Training Without a GymIf you find yourself suddenly without a barbell, rack, and bench, don't panic. Take a step back to the principles of training. From there, it isn't too difficult to design effective workouts with little or no equipment.
Training Without Strength Training Equipment
If you have any doubt about the degree to which we rely on technology, try your hand at a challenging crossword puzzle and see how long it takes until your hand starts itching to look up answers on your smartphone…you know, just to check that you are right before you fill out the spaces. If Google suddenly disappeared and we couldn’t search for news, recipes, locations, random trivia, and medical advice, most of us would feel unsettled and anxious, the way you feel when you leave the house and know you forgot something but aren’t sure if you left the stove on or the garage door open. We would, at least, for a little while, and then we’d adjust. We are rarely asked to take a technological step backward for any notable length of time.
Right now, people are staying home and avoiding unnecessary public spaces or interactions, showing care for their communities by maintaining a minimum of 6 feet from it, all in the name of health. The problem is that when it comes to health—for many of us—our main and best tools are at the gym. Those with home gyms may welcome the extra time at home to train, and we would expect to see a boom in home gym equipment sales as people add “global pandemic” to the list of pros of owning a home gym. Every remote coach right now is getting a lot of questions about how to train when you are stuck at home without a barbell. It turns out that when lifters struggle with a loss of technology, it’s not computers or modern conveniences we miss, it’s a 150-year-old piece of metal with weights attached to the end. You may feel lost or disjointed without a bar and squat rack, but you shouldn’t. The same basic principles that have brought you this far in your training are unchanged. We just have to explore how to apply them differently.
Since the beginning of human history, people have grown and become stronger, faster, and more athletic by interacting with our environment. Much of exercise science is reverse engineering from what we know works: When you do something over and over again, you get better at it. When you lift heavy things, you get better at lifting heavy things; when you run, you get better at running; when you play a sport, you get better at the specific energy and coordinated demands of that sport. As we dig down beneath the surface to observe the nuanced physiological changes to various types of activity, we start to see how different physical adaptations are either interconnected or at odds. For example, we may observe that training for strength can make you a better endurance athlete to a point, but training for endurance will seldom make you a better strength athlete. Strength training has so many downstream effects that we tend to prefer it to any other general physical adaptation when it comes to structuring a long-term, well-organized training plan.
Training, however, is more general than training for strength. A collection of principles apply to all physical adaptations to which we adhere when we train for strength. When you unexpectedly find yourself without a barbell, you don’t have to revert to picking up rocks, lifting bulls, or spear hunting antelope to continue to make yourself fitter and more useful. Instead, take a step back to the principles of training.
Principle 1: All Training Starts with a Goal
It wasn’t too long ago where fitness and survival were inextricably linked. See, e.g., Darwin et. al. But, here we are in a society in which Disuse Syndrome is a thing. (Disuse Syndrome is the collection of illnesses that accompany disuse: muscular atrophy, obesity, depression, stagnation, and more. “The primary characteristics of the disuse syndrome are cardiovascular vulnerability, obesity, musculoskeletal fragility, depression and premature aging.” —Read more: Fighting Against the Crowd.) The answer to issues like disuse for those of us who continue to value physical fitness is Training.
When you have a specific goal and act to manipulate your body’s amazing plasticity, inducing biological adaptations through planned physical activity, to move ever closer to that goal, then you are training. There are relatively few types of adaptations, but there are as many goals as there are people, and there are a nearly infinite number of ways to express different physical adaptations, which means that defining a goal and directing your training according to that goal is what gives meaning to your workouts. It also means that anything (like strength) that can affect many different types of goals and has the most impact on how we interact with our environment is valuable.
The first hurdle you will face if you find yourself gymless is with setting and understanding your goal. Why? Because if you cannot train for strength with the squat, press, bench press, and deadlift as your primary tools and measures, then you can be easily overwhelmed with possibilities. Barbell training provides a box in which to contextualize and direct your training efforts. Without that box, it’s easy to become overwhelmed at the endless types of exercises that you can do but be at a loss for what you SHOULD be doing or how to organize your training. You need a training box, a set of goals that help organize your efforts, helping you choose among the myriad of possible exercises that require little or no equipment.
While training for strength at its best requires a barbell, rack, and a bench and enough plates in the right denominations to provide both for sufficiently heavy loads and incremental adjustments, there are different ways to train for strength if you are sans barbell temporarily. The goals, however, will be slightly different than training for general strength. Because we fully expect to be back to barbell training, your goals should be those that will support that return, training your ability to train for strength.
