As we flipped the calendar to 2021, the realization hit that we’re coming up on 10-months of Covid/Home Quarantined Training. I’ve learned several lessons training my clients, my wife, and myself during that time, and today I want to share a few of those with you.
We got a lot to get to, so no superficial pleasantries (Happy New Year by the way), or lengthy writer intro’s. Let’s just get down to it.
1. Home training is NOT a limitation for general health & physique-focused goals.
A client of mine recently asked me when I planned on going back to the gym in 2021 — not necessarily to train him (he’s digging the convenience and effectiveness of his home workouts so much that he’s actually decided to convert one of his rooms into a permanent home-gym) –but for my own training.
I had to think about that for a second. And then I said, “it’s unlikely that I’m going back at all”.
The truth is that after 10 months of training (and eating, we’ll get to that in lesson #4) exclusively at home, I feel like I’m in the best shape and physique-conditioning of my life!
Don’t you need a bunch of modern gym machines for an effective training routine? Or don’t you need a bunch of squat racks, lifting platforms, and limit load training (heavy weights for 1-5 reps) to get the job done?
It depends on your training goals. If you are a performance athlete (mma, basektball, runner, etc.), or are training for some sort of sport-specific goals (Olympic Lifting, football combine or games, gymnastics, triathalon, etc.), there’s probably only so much you can do with home-based training. It is a limitation, in actuality a severe one for more advanced athletes. I really feel sorry for this demographic during these times.
For example, if you compete in powerlifting, you have to squat, bench, and deadlift. If you compete in Olympic Lifting, you have to do the Olympic lifts. If you are a shot putter, you have to throw the shot put. If you are a cross-fitter, you have to practice the exercises of your competitive events.
But for building lean muscle and physique transformation training, there is a lot more flexibility in terms of programming options. Unlike performance-based sports, there are no exercises or movements that you must do for physique-focused training. All you need to do is activate, challenge, overload, and ultimately develop all of the muscle groups on your body.
This can effectively be done with machines, barbells, and cable systems. But it also can be done with just plain ol’ bodyweight and dumbbell exercises.
Body type, injury history, training location and equipment access (home training anyone?), and even just personal preferences should all be factored into the program design process.
2. Home Training forces you to simplify your training program, and that’s a good thing in today’s Hype-Driven/Fitness-as-Big Business Era.
I know evolution and innovation are highly beneficial in most fields. But I don’t believe that’s the case when it comes to fitness.
I mean human biomechanics and the physics of movement are sciences with universal principles that don’t change. Your bones are the levers, your muscles move those levers. Attach some resistance to the end of those levers (a dumbbell), and you have yourself a results-producing exercise.
Why do you need a ton of innovation? Its either to prevent boredom, or to build up hype to sell some stuff. I get both, but that’s a luxury, not a necessity. And at worst, it’s a distraction, especially in today’s A.D.D. Era.
To me, there is just way too much superfluous stuff in gyms when looking at it from the perspective of physique training (again, maybe not for performance-focused athletes).
I’ve been talking with many of my private clients throughout this year, reminding them of our training sessions and overall program Pre-Pandemic. We used mostly dumbbell exercises, supplemented with a few free-range cable systems movements. We didn’t use the other 90% of the equipment in the gym.
So, our workouts have transitioned seamlessly to home/outdoor training set-ups. Dumbbells are dumbbells, whether they are shiny and new (like a virgin, touched for the very first time – Madonna), or old, beat up, rusty, and like, well…I’ll let your own mind finish the analogy with whatever you are comfortable with…
And resistance bands/tubing work as a great replacement for movements on the free-range cable system, with much less space and maintenance requirements.
Beyond effectiveness and efficiency, when we dive a little deeper and nerdier into the exercise selection process, there is another issue to consider.
When you look at biomechanics/natural human movement, what you see is mostly unilateral movements with the limbs moving independently, free range-of-motion at the joints vs. fixed positioning, open-chain upper body movements, and closed-chain lower body movements.
That’s true of athletic movements – punch, kick, run, jump, pivot, cut, spin, etc. — AND normal, everyday activities – walk, dance, raise cocktail to mouth, etc.
