5 things you can do when you don’t have access to a gym
When you are passionate about training, not being able to go to the gym can be a mental (and physical) torture! Not only because of the fear of losing your gainz but also because hard training gives us a neurological response that makes us feel good and can frankly be addictive. I know that when I can’t train for a few days I become more aggressive, less positive and have more frequent mood swings.
All is not lost! There are plenty of things you can do to make the most of this frustrating situation.
1.CHANGE YOUR MINDSET
Here are several things you can do to avoid going insane and maintain or even improve your physique and capacities.
Not being able to go to the gym for a few weeks can be a blessing in disguise by “forcing” you to work on things that you need to work on, but rarely do because you don’t like to, or because you’d rather lift.
Here’s an example. Gabriel Chiasson is a bobsleigh athlete I train. Gab decided to take a year off from competition to focus on getting as strong, powerful and fast as possible so that in the pre-Olympic year he would destroy every bobsleigh Canada physical tests.
We first started focusing on strength and power. He brought his squat up to 265kg (585lbs), his front squat to 220kg (485lbs) and his power snatch to 137kg (300lbs). All up more than significantly compared to where we started.
By doing that we stopped sprinting to allow for more lifting days and better neurological recovery.
But he became addicted to strength gains and wanted to keep focusing on that until he hit specific numbers he had in mind.
But his sport is about pushing a sled as fast as possible. And while strength and power are important, speed is at least as important, if not more so.
Because of the COVID-19 all gyms are closed in Quebec.
Instead of freaking out about losing his gains, Gab will now focus on his sprinting. Which, arguably, he should have done sooner.
You might not need to sprint fast for your own specific goals. But why not look at this unplanned layoff from heavy lifting to focus on things that you would normally not train but could help you in your future progress?
You could work on mobility, on mind-muscle connection (by doing isometrics or long-duration sets with isometric holds or a slow eccentric). You could read a lot about training or watch videos to learn as much as you can so that your understanding of training becomes a lot better, allowing you to design a better training plan.
You could work on conditioning or fat loss by doing intervals or even steady-state cardio: being in better cardiovascular health can actually help you add more muscle to your frame afterwards.
All of these things will make your comeback to the gym more effective.
Instead of thinking “I’m gonna lose all my gainz, bro” think “I’m gonna blow up when I come back to the gym”!
2. DO ISOMETRICS
Isometrics are as old as physical culture. They were likely around earlier than any other form of structured training. It consists of contracting your muscles without any movement. The version I will be talking about here is called “overcoming isometrics”: you are trying to lift a weight that can’t move.
For 6-9 seconds you are trying as hard as humanly possible to move that object. This is very effective to strength development: you recruit as many muscle fibers as you do during a regular max effort lift and their firing rate (the real key for strength) can be even higher!
The downside is that strength will be gained mostly at the trained angle, plus or minus 15 degrees (if you train the 90 degrees angle, you will gain strength mostly from 105 to 75 degrees). But the effect on neurological efficiency will be general and it will allow you to come back strong to the gym.
Here are three home examples. With some imagination, you can easily find exercises for every muscle group.
The first one is for biceps. Hold on to something immovable (in this case a tabletop) as if you wanted to curl it. Use an angle anywhere from 110 to 80 degrees and produce as much “curling force” as possible. Focus on your biceps, not front delts or traps:
The next one is for the front delts. Use a similar set up to the curl, but instead, simply put your fists on the immovable object and you will try to push it forward and up. You might need to use a staggered stance for more stability.
The last one is a classic that you probably did as a kid. Stand up in a doorway and try to push the sides of the doorway with your arms.
The method I like to use if you want to maintain/increase strength and size is to perform each set as follow:
6 seconds max effort/10-15 sec rest x 6… in other words each set has 6 reps lasting 6 seconds with 10-15 sec of rest between reps.
You only need 1-2 sets per exercise.
3. USE HARD BODYWEIGHT METHODS
Isometrics can help you maintain or increase strength. Bodyweight training, with the right methods, can allow you to maintain or gain muscle mass.
Let me be clear: if you are decently strong in the gym, bodyweight exercises, performed normally, will not be great at helping you maintain muscle mass.
The reason is that you are too strong for most of them. For example, when you do push-ups you are pressing roughly 60% of your body weight. If you are 185lbs it is equivalent to bench pressing 110lbs, which is even light for a warm-up for most of us.
Bodyweight squats are even worse. You are lifting 88% of your bodyweight (everything above the knee). But don’t forget that when you squat with a barbell you are also lifting 88% of your weight.
If you weigh 185lbs and your max squat is 400lbs, you are really lifting 562lbs. When doing bodyweight squats you will be lifting 162lbs. Which is 28% of your max. The mechanical loading on the fibers will be very small. So muscle damage and mTOR activation will be low, and these are the two main stimuli for growth.
