For the last two weeks, I’ve been knee deep in altering nearly all my online training clients plans. With gyms around the world closing, I’ve had to switch my clients programs over to bodyweight workouts, or structure things based on what little equipment they own.
Right now, the Internet is rife with “home workout” videos and infographics. I’ve shared what I’m doing on Instagram and Facebook as well. (Which, if you’re not following me on IG, you should do that here)
So how can you build your own workouts during this unprecedented time? Well, when it comes to building your own workouts during quarantine (or non-quarantine), there are four factors you need to manipulate to craft stellar, swole-producing workouts:
So today I’m gonna show you how to build your own workouts by manipulating these four factors. Even if all you have is a tiny 10-pound (5kg) dumbbell, you can still craft challenging and fun workouts until your gym opens back up. Or until aliens start shooting laser beams from the sky, which the way this effed up movie of life is playing out right now has to happen at some point.
Reps! Reps! Reps!
Is there a perfect number of reps that builds muscle? Yes, and no.
Yes, you need to lift consistently for long periods of time, years not months, for muscle to grow. You’re not gonna hit your muscular peak in 16 weeks. But when it comes to rep ranges, no, there is no magical number.
All rep ranges will build muscle. So when the world isn’t turned upside down, you should be training across all rep ranges. Everything from 3 to 5 reps to 10 to 20 or more.
What rep ranges you ultimately choose depend on the context of your goal(s):
- Lower reps, 2-6, are best for heavy weight and pure strength gains;
- 8-12 reps is great for strength and hypertrophy;
- 12+ reps is gonna usually give you a wicked pump but also is best for building smaller muscles like your rear delts, lateral delts, calves, forearms.
That’s generally how it works. But, again, it all depends on your goals, your training history, how proficient you are with technique/form, time constraints, etc.
So what if you’re quarantined at home and have limited equipment? How do you build workouts that make your tiny weights more challenging?
This is where manipulating reps can help you get more out of less (weight).
- You can do 1.5 rep versions of an exercise. Or 1.25 reps. (both the ½ or ¼ reps happen as you come out of the bottom of the exercise; so for a squat that’s down, ½ way up, back down, then all the way to standing)
- Try breaking your reps up into super small sets of 5, where you do 5 reps then rest for 10 seconds and do 5 more. This is known as rest-pause training.
- Or you can choose a super high amount of reps to perform like 50 or 100 reps. And your only goal is to hit that number in one of two ways:
- Do them all at once, resting as needed, until you hit that rep number
- Break those reps up throughout the day, and say perform 5-10 reps every 30 minutes until you hit your goal
But wait, there’s more!
You could pick an arbitrary number like 64 total reps or, again, even 100 reps. Depending on the equipment you have, you could break those down into:
- 2 sets of 32 or 50 reps
- 4 sets of 16 reps or 25 reps
- 8 sets of 8 reps or 10 sets of 10 reps
Basically, if you’re stuck at home with limited equipment, pick a random number of reps you want to do — anywhere from 30-100 will work.
And then break those down over a few sets like 3×10, 10×10, 5×20, 4×25 for lighter or moderate weight.
If you have heavier weight to push around do sets of 5×6, 6×5, 10×3.
Finally, you can also play around with partial reps. Example, one of my favorite ways to make an exercise more challenging is to do 21s. Let’s use curls as an example.
21s stipulate that you do 7 reps from the bottom of the curl to the half-way point; then do 7 reps from the half-way point to the top; then 7 full reps. Welcome to burn city, son! But you can take that same strategy and apply it to other exercises with whatever reps you want to choose.
Lateral Raises – do 10 reps from the mid-way to the top, from the bottom to the mid-way, then full lateral raises.
Glutes – do hip thrusts, but start at the top position and go down about ¼ of the way and thrust back up and do that for 15 reps; then do 15 reps from the bottom to the mid-way point; then do full hip thrusts
Back – do single arm rows but start your partials in the middle and pull your arm into the squeeze (contraction) and pump out 7-12 reps from the middle of the movement to the top; then pump out the same number from the bottom to the middle of the range of motion; then do full range of motion rows.
One thing to note here as well if you’re working out from home with minimal equipment:
- You can choose to do fewer sets and reps and train more frequently as well. Example, only do 30 total reps for 3 different muscles every day, but workout every day while in quarantine. Your volume will be much lower and you won’t require as much recovery, and can thus workout more often.
I’ve written about using angles to build muscle before. At some point, to keep growing and progressing, you have to change the angles of your exercises. Plus, angles play a huge part in manipulating the strength curve, but that’s another article for another day.
Anywho, lifting weights comes down to two things:
- Fighting gravity
- The angle that your muscles are moving your joints
Number two is what lifting weights is all about. It’s you bringing the origin point of your muscle closer to its insertion point.
Example, your lats originate at your hips and along the lower parts of your spine and insert to your arm bone. So training your lats means you need to pull your arm closer to your hip/spine.
Cool. But what if you’re limited with equipment during quarantine? How can you use angles without an adjustable bench or cables to challenge your muscles?
