Getting this out of the way first
It’s not all-or-nothing. To completely neglect resistance training and lose muscle simply because the situation is “less than ideal” would be silly. There are plenty of strategies you can implement to create effective workouts with minimal equipment.
Bodyweight, dumbbells and bands
Your go-to moves can be push-up, chin-up, split squat/lunge and single and double leg hip thrust variations. Some other options could be Nordic hamstring curls, reverse Nordic curls and side lying hip raises.
And while these bodyweight variations can be made extremely effective, I strongly recommend investing in some equipment to perform upper body accessory movements and add load to lower body exercises since pumping through really high rep hip thrusts could get old really quick.
A gym membership on average is around $40/month, so investing $50-$150 on equipment that is going to last for many years or future gym-less situations isn’t expensive in the grander scheme of things.
My recommendations: adjustable dumbbells, a chin-up bar, a high-quality set of resistance bands and a glute loop. You don’t have to get it all at once. You could start with one or two items that make the most sense for you and take it from there.
Follow a structured program
Whether in the gym or at home, substantial progress doesn’t come from training aimlessly. Take a systemized approach and utilize progressions in your program.
Make a game out of it. Eric Helms promoted the idea of “gamifying” your training by choosing an exercise with a total rep target that would be challenging for 4 sets and aim to bring that number up over the next few weeks.
Application: Let’s say starting out you can do 7 push-ups consecutively with good form. Over the next several weeks, work your way up to doing 10.
High-rep training has its place
In my opinion, lifting heavy weight in a moderate rep range is the “easiest” way to train for muscle growth. Basically, you can do less work with less “pain” than training with lighter weights to failure for essentially the same result. However, since we don’t have access to heavy weight or a lot of equipment, we do need to approach training somewhat differently.
According to hypertrophy specialist Brad Schoenfeld, high-rep training can have its place in programming for optimal muscle growth as long as the sets are taken close to failure. You can check out research he conducted on this here.
Keep in mind, high-rep training does not mean flailing around feather weights for infinite reps. When choosing exercises and weight, remember that you still should be “grinding” through those last few reps.
Application: High-rep training can have its place in your muscle building program as long as you are pushing your sets close to failure.
I know you have no desire to get massive like Arnold Schwazenegger, but many training principles he promotes are still relevant. Yes, even if you just want to build your glutes or “tone” your arms.
He once mentioned something along the lines of: “They make the 100’s look like 15’s” (guys in the gym mindlessly rushing through heavy sets with little muscular tension) “and I make the 15’s look like 100’s.” (using lighter weight with intention, control and focus to maximize muscular tension). On many occasions, he has emphasized how making the mind-muscle connection with each rep can make the exercise that much more effective.
It has also been shown in this research study with attentional focus in biceps training.
Application: Really think about squeezing the muscle with each repetition. Put your mind in the muscle.
Periodization and variety
While novelty shouldn’t be the foundation of your program, the excitement of trying something new could have positive training effects.
We also know that it’s important to methodically fluctuate training stress with what is referred to as periodization. This not only can help optimize results, but also prevent training from becoming stale.
Now is an opportunity to emphasize what your training may have lacked in more recent gym sessions.
In a nutshell
- You can make bodyweight exercises and minimal equipment work in your favor.
- Follow a structured program, gamify and utilize progressions in your training.
- Take each working set close to failure making the mind-muscle connection with each rep.
- Emphasize what your recent gym training may have lacked.
- You’ll have the rest of your life to lift heavy in the gym once this is over, so get creative and make the most of being gym-less.
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- Schoenfeld, Brad J., et al. “Strength and hypertrophy adaptations between low-vs. high-load resistance training: a systematic review and meta-analysis.” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 31.12 (2017): 3508-3523.
- Schoenfeld, Brad Jon, et al. “Differential effects of attentional focus strategies during long-term resistance training.” European journal of sport science 18.5 (2018): 705-712.