Right now, we all need to stay home, stay safe, stay healthy, and try to stay strong. The final part of that sentence might be something you are anxious about. Many stressed-out people have contacted me worrying about losing their gains. So, are they right to be worried?
My answer is emphatic…no!
There are two parts to that answer:
Firstly, in the grand scheme of things if you lose some size and strength it really isn’t that big of a deal compared to the reality that many people have lost their lives (and many more will lose their lives) as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Those that keep their health, face the possibility of losing loved ones, enduring extreme financial hardship, closing businesses, and watching years of hard work go up in smoke. When you view things through this lens, losing 50lbs off your squat or an inch off your arms doesn’t seem that big of a deal, right?
Secondly, even if we are without access to our gyms for several months, the fact is that it is much easier to maintain muscle than it is to gain it. So, with minimal training, you can fairly easily retain the muscle and strength you’ve built. You don’t need expensive gym equipment to keep hold of your gains. And even if you lose some size and strength, the muscle memory phenomenon is real and you can regain it extremely quickly. Panic over!
Now, while I don’t think training to hit all-time PRs on your lifts or add a quarter of an inch to your calves should be on your radar right now, I do think exercise is important. It’s important for your well-being. In times of unprecedented stress, worry, and disruption, we need to do everything we can to maintain our mental and physical health.
Training is almost certainly an important part of your lifestyle if you read Breaking Muscle. It probably serves multiple purposes in your life. It will have taught you valuable lessons and given you so much more than bigger stronger muscles. It will have developed discipline, taught you the value of hard work, relieved stress, made you more resilient, and provided an outlet for anger, anxiety, and frustration.
Your passion for training should mean that you are at a healthy body weight, body fat, blood pressure, and have a robust immune system that has been strengthened by both exercise and a nutrient-rich diet.
Your training probably helps to provide structure to your daily routine. When everything else around you is in turmoil, falling back on healthy habits and routines can keep you calm and allow you to be productive. This is vital for your mind-set. For the snowflake generation, this time is likely to be a huge challenge.
Many of them will struggle and fall into bad habits. You are different. You have a back catalog of overcoming challenges in the gym. These will stand you in good stead to take on other challenges. For most of us, this will help us to cope.
Exercising will keep both your body and mind healthy by providing you with a physical outlet for your stress. Your daily workout is something you can look forward to and provide you with a sense of achievement. These are two things hard to come by at the moment.
Training at Home
With the bigger picture issues out of the way, let me explain the facts about taking time off training, training from home, muscle loss, muscle regain, and some example workouts you can do with minimal equipment.
Muscle Loss Does Not Happen Overnight
Taking a few weeks off the gym will not cause you to lose all your gains! In fact, according to multiple studies, you won’t lose any. A couple of excellent studies in 2013 and one in 2017 discovered that well-trained gym rats didn’t lose any muscle mass when taking up to 3 weeks of training.
Retaining Muscle and Strength Is Much Easier Than Building It
Even if your training is very limited over the coming weeks and months you can retain your gains with very little training. A 2011 study concluded that muscle mass could be maintained with only 1/9th of the usual training volume for 32 weeks! Another study from 2013, established that just 1-2 workouts a week were enough to maintain strength.
You Don’t Need Heavy Weights
One of the biggest concerns people have when it comes to home workouts is that they don’t have sufficient resistance to make their training effective. Assuming you don’t have your own personal iron paradise at home you’ve probably had the same worry.
I’ve got good news for you…
You can build muscle using lighter weights than normal. Studies have shown that similar muscle growth occurs when training to failure with 5 to 30 reps. A 2016 study found that there was no difference in muscle gains when using 30% or 80% of your 1-rep max and training to failure.
Another study in 2018 found that loads of 40, 60, and 80% produced equal amounts of growth. They found that 20% was sub-optimal though. As a result, we can confidently say that you’ll be just fine so long as you are using loads around your 30-rep max (or heavier) and you train to failure.
While no muscle loss occurs with three weeks off training it can begin to occur past that point. With three to 8 weeks completely off training, you will lose some muscle. The good news it only takes 2-3 weeks to retain it.
Regaining muscle is a much quicker process than it was to develop it in the first place. Countless lifters can attest to this after having to take time off training through injury.
