How Quarantine Changed my Training for the Better (and Can for You Too)
- Closed gyms = Hurry up and go through the stages of loss, pick yourself up, and adapt.
- Home workouts can provide a completely different stimulus than what you were doing before; different stimulus = possible gains.
- The lighter the weight and the higher the reps, the more frequently you can train the muscle group and the more frequently you can go to failure.
- Switch your focus from lifting a weight to forcing the hardest, most intense contraction over a longer period of time.
- Implement scientifically studied techniques known to build muscle with light weights – Blood flow restriction training and isometrics.
Gyms Closed = Bye-bye Gains?
When the COVID-19 pandemic first came to America’s attention, like many others, I blew it off.
“Eh, this won’t affect me. The media’s probably just blowing it out of proportion. Just another flu.”
Well, the media actually isn’t doing anyone any favors when it comes to this, but that’s a different post altogether.
Then things started escalating. First cases in New York and California quickly became stay-at-home orders and business shutdowns. And then the impact reached my humble state of North Carolina.
Restaurants closing? Not a big deal, I cook 95% of my food anyway.
Airlines cutting their flights? Eh, I have no plans on going anywhere.
But then came the gyms. Oh, the gyms. When the several gyms I’m a member of simultaneously closed, my heart sunk. To the bottom of my feet. No, through the floor.
What is to become of my gains? No, more importantly, what is to become of the single activity that has kept me sane, productive, and my feel-good neurotransmitters flowing every day for the past 10 years?
Will I have to rebuild everything I’ve lost?
Will my body composition go to shit?
Will my days become unstructured as I become a lazy, unproductive sloth?
The Silver Linings
Now, I’ve had my share of injuries over my lifting career. But since it’s such an ingrained part of my life, I’d just go in and do what I could.
Hamstring pull? Well, I couldn’t squat or do any leg pressing movement. So I’d go in and do 12 sets of leg extensions and call that leg day. Because that was all leg day could be at the time.
Lumbar spine disc bulge? Still have upper body.
Since I’d already adopted that mentality, when the gyms shut down, I scheduled home workouts into my day, every day. I wrote down movements that I could do and structured specific workouts.
I knew the amount of training you need to do to maintain muscle is much less than what you need to do to build it, so I thought that I could maintain what I have at the very least.
I was actually wrong. Not only have I maintained what I built so far, I’ve actually built more muscle. And Ill tell you how.
A part of my humble home set-up.
The Novel Stimulus from Home Workouts
An Important Lesson in Adaptation
To know exactly how I leveraged my position, you need to know a little something about muscle building.
And that’s about the body’s adaptive capabilities. Your body is always trying to reach a point of peak efficiency. That is, it wants to waste or spend the least amount of energy it can while still adapting to the environment around it.
Whenever you first throw any stimulus at your body – extreme cold, extreme heat, exercise, lower calories, etc – since it’s not used to the stimulus at all, it spends an increasingly large amount of energy trying to adapt. After time, however, it becomes more efficient with the stimulus you’re giving it.
This is easily seen in the area of health and fitness. First start lifting and have never touched a weight before? The newbie gains pile on. But over time, you need to put in more and more work and time to see that extra 10lb go on that bench press.
The same is applied to intelligent exercise programming. An example of a good program will have you doing a certain set of exercises certain days per week in a certain rep range, repeated for 6-8 weeks.
When you begin the program, ideally, the exercises should be movements that are relatively new to you (except for the big compounds, they should probably always be included) in a rep range you weren’t doing before. This provides a new stimulus for your body to adapt to.
Over the course of 6-8 weeks, you gain strength and reps in those exercises, but may begin to plateau. This is when you switch to another block of exercises in a different rep range for 6-8 weeks (or some arbitrary period of time) to provide a new stimulus for your body to adapt to.
So if we take that thought process and apply it to home workouts…Well, you see where I’m going with this.
