How to Make Gains Without a Gym

I’m writing this as gyms are closing down around the country and around the world due to COVID-19, but this is an article I’ve been meaning to write for a while. Maybe you’re trying to hold onto your gains during a pandemic (which wasn’t the context I initially had in mind for this article), maybe you want to be equipped for high-quality home workouts when it’s challenging to make it to the gym, or maybe you just want to save money and not pay for a monthly gym membership. Regardless of the situation, if you can’t make it to the gym, this article should have you covered.

Furthermore, just to clarify, this isn’t a “how to equip a home gym” article. If you have the free space and means to buy a bar, a rack, and a bunch of iron, home gyms are great. However, there are a lot of “how to equip a home gym” articles out there, and I’m writing this with the assumption that you’re not able or not planning to go all-in on a home gym. I will suggest several small purchases you could make to give you more exercise options, but nothing too pricey.

Bonus Podcast Episode on This Topic

We also discussed this topic on a special episode of the Stronger By Science Podcast that we are releasing at the same time as this article.
Listen to the episode with the player above, or download on Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsStitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

To start with, let’s make one thing clear: Upper body training and core training are easy without a gym; lower body training is much harder.

With absolutely no purchases whatsoever, a variety of push-ups are on the table. If you think regular push-ups are too easy, elevated push-ups (with your hands on some books, or your hands and feet on chairs to extend the range of motion) are a good option to make things more challenging; single-arm push-ups are enough to provide a great challenge for almost anyone who isn’t really light or really experienced with bodyweight training. Table rows are an acceptable upper back exercise. You can do bench dips on a couch or wide enough chair (or on a table, with your feet elevated on a chair). You can do regular dips between two tables of the same height or where counters form a right angle (it’s a bit awkward, but you can make it work). If you have gallon jugs (which weigh about 8 pounds), most people can get a challenge from delt raises (the reps may need to be high, but not astronomical). They’re heavy enough for curls and triceps extensions for some people as well. If gallon jugs are too light, but you have some sort of durable bag (a backpack, briefcase, etc.) and some reasonably dense things lying around (books work well), virtually anyone can come up with enough weight for unilateral delt, biceps, and triceps training. If a store near you sells 5-gallon water jugs (or 20 liter jugs), these larger jugs can get the job done as well; 5 gallons of water weigh approximately 40 pounds. You can do bodyweight skullcrushers on the edge of a table or counter. If you’re reasonably strong, you can do handstand push-ups (ideally against a wall, for added stability). With strong fingertips, you can do pull-ups on a door frame. With weaker fingertips, you can do pull-ups on a tree branch if there are any trees nearby. It’s easier to train “push” muscles (pecs, triceps, front delts) than “pull” muscles (lats, rhomboids, biceps), but upper body training isn’t THAT much of a challenge.

For core training, sit-ups and crunches are obvious options. Dead bugs and leg raises are probably better options. All sorts of planks are fantastic; most people won’t be able to do a super long-lever plank while maintaining a neutral pelvis, so that will provide a good goal for most people to work toward. If you have any sort of reasonably large ball lying around (like a basketball or soccer ball), you can “walk” hand-over-hand on the ball to use it like an ab wheel. For even more of a challenge, you can build toward human flags or dragon flags.

For lower body training, things get more challenging. It’s hard to replicate axially loaded exercises like squats and deadlifts without a lot of external resistance. High-rep bodyweight squats surprise people with how hard they are, especially if you don’t lock out every rep (only coming up about 2/3rds of the way on each rep). That’s probably enough to build some muscle mass in untrained people or maintain a fair amount of muscle mass in more trained lifters, but it’s not ideal for strength development. Lunges, split squats, and step-ups (on a sturdy chair) are better options for the quads, especially for people who are already reasonably strong or fit. Pistol squats are also great if you can do them; if you can’t, you can build up to pistols by holding onto something for assistance and support, or by doing “box pistols” by sitting down onto a chair. If you have someone to hold your ankles or something to anchor your ankles, nordic hamstrings curls are fantastic. For glute training, bilateral glute bridges are a great option for untrained individuals, and single-leg glute bridges are reasonably challenging, even for people with a bit more training experience. Single-leg calf raises (ideally on a step for a longer range of motion) are also great. Unweighted single-leg RDLs may be too easy for people who are reasonably fit, but much like bodyweight squats, they can get surprisingly challenging if you do enough reps. If you go through a long range of motion, minimize knee bend, and keep the center of pressure over the balls of your feet (shifting your weight forward), they can actually provide a reasonably good stimulus to your hamstrings and glute medius.

