You CAN have progress in a pandemic! Whatever hurdle abruptly threw itself in front of you this year does not have to be an excuse to waste muscle building opportunities. It’s likely that this year many of us are starting to feel their at home workout routines starting to get stale; it can be tough with the lack of equipment variety at-home training comes with. When working out at home you want to make sure you have a couple of basic fitness principles baked into the program to ensure this staleness doesn’t set in: progressive overload and intensity. Progressive overload allows us to accumulate physiological stress on specific systems of the body, usually the cardiovascular or muscular systems, in an effort to turn that stress into adaptations increasing our fitness capabilities. There are three main variables when it comes to planning that stress to help induce these physiological gains.
Those variables are frequency, volume, and intensity; orrrrrrrrrr how often, how much, and how difficult! Those first two don’t vary much, with an average person recommended at performing 2-5 sessions of strength and cardiovascular work a week each, with the strength sessions containing 8-10 exercises and the cardio sessions lasting between 20 and 60 minutes. You do need to consider that all three variables affect each with other but without a certain level of intensity in our workouts the body has no need for adapting. If there is too much of all three variables in your workouts the body won’t adequately recover enough to make the adaptations we want. Making sure to attenuate the volume or frequency of the exercises performed when increasing intensity is the easiest way to ensure you’re not overdoing it.
Unstable surface vs Unstable implement
Access to a gym allows for it to become easy to accustom ourselves to using only weight as a measure of intensity but there are a handful of additional options that can help us increase our workout intensities while at home. Some of these options involve buying equipment or already owning it, if that’s a limiting factor for you there are also some techniques for increasing intensity at home sans equipment. Most of the ‘equipment’ options below introduce the idea of instability to your exercises whether it’s through a changing resistance profile (bands) or requires a more focused intent on creating stability yourself (gymnast rings & kettlebells). When we use unstable implements in our exercises it creates the demand for the muscles surrounding a joint to become movers AND stabilizers.
This element of instability through a range of motion of an exercise is something to be mindful of because it can cause loading of our tendons. Injury can result if that load is greater than the capacity of the connective tissue. Tendons will not recover as quickly when compared to muscles and as a result we want to attenuate the volume of each exercise performed to make sure we acclimate to this new stimulus. There aren’t any unstable surface training options (bosu balls, balance pads etc.) listed here because of a low risk to reward benefit in strength situations, while still being useful and important in the Physical Therapy/rehab. Using an unstable surface means that the body’s ability to balance on that surface will be the limiting factor for the exercise. This limits the output for any exercise and therefore won’t provide a strong enough stimulus to really build muscle.
The most versatile type of bands for our purposes will be loop stretch bands. These are usually a couple feet long and come in several colors corresponding to resistance. These allow us to add resistance to exercises performed at home or during a virtual training session. Bands also use a different type of force profile compared to free weights or cables. The elasticity of the band means as we stretch the band there is an increase in resistance in positions where the band is more stretched out. Below are a few helpful cues and pictures demonstrating how to modify basic at home movements using the bands.
Cross the band over itself and slip it on like a jacket. Once down on the floor put the hanging bits of the band between thumb and forefinger and assume push up position. Your technique should look just as clean as a body weight push up.
Step into the band with your feet wider than hip’s width. Hook both thumbs under the band and tuck the forearms in the band holding the arms out in front of the chest (pictured). You might feel the core working to maintain your posture. Squat down, bending at the hip, knee and ankle and the push the floor away driving up through the band maintaining your posture.
Step into the band with your feet about hip width apart and loop the other half of the band around your neck. Keeping the back flat and bracing the core, drive your hips back tilting them and the torso over the ground. Return to the starting position by driving the hips forward and squeezing the glutes.
Typically a rubber or wooden ring hung with straps from around a point above head height, gymnast rings are a great option for adding an unstable implement to increase the intensity of an exercise. These would be a recommended tool to more advanced trainees with a little more experience through these movement patterns.
