For when your apartment is also your gym.
For better or worse (mostly worse) we’re stuck working out at home.
We don’t know how coronavirus will change the fitness industry long-term.
Will more people invest in home gyms rather than gym memberships?
Will in-person training models all shift to a hybrid training model?
Regardless, we’re stuck with home workouts for now, likely without much equipment.
Oh god, working out at home is giving me flashbacks to P90X popping up on my living room TV screen.
Most of us, I’m sure intended on continuing a resistance training program throughout quarantine.
But with a scattered variation of old equipment sitting around the house, finding exercises — let along a program — was hard enough.
The good news is all the equipment in a traditional gym isn’t necessary to create a well-designed effective program you can do locked up in a tiny apartment.
What you lack in space and equipment, you can make up for with systems and creativity. It is possible to get results with little space and equipment training at home.
Designing a program, regardless of modalities and equipment available, starts with establishing principles. A lot of these extend to gym workouts as well but become even more important when working out at home.
Nearly all of the other principles build upon minimum effective dose. Seeking the MED makes you ask yourself what’s most important to get the bulk of your results. If you can find strategies that get you 80% of your results with only 20% of the effort, would you take it?
In reality, a lot of gym exercises and equipment are geared towards attacking the last 20% and take up 80% of your time. So, let’s focus on the 80%.
Later on, even in a home setting, we can work on the last 20%.
Because of this, your home workouts won’t be 90 minutes long. They don’t need to be. Especially when you’re working out in the same environment where you work or watch TV. In these environments, you probably won’t be as mentally dialed in as you are at your gym.
This is okay.
So, we’ll lower the commitment and barrier to following the program by stripping it down to its most important components.
Here, a lot of trainers would tell you to work harder and be more disciplined. And sure, of course, that will help. But this ignores that none of us really want to be working out at home. I’d rather accept this and focus on getting the most out of the least — the minimum effective dose.
Once you have the principle of MED down, then you can add in extra stuff.
If you fill a jar with sand and then try to fit your big rocks in, they won’t fit. But if you put the rocks in first, you can fill the rest of the jar with sand afterward.
Focus on the big rocks.
Creativity takes many forms, of course. In this context, I’m talking about getting creative with what you can use for equipment. If you’re here on RFS, you probably read a lot of books. So, put those books into a backpack and now you have weight. Boom.
I’m a big fan of the TRX. Even if only for one exercise: inverted rows. Inverted rows are like a reverse push-up, and can be easily loaded by putting weight (your backpack) on your chest. But, you probably don’t have a TRX at home. However, you do have a door. And you also have bed sheets or towels. And that’s all you need to make a TRX at home.
Step 1: Find two bed sheets or towels
Step 2: Tie a knot at the end of the sheets
Step 3: Throw the sheets over the top of an open door so the knot is on a different side than the rest of the sheet.
Step 4: Close the door.
Step 5: Do rows.
If you didn’t quite follow me, here’s a video from some jabroni on Youtube.
These are a few examples, but there’s actually plenty of options lying around in your living space.
Now’s the time to try some new things. Throw something into the mix you haven’t done before. Or, opt for a program very different from what you’re used to.
If you want to do more sprinting and performance training, now might be the time. Or, you can prioritize mobility or even train for a marathon.
The hardest part from a programming perspective is doing “strength” work. Improving strength requires heavy load (there are some exceptions, but generally this is true), which is hard without equipment.
So, don’t prioritize increasing max strength; focus on literally anything else. Work on mobility, conditioning, power, or hypertrophy.
The principles are what we base the decisions on — the concepts and practicality. The methods are how we apply those principles. There’s no one right way to act on our principles. A variety of methods can get similar results.
So, these are not gospel — they’re one method of many that manicure the outcomes we’re looking for.
When working out at home, when you want to get in, bang it out, and get the hell out of your living room, you should stick to exercises that use multiple main joints, otherwise known as compounded exercises.
Let’s take push-ups, for example. Push-ups require movement at both the elbow and shoulder joint, using the pecs, triceps, and shoulders.
That’s a good use of time compared to a triceps extension, which focuses only on the elbow joint and the triceps muscle. As you’ll see during the programming section, compound movements can be divided into six categories: Knee dominant, hip dominant, push, pull, core, and gait.
Isolated, single-joint exercises are fine, you’re just not going to get as much out of them as compound exercises.
Another problem with home workouts is, you probably have fewer options and less direction, so you’ll gravitate towards what you’re good at, and discard the rest.
This is how you get guys who rip bicep curls every day, but can only do two pull-ups. They’ll keep curls, to the detriment of a beautiful back and healthier shoulders. And, by the way, pull-ups work your biceps too.
Further, by dividing your program into certain compound movements, you can make sure you’re not developing glaring imbalances.
