Stay at home, stay strong

With most gyms and strength-training facilities closed for the foreseeable future, many athletes will be wondering how they can maintain their all-important strength levels. But as