With COVID-19 hitting the world hard everywhere, many countries have instated coronavirus quarantines and urged people to stay at home. Many gyms have closed and for us lifters, that means training at home.
Sadly, many of us aren’t that lucky and have to continue risking our lives and the lives of those we love by continuing to lead normal lives and find work. For the least fortunate, poverty and expensive pre-existing conditions provide a compounding risk of death in the face of the latest novel coronavirus (SARS-NCoV-2), and its disease (COVID-19).
Here where I live, in the Philippines, poverty is a daily reality for a large portion of the population, and it’s the day-to-day workers who rely on having something to do at every waking hour who are most vulnerable to this crisis. There are many avenues available for donation in the Philippines, and if you’re looking to help, I encourage you to do so (especially if you’re in the Philippines). This is a pandemic, after all – but poorer nations must contend with widespread poverty with far fewer resources.
But if you are lucky enough to worry mostly about your gains and less about survival during these trying times, then not to worry – there are things you can do to minimize the loss of a gym, and benefit off this forced deload that life has thrown our way. Obviously, this doesn’t apply if you own your own gym, in which case, congratulations, that’s obviously paid off. But if you don’t, and don’t have access to more than a couple dumbbells and some bands, or a yoga mat, or little else except the floor, you’ll want creative ways to stay strong and continue training at home until it’s safe to be around people again.
Why Should You Avoid the Gym Anyway?
But let’s say that the gym is still open where you’re at.
Should you go? That depends on where you live, and what the situation is like.
If there are any confirmed cases in your area, the answer is no. Not
necessarily for your own safety, as it’s fairly unlikely that you’re going to
suffer from complications due to the coronavirus if you’re going to the gym
regularly (unless you have a pre-existing heart or lung condition), but because
being outside among others and in an area where plenty of people go around
touching all sorts of equipment makes you more susceptible to catching the
virus and spreading it.
Teens and young adults are particularly at risk for becoming
unknown walking incubators, as they’re breeding and spreading the disease
without even feeling so much as a light sore throat or nothing at all, while
their at-risk peers might fall seriously ill, or they might spread it to the
Doing what you can to avoid being around others and to avoid
being in places others frequent with their viruses and bacteria at this moment
is a moral imperative. This will save lives, and it will reduce the workload
that overworked healthcare workers are going to have to face very soon.
Yes, not training is probably the worst thing you can do if
you want to get stronger. And believe me, this isn’t fun for me either. But it
is the best thing you can do to help your respective city or country better
deal with a pandemic that’s probably going to be in the history books. Two or
three weeks off won’t kill you – and I’m here to make the case that, if you use
this time right, it’s going to make you a better and stronger lifter.
Your Muscles Won’t Waste Away with Home Training
There’s limited research on how quickly strength decays, but
current findings suggest that you can go about two weeks without training and
make absolutely zero strength losses. You begin to lose strength after the
second week, but it’s a modest loss. Nothing that a week or so of training
won’t immediately fix. Even if we’re looking at a lockdown of all gyms and
public spaces for longer than three weeks (which is unlikely), these are
results measures after total rest. We will be training in this strange little
“off-season”, although it won’t be powerlifting-specific.
Secondly, it’s important to note that no matter how much
strength or mass you do lose, your muscles remember how strong and big they
once were. It’s substantially easier to regain lost strength and mass than it
is to generate new strength and mass. And that isn’t bro science. Muscle
memory is a real concept,
although it doesn’t really work the way you might think it does. Muscle memory
in terms of motor learning is thought not to exist, but there may be a form of
muscle memory in our myonuclei, which are formed by resistance training and persist
even after inactivity.
This is pretty much irrelevant, however, as we won’t be losing much muscle given the regular activity this program prescribes. Training at home with some of the exercises I’ll mention below won’t necessarily be powerlifting-specific, but it’s better than spending all day being sedentary.
Keep on Eating for Your Goals
This one is particularly important. If you’ve been cutting
weight in preparation for a meet, now isn’t the time to completely sloth out –
but you don’t have to cut, either. Look in the mirror and reevaluate your
Do you have the muscular potential to go up a weight class
and still stay relatively lean? Or are you in your right weight class at this
body fat? Or are you skinny and lean, with plenty of room to grow? Whether you
should continue losing weight, eat at maintenance, or pack on a surplus and try
to grow some muscle at home will depend on where you’re at and what weight
class you eventually want to fill out.
Of course, some might worry about supplies and food running
low. If you’ve got time to worry about your gains, chances are that you’re not
necessarily in a position where you need to worry about having the finances for
food. While viral images of empty shelves are worrying, most countries have
strong supply chains in place to ensure that even the emptiest of shelves are
quickly restocked, and citizens are urged to buy supplies for a week or two at
a time, and not one or two months.
Take the Time to Prehab Thoroughly
The difference between prehab and rehab is that both prehab
and rehab exercises are meant to strengthen muscles that help reduce pain or
heal an injury, but prehab exercises are done in a prophylactic manner, rather
than as per prescription.