Changing Your Focus During Exercise
When you’re going into a lifting session, you should go in with intention. Is your intention for this training block, or even this session, to increase strength primarily? Or hypertrophy? Or conditioning? Or mobility? Not only should your programming reflect this, but this intention should change how you train and execute the exercise.
For example, training for strength – all you care about is moving as much weight as possible. It doesn’t matter what muscle(s) you use to do the job, as long as the weight gets moved.
For hypertrophy, you want to build more muscle fibers and/or make the muscle bigger. This requires an entirely different mindset and training style than training for strength. You really need to focus on the mind-muscle connection, getting the greatest contraction through the fullest range of motion possible.
“Powerlifters need to make heavy weights seem light. Bodybuilders need to make light weights seem heavy.” – Someone that’s not me (Not sure who first said this).
Science-Backed Muscle-Building Techniques for lighter or no weights
Blood Flow Restriction Training (BFR)
If you walk around the gym long enough, chances are you might see a guy or gal pumping super light weights with their arms tied off and the feeling of condescension might have taken over. “Pffff what’s THAT gonna do?”. Well, that’s bloodflow restriction training.
At first glance, BFR may look like the latest bro-technique fad that’s going to fade away along with the latest fad diet. It’s not, however.
BFR was first studied in Japan back in the 60’s in elderly individuals. With promising data ever from the start, it’s no wonder it’s been studied rigorously ever since then. It’s consistently used in rehab protocols, and is a fantastic way in general to maintain or even build muscle during periods where you can’t lift or access heavy weights (read: when dealing with pain or injuries…Or a pandemic)
So what is it and how do you do it?
In a nutshell, you take a tourniquet, ace bandage, or knee wraps, and wrap off your limbs at about a 7/10 tightness. For arms, this would be directly below the shoulder. For legs, this would be above the quad right near the groin area. A tourniquet does not provide adequate restriction for legs; I recommend knee wraps in this case.
You’re trying to restrict venous outflow (blood returning out of your limbs back to your body) but not restrict arterial inflow. This causes a pooling of blood in the limb. If your limb is becoming purple or you go to feel your pulse and it’s barely there, the wrap is too tight.
Then a typical protocol of BFR would be to take a weight 20-25% of your 1RM, and do a first set of 25-30 (should be to failure in that range). After that first set, wait about 45 seconds and do a second set. With this second set, you’ll probably only be able to get about 10-15 reps. Repeat this for 2 more sets for a total of 4 sets. So if you’re curling dumbbells for say, 45lb for 10 reps, you’d probably get about 20lb dumbbells for your BFR set. So it would look like this:
20lb x 25-30, 45s rest, reps to failure (10-15), 45s rest, reps to failure, 45s rest, reps to failure.
How does it work?
Although specific mechanisms are still fully being hashed out, we have a few knowns around the subject.
The first and probably biggest benefit would be motor unit recruitment. For both strength and hypertrophy’s sake, you want to maximize motor unit recruitment during a contraction. Your body is efficient and only recruits enough muscle fibers to do the job at hand. For regular low load training, the body will only recruit a small amount of muscle fibers (unless the exercise is taken to failure over and over). The heavier the load gets, the more motor units are recruited.
Low load training with BFR has been shown to recruit similar amounts of motor units to high load standard training, and has been shown to cause similar amounts of hypertrophy with less muscle damage.
Another mechanism would be metabolic stress. Metabolic stress is one of the drivers of hypertrophy, and BFR increases metabolic stress similar to training with 65-70% of your 1RM.
A third would be cellular swelling. Cell swelling is another mechanism of hypertrophy, where fluid rushes into the cells (one of the things behind the pump you get) and some BFR studies showed an increase of about 11-12% muscular thickness after a BFR workout.
There are some others that I won’t get into at the moment, but suffice to say, this technique works and it works well.
Bringing it Back to Home Workouts
So with all that in mind, I donned my propeller hat and did some thinking.
I knew that training for straight strength was out. But with the minimal equipment I have, there were still a few things I could focus on.
