In Case of Emergency, Follow This Workout Strategy

“Aw hell. I’ll get back on track when things settle down.”

Whether we have a sick kid who’s keeping us at home, or we go on a trip that’s crazy and our schedule is all over the place, or even just a stressful few weeks at work trying to hit a tight deadline, our personal health tends to be the first thing that goes out the window when the shit hits the fan.

And then we have our first day back to exercise. Ugh. We feel like crap, we have ZERO momentum, and getting back into the gym feels like walking into the depths of hell. On top of that, we’ve put on weight, our strength numbers are down, and we feel like we’ve backslid by months in mere weeks.

Well, I say NO MORE!

Today I’m going to give you an emergency plan to follow that will allow you to weather any storm, endure weeks of chaos, and get back on track with minimal backsliding.

Use this in case of emergency.

The Emergency Diet Plan

Veggie Spread

When the shit hits the fan, our first thought is to abandon any healthy plan we had in mind.

Late nights in the office revolve around pizza and subs, vacations revolve around strawberry daiquiris and junk food, and a sick kid or being sick ourselves means we’ll eat whatever we can get our hands on.

Because diet is 90% of the battle, the BIGGEST wins we can snag while everything else is chaotic is to keep our diet in check. Here’s your emergency escape plan:

1) Make sure every calorie counts. Sure, we know that not all calories are created equal, but every calorie counts. Would it be awesome if you ate chicken and broccoli and kale while things were going poorly? YUP. Is that gonna happen? NOPE. So do the best you can.

Just because you have access to three meals a day plus snacks does NOT mean you need to eat all the things, all the time.

  • Swap out sodas for water.
  • Swap out grilled veggies as your side instead of fries.
  • Practice portion control, where you don’t eat the entire meal. Eat slowly, and dump salt on it after you’re done.

Consider skipping breakfast! It’s called intermittent fasting, and it’s how I lost 5 pounds while traveling for three weeks and eating poorly. I strategically missed certain meals to keep my daily calorie count in check.

2) Alternate healthy and unhealthy meals. When we eat poorly for breakfast, we think it ruins the whole day and causes us to eat like crap for lunch and dinner too. Stop it!

  • If you eat a bad lunch, eat a good dinner.
  • If you eat a bad dinner, opt for a healthy breakfast (or no breakfast).

One bad meal doesn’t ruin you for weeks. It’s when you let one bad meal ruin the next one, and the next one, and the next one. So snap out of it. Alternate healthy with unhealthy. Even if you can only make ONE healthy choice, it’s better than nothing.

3) Time your bad meals. I always do an intense strength training workout right before meals where I’m going to eat poorly. When you strength train, you break down your muscles and they then rebuild themselves slowly over the next 24-48+ hours.

While your muscles are rebuilding, they’re pulling from your most readily available calories to make that process happen. Like the ones you just ate.

Conversely, when you eat poorly and don’t exercise, those calories have really no other option but to be stored as fat.

Now, what should that workout look like?

The tread water workout

SteveUnderwater Running

Below, you’ll see a list of exercises. If you only have time for one exercise, pick the one at the top. If you have time for #2, do the next. If you have time for #3, do ’em all.

But that (1, 2, and 3) should be your whole workout. This should take you about 15-20 minutes, and you can do it 1/2/3/4 times per week depending on your schedule. What’s important is that you do it at least once per week.

These movements work every muscle in your body, recruit extra muscle fibers, and tax your nervous system in a healthy way, and keep you alert, fit, fierce, and strong. Feel free to print out the following PDF to bring with you on your next trip, or to have ready for the next emergency.

Depending on your situation, pick the Weight Training or the Bodyweight Routine.

Emergency Workouts Weight


Exercise #1: LEGS

Alternate each workout: Squats / Deadlifts: 3 sets of 5 reps at a weight that is challenging.

Exercise #2: PUSH

Alternate each workout: Overhead Press / Bench Press: 5 sets of 5 reps at a weight that is challenging.

Exercise #3: PULL

Pull ups, dumbbell row, or Bodyweight rows: 5 sets of as many reps as possible.

Emergency Workouts Bodyweight

Bodyweight: Pick one from each category.

Exercise #1: LEGS

Squats: 3 sets:

Exercise #2: PUSH

Push ups: 3 sets:

Exercise #3: PULL

Pull ups or rows: 3 sets:

You can download the bodyweight graphic here (right click save as) and the weight graphic here (right click save as).


