How to Increase Strength and Size at Home
Approximately 6 Minutes Reading Time
Brief Article Overview
Getting strong is fun, motivating, and empowering.
The training principle of progressive overload needs to be adhered to in order to get stronger, fitter, and healthier (and look better in the process).
Most gym equipment has been designed to allow for an increase in exercise intensity (adding more weight to a bar for example).
- Without access to gyms during the lockdown, we no longer have this equipment at our disposal. Other than building a home gym (which would be amazing, but is unrealistic for most), how can we adhere to the principle of progressive overload whilst training from home?
- We outline 9 alternative variables that we can manipulate in a training program to carry on making gains. They are;
- Training volume
- Lifting Tempo
- Rest Times
- Unilateral Exercises
- Isolation Exercises
- Blood Flow Restriction
- Versatile Equipment
With the gyms closed, our access to exercise equipment is limited, to say the least! Progressive overload is a fundamental training principle, which is necessary to improve fitness, aesthetics, and overall health (1&2). An easy and obvious way to implement progressive overload is to increase exercise intensity (strategically lifting more weight over time). But there are many other ways to impose this stimulus, without having to constantly add weight to the bar.
Types of Progressive Overload
To gain strength and increase lean muscle mass, we need to expose our neuromuscular system to a blend of mechanical and metabolic stress (along with adequate sleep and good nutrition).
Mechanical stress is created by putting the muscles under optimal load through a full range of motion. Metabolic stress is the accumulation of metabolic by-products such as lactic acid and hydrogen ions, induced by localised blood occlusion, which occurs during weight lifting. This blood occlusion is recognised amongst lifters as (cue my best Arnold Schwarzenegger impression) “the pump”.
Although this is a drastic over-simplification, mechanical stress is achieved mainly by lifting heavy weights (>70% 1RM) for low-medium reps (1-6) and metabolic stress is achieved by lifting light/moderate weights (40-70% 1RM) for medium/high reps (6-20). Muscular endurance and work capacity require metabolic stress (3), whereas strength gains tend to favour mechanical stress (4). Muscle gains are usually best achieved by mixing the two (5).
Each of these variables is addressed in a well-structured program during the distinct phases of “accumulation” and “intensification” (6). The accumulation phase aims to induce adequate metabolic stress to improve muscular endurance, training volume, and work capacity. The intensification phase uses mechanical stress to facilitate high muscle-fibre recruitment, thereby improving strength and power.
Applying the Principles At Home
We’ve already outlined a progressive overload plan, as it pertains to strength training in the gym. But how else can we keep making gains whilst at home, without access to fancy barbells and machines? Here are 9 alternative training variables to adjust, to carry on making strength and muscle gains without the need for gym equipment.
1. Training Volume
Training volume can be defined as the total amount of work done over a given period of time. Session volume can be calculated by multiplying sets x reps x intensity. If we are unable to increase intensity (adding external resistance using weights), then we must increase sets and reps in order to progressively increase training volume. The rep ranges you choose will depend on your goals and the objective of the program.
Here’s an example of accumulating total reps in one exercise (or muscle group) over 6 weeks, staying within the 8-12rep range;
Week 1: 3 sets x 8reps = 24 total reps
Week 2: 3 sets x 10reps = 30 total reps
Week 3: 3 sets x 12reps = 36 total reps
Week 4: 4 sets x 8reps = 32 total reps
Week 5: 4 sets x 10reps = 40 total reps
Week 6: 4 sets x 12reps = 48 total reps
2. Lifting Tempo
Lifting tempo is simply the speed at which you perform an exercise. Both speeding up and slowing down increase the demands on the neuromuscular system and can be used as a form of overload.
For power and speed gains, you want to increase the speed at which you move a given load. For strength and size, you can slow down certain parts of a lift to increase “time under tension”.