Independent movement of limbs is why I prefer mostly dumbbell and band exercises vs. barbells. That plus free-range-of-motion at the joints is why I don’t like most machines.
When you layer in risk: reward ratios, long-term joint health, and program sustainability on top of all that, I’m just not a big believer in most traditional powerlifting or barbell exercises as foundational components of my programs, especially for the demographic I mostly train, which includes myself (30+, primarily interested in physique enhancement and general health vs. sport specific training).
So, there is no need for things like squat racks, platforms, barbells, etc. with the approach I recommend and teach.
Skeptics might think I’m saying all this just to pump up home training during the Pandemic, and to keep my clients training with me. But I truly believe it. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be doing it myself.
Most people would benefit from practicing Essentialism and simplifying their training programs. To get you started, I set up a YouTube playlist of some of my favorite home dumbbell exercises:
3. Most need to simplify BUT INTENSIFY their training program. However, “intensity” means something different for physique training vs. performance and/or powerlifting protocols.
Intensity (as I define it) is a measure of effort. Those following my system train as close to their maximum work capacity as possible as frequently as possible. We design programs which coax the body to adapt to increasing workloads.
Muscular tissue stress is defined as intensity, and the common paradigm states that increased loads, due to their increased mechanical stress on the musculature, are therefore of higher intensity. This is only partially true, and totally misleading relative to application. It leads to a focus on quantitative (numeric) cues. Trainees are taught to focus on increasing their strength as a signal of muscular progress. This is simply not valid. It is a known fact that the higher one’s relative level of development, the less actual weight is required to induce overload.
Training focus should be on qualitative cues such as energy expenditure, oxygen debt, and fatigue. Using qualitative measures, a 10 rep set can be significantly more intense than a 5 rep set. Training hard is more productive from a hypertrophy perspective than training heavy, but they need not be mutually exclusive. In addition, how heavy one can train does not necessarily dictate how heavy one should train. — Scott Abel
Contrary to the 1RM strength theorists, it’s not the weight that works the muscles, it’s the muscles that work the weights. Again, read this over 10X’s. This is an important part of biofeedback and internal cues that is a departure from a focus on how much is on the bar lifted for how many reps. The emphasis switches then to internal aspects of performance like a perceived sense of exertion and affect; angle of contraction, muscle shortening, muscle activation potential etc. It is, as I say, an emphasis on how much stress a muscle is under; not how much weight is being lifted. – Scott Abel
There is no doubt that if improving strength is your main training goal, the majority of your training should be with relatively heavy weights (85-100% 1-rm for 1-5 reps). Strength is a specific skill. And like any other skill, it must be practiced repeatedly in order to be improved.
So, if you are training for powerlifting, Olympic lifting, or just to impress the other meatheads in the gym with your Herculean feats of strength, this should be your main rep and load range.
But training for pure strength development is different than training for muscular development/physique enhancement. And there are some limitations and considerations to training in the very low rep range for the physique athletes (injury risk, joint wear and tear, systemic fatigue and burnout), especially for certain demographics.
And most importantly, we used to think the effective training range for muscle growth (hypertrophy) was much narrower = 70-85% of your 1-repetition max for sets of 5-12 reps.
But research has shown that range is actually much wider if training with a high degree of intensity (at or near muscular failure).
