ve mastered the individual playground elements at a place like St. Mary’s Playground in Bernal Heights, turn the entire park into an obstacle course, army-crawling to get from station to station. —Carey Rockland, Personal Trainer
20. Spiderman Scramble (Suffer Meter: 2 out of 4, Workin' It): You should be able to rule all the primal movements—squatting, crawling, climbing—a challenge in our modern world, which isn’t designed for them. Playgrounds provide a solution. For climbing, scaling the spiderweb nets is actually crazy hard as an adult because you’re heavier. A good one to start with is at the new Waterfront Playground at Sue Bierman Park. Just gripping the rope ignites muscles, increasing grip strength, and pulling yourself up a wobbly net is great for your forearms— which, if you’re a desk jockey like most San Franciscans, are weak. —Morales
21. Tarzan Hang (Suffer Meter: 3 out of 4, Ass-Kicker): If you haven't used a playground since you were a kid, start with the monkey bar evolution at a place like Julius Kahn Playground in the Presidio. First, hang for one minute to build up grip strength. When that becomes easy, progress to hanging knee raises. Eventually, use the monkey bars as you did when you were a kid—swinging from bar to bar builds back and shoulder strength—or do jump pull-ups, or even crawl on top of the bars for an extra challenge. —Bianchi
22. Swinging Suspensions (Suffer Meter: 2 out of 4, Workin' It): Don’t want to drag a TRX band through the city? You can rig a swing for an ad lib suspension workout, using your body as the weight. To do a pike, an intense core exercise, place your ankles in the swing seat and your palms on the ground in push-up position, then pull your hips up into down-dog. Moscone Park is a good choice. Using playground equipment lets adults get playful and brings them back to childhood recess, but don’t interfere with the real kids’ playtime—go before or after hours, or bring the little ones. —Possing
23. Springboard Jumps (Suffer Meter: 1 out of 4, Cakewalk): Many playgrounds (Helen Diller and Lafayette, to name a couple) have installed Crayola-colored padding on the ground, which gives adults a cushy surface for floor work like leg lifts and crunches. Use it for anything that you’d typically use a mat for— push-ups, or forearm plank, or exercises where hips or bones touch the ground. It’s also bouncy—which is great for explosive movements like burpies. —Possing
24. Tunnel Torpedoes (Suffer Meter: 3 out of 4, Ass-Kicker) Do a military crawl through a tunnel for a full-body exercise. You don’t have to do it for long to feel its effects—it will work your shoulders, back, legs, and core. It’s a great agility exercise because most people aren’t used to moving on the ground— moving in unfamiliar ways improves overall movement skills. Find a tunnel that’s substantially longer than your body, like at Potrero Playground. Lying facedown, place your forearms on the ground and keep your body in a line. With your toes curled under, gripping the floor, use your legs and elbows alternately to draw yourself forward through the tunnel until you reach the end. —Rockland
Kick up some sand: The beach as resistance band.
Where: Baker Beach, Ocean Beach Dunes, Muir Beach, Montara Beach
25. Seal Walk (Suffer Meter: 3 out of 4, Ass-Kicker): For ultimate speed, it’s important that both your lower and upper body are strong. For a combo workout, start the seal walk at a beach, like China Beach, that doesn’t have too many objects in the sand. Get in upward dog position, then walk your body forward with your hands, dragging your legs limply behind you. Keep your hands in a fist; otherwise, it can be hard on your wrists. It looks ridiculous, but it’s really hard. Then work your lower body by running sprints up a sandy hill. This is a prime training ground for powering up for short races like Divis Up: Because the ground isn’t stable, you’ll have to run twice as hard, fi ring up muscles that you don’t use on pavement, which will ultimately make it feel easy when you finally do run on solid concrete again. —Ho
26. Mountain Climbers (Suffer Meter: 4 out of 4, Beast Mode): There’s nothing fun about doing mountain climbers, but they’re one of the most efficient exercises to improve your running speed. It’s more challenging in the sand than on pavement because your hands and feet are constantly melting into the sand as you move. Start at Aquatic Park with your wrists under your shoulders in plank position, and keep your hips and head in line with your spine as you alternate driving your knees in—one foot should always be moving toward your chest; never let both be on the ground. Your next 12K will be way easier. —Kristi Dowler, owner, VyAyr Fitness
27. Beach Burpies (Suffer Meter: 4 out of 4, Beast Mode): If you like a good kick in the ass, burpies at the beach are for you. It’s one of the most efficient total body workouts you can do. Stand at one end of the beach, drop your hands to the ground, kick back to plank, hop your feet back under to crouched position, and do a lawn jump forward. Then do 10 lunges in the sand, bear-crawl a few steps, and repeat. Knock out 15 of those, then run up the sand stairs if you’re at Baker Beach. Guaranteed to get your heart rate screaming. —Krstic
