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Quarantine Crazy: Can you make gains with home workouts?

Intro: A short bid for optimism

The world is in a state of unrest currently. The novel Coronavirus COVID-19 has spread from China and has posed such a risk that has now been labeled by the WHO as a pandemic. Currently, gyms are closing, people are at home, out of work, out of school, and are understandably in discontent. Quarantine is a novel experience for some while others are somewhat familiar with the solitary life (myself included, haha). I’d like to think that the people who are new to staying home and not being at work/school/outings/gym/etc. are most affected by this situation and I must share this with you:

While it’s certainly crazy, probably masochistic, to want to face difficulty in life we’d be equally crazy to pretend it isn’t going to happen. This pandemic is a difficulty; an inevitability. I think it’s a good thing to understand that our reaction to it is based on the words of the WHO that states that this is our best action to minimize the impact of this difficulty. If we understand why it is happening, we can better appreciate the necessity of this and even come to terms with it. While we are all certainly suffering lost time from many things of our normal lives, this pessimistic view solves no problems. What we must do is look forward with optimism. We should ask ourselves what can we do during this time to make the best of it? I’ll leave the answer to you guys.

Training at home: Load, volume, and adaptations

During this time, friends and clients have bombarded me with questions about home workouts and send me the latest from their fitspo (I’ve seen too many people squatting their cats, haha!). Now, while I completely support the movement of home workouts, I should also make a point that if your goal is to continue to grow muscle, a couple of squats are not likely to be enough. I’ll elaborate further.

In the case of this blog, the load is defined as the amount of weight that you use during your exercise (in the case of fitspo’s, your 10 lb cat), the volume is defined as the number of sets per workout or week and a set is defined as a round of repetitions to or near failure (~1 RIR[1]). When training for muscular strength and size adaptations, these factors are very important to your training plan.

How can I continue to make gains (adaptations) without weights?

I wouldn’t blame you for asking this question as most of us are used to training in the gym with ample equipment and weights available to us. My observation in my neck of the world most people prefer to train at a rep range of 1-15 reps (higher loads) and they have the weights that allow them to train effectively in that rep range in the gym. Currently, access to weights is limited and people are uncertain if there is any benefit to training at lower loads. There is high-quality evidence to support just that. In the 2017 review of Schoenfeld et al. it was found that there were similar hypertrophy[2] adaptations between low loads (≤ 60% 1RM[3]) and high loads (> 60% 1RM) when the volume is equated(Schoenfeld, Grgic, Ogborn, & Krieger, 2017). However, higher loads proved to be the better option for strength adaptations, so powerlifters might have to sit this one out.

The inference that can be drawn from Schoenfeld et al. is that you can still gain at the same rate regardless of the load you use once the number of sets is the same and you take these sets to failure. A hypothetical example is seen below:

6 sets of flat bench press @ 145 lbs | 6-12 reps | RIR 0-1

6 sets of push-ups @ bodyweight | 20-30 reps| RIR 0-1 | Tempo matches above

From the above, in the same individual, we would expect to see similar outcomes in muscle growth adaptations overtime despite load differences.

Progressing: This week 1 cat, next week 2 cats?

Progression schemes in the gym are varied; One can progress in an exercise by an increase in ROM[4], increase in load, or increases in volume. All these can be achieved via home workouts. Before we get to progressing in-home workouts let’s talk about the transition from the gym to the home.

My recommendation for those who already had a regimented workout plan is to stay consistent. Whatever your training volume was, keep it there and swap the gym exercises for a relevant home-workout version. This way you maintain the rate of progress you were already making and can continue to progress from there. For example:

Upper and quad (Gym workout)
 ExerciseIntensityRepsSetsTempo[5]Rest
ABench press (dumbell or Bbell 45*)RIR 06-8
6-8
10-12
33-1-x-02m
BCable flys (mid pec)RIR 010–1523-1-x-1
CCable flys (low pec)RIR 010–1513-1-x-1
DShoulder press variantRIR 1-08–1023-1-x-1
EDelt raise (lateral)RIR 08–1033-0-x-1
FRear delt flyRIR 08–1023-0-x-1
GDumbell curl (preacher)RIR 06-8
6-8
10-12
33-0-x-2
HHammer CurlsRIR 010–1223-0-x-2
Upper and quad (Home workout)
 ExerciseIntensityRepsSetsTempoRest
APush upsRIR 025 25 3033-1-x-02m
BResistance band flys (mid pec)RIR 025-3023-1-x-1
CResistance band flys (low pec)RIR 025-3013-1-x-1
DBodyweight shoulder pressRIR 1-015-2023-1-x-1
EDelt raise (lateral) with bandsRIR 020-2533-0-x-1
FBanded Rear delt flyRIR 020-2523-0-x-1
GBack pack curl (supine grip)RIR 06-8
6-8
10-12
33-0-x-2
HHammer back pack CurlsRIR 010–1223-0-x-2

From the aforementioned review from Schoenfeld et al. you should understand that inaccessibility of high loads should not stop you from going after your gains. However, the next question should be how do I progress? Well, there are many ways but to keep it simple I’ll limit this to progression by load, volume and ROM. Propper form and tempo should be constant through all this.