Principle 2: Your Goals Define Your Exercises and Basic Structure of Your Training
When it comes to training for strength, our goals are clear: increase your ability to produce force as measured by your performance in the squat, press, deadlift, and bench press. To meet that goal, we rely heavily on certain criteria to choose what exercises to include in our training. Exercises that train the most muscle mass, use long ranges of motion, and allow us to move heavy and increasingly heavier loads provide the kind of stress that makes us stronger. Our bodies adapt to meet the demands of the stresses we induce while training. This concept—known as “specificity” or the specific adaptation to imposed demands (SAID) principle—helps define the kinds of things we do in the gym.
The harsh reality is that if you do not have access to strength training equipment, you cannot train for strength. Let’s break down what that means, however. Strength is the ability to produce force. When we train for strength, our primary target is an improvement in maximal force production. There is a lot of murkiness in measuring strength, however. First of all, we rarely test one-rep max strength, and most of us as lifters aren’t able to execute maximal efforts regularly—it is too difficult and there are too many factors that can affect your ability to lift a true 1RM. So, what do we rely on more often than true 1RMs?
Gym performance. We use personal records (PR) to help us track and measure progress. A PR is not (at least not necessarily) an absolute 1RM test. A PR is simply something you have never done before and encompasses many different types of lifts and rep ranges. A brand new novice lifter will hit a PR every time she trains.
So, it’s true that you cannot train for strength, but what this means is a bit more complicated than you being doomed to waste away over the next few weeks and forced to start over. An extended time without the ability to train for strength means that, yes, you will lose some of your 1RM ability. Where you will notice this, however, is in your gym performance. Two weeks or a month without a barbell, and you are going to feel the difference when you get back into the gym.
You can mitigate this, however, by shifting your goals during your gym hiatus because gym performance involves more than just your ability to lift maximal weights. Other, trainable adaptations play a role:
- Conditioning and your ability to recover between sets
- Your ability to handle training volume (work capacity)
- Your muscular endurance, and
- Your general health.
Focusing on these goals when you are locked out of your gym will help curtail the effects of a barbell-ban and make your transition back into the gym an easier one.
And, here, we touch on a point worth reiterating: The gym will not close forever; you do not have to give up on strength training. This is a temporary solution to a temporary problem. It can be tempting to decide you are going to take running and start training for a virtual marathon. There is nothing wrong with running, but if you’ve decided that strength is a fundamental part of your health and fitness, then keep your focus on the work you’ve already put into it and the work that you are going to keep putting into it.
Principle 3: Stress, Recovery, Adaptation
If your overarching goal is to maintain or improve your ability to perform in the gym, then we have to figure out how to structure your training around that goal. Most training exists in a cycle of stress-recovery-adaptation. If we start with our goals and the types of physical changes we want to create (adaptations), then we can begin to find the level of stress that is conducive to those changes, including the exercises, volume, and intensity of our training.
**Note: A lot of bodyweight and lighter-weight training requires high volume and working close to muscle fatigue to be effective. You should be careful to work up to these levels of volume over time. Some of the examples below include working to, at, or past failure, these are recommendations that you should work up to, not starting places. If you do, muscle soreness and possibly injury await you. Start light/easy and work your way up from there. If you have questions about how to do this, talk to a Barbell Logic coach.
Strength and hypertrophy
Okay, we lied a little bit. If you are stuck outside of the gym, you can train for strength in some ways. First off, if you have some limited equipment or things that can take the place of traditional strength equipment, then you are a little bit ahead of the game. Training for strength involves inducing a novel stress on the body (too soon?) that forces it to improve its ability to produce force. For most non-barbell types of equipment, the main issues you are going to face are that they are either too light to induce a significant systemic stress or too awkward to use in any organized way.
Lighter weights are great for training your upper body. If you have bells that you can only press for sets of 5-8 reps, then your programming should revolve around building volume, gradually. Start with three sets across and work toward adding volume each week. Just as you do with other forms of weight training, start lighter/easier than you think you should and go up from there. New types of training require you to start slowly if you want to avoid soreness or injury.