When you focus on muscles, you might overlook important movements. But if you hit all of the major movement patterns, then all of your boxes are checked.
This is especially important now, because you’ll likely gravitate to a few common bodyweight exercises, like push-ups, and neglect doing enough exercises that counter that movement. Doing tons of pushing exercises and no pulling to balance them causes the pushing muscles to get comparatively stronger, rounding your shoulders, and leaving you susceptible to injury.
In this example, there are no obvious ways to do rows, and that’s exactly why you need a program that balances the main, multi-joint movement patterns.
One of the positives of isolation exercises, many will say, is you can really “feel” the muscle. This sensation is your mind-muscle connection. (Check out this article if you’re not sure what we mean).
By “Feeling” your muscle you can get more out of your workout while using less weight.
If you teach the intended muscle groups to control the weight — however light — you can maximize your progress. The minimum effective dose, in this case, is the minimum amount of weight you need to get results. And with a stronger mind-muscle connection, the minimum effective weight lowers and lowers.
While you can improve this as mentioned in the mind-muscle connection article, you can also improve it through tactile stimulation.
To achieve our MED, and bang out our home workouts in less time, shorten your rest periods. Of course, you need to rest. But programs can be designed so you don’t need as much rest between exercises.
As you’ll see, the workouts are divided into little circuits where each exercise uses completely different muscles. You’ll only properly rest in between each round, rather than between each exercise.
Again, you don’t even have to work harder to get better results, you just need to properly set up the program.
On the topic of short rest periods, read Roman’s thoughts on density training.
Full-Body or Upper/Lower Split
In most body composition programs beyond the beginner phase, the program follows a body part split. Generally, you only train a certain body part once or twice a week.
But, when working out at home with limited equipment, the goal is not to take each individual muscle to failure in the way you can attack your back with eight different variations — here you’ll be lucky if you can come up with three. So instead, we’ll opt to select very few exercises, do them frequently, and do them well.
While you could do a split routine on a home workout program with limited equipment, I just think it’s impractical.
And, a full-body routine has a few key benefits within this context. You can superset an upper body exercise with a lower body exercise with little to no rest and no impact on your performance in that set.
With a body part program, you’d have to rest (unless doing drop sets, but nobody does those for a full workout) after each set, spending a lot of time swiping on Tinder and not a lot of time getting work done.
Include an Exercise From Each Movement Category
Our body’s movement can be broken down into a few main categories. Squats, hinges, pushes, pulls, and gait. Within those, the core plays a big role, so we also include.
These are leg exercises where you’ll have significant knee bend. Basically, any kind of squat variation.
In any situation, I prefer single leg lower body training over bilateral leg training, for reasons I outlined here.
In a home workout context, sticking with single-leg variations for your main lifts makes even more sense because most home setups won’t have enough weight laying around to make a bilateral squat worth a morsel of time.
Instead, you can use a fraction of the weight, get stronger, and limit the chance of injury, among other benefits of unilateral training.
Hip dominant exercises are characterized by a hip hinge with little knee movement. Basically, any deadlift variation.
These will use a single-leg version, for the same reason, unless the bilateral version is more practical, like a stability ball hamstring curl (you will be able to progress to one leg though).
Pushing exercises — the most common of which are the bench press and push-up — are further divided into horizontal pushing exercises and vertical pushing exercises. Ideally, you’re able to push through your shoulder at many different angles. Although, for those with postural limitations, getting truly overhead can be unsafe (and unnecessary).
Pulling exercises are the same but the resistance is going in the opposite direction. They’re also divided by horizontal and vertical pulls. Horizontal pulls are row variations, and vertical pulls are pull-up and pull-down variations.
For athletes, sprinting is a regular part of their training, because it’s crucial for sports performance.
In order to do every exercise effectively, your core (what defines the core is debatable. I think of the core as anything that transfers energy and stabilizes posture. So, abs, low back muscles, side glutes, and adductors make the cut for me).
And, we train them in the same context they’re used for in life (and sports): to resist movement.
If you’re doing a squat, but you can’t keep your back from arching excessively, that’s a postural and core issue that needs to be addressed. So, it’s broad, but it can be broken down into simple categories.
Antiextension: Resisting movement in the sagittal plane – like a plank
Antilateral flexion: Resisting movement in the frontal plane – like a side plank
Anitrotation: Resisting movement in the transverse plane. – like a plank where you raise an arm or leg.
Finally, I haven’t included any conditioning into these workouts, but you should do some. Instead of painting too broad of a stroke on cardio prescriptions, just make a point to do something else active. Biking, running, walking, hiking, fucking, cornhole. I don’t care.
Hell, even most summer drinking games, like beer die have some benefits (learn how to mitigate and manage alcohol’s effects here. Also, I will CRUSH you at beer die).
