If you’re used to exercising at the gym, it can be difficult to get into the swing of strength training at home. Your gym is likely packed with all the equipment you need: barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, weight machines, resistance bands, and cardio machines, just to name a few.
Your house, on the other hand, probably pales in comparison. Maybe you have a resistance band or mini-band, and if you dig hard enough through the boxes in your garage, maybe you can find an old kettlebell. Or maybe you do have some equipment—like a pair or two of dumbbells—but they are just way lighter than what you’re used to working with at the gym.Your workout routine, like pretty much every other aspect of life, has been altered in a huge way with the spread of the new coronavirus, and it’s only natural to feel stressed about it. But try not to worry that your fitness is going to take a huge hit just because you won’t have your regular equipment in front of you, says Tony Gentilcore, C.S.C.S., founder of Core in Brookline, MA. In fact, strength and cardio endurance tend to stick around for awhile.
“Even if we are not training at the same intensity or the frequency we are normally used to, anything we can do during this time frame to just stay active and remind our muscles and nervous system of what physical activity feels like is going to help us maintain quite a bit of those qualities,” he says.
So if maintaining your fitness is something you’ve been stressing about, you can breathe a little easier knowing working out at home can still keep it humming along quite nicely. If at-home workouts have just been stressing you out because, well, they don’t feel as hard as what you’re used to at the gym? We’ve got you covered on that front, too.
Here, 10 tips you should definitely try to make strength training at home feel way more effective—regardless of what equipment you may (or may not) have at hand.
1. Increase your range of motion.
One way to make exercises feel harder without adding weight is by increasing your range of motion, says Gentilcore.
“When you’re taking your muscles through a longer range of motion, they’re doing more work,” he says.
Some easy ways to do this: Instead of doing a regular split squat (which is a stationary lunge), you can elevate your front foot on a step or even a sturdy book. You’ll be bringing your leg down (and up) a greater distance, so you’ll start to feel it working with less weight and fewer reps. Likewise, you can elevate your feet when doing sumo squats, so the weight, if you’re holding one, will travel farther since you can squat lower. Same concept applies to push-ups. Elevating your feet on a stool or coffee table can increase your range of motion and make it harder as well.
2. Do your reps more slowly.
Sounds counterintuitive, but doing an exercise slower can actually make it feel way harder, says Dane Miklaus, C.S.C.S., CEO and owner of Work training studio in Irvine, California. Don’t believe it? Next time you’re doing bodyweight squats, spend 4 or 5 seconds on the lowering phase, pause at the bottom, and then spend 4 or 5 seconds coming back up.
“When you’re pausing in the hold for 1, 2, or even 5 seconds, you are mechanically in a weaker position, and you have to hold your bodyweight there and maintain tension,” Gentilcore says. “You are putting the muscles under strain for a longer duration of time.”
This technique also works for exercises you’d use weight with—say, a dumbbell row, but with weight that’s not as heavy as you normally use. You’ll simply pause at the end of the movement before reversing back to starting position. In this case, you’d hold it for a couple seconds at the top position, when your elbow is past your back. These pauses bring an added bonus, too: “It keeps people honest with technique,” Gentilcore says. “You can’t cheat.” That means no jerking weight that’s too heavy for you through the reps.
3. Try unfamiliar movements.
When you do a brand new move, there is a lag time from when your brain tries to figure out the new movement to when it really masters it, says Miklaus. “So if you want to intensify your workout, just trying new stuff a lot of times is going to be a good challenge for people.”
That can mean trying whole new ways to move—say, a lateral lunge instead of a typical forward or backward lunge—or types of workouts. If you haven’t done Pilates, a Pilates routine will smoke you. Same goes for barre, yoga, or HIIT.
“Just step outside your comfort zone in your home workout. Stream a video of something you might have never thought of trying before,” he says. (These free at-home workout apps can help you get started.)
4. Use new rep schemes.
You can also challenge your brain (and your body) with different rep processes—it doesn’t always need to be straight up-down, for instance.
Gentilcore likes “1-1/2″ reps, where you pretty much extend the rep by adding a half rep to the end of the full range-of-motion rep.
“So if you are doing a kettlebell deadlift off the floor, you’ll come all the way up and lock out at the top, go halfway down, come back up and lock it out again, and then go back down to the floor,” he says. “You can make lighter loads seem heavier when increasing time under tension.”
Another option is the start-stop rep, says Miklaus. Unlike with a pause rep, you’ll completely cut off the move at the bottom of the rep—meaning you’ll need to use more force to get it going again.
You can try this with a push-up. When your chest hits the floor, you’ll actually pull your shoulder blades together so that your palms are hovering over the floor —”you actually turn your pec muscles off,” he says—before putting your hands back on the ground and pushing back up. (By taking your hands off the floor, you’re stopping the momentum that makes it easier to push back up into a plank—you’re pretty much starting from scratch when you try to push back up, which makes these start-stop reps more challenging). A squat would work, too: You’d simply squat down to a sturdy, low stool or bench, sit down on that, and then stand up out of it.
5. Get creative with supersets.
I’m a straight-sets weight lifter: I like to do my set, take ample rest (at least 2 minutes), and then do it all over again. That helps keep me fresher to lift heavy weights on each subsequent set. But when you’re strength training at home and don’t have heavy weights to lift, the superset (which is when you don’t rest between two different exercises) becomes a little more appealing, especially when you program them carefully: Supersets that work the same muscle groups back-to-back can help pre-exhaust your muscles, so you feel the challenge without having to crank out tons and tons of reps, says Gentilcore.