To make bodyweight training effective at stimulating growth you need to rely on secondary factors like lactate production and growth factors release. These are less powerful than muscle damage and mTOR activation, but they can still allow you to get some growth.
To get both of them you need to reach the “pain zone”. Where the muscles feel on fire. Yes, you can do it by doing normal reps to failure. But on movements like a bodyweight squat, you might need to do 100 reps, which might kill you of boredom before the virus does.
Instead, you can use intensification methods like a slow eccentric (up to 8-10 seconds per rep) or holds during the set or at the beginning of the set.
I use six of these intensification methods in the Beat The Apocalypse – Bodyweight Training Program I designed.
Here is an example of intraset isometric holds.
Here Paul (pro football player) is including 5-15 second holds during the set, doing reps in between.
You can also use one long hold at the beginning of the set as pre-fatigue.
You would hold a position of high tension for anywhere between 30 and 60 seconds, then doing reps to failure.
The added benefit of these methods over simply doing reps to failure is that they improve mind-muscle connection a lot more. Which is an investment in future gains once you get back to the gym.
4. DO MOBILITY WORK
Let’s be honest: few of us really do mobility work. Moat lifters hate it. And we justify our avoidance of them by saying how ineffective they are.
They aren’t. They are not a waste of time. When properly done, they can help you improve the range of motion. Reducing the risk of injuries and helping performance in the long run.
I “rediscovered” this myself recently when I decided to get back to golf.
Years of heavy lifting and no mobility work to speak of left me incapable of doing a regular golf swing!
In fact, I had to postpone my “start” by a few weeks while I worked on my mobility. I did mobility work every day. I did static stretching for specific muscles as well as loaded stretching (do a search, I have written articles on the topic) and active mobility work, in that order.
Within two weeks I was swinging better than when I played competitively 25 years ago!
I could also mention the countless Crossfit participants and athletes that I worked with who couldn’t properly hold a front rack in a power clean/front squat: they had to “hold” the bar on their fingertips in the best case scenario, or simply couldn’t raise the elbows high enough to ut the bar on their shoulders.
They all were able to reach a full grip rack within 1-2 weeks of doing the proper mobility work.
You can absolutely improve mobility if you work at it, and this is the best time to work on this neglected training component. It will add years of hardcore training to your lifting career.
5. GET IN BETTER SHAPE
Jogging doesn’t require a gym.
Sprinting doesn’t require a gym.
Pushing your car like a prowler doesn’t require a gym.
Going bike riding doesn’t require a gym.
Going for a ruck walk with a loaded backpack doesn’t require a gym.
Sure, most of these won’t build muscle on you (pushing your car can do it) directly. But they will get you in better shape.
One of the guys I most deeply respect in our field is Jim Wendler. He was one of the first “big, hardcore” guy to put as much emphasis on conditioning as on lifting (if not more in some cases). Jim trains high school football players which is awesome, the best coaches should work with young athletes, and his motto is “strong legs, strong lungs”. He is 100% correct.
And even if you are not an athlete. You should still put an emphasis on being in good general conditioning. One of my beliefs is that when you are a natural trainee, your body will limit how much muscle you can build if your cardiovascular system is deficient.
Think about it: your body doesn’t care about looking jacked. It cares about survival. Your muscles require blood flow to bring oxygen and clear metabolites. The more muscles you have, the more oxygen you need, the more CO2, lactate and hydrogen ions you produce, the more blood flow you need.
Having an insufficient cardiovascular system is actually dangerous for your health. It will require a higher heart rate and will likely lead to high blood pressure.
As such the body will limit muscle-building if it “knows” that it won’t be able to support it.
In my opinion that is one of the main reasons behind the cardiovascular issues of bodybuilders: the steroids allow them to bypass this protective limitation of muscle growth. They can “force” the body to add muscle even if the cardiovascular will have a hard time supporting it. This leads to a higher risk of heart and kidney problems.
The take-home message that investing in your heart and vascular system will allow you to build more muscle in the future.
Don’t get me wrong: don’t become an endurance athlete who does 20k per day. That will surely be bad for muscle growth in most. But doing hard conditioning 2-3 times per week is also an investment in future gains. And when you can’t go to the gym for a few weeks, it’s the perfect time to do it.
You will feel smaller and depleted? Maybe, but in the moderate and long term, it will more than worth it!
There you have it; five simple things you can do to avoid going insane when you can’t do to the gym, retain or even increase your muscle mass and strength. But more importantly, improve future gains by improving elements that will make your body more responsive to future lifting programs.
Good training and stay positive!