As long as we can check off each of these boxes in every workout—or over the course of a training week—we’ve gotten the job done.
You’ve exceeded this if you can tax and push your body in some way.
Can you add in more than this? Of course. But these are the bedrock of the program. The rocks.
Add the sand later. And for simplicity’s sake, the main exercises we use for each category will stay the same.
There will be variation. Most of these main exercises have regressions and progressions. But they can also be changed by adjusting the loading scheme and changing the tempo.
As if New York City apartments weren’t already incredibly overpriced, Now you have to use that tiny space for working out too.
While I’m assuming you have no equipment, I assume you have a backpack and some old books to throw in it.
Stretching isn’t anything special. There aren’t any secrets. But we do know it works. And, it works in particular if you stretch muscles that are typically tight, like your hip flexors, calves, and pecs. Stretching these will work on reversing common postural imbalances. So this stretching routine is a simple way to cover your bases.
This has the most impact when you do it as a habit, as part of your workout routine. Personally, I find that starting with foam rolling is a great cue that it’s time to workout, and it also makes it easy to start because I enjoy the relaxation of foam rolling.
Foam roll for five minutes total.
Stretches: x5 pulses for each
Mobility: x5 each
First, a note on sets and reps:
This depends on your goal. But if hypertrophy/composition is your goal, then ideally each set is challenging for 8-12 reps. For core exercises, do 30 seconds total. For isometric variation, I’ll specify the time but it’s okay to manipulate it. The goal is to find a sweet spot where the exercises are difficult but not so difficult you can’t finish the set.
Because changing the load is harder than normal, feel free to change the reps.
Same thing with sets. I recommend three but you can make the workout easier (probably smart for your first week back) with two sets, or you can do four sets.
A1) 1-leg squat to chair progress by adding tempo (slow on the way down) or weight (hold a backpack in front of you).
A2) Towel iso Rows progress to homemade TRX row.
*Towel iso rows – you grab a towel in both hands, hinge, and step on the towel. Then pull the towel back, pinching your shoulders blades, and hold that for 30 seconds.
A3) Plank progress to Body Saw (towel on hardwood floor)
*Perform A1-A3 without minimal rest in between exercises. Rest 90-120 seconds between rounds. Perform 3 (or four if you want) rounds total.
B1) Reaching single-leg stiff-leg deadlift progress to SLDL with a backpack
B2) Push-ups with a 10-second hold at bottom progress by adding a backpack
*Same deal. 3-4 rounds.
C1) Do something active
A1) 1-leg Glute Bridge with a 10-second hold at top or Slider Hamstring Curl progress bridge by adding weight, progress hamstring curl by using one leg
A2) Pull-ups – regress by using a bench to help (An article titled Regressing the Pull-Up) progress by adding a backpack and holding with underneath you knee
*Perform A1-A2 without minimal rest in between exercises. Rest 90-120 seconds between rounds. Perform 3 (or four if you want) rounds total.
B1) Overcoming ISO Towel Split Squats progress to backpack split squats
*The towel is the same idea as the row. Hold the towel, step up it, try to stand up maintaining a low split squat position
B2) Half-kneeling backpack 1-arm overhead press
*Go light. Get into a half-kneeling position. If your right leg is up, then hold the backpack in your left hand, probably by th handle. Press up and down then switch sides.
B2) Side plank progress to side body saw
C1) Get out of the house and do something active.
For athletes, the strength training won’t be drastically different, although your progression and periodization become a lot more important. More importantly, though, is that you can get outside away from your home gym to include speed and plyometric training.
You would have a whole “series” of exercises before the A and B strength training series. That could look like
A1) Single leg hop with soft landing x3 each leg
A2) Broad Jump x5
A3) 10-yard sprint – stopwatch timed x1
A1) Single leg 45 degree hop with soft landing x3 each leg
A2) Vertical jump x4 (test in some way if you can)
A3) 10-yard sprint – stopwatch timed x1
I think adjustable dumbbells are a great option. They’re a few hundred dollars but you’ll be set up. Then you can do have single-leg exercises like suitcase RFE split squats and SLDLs but also do DB bench press (a bench is also on my shortlist) and overhead presses. If you’re planning on working out long-term, they’re worth the investment.
This is a really simple way to format your workouts, and I think it works especially well when exercise selection is limited.
Also, because of its simplicity, it shouldn’t be terribly difficult to jump right into, or stick with, as you’ll be doing variations of the same main exercises.
These workouts are not gospel. They’re simple. And they work. But, if you understand the principles behind why they work, I encourage you to play around with the variables. Try some different exercises, rep schemes, rest. While you’re at home working out, it’s a good time to try new things. So, take the workout, or just the template, or just the principles, and use it to improve your home gym workouts.