Quads and glutes: try elevating your heels. If you have two dumbbells, place one DB on the ground and put your front foot’s heel on the handle of that dumbbell. Use that for split squats (check Instagram here and look at the first video). If you have big weight plates at home, put your heels on a 25 pound plate and do goblet squats. Or grab a couple of thick books of the same size and elevate your heels on those.
Chest: do decline, incline, or wide grip push-ups (or diamond push-ups if you wanna challenge your triceps more directly). Or if you do have a non-adjustable bench at home, prop up one end of the bench with a thick book and do low incline presses or flys. You can also lay down on the other end and do decline bench presses or flys.
Shoulders: do lean away lateral raises vs standing lateral raises. Or if your bench is adjustable, do chest supported lateral raises. (Make sure if you do these that you bring your arms out in a slight forward Y to hit your lateral delts at a better angle.) Or you can also do Scott Presses.
Hamstrings and glutes: take a wider stance and do wide stance Romanian Deadlifts. Or stagger your stance by moving one foot slightly behind the other and do a staggered stance RDL. You can also do sumo squats, curtsy lunges, feet elevated glute bridges, or diagonal walking lunges (imagine a clock, and instead of lunging to midnight, lunge towards 2 o’clock).
Feel the rhythm, feel the rhyme, get on up it’s tempo time!
If there is one area more people would see bigger benefits from in the gym, it’s with tempo. Tempo is the best way to increase tension without going up in weight. It’s often the forgotten approach to progressive overload.
Lifting more weight makes your ego feel great. But have you ever tried lifting the same weight with better technique, by slowing your reps down? Do that and all of a sudden an easy 30 pound bench press feels infinitely harder. (Your joints will appreciate slower lifting as well.)
Using tempo isn’t hard.
Take a bench press as an example. Let’s say you’re using 30 pound dumbbells. And during your set you lower the weight to a full range of motion for 3 seconds. Then you pause in the bottom position for 2 seconds. Then press the weight up for around 1 second. And finally, you pause at the top for 2 seconds in the shortened (squeeze) position.
You repeat this for however many reps you’ve decided to do today.
Of course, you could lower the weight all willy-nilly and jackhammer away with dumbbells like a horny chihuahua on a stranger’s leg. And that’s fine if your goal is “pump” out your reps.
But slow tempos not only help you improve your mind-muscle connection and your technique, but it’s where you can do more damage to your muscles and elicit more gains.
So if you’re at home with limited equipment, or if you’re a lucky SOB who has a home gym, play with tempo first. Slow down your squats, RDLs, bench presses, rows, or overhead presses and really challenge your muscles with more time-under-tension.
Manipulating Rest Periods
Rest. It’s the best part of working out, right? Those precious seconds when you can catch your breath or ponder if you’re a masochist who enjoys torturing yourself a little too much.
But rest is one of those principles few people really understand. Like, is longer better? Does shorter rest equal burning more calories? Is there an optimal time you need to elicit the most out of your muscles?
The answer, it depends. Kind of.
- Ideally, for heavier weights where you’re doing anywhere from 2-5 reps, you want longer rest. Anywhere from 2 to even 5 minutes.
- For more moderate weight, somewhere around 60-120 seconds is probably best.
- And for lighter loads you can even go shorter with rest times of 10-60 seconds; super short rest periods make more sense for circuit training if you’re moving from one piece of equipment to the next, or if you have limited time to workout — and if you have a good fitness level and can handle it.
Really, rest periods should be long enough that you’re able to perform your next with satisfactory form and effort. So if that means you rest 90 seconds while doing 4 sets of 12 reps, cool. Maybe all you need is 60 seconds of rest while hammering 3 sets of 8 reps of rows.
Or you could be using an old school strategy made famous by Vince Gironda of 8 sets of 8 reps with 30 seconds of rest.
What you don’t want is to rest so little that your next set’s so hard that you can only do half of the reps. (This doesn’t apply if you’re using techniques like cluster sets or rest/pause sets.)
So what about rest when you’re limited with equipment? Well, everything above still applies.
- If you have light weight, but can’t perform the reps “well” with 30 seconds of rest — you need more rest
- If you want something short, sweet, and sweaty keep your rest minimal, 15-45 seconds. But choose exercises you can perform well with light(er) loads.
- If you have heavier weight, rest long enough so you can still perform the next set with good form (your last rep or two might be a struggle, and that’s fine, but if you look like you’re having a seizure while doing those reps, try a little more rest.)
Choosing Exercises to do at Home
So what exercises should you choose while at home? One, it depends on what equipment you have. Two, is it a weight you can use and still have good form with? Lastly, you can’t go wrong with the basics — ever.
