Saturday, August 17, 2013

Dream On: Ideas for Productive Gym-Less Training

By Andrew McGunagle

Going into my junior year of high school,  one  of our summer reading assignments was Walden, by Henry David Thoreau. While Thoreau's book is widely celebrated as a one of America's premier works of literature, I recall being thoroughly uenenthusiastic about reading it. I intermittently labored through each chapter during the hot summer months, and I don't remember ever being enthralled by the man's exploits. However, the one gem that immediately grabbed my attention and made the entire ordeal worthwhile was the following quote:
"...if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours."   
I scribbled that quote on a 3x5 index card and taped it to the wall by to my bed between Emily Dickinson's "Compensation" and a Winston Churchill postcard that read:

Deserve Victory!
At the time, I was amazed by how relevant the thoughts of a few esteemed deceased individuals were to an awkward teen who dreamed of one day owning his own gym. Now, I marvel at how much these assorted quotes have guided my views and actions the past 6 years. Throughout high school and college, I've been driven to continually pursue the knowledge that will eventually allow me to become a successful gym owner. I know my self-assured progression will lead me to my dream, but I've arrived at some post-graduation bumps in the road.   

If I'm going to save enough money to realize my dream of opening up my own training facility, I will probably need to work multiple jobs and be extraordinarily thrifty. For a time - and hopefully not too long, or else I might go insane - I may even have to put off paying to lift at a gym. Obviously I will want to continue to train in some capacity, so I am formulating a gym-less emergency backup plan. I figured other people might, for a variety of reasons, find themselves in a similar situation at some point in their lives, so I wanted to share some solutions for training with a minimal amount of equipment.

The list of exercises and ideas I'm putting forth is not exhaustive, and I want to make it clear these fixes are not uniquely superior to your options at a gym. Rather, these are simply some basic solutions that should enable you to maintain your movement capacities and musculature until barbells become available. Having said that, a thoughtful generalized training plan can put you in a great position to make swift progress when you return to your specific main lifts. Use your time wisely by getting into great shape to train hard, and you will realize the value in your minimalist preparations.

Gym-Less Training Basics

Without the luxury of a well-stocked gym, your exercise options are obviously limited by your equipment selection. While there are a variety of useful exercises you can do with just your body weight, your repertoire will multiply with each implement you add. If you are avoiding the gym in order to save money, then spending a large sum on equipment doesn't make much sense. However, it is often easy to find second-hand equipment from friends, neighbors, thrift stores, and Craigslist. If you foresee your thrifty training experience extending beyond a few months, then you may want to consider putting together a small, strict budget to spend on a few fitness toys.

While many articles of this nature attempt to list every variation of every exercise you could perform, I'm going to keep things simple. The exercises listed below are ones I believe are useful and will actually be doing myself during my own gym-less workouts. That's not to say that all other movements are ineffective and pointless; I'd rather be honest and straightforward about what I believe is the best way to go about this rather than trying to impress you with a voluminous array of options. Having said that, let's dive right in:
Body Weight

-Push-ups: Without a bench to lie on and a bar to press with, you're going to need to flip over and pump out reps of push-ups on the ground. Make sure you squeeze your glutes, brace your torso, and externally rotate your arms, then pump out enough reps to maintain - or perhaps build, depending on your training status - your pressing muscles.   
-Get-ups: Few movements allow you to challenge, assess, and improve the mobility and stability of your entire musculoskeletal system like get-ups. Focus on the positioning of your bodily segments and the quality of your movements rather than the completion of the exercise, and you should notice improvements in your functional state.

-Sprints: Whether you run on grass, a track, up a hill, or on a street, make sure you ease into uninhibited sprinting if it's been a while since you last kicked it into high gear. Slowly increase the intensity of your starts and practice building up to higher speeds. Progress gradually and be conservative throughout the process if you want to get faster, improve your conditioning, and remain injury-free.

Body Weight + Bands

-Banded Good Mornings: Challenge you ability to hip hinge correctly while accumulating volume for the muscles of your posterior chain by looping a band behind your neck, bracing your spine, and flexing and extending at the hips. Keep your alignment strict and cut sets off if you begin to falter. Over time, increase the amount of volume you do as much as the prolonged strictness of your positioning allows.
-Band Push-Downs: If you can find a solid spot in or near your apartment to hang the band from, then band push-downs can be a good general exercise for your triceps. Focus on fatiguing the muscles and squeezing your triceps as hard as possible at the bottom of every rep, and you may be able to put a little size on the backs of your arms.