Training loads and reps from 40-95% of 1-rm for roughly 3-35 reps are equally effective for building lean muscle. Don’t just take my word for it. Existing research clearly supports this stance:
Lasevicius, et al. Effects of different intensities of resistance training with equated volume load on muscle strength and hypertrophy. Eur J Sport Sci. 2018 Mar 22:1-9
Resistance training with intensity ranging 20–80% 1RM are effective to increase strength and muscle hypertrophy. However, low intensity (20% 1RM) was suboptimal for maximizing muscle hypertrophy. A wide spectrum of intensities, from 40–80% 1RM, are viable options to increase muscle mass. It is feasible that employing combinations of these intensities may enhance hypertrophic results, as well as allow for better recovery by alleviating joint-related stresses from continuous heavy-load training…
With respect to intensity, training with loads equating to 65–85% of maximum dynamic strength (1RM) has been recommended to increase strength and muscle mass
(American College of Sports Medicine, 2009). Alternatively, several studies have shown that low to moderate intensities (30–50% 1RM) promote similar gains in muscle mass compared to training with higher intensities (Lamon, Wallace, Leger, & Russell, 2009;
Leger et al., 2006;Mitchelletal.,2012; Ogasawara, Loenneke, Thiebaud, & Abe, 2013;Schoenfeld, Peterson, Ogborn, Contreras, & Sonmez, 2015). Mitchell et al. (2012) found that leg extension exercise performed at 30% 1RM until failure similarly increased quadriceps muscle volume compared to high-intensity exercise (80% 1RM) and was superior to a 30% 1RM non-failure condition. The authors speculated that this finding was due to complete recruitment of the motor unit pool when low-intensity exercise is performed to volitional failure and with a large volume of training (VT)…
Many studies have sought to compare muscular adaptations with low- versus high-intensity RT. Some have found greater increases in muscle hypertrophy with heavier intensity (Campos et al., 2002; Holm et al., 2008; Schuenke et al., 2012), while others showed no significant differences between low and high intensity (Lamon et al., 2009; Leger et al., 2006; Mitchell et al., 2012; Ogasawara et al., 2013; Popov et al., 2006; Schoenfeld et al., 2015; Tanimoto et al., 2008; Tanimoto & Ishii, 2006). A confounding issue in the majority of these studies is that VT was not equated between groups, and the few studies that endeavoured to do so all used the VT of the high-intensity group as the standard for the low-intensity group, which resulted in lower volumes for both groups and thus potentially limited muscular adaptations. It is well established that the VT plays an important role in muscular adaptations, with evidence of a dose–response relationship between volume and hypertrophy (Schoenfeld, Ogborn, & Krieger, 2017). Thus, when different intensities of RT are performed, VT must be matched at sufficiently high levels to help ensure maximal responses for each training condition….
The findings of this study call into question the American College of Sports Medicine guidelines stating that the use of loads ≥65% 1RM are required to promote hypertrophic adaptations (American College of Sports Medicine, 2009). Alternatively, our findings corroborate the results from other studies that demonstrated low-intensity RT performed until volitional failure can increase muscle mass to a similar extent as high-intensity RT at least with loads ≥40% 1RM, even when volume is equated between conditions (Mitchell et al., 2012; Ogasawara et al., 2013; Schoenfeld et al., 2015)…
Schoenfeld, et al. Strength and Hypertrophy Adaptations Between Low- vs. High-Load Resistance Training: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. J Strength Cond Res. 2017 Dec;31(12):3508-3523.
The purpose of this article was to conduct a systematic review of the current body of literature and a meta-analysis to compare changes in strength and hypertrophy between low- vs. high-load resistance training protocols. Searches of PubMed/MEDLINE, Cochrane Library, and Scopus were conducted for studies that met the following criteria: (a) an experimental trial involving both low-load training [≤60% 1 repetition maximum (1RM)] and high-load training (>60% 1RM); (b) with all sets in the training protocols being performed to momentary muscular failure; (c) at least one method of estimating changes in muscle mass or dynamic, isometric, or isokinetic strength was used; (d) the training protocol lasted for a minimum of 6 weeks; (e) the study involved participants with no known medical conditions or injuries impairing training capacity. A total of 21 studies were ultimately included for analysis. Gains in 1RM strength were significantly greater in favor of high- vs. low-load training, whereas no significant differences were found for isometric strength between conditions. Changes in measures of muscle hypertrophy were similar between conditions. The findings indicate that maximal strength benefits are obtained from the use of heavy loads while muscle hypertrophy can be equally achieved across a spectrum of loading ranges.
In the studies above, you see a common theme that links them together. A wide range of load and rep ranges are equally effective at triggering muscle growth IF training to volitional failure (momentary muscular failure).
So, you have to train “hard” to transform your physique, but you don’t necessarily have to train “heavy”. If you push yourself with moderate to even relatively lighter loads, you will build muscle.