The starting position for ring dips is shoulders, chest, elbows and hands all stacked on top of one another. From there keeping your balance centered over your hands, fold at both the shoulder and elbow lowering the body with control. Once the goal depth has been achieved push the rings back towards the ground away from you using both shoulders and squeezing the triceps to bring the elbows next to the ribcage again.
While the set up and execution may look just like any other push up a key difference with this variation is the ability to control the motion of the push up. The freedom of movement of the rings demands you be able to use the muscles attached to and around the shoulder blade to keep your hand position consistent.
Hang from the rings with the body close to parallel with the ground. You can move the feet in relation to the rings to determine the difficulty right for you. A more upright body position makes the exercise easier. Keeping the shoulders down, initiate by driving the elbows either straight back or out and then retracting the shoulder blades together as the elbows are passing the ribcage. The angle the elbows travel at in relation to the shoulder determines which back muscles get emphasized.
The benefit of a kettlebell is that its center of gravity is different than a dumbbell’s. You can use a kettlebell in most of the same ways and exercises as a dumbbell, but by altering the orientation of the kettlebell we can create a stimulus of instability in some exercises.
BOTTOMS UP PRESS:
Grab a light kettle bell and hold it with the bottom portion floating over your hand (over elbow). Perform a shoulder press driving the elbow up, opening the palm/shoulder to face front as you reach the top of the motion. Close down the hand and elbow back to the front as you are lowering the weight back down to the starting position.
Lying on your back, or a bench, start with kettlebells in outstretched arms at shoulder width. Lower the kettlebells down next your ears while at the same time pushing the elbows toward the ceiling. Flex the triceps and extend the elbow back to the starting position. Be careful the upper arms should stay straight up and down throughout the movement.
This time letting the kettlebell dangle on the back of the wrist, press the kettlebell into a locked out overhead position. You can either walk around or perform as a hold in place but keep the hand centered over the shoulder. Lower down by keeping the kettlebell/hand over top the elbow back to the starting position.
Up till now all of the suggestions for ramping up the intensity of your workouts has been about adding equipment. Whether that equipment is available or not below are some programming alterations to help increase intensity and induce those gains. The techniques below involve increasing intensity through added and/or condensed volume in a given time or by trying to increase the amount of tension on a muscle through each repetition. Again be mindful that any time we increase the intensity of exercises or workouts we want to attenuate the volume or frequency to ensure we don’t over stimulate ourselves.
Adjust rest times/Density sets:
For a more novice trainee simply decreasing the amount of rest between exercise sets can be enough of an intensity boost. If you normally take about two minutes between sets try lowering that by 45-60 seconds or so. A more advanced trainee might find ‘density’ sets a little more interesting than just decreasing rest time. Density sets involve performing exercises for minutes at a time with very little rests between “sets”. An example of programming density sets would be performing sets of 6 repetitions of a bicep curl with 20 seconds rest after rep 6 each time and continue that for 6 minutes. You want a weight that is around a 15 repetition max for you.
Supersets are a slightly different way to increase intensity by way of performing several different exercises back to back with little to no rest. These exercises can be for the same body part or different ones depending on the goal. This is also a good strategy if you don’t have your normal amount of time to workout and wanted to pair exercises to be more time efficient. When performing supersets on one part or muscle of the body it’s good to remember that the resistance used in either exercise may not be the same as if the two exercises were separate in your programming.
Tempo reps are used by many to help ensure proper lifting form by requiring each repetition to be performed under a strict timing set up. By increasing the length of a repetition we also elongate the set and can increase the amount of tension a muscle experiences without having to increase load or number of sets. Tempo reps are usually set up with 4 numbers each corresponding to a segment of the lift (eg. X:X:X:X). The first X is the amount of time spent at the starting position of each repetition, the second X is how long the eccentric portion of an exercise, the third X is any sort of timed pause at the end of the eccentric portion, and the final X is how long to return to the starting position.