If your weights are not heavy enough to keep you in the strength-volume range, then you have to start to get a little bit more creative. For example, let’s say your dumbbells are heavy enough to train presses but too light for your bench press (or floor press). The strength or hypertrophy stress will result from working at or near muscular exhaustion. In this case, your chest training might include a circuit of light floor presses and wide-grip push-ups, moving from one exercise right into the next to help induce fatigue. Working up to failure will require more muscle fibers. While this type of high-volume work is not conducive to building maximal strength, it can help maintain your muscle mass and improve your muscular endurance, both things to be thankful for when you get back to your regular training.
Training for strength with no weights whatsoever is extremely limited. We recommend finding some bodyweight movement that has a progression. For example, if you cannot perform one to ten push-ups, then a push-up progression can help your top-end strength. You are a push-up novice, and the carryover of these early improvements are great for your strength training. If you are already a push-up master, try working toward a more difficult push-up variant like a single-arm push-up. Again these are not strictly strength movements, but as a skill, improvement here should have decent carryover to your barbell training. The same goes for pull-ups/chin-ups and handstand push-ups or pistol squats. Progressions shouldn’t make up the bulk of your training, but it is fun if you are stuck at home with nothing better to do and improving these movements will mean that you either got stronger or developed a physical skill, and more athleticism will help you improve your ability to train down the road.
Keeping in mind that strength training is still the center of our physical world, general conditioning falls under the category of improving our work capacity. Specifically, we find that good conditioning improves intra-workout recovery. The more conditioned you are, the better you recover between sets, allowing you to train at higher volumes and to avoid long breaks between your work sets. Conditioning, in this sense, is different from endurance training, which is specific to a task—running, biking, cycling, etc. General conditioning targets your energy systems’ efficiency.
The best tool for general conditioning is high intensity interval training. Watch the video below for an in-depth explanation of HIIT.
To train your general conditioning, you need to find some method or modality. Our favorites are either an air-dyne-like stationary bike that has moving arms and uses wind resistance or a prowler-like sled. The goal here is to find something that you can do for maximum, all-out efforts in the 20-second range without hurting yourself. Running is an option, but you should take some time to build up the ability to sprint before starting a HIIT running protocol. If you haven’t run since high-school and you decide to run sprints tomorrow, you are asking for at least a pulled hamstring and possibly much worse. Hill sprints tend to be a better idea than running flat out, and pushing a car or truck can work with a bit of space and someone to steer. Make do with what you have, just keep in mind that HIIT doesn’t work if you can’t perform at near maximum effort.
Once you’ve picked your method, the baseline goal for HIIT work is going to be 20 seconds of work (:20) followed by 1 minute and 40 seconds of rest (1:40). If you are older or not in great shape, then you can shorten the work interval down to :15 and extend your rest to whatever you need it to be. Your first goal is to work toward four rounds of the baseline :20/1:40 split.
If you find :20/1:40 manageable, then on day one shoot for 4 to 6 rounds. Stop before you’ve hit a wall or if you start feeling nauseous. The plan will be to do this type of workout twice per week, adding one round at least once per week. Work up to twelve rounds, then decrease your rest to 1:30 or 1:15 and start over. Rinse. Repeat. If you can get to 12-15 rounds with one minute of rest, then you will have improved your conditioning.
Muscular endurance is your ability to maintain submaximal contractions either in the presence of or while dissipating fatigue. Because muscular endurance involves submaximal contractions, it benefits from general strength training. The stronger the muscles, the more submaximal the contractions, meaning you can either go farther or faster. We are looking for the opposite, however: how can we train muscle endurance in a way that benefits our strength training?
This backward carryover only occurs for the rank novice. Muscle endurance training does not improve your maximal strength for any significant length of time. However, excellent muscle endurance denotes excellent work capacity. And a high work capacity means you can train longer and harder for strength. So, again, while the direct benefits to your maximal strength may be negligible, muscle endurance training can be part of keeping you in shape for barbell-based training in a few weeks.
