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The Beach: It’s All You Need For Strength & Conditioning

Health, Phuket, The Beach

Phuket is one of those red-beryl-rare places that is so magical it salsas about on everyone’s Bucket List, usually in that super-prestigious space called the Top 10, twirling and whirling and holding the attention of the 99.8% of humanity that’s been bitten by the wanderlust bug. It doesn’t matter if you are a) freaking out because you’re closer to 40 than 30 and want to go on an epiphany trip where you soak up a totally different culture, b) looking for a paradisiacal pit-stop on your post-university hike across South-East Asia or c) you want to be a beach bum for a month and forget the “real-world” ever existed — your brain has probably muttered the words, “hmmm, Phuket, that’s definitely an option,” and it’s usually because of the beaches. But I bet you’ve never thought of those beaches as providing the best strength and conditioning equipment freely available.

The beaches of Thalang are nothing shy of staggering. Breath-snatching. Soul-stirring and eye-fizzing. They’re glossy-magazine centrefolds, that’s what they are. Bang Tao, Layan, Nai Thon, Nai Yang — they’re all ridiculously beautiful. But sand isn’t just good for curling your toes in as you slurp on another beach club Mai Tai, or dragging your feet through in the search of some more pretty sea glass, or just finding its way into every single bodily crevice as you enjoy a cheeky smooch with your significant lover — sand is also pretty amazing for maximizing the benefits of exercise, especially strength and conditioning. Not to mention it also works to reduce your chances of suffering from both injury and soreness.

Oh, don’t worry, I’m not expecting you to just take my word for it. That would mean playing into the hands of President Trumpy and adding to the ‘fake news’ hysteria, and I’m not that keen on tarnishing my reputation at the ripe old age of twentysomething. Instead, I found multiple (scientific) studies that show how: training on a constantly shifting and unstable surface, such as sand, can dramatically boost your aerobic capacity, improve your explosive power, see you jump higher and help you sprint faster than Usain Bolt circa 2018 (the retired athlete).

And that’s not all. Strength and conditioning training on sand has also been proved (yes, by science) to burn calories way faster than you training on a more stable surface, like grass or tarmac, but with way less impact on your joints.

The point is: the soft, dry sands of Phuket aren’t just great for those who want lighter hair and darker bodies — they offer those who want to get fit with a totally badass strength and conditioning experience.

No dumbbells. No kettlebells. No resistance bands, rowing machines, pull up bars or even a gym membership. When you visit Phuket, all you need to get into the shape of your life — and enhance your Muay Thai fighting capabilities — is your wits, a splash of creativity, and the finely crushed rock and mineral particles washed ashore by Mother Nature.

Don’t worry though because I’ve done the legwork for you (and all I ask in return is for my name to be added to the Queen’s Honours List. No, I’m kidding. Sort of.) So, without further ado, here are some incredible ways you can turn your favourite beach into the best strength and conditioning gym ever, meaning you can workout every muscle in your body, while the rest of your group are busy sunning themselves and reading whatever novels they almost started last summer. Good luck.

  1. The Treasure Chest

Everyone that has ever wanted to step into a Muay Thai ring has watched the Karate Kid, imagining it was them stepping up against Cobra Kai, their body ripped and ready, their mind brimming with Mr Miyagi’s wisdom. Well, if this is you, then we have the perfect strength and conditioning workout to build up your upper body strength. Invented by Jeff Cavaliere, former strength and conditioning coach for the New York Mets and the voice of reason when it comes to science-based training, this press up is more complete than any on the planet — and the way it works is as simple as it is effective.

Once you have pushed up, make a ‘wax on’ movement through the sand with your left hand, before lowering yourself back into the start position. Once you’ve done this, repeat but using your right hand. It’s a tough move that requires you to keep alternating the motion between your arms. Thankfully, by muttering the words “wax on, wax off” you will fulfil a childhood dream of yours and thus make the whole thing more bearable. Anyway, the aim is to complete (read: survive) four sets, each one consisting of exactly half the number of reps you normally manage when doing a set of generic pushups.