Pushing for new PR’s (personal records) in your lifts is not just for 1-rep max load lifting. You can try to hit 10, 20, or 35 rep PR’s, and that overload stimulus will be sufficient to trigger protein synthesis.
It’s important to note that training to volitional failure for a set does not mean a total systemic shutdown where you collapse to the floor in a training-induced coma. It simply means training to the point in a set where you can’t complete another rep WITH good training form.
That last point is critical. Cheating or using momentum may allow you to lift more weight or extend a set, but often times it is taking you further away from the true stimulus that triggers growth for the specific muscle group you are targeting – localized muscular failure.
This is a tough psychological transition for those who (a) come from performance sports background and/or (b) take a more analytical/quantitative approach to most other things in life. I’m both of those by the way, so I understand how difficult it can be.
But the fact remains, and despite it being counterintuitive, that many people actually reduce training intensity by increasing their training weights, due to the deterioration of proper exercise form.
Conversely, many people would benefit by reducing their training weights, focusing more on true muscular overload, and squeezing every last ounce of effort out of the target muscle.
In other words, the weights you use should be secondary to exercise execution, and the effort exerted within every rep of every set (day to learn, but lifetime to master theory). Again, don’t just take my word for it. See what the research geeks have to say:
Wernbom, et al. The Influence of Frequency, Intensity, Volume and Mode of Strength Training on Whole Muscle Cross-Sectional Area in Humans. Sports Med 2007; 37 (3): 225-264
Regarding intensity, moderately heavy loads seem to elicit the greatest gains for most categories of training, although examples of very high rates were noted at both very low and very high intensities when the sets were performed with maximum effort or taken to muscular failure. Thus, achieving recruitment of the greatest number of muscle fibers possible and exposing them to the exercise stimulus may be as important as the training load per se.
Carpinelli, Ralph N. Resistance Training. J Exerc Sci Fit • Vol 6 • No 2 • 67–86 • 2008
Fleck and Kraemer (1997) concluded that when performing a set of repetitions, the higher-threshold motor units are recruited as the required force increases. However, higher-threshold motor units are recruited as the effort increases throughout the set, not because of increased force. If the exercise form and repetition duration remain constant as one progresses through a set of repetitions, the force requirement at any specific point in the range of motion does not increase. Because of fatiguing motor units—not increased force requirement—recruitment of larger motor units and greater rate coding activity are required to maintain the force required to complete the set. Therefore, the degree of effort—not force—increases with each repetition. It does not require a maximal or near maximal resistance (external) force to recruit the larger motor units. According to the size principle, it simply requires a maximal or near maximal effort, which occurs near or at the end of any commonly used RM performance (e.g., 3–5 RM, 8–10 RM, 10–12 RM, 12–15 RM)….
According to the size principle, there is no reason to believe that non-explosive, lower-power repetitions performed with a moderate resistance and a reasonable effort—rather than explosive high force or high power repetitions— are any less effective for the recruitment of the larger motor units…As long as an exercise is performed to volitional muscular fatigue, different load magnitudes such as 60%, 75% and 90% 1RM will result in similar complete motor unit recruitment….
The correct interpretation of the size principle and its practical application should help dedicated trainees understand what constitutes a proper stimulus for resistance training and how to apply that stimulus. That is, the size principle does not support the popular resistance training recommendation to use a maximal or near maximal resistance. The size principle and interpolated twitch studies support the contention that if maximal motor unit activation is desired, a maximal or near maximal effort at the end of a set of repetitions— regardless of the amount of external resistance—will elicit maximal motor unit activity.
4. Your diet has the biggest impact on reaching your body composition goals, AND it’s easier to establish good, physique-friendly nutrition habits when eating mostly at home.
You know my sentiments by now, because I’ve been saying the same thing since I first started in the physique coaching and fitness writing game (officially now 20 years ago).
Other than a few genetic outliers, the majority of people are wasting their time in the gym until they clean up their diet and implement a sound nutrition protocol. Until you make some changes in your nutrition habits, any training program — even the greatest training program in the world, or the revolutionary new one, or the program with all of those lost training “secrets” — will be meaningless. And as hard as it is for me to admit, even the training programs I teach will be ineffective from a body composition transformation perspective unless paired with proper nutritional strategy.
