In an ideal world, we would work less and relax more. Fun outings with friends and loved ones would be the norm, and our kids would take out the trash. We would frequent a gym 3-4 times a week with all of the equipment we need and a dedicated coach to show us the way. Sound too good to be true (especially the trash thing)? It probably is.
Our day to day lives are typically full - lots of work, stress, and less time for the important things like training and nutrition. The truth is, that’s okay, life is rarely the “ideal scenario”. Luckily, your training program doesn’t need to be perfect to make progress. This article is for the person who wants to maintain progress but who is often on the road, or has trouble getting out of the house and to a well-equipped gym. This article is about making consistent training fit into your life.
First, let’s define the goals of training while on the road or at home:
- Maintaining adherence/consistency: Studies suggest that about 50% of adults who start a physical activity program will drop out within a few months. Have you ever made nice progress in the gym, only to “fall off the wagon” when life got a little crazy? If you haven’t, then you count as one of a few. By continuing to train when at home or on the road, you keep up the habit of training; arguably the key to getting results.
Maintaining fitness: Your outside-of-the-gym workouts won’t be ideal. However, with a few tools and a good program you will be able to keep the progress you’ve been making.
Exploring new training strategies: With limited equipment, you may turn to exercises and training styles you wouldn’t utilize with a fully stocked gym. Expanding your training toolbox can lead to the discovery of new things and unexpected progress.
Now that we have defined what we want to accomplish with “flexible training”, let’s talk about the programming keys you need to ensure your less than optimal workouts are effective. Firstly, these flexible workouts need to address intensity. In a gym, intensity is easily achieved with the type of equipment used (ex. barbells) and the weight lifted. Outside of the gym, equipment and loads are limited. Secondly, if the flexible training is longer than a workout or two, it is necessary to implement progressive overload. This means that each workout builds on itself, getting a little harder each time. For most people this won’t be very complicated, and adding a little more weight, sets, reps, and/ or exercises each session will do the trick.
Okay, now that we know the goals and the keys to a flexible training program, it’s time to cover popular training tools outside of the gym:
- Bodyweight: Depending on someone’s strength level and training experience, bodyweight exercises (squats, pushups, planks, etc.) can be effective with appropriate volume. This is especially true when implementing some techniques we will discuss in the next section.
Kettlebells/Dumbbells: Space efficient and weighing anywhere from 5-200lb, these options are easier to have at home or travel with. With these tools, the best functional exercises like squats, deadlifts, presses, and rows can be performed with the desired intensity.
Suspension Straps (TRX): Utilizing bodyweight to perform a number of exercises in all major muscle groups, this tool works as long as we have something like a door frame to hang it from.
Bands: Very easy to travel with, bands allow differing intensities depending on thickness. Bands work well with exercises like rows and overhead presses and with some creativity can provide increased resistance for major lower body exercises.
While the tools above may be effective on their own for some trainees, those who have more strength and training experience may not be able to create adequate intensity with them alone. Earlier we talked about how keeping the intensity high is important for flexible workouts, here are some techniques to do so if the tools we have aren’t heavy/hard enough when exercises are performed regularly.
- Increasing volume: Training Volume (V) = Sets (S) x Reps (R) x Weight (W) for a given exercise. If our weight is lighter based on limited equipment, we can often create a similar stress by increasing sets and/or reps. For example, let’s say someone can squat 100lb for 3 sets of 5 reps in the gym, which is 1,500 total lbs squatted. Let’s also say this same person has to do a home workout and their heaviest weight is a 50lb dumbbell. By increasing their sets and reps to 6x5 or 3x10 they can accomplish the same total weight lifted for the exercise.
Implementing tempo/pauses: These techniques increase the amount of time muscles are contracting with each repetition. Adding tempo to a repetition means slowing down portions of movement in an exercise. For example, instead of performing a push-up at a normal speed, you could count 3 seconds on the way down to the floor, pause for 2 seconds at the bottom, and then come back up normally. Using this method makes your bodyweight or a lighter weight significantly harder because of the additional time spent working and controlling the resistance.
Supersets: When training intensity is sufficient and adequate time is reserved, exercises are performed one at a time. In a flexible training scenario, performing 2-4 exercises one after the other with little rest in between is useful for adding difficulty. Here we keep fatigue levels high and make lighter resistance more challenging.
It is worth mentioning that in some situations it may be fine to skip training if you can’t make it to the gym. Doing this intelligently, however, will depend on a number of factors:
- Length of time out of the gym: An absence of 1 or maybe 2 workouts will not significantly affect gym progress. Anything longer should be supplemented with a form of flexible training, and not missing any workouts by using the above methods would be ideal.
Reason for missing: A weekend ski trip would be a more suitable gym skipping excuse than a 2 week vacation sitting on the beach drinking beer.
Typical adherence to training: If you are someone who has been training for 5 years and would rather lose a limb than miss a workout, a brief hiatus without supplemental training is likely okay. If you are new to training and already struggling with gym truancy than having a flexible training program in place will be critical.
True training is a lifelong endeavor, just like lasting body changes and results. Considering life doesn’t always go according to plan, having the tools to train in less than ideal conditions will be important to maintaining arguably the number one determinant of success: consistency. If you are a seasoned gym vet who really enjoys the nuts and bolts of training, this article may give you the keys to create your own supplemental program. If you feel overwhelmed and lost, consider finding a good coach well versed in program design to do the planning for you. Either way, implementing the guidelines above ensures that your hard earned progress is not forfeited due to other life demands.
No gym? No problem.