A Valuable Lesson from Time Off Training
A final point to consider is that some time off the gym might be just what you need. Deloads are a well-known and widely accepted strategy for enhanced long-term results. All top coaches and athletes recognize their value and take advantage of them. Yet the typical trainee ignores them. The emotional attachment of being in the gym means you probably don’t deload often enough (or at all!). Here’s a quick hard to swallow home truth for you…
…if you think deloads are for wimps you probably train like one!
Taking the concept of time away from training being beneficial a little further it is wise to consider periods of active recovery and strategic deconditioning.
Strategic deconditioning is a fundamental principle of Hypertrophy Specific Training (HST). HST is a training methodology developed by Bryan Haycock (an upcoming guest on the Breaking Muscle podcast) designed to build muscle in the most efficient way possible.
Strategic deconditioning can facilitate your building more muscle long-term. Taking some time away from training reduces your level of fatigue, allows for a full recovery, and “re-sensitizes” your body to the muscle-building stimulus of traditional high-volume bodybuilding style training.
Upon returning to training you get a magnified muscle-building response. Undulating your training volume and intensity and taking time off is far more efficient in the long-haul than constantly grinding away gym 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year!
Almost everyone misses out on the powerful effects of this strategy. The next few weeks represent an opportunity for you to discover the benefits. With trips to the gym taken off the table, you might finally learn the benefits of strategic deconditioning. Hopefully, you’re smart enough to utilize it in the future once the current situation has settled.
Long story short, if you’ve been training hard this year then, having some time (2-3 weeks) completely off from training is no bad thing. In fact, it is probably exactly what you need.
You Can’t Expect to Get Big and Jacked Avoiding Training Forever
As I mentioned earlier, past the 3-week mark the risk of muscle loss increases. If you want to avoid it then, doing some training is smart. Without a gym, this will rely on bodyweight work and whatever equipment you have lying around the house. I have been putting together lots of home workouts for my online and in-person clients.
Some of them have zero equipment at home and some of them have quite a lot. I’ve had to get a bit creative to provide them with effective workouts, but I’m very confident they will all see great results from these workouts.
You will too if you follow the ones listed at the bottom of this article.
The Principles of Training Still Apply!
This is not a time to start doing wacky workouts, full of random exercises popularised by a reality TV star turned Instagram Fit-fluencer!
While cannot train exactly as you would in the gym, you can still do logical and productive training.
As such, you should program workouts with the 6 key movement patterns at their core.
- Squat Pattern (single leg versions –count!)
- Hip Hinge
- Horizontal Push
- Horizontal Pull
- Vertical Push
- Vertical Pull
If you do workouts based on these movement patterns and work hard you can make plenty of progress training from home.
Here are some examples:
- Squat Pattern – like lunges, split squats, pistols, step-ups, and skater squats
- Hip Hinge – single leg RDL, band RDLs or Good Mornings, heel-elevated hip thrust, back extensions, glute bridge, and Nordics (*Nordics are not technically a hip hinge but they train the posterior chain extremely well!)
- Horizontal push – push-ups, backpack push-ups, band push-ups, heel-elevated push-ups, one-arm push-ups, dips
- Horizontal pull – inverted rows, towel rows, single-arm backpack rows, seated band rows
- Vertical Push – handstand push-ups, pike push-ups, band shoulder press
- Vertical Pull – chins & pull-ups variations, band lat pulldowns
Now might also be a time to train your core. Most of us neglect that and we will probably be humbled by the many bodyweight options here.
Still Worried About Losing Your Gains?
- No muscle loss is likely to occur in the first three weeks off training
- Maintaining muscle is much easier than building it
- You do NOT need heavy weights
- Even if you do lose muscle, it is regained very quickly when you return to normal training
- 1-3 weeks of no training might actually be just what you need
- Given the wide rep range that is effective, your workouts don’t need expensive gym equipment
- When training (in the gym or at home) we are trying to create an internal response in the muscle to an external load. This external load can come in various forms. Bodyweight, bands, heavy backpacks, and a TRX can do the job just as well as bars and dumbbells (at least in the short-term)
- This is an opportunity to take advantage of one of the key mechanisms of hypertrophy which is often neglected – this could actually unlock some gains that remain untapped by your normal training
Hopefully, that puts your mind at rest!
