If you’re currently in lockdown, concerned about losing muscle, with no access to a gym and no equipment at home, and you want a simple but effective workout that will help you retain (maybe even gain) muscle mass, this page will show you what to do.
Here’s the story.
Unless you’ve recently arrived from a parallel universe (in which case I highly suggest going back, as the s**t has well and truly hit the fan over here), you are no doubt aware of the virus that’s sweeping the world and causing mayhem.
Not only is it an economic and healthcare catastrophe, but gyms across the world are closing their doors, leaving a lot of people with nowhere to train.
I’ve had plenty of emails from people who are stuck at home with no equipment, and no space to accommodate a home gym. They’re concerned about losing muscle, and don’t want to see months (if not years) of hard work go down the pan as the crisis drags on.
So, I’ve recorded a few videos to show you what can be done with your own bodyweight, some bits and bobs you might have lying around the house, and a bit of creativity.
First, the bad news.
Working out at home with little or no equipment isn’t going to deliver the same results you get with a well-equipped gym. So I’m not going to say it’s just as good because I don’t think it is.
But, it’s a lot better than sitting around twiddling your thumbs, or checking the news 354 times a day.
At worst, it’ll keep things ticking over until the gyms open and things get back to normal. At best, you might end up stimulating a bit of extra growth here and there.
Anyway, let me show you some of the exercises I think you’ll find useful. I’ll talk more about sets, reps and training frequency, as well as laying out a sample training program you can use, in a moment.
First up, we have the quads, hamstrings and glutes.
Exercises like bodyweight squats do work the muscles in your quads and glutes. Problem is, unless you’re very weak, you’ll be able to do dozens of them before fatigue sets in. And studies show that doing super high-reps (i.e. 60-70) isn’t a particularly effective way to stimulate muscle growth.
You’re better off working one leg at a time, with an exercise like the Bulgarian split squat or reverse lunge. This makes it easier to add load, and usually means fatiguing your muscles with fewer reps.
In both of the videos below, I’m using a rucksack loaded with stones, fractional plates, and dumbbells to add resistance. I’m also wearing a weighted vest, which brings the total amount of weight I’m lifting (on top of my own bodyweight) to around 50 pounds (22.5 kilograms).
If you have a wooden or tiled floor, you can do sliding leg curls, where you put a towel under your feet and slide them back and forth. This works both the hamstrings and glutes.
Single-Leg Glute Bridge
If you don’t have a slidy floor, the single-leg glute bridge, with the feet placed further away from the body than the standard glute bridge, is another option for working your hamstrings.
This is one of those exercises that doesn’t look like it’s doing much. But if you get your foot positioned in the right place, you will feel your hamstrings working pretty hard. So play around with the position of your foot – as you move it further away from your body, you’ll feel it more in your hamstrings.
Pull-ups and chin-ups are the obvious choice for training your back. But if you don’t have access to a pull-up bar, or you’re not strong enough to do pull-ups/chin-ups, try the inverted row.
It’s been shown to work many of the muscles in the upper back just as well as the barbell row, but with less load on the spine.
The inverted row is usually done with a suspension trainer (like a TRX or Jungle Gym) or gymnastic rings. But even just a bit of rope will do the job. In the video, I’m using a tow rope that I got from B&Q, which I threw over the beams in my garage.
Research shows that the push-up does a great job of stimulating growth in the chest and triceps.
In one study, four weeks of push-ups delivered gains in muscle size that were no different to those seen with the bench press. In another, eight weeks of training with the bench press or push-up delivered similar gains in muscle thickness in both the chest and triceps.
Another option for training your shoulders is the single-arm overhead press. In this video, I’ve wrapped a belt around a weighted vest to provide resistance, which also comes in handy for training your biceps and triceps.
For the exercises that involve working one side of the body at a time, that’s 3-5 work sets per side, not in total.
With the Bulgarian split squat, for example, you’d do as many reps as you can on one side. Then you’d stop, have a rest and catch your breath. Switch to the other leg and do the same thing again. Rinse and repeat until you’ve done the required number sets on both legs, then move on to the next exercise.
What about reps?
The reason I haven’t prescribed a specific number of reps is because I have no idea how strong you are.
If I told you to do sets of 10-12 reps, but you were really capable of doing 20 reps, there wouldn’t be much of a stimulus for growth. On the flip side, there’s no point me telling you to do 20 reps of an exercise if you’re only able to do 5 reps.
Muscle growth is best achieved by pushing each set to within a rep or two of technical failure – the point where fatigue stops you from completing another rep. You want to do as many good reps as you can in each set, but not at the expense of good form.
Reaching this point sends a signal to your muscles that they need to adapt by growing bigger and stronger for next time. Your muscles need to be given a reason to grow, or they’ll remain stuck at the same size they are right now.
Both high reps and low reps can be used to gain muscle, so it won’t matter too much if you end up doing 5 reps, 10 reps or 30. Just focus on pushing yourself hard in each set.
Finally, keep in mind that it takes less work to maintain muscle mass than it does to build it.
In one study, subjects cut back on the amount of training they did from three days a week to just one, and the number of sets per exercise from three to one. Despite the big drop in training volume, subjects were able to maintain most of their muscle mass.
So don’t worry if you’re not doing as much training as you were before. A full-body workout, performed 2-4 times a week, should be enough to keep things ticking over while the gyms are shut.
Christian Finn is the nation’s leading authority on science-based, joint-friendly ways to build muscle. A former “trainer to the trainers,” he holds a masters degree in exercise science, and has been featured in or contributed to major media on two continents, including the BBC and Sunday Times in the U.K. and Men’s Health and Men’s Fitness in the U.S.