Your equipment and external load might be limited, but you don’t have to throw sets, reps, and progressive overload out the window.
In today’s blog, we’re going to review how to properly construct a home workout. Please keep in mind that although the theme is training at home, as is relevant to current world happenings, the principles outlined here today can apply to almost any training scenario.
As a physical therapist and strength coach, my goal is to improve the exercise IQ of everyone I work with. I want all of my clients, patients, and athletes to leave with a better understanding of how to work out on their own, how to execute proper form, and most importantly (for some), how to structure and organize their training.
Today we’re going to discuss how to plan training while working out at home with minimal access to load.
For the purpose of this article, your goal is to build muscle and/or maintain/gain strength.
If it’s not, just play along. Sure, burning fat and having abs is cool, but you’re not about that HIIT life. Jumping up and down and doing 5-way ab circuits for 28 minutes is not your idea of a good time.
If you ever cut your rest breaks short, it’s for a grueling metabolic grinder, or to see how deep you can dig. It’s not to do fluffy exercises in your living room with an instructor on the TV looking deep into your eyes yelling “5 more reps.” GET IN THIS MINDSET.
In some applications, being moderate, or staying middle of the road means being level-headed. However, this approach does not tend to work as well in training. In general, if you want to be good at any one athletic endeavor, you have to focus the majority of your energy on it.
If a powerlifter started running 20 miles a week, it would negatively impact their lifting numbers. And if they attempted to do both, they would likely not be particularly great at either lifting or running. Once you reach an intermediate to advanced level, you have to choose a focus in order to maximize your performance.
HIIT represents the middle of the road – at least the way that people do HIIT in mainstream media. It sits in a physiology and adaptation no-man’s land. It’s not strength training, so you most certainly won’t develop high levels of strength. But it’s also not reeaaallly cardio. Manipulation of work and rest intervals can help to skew it one way or the other, towards cardio or strength.
In many of the HIIT home workouts out there, the movements are similar or even identical to those used in strength training: lunges, push-ups, jumps, squats, etc. The difference is in the application: sequencing one after the other with minimal rest forces you to use completely different energy systems and muscle fibers as compared to strength training. Your body ‘thinks’ it’s cardio.
Any strength gains seen from HIIT are typically experienced by those who have minimal strength training background. If you go from being sedentary, or only doing low intensity steady state cardio, and you begin HIIT, you will experience beginner gains. But for those of us with our beginner gains many years behind us, HIIT might actually accelerate muscle loss.
Your body will always attempt to optimize itself based on the stresses and various demands you impose on it. If you resistance train, and consume sufficient calories, your body will attempt to pack on lean mass and increase muscle cross sectional area in order to make you better at moving heavy things. And if you’re doing high repetition, low effort movement that doesn’t ever cause high levels of local muscle tension, your muscles will organize to optimize for high rates of oxidation, rather than contraction strength. It’s really just that simple.
Now don’t read this and think, man that guy hates HIIT. Because if you thought that, you’d be wrong. I actually love HIIT, but performed alongside or after strength training, not in replacement of getting strong. HIIT can be a GREAT method of cardiovascular exercise for small to medium doses, and it does not have to interfere with strength, as long as it’s done in small to medium doses.
If your goal is strength, muscle growth, or physique oriented, and you don’t have time to work out all day, it is highly recommended that you focus on strength training, and do the minimum level of cardiovascular exercise you need for health, longevity, and energy balance.
Sorry boot campers, but an air squat done for time in between sets of treadmill runs and battle rope slams does not count as strength training – that’s cardio. And if you use the same weights every week, and never push yourself close to failure with ample rest in between each set, then you haven’t actually strength trained, but instead just done resistance training. That’s cool and all, but it’s not the same.
In Citizen Athletics Sustainable Strength programming we use HIIT principles for specific circuits 1-3 days per week, but the majority of our time is still spent doing regular strength training.
We also use minimal rest periods for some of our accessory work and warm-up exercises, but this is done with the understanding that it’s not a sprint. For many strength and power focused athletes, HIIT can be an effective method to achieve the health benefits of cardio exercise and maintain a cardio base without spending a lot of extra time conditioning.
HIIT works best as a complement, rather than the true substance of the workout.
And for endurance athletes: runners, cyclers, and the like, HIIT should be used sparingly. Many endurance athletes will benefit more from strength training as a cross-training method, rather than an additional high impact exercise modality. Strength training can be a better option to help them improve overall load capacity, tendon strength, muscular power, and weak points in their overall running performance.
Phew! OK…. so now that I got that off my chest, let’s talk about what we’re here for. How to actually build a non-HIIT, strength focused program at home. Well, that’s easy!
First, we have to sift through the conflicting advice on the internet. Just turn it off. The noise it creates and confusion that ensues is oftentimes a hindrance to progress. If you see a new exercise on Instagram you’ve never seen before, chances are it’s dumb and not necessary. I am here to simplify things for you- let’s stick with the basics.
Progressive overload dictates our ability to adapt.
In strength training, we achieve overload by increasing challenge in any one variable. Overload can happen in many forms, and as long as it can be quantified then we can ensure that we’re making progress. The quantification of training allows us to calculate, manipulate, track, describe, and prescribe exercise. The most common training variables are sets, reps, and weight.
Secondarily, advanced trainees typically also take into account tempo (inter-rep timing), percentage intensity, and rating of perceived exertion (RPE) or reps in reserve (RIR). RIR is also known as how many reps left in the tank.
Now if we break down these variables, we can easily identify which one we’re lacking in home workouts: weight. However, we have all other variables at our disposal to use. We’re going to focus on slow tempo, rest pause sets, drop sets, and pulses or pauses. From week 1 to week 4, you won’t be able to increase weight. But can you increase reps, or slow things down? Can you do seven 1.5 reps before you have to switch to normal single reps?
There are many advanced methods that can help to increase the relative intensity of a set, or a workout, without requiring any extra equipment or weight.
One tried and true method is strategically reducing rest time between specific exercises, commonly known as super sets, drop sets, or rest pause sets. Other methods include altering the execution of an exercise to manipulate body position, targeting specific joints and muscles differently through form, and focusing on specific parts of a range of motion that may be more challenging or advantageous positions to train in.
For this purpose of this article today we will not cover the integration of these methods into a training program, however they are all used in the Citizen Athletics Home Muscle Building Program, which is available to all members.
As far as exercise selection is concerned, we are going to be limited at home.
Our Citizen Athletics Home Muscle Building Program utilizes dozens of new and creative exercises designed to be able to challenge you at home with no equipment, but we can’t give away all our secrets in this article! We are pretty proud of some of the movements we came up with, but we’ll be the first to admit that our options are still limited as compared to a gym.
That being said, there are enough effective movements out there to challenge almost anyone at home. The hardest body part is the back, however utilizing a table or doorway can be helpful to support body weight.
Now that we’ve covered exercise selection, sets, reps, and advanced methods, the last issue to tackle is the training split. The best body split for a home workout is typically going to be full body.
Due to the limited exercise variety, combined with lower total loads, a higher frequency training approach will allow you to hit each body part every day without accumulating too much fatigue. Remember, just because you don’t get sore doing these workouts doesn’t mean they aren’t working. Soreness is not a great indicator of muscle growth or stimulating reps.
It is our hope that you can take this information, pick some challenging exercises, and put together a plan for home. And if you want some help, don’t forget to check out the Citizen Athletics Home Muscle Building Program.
We lay it all out for you in the most unique and strength oriented home workout program on the market!
Thanks for reading fam.