You need heavy compound lifts to build muscle.
Light weights don’t build muscle.
These are common trains of thought that you’ll see when researching strength training, or that you might infer from following your favorite fitness influencers.
If this is the mainstream mentality, 2020 has surely been a nightmare year for any gym fanatics.
When it first became a reality that there would be no access to heavy weights for the foreseeable future, panic set in for weightlifting-lovers around the globe.
There will be no hope of making progress. Worse yet, I’ll lose all my hard earned muscle.
Well, here we are over 5 months later, and I feel I have learned more about training in a few months than in multiple years combined.
Not only is it possible to maintain muscle and a decent amount of strength, I’ve also found a lot of benefits from lowering the weight, focusing on form, and re-thinking what it takes to build and maintain muscle.
How To Build & Maintain Muscle Without A Gym
Without access to a gym, you’ll likely lose some of your maximum strength (think personal records for heavy lifts), but you likely won’t lose any muscle mass if you train consistently a couple times a week. Plus, your strength will likely return quickly once you resume your normal training.
- Change your mentality: body weight and light weights can go a long way. If you have the ability to get your hands on a singular 20-35 pound weight, along with some resistance bands, you’re more than well enough equipped to get some great workouts in. If not, never underestimate the power of body weight exercises. The number one most important element for building and maintaining muscle without access to gym equipment is the belief that it is possible. Change the narrative within yourself.
- Don’t talk yourself out of skipping workouts just because you don’t have a gym! I know this sounds obvious, but again, this can be a mental battle. For starters, it can be difficult when stuck at home to motivate yourself to exercise. Your bed or couch are nearby. You’re in the same space as you complete your relaxing after-work activities such as watching Netflix, reading, eating , whatever it may be. Gyms offer a designated space to exercise. As long as you can make yourself leave your house and get yourself there, once you’ve arrived, you might as well just get exercising over with. Find a way to create a space and schedule in your home or apartment that is a designated workout zone. And remember, you don’t need to have the perfect set up or perfect equipment to make progress. Consistency is the most important factor.
- Make sure you rest in between sets, the way you normally would at a gym (i.e. don’t focus on circuit or endurance training): Another important lesson I’ve learned for building and maintaining muscle without access to a gym is that if building strength is your goal, don’t turn your weight training into a cardio session. I’m not saying don’t do cardio at all, just separate it from your strength sessions. What this means, is even though the weight is significantly lower (or non-existent), still structure your workouts into sets x reps with rest in between, the way you would at the gym. You’ll increase the difficulty in other ways that promote muscle maintenance/gain (see #4-7), but you should still rest. Don’t rely on circuit training (unless you truly enjoy this form of training and aren’t concerned with strength vs endurance…See #10)
- Challenge yourself by doing whatever it takes for you to go near failure If you have the means to increase weight (or resistance, using bands), add these progressions over time. Another way to challenge your muscles more is to focus on single leg/arm exercises as you need less resistance to challenge your muscles. I’ve personally enjoyed exercises where I can increase the range of motion, and can likely do so with household furniture! For example, if you have a bar-stool, you can complete extra high step ups. If you have 2 yoga blocks, you can increase the range of motion for your push-ups. As long as you’re pushing your sets pretty hard, you can continue gaining muscle during this period of time, even if you’re doing mostly high rep training and not using heavy weights.
- Make FORM and MIND MUSCLE CONNECTION your best friends. The best part about being forced to lower the weight you lift is that you can really focus on perfecting your form and on feeling an exercise in the intended muscle group. When you squat, really push through your heels and squeeze your butt the whole way up. When you complete a resistance band shoulder press, really feel your shoulders working. When you deadlift, use your hamstrings and butt to pull you up and keep the tension at the top of the lift. Performing exercises with perfect technique gets sloppy somewhere along the way when you add weight in a gym. But without access to much equipment, you can really focus and make sure to really squeeze the intended muscle in order to achieve maximum results.
- Utilize time under tension. Another way to make your training harder and push yourself to near failure is to maintain the resistance throughout the entire set. For example, when deadlifting at a gym, you would likely rest the weight between each rep. But since you can’t use as much weight, by holding the weight (or resistance band) and contracting your muscles without pause throughout the entire set, you can still place a good amount of stress on your muscles despite lower loads. You’ll definitely feel a burn with this technique, and its a good tool to have in your arsenal whether you’re training from home or eventually back in the gym.
- Find creative ways to make a workout more difficult when you don’t have weights on hand & find fun new ways to challenge yourself that you otherwise wouldn’t do when the gym is open. Step back from the narrative that only a certain type of training will get you results and start embracing just how many opportunities there are to get a challenging workout in. For example, there are a couple of different workouts I’ve grown to love since quarantine. Find a staircase near you and run sprint intervals up it (the longer the staircase, the better!). Find a park with a high curb to do step ups, box jumps, or incline push-ups. I’ve never been so sore! We have the ability to mix up our workouts far more often than we actually take advantage of when gyms are open and we become comfortable with our gym routines. There is not a single formula for building or maintaining muscle.
- Make sure your protein intake is high. To maintain and build muscle, you need to eat enough protein. This holds true even without access to a gym, and even when lifting lighter weights. Plain and simple, diet is on of the biggest factors to success.
- Make sure your overall caloric intake is where it needs to be based on your activity levels. Protein is important, but so is making sure you eat enough overall. I know when working from home, if I don’t plan ahead, I tend to get busy and sometimes forget to eat enough. Some people are the opposite — while home all the time they over eat, and now that we may not walk as much per day, this could cause unwanted weight gain. Whatever scenario fits your situation, make sure your diet supports your goals.
- Find ways to train that you enjoy. Tips 1-9 focus primarily on building or maintaining muscle, but at the end of the day, what matters most is that you are healthy and taking care of your body. Whatever this looks like for you, do it. Whatever keeps you looking forward to moving your body. Maybe you haven’t enjoyed strength training as much lately, but you’ve loved morning jogs to get you moving. Or maybe playing a tennis match with a friend has helped you feel best lately. Listen to your body, and do what you enjoy! You’re much more likely to stick with it and gain the benefits your body needs from exercise if you truly enjoy it.
I’ve definitely maintained muscle mass and a decent amount of strength with limited equipment since March. I have yet to set foot in a gym, but I’ve been genuinely enjoying my training. I will likely use a lot of what I’ve learned moving forward, especially in the future when I get back to traveling. What has your experience been like without access to a gym?