When you’re getting closer and closer to peaking for a meet, these exercises fall to the wayside as you focus on pushing yourself to the 110% you’ve been training towards. But now that most meets are canceled or postponed, it’s time to re-evaluate your current fatigue and risk of injury, figure out imbalances and sources of pain, and address them accordingly.
Particular areas to focus on include the glutes and hips, the stability of the knee, the shoulder joint, and any muscles around joints and areas that have previously suffered strains, sprains, or tears. This means plenty of curls, face pulls, single-leg exercises, glute bridges, stability exercises, scapular mobility, unilateral strength, quad and ham balance, stretching, and more. This home training period is the perfect time to hammer the little muscles.
Remember the Basics
Calisthenics movements are no replacement for a barbell and real equipment, but they’ll have to do when you’ve got access to nothing else, and you can always rely on the basics: the pushup/press up, the plank, the squat, and the pullup. Endless variations thereof will keep you busy for the days and weeks to come, and with a little bit of proper programming – and yes, you can properly program a bodyweight exercise plan to carry you through the coronavirus days – you probably won’t be making any strength losses with home training.
The goal here is to try and keep the same movement patterns
as you would in your barbell exercises, but to translate the resistance in such
a way that it can be done with minimal to no equipment at home. Some equipment
helps – particularly resistance bands and weights you can hold, like a backpack
filled up with heavy items, a heavy bag strapped to something like a ladder or
a board, buckets with water, and sacks of dirt or stone.
Let’s go over some of the basics for home training and the many variations we can play around with.
The squat is easy to perform with bodyweight, to the point
that anyone squatting anything remotely close to double bodyweight can probably
effortlessly pump out sets of 20. To make bodyweight squats a little more
challenging, we have to either:
- Load them, or;
- Focus on one leg at a time.
Rather than list off variations, I’ll give you some ideas to craft an exercise that fits your needs and progression level. You can load squats behind your back or in front of you depending on the object you’re using to load them. Some objects are harder to handle (literally) than others and can only be loaded in the front. If you’ve got straps or rope, you can strap nearly anything with a well-distributed weight onto your upper back and go ham. Just be sure you can safely drop the weight when you’re done with a set (and lift it back up to your upper back).
If you want to squat weight that’s too heavy for you to load from the floor, a sturdy table is probably your best bet as a makeshift rack. You need to get inventive when training at home.
If that isn’t an option, you need to train your legs
individually. There are two basic variations here: the lunge and the single-leg
squat. One has you working a main leg while the other is planted behind you,
and the second one has you working a main leg while the other isn’t allowed to
touch the ground. Single-leg squats are a little challenging with poor ankle
mobility, but front loading can help you defeat the balance issue caused by rigid
ankles (though you’ll have to really work to get out of the hole).
Split squats, with the back leg on an elevated platform, double
as both a stretch for the quads and flexors as well as a great quad and glute
exercise, especially when loaded. You can go pretty heavy on these once you get
used to the form, up to more than 50% of your back squat (I’ve seen people pull
off 100kg split squats and lunges without being able to squat 200kg).
Being inventive here is key. Whether you’re front loading, back loading, or going for single-leg variations (with or without weight), take your time to experiment with something that you feel addresses a weakness or lets you best apply your competition form. My vote for leg training at home goes to loaded front squats and loaded split squats. Here are more options, if you want them.
The press can be horizontal or vertical, and you can press pretty much anything: your water bottles, sacks of rice, heavy bags, your dog, your partner, your children (please be careful when pressing living beings). Now is a great time to catch up on your overhead press and to try and press something you’ve never managed to press before, but you can also just do floor presses or weighted pushups. If you’ve got the balance and the skill, the handstand pushup is a great pressing alternative.
The most bench-specific press you can likely perform is the pushup, and variations thereof. In calisthenics, beginners are encouraged to progress from a full pushup to a diamond (close grip) pushup, and then to elevated pushups and work towards their planche. We don’t have to take things that far for no reason (besides giggles and boredom), but I recommend that you stay away from really elevated pushups.
They might add a little extra resistance, but they’re not
really adding that much resistance over keeping your feet up on a chair or a kitchen
step, and you’re starting to get into weird angles with the press that don’t
translate well into the bench.
Stick to regular pushups, but make them harder with heavy
backpacks, a child or person sitting on your back, bands,
or instability like planting your feet against the wall, or doing bodyweight
pushups on any irregular object. Slow, concentrated, careful instability
pushups are great for shoulder prehab. Ring pushups are even better if you’ve
got an actual gymnastic setup or something similar.
Unilateral exercises are still a thing for pressing. You can
do single-armed overhead presses or one-armed pushups or work your way towards
single-arm pushups by resting your off arm on an elevated surface, or further
away from your centerline.
When doing pushups, it pays to do them properly. The one thing people don’t pay enough attention to other than maintaining a stable, straight spine, is proper scapular retraction and protraction on every rep. Your shoulders should be completely retracted at the bottom of the movement and protracted when you’re locked out. This is very much different from the bench press, where your shoulder blades should remain retracted and locked.