2. Beach Burpees

At first glance, the burpee doesn’t give you much to write home about — lie down, stand up, jump, repeat — yet they’re the high-intensity moves that champion “less is more”, hitting every part of your body, elevating your heart rate until it feels like your main muscle is trying to punch its way out of your ribcage, your metabolism getting a major workout as you become the fittest person in the gym. It’s that seriously challenging move that never gets the respect it deserves — the perfect blend of cardio and resistance for strength and conditioning. But take this move to the sand and you’ll find there is a whole new “death by burpee” challenge.

Because sand is as unstable as a game of Jenga setup by toddlers, not only do you get the benefit of landing on a cushioned surface and saving your joints a small dollop of stress, pushing off becomes 321.9% more difficult (okay, that statistic is made up, but you get the point). Your muscles have to work harder to perform the same move, while your stabilising muscles end up working overtime, which is great for balance.

Trust us: Normal burpees will be so challenging it makes Frodo’s journey to Mordor look like Monday morning school run. However, if you do manage to master them and perform five sets of five reps without breaking a sweat, I challenge you to plyo-burpees. Good luck.

3. Sandy Sprints

Most people slow-roll their eyes when they hear the cliched phrase: it’s the simple things in life. But, in this instance, it couldn’t be truer. Of all the exercises out there, nothing will build your stamina and cardio more than running barefoot through the sand. Yes, it seems basic, but it’s world’s away from running on a stable surface. Normally, your foot would momentarily relax so it can mould to the shape of the surface, before turning rigid in order to push your body forward. But on a beach, where the sand slips away every time your foot makes contact, your foot muscles are forced to become more responsive.

To get used to this, I suggest you warm up with a ten-minute jog along the water’s edge, where the sand is still wet and thus that teeny bit firmer. Then, when your clock starts beeping and your warm-up is done, move away from the water and onto the dry sand to lock horns with some high-intensity interval-training in the form of beach sprints.

To get the most out of this exercise, sprint across the sand for 20 seconds, really pushing yourself — heart-pounding, face-reddening, pulse beating in your eardrums and breath-shortening. Really, really go for it. Then rest for 40 seconds, walking slowly along the dry sand, hands on your hips as you suck in lungfuls of air and prepare for the next sprint. Each one of these performances — each minute — counts as one round and you’re not to stop until you’ve done five of them.

4. Walk The Plank

Instability is your core’s BFF. It’s why every freelance Personal Trainer has a balance board in the boot of their car. But it’s also what makes working out on the beach so effective. Because, the sand is forever moving out from under you, your core has to work double-time in order for you to maintain any given position, such as the plank.

Yup. For this one, you’re gonna need to assume the plank position — on your hands, not your forearms — and take a deep breath. When you’re in the plank position, don’t do it with the ambition of surviving for as long as you can because that won’t help you get the most out of this movement. You want to tighten your abdominals as much as humanly possible, engage your shoulders and feel every muscle working. When you’ve done this, hold it steady and drag your feet upward through the sand until your knees are bent and tucked toward your chest. Once you’re there, hold this (ridiculous) pose for a second and then slide back into the starting position. Try and do five or six reps with the aim of achieving two or three sets. You’ll feel incredible afterwards. And sore. But mainly incredible.

5. Against The Current

It’s no secret: resistance training is incredible for strength and conditioning, and no resistance training is more effective than running into the ocean thanks to the opposition you’ll face from that huge mass of water.

But don’t just run into the water until you get to that delicate height where you make an involuntary “uff-ufff-uff-offf-uff” noise. Run into the water until you are chest high so that you get absolutely every ounce of goodness from this exercise. Then, when you are up to your nipples in warm azure water, turn around and sprint through the wake of whitewater you just created, forever staying on your feet as you battle through your self-made waves and back up the beach.

What you won’t realise first time around is: the journey back to dry land is way harder than running into the ocean. But given you should try and do this eight to ten times, you’ll soon figure it out.

