Six Ways To Make Home Workouts More Challenging
It's all about doing more with light weights
On paper, home workouts have a lot of advantages. You don’t have to commute, there’s no wait time for any of the equipment, and there are arguably fewer distractions.
In practice, for many people home workouts feel more distracting and less motivating. I know that’s the case for me– being in the gym is a big part of what helps me get “in the zone.” Furthermore, the limited equipment, and often the low maximum available weight, end up limiting your ability to train productively. This becomes a bigger factor the stronger you get, so more advanced, larger-framed and/or male trainees tend to get less value out of home workouts.
While dealing with distraction and motivation are subjects for another article, the physical limitations of home workouts can certainly be dealt with.
Now, this article largely assumes you don’t have gym-quality equipment, like barbells or a cable machine, at home. These tips are still helpful if you do, but they’re largely geared towards getting around the limitation of having lower maximum weights to work with. For instance, I only have resistance bands, adjustable weight dumbbells and occlusion training bands at home.
A drop set is a type of set in which you train to failure or near-failure, and then immediately do another, slightly easier set targeting the same muscle group. In some cases you may do this three or four times, powerfully post-fatiguing the targeted muscles.
There are two styles of drop set: traditional and mechanical advantage drop sets.
Traditional drop sets are better-known, and simpler in concept. Once you do as many sets as you can of a given exercise, you reduce the weight and do another set of the same exercise.
In the gym, this is commonly done either with machines, or with multiple sets of dumbbells. At home, most people don’t have a full set of heavy dumbbells, and adjustable-weight dumbbells can take too long to change the weights on.
Instead, the best option for doing these at home is to use resistance bands. You could, for instance, perform a set of pull-ups, followed by another set using a Spartan strength band to assist yourself.
As for mechanical advantage drop sets, those consist of stringing together two to four exercises that utilize the same muscles, in ascending order of how much weight you can use with a given exercise. For instance, you could do pull-ups followed by chin-ups, or lat raises followed by dumbbell shoulder presses. The same weight is generally used for all exercises in the sequence.
In some cases you can combine both types of drop set– for instance, you could do pull-ups, then chin-ups, then pull-ups assisted by a resistance band, then chin-ups assisted by a resistance band.
Work From A Deficit
No, that doesn’t mean busting your budget. To train from a deficit is to elevate your feet– or your hands with exercises like pushups where your hands are on the floor– so that the range of motion of an exercise can be extended slightly below the normal “bottom” of the movement.
This is not necessary with all exercises, but some exercises benefit from a deficit in order to better match the full range of motion of the muscles involved.
With pushups for instance, your face touching the floor forces an endpoint to the movement, when your chest, shoulders and triceps actually have a few more inches to their useful range of motion. By elevating your hands on a pair of small foam or plastic blocks, you can extend the bottom of the pushup’s range a few more inches. This helps work the chest in particular, which is most fully engaged near the bottom of a pushup.
Most of the skeletal muscles in the human body are arrange in antagonistic pairs– that is, pairs that move a body part in the opposite direction. Your bicep for instance bends your arm, while your tricep straightens it.
Because your muscles somewhat work against each other, you can increase your power output for a given exercise by pre-fatiguing the antagonist muscle. This would be accomplished by performing a superset of two exercises which move the same body part in opposite directions– bench press and rows, for instance, or pull-ups and shoulder presses.
Studies show that agonist-antagonist supersets provide a greater return per unit of time spent in the gym (or your home gym as the case may be) compared to traditional sets.
Some other studies have found it matters which order you do the two exercises in– for instance, bench press before rows works better than rows before bench press.
In general it seems that the more fast-twitch dominant muscle should be trained first. For most upper body supersets this will mean doing the pushing movement (chest, triceps) before the pulling movement (triceps, back). For lower body, it will mean training the hamstring-dominant movement before the more quadriceps-dominant movement.
Move During Your Rest Periods
Active recovery doesn’t get talked about much, but quite a few studies show that staying at least somewhat active while recovering from exercise provides better results than total inactivity.
A systematic research review found that trainees actually had more power, and in some cases less perceived exertion, when they stayed active in between sets. In practice this usually means doing some light calisthenics, such as using a jump-rope, between sets.
The same principle applies in between workouts– you should try to get more light activity, such as going for walks or working while standing up. If you work from home or otherwise can’t get out much, you should make an extra effort to do this.
One final way to get around the limitations of only having lighter weights– or limited equipment– available at home is to perform paused reps.
Simply put, this means pausing for a second or two at the hardest part of the movement, such as the bottom of a squat or pushup, or the top of a chin-up.
This technique works great for home workouts because when the weights are too light, the easier portion of an exercise can be so easy it almost feels restful. By focusing on the hardest part, you’re able to compensate for using a lighter weight.
This technique can effectively be combined with drop-sets by performing paused reps until near failure, and then switching to unpaused reps.
Occlusion training, also known as Kaatsu training or blood-flow restriction training, is a style of training in which tourniquet-like training bands are tied around the thighs or upper arms to restrict blood flow to those limbs. This makes lifting weights a lot more difficult- you can’t lift nearly as heavy of a weight with them on. Generally, you can lift about 30-50% of the weight you could normally lift.
Research shows that occlusion training is about as effective as normal weight training– not more so, but not less so either. That makes it a great option for people who have access to lighter weights. As an added bonus, the lower weights mean lower mechanical stress on your joints, so they protect against joint and tendon injuries. I use occlusion training when I’m recovering from an injury.
Oddly enough, occlusion training even improves muscular hypertrophy in non-occluded joints. Having bands around your arms during a bench press produces more pectoral hypertrophy, and occluding your thighs during squats helps build your glutes. It’s a little unclear why this is; possibly the non-occluded muscles work harder to compensate for weakness in the occluded muscles. In any case, Kaatsu training aids with every muscle other than for core exercises where the limbs aren’t involved.
Your home gym will never be as well-equipped as a commercial gym– but with the right techniques, you can train productively with just a few key pieces of equipment and an investment of two or three hundred dollars.