Basic Workouts for the River Gym


Let’s not kid ourselves. Most river trips do not inspire physical activity or healthy diet choices. Sure, there’s the all-day rowing for some of you and the occasional side hike, but really you spend your days sitting on a boat drinking a beer or sitting in your camp chair…drinking a beer. You might get up to play a game of bocce, but, you might not. You will, however, have seconds of the Dutch oven peach cobbler.

While there’s nothing wrong with playing the role of a drunken sloth for a few days, multiple multi-day river trips can make you actually want to move your body.

No, you don’t have access to a traditional gym. But that’s not really an excuse. With a little creativity and some gear, you can build a kick-ass river ‘gym.’

Flexibility Moves

Lat Strap Stretch | The Lats, or latissimus dorsi, are some of the largest muscles in your upper body. These muscles provide power for rowing and paddling, and they are easy to stretch with some basic river gear. To do so, run an NRS strap around a tree or rock. Grab the strap with one hand and plant your feet. Then bend your knees and lower your hips until the strap, your arm and your back form a straight line. Breathe deeply and lean back to deepen the stretch.

Variation: A bungee strap can work as an exercise band to more gently stretch your muscles. And you can move the strap higher or lower for comfort.

Dirtbag Variation: Rig your boat.

Oblique Strap Stretch | Your oblique muscles work to twist your torso and protect your spine. Keeping them flexible and strong allows you to twist and turn as you rig your boat and, more importantly, they allow you to reach for the toilet paper when you’re sitting on the groover without tweaking your back.

For this move, take hold of a strap with both hands. Your hands should be almost double shoulder-width apart. Lift the strap above your head, keeping the strap in-line with your shoulders. Bend to the left with the strap and then to the right.

Strap Pass-Through Stretch | This stretch works the muscles of the shoulder as well as the chest. Consider it a primer for those push strokes when the up canyon (err…breeze) begins to blow.

As with the oblique strap stretch, grip a strap with both hands, this time just wider than shoulder-width. Start with the strap in front of you about waist high, then move the strap over your head and behind your back. Repeat as necessary.

Strength Moves 

River gear is heavy. For the purposes of strength training that is a good thing. Almost anything in camp can offer resistance or become a “weight” to lift. You might want to avoid the groover unless, of course, you have groover duty. But in that case, just get the chore done and opt for something with less shit in it. Literally.

Throw Bag Ab V-ups | This move combines both flexibility and strength. It stretches the torso, but it also works the abdominal muscles and the hips.

Start with the NRS River Bed—the best gym mat ever! Grab a throw bag or a reasonably light object. Lie down on the mat with the throw bag extended past your head. Simultaneously, lift your arms and feet until your toes touch the throw bag. Do this 8-10 times per side. Repeat as necessary.

Variation: If you can’t touch the throw bag to your toes, lift your feet and arms as high as you can.

Dirtbag Variation: Get up and out of your tent. (Once daily, or as needed.)

Front Squat to Press | This exercise incorporates a number of big muscle groups including quads, lower back muscles, shoulders and triceps. You’ll want to choose something fairly heavy, but I would suggest using a duffel or something soft as you will be lifting the object over your head.

Take the object in both hands and hold it at chest-level, stand with your feet a little wider than shoulder-width apart. Squat down, keeping your back straight. As you stand back up, engage the balls of your feet, quads, hammies and glutes while simultaneously lifting the duffel. Repeat for 8-10 reps.

Variation: You can use heavier or lighter objects to increase or decrease rigor. Instead of your clothes duffel, use your sleep kit. Or go for the kitchen box or a small child if you’re a beast.

Dirtbag Variation: From your sleeping pad, rotate your body and plant your feet outside of your tent. Stand up while simultaneously lifting your hat up to the top of your head. Repeat with a cup of coffee as you squat down into your camp chair.

Overhead Oar Squat | The prime movers for this exercise are the quads, but in holding the overhead you engage your back and core muscles as well.

With a wide grip, hold an oar and extend your arms over your head. Then drop into a squat, holding the oar over your head. Stop when your thighs are parallel to the ground. Push up out of your squat and repeat for 8-10 reps.

Variation: Again, you can use heavier or lighter objects to increase or decrease rigor. Or, instead of doing the squat on a rock or other stable place, try balancing on your raft tubes or something on the boat to increase the challenge

Dirtbag Variation: Help your buddy lift his kayak to the roof of his car after the trip.

Pushup with T-Rotation | This is another good exercise for the muscles that help you push a raft down the river. The traditional pushup engages your chest muscles and your triceps, while the rotation engages your obliques.

You will need a throw bag in your left or right hand. Move into the pushup position and complete a pushup. At the top of the pushup, twist your torso and lift the throw bag up until your arm is extended over your body. Switch the throw bag between hands for each repetition. (8-10 reps per side).

Variation: Instead of twisting and extending your arm,  at the top, simply lift the throwbag off the ground with one hand and bring it to your chest, like a row. Alternate hands with each pushup.

Single-Leg Roman Deadlift with Row | This exercise primarily works the hamstrings and the glutes but the additional rowing move incorporates the arms and the back.

To start, lift a water jug and hold it by your side. Bend at the waist until your torso is near parallel to the ground. You’re going to balance on the leg that’s on the same side as the water jug and lift your other leg behind you until the leg and your back are aligned. Ultimately, the set-up will happen in one motion. Then, lift the water jug toward your chest in a one-armed row. Finish by moving back to the standing position. (8-10 reps on each side).

Variations: You can use heavier or lighter water jugs to increase or decrease rigor. I recommend empty jugs but that’s just me.

Dirtbag Variation: Carry your water jug to camp and then back to your raft.

Aerobic Options 

Hiking or Running | It turns out that most rivers are at the bottom of canyons. What that means for you is that every hike or run is a potential climb. Stairmaster be damned. Hells Canyon, the Grand Canyon, Desolation Canyon and the Canyon of the Salmon River all feature a mile or more of vertical relief, which means your legs will only get relief when you make it to the top.

Swimming | Rivers are the original attainment pools. If you find the right current, you can swim for hours and not go anywhere. Additionally, a number of camps have great swimming eddies. Be aware that rivers have powerful and sometimes unseen currents. Swimming with a PFD might be necessary.

Following your workout, you may want to do some cool-down lifts. I recommend repeated curls with light weights—I prefer 12 or 24 ounces.

If you’re like many of us living through the hell of a Covid-Summer, not only were your river permits canceled but your gym is shut down as well. The great thing about many of these exercises is that you can do them at home. And you know what isn’t closed? Your garage. And while there is nothing inspiring about lifting a dumbbell, hoisting a throw bag as a little river-sand falls out will give you just enough motivation to stay in river shape—whatever shape that may be.