The number one thing muscle focused gym goers think of when they’re told they have to workout at home is that there’s no way they’ll keep their muscle, or make any progress compared to the gym. Sure, using bodyweight or bands won’t be as measureable as having weights, because quantifying true progress isn’t as clear. Muscle is built by progressive tension overload (aka increasing the weight used for a given lift over time). That doesn’t make at home workouts useless though. If anything, it forces us to be smarter and really utilize good programming.
Here are some ways to keep your progress while you are stuck at home.
REPS: Since we can’t increase in weights, our only other option is to increase in reps. The research shows not only muscle maintenance, but even growth CAN still occur if you are putting a muscle through fatigue anywhere from 6-30 reps. Just keep in mind, the higher you go in reps, the closer to failure you have to go, since you aren’t getting as much tension built early on to fatigue the muscle. So if you are doing push-ups and hit 15 in the first week of quarantine, try to hit 16 or more in the second. And keep focusing on progressing that each week. You should be able to progress week to week unless the exercise was too difficult to begin with or form was sloppy.
Ideally, make sure to stay in that range. Once you are hitting 25-30 find a way to make the exercise more challenging. The subsequent recommendations can help with that.
ISOMETRIC PAUSES: I for one love these even when I’m at the gym. Most people reading this are trying to grow their muscles. A muscle can’t grow unless it’s being fired. Most of us spend too much time in the gym going through the motions but not actually firing the muscle to exhaustion. Secondary muscles come into play helping you finish the movement. Ever see someone swinging their arms when they use too heavy of a weight for curls? That won’t get you to your goals.
Take a 2-3 second contraction at the top of the movement (squeeze as hard as you can when the muscle is fully flexed). Do that for each rep. That should help bring the reps back down to the 10-20 range. By focusing on a squeeze, you’re teaching your mind-muscle connection to KEEP that intended muscle working which is how it gets the signal to grow. Stop swinging the arms to get a curl in. FOCUS on keeping a contraction!
SLOW ECCENTRICS: Another great tool for building muscle. The other facet of getting a muscle to grow is time under tension. Our muscles get broken down and built throughout that eccentric component of the lift. If you slow down the pace (don’t just drop the weight like a bro), and let the muscle get put to work by slowly lowering the weight, you’ll find a burn builds up a lot quicker for a lot less reps.
Do 3-4 second eccentrics. So if you are doing a pushup, let your body take 3-4 seconds to lower back down to the bottom position. You’ll feel more lactic acid build up, and thus give your body a stronger muscle building signal to initiate growth.
PRE-EXHAUSTION: Squats with just your body are pretty much easy for most people. I’m sure you can probably crank out 30+ before you’d get tired. Pre-exhaustion is when you take a more isolating exercise and target the muscle more directly before hitting it again with a compound.
So instead of just doing bodyweight squats, maybe try lunges with your back foot elevated on a chair, and do 10-15 reps with each leg, and THEN go into bodyweight squats. You should find those 30+ reps of squats you can do drop to half the amount. You pre-exhausted the legs by isolating each one individually so that when you got to the main lift, they were already tired BUT you still properly fatigued the intended area you want to grow.
Putting it All Together:
Weeks 1-4: add 1-2 reps from the previous week on each exercise
Weeks 5-8: 2-3 second isometric contractions for each exercise. If you can try to add a rep or two from the week before.
Weeks 9-12: Use a 3-4 eccentric negative for each exercise. If you can try to add a rep or two from the week before.
Weeks 13-16: Choose an isolating pre-exhausting exercise for the bigger movements (squats, pushups, rows, etc.) Shouldn’t really need it for smaller ones like shoulders or arms.
There you have it. That’s enough of a program, and mesocycle progression to give you a muscle BUILDING workout while being stuck at home and (hopefully) long enough to get you through the entirety of the quarantine!