Keep in mind that muscle endurance is highly specific to the coordinated muscular contractions of the task. A whole bunch of bodyweight squats isn’t going to improve the endurance of the muscles that help you do push-ups and pull-ups, and vice versa. So, when we train for muscular endurance, the exercises we use should try to cover as many of the muscle groups we use in barbell training as possible. If we are focusing on maximum carryover to strength training, then the following exercises are going to be your bread and butter for muscle endurance:
- Chin-ups/pull-ups (varying grips)
- Push-ups (varying widths)
A second tier of exercises are great for adding variety, stress, and increasing overall muscle fatigue:
- Back extensions
- Lying Glute Bridges
- Knee Tucks
- Lateral Jumps
Finally, to improve overall work capacity, muscle endurance training often includes exercises that purely cardiovascular strain, making the workout more difficult and moving you to fatigue more quickly:
- Mountain Climbers
- Running/Butt Kicks/High Knees
To turn exercises into a workout, consider the goal, and set your rep ranges accordingly. For muscle endurance, your rep ranges will range from 8 to 20 repetitions per set. How many depends on the number of sets you plan to complete and your current fitness level. Always start by erring on the side of too few reps and sets and building up from there. Within those rep ranges, construct a workout. Your workouts may be full-body or focus on your upper or lower body. We suggest full-body workouts if you are only performing them twice per week and alternating upper-body and lower-body workouts if you are going three or four times per week. Again, your needs may vary slightly, but this is a good place to start.
To structure a workout, select two to six exercises and organize them in a circuit in which you move from one exercise to the next without stopping. Completing all exercises is one round. Rest. Then repeat. At it’s simplest, you continue to do rounds until you cannot complete your reps, then you are finished. (See the note above on overdoing it in your first sessions.)
To add some fun and variety, add a time component. Adding time, can give you a goal, add some personal competition to the workout, or help distract you from the 100s of push-ups you have to do. Some common time varieties are:
- EMOM: Every Minute on the Minute—Set a running timer. Do one round of exercises and rest until the next minute starts. As you tire and each round takes you longer, your rest time gets shorter. Start with eight to ten minutes and add from there. Or stop when you can no longer complete the round in one minute.
- :20/:20 or :30/:30—For each exercise, you will perform twenty seconds or thirty seconds of work, followed by an equal rest period. You can apply this to your circuit, moving from workout to workout after every twenty-second interval.
- AMRAP: As Many Reps (or Rounds) as Possible—Set a timer and move through your circuit as many times as possible, resting as needed. Next time, try to complete one more round.
We suggest focusing less on the time components to your workout and more on the ultimate goals, to build work capacity and muscle endurance.
Health: Nutrition + Activity
This is perhaps the most important aspect of training that you need to focus on. Fortunately, taking care of your general health does not preclude any of the above training goals. It only makes them better. While taking care of your health includes many things, from staying in touch with your family or community for mental health to personal hygiene, our main focus here is on those things that relate directly to your continuing training. Primarily, your nutrition and base activity levels.
Many people are going to be going from busy jobs to working at home. Sitting at a computer all day in easy reach of snacks is a possible double-whammy to your physical well-being. Not only is your base level of activity and caloric needs decreasing, but it is easy to increase your caloric intake simply because of your proximity to your kitchen.
If you aren’t already, try to pay attention to what you eat. You don’t have to suddenly go down the rabbit hole of counting macros and weighing and measuring everything, but staying conscious of the frequency and content of your meals can help you avoid overeating. Consider the Food Funnel idea discussed in the video below.
Plan ahead if you can. BLOC Coach Ben Patterson put together a primer on meal prep. Making and freezing healthier meals is one of the best ways to minimize your grocery buying time without sacrificing how you should be eating.
To fight back against inactivity from two directions, you may also need to plan some low intensity activities. Even when you have full access to all the equipment you could ever want, increasing your base level of activity with low stress exercise like walking or cycling is one of the best things you can do to improve your general health markers. You are probably sick of everyone telling you the same thing but get outside if you can. If you can’t find something you can do that is low stress and low impact. Walking really is enough: start with 25-30 minutes if you are not already doing this regularly. Every day is best. And move for time. Add five minutes or ten minutes every few days.
The level of intensity will be different for everyone. Shoot for low to moderate effort, which may be a walk for some and a jog for others. It should be exercise (something above no stress) but it shouldn’t be strenuous; not if you are doing the other things we suggest above. Cycling, swimming, rowing, etc all are good. The best activities are those that will require little to no adaptation from you. And while you should try to increase your time gradually, try to avoid suddenly training for a marathon. The goal is to moderately raise your heart rate for an extended period of time, to increase your caloric expenditure, and (hopefully) give you something to help with the insanity of the current times.
When you are suddenly without your barbell and squat rack, you are not without options. Instead, you are likely to be overwhelmed with too many options. Taking some time to think about your goals for the next several weeks to several months and basing your activity on those goals will mean that you aren’t just flailing around in an attempt to not waste away to nothing; you are still training. And training can be optimal for you and the available time and equipment you have to use. So, keep calm, stay strong.
And, most of all, stay safe.