I’ll get into the equipment I have a bit more later on, but in a nutshell, I have a set of variable resistance bands, a pull-up bar, olympic rings, a dip belt, and wraps I could use for blood-flow restriction training.
With those, I could really focus on the stretch, the contraction, and the mind muscle connection. I have the ability to modify rep tempo to make lighter weights harder. And use blood flow restriction training to use light loads and high reps to send a muscle building signal.
Combine that with the brand new stimulus of working out with rings and solely resistance bands (which I hadn’t done…Ever, not solely resistance bands, anyway), I was actually getting a little excited for my home workouts.
Sure, I wasn’t going to be able to squat or deadlift the big weight that I was used to and loved doing, but now is the time for a new phase. I hadn’t done anything over 12 reps for about 2 years. I was forced into going for a different adaptation.
Like I said, I knew I could at least -maintain- muscle mass. But little did I know I would actually build some.
First things first, I took stock of what I have (not affiliated with any of these products).
I have an under-door pull-up bar: Pull-up Bar
A set of these resistance bands: Serious Steel Resistance Bands
A pair of wooden olympic rings (plastic works fine too): Olympic Rings
A dip belt: Dip belt
Knee wraps that I use for blood-flow restriction leg training: Knee wraps
Tourniquets I use for blood-flow restriction arm training: Arm tourniquets
And that’s about it.
Program Design Principles
I’ll tell you how I decided to design my home workout programming, but the specific sets x reps and exercises are much less important than the intention and execution of the exercises, which I’ll address after the program.
General rules of thumb and a map for program design (in general, for all lifting, not just home workouts):
- Bigger compound movements (barbell squat, deadlift, bench press) should rarely, if ever, be taken to failure. Leave 1-2 reps in the tank most of the time. There’s a time and a place in a program for it, but it should be rare.
- Smaller compound movements (lat pulldown, cable chest press and flies, etc) and isolation movements can be taken closer to failure, maybe the last set(s) to failure.
- The heavier or more intense you go, the farther you should take from failure and the longer the rest periods should be.
- The lighter you go, the closer you can take to failure.
- The more frequently you train a muscle group, the more you should leave in the tank with each set/session.
If you’re doing standard bodyweight exercises (push-ups, air squats, chin-ups), and you’re already a fairly well-trained individual, its safe to say you can go to failure almost every set and be fine to do the same the next day.
So, with the above principles in mind, my home workouts would:
- Train each muscle group several times a week.
- Go close to or to failure with each set, depending on if I can add weight.
Right now, this is the program I’m running. I’m doing something movement oriented everyday, but I’m resistance training 6 days a week. The days run like this:
Day 1 – Chest, shoulders, and tri’s –> Day 2 – Back and Bi’s –> Day 3 – Legs –> Repeat the last three days with 1 less set each exercise. The 7th day is cardio, tennis, an extra long walk, etc.
Day 1 – Chest, Shoulders, and Tri’s
Weighted ring dips – 4 x 12 reps with a 5 gallon water jug attached to the dip belt (Weighs exactly 44lb)
- You can get creative with how you add weight if you need to – If you have a bookbag, wear it on your front and load it with as many soup cans as it’ll hold. You can look outside or in your general vicinity for some bricks, big stones, cinder blocks, etc you can use to load your dip belt.
- Or just go to home depot and pick up the aforementioned things (cinder blocks or bricks).
- High incline push ups (feet high on a wall, body at about a 65-70 degree angle) – 4 x 15-18 reps
Unilateral (single arm) band decline flies – 3 x 12 – 15 reps with the third followed by 2 “drop sets” that I did by stepping closer to where the band was tied each time, therefor making it easier.
- I attached the band to the top portion of my pull up bar to do decline flies.
Unilateral band incline flies – 3 x 12 – 15 reps with the third set followed by 2 drop sets again.