There are three mechanisms of hypertrophy:
Home workouts are the perfect opportunity to take advantage of number two on that list. Although I have created a bodyweight workout that provides a significant mechanical tension stimulus. You can find this at the end of the article.
Metabolic stress is an extremely powerful training stimulus. I often program phases aimed at targeting this muscle-building pathway as the final block of a mass gain phase. After traditional bodybuilding work has become stale and a plateau has been hit, a metabolite style training phase can be just what is needed. In my experience, this type of training is an extremely effective growth stimulus in the short-term.
Metabolic stress workouts are incredibly effective for about a month. I have found the body responds incredibly well to this type of training. Then diminishing returns kick in and the novelty factor subsides and the gains slow down again. Hopefully, you are a bit more upbeat about the prospect of training from home and can see that the next month might actually represent a muscle-building opportunity for you.
Luckily, the training techniques best used to create metabolic stress require less weight than usual gym training. They also generally require, higher reps, shorter rest periods, and intensity boosting techniques like partial reps, circuits, super-sets, tri-sets, giant sets, and drop sets.
Do What You Can, With What You Have, Where You Are
Now is the time to focus on metabolic stress style workouts.
Metabolic stress is commonly known as the “pump” and it refers to the cell swelling and increased acidity (the “burn”) in a muscle during training. This happens when performing higher reps with shorter rest periods and there is a lot of scientific research showing that it contributes towards muscle growth.
When designing programs to target metabolic stress I often use sets of 15-30 reps or combine exercises in sequence to maximize the time under tension and metabolite accumulation in a given muscle. Sometimes this means you might do as many as 100 reps in a very short period of time.
Given this style of training is different it provides a novel stimulus. A novel stimulus is a powerful tool when it comes to muscle gain. Consequently, it can ignite an accelerated muscle-building response for a month or so while the body is adapting to it.
Here are some quick tips to optimize your approach to metabolite style training:
- Use shorter rest periods than you would in the gym (e.g. 30-60 seconds)
- Combine exercises (e.g. super-sets, tri-sets, mechanical drop sets, etc. for an example see my Shoulder Shocker – DB Only Giant Set at the end of this article)
- Train with a higher frequency – with these types of workouts you can train more often. Six days a week is doable for most people. You can also hit each muscle group more often. Training a muscle every 48hours is fine
- Consider using blood flow restriction (BFR) as it means you can get results with very light loads
- Program single limb work. For example, split squats require much less external load than regular squats
- Slow your tempo down – especially on the lowering phase
- Paused reps – stop at the hardest point in the movement and contract the muscle hard for a few seconds
Metabolite Training Done Right
When training to create metabolic stress, and build muscle in higher rep ranges, it is crucial that you push your sets close to failure. Research indicates that training to (or very close) to failure is more important when performing high rep sets. You can build just as much muscle performing up to 30 reps as you can from 5 reps, but you need to be approaching failure on the higher rep sets for them to be effective.
In light of this information, it is important that all of your sets should be taken close to failure. I generally recommend never leaving more than 2 reps in reserve on any of your sets when using metabolite style training. I also suggest the last set you do of an exercise is taken to failure.
Below I have listed some example workouts that require minimal equipment:
The Body Weight Only Mechanical Tension & Metabolic Stress Workout
The Band Only Workout
Session 1 – Push:
Session 2 – Pull:
Session 3 – Legs:
The “I Only Have a Light Set of Dumbbells” Workout
Session 1 – Push:
Session 2 – Pull:
Shoulder Shocker – DB Only Giant Set (Keep the DBs in your hands the whole time, only out them down once A6 is done)
So, 4211 on split squats means, lower in 4 seconds, pause for 2 seconds at the bottom, lift in 1 second, hold at the top for 1 second…repeat for the next rep.
On chin-ups, 2010, means lower in 2 seconds, no pause at the bottom, lift in second, no pause at the top.
With these workouts, you can be confident that you can…
…Stay home, stay fit, and stay healthy!
If you want more example home workouts then, I’m posting some up on my Instagram page and story highlights. You can check those out @tommaccormick. If you want something more custom or individualized when it comes to workouts and programs, you can find me at Tom’s Online Personal Training.
A lot will depend on your personal circumstances and that’ll require some in-depth reviews of everything from your workout opportunities to your physiology.