If you’re willing to make just two purchases, you should get an over-the-doorframe pull-up bar and a set of resistance bands. With the pull-up bar, upper back training becomes a cinch. With the resistance bands, everything becomes much easier, since you can now do simulacrums of most machine or free weight exercises. You can put a band around your back, holding each end in one hand to do band-resisted push-ups; with heavy enough bands, that will be enough of a challenge for even the strongest benchers. You can do band pull-aparts for your rear delts and rhomboids. You can stand on one end of a band (probably not all the way at the end of it) and do biceps curls and side delt raises. You can stand on the end of it and do overhead triceps extensions. You can stand on the band, put the other end across your shoulders, and do squats or split squats; split squats with 200lbs of band tension should be a significant challenge for almost anyone. You can anchor one end of a band to something heavy or immovable near the floor to do pull-overs (if you get a carabiner and anchor like this, it’s a lot easier to anchor bands above or below a door). If there’s a secure place to anchor it near the floor (the leg of a bed tends to work well, especially if you can weigh the corner of the bed down with something), banded good mornings and single-leg good mornings are fantastic; you can also do band-resisted pull-ups. And if you have a partner to hold one end of the band, the world is your oyster; the only thing constraining exercise selection is your creativity. You can also use a light set of bands as a homemade blood flow restriction cuff to make light exercises more challenging and more effective. You can find cheap bands (which would probably be fine for, say, a modest period of imposed social distancing) online for a pretty low price. If you want a set that will last, EliteFTS sells a bundle that supplies up to ~650 pounds of total resistance (if you wanted to use all of the bands simultaneously for something like band squats) for about $150. A drawback of bands is that the resistance curve can be a bit wonky. Another issue is that progression isn’t the easiest to measure; until you get strong enough to move up to a thicker band, you’ll probably progress by “choking up” on your current band, and you probably won’t use a ruler for each set to make sure you’re choking up on the band with perfect precision. However, these drawbacks are EASILY worth it for the amount of flexibility bands provide. You could probably run almost any pre-written training plan out there with a set of bands, with only slight modifications.

Beyond that, you could get a set of adjustable dumbbells, a set of gymnastic rings or suspension trainer system (like a TRX system), a single kettlebell, or a loadable sandbag if you want even more options. But, you have quite a few options with just your own bodyweight (though, again, lower body training is a challenge). And for less than $200 for a set of bands and a pull-up bar, your options are virtually limitless.

You may be wondering how much muscle and strength you can reasonably hope to gain or maintain without gym access. Gaining or maintaining muscle really shouldn’t be that much of a challenge, for the most part, especially if you have a pull-up bar and a set of bands.  Any exercise that takes you pretty close to failure within ~5-30 reps while stressing the target muscle(s) through a long range of motion will be good for muscle growth. The only muscles that would still be somewhat challenging to train would be your spinal erectors; band-resisted good mornings just don’t seem to stimulate your spinal erectors as well as deadlifts or back raises do, but they should at least be challenging enough to maintain your current levels of strength and muscularity. Otherwise, with minimal equipment and a little creativity, you can pretty easily train all other major muscle groups.

As for strength, untrained or novice-level lifters should still be able to get stronger using the exercises suggested in this article. For more experienced lifters, you should be able to maintain or increase your “base strength” (partially as a function of building or maintaining muscle mass) quite well. In other words, if you don’t train with barbells for a couple months, your maxes on the big barbell lifts may initially be lower when you can get back under the bar. However, that apparent drop in strength should mostly be due to rusty motor patterns; if you built or maintained muscle mass, your barbell strength should return to (and exceed) previous levels pretty quickly – within 2-4 weeks for most people.

To modify a pre-existing training program for home training, all you need to do is choose exercises that train the same motor patterns or muscle groups as the exercises in your current training program, and define how you aim to progress them. For example, if you subbed out bench press for push-ups, you could aim to progress by completing more reps each session instead of by adding more weight to the bar. If you subbed out OHP for hand-stand push-ups, you could progress by increasing range of motion initially while attempting to maintain rep performance, and then progress by increasing reps per set once you can complete sets through a full range of motion. If you’re using bands, you could progress by adding more bands to increase the resistance (for exercises like band-resisted push-ups, squats, or good mornings), or by “choking up” on a band to increase the resistance it provides (for exercises like curls or delt raises). If you have access to adjustable dumbbells for some exercises, you should already jolly well know how to progress your exercises. If you’re using water jugs, I’d suggest breaking out a scale and making marks on the jug corresponding to 2, 4, 6, and 8lbs of water on a gallon jug, and 10, 15, 20, 25, 30, 35, and 40lbs of water on a 5-gallon jug; once you have weights marked out on your water jugs, it’s easy to progress on exercises.