Alternate sets of exercise #2 and #3 if you are in a big hurry. If things are really desperate, I’ll go into a gym or park and just do the following:

  1. Pull ups: as many as I can in one set
  2. Push ups: as many as I can in one set
  3. Repeat #1 and #2 for 5 circuits.

You’re your only hope

star wars

Shit happens… oftentimes for weeks and weeks. During that time, every calorie counts, every meal counts, every rep counts:

  • If you only have time to do a few lunges while you’re taking care of your baby, that rep counts.
  • If you can only do one pull up on various structures while walking around on vacation, they count.
  • If you crank out 50 hungover push-ups before you head out for the day while on vacation, they count.

Scrape and scrap for every rep you can get, whenever you can get them. They count, and they add up.

Make one healthy decision per day in your diet, and find time to do at least one INTENSE strength training session per week (or many small ones like explained above).

Conserve energy during the chaos, minimize any backpedaling, and allow yourself to hit the ground running again once you can focus on your health.

What about you? Have you found a way to minimize the damage during a chaotic stretch in your life? Any tips and tricks you have will help SOMEBODY in the Rebellion – after all there’s at least 270,000 of us 🙂

What’s your “in case of emergency, do this!” plan?

Share it in the comments!



photo source: mac_filko: jedi, Wajahat Mahmood: emergency keys

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  • Mumbly Joe

    I’ve noticed a lot of people get in decent shape following a similar lifestyle. YouTube often leads us to believe we have to have this amazing plan that we follow to a T to see good results. Often, just covering the basics like compound movements, eating vegetables, eat less (or possibly more) and making sure you’re getting in your protein will produce good results. Are you gonna have a shredded six pack? Probably not, but you’ll be way healthier and in better shape than the average person who hasn’t done a push-up or played a game of touch football in a decade…

  • Great post and great emergency plans, Steve! If I’m in a serious pinch for time it works really really well if I get in the gym and do GIANT sets. (GS: A few muscle groups, a few sets, a few reps — minimal rest, repeat!)

    If it’s light weight/high rep I still get amazing blood flow for recovery purposes, along with excess calorie-killing and a pump in the muscles which feels like you hit ’em good. 🙂

    If it’s heavy weight/lower rep I’m still able to pair complimentary muscles together – while sending my heart rate through the roof – while torching calories – WHILE I still do enough to keep on track (strength wise).

    Worst comes to worst. Just squat ’till you can’t squat no more!

  • TekkieChikk

    LOVE IT and just in time.. have had a bad couple food days (doritos and potato salad for dinner last night because I didn’t have anything healthy cooked, disgusting!). Cool idea about pouring salt on uneaten portions of food as a deterrent to scarfing it all down.
    The weight routines are ones I do regularly but you can never tell me too many times to ‘scrape and scrap for every rep.’ Great reminder.

  • Chris-Tien Jinn

    Great ideas!! I try to stick to grilled meats, salads, and fresh fruits and vegetables when I’m traveling. I’ll even find a grocery store and pick up food if I can so that I don’t have to eat in a restaurant unless a meal is for a social reason.

    And you’ve listed my “go to” exercises for workouts in hotels. Plus, since I LIKE to walk, I do my best to walk and run in interesting places when I’m in a new city.

  • Courtney

    An excellent and timely article. I’m down to the wire finishing my first draft on my novel before my daughter is off of school for the summer and have been thinking about creating something like this until life calms down. Trouble is all my brain power is going into the book, not solving other problems. Then you come in and do the work for me. 🙂 Thanks, Steve!

  • Reid Geisenhof

    Great post and so very useful to so many people so much of the time. Cheers!

  • Amanda Tallman

    What an appropriate article for where I’m sitting right now in my life! I just left my job that was making me sick and I’ve been using little bits of similar emergency plan tactics to get back on track. I’ve got a problem with clutter around the house so I’ve been using cleaning as my excuse to exercise. Hey, some of those trash bags weigh a lot so it’s an easy way to get weight lifting in while improving my living quarters! I’ve also been prepping healthy meals in advance so I don’t have an excuse to eat poorly and I’ve been trying to get outdoors for either walking or yard work for additional exercise opportunities.

  • Alexander Tomsho

    This was well-timed. I just finished house-sitting for my parents and the dogs were very needy and kept me up at night. Problematic especially when I had work in the morning. I’m moving to a new place that’s a bit further from my work and I won’t be able to make it to the gym as consistently, so this will be useful.