The next two movements aren’t pressing exercises, but they
are important for shoulder health and development in these trying times: front
raises and lateral raises. Whether you’re using bags, buckets, 2-pound
dumbbells or a sack of some sort, there’s plenty of ways to perform these basic
and important shoulder isolation exercises, which are pretty much the best way
to just get some honest shoulder hypertrophy in (and don’t worry, we aren’t
ignoring the rear delts).
My go-to home training exercises here would be the band-resisted pushup, a strict overhead press of some sort, as well as shoulder and tricep isolation work until failure.
Just as there are countless ways to push things away from
you, there are also many ways to pull things towards you. Bands are your friend
here, but if you don’t have access to any bands, your only hope of a good
pulling exercise is a heavy bag, a sturdy table, and/or a pullup bar.
Again, pulling can be horizontal or vertical, and just like
most powerlifting programs recommend a ton of back work to compliment all the
pressing you’re doing on the bench, you need to be doing just as much pulling
as you’re pushing.
Pullups are the bread and butter of any calisthenics expert,
and you’ll have to come to love them too, unless you’re a super heavyweight or
a beginner to strength (in which case the time you’ll spend in lockdown
probably isn’t enough to acquaint yourself with the pullup bar very much).
If normal pullups are too easy for you, and you can bang out
sets of ten like nothing, then there’s plenty of ways to make them harder. The
one-armed approach is for the truly strong, but you can get a lot of mileage out
of one-armed pullup progressions (such as keeping your other arm further away
from your body’s midline), or just strapping on a backpack filled with books
and other objects.
Bands are truly awesome here, giving you the means to warm up and work on scapular retraction, do single-arm concentration rows, and a wide variety of pull accessories for the shoulders including banded pull-aparts and face pulls. Strong rear delts and rhomboids are an important part of any powerlifter’s repertoire, aiding in keeping the back tight during the deadlift and squat and acting as a healthy counterpart to the strong anterior shoulder development of lots of bench press work.
My go-to exercises here would be the pullups and single-arm bent-over rows with some heavy object, rear delt work with bands, and single-arm lat and scapulae work with bands.
Hip Hinge Exercises
You can deadlift pretty much anything, but if you don’t really have anything to safely deadlift, you’ll still want a healthy hip hinge alternative. Check out my at-home deadlift alternatives article for a bigger list. Two good ones are the good morning and the single-leg hip hinge. The good morning involves any weight held behind your head, followed by a hip hinge until your back is parallel to the floor.
It’s important to do these with perfect form, meaning you
stop once any rounding occurs, and stick to the weight that challenges you
while keeping your spine stiff. Take a deep belly breath when doing these, and
remember to sit back, not down. You’re essentially bending over to pick up a
heavy deadlift, but your spine is already loaded, and the load is behind you
instead of in front of you.
Single-leg hip hinges are deadlifts with one of your legs
behind you, kind of like a drinking bird, keeping the leg straight and in line
with your back as you bend over and try to get parallel to the floor. You’ll
end up in something similar to the “warrior 3” (Virabhadrasana III) yoga pose, and
this exercise can be weighted (hold the weight in front of you).
Rather than keeping your leg straight as in the yoga
version, however, the goal here is to keep the lower leg slightly bent as it
would be in a deadlift, to load the hamstring, and use that hamstring to return
to an upright position, and repeat. It’s ideally closer to a single-leg
Romanian deadlift than an actual single-leg deadlift.
Another great hip hinge is the reverse hyperextension on an elevated surface. This is where having a big box or a bench of some sort pays off because you can’t really pull this off on a chair or a soft surface like a bed. The idea is to rest your upper body on an elevated surface, stomach on the surface, and use your glutes and hamstrings to repeatedly bring your legs up in line with your body. Load your legs to make it harder, with ankle weights or by holding a weight between your feet or knees.
Useful Core Exercises
There are countless ways to work the core without equipment, or with minimal equipment. My standard core workout when training at home (and when warming up for a heavy lift) consists of McGill’s Big Three, combined with a handful of other exercises. McGill’s exercises are the:
- Front and side planks, contracting everything as
hard as you can, for rounds of 10 seconds;
- The “bird dog”, where you’re on your hands and
knees and bring an opposing leg and arm up in line with your body for ten
seconds, contracting everything, and;
- Ab crunches without spinal flexion, on your back
with your hands underneath your lower back and one leg stretched out, head
elevated, neutral neck and spine, focusing on contracting your abdominal
muscles without flexing your spine.
Other useful home training core exercises include any series of carries, paused breathing squats (sit in the bottom of a back squat with <50% of your 1RM and take 10-15 long and deep breaths without losing tension in the hips or back), and ab rollouts, which can be done with a dumbbell or some furniture sliders on your hands or feet.
Basic Bodyweight Programming
This is a simple template program that centers around a warmup, a heavy variation, a lighter variation, some hypertrophy work, and doesn’t include specific prehab or rehab work that you might need. It’s not the end-all-be-all, but a good place to start. I hope you enjoyed this post – if you have anything to contribute, an exercise to suggest, or something else to say, let me know down below.