A photo illustration of a tree wearing a sweat band.
(Ross May / Los Angeles Times; Getty Images)

8 exhilarating (and free!) outdoor workout spots in L.A.

Of the many things the pandemic has forced Americans to rethink is the Western ritual of “going to the gym.” Driving to an indoor facility to grasp equipment and thrash about in stale air just isn’t what it used to be.

In its place: sunlight, oxygen and the electro-charged surface of the Earth. This shift, along with studies about the benefits of exercising outside, got us thinking:

Where are the best places in L.A. to breathe, move and sweat for free while absorbing a little Vitamin D? Which L.A. parks have exercise equipment? What are the best outdoor spots for doing squats and push-ups?

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We wanted to offer up more than hikes (though we have plenty of recommendations for those). And while the air is getting chillier, here in SoCal, the winter months are hardly an exercise deterrent. The only thing between you and an outdoor sweat-sesh is your front door.

Which exercises should you do at the following sites, you ask? Try one of each: a lower body push (a squat, lunge or jump), an upper body push (push-up, shoulder press, dip), an upper body pull (pull-up, row, curl) and a core movement (plank, crunch, twist). Perform as many as you can of each, for three rounds. Beginners should start slowly, adding on more reps as they build strength and endurance.

Anything is better than nothing. Movement is medicine. And remember: Cavorting outside is what our bodies are designed to do.

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Overhead shot of a large playground
(GameTime, a PlayCore company)

Ken Malloy Harbor Regional Park

Harbor City Park
Of the 90 L.A. parks that have fitness equipment (here’s the full list from City of Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks), this Harbor City spot is the cream of the crop.

Its exercise area has dip bars, a trapeze rack with hanging gymnastics rings and a few simple machines that use bodyweight as resistance. I love the array of pull-up bars here, which allow those who are unable to do a pull-up (palms facing away from you) or chin-up (palms facing you) to place their feet on a nearby bar and do supine rows instead. If rows are too hard, a simple bar hang can improve strength, flexibility and spine and shoulder health. Bonus: There’s an obstacle course for kids that includes ropes and flexible ladders.

Covering 231 acres and filled with more than 300 bird species (and their accompanying soundtrack), the park grounds are a great place for a warm-up stroll before you get started.
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The steep sand dune of Sand Dune Park.
(Michael McKnight)

Sand Dune Park

Manhattan Beach Park
Trudging up this 45-degree mountain of shifting sand isn’t for the faint of heart. If you reach the top and you’re not breathing like a disco-era prank caller, you deserve a medal. Over the years, I’ve seen some of L.A.’s most prominent professional athletes sprinting up the dune. Too rich for my blood!

By which I mean: Don’t take this one on without a certain baseline level of fitness.

Using the dune isn’t free, but it’s close. Manhattan Beach residents pay $1, nonlocals pay $3 and everyone has to sign up first. It’s in a residential neighborhood, so respect posted signs and residents’ driveways when parking. When exercising, only play music when wearing headphones.
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A man does a handstand on workout bars at Muscle Beach.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

The sand pit at Muscle Beach Venice

Venice Outdoor gym
The iconic outdoor gym where the 1970s bodybuilding craze began has reopened after a thorough refurbishment. It’s not free (a day pass costs $10, a week of visits is $50), but the “sand pit” just west of it is.

Here, spread across the soft sand, is an assortment of sunlit steel apparatus where pushes, pulls and presses are all possible. There’s a balance beam and climbing ropes too. During hotter seasons, cool off with a dip in the ocean, which is just steps away.
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A look out from the top of a staircase shows a view of L.A,
(Michael McKnight)

Culver City Stairs (officially known as the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook)

Culver City Lookout Point
Officially known as Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook, this state park is best known for the 282 concrete steps that lift visitors from bustling Jefferson Boulevard to the scruffy hilltop where one of L.A.’s most breathtaking city views awaits. Actually, the stairs don’t lift anything. Your legs do that.

The staircase is steep and each footfall varies in height (from three to 20 inches), so it’s hard to get into a climbing rhythm. I actually enjoy this unpredictability — it keeps me focused once my legs and lungs catch fire about a third of the way up. Beware of bringing your progeny: My 8- and 14-year-old daughters made it to the top, but not easily. Bring water and a camera, so you can celebrate your achievement with the sprawling City of Angels as your backdrop.
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Workout equipment in a park outdoors
(Michael McKnight)

Veterans Park

Redondo Beach Park
One corner of this seaside park has an impressive collection of calisthenics equipment. There are pull-up bars and dip bars of varying heights and grips, an agility grid to develop faster feet and stations for sit-ups and crunches too. This is the only local park I’ve seen that has plyometric boxes onto which exercisers can jump, then dismount and repeat.

The adjacent playground has plenty of climbing options to keep kids busy, and there’s a big, grassy field that’s perfect for sprinting, Frisbee flinging or general frolicking. The park is steps away from the Pacific Ocean and from the recreation, retail and dining options at the Redondo Pier. On Thursdays between 8 a.m. and 1 p.m., replenish your system with fresh fare from the Redondo Beach Certified Farmers Market.
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Jungle gym-looking structure on the beach
(Michael McKnight)

Manhattan Beach Parcourse on the Strand

Manhattan Beach Outdoor gym
In Manhattan Beach, where the beach meets the bike path, lies a small sandy plot filled with pull-up bars and benches — a workout spot where the sound of crashing waves provides the perfect soundtrack to accompany your physical efforts. Nothing fancy here, just push-ups, pull-ups (or hangs) and plenty of room to squat, lunge or jump rope. Bring a bike and finish your workout with a breezy cruise along the coast.

Bonus: This spot abuts Bruce’s Beach, a grassy slope that recently made history when government leaders returned the property to its rightful Black heirs. Take a moment to ponder the injustice and its reparations, then celebrate the latter with some sprints up the steep hill that defines the park (or hit the sand and do some sprint work there). Five sprints of 40 yards or so, with walking rest back to the start, is a good beginning.
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Outdoor challenge course on turf
(Michael McKnight)

Jackie Tatum / Harvard Recreation Center

Harvard Park Park
While this timed obstacle course — which includes floating boards, side-swaying steps and vault walls to climb over or under — is geared toward kids and tweens, there’s plenty of green space at this South L.A. park for anyone to do squats, lunges, planks and push-ups. Feeling competitive? Race your pals on the two-lane 40-yard dash.
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People wade in the shore of a beach
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The ocean

Santa Monica Ocean
Our ocean is unpredictable, so safety comes first when considering Mother Nature’s salty pool as an exercise option. Only head in when the waves are calm and a lifeguard is on duty.

The Pacific is the largest ocean on Earth (covering about a third of the planet’s surface) but you only need the 30 yards closest to shore. I like treading water for a few minutes after running or after exercising at one of the spots on this list.

Do not try swimming your first time out, even if you’re a confident pool swimmer. Start by treading water for five minutes in an area where your feet can touch the bottom. If that feels too easy, extend it to 10 minutes. Do not exercise to exhaustion. And always check in with the lifeguard first and give them a heads-up on your plans.

Yes, winter is wetsuit weather, but a few minutes without one is an unmatched refresher of body, mind and spirit.
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