Subscribe to San Francisco Magazine

Mod Lux Feeds

Now Playing

Urbanized Exercise

Thirty ways to turn the city into your own personal gym.

Alex Ho, personal trainer and endurance athlete, runs Andy Goldsworthy's Wood Line in the Presidio. 

(1 of 5)

Jenn Pattee, owner of Basic Training boot camp and an ultramarathon runner, works out on structures next to the Exploratorium.

(2 of 5) 

Greg Bianchi, owner of Bianchi Fitness and a track coach, conquering Twin Peaks.

(3 of 5) 

Personal trainer and competitiver grappler Carey Rockland scales the mokey bars at St. Mary's Playground.

(4 of 5) 

VyAyr Fitness owner and Iron Man competitor Kristi Dowler powering up at East Beach. 

(5 of 5)

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

Page two: Stairways to hell and reclaiming recess.