- I attached the band to one of the feet of my bed. Look for a low place to wrap the band around – I also did this on the bottom of a fence in my apartment complex whenever I went outside.
Standing unilateral band overhead press – 4 x 10 – 12 reps
- I used the largest resistance band, stepped on one end with my right foot slightly back, and took the other end in my right hand and pressed.
Standing unilateral lateral raises – 4 x 14 – 16 reps with the last set followed by a drop set to failure.
- To train my right delt, I anchored the resistance band around my left foot and stepped on it with my right foot as well. To do the drop set, I simply took my right foot off the band to put a little more slack in it.
Standing unilateral band rear delt – 3 x 15 – 18 reps
- To train my right rear delt, I attached a lighter resistance band to the top of my pull-up bar, turned 90 degrees so that my left side is facing my pull up bar, and did the reps with my palm pronated.
BFR Band tricep press-down – 1 x 28 reps, 45s rest in between sets, subsequent 3 x 12
- Took the second heaviest resistance band and looped it over my pull-up bar to do the press-downs.
- Heres an instagram post with some of the above exercises in them:
Day 2 – Back and Bi’s
- Weighted neutral grip chins + 5 gallon water jug 5 x 8 reps, superset each set, no rest, directly into 5 x 8 reps bodyweight wide-grip pull-ups.
Weighted ring rows directly into bodyweight ring rows to failure – 4 x 10
- This is tricky to describe. Start out on the ground with the ability to reach up and grab the rings.
- Have a chair in front of you to put your feet on, and have whatever you’re going to weight yourself with beside you to set on your stomach.
- Place your feet up on the chair with your knees bent, and place the weight (5 gallon water jug in my case) on your stomach.
- Pull upwards to row with the rings. After 10 reps, take the weight off your stomach and do bodyweight to failure.
- Video for reference:
- Unilateral band low-rows – 4 x 16 – 18, 30s rest, supersetted with
Unilateral band high-rows – 4 x 12 – 15
- For the low rows, I attached a heavy resistance band to the foot of my bed. For the high rows, I attached a slightly lighter resistance band to the pull-up bar.
BFR Unilateral high band curls – 1 x 25-30, 45s rest between sets, 3 x 10-12
- Attach a band to the pull-up bar, and stand far enough away to get good resistance. Arm in the air, and curl, keeping elbows locked in place.
Day 3 – Legs
- Blood flow restriction (BFR) Bulgarian split squats holding 2 5 gallon water jugs in hand – 5 x 18, no rest, supersetted with
- BFR Squats hugging a 5 gallon water jug – 5 x reps to failure
BFR Band leg extensions – 1 x 18, 45s rest between sets, 3 x 8-10
- I looped the band around the foot of my bed, sat on the end of my bed and wrapped the end around my ankle. There’s a bit of leg-hair pulling and skin-stretching pain involved, but man-up.
End with 5 x 100 meter sprints with 2-3 minutes rest in between.
- I just did these in my parking lot.
Day 4 – Chest, shoulders, and tris
- Weighted ring dips – 4 x 12 reps with a 5 gallon water jug
Bodyweight ring flies 4 x 10 – 12
- This is a toughie. With the rings attached to your pull up bar, adjust the rings so that when you’re holding them out in front of you, you’re leaning at about a 60 degree angle to the floor.
- Start out with the rings in front of you at about shoulder height with palms pronated (facing the ground).
- From here, bring your arms out wide in a fly motion so that your body is leaning further (about 45 degrees)
- Bring rings back to starting position.
- If done right, you should feel this at every inch of your chest
Resistance band push-ups, or weighted pushups if available – 3 x 10-12
- I took the largest resistance band possible and wrapped one end in each hand and around my back and shoulders. Do pushups like this.
- Alternatively, if my girlfriend was around, I had her sit on my back while I did push-ups (preferred).
