improvised workouts

Improvised Workouts: Anti-Piracy

The Horn of Africa isn’t the safest place to take a cargo ship, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. With piracy incidents increasing in frequency and complexity, many companies have taken to hiring private security personnel to guard them on their transit past Somalia and adjacent countries.

It can be a pretty cool job. Lots of pretty sunsets, open ocean and stopovers in a new country every few days. One of the major challenges to it is finding ways to stay in good physical condition while living in a very limited environment that changes every week or two.

Enter Matt Roberts:

I have heard stories of gyms on ships that some guys have worked on with nice equipment, tons of weights, and even a top deck big enough to run on. I even knew some marines that got jacked while at sea. This wasn’t the case for me.

The first ship that I worked on was quite small, so I was surprised to hear there was a gym onboard at all. I had to know where it was right away, even before settling into my cabin.

This is what I had to work with. Needless to say, changes in my current routine had to be made to accommodate my new facilities.

I was scheduled to be on this ship for a little over two weeks with nothing to do but stand guard and watch movies. I wanted to make sure that I trained daily to help pass the time. It was obvious that I wasn’t going to be doing much heavy lifting, which meant that recovery wasn’t going to be much of an issue.

I knew that the food onboard probably wouldn’t meet all the nutritional requirements that I had, so I made sure to bring supplements with me like protein, superfood and fish oil. I also packed a thick band, I don’t travel anywhere without it.

I took this as an opportunity to work on qualities that are often neglected and because it was a smaller ship I had to deal with it rocking from side to side while I trained. Since I chose to focus mostly on unilateral moves due to the lack of weight, this presented an extra challenge.

The only heavy lift that I could do relatively safely was the deadlift. There was a rusty straight bar and about 260 pounds of weight.

Since this was well below my max, I was able to deadlift a few times a week, paying close attention to technique and speed.

Because of the constant swaying of the ship, each rep was different than the last. The weight would be shifted to my left side for the first rep, and then to my right for the next.

Using the rope from a container, I was able to hang a bar from the boom of an old crane onboard for pull-ups. Using the ends of that same rope, I also hung a second bar just above the deck for doing pushups, triceps extensions, and fallouts.

This made for a brutal combo of deadlifts superset with pull-ups and pushups. The instability of the bar hanging freely along with the swaying of the ship made stabilization extremely challenging. Every move was also a really good core exercise.

For the pushups, I almost always wrapped the band around my back for added resistance. The only other thing I did with the band was pull-aparts at various angles. Since there was no room for any form of cardio, I often did my workouts in a circuit fashion for a conditioning benefit. There was also a solidified punching bag that I hung from the crane’s hook.

Me pretending to know how to box.

I performed a lot of dips on railings, sometimes with body armor, sometimes without. I alternated my days using body armor. One day I would go heavy and wear two vests, and the next I wouldn’t use anything.

For legs I performed lots of lunge variations using 20lb dumbbells. Rear lunges, forward, sideways, jumping, and pistols. I didn’t want to risk injury putting a heavy bar across my back while rocking side to side. I also did a lot of single-leg hip thrusts. Although I couldn’t use much weight with these exercises, performing them explosively in various directions on an unstable surface was still effective.

The very back of the ship had a low freeboard that I used for a very effective hamstring move. I would splash water on one half and then lay down on it, keeping my feet on the dry half. From there, using my hamstrings only, I would pull myself to my heels, and then push myself back to the starting position. Much like a swiss ball hamstring curl, just without the ball. The water and sweat mix made the surface quite slippery. A word of caution though, your back will look like you’ve been attacked by a cat after this, but don’t worry, the salt will sanitize the wounds. Kind of.

Although my core got a good workout from the instability of every exercise, I also did fallouts, hanging leg raises, and planks. Planks (a suitable name when on an anti-piracy job) are fun on a rocking ship and about ten times harder than in a gym. I would alternate which direction I faced each time. On one set I would be positioned so my weight shifted from head to toe, and on the next, I would position myself so it shifted side to side.

This is where I did hamstring curls.

So, that’s basically it for this ship. Deadlifts, various weighted and non-weighted bodyweight movements, lunge variations, planks, and band work. Some days when I had some extra energy to burn, I would finish my workout with a dumbbell circuit which is where I included some vanity exercises like curls and delt raises.

I would change up the order I did the exercises in each day, except for any day in which I deadlifted, in which that was always first. It had to be, because the deadlift bar was also my pull-up bar. With all the free time I made sure to perform lots of mobility work and focus on any problem areas I had.

While I didn’t make any significant strength gains in the basic barbell lifts during this phase, I did increase my pull-ups quite a bit, strengthened my core and vastly improved in single-leg lifts. I would call this a win.

Here are some other pictures from that trip.

After that trip I invested in a TRX suspension trainer and rings. Good thing too, because no other ship I worked on had any weights. On these ships I strictly performed bodyweight exercises (with armor at times), and just about everything in the TRX manual. I kept the volume high on the first two exercises of each workout and the rest of the moves were done in a maintenance/recovery range. For example:


1) Pull-ups and dips superset – as many sets as it took to get to 100 reps of each. (the next time I performed this workout I tried to decrease the sets)

2) Push-ups and TRX row superset – 3 to 4 sets of 10-15 reps

3) TRX lunges and either broad jumps, or TRX leg curls – 3 to 4 sets of 6-10 reps

4) Core work and prehab work (planks, fallouts, face pulls, rotators, etc)

For the next workout, I would switch up the order of exercises but keep the rep ranges for that number the same. So 1) would always be done for high reps, regardless of what movement it was. A couple times a week I would start my workout with handstand push-ups, keeping a foot hooked into a TRX strap for balance, but this wasn’t done for high reps.

Assisted pistols for when the ship was rocking too much to balance.

Body armor pullups.

Another ship with even less room.

My time working in anti piracy usually entailed several weeks out followed by a few weeks at home, during which I would go back to heavy strength training at a conventional gym. Alternating between unstable bodyweight and unilateral moves with little external load in an almost gymnastic fashion and more conventional strength training while at home proved to work remarkably well. The little strength I lost while at sea was easily regained and the progress I made in unilateral stability, bodyweight control and strength endurance carried over well into weight room training.

Training in this undulating fashion is effective even if you stay in a conventional gym setting. No trips to Mogadishu necessary. If you need a break from your normal routine, I’d recommend giving it a try.

Indian Ocean – 2011

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