  • jvini

    That’s a wonderful response! I agree totally. I’ve gone down to 1 intense body weight workout and one tabata session a week that take about 20-25 minutes, walking at least 10,000 steps each day and eating whole foods, especially vegetables and chicken or fish and I’ve lost a lot of pant sizes and a little weight. 48 yrs old. 200 lbs., 6 feet, 32-33 waist. I’m happy with that. (I eat about 2200 calories/day)

  • Jennifer Nelson

    When my mom died, a victim advocate visited my brother and me, and helped us figure out what exactly to do. That entire night was a blur, and I have forgotten everything she said, except for one thing: Eat a lot of veggies and drink a lot of water.

    So now, whenever I’m stressed, even if it’s just tiny stress like a cold or a hard time at work, I do that. I eat a ton of veggies, and I drink a lot of water. I occasionally give in to my comfort food cravings (Taco Bell and chocolate!), and then I continue eating a ton of veggies. The short workouts are cool, though, especially now. My work schedule got wonky again, and workout breaks don’t always happen.

  • Tricia

    My emergency workout occurs usually when I am literally thrown into a car and whisked off to the woods. 100 jumping jacks, 100 body weight squats, 100 push ups. In whatever combination can make it happen as long as I do not quit. Little breaks are alright, I can’t stop to go get coffee though :P. Repeat as many times during the day as possible.

  • I like to do the burpee exercise when I’m in a rush, it’s a great total body exercise that can be done anywhere. And like you said, every rep counts, especially when you’re doing challenging compound movements!

  • April

    Perfect timing. I have a code test for a job interview and I’m really trying to work in a little exercise these two days when I really just want to blow it off and spend every waking minute on my code until it’s over. Thank you as always.

  • Bekah

    My life feels like one emergency after the other, so I am doing things that I can do anywhere. I can walk in a doctors office, my hallway, or my treadmill and the dog has to be walked, so there is my exercise. Diet being the biggest key I do what someone else said and do protein veggies and water and try like hell to not eat the junk. Simple no thinking required food: meat, veggies, water. Also I tell myself unless I am physically unable to walk, there is no excuse for not doing it. I “don’t feel like it” isn’t a reason. I am a person who walks daily and eats simply. Change your headspace, then when the shit hits the fan, you know who you are and it’s easier to deal with the emotions that come bc your day to day is already solid. Also DONT BEAT YOURSELF UP! Seriously, don’t. I cant even tel you how many times I screwed up my diet/exercise plans bc of something crazy, and everyone around me was understanding and treated me more kindly than I treated myself. Love yourself first.

    Or….if you are an all or nothing kind of person, use your stress to fuel your choices. “If I can eat right and exercise while dealing with this stressful thing, I can do it easily when things are calmer”. I cold turkey’d sugar the day before my daughter had an emergency hospitalization recently, and I refused to eat it, and then when everything was good again, it’e not this super daunting “omg I cant do this” thing now, Quit sugar…meh. 🙂

  • Great post and appreciate the emergency plan!

  • I agree… if I want to get in a quick but effective workout, 100 burpees it is!

  • Great emergency plan. I have found that by creating long term good habits these emergency workouts are now fewer and fewer. Planning and preparation are essential. Intermittent fasting is a super way to eliminate crap food for breakfast for sure. I find that packing my food or at least snacks and water will carry me a long way during the day. Squats, push ups are super great for emergency training. Thanks for the ideas!

  • Peanuts

    Fifty pushups with a hangover eh????….I can barely do 20 on a good day.
    You say diet is 90% but In my case it’s mindset that trumps diet & training.
    I suffer from depression and lower back issues so it can be weeks where I struggle to do anything.
    I get a bad case of the ‘I’ll start next week’ syndrome. Little baby steps for me during these times, small successes and as Bekah commented ‘don’t beat yourself up’
    The struggle continues

  • Tinessael

    Thank you so much for this post! .I’m really the kind of person who thinks “Oh if I can’t do the entire workout, it isn’t worth doing it.” and end up not doing anything really often. So today (extremely busy, could start working out at half past 11 pm) I (instead of not doing anything) just did the first half of my NF academy (level 4) workout.

    (It is sort of bugging me, because my perfectionism can’t tick all exercises off in the excel sheet – but I feel like it is a big step in the right direction)

  • Becca

    Yes, more PDFs to print and post on my wall at home! Thanks, Steve!

  • Wendy

    Thank you Steve and Nerd Fitness for the encouragement and direction. Sometimes I need to be remind to K.I.S.S.


  • Happy Camper

    I’m wondering where the pdf is he said could be downloaded.