Standing unilateral band overhead press – 4 x 10 – 12 reps
- Same as day 1
Unilateral band butterfly lateral/face pull hybrid 3 x 16 – 20
- Another tricky one to explain – attach resistance band to foot of bed. Begin the movement a few steps back from the source of the band. Pull the band up like a lateral raise, but finish in the position you would a face pull – with your arm like one side of a goal post.
BFR Overhead band tricep extension – 1 x 25-30, 45s rest between sets, 3 x 10-15
- Similar to the band overhead press, except taking a lighter resistance band, stand on one end, take the other end in your hand and do overhead tricep extensions
Day 5 – Back and bis
- The same as day 2, except:
- I reverse the first exercise and do weighted wide grip chin ups straight into neutral grip bodyweight pull ups.
- Take 1 set off of band low rows and band high rows.
Day 6 – Legs
- Same as day 3, except I add in:
Lying band leg curls – 3 x 14 – 16
- Attach a band to the foot of the bed again, lie on your stomach on the ground, attach one end to your ankle. Scoot forward until theres a good amount of tension in the band, and do leg curls.
Day 7 – Off/Cardio/Walk/etc
- Most of the time its an extra long (hour or so) brisk walk while listening to an audiobook or podcast. Preferably in sunny weather. If it’s rainy, I work on mobility exercises indoors.
The Most Important Part – Exercise Execution
If there is one thing to take away from this post, it’s this. I really only posted the actual routine because I know people like to see it, but what really matters and what is really going to provide the novel stimulus for new adaptation that I talked about earlier is how the exercises are executed.
Honestly, that’s the most important thing in every day lifting in the gym as well, but when you really don’t have much weight available, its even more important.
What do I mean by this? Well, it’s easy to just go in the gym and take a weight that’s “challenging” and go through the movement with no thought beyond having decent form. If you’re doing this, I can guarantee you’re not keeping a contraction and tension on the working muscle through every inch of the motion.
Band Row Example
Take the band low row. Before you even start the rep, contract your lat. As hard as you can.
Begin the movement, keeping a hard contraction through every inch of the concentric.
Once you reach the end of the movement, squeeze the lat in the shortened position as hard as you can and keep it there for one second.
Keeping in mind a 3 to 4 second eccentric, begin lowering keeping the lat contracted hard, still keeping a contraction at the end range.
DO NOT RELAX YOUR LAT THROUGH THE ENTIRE SET.
Throughout all your reps, keep a conscious contraction and tension on the lat. If you’re doing it right, I can promise you can make these lighter resistances feel much “heavier”.
Every single one of your reps for every single one of your sets for every single one of your exercises should be like this.
How This Situation Made Me Better for the Long Run
The bottom line is, when you’re handed a set of limited tools, you have to adapt. This adaptation period may change your perception…Forever. If you can look at it, learn from it, and take the lesson forward.
Say someone is used to eating the standard american diet with lots of hyper-palatable, processed foods. Then, for whatever reason, this person goes through a period of famine. Say they rarely have meat, have access to some vegetables or whatever they can forage. When they come out and have food again, they don’t look at food the same way anymore. They have a new appreciation for it, their tastes may have changed and they may appreciate the taste of foods they didn’t before.
The same is true for this situation. I was taking the gym for granted. I was going in and throwing weights around, not venturing out too far into other modalities and techniques to further muscle growth.
Sure, I’m meticulous with tracking progress numbers, programming well, making sure I’m recovering, and making sure progressive overload is occurring. But I was comfortable with the methods I was using to cause progressive overload. This situation changed that, and I’m going to make sure I take these techniques forward when gym access is available again.
Honestly, proper exercise execution (for hypertrophy) was something that I knew I should prioritize before all this happened, but simply hadn’t while I was working out in a gym.
I may have focused on it here and there, but I always lost focus on it and went back to simply lifting the weight with good and proper form. Reason? It’s hard. You’re going to have to lower the amount of weight you’re lifting significantly to properly execute.
But now, heavy weight isn’t available. The only choice I had was to focus on execution and tempo in order to make what I was doing as effective as possible.