6. High Knees, Hip Deep

Whether you’re into Muay Thai and/or yoga, it’s pretty important to have good strength in your hips, and good flexibility for that matter. The problem has always been knowing how. Forget trying to answer the meaning of life, trying to figure out the real identity of D.B. Cooper or solve a muddled Rubix Cube; since the dawn of humankind, the real mystery has always been knowing how to develop good hip strength.

Well, having done a little bit of digging around the archives of science, it turns out the secret to success requires little more than striding into the sea, getting bellybutton-deep, and then performing high-knees. It’s as simple as it sounds. All you need to do is run on the spot, lifting your knees as high as you can each time, with the aim of breaking through the surface of the water. To really maximise the benefits, start by going hard for twenty seconds and then catching your breath for another twenty, repeating the process four to five times.

Oh, and that’s not all. There’s another bellybutton-deep workout that’s amazing for building hip strength and flexibility: heel-to-butt kicks. All you have to do is try and pull your heels up to your hamstrings, one at a time, as fast as possible, following the same “twenty seconds on twenty seconds off” rule.

7. Boxless Box-Jumps

If you’ve stepped in a gym at any point over the past 18-months, you’ll know box jumps are back — and back with a vengeance. They’re that rock band that drifted into the unknown and came back nineteen years later with the greatest album ever recorded onto vinyl (in fitness terms, that is), and it’s all because this exercise knows how to build explosive power, train your fast twitch muscle fibers and just make you more athletic in general. But you don’t need a box when you have a beach.

Simply steady your Mai Tai in the sand, roll off your beach club sun lounger, stroll into the water, get waist deep and then try and jump as high as you possibly can. Yes, it might look like you’re trying to avoid a motley crew of Box Jellyfish and Laticauda Colubrina, but that mildly embarrassing scenario is totally worth it for the results. You’re asking your muscles to suddenly burst through a heavy drag of water in order to gain any height and that will really enhance your explosive power, which is a must-have for Muay Thai.

To squeeze out every last drop of awesomeness, aim to jump as high as you can for twenty seconds and then rest for twenty seconds, performing 3 to 5 sets. Once done, enjoy the best recovery of your life by falling backward into the warm coastal waters of Phuket and then do nothing but float there for a moment. Just make sure you don’t actually float into any Box Jellies or Laticauda Colubrina because, well, having just called everyone’s bluff, no one will believe you this time (#boywhocriedwolf).

8. B(e)ar Crawls

Bears are the world’s most amazing predators, bar none. It doesn’t matter if you’re on land or in the water, they’ll come for you and you won’t stand a chance. They’re incredible. And this is your chance to be more bear. Yeah. We are of course talking about performing bear crawls, an exercise that is known to strengthen your midsection and improve your ability to stabilise your spine, both of which come in handy when you step through the ropes of a Muay Thai ring. But doing bear crawls in the surf comes with the added bonus of improving your coordination too, not to mention it will absolutely crush your core.

To start off, stroll into the shallows — no more than six inches deep — and get into position. Moving slowly and steadily, crawl toward the ocean, not stopping until the water has got to your shoulder height, which is when you’ll really start to feel the resistance pushing against you. Once here, turn around and crawl back to the shore, repeating this process six to eight times.

Of course, you don’t have to stick to standard bear crawls if you don’t want to. You can use any variation you like — in-place bear crawls, circular bear, travelling bear, lateral bear crawls, crab crawls. It doesn’t matter what option you pull from the hat, I promise they will strengthen your arms, shoulders, legs and core like nothing else has ever managed.

9. Step Off The Beach

Stair workouts don’t just have a way of kicking your butt, they also work to strengthen it like nothing else, engaging your glutes in every way possible. The reason for this is scientifically simple: when you run on flat ground, your glutes are basically taking a nice long siesta. But when you ask them to climb — pow — they have to dig in and fire up. This is because stairs pose a unique challenge in that the flat landing spot of each step demands you strike it with the middle of your foot rather than the ball. So instead of just pushing off with your calf, your entire leg is in the game. Now add the unevenness of almost every set of beach stairs and you’re asking your stabilising muscles to play a lead role once again.