Table1. Descriptions of progression for different home-style exercises

Progression parameterPush upBody weight squatBodyweight Hamstring curl
ROMIncrease the depth of your push up by performing them between chairs.Squat deeper below parallel (not low enough to take tension off muscles).Get closer to the floor on the eccentric.
LoadStart with inclined push up and progress to normal, then feet elevated.Use home dumbbells, wear a backpack, weighted vest or even your cat (or not, let’s leave the poor animals alone guys, haha!)
Progress to pistol squat
Doubt weight is necessary but one can hold out a dumbbell or wear a weighted vest
VolumeSimply increase the amount of sets per week (20% increase)Simply increase the amount of sets per week (20% increase)Simply increase the amount of sets per week (20% increase)

Let’s talk optimization with respect to volume. The weightology research review finds optimal volume for hypertrophy gains to be around 6-8 sets per muscle group per training session with long rest periods (>2min) and it should be noted that there is a potential for plateau at higher volumes(Weightology, 2020). This can be approximated to 12-24 weekly sets for a frequency of 2-3 days per week. Now this is a general guideline and individual optimization will vary, practically (if a beginner) one should start on the lower end of the volume spectrum and increase in small increments to progress (they recommend around 20% increment increase in volume). There are other things one should consider depending on the volume load you had while in the gym and other variables, however, that will be out of the scope of this blog and I would recommend reading the review for that (or hiring me, haha, shameless plug).

While I support being optimistic I would also question the thought of being optimal during the pandemic, as it is a new the experience, we’ll all be learning how to deal with it in the best possible way. This blog is just a few introductory recommendations, optimization comes with experience.

Is there such a thing as too little weight?

Yes. At least in relatively untrained individuals. Another study found that there was no difference in muscle growth between 40%,60% & 80% 1RM loads(Lasevicius et al., 2018). Unless you’re a super-well-trained-near-genetic-limit individual I think bodyweight exercises or even lighter loads than you have in the gym, like your filled-up book bag, should suffice for you to get your gains.

One more thing: Be safe

So, it’s about two weeks into lockdown in my country at the time of this being written and guess what guys, I’m a bit worried about some of the things I’m seeing. Ok, so no gym and, unfortunately for most, no access to gym equipment. Now what? Squat my couch, lunge my propane gas bottle, my BMX bike, do concrete brick shoulder presses, or do pullups on the galvanized gutters? You might think this is all in jest but I’ve actually seen this being shared. I don’t want to come across as a curmudgeon but I would recommend against most of this, as I very much believe safer modalities (bodyweight exercises especially) can be just as effective and involves less risk to self in the form of injury. The gym equipment was made for exercises and people still get hurt, how much more of a risk do you think your dinner table bench press is?

References

Lasevicius, T., Ugrinowitsch, C., Schoenfeld, B. J., Roschel, H., Tavares, L. D., De Souza, E. O., … Tricoli, V. (2018). Effects of different intensities of resistance training with equated volume load on muscle strength and hypertrophy. European Journal of Sport Science, 18(6), 772–780. https://doi.org/10.1080/17461391.2018.1450898

Schoenfeld, B. J., Grgic, J., Ogborn, D., & Krieger, J. W. (2017). Strength and hypertrophy adaptations between low- vs. High-load resistance training: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 31(12), 3508–3523. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000002200

Weightology. (2020). Set Volume for Muscle Size: The Ultimate Evidence Based Bible – Weightology. (March). Retrieved from https://weightology.net/the-members-area/evidence-based-guides/set-volume-for-muscle-size-the-ultimate-evidence-based-bible/


[1] RIR= Reps in reserve – a subjective scale of intensity where an estimation of how many reps one has left is given before failure.

[2] Hypertrophy- Growth of muscle cells

[3] 1RM= 1 rep max – The amount of load where an individual can only complete 1 full rep with good form

[4] ROM= Range of motion [of an exercise]

[5] Tempo= the rate at which an exercise is performed

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