But here’s the thing that is new, at least for many of my friends and clients. They’ve learned that it’s much easier to establish good nutrition habits when eating mostly at home.
For starters, there is just much less exposure to decision fatigue that can derail making good food choices. Where should I go for dinner? What should I get? Impulse is a tough enemy to overcome. You can go into a restaurant with the best of intentions, but the sights and smells of pastries, fried foods, or the plethora of other hyperpalatable options can overwhelm you.
With a café, fast food joint, or fine dining establishment on every corner, the need for discipline is magnified exponentially. And discipline is a finite resource. If you are directing most of your discipline towards your career (which you should be, unless you’re a gym rat), there is only so much left over for your health and fitness goals.
The good news is that you can rely much less on it when eating mostly at home. You can rely on automation
But of course, the battle is won or lost even before that. It all starts at the grocery store, or these days, on the APP of your favorite food delivery service. If you buy it, you’re going to eat it at some point. So, don’t shop when you’re hungry, have just been perusing a bunch of food blogs, or just watched a fast-food commercial.
Instead, set yourself up for automated success by sticking to a physique-friendly list – a mix of animal proteins, good starches like rice and sweet potatoes, fresh and frozen vegetables and whole fruits, etc.
There is a reason that many old-school bodybuilders, bikini babes, fitness models, and other physique-focused fitness people that make a living from their leanness often have a regular rotation of meals like: Chicken/rice/broccoli; Steak/potato/carrots; Fish/sweet potato/spinach, etc. It’s because it works.
You shouldn’t learn everything from athletes; as drugs, genetics, and OCD craziness often play a factor. But you can’t completely ignore them either. The percentage of people who achieve physique success with this simple meal construction approach is more than just coincidence. This dietary foundation works well for a variety of reasons:
1. These meals are complete, nutrient dense, and provide a moderate amount of all of the macronutrients. They come in the right ratios that will help regulate blood sugar, energy, cognitive function, and satiety.
2. The portion sizes and ratios of each can be adjusted to fit most people’s specific situation, training phase, and target diet numbers.
3. These meals are moderately palatable, especially if you customize it to include the foods that you like. But they are not hyperpalatable. You’ll be eating most of the time to fuel your body’s physiological needs vs. eating for food reward. You can work in some free meals off this template to fit in cravings, and for variety and sustainability. But for the most part, if you want to stay lean in the modern food environment, you should be eating for what your body truly needs vs. making every meal a free-for-all food party based on pure intuition and impulse.
4. It makes physique-focused eating simpler and more convenient, which is critical from an execution standpoint. You can cook batches of each of your favorite food choices (a few pounds of chicken, a pot of rice, a bag of potatoes, etc.) ahead of time, and have the base ingredients pre-prepped for multiple meals.
5. It will take some initial work and discomfort in the transition period to form better eating habits. But over time, it makes the whole “eating for physique transformation process” a lot easier. When habits become automated, you eliminate decision fatigue and reduce the need for extreme discipline. It just becomes the way you eat vs. fighting impulse while trying to choose from an unlimited amount of foods.
Is that boring? Yes. But like I said, you can make it more sustainable by integrating a few free meals. This is when I would hit up a restaurant or get take-out. Let the pro’s prepare it when food reward IS more important than properly fueling your body.
Like I said, I’m likely not going back to the gym in 2021, even if I can. My goal is to compete in a natural bodybuilding/physique competition in the Fall, after exclusively training at home. Maybe I’m delusional in regards to what can be accomplished. But after the last 10-months of taking it for a test drive, I’m optimistic. So, I’m going to give it a try. At this point in my career, I need those new challenges and carrots to chase.
As for you? Who knows what the hell 2021 holds for us right? But the one thing that is certain is that I truly believe you can reach your fitness goals (if primarily general health and/or physique-focused) training exclusively at home (whether that’s by your own choice or your state’s mandates), combined with solid nutrition habits.
If you need more detailed help with either one, I invite you to check out my online courses:
Until next time, Stay Healthy, Stay Safe, & Stay Shredded!