Optimizing Your Home Exercise for Strength Gains

Picture this: You are safe in your home, not much around you to lift, push, or pull (aside from your own body weight), but you need to gain, or at least maintain, your current muscular strength because the apocalypse is here and who knows what will come next.

Too real right now?

Maybe you don’t have this concern (…this blog might not be up your alley in that case). But if you do, I would like to share a few strategies with you that might step up your home workout game. 

First and foremost, we need to recognize the elephant in the room. Your current training routine is most likely unlike your prior routine and will have an impact on what you can achieve during this down time. I only know a handful of people that are still pulling heavy weight off of the floor and pushing their training volume in a similar fashion as pre-quarantine life.

If you are not one of the lucky ones out there (or maybe you don’t care to be, and that’s okay), it is DIFFICULT to maintain your strength and conditioning as a fitness athlete. I’m sorry. Training volume and intensity is critical, and when you can’t push or pull the same weight you were used to, body weight probably isn’t going to cut it. Obviously the point of this article is to provide you with SOMETHING that may help manage your strength and conditioning, so stay with me here. In truth, this blog is likely more beneficial for the beginner or novice fitness athlete. Let’s get on with it.

Let’s begin with a very popular form of exercise that is sweeping the world: HIIT workouts. High intensity interval training. Though this is a quick and efficient form of exercise, a lot of HIIT workouts are designed to target the cardiovascular system improvements (which I hope everyone can attest to if they’ve tried one of these before). Depending on design, you may also see improvements in muscular endurance (for example, if you target the same muscle multiple times in the same workout), but this isn’t always the case.

At the end of the day, these are great workouts and are probably a great option for a lot of people, but as far as strength or hypertrophy (muscle growth) are concerned, they will miss the mark. That isn’t to say that you will not gain strength, because you will feel stronger… but without getting too complicated, this is most likely an adaptation of your nervous system to exercise (1).

In order to focus our body’s attention towards strength and hypertrophy adaptations, we need to do the opposite of HIIT workout mantras: slow it down and take the occasional break (among other things).

So now what? Your training IQ as a beginner or novice fitness athlete may be centered around cardio and HIIT workouts, so you might be lost as to where to go from here. It is simple though. Using your current exercise database procured from your HIIT workouts, we can use the same exercise and simply change how we execute them. Gone are the days where you hammered out 10 reps of 5 exercises in 1 minute; now is the time for slow, controlled, and deliberate movement! 

Before we get into the potential techniques you can implement in your daily exercise to refocus your training goals, here are a few important features of training this way: 

  1. Any added weight, when possible, is welcome and helpful. Be creative. Grab a kettlebell, resistance bands, your cat, or a pan of lasagna to add resistance to your movements. 
  2. Exercise technique is important in targeting the muscles that were intended to be targeted. Changing the inclination of your torso and hip position in a squat will bias different muscle groups, as an example, so be cognizant of where YOU feel it.
  3. Strength gains, generally speaking, require regular training. Two or three sessions per week of a specific muscle group is typically the recommendation for strength and hypertrophy gains (2). 
  4. You need to fatigue THE area of the body where you are trying to implement strength gains (3). This will feel different to every person, but to me personally I equate this to that area of my body feeling like it is full of lead.

Now that we understand a few principles that we can implement at home, let’s talk about exercise modification to exploit some of the physiological processes affecting strength and hypertrophy. Again, these scientifically researched concepts are more applicable to the fitness athlete that is beginner to novice when added resistance is not an option, but we are stuck between a rock and a hard place right now so you might as well give it a chance!

One of the major principles of training that I’ve alluded to above, which can promote both strength and hypertrophy, is movement speed. Slower movement speed during exercise has been shown numerous times to elicit strength and hypertrophy gains (4, 5). Though this may not be the superior method of strength training when heavy weight/resistance is available, it can be effective when no resistance or minimal resistance are your only options. On top of this, the concept of ‘time under tension’ (literally the time a muscle is under tension from movement/resistance) has also been explored and shown to have positive effects on neuromuscular system development.