One of his favorites: walking lunges (or regular lunges, depending on how much space you have), where you leave three reps in the tank, and then go directly into tempo squats (either bodyweight or with your light dumbbells), with a 5-second down phase, a pause, and then 5 more seconds to come back up.
You can also take the same premise and apply it to upper-body work, subbing in push-ups and a chest press or overhead press instead of the lunges and squats, he says. That’s the concept I’m using with my workouts now—I love that I still feel the muscles working hard, but don’t have to spend as much time banging out rep after rep to get there.
6. Focus on single-leg work.
Unilateral exercises, where you work one side of your body at a time, like with a lunge, split squat, or single-leg glute bridge, are super important because they help correct muscle imbalances, ACE-certified personal trainer Sivan Fagan, founder of Strong With Sivan in Baltimore, MD, tells SELF. But they’re also super challenging at way lower weights than you’d use for bilateral moves.
She recommends focusing on unilateral work when you don’t have access to the heavier weights that you’d use for bilateral moves like deadlifts or squats, and to perform them slowly, especially during the eccentric (or the lowering) phase of the move.
7. Do more reps.
If you want to make an exercise feel harder, the first thing you’re probably going to do is add weight to it. If that’s not an option when you’re strength training at home? Simply doing more reps is a close-second tactic.
You can still make your muscles work hard using lighter weights—or no weights at all—by increasing the number of reps, says Miklaus. When you reach 70 to 90 percent fatigue, that’s when you should end the set, he says. Think of it like keeping a couple reps in your reserve tank so you’re not going to failure on each set.
Higher rep counts, like in the 15 to 20 range, help work your muscular endurance, which can be a nice change of pace for people who usually lift heavier at the gym, says Gentilcore.
While boosting your rep count is a good way to make exercises feel harder, you do need to be careful about those high-rep challenges flooding social media (like 100 squats, 100 push-ups, and 100 crunches as your workout, for instance.) If your body isn’t used to working in these super high-rep ranges—and let’s be honest, whose is?—your form can break down quickly, and it can stress your joints and leave you open to injury, too, Gentilcore says.
Real talk: While doing more reps is effective, it can also bore the hell out of you if you have to do that for every exercise. So you might want to make sure you’re using these other options for a welcome change, too.
8. Use mini-bands for your workout—not just the warm-up.
If you have tools like mini-bands or resistance bands that you normally use for warming up or stretching, now is the time to pull them into double duty.
“Mini-bands are great because they uplevel a lot of things,” Miklaus says. “It’s pulling your legs together when it’s around your ankles, shins, or knees, which makes squats, deadlifts, or glute bridges a heck of a lot more challenging.” You can also put them around your wrists—try to keep them 10-12 inches away from each other—when doing upper-body exercises like rows, push-ups, bicep curls, or front raises to really help those muscles fire. The result: The same amount of muscular fatigue—with less weight (and fewer reps) needed to get there.
9. Make your own “weights” with what you have in the house.
Your house could be a treasure trove of free resistance if you look around with a discerning eye. Sure, you can use the tried-and-true soup cans if you just need light weights—standard cans are about 10 ounces, so well under a pound—but looking a little deeper can help you heft a little heavier.
Water, wine, and liquor bottles are slightly more substantial, and water and milk jugs are even heavier than that. (Plus, the handles on the jugs make them helpful for moves like rows). If you want to get more DIY, you can fill the jugs with something other than water to increase the weight, like sand or a mixture of pebbles and water, says Miklaus. (One of his clients even made his own set of “dumbbells” by filling different sized bottles with concrete, and while that’s probably a bit extra for most of us, we do applaud the effort.)
Bags of cat litter or pet food can provide a good amount of load, and if you’re an experienced lifter familiar with how weight should feel on your back (like if you’re doing a barbell back squat or barbell lunge), you can fill up a backpack with books and use that to perform the exercises, he says.
As for non-weight equipment, it’s pretty easy to mimic sliders or gliders, which you can use for things like abs exercises or leg curls. Towels on hardwood floors work for that, as do disposable plates or Tupperware lids for carpet, Miklaus says.
If you are DIY-ing your own weights, just take some time first to get used to the new load: Take some practice reps slow, and make sure your form remains on target before completing your first working set.
10. Combine these tips to make a super-killer workout.
These tips don’t have to live in isolation—many of them work in happy harmony together to give you an even greater challenge.
For instance, when creating a superset that works the same muscle groups, you can make sure your first exercise uses extra range of motion—say, you’re split-squatting with your front foot elevated—and some of your DIY added resistance (maybe holding a water bottle in each hand). Then you can follow that up with a bodyweight squat with a mini-band around your knees to make that second move a little harder, too.
Or, you can pick a single-leg exercise and really play with its tempo, says Fagan.
“If I were to tell you, do Bulgarian split squats, where you put one foot up in the back, and do it for 5 seconds on the way down, pause at the bottom for 2 seconds, and come back up quickly, with no weight, that will feel super intense,” Fagan says. “And that’s compared to if I told you to do the same exercise, regular tempo, but with 15 pounds in each hand.”