I’m a person who’s motivated by putting a meet on my calendar and sticking to a schedule to prepare myself for that meet. Even if you aren’t quite as competitive as I am (I’m the most competitive, ok??) training at home without proper equipment can feel kind of aimless.
So I asked strength coach and powerlifter Greg Nuckols about training on your own without losing ground, and what to expect when you get back to the gym. (Nuckols also has his own guide to no-gym training here). Surprisingly, the news is actually good!
“As long as you can put enough tension through a muscle to adequately challenge it, you’re not gonna have too much of a problem building or maintaining muscle mass,” he says. Phew.
Taking an off season is good, actually
Without heavy weights, you may not be able to work out with the same intensity as you did before (although there are some hacks, which we’ll talk about in a minute). If you were used to doing heavy barbell squats, but now you don’t have a bar or a rack, your training has to change.
But taking time to train with more reps and less weight “might actually be a decent thing long-term for a lot of strength athletes who pretty much exclusively do low rep training,” Nuckols says.
Soccer players and other athletes who compete in a seasonal sport often have a formal off-season where they shift their focus from sport-specific skills to building a more general base of fitness. If you’re a lifter, that could translate to more hypertrophy (muscle building) work at higher reps and lower intensity. It could mean taking more time to recover. And it could mean conditioning.
“If there was ever a time to do cardio,” Nuckols says, “this is probably it.”
Set up your workout space
Part of why we miss the gym so much is that the gym is a place. You leave your normal life to go to this special building or room where nothing else matters except getting your workout in. It’s hard to recreate that feeling when you’re doing pushups in your living room.
But you can try. If there’s another part of your living space that can be repurposed, use that. I’ve been keeping the car in the driveway lately so that I can work out in the garage. I’ve seen people doing yoga on their decks. But if you can’t find a secluded space, Nuckols points out that it may help to just face the wall as you work out. This way, at least you’re not staring at the dirty dishes or your video game console as you do your reps.
For a further change of scenery, don’t forget music. Headphones can block out a multitude of distractions.
You’re not limited to bodyweight workouts when you lift at home, but you may need to get creative. Even with light resistance—a pair of dumbbells, say—you’re not necessarily wasting your time. If you get to failure within about 60 reps, Nuckols says, it’s still doing something for you.
Still, you may be craving something that approximates a heavy lift. Here are a few options:
Heavy-duty resistance bands (Nuckols like these from EliteFTS), which can provide hundreds of pounds of resistance if you combine them all. Most powerlifting moves can be converted to a resistance-band version.
A pull-up bar. The over-the-door style works in most doorways and doesn’t require tools for installation.
A backpack full of books, or whatever heavy stuff you can find around the house. Wear it, hug it, or carry it by the handles for various exercises.
A five-gallon water jug. “It’s a slightly unwieldy 40-pound dumbbell,” says Nuckols. Water weighs about eight pounds per gallon.
Look around your home and you may find more ideas. (My daughter likes to climb on my back when I do pushups, which I have to admit is pretty effective!)
Create or find a plan
I find that even if I’ve shifted my priorities away from meet training, it still helps me to have a plan so I know how I’m going to get through the next week and the next month. Just because you’re getting creative doesn’t mean you have to wing it every time.
If you’re following a bodybuilding style program, Nuckols says, you may not need to change much at all. Just swap out exercises you can’t do for others that work the same muscles but make use of your available equipment.
For a powerlifting program (one focused on squat, bench, and deadlift), you may be able to approximate almost everything with those heavy resistance bands. It’s not quite the same, but at least you won’t need a whole new program.
If you do want to switch to bodyweight workouts, Nuckols has a good tip for choosing a program: “Look for it from sources who have been talking about bodyweight training for years. Not just people who, you know, 90 per cent of their content is about training with barbells but they’re like ‘oh, I’ve put together a 4-week bodyweight training program! It’s gonna be great!’ No, it’s probably not.” (We’ve both heard good things about the Recommended Routine from r/bodyweightfitness.)
You may lose a little strength, but you’ll be ok in the long run
This is not your usual training. It’s your off-season, remember?
If you can’t do all of your usual exercises, you may be rusty when you get back to the gym. In fact, you get a bit rusty any time you switch up your exercises for an extended period of time. The good news is that if you’ve kept up enough training to keep a base of strength, the gains will return.
Here’s how Nuckols puts it: When people get back to the gym, “they’ll get back under the bar and see like, oh shit my maxes have gone down 20%, maybe 30%, and they’ll freak out and think they lost all of their gains. But as long as you were trying to do some sort of productive training in quarantine, you’ll get the vast majority of that back within a month, or maybe two months.”