Playing with tempo is also a great opportunity to perfect your technique as you can fix faults and strengthen weak spots. Tempos are given using 4 numbers, dedicated to each phase of a lift;
- Eccentric (down, lowering, lengthening)
- Pause (bottom of the lift)
- Concentric (up, lifting, shortening)
- Pause (top of the lift)
Each number represents the seconds spent performing each phase of the lift. So a tempo structure of 3101 translates to:
- 3-second eccentric.
- 2-second pause at the bottom.
- 0-second concentric.
- 1-second pause at the top.
When increasing “time under tension”, we would recommend slowing down the eccentric (lowering or stretching) phase of the lift and adding isometric pauses at the bottom of the lift.
3. Rest Times
The longer you rest between sets, the more time the neuromuscular has to recover. The muscles are flushed with oxygen-rich blood and get rid of unwanted by-products, thereby reducing fatigue.
If the aim is to accumulate metabolic stress, reducing the work to rest ratio (W:R ratio) may be a viable option. This is best to do with moderate weights and simple movements, to reduce the risk of technique deterioration and potential injury.
When resistance training for strength and muscle, we suggest not going below a W:R ratio of 1:1. Here’s an example of how to adjust W:R ratios to increase metabolic stress whilst maintaining total work done:
30sec Work : 90sec Rest (1:3)
30sec Work : 60sec Rest (1:2)
30sec Work : 45 sec Rest (1:1.5)
30sec Work : 30sec Rest (1:1)
Finishers are a great way to add volume to your training, whilst increasing metabolic stress and adding some variety for good measure. Finishers are high-output bouts of effort with low/minimal rest, usually lasting between 8-15minues at the end of your workout.
Circuits, ladders, drop-sets, pyramid sets, AMRAPs, the possibilities are endless here. Choose the right one for your goals and enjoy the pain!
Instead of adding weight, we can increase the mechanical stress put on a muscle group by increasing the lever arm which is being controlled or lifted. For example, extend the lever arm of a plank by walking your elbows forward or even using an ab-wheel to perform a roll-out. You’ll feel your core work a lot harder to maintain a good position.
6. Unilateral Exercises
Unilateral exercises are movements in which one side is loaded more than the other. This way, you’re able to increase mechanical stress on a specific muscle group whilst using the same amount of external resistance. There are many ways to load one side over the other including:
- Partially shifting your body weight to one side. This is achieved by using a half-kneeling or staggered-stance position (lunges, split squat variations, and staggered stance deadlifts).
- Fully shifting your body weight to one side by lifting the other side off the floor (single-arm presses and pulls, and single-leg squats and deadlifts).
- Offsetting the external resistance by loading or holding the weight on one side (offset lunges, squats, deadlifts, and farmers carries).
7. Isolation Exercises
Isolation exercises are usually a single joint movement that targets small muscle groups, like bicep curls, reverse flyes or lat raises. They can induce both mechanical and metabolic stress on the muscles without the need for too much weight. Moderate/light weights (<60% 1RM) and high reps (12-20) are usually advised to reduce the risk of overloading the joint ligaments and tendons.
8. Blood Flow Restriction
Also known as “blood occlusion training”, it is the practice of using elastic wraps or special cuffs to keep the blood from leaving the working muscles.
This allows for the accumulation of metabolic stress without the need for extra resistance. This type of training also reduces stress on ligaments and tendons whilst taking the muscles to failure.
Consult a trained expert if you’re interested in trying this to make sure you’re doing it correctly. The literature suggests that is a safe and effective way of increasing muscle size and strength (7&8) but consulting your GP is advised.
9. Versatile Equipment
Increase the intensity of your workouts by using equipment that is cost-effective and doesn’t require too much floor space. A pair of adjustable dumbbells, one or two kettlebells, some bands, and a suspension trainer, for example, can massively increase your exercise options and provide progressive overload when training at home. Investing in high-quality equipment is definitely worthwhile as it’s unlikely you’ll need to re-sell them and they should stand the test of time (click here for more information).
If you’re interested in starting your health and fitness journey with us…
Disclosure: This article is not to be used as medical advice. If you are currently experiencing physical or mental health issues, please seek professional advice from a fully qualified Nutritionist, GP or Physiotherapist.
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