Today marks the start of the 4 weeks Challenge “Gain Muscle not Fat”!
If you are new to my blog, check out the “Build muscle while losing fat” Series and join my free challenge! I have already sent the workouts and meal plans to everyone who joined but you can actually start the challenge anytime you like!
The first week, you will do the workouts as explained in the Workout Plan. Nutrition-wise, you will use the Meal Plan for Heavy Training days, we will start cycling either next week, or the week after!
Next monday, I will post an exercise challenge you can include at the end of your workouts to increase the burn. We will also change some sets and repetitions and switch out some exercises, to keep our muscles guessing and keep fat loss going.
Now, I got quite a few questions how to progress with this program, or strength training in general, if you are working out at home and don’t have a huge selection of weights. Thus, today I will share my tricks of building muscle while never having stepped a foot into a gym (okay once, but I only used the cardio machines… ) in all 6 years (!) I have been training.
Tips for Strength Training at Home
Control your own body first
First of all, calisthenics, or bodyweight strength training, is just as challenging as weight training is. In fact, I always recommend combining the two to get the best results. I am sure that the majority of my readers are exercising to look and feel healthy and fit and not to compete in a fitness competition. Thus, our goal should be to include exercises into our training regime that are considered as “functional“.
This means that building strength with those exercises will help you protect your joints in everyday life. You will notice that while bending over you will activate your glutes automatically!
Especially if you are new to exercise or weight training, it is easy to use heavy weights too soon. However, this will not help you achieve your fitness goals at all, but rather set you back, as you can easily injure yourself.
An indicator that you are using too much weight is if you can’t feel the right muscles activate during your workout. In this case, our brain is shocked by the heavy weight and it will activate all other tissues to support our muscles. This will put too much pressure on our joints and increase risk of injury.
So, the conclusion here is to get started with bodyweight exercises first. Master a perfect bodyweight squat, lunge, push up, practice one-legged deadlifts and hip thrusts and then move to the weighted versions.
The same applies to plyometric moves as well. How can your body properly absorb the force of a jump squat if you can’t perform a bodyweight squat first?
Must-have home exercise equipment
Once you have mastered the bodyweight versions of most exercises, it is time to use some weights. In the beginning, you can use jugs of water or anything that has a little bit of weight. You can even put books in a bag and hold it in front of your body.
However, some equipment is necessary if you really want to build muscle. Luckily, most equipment can be purchased online without spending hundreds of dollars.
I recommend the following items:
- Resistance bands: Glute activation, Upper Body movements, can be used when travelling too
- Ankle weights: Glute Activation and abs exercises
- Dumbbells: You can either purchase 1-2 sets of dumbbells, a light one for upper body exercises and a heavy one for lower body. The other option is to purchase a full set of weights. This will be quite expensive but if you know now that you will still be training in a year, then it is worth the money. Just think about how much money you save from gym memberships!
- Balance ball: If you want to build a strong core, this is a must-have. I always use my balance ball for core training and the muscle activation is optimal.
- Mat: If you are working out on a soft surface, you don’t even need this. If your room as hard tiles like mine, it is best to invest in a thicker mat for ground exercises. Yoga mats are only for yoga!
- Optional: Barbell, Kettlebells, Back Extension Machine: I have a small EZ-bar, 2 kettlebells and a back extension machine. I use the barbell and back extension machine for every workout, especially for upper body days. Kettlebells are not necessary and I will actually soon sell mine.
Now that we have covered the basics, let us talk about muscle hypertrophy techniques. There are three ways to achieve muscle hypertrophy, as shown in a study by Bret Contreras:
- Mechanical tension and Time under tension
Use a full range of motion to achieve this effect: If you are doing a Deadlift, go down as far as you can until you feel a great stretch in your hamstrings and glutes. Then, push up through your heels and at the top of the movement, lock our your hips, thrusting them forward and contracting your glutes very hard.
- Metabolic stress
Think of that feeling towards the end of a set, when your muscles start burning and you are struggling to perform the last few reps. This is the result of lactic acid, lack of oxygen in our muscles and increase blood flow.
- Muscle damage
To build muscle, we need to lift as heavy as we can, until we tear muscle fibers. Then, when we are resting, our body will use food to prepare our muscles and make them stronger than before.
To make use of these three muscle hypertrophy techniques, we have a few options:
Option 1: Increase weights
This is self-explanatory. More weight results in muscle damage, more metabolic stress and thus stimulates muscle growth.
But what if you don’t have a huge selection of weights?
Option 2: Play with your repetitions
Another way to progress, is to increase repetitions. If done properly, you can make use of all three muscle building mechanism with this.
The key to muscle building by increasing repetitions is to use as much weight as you can or have available. For instance, if the heaviest weights you possess are two 20 pound dumbbells, it should be your ultimate goal to perform all lower body exercises with this weight and hit as many repetitions as you can. If you can do Deadlifts for 10 repetitions now, aim to increase repetitions to 15 with the same weights. Every week, do one more repetition. This way, you are still moving forward and creating enough stimulus to build muscle.
Option 3: Increase sets
I don’t recommend doing more than 20 repetitions for any strength training exercise. Once you have reached your goal of 20 repetitions of an exercise with your heaviest weights, you will increase sets. If you were doing 3 sets before, increase to 4 sets.
Option 4: Add drop-sets and burnouts
This is an advanced bodybuilding technique that I included in the 4 weeks challenge as well. Drop-sets and burnout rounds are an incredible effective way to increase time under tension and metabolic stress. If done correctly, they will damage your muscles and you will be sore for days after your workout!
How to do a Drop-set:
- Perform the given number of sets for an exercise
- After your last set, drop the weight to 50% of what you were using before and immediately do as many repetitions as you can
- Once you have reached failure, drop the weight again and try to to do a few more repetitions
- Continue this way until you can’t continue with proper form.
- Perform the given number of sets for an exercise
- After your last set, decrease your weights and do 1 more set.
Option 5: Add pulses
Pulses added at the part of the motion that is most challenging to you (for example, at the bottom of a squat), will increase time under tension, metabolic stress and tear muscle fibers as well. You can use pulses at the end of each set for an exercise or do them as a burnout round. This is a very effective way to get a great training session with just your bodyweight as well!
Option 6: Get creative!
I only possess a few light plates (5-10lbs) to use for my barbell and 2 20lbs plates. For most exercises, those weights are sufficient to stay in the repetition range of 8 to 10 but for deadlifts, I need to get creative. Thus, I use my ankle weightsto increase the weight! You can also tie your resistance band around your dumbbells or barbell and achieve a much higher muscle activation this way. Get creative and try to find ways to challenge yourself. After all, this should be fun and seeing yourself getting stronger each week is such a rewarding feeling, right?!
Better to play it save
At some point, you will reach a point where you can progress anymore. However, unless you are training for performance or for physique competitions, you don’t need to be able to squat twice your bodyweight, right? If your muscles are strong enough to protect your joints, improve quality of life and helped you achieve your dream body, you don’t need to always progress. Instead, you can go more into maintenance mode and try to keep the muscle mass you have built and try to have fun with your workouts. Try out new exercises, find ways to challenge yourself!
I hope these tips will help my home exercisers! Remember, it does not matter how much weight you lift. You can build a beautiful physique and be healthy without squatting your bodyweight. While I admire power lifters and would like to be that strong one day, I don’t think it is necessary to achieve optimal health.
Let me know if there are other questions regarding the challenge! I am currently taking pictures of my meals as some of you requested a full week of eating!