  • Rudis

    I aim to eat more vegetables & protein when on vacation, as well as going on walks, or doing little exercises while I’m getting ready. Lunges down the hall, or squats to get things on lower shelves or off the floor instead of just leaning, to make every little thing count.

  • Sharron

    Best advice ever… don’t let one bad meal lead to an entire bad day or week or binge. Just alternate. Love it. Thanks

  • Mitch

    Quick question: What do I do if my regular workout routine is coincidentally almost exactly identical to the “emergency” weight routine listed here? Does anybody know if there some good exercises that I should be adding to my regular routine?

    Here I thought I was being all clever and original by taking 5×5 stronglifts and mixing it with the pushing/pulling motions from bodyweight routines.

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  • Cat

    Thank you! Right in time for my vacation. A couple of days ago I realised that going on vacation meant not being able to hit the gym for two weeks (which sucks!). But I decided to pack my sneakers and to do as much as possible This will certainly help with that plan!

  • rhiannion

    Thanks for the inspiration Steve – I really needed it right now!

  • Sue

    I’ve started doing lunges when I’m walking from one place to another and just remembering to incorporate a little extra effort into doing something I’m already doing. eg walking a little faster, pumping my arms up and down or out to the sides while walking, doing squats while watching TV or waiting for the kettle to boil etc.

  • Rowan

    I have a glass cabinet right next to my bed with a sign that says “BREAK GLASS IN CASE OF BEING REALLY TIRED AND WANTING TO GO TO BED WITHOUT HAVING EXERCISED” Then inside the thing is an illuminated scroll that says “Thou Shalt Do One Hundred Jumping Jacks.” It gets broken glass everywhere, but it gets the job done, and that’s what counts.

  • Charlie

    Hey Steve I was wondering if you could do a article on shoulder muscles cause I’ve read and seen people say that if you only work the front out your gonna end up looking like a gorilla but they never really explain how to work the top and back of the shoulder.

  • Arrowan

    This is EXACTLY what I needed to hear right now. My life is in upheaval at the moment, with no end in sight. One adaptation I’ve made is always taking the stairs rather than the elevator at the hospital. I also go running and do short body-weight routines when I can. But I often feel like it’s too inadequate to really count…I need to keep in mind the mantra that “every rep counts.” Keeping food choices in check is even harder when things get stressful, but those small substitutions are definitely the way to go when planning and cooking healthful meals isn’t an option. Thanks, Steve.

  • Fiona Clark

    This is great. I’m in college and it feels like “emergency” non-routine is my state 24/7. I’ve got one year to go and want to try to implement this as much as possible. Thanks!

  • Melissa Suarez

    If I’m “hungry” but I don’t want something healthy, I’m not actually hungry. I keep an “emergency kit” of healthy things like nuts or apples in my purse, office, and especially my car. That way, in the event that I think I’m hungry and might end up in a drive thru I get a choice; if I don’t want the apple or cashews, I do not really need to eat and, thus, do not get to has cheezburgur…

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  • Danielle Halliday

    No matter how great we are everyone cheats! We all mess up! I like the idea of the emergency workout! Thanks for sharing

  • Jo Attree

    Bizarrely, I have the opposite problem. During chaos or holidays I do much healthier things – don’t eat as much, walk more, etc. Its my day to day habits that I need to fix!

  • Denko

    Great idea, thank you for share

    360 paleo diet recipe

  • Logan Raney

    I usually work out with my best friend or wife. Those workouts usually take 45 min to an hour. If I’m strapped for time though i fall back on the trusty 4. Push ups, pull ups, squats and hip raises. 3 sets of those and I’m done in 10 min or less. And comin from someone who has 2 kids, you always have a free 10 min everyday. You just have to find it.

  • Timothy Barber

    The good plan you execute is infinitely better than the perfect plan you abandon.
    My preference is to have a “minimum viable workout” – something that I can do even if I come back to the house at 11PM after a night with family – something that I would be profoundly embarrassed not to have followed through on, and then just “don’t break the chain” – do it every day I’ve delineated for exercising. If I feel like I can go further, I do. But the key to getting consistent wins is getting good at getting started. 🙂

    Awesome article as always, Steve!

  • Angie Miller

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    Text me if you need some help staying motivated! (313) 744-4235 – I might be a little slow at replying but I’ll do my best to be your free personal trainer. We can be here for each other 🙂



  • Miramont Lifestyle Fitness

    Yoga is a good way to stay in shape if you’re not into intensive cardio or lifting weights, but would still like to maintain your shape.

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