Body Weight + Bands + Chin-up Bar

-Chin/Pull-Ups: Whether you purchase a cheap doorway chin-up bar, hang from a pipe, or go to a local park, chin-ups and pull-ups are great exercises you can do without paying gym dues. Like the push-ups, keep your legs locked straight and squeeze your glutes, brace your torso, and create external rotation torque at the shoulders. Diligently position yourself well and grind out reps in order to maintain the lats you built with heavy deadlifts.

Body Weight + Bands + Chin-up Bar + Pair of Dumbbells

-Split Squats: If you are going to spend any extended amount of time away from squats and deadlifts, then you will want to make up for that as best you can with other lower-body exercises. Split squats can be a useful way to work the hip and knee extensors while also challenging the complex of muscles that prevent the arches of your feet and your knees from collapsing inward. Fix your feet forward, keep your knees out in a neutral orientation, squeeze the glute of your trailing leg, and stand tall. If you regularly neglect single-leg training, then your hips will benefit from these split squats if you perform them correctly. 
-Curls: While many of the other areas of your body will be difficult to build without any of the multi-joint exercise stimulus you normally benefit from, your biceps may be a different story. Get a pair of dumbbells you can curl and go to town on your upper arms. Keep track of the amount of quality volume you can do, and strive to increase it with regular curling sessions. If you're like me and you tend to neglect your biceps in favor of your pressing muscles, then you will see some noticeable changes from this novel stimulus.

-Shoulder Work: You can build your shoulders without any heavy barbell pressing if you get creative and do enough work. Do raises, then press your dumbbells overhead until you are too fatigued to lock them out. Align your hips, ribcage, and spine correctly in order to give your shoulders a chance to function optimally, and these exercises will hold you over until you're back in the gym.  

Body Weight + Bands + Chin-up Bar + Pair of Dumbbells + Kettlebell

-Kettlebell Swings: Simultaneously improve the explosive power of your posterior chain and your conditioning with this single exercise. If you're a powerlifter who has shunned swings in favor of lots of deadlifts, then you may get a noticable training effect from this general exercise. Refine your technique so you can swing violently, then pick up your kettlebell and get those glutes in gear!  
-Goblet Squats: Unless you pony up the money for a gnarly kettlebell, these goblet squats are not going to do much to increase your leg strength. However, I believe it is important to squat regularly in order to assess your current movement capacity and maintain your squat patterning. Grab your kettlebell and drop into a deep squat for reps and for long holds in the crucial bottom position.

-1-arm KB rows: Rows can be a great upper back exercise in the gym, and they can be just as effective out of the gym as well. Grab your kettlebell, hip hinge, and use your non-working hand to steady yourself. Or, prop one leg up on your couch or coffee table for support. Stabilize your body and increase both the size and strength of your upper back musculature.  

Bag of Tricks

-High Volume: The tonnages amassed during sessions of multiple high-intensity barbell lifts will be nearly impossible to replicate with just your body weight and a few pieces of smaller equipment. Therefore, it will likely be necessary to drastically increase your training volume if you want to see noticeable physical changes. If your normal gym routine consists of strength-focused barbell work such as powerlifting or Olympic lifting, then tweaking your sets and reps towards bodybuilding-style protocols can be beneficial. Use a variety of high-volume general exercises to build a solid base of mobility, stability, and conditioning so you will be fully prepared to make swift progress when you return to your barbell roots.   
-High Frequency: As your gym-less training progresses, it may become difficult to accumulate enough volume to promote a notable training effect during any single session of reasonable length. Over time, you may want to work towards daily training sessions if you plan on stressing your body in the same capacity you do when you can afford a gym membership. Also, if you're working multiple jobs and don't have the time to drive to the gym and lift, then shorter daily sessions may be your most realistic training option.

-TUT Extenders: If you own only a few weight implements, then you will need to find creative ways to make those loads more challenging as you get stronger. Obviously, doing more reps and more sets are your initial avenues for progression, but there are some other tricks that can help you do more with less. Think of unique ways you can extend your time under tension (TUT), such as prolonged eccentrics, partial reps, or isometric holds at various points in the range of motion. Once the weights you possess begin to get too easy, you will need to add in a few of these wrinkles in order to make progress.

Thanks for reading!

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