And after doing this for roughly 5 weeks now, I have to say, the results I’m experiencing are prompting me to bring this focus back into the gyms when they do reopen.
Let’s take measurements, first. I should mention that my weight has been stable through this period, so the extra size wasn’t due to the “COVID 15”.
I hadn’t measured my biceps/quads in a while, but in 5 weeks of these home workouts, each of my biceps grew 1/3 of an inch and each of my quads grew 1/3 to 1/2 an inch. This is pretty damn good for someone who’s been lifting very consistently for 10 years.
Now let’s take performance. Luckily, last week, I was able to find friends who had a decent home gym in their garage. And they were gracious enough to let me workout there a few days that week.
First came chest, shoulders, and tris.
Incline bench – stayed the same strength-wise (In the 4 – 6 rep range)
Flat bench – stayed the same strength-wise (In the 4 – 6 rep range)
Standing overhead press – Increased by ~20lb
- Prior, my working weight with strict standing overhead press was about 165lb for 6, with 4-6 sets. I was able to do 185lb for 5 for 4 sets and was quite blown away by this. And this was -after- 5 sets of incline bench and 5 sets of flat bench.
Butterfly laterals – Increased by 2.5lb
- Prior, I was doing 27.5lb with butterfly lateral raises for 8-10 reps for 3 sets. But I’d generally peter out by the third set and just be able to make 6-7 reps. This time, I did 3 sets of 10 reps with 30lb.
On the next day I went, I did legs. Pretty much all they had was a squat rack, so I did low-bar back squats and front-squats. The latter stayed the same, so I’ll highlight what changed.
- My strength dropped a little in the 3 – 5 rep range with low bar back squats – prior, my working weight was 465lb for 5; this time I could comfortably get it for 3. This makes sense, because strength is as much of a skill as it is dependent on muscle mass.
- But, I decided to test my strength in a higher rep range. After 4 sets of 3 with 465lb, I dropped to 4 plates and repped it out. 12 reps (failure), where before I could get 8 – 10.
- I dropped further to 3 plates and got 20 reps with 1 or 2 in the tank. I’d only ever pushed 3 plates with high reps a few times before, but one was recent (within the past 3 months), and I got 17 reps to failure at that point.
So, as you can see, in every way that I can quantify with what I have available, I had some decent results. Yes, from home workouts.
Why (I personally think) This Worked
I don’t want to be too redundant from the beginning of the post, so I’ll summarize. Why I think this worked:
New stimulus. The new rep range, new exercises, new exercise modalities (bands, rings, etc).
Extreme focus on execution and tempo. Really focusing on the mind-muscle connection and having a strong contraction, really feeling the muscle, through every range of the motion. With very slow eccentrics.
Incorporating Into your Own Home Workouts
I’d prefer you not do the exact routine I posted. In fact, don’t do it unless it’s an appropriate amount of volume for you. You may need more or less. I wrote that routine with volume appropriate for my own lifting age and the amount of volume my body was accustomed to at the time.
If you want to do this with your own workouts, first take stock of the amount of volume you were doing previously in your gym workouts (and making progress with) and count it in sets per week.
For example, if you were doing 4 sets of barbell bench, 4 sets of barbell incline bench, 4 sets of dumbbell flies, 4 sets of flat dumbbell bench, and 4 sets of cable flies in one day, you were doing 20 sets/week.
If you were doing 4 sets of barbell bench, 4 sets of cable flies on Monday, then 4 sets of incline barbell bench, 4 sets of flat dumbbell bench, and 4 sets of dumbbell flies on Thursday, you were, again, doing 20 sets/week.
I would advise to keep roughly the same amount of sets per week, just increase the amount that you go to failure and the number of reps per set, incorporating the focus on mind-muscle connection, slower tempo, and execution in general.
If you want to check out some of these home workouts in action, check out my instagram @siedenburgnutrition. Hope you all find this helpful and happy quarantine…*shudder*.