As time under tension increases fatigue will develop, which I hope is a no-brainer (…remember, we need fatigue to stimulate a response to exercise) (6). Additional research has also shown a greater anaerobic energy expenditure with slower movement execution, with anaerobic energy being the more commonly used muscle fuel source in high intensity strength training programs (7). Though these may not be absolutes, as rarely anything ever is in research and science, we can work off of these ideas. Here are a few ways you can exploit these principles at home (we will use the example of a squat):

  1. Slow down your movement: Execute both the up and down phase of the squat over a period of at least 5 seconds (moving the entire time). You can change the time based on your ability. Do the same number of repetitions as you would previously at a lightning pace to see the impact it can make.
  2. Pause during the movement (NOT in the relaxed position): try pausing at the bottom of the squat for 3 to 5 seconds before standing up. Or pause at the half-way point on the way up or down for the same amount of time. 
  3. Oscillate at the hardest portion of the exercise: Go down to your lowest position on the squat and oscillate up-and-down by 4-6 inches. Try this for 30 seconds or more. Eventually you won’t feel your legs after 4 or 5 sets.
  4. Increase your repetitions: 5 sets of 10 bodyweight squats seems too easy? Try doing 5 sets of 25, or 5 sets of 50. This WILL make you sweat like a HIIT workout, but those jelly-legs might be a new sensation. *make sure you still go full-depth squat!

Aside from the above, we can also consider something as simple as exercise selection and workout planning. For example, you are doing 5 sets of 4 exercises in your workout routine today. The exercises are in the following order: squats, push-ups, lunges, and tricep dips. Great, you are hitting a bunch of muscle groups and exercising for probably 20-30 minutes.

Now, with a simple change in the order of your exercises to squats, lunges, push-ups, and tricep dips, we can develop more muscular fatigue in a couple of muscle groups and  positively affect how our body responds. In essence you are trying to overload a muscle group in order to stimulate a response, so following up a leg exercise with another leg exercise will increase your chances of developing fatigue. You probably need more than the workout above to make a change, but the principles are there. 

Lastly, a hot new training method called ‘blood flow restriction training’ is being implemented in the rehab setting with devices now out on the market for the consumer (disclaimer: medical consultation before use is VERY important here). The idea behind this style of training is that you can theoretically limit the volume of blood flow to the limb you are exercising with a special blood pressure cuff.

When you do this, research has demonstrated that you can increase muscle strength and hypertrophy using weight/load lower than what you would normally lift in the gym (8). Though it is still considered inferior to traditional high load, high volume, high intensity training, it does show promise in settings where weights are difficult to come by (such as your current home).

So hopefully you can see that all hope is not lost, and with a little creativity and planning you can come out the other end of this quarantine potentially stronger than you previously were. As always, this blog is not a replacement for individualized advice that your current health care or rehab specialist can provide, so please reach out to them or myself if you have any questions or inquiries on how you can best implement these strategies at home.

Thanks for reading!

References:

  1. Kinnunen, J-V, Piitulainen, H, and Piirainen, J M. Neuromuscular Adaptations to Short-Term High-Intensity Interval Training in Female Ice-Hockey Players. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. Feb 2019; 33(2): 479-485. 
  2. Zatsiorsky, V M, and Kraemer, W J. Science and Practice of Strength Training, second edition. USA: Human Kinetics; 2006.
  3. Rooney, K J, Herbert, R D, and Balnave R J. Fatigue contributes to the strength training stimulus. Med Sci Sports Exerc. Sept 1994; 26(9): 1160-4.
  4. Westcott, W L,  Winett, R A, Anderson, E S, Wojcik,  J R, Loud, R L, Cleggett, E, and Glover, S. Effects of regular and slow speed resistance training on muscle strength. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. June 2001; 41(2): 154-8.
  5. Pereira, P E, Motoyama, Y L, Esteves, G J, Quinelato, W C, Botter, L, Tanaka, K H, and Azevedo, P. Resistance training with slow speed of movement is better for hypertrophy and muscle strength gains than fast speed of movement.  International J Applied Exercise Physiology. July 2016; 5(2): 37-43. 
  6. Tran, Q T, Docherty, D, and Behm D. The effects of varying time under tension and volume load on acute neuromuscular responses. Eur J Appl Physiol. Sept 2006; 98: 402-410.
  7. Scott, C B. The effect of time-under-tension and weight lifting cadence on aerobic, anaerobic, and recovery energy expenditures: 3 submaximal sets. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. March 2012; 37: 252-6.
  8. Hughes, L, Paton, B, Rosenblatt, B, Gissane, C, and Patterson, S D. Blood flow restriction training in clinical musculoskeletal rehabilitation: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Br J Sports Med. March 2017; 51(13): 1003-1011. 

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