Anyway, to get the most out of this strength and conditioning exercise, what you need to do is stand at the bottom of the nearest beachside stairs and get into the squat position, your feet slightly wider than shoulder width. Once in position, you need to jump onto the next stair, landing with your feet almost together, before spreading them back out on your next jump. With this nailed, you need to repeat the process for a minimum of 15 steps, alternating the pattern — in, out, in, out, in, out. Once you’ve done fifteen — or got to the top — jog back down and engage in another three rounds. It’s surprisingly tough.

10. The Ascent Of Burpees

There is a way to climb stairs without walking — or doing in-outs — but it’s tough. It’s a full-body workout. It’s a move that will see your entire body succumb to strength and conditioning training. What you need to do is this: stand at the bottom of the beach stairs — facing forward — and then place both your hands on the fourth step up. Once in place, you need to jump, engaging some serious explosive energy, so that your feet land as close to your hands as possible. Ideally, you’re aiming for the third step, but the second is a good starting point.

This is where things get a little more challenging. Instead of repeating the move straight away, you need to perform a burpee after each rep. Just a normal burpee will be enough. Once you’ve done this, move your hands up three or four more steps and repeat the explosive jump to burpee move another ten to fifteen times, for a total of three sets. Trust me: when you’ve rung the final bell, you’ll want to slip into the water and soothe your aching muscles in any way you can.

11. Smaller Is Better

This workout might only require a single step, but you’ll do well to find a strength and conditioning sequence more brutal and challenging than this upper body destroyer. While it doesn’t have a formal name, we like to call it: The Shoulder-Tap Knee Tuck. Admittedly, this a working title and we’re open to suggestions. Anyway, it’s a stair workout that proves smaller is better. What you need to do is this:

  1. Head to the nearest set of beach stairs, face the front step and then get into the pushup position.
  2. Once in position, lift your right arm and tap your left shoulder, before returning to the pushup position. Repeat this, but touching your right shoulder with your left hand. Do this three times with each hand.
  3. Next, you need to move both your hands off the sand and onto the bottom step.
  4. Perform a pushup and then tuck your knees into your chest (like you would a burpee), before returning to the starting stance of hands-on sand.

That is one rep. What you need to do is five reps and three sets of ’em. Spoiler alert: it’s not one for the faint-hearted.

Last but not least, and sticking to the stairs, we have another seriously testing upper body strength and conditioning workout: the incline-decline travelling pushup, which is every bit as tough as it sounds. Sure, a pushup is always a pushup in that all pushups strengthen your chest muscles, shoulders and triceps, but the degree in which those muscles play a role depends on how you do a pushup. That’s what this workout plays on, focusing more on the decline pushup, which is way more intense than a normal one. You’ve just got more of your bodyweight to lift and move and balance, all of which is super-taxing.

So, starting with your hands on the beach, ever-so-slightly wider than shoulder width, head facing the water, place your feet at least four steps up. Once in position, perform a chest-to-sand pushup and then move your feet and hands up one step. When in place, perform another pushup. Keep repeating this until you have climbed somewhere between ten and fifteen stairs, then jog back down and do another two sets. You’ll have a chest like Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson in no time at all.

Of course, if you want to sustain that stinging pain in all your upper body muscles, don’t jog down; make your way back via the medium of decline travelling pushups. It’s a sequence tougher than prison hinges.

And there we have it.

Forget strength and conditioning work outs in air-conditioned gyms with concrete aesthetics and walls full of motivational posters so cliche they make your brow furrow at every glance. Accept the best gyms out there are the ones with no walls and have sandy floors that get licked by white-capped surf over and over again. Sure, grains might slip into your every orifice before you call it a day, but you’ll forget all about that the moment you order your favourite beach cocktail from the nearest beach bar and slide into the warm waters, simultaneously soothing your aching muscles and your parched taste buds. Mmmmmm.

No. In all seriousness, when it comes to strength and conditioning, there really is nowhere better to get your sweat on than the beaches of Thalang, Phuket. It’s the Muay Thai training ground you never considered before now.

Originally published at sumaleeboxinggym.com on August 2, 2018.