That means make sure you have some squat variation:
- Goblet Squats
- Goblet Box Squats
- Split Squats
- Bodyweight Squats
- Single Leg Squats
- Bulgarian Split Squats
Make sure you have some sort of pressing movement:
- Overhead Press
- Floor Press
- Bench Press (whatever angle you prefer)
- Single Arm Push Press
- Dumbbell Thrusters (combines squats and pressing)
- Push Ups
You should have some sort of lower body pulling motion that focus on hip hinging:
- Romanian Deadlifts
- Single Leg Romanian Deadlifts
- Kettlebell Swings
- Kettlebell Deadlifts
- Staggered Stance RDLs
- Hip Thrusts
- Single Leg Hip Thrusts
If you have dumbbells you can do rows. And you should try all types of rows.
- 3 Point Dumbbell Rows
- Upright Rows
- Gentlemen Rows
- Chest Supported Rows
- Deadstop Rows
- Bent Over Dumbbell Rows
What about arm stuff? Can’t forget your arms, right?
- Hammer Curls
- Dumbbell Floor Skullcrushers
- Concentration Curls
- Dumbbell Tricep Overhead Extensions
- Dumbbell Kickbacks with a Twist
- Spider Curls (if you have an adjustable bench)
- Dumbbell Isometric Curls
- Zottman Curls Gironda-style
Pretty much you can train arms like you always have even with very little equipment at home. However, if you have no equipment at all, rows aren’t easily done without some creative engineering. So if you do not have dumbbells at home, you can do towel rows or luggage rows or jug rows.
Back training without TRX straps or a pull-up bar (or if you can’t do pull-ups/chin-ups at all) becomes a bit more challenging. Not impossible, but you gotta be a bit more creative.
Everything I covered above applies even if all you have is a single dumbbell. Same if you have one kettlebell. Or if you only have some resistance bands, these strategies also apply as well. Hell, they even work with body weight too.
Now you know (just about) everything you need to know about how to build your own workouts for the gym or with home equipment. Of course exercise selection plays some role, but as long as you can hit the basics you can still get stronger, maintain muscle mass, and stay active during this pandemic.
Nutrition Tips for this Crazy Ass Time
And since I know you’re likely thinking about it, here’s some tips on handling your nutrition during the quarantine. Of course I could write more about this, but you’ve already read a ton, so I’ll keep it brief.
The bright spot of social distancing and staying at home is that you have the perfect opportunity to improve your nutrition and eat more home cooked meals.
- Fat loss your focus now? Good, double down on nutrition and make that your main focus now. Aggressive calorie deficits are probably not a good idea right now. So I wouldn’t do more than a 200-250 calorie drop from maintenance.
- Were you bulking? Well unless you have a full home gym set-up, I’d drop down to maintenance and get out of the surplus right now. Bodyweight training can challenge you. But you’re not gonna have the tools you need to push your muscles to new growth without weights.
Calculate Maintenance calories:
- To calculate a rough estimate of your maintenance calories, take your current bodyweight and multiple by 12-15 — if you’re less active in the day use the lower numbers, if you’re more active use the higher numbers.
Being at home does mean you have more control over what you put in your mouth. But tack on the stress we all feel right now, plus possible shortages or restrictions on what you can buy, and it’s easy to just buy Oreos and Goldfish and other processed crap you usually skip. If you have kids at home now and not in school, you’re probably more stressed and more likely to stuff your face with their snacks.
Here’s some tips for defeating boredom eating and for keeping a more “optimal” food environment.
- Do not buy foods that make you want to lose control – If you can’t be moderate with popcorn or Oreos or ice cream, now is not a time to even bring that into your house. Nutritionally distance yourself from that at all costs.
- Place any hyper-palatable foods you can’t be moderate with into an opaque jar vs letting them sit around in their packaging – My friend Aadam of Physiqonomics swears by this rule. It has a lot to do with knowing what is in the packaging, and that by changing what that food is stored in, it changes your association with said food.
- Need a snack? Give yourself a rule that all snacks must include something high in protein (greek yogurt, protein bar, protein shake, jerky) and something with fiber like veggies (green peppers, celery, broccoli) or fruit (apples, berries, banana). Protein keeps you fuller longer, and those fruits/veggies slow down digestion and give you more micronutrients as well.
- Order groceries online – this can prevent you from buying things just because. And it will help you keep tempting foods out of the house. And helps you practice social distancing more.
- Can’t get fresh veggies? In times like these where people are being told to stock up for 14 days, many people are skipping veggies. So if you wanna make sure you’re stocked up, stick with frozen veggies right now. Or get the fresh stuff you can freeze, and freeze that. Canned foods are fine, but are usually higher in sodium content. So if that’s all you can get, go for it. But if you can get fresh or frozen before canned, do that.
- Play video games. Yep, the next time you feel like you want to eat something out of boredom, play a game on your phone or whatever console you have. There was a study done in 2015 that showed that people who played Tetris for 3 minutes were able to cut their cravings for food, drugs, and other things by 20%.
And, there ya go. Now you have some nutrition strategies for navigating this pandemic. Also, keep washing your hands and continue to pay attention to what the CDC and the WHO are advising.
But hey, now know how you know how to build your own workouts by manipulating reps, angles, tempo, and rest. So at least now you have some tools to stay active and put those dumbbells at home to work.
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