Unless you are one of the rare few who had the inclination, space and money to build a killer home gym complete with machines and weight stacks, plates up to 45 pounds and an assortment of dumbbells up to 150 or at least 100 pounds, you’re like most of us in this worldwide COVID-19 lockdown and quarantine situation. You have some weights at home, maybe weights that had been collecting dust bunnies for many years, because hey – you prefer the variety of equipment and energetic atmosphere of the gym to toiling away at home like some lonesome hermit. I absolutely love my gym and if anything had ever happened to it, there were many other places to train if I really had to. Until there weren’t. Now, for the past few weeks and for at least a few more, I have three sets of dumbbells up to 70 pounds, a chin-up bar, and some bands. It isn’t much, but it’s far better than nothing. Thankfully, I’ve been in situations in my past such as training with injuries that forced me to seek out methods to make lighter weights feel heavier, and to stress the muscles in much the same way heavier loads would. Let me share those with you now so you can keep your gains in this insane time in modern human history, and maybe even make some new gains!
Slow Your Reps Down
One simple and highly effective way to make any weight feel heavier is to slow the rep down. Instead of lifting ballistically and lowering under control, try lifting with a two- to four-second positive, squeeze the muscle, the lower to a count of four seconds. If you normally curl 100 pounds for 10 reps, this technique can make 50 pounds feel like just as much weight. This is tapping into the effectiveness of TUT or time under tension.
We all think of the rep as being one seamless movement up and down or back and forth, maybe with a little pause to emphasize the contraction point. Have you ever taken each rep to a complete stop after lowering into the start position before pushing or pulling it back? I first became aware of this technique long ago when I saw someone doing it on Smith machine incline presses and had to try it out. Taking each rep to a full stop as the bar sat on my upper pecs, I drove it back up again and again. The pump and burn were ridiculous, and my upper chest got sorer than it had been in months, maybe even years. Dead-stop reps, or full stop if you don’t want to use that D word, take momentum out of the equation and force the target muscle to overcome inertia on every rep. You will quickly find you’re able to achieve the same level of intensity and fatigue to the muscle with significantly less weight than you would handle in your standard style of training.
Short Rest Periods
If you have always taken anywhere from 60 to 120 seconds rest between sets of an exercise, this one’s for you! Those of you who have ever used Hany Rambod’s FST-7 “Sevens” technique can attest to the challenging aspect of brief rests. In Sevens, you take a weight and perform seven sets with only 30 seconds between. Let’s use the curl again as an example, and for the sake of argument say you normally work up to using 100 pounds for 10 reps. Warm up your biceps and take just 60 pounds instead. For your first couple of sets, the weight will feel fairly easy, and you will regret not using at least 70 pounds. Because your biceps have less time to recover than they are accustomed to, there will be a cumulative effect of pump and lactic acid buildup that becomes more pronounced with each successive set you do. By the time you get to sets four and five, you will be fine with that 60 pounds and will now realize how foolish it would have been to go any heavier. Getting those full 10 reps on set six will be a real struggle, and you will probably have to cheat a bit to get even eight reps on the seventh and final set. Meanwhile, you may have just created the best pump in your biceps you ever experienced. Seven is by no means a magic number. You can do your standard three to four sets of any exercise and achieve a similar effect by using short rest periods between sets.
Bands and Chains
You can also increase resistance to any barbell by fixing bands or chains to each end. Bands are elastic, so the resistance will increase as you push or pull the bar further from the starting point. This is especially valuable if you want more resistance at the peak contraction of the rep. Chains operate strictly on the principle of gravity. If you bench press or squat a barbell with chains attached to the ends, more chain comes off the ground and the resistance increases.
Finally, there is pre-exhaust, the technique in which you perform an isolation movement for a target muscle group and immediately follow with a compound movement that brings in fresh muscle groups to assist. Some examples are lateral raises and overhead presses, dumbbell flyes and dumbbell presses, leg extensions and leg presses or squats, and dumbbell pullovers with chins or rows for the lats. Because the target muscle is fatigued from the single-joint movement, you won’t need as much weight on the compound movement to drive it deep into exhaustion. Since many of you currently lack very heavy resistance for compound movements, this method can really come in handy.
Those are a few ways to make the weights you have at home feel more like the weights at the gym you can’t go to right now! Happy training and stay safe, my friends.
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