Below, you can find a list of exercises you can do with either no equipment or minimal equipment, targeting most major muscle groups and motor patterns. If you’re unfamiliar with how to do any of these exercises, there are countless instructional videos on YouTube demonstrating how to do each of them. We’ve also provided links for some of the exercises that Stronger By Science readers may not be familiar with; a link should not necessarily be construed as an endorsement of all of the content from each individual or site.

“Push” Exercises (chest, triceps, front and side delts)

Chest-focused push-up variations 
Triceps-focused push-up variations 
  • Narrow grip incline push-ups
  • Narrow-grip push-ups from knees
  • Narrow-grip push-ups
    • For all of these exercises, the more you tuck your elbows, the more triceps-focused the exercise should be.  Try to think about your elbows rubbing your ribcage.
  • Decline narrow-grip push-ups
  • Band-resisted narrow-grip push-ups
Dip variations
Overhead pressing
Other triceps exercises
Other pec exercises
Other delt exercises

“Pull” Exercises (lats, biceps, rear delts, traps)

Horizontal pulls
Vertical pulls
Upright pulls
Other lat exercises
Other biceps exercises
  • Band curls
    • You can also do these unilaterally by choking up on the band
  • Curls with adjustable dumbbells or water jugs
Other rear delt exercises
Other trap exercises

Quad-dominant lower body exercises

For any of the above exercises, you can use bands or adjustable dumbbells for added resistance.  Heavy band resistance is recommended for the squats. You can do them front squat style like this, or put the bands across your traps to use them back squat style.

Glute exercises

Hamstrings-dominant exercises

  • Single-leg RDL
    • Could use adjustable dumbbells or bands to increase the challenge
  • Hamstrings walkouts
    • Could use adjustable dumbbells to increase the challenge
  • Hanging/Gliding leg curls
    • Can elevate legs or leave them on the floor
  • Gymnastics rings/suspension trainer leg curl
    • Could add weight across the lap to increase the challenge
  • Band deadlifts or RDLs
  • Nordic curl
  • Band-assisted Nordic curl
  • Band-resisted good morning
    • You can stand on the band or anchor it near the floor in front of you; you can also situate it around the back of your neck or across your shoulders.
  • Sliding hamstrings curl
    • You can buy specialized sliders for these, but cheap furniture sliders work just as well. In a pinch, paper plates actually get the job done too.
  • Straight legged bridge
    • If you’re fairly strong, you may want to do these unilaterally. You can add weight in a backpack across your lap.
  • Reverse hyperextensions
    • How you perform these and whether you add resistance (bands, in all likelihood) will influence whether they primarily target your hamstrings, glutes, or lumbar extensors. If you add resistance or you’re reasonably heavy, make sure you have a counterbalance on the opposite end of the table.

Abdominal exercises

Calves

  • Single-leg calf raises on a stair
    • You don’t need multiple exercises if one is already perfect

Forearms/Grip

  • Wrist curls with dumbbells, water jugs, or a loaded backpack
  • Holding a stretched band
    • Simply anchor the band(s), walk far enough back and they’re providing a lot of resistance, and try to not let them slip.
  • Pull-up hangs
    • To make them more challenging, you can do fingertip hangs, one-arm hangs, or towel hangs.
  • Rice digs
    • You just submerge your hands in rice and open and close your hands forcefully. For more of a challenge, you can use sand.

And that’s it!  You don’t need to spend much (if any) money to get in effective home workouts, even if you’re a serious strength or physique athlete. A full home gym is certainly nice, but it’s not a necessity. As one final note, if you find that any of the video links for the exercises above have gone dead, please let us know so we can find or record a new video. And if we missed any good exercises that are easy to perform at home, let us know so we can update the list.

If you’re interested in more information about training with no equipment or minimal equipment, here’s a database of articles from EliteFTS, here are some free at-home workouts from Girls Gone Strong, and here’s a here’s a database of training programs requiring no/minimal equipment from Lift Vault.

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Source: https://www.strongerbyscience.com/no-gym/

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