If you’re a trainer:
- It’s time to think outside the box for your athlete’s workouts when presented with minimal equipment
- Metabolite and plyometric training is cool, but make sure it still carries over to the powerlifts down the road
If you’re a powerlifter:
- There are a bunch of ways to get strong outside of a barbell and a 5×5
- Some of these modalities suck (in a good way), but they can yield great results for when you return to the gym down the road.
Following up on last week’s article on understanding what to expect from your at home, minimal equipment powerlifting workouts, this week, I’ll be covering some of the modalities used in the at home bench press, squat, and deadlift workout options in later articles. This should serve as a functional foundation to work from with understanding how to progress your training in these unprecedented training situations.
All of these options can be performed with a modest amount of weight/bands or by MacGyvering household objects. In no particular order, our modalities are:
Bloodflow Restriction (BFR) Training
In the last few years, there has been some very promising research conducted on BFR training showing significant hypertrophy with very light loads (20-35% of 1RM) compared to the normal moderate (50-75% of 1RM) used in conventional hypertrophy training. Instead of getting into the weeds, take a look at this PubMed review on BFR training.
BFR Training is excellent for hypertrophy of type II fibers because even though loads are low and reps are high with short rest intervals, the blood flow restriction causes the type I (slow twitch) fibers to fatigue much more quickly which allows for better hypertrophy of type II fibers (fast twitch) even with low loads.
With BFR training, we are generally looking for 40-80% occlusion. While this is hard to measure without professionally made devices aimed at medical practitioners, using resistance bands, a wide belt, or tourniquet are all effective provided you follow these guidelines:
- Spread pressure over a 5-10cm wide area. Narrower applications can cause some surface bruising and in some cases nerve irritation or damage.
- Don’t ever go so tight that you experience any numbness or tingling.
- Don’t use BFR training if you have ay underlying circulatory issues or haven’t been cleared by your doctor.
- Understand that “less is more” with BFR training. Hypertrophy results have been very similar with both 40 and 80% occlusion, meaning it’s better to feel like you have a bit less compression than you need.
For using BFR training, we are looking at using one of 3 main workout structures:
- 30 reps, followed by 3 sets of 15 reps, with each set spaced out by a rest interval of 30 seconds. If you cannot get to 50 total reps, reduce the load on your next session, if you reach the full 75 reps in your session, increase your loads next time.
- As many reps as possible within 30 seconds, alternating 30 seconds of work with 30 seconds of rest for 2-5 rounds
- 2-5 sets taken to concentric failure, with 30-60 seconds of rest between sets. You should be able to get a minimum of 20 reps on your first set if you are using an appropriate load. The total rep guidelines outlined in the first protocol are a good guideline to follow here.
While powerlifting training is dynamic in nature, our goal is still to stimulate fast twitch fibers as much as possible. Isometrics can be used to train slow or fast twitch fibers, depending on the implementation. A high intensity contraction will favor more fast twitch fiber contraction while a lower intensity contraction for a longer period (over 60 seconds) will not.
As such, we want our isometric training to be between 20-60 seconds of maximum voluntary contraction (MVC).
With this modality, it’s important to consider what other exercises you are pairing with it. Personally, I like to have a dynamic exercise right after a maximum effort isometric to fully work the type II fibers as well as preserving the non-static nature of the powerlifts in your training.
For using isometric training, we are looking at using one of 2 workout structures. The goal here is to work on creating maximum muscular tension by pulling/pushing as hard as possible against your resistance.
- 30s isometric at MVC followed immediately by a 15-30s AMRAP of a similar movement (ex, squat hold into a squat movement).
- 20-40s isometric at MVC followed by 20-40s AMRAP to failure. We are looking for 40-60s of total work per set. If you are doing the ISO properly, you won’t get more than 40 seconds of reps on the AMRAP portion of this. You can pick the length of your isometric based on how much weight/resistance you have available to you. You can probably get away with a shorter isometric if you have heavy weights handy, and vice versa. In terms of selecting the number of sets, you would do this the same way you would in your normal program as these can be programmed similarly.
Similar to isometric training, isotonic training shares many of the same benefits, but within the context of home workouts, you are creating your own resistance in order to keep lifting speed static while moving with maximum tension. Typically, this works best with upper body and single leg work as bilateral lower body training like a squat tend to be limited by how much tension you can produce with your upper body.
Isokinetic training can be done in one of two ways:
- 30-60s isokinetic exercise at MVC
- 20-40s isokinetic exercise at MVC followed by 20-40s AMRAP to failure with a related movement using moderate weights. We are looking for 40-60s of total work per set. If you are doing the ISO properly, you won’t get more than 40 seconds of reps on the AMRAP portion of this. You can pick the length of your isokinetic movement based on how much weight/resistance you have available to you. You can probably get away with a shorter isometric if you have heavy weights handy, and vice versa. In terms of selecting the number of sets, you would do this the same way you would in your normal program as these can be programmed similarly.
Bands definitely have their uses in at-home training, but I don’t personally like them for long range of motion exercises where the tension on the band changes exponentially since it becomes a trade-off between having enough resistance at the lowest tension point of the movement to have an effective load and not having too much weight at the top of the movement where you are unable to do the exercise [properly].
That being said, bands are excellent in the following contexts:
- BFR training as the loads have to be low through the band anyways so the jump in resistance is not as significant which leads to a flatter strength curve.
- Rate of force development and plyometric work for lifters who need it. Force production can stay high and there is a huge reward with carrying speed into the top of the band movement. While you might not get strong from this method alone, it can be an excellent method to improve your strength expression later on in a training cycle.
- Higher rep single joint exercises
Buckets of Concrete (Not a Joke)
This seems to be something that a lot of people have overlooked. While it’s certainly not perfect, you can
One of these bags and a home depot bucket will make you about 12L of concrete mix (~29kg/64lbs) for $12.50 plus tax. Theoretically, you could fill the bucket up with more than one bag of mix and end up with ~45kg/100lb buckets but I’m not sure what the handles are rated for.
A couple of those guys and a steel rod and you have a make shift barbell. Used independently, you have some very primitive kettlebells. It doesn’t have to be pretty to be effective.
Unilateral and Other Bodyweight Training
While a well-balanced program should already include some unilateral work in the name of longevity and injury prevention, unilateral work such as lunges can be an effective way to make more out of less. If you are limited by how much weight you have at your disposal, doing single leg work or single arm work allows you to increase the load on the working limb because your load is isolated on that one point of support instead of split in half like it would be for bilateral work like a squat or push-up.
Calisthenics training such as pull-ups, inverted rows, push-ups, pistol squats, single arm-push-ups, handstand push-ups, and so on are also all very viable options.
- At the exception of BFR, you should work on being as forceful on the concentric as possible. When loads are lower, velocity needs to be higher in order to keep force output high (F=m*a).
- You should still periodize your training by cycling through periods of higher and lower volumes (and intensities, if practical).
- The principle of overload still applies. If you want to progress with your training, you still need to increase the demands on the system whether that be through intensity or workload.
- Just because something feels hard doesn’t mean it’s effective. 1000 reps of soup can bench presses will not make your max bench go up even though “the pump is real”.
With all this in mind, I’ll be getting into a bench press, squat, and deadlift based workout using some of these modalities in my next articles.
Have a question about how to use these ideas in your own training or looking for coaching?
Regardless of how much equipment you have, let’s get in touch!