On Board Exercise Ideas


Life on a boat is all about compromise. It doesn’t matter how big the boat is, it’s likely to be smaller than whatever abode you lived in on shore. Just about everything you take with you has to serve more than one purpose, from the settees (sometimes dining table seating, sometimes living room couch, sometimes spare bed) to the table (food? Projects? Bread kneading?) to the wine bottles (hold wine, be the rolling pin, turn into candlesticks). Heck, on Calypso the cheese grater gets pressed into duty as a small colander when I’m really desperate.

One of the hurdles that comes up when people talk about working out on board is the stuff they are used to having in a house or at their gym. The weights, the fancy balance board, the pullup bars. The classes, for heavens sake! Never fear – you’ve got all that and more at your (compact) disposal. And most of it can serve more than one purpose. We can spend a lot of time talking about how great body weight exercises are. Face it, though, sometimes it’s fun to pull out the stuff when you’re getting your sweat on. (No "stuff"? No problem. Check out this set of workout options!)

weights of various kinds!

weights of various kinds!

Let’s start with weights. No room for that rack of dumbbells on board? Not even a set of “dial a weights” like the Bowflex Selecttechs*, an ingenious contraption that packs weights from 5- 52 pounds in a 4 square foot space? You can, of course, substitute resistance bands. These are sections of surgical tubing of varying lengths and weights, often coming with handles or some easy way to keep a hold of them. You can loop them around a handhold, haul them up with a halyard or around the mast, or even just stand on them with your feet. Want more resistance? Make the band shorter by choking up on it. Yes, these bands rot out after a while, and you want to inspect them before each use so they don’t snap unexpectedly (ask me how I know this sometime), but you can carry a surprising array of bands in a very small space. You may already have some, to act as spares for a Hawaiian sling or as part of a simple trolling line set up while you’re sailing.

No bands? How about putting 5 cans of tomatoes in a bag and hefting that up and down for bicep curls? That’s the equivalent of a 5 pound weight. A 3-liter box of wine will weigh about 6 lbs or so. Want to do squats? Grab a gallon of water or vinegar in each hand and you’re adding more than 16 pounds of resistance to your squats – a gallon of water weighs just over 8 pounds.  Need more than this? Heft 5 gallon jerry jugs – filled ones. Look around and get creative with what you see on board! Dinghy or spare anchors. Spare bits of chain or line. A bag full of reference books. The possibilities are endless!

Another favorite piece of cool gym gear is the balance board. Your boat, even at anchor or tied to a dock, is the ultimate balance tester there is. Waves have a funny way of making you feel like you’re walking around under the influence, which is a funny way of thinking about being off balance. But balance on board is important stuff – might as well work on it! Stand up on deck, lift one foot off the ground, and see how long you last. (I suggest being close to a shroud or something to grab onto!) If you want to create your own board, grab a piece of wood (the covers for our under settee storage bins would work perfectly well on Calypso) and a can of something, put a towel under it (so it doesn’t mark the floor or deck or wherever you are), and teeter totter away. If you want something more fancy, with endless variations on the balance theme, a lacrosse ball or tennis ball is actually great to have on board to act as a physical therapy ball, and it’ll do double duty under that board.

(side note – rolling tight muscles with a lacrosse ball can be like giving yourself a mini-massage. The ball is small enough and hard enough to really get in pretty well, and you can control the pressure just by how you lean on it. I’ve done this for my shoulder and my back and even my glutes – amazing.)

I don’t know about you, but doing pullups makes me feel totally amazing. There is something about lifting my body weight up off the floor with just my shoulders that makes me feel invincible. And one sure way to be able to do a pullup is to . . . do pullups. On our boat I can’t even lift my arms over my head down below without hitting the cabin top, let alone find a place to hook up a bar with head clearance to do pullups. How can I do pullups? There’s no way to set up a bar in a doorway down below. But outside? What about getting a strong bar to haul up in the rigging? Or getting one of these TRX systems? Do your pullups when you’re in the water for your swim – grab onto the ladder, or the bowsprit,  and up and down you go. Or you could use one of those resistance bands . . . Loop a heavy one through a halyard, haul that halyard to about spreader height, firmly set your feet, and pull evenly. This is called a lat pull down, and you’re using the same muscles as pullups. You can’t quite get yourself off the ground, but you’ll definitely feel the work! Or, if you have ratlines, you can use a high one as a bar!


Are you starting to see how looking around and asking yourself how you CAN make something work will open up incredible options for yourself, exercise-wise?

Classes are the hardest things to tuck away with you on board, unless you’re a fitness instructor with access to endless new rounds of some format or another. Sure, there are DVDs and streaming workout options (I’m partial to my Beachbody On Demand service myself - and I am always here to help you with that!), but if you are a fan of getting your sweat on with a roomful of like-minded people, that’s hard to duplicate on board. That one you may have to wait until you’re somewhere you can drop in on a class. Or, if you really love the inspiration and step-by-step guidance and camaraderie, talk your sailing partner into joining you for a workout video (contact me for advice!)


Start looking around your boat and see what you can use. These ideas are only a starting point - don’t let the lack of specialized equipment deter your onboard exercise routine!

How about a workout to whet your appetite? No equipment required!

A warm up, then 5 exercises. Do each one 15 times, then go through the whole series 3-5 times, depending on your time and inclination. Then a short stretch and cool down. Focus on form and keeping your core tight (think of pulling your belly button to your spine), not speed.

Step 1: march in place in the cockpit or foredeck or down below for 3 minutes. Follow by 1 minute of jumping jacks.


  • 1.     Up the companionway steps and down. Start down below so you can finish in the cockpit.
  • 2.     10 squats (yes, do 10 squats 15 times)
  • 3.     Pushups
  • 4.     Get into a good squat position, as low as you can go, then walk from the cockpit to the mast and back, staying in that position!
  • 5.     Get into a plank position, then raise your butt into the air into down dog, hold to a good count of 5, then lower back to plank.

Cool down/stretch: March in place for 2 minutes. Feet about hip width apart, stand up as tall as you can and reach your arms up high high high in the air, then bend down as far as you can (gently, evenly) and hold there for the count of 5. Repeat 5 times.

Want another workout that's resistance-focused? Click here!

Have the most FANTASTIC day. And remember – it’s all about what you CAN do.

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How much space do you need to do a workout?