28. Grit Hauls (Suffer Meter: 3 out of 4, Ass-Kicker): This isn’t your typical romantic walk along Ocean Beach. Get an empty grocery bag. Dig into the sand quickly for a warm-up (never mind that you may look like a dog digging a hole), and fi ll your bag with sand. Boom, you have a weight. Use it as a substitute for a medicine ball, holding it on your shoulder while maintaining a steady run. It’s good for improving quickness and building explosive strength because your muscles require more energy to accelerate and the weight of the bag builds more core strength. —Katy Jercich, personal trainer
29. Human Wheelbarrows (Suffer Meter: 4 out of 4, Beast Mode): Yes, like the third grade relay race, only this time the prize is a six-pack. Grab a partner and assume the wheelbarrow position by having one person place his palms flat on the sand with both ankles securely in the other person’s grip. Then take on San Francisco’s crumbly coastal slopes, like at Fort Funston, to ensure that your calves, quads, core, and triceps will be sore the next day. —Esquivel
30. Sand Dashes (Suffer Meter: 4 out of 4, Beast Mode): Crissy Field is ideal for line drills because it’s long and you can use benches as natural markers. One minute going hard in the sand will have your legs and lungs straining and challenge your balance at high speed. Draw two lines in the sand about 50 to 75 yards apart, start in runner’s position, and then hit it as fast as you can. Swivel around at the second line and sprint back. After a few of those, do one running backward, but at a slower pace, to work a different set of muscles. If you fall, you have a soft, forgiving surface. —Gabrielle Miller, owner, AbFabFit
Lightning Fitness: How to use our user’s guide, with an assist from local boot camp pioneer Stevan Krstic.
Week 1: Endurance there’s no shortcut to building steam: Push yourself now to handle more later. Ease in with two long jogs to get your heart rate soaring and familiarize your body with basic strength exercises. Days: 2
Week 2: Coordination bookend a run day with two balancing acts and new movement patterns, plus some strengthening (exercises 1–6). To keep the metabolic furnace burning, fill your typical “rest” period between sets with a plank or squat. Days: 3
Week 3: Power now that you have a strong foundation, kick it up with two steady runs, hitting the hills in between (exercises 13–18). Stretch your muscles for a recovery workout with coordination exercises (exercises 1–6). Days: 4
Week 4: Strength that’s not sweat; it’s your fat cells crying! You’ve worked up some muscle, so now put it to use with two consecutive exercises in the same muscle group (exercises 7–12). Work in some agility (exercises 19–24) and plenty of stretching. Days: 4
Week 5: Speed now your body is ready to hit the max. Get the most out of your time by doing resistance workouts in sand at the beginning and end of the week (exercises 25–30). Sprinkle in a dash of agility and balance work, and call it a day. Days: 4
Week 6: Agility and R&R you’ve not only earned it; you need it! Recovery is as important as the workouts themselves, so scale back to three workouts at 50 percent intensity and double up on agility (exercises 19–24).Your new body is ready to rock a race. Days: 3
Boot Camps Unlimited: All the aforementioned trainers in one place.
AbFabFit Cross training for all levels in Pacific Heights, the Marina, and Golden Gate Park. $15; abfabfit.com, 415-425-9267
Alex Ho Positive athletic trainings in the Marina, Kezar Stadium, and SoMa. $80*; alexho-training.com, 415-518-4313
Basic Training Playful but challenging circuit training in Hayes Valley, the Marina, and the Presidio. $20; basictrainingsf.com, 415-519-6483
Bianchi Fitness Family-friendly fitness in Dolores Park, Pacific Heights, and the Embarcadero. $25; bianchifitness.com, 415-218-7045
Bootcamp SF Team coaching and cheering in Golden Gate Park, Dolores Park, and the Embarcadero. $20; bootcampsf.com, 415-921-8537
Carey Rockland Agility and strength workouts in Bernal Heights, Hayes Valley, and Oakland. $105*; careyrockland.com, 415-244-2862
Chris Esquivel Upbeat sportslike sessions in the Marina, South Beach, and downtown. $80*; chrisesquiveltraining.com, 415-518-5949
Ignite Dynamic Training Lively workouts in Nob Hill, the Marina, and the Presidio. $65*; igniteyourfitness.net, 650-201-4120
Katy Jercich Individualized workouts in the Tenderloin and Civic Center. $95*; 415-994-2662
Koi Fitness High-energy trainings in Golden Gate Park, Baker Beach, and Cole Valley. $20; koifitness.com, 415-317-6565
Laurie Sleep Low-key outdoor yoga in the Lower Haight, Pacific Heights, and North Beach. $75*; laurieyoga.com
Mike’s Bootcamp Serious equipment- free sweat sessions in Dolores Park. $10; mikesbootcamp.com, 415-378-9934
Urban Fitness Comprehensive strength training in the financial district, North Beach, and Nob Hill. $19; urbanfitnesssf.com
VyAyr Fitness Free-spirited beach workouts at Crissy Field. $20; vyayr.com, 415-412-1558
* = personal session
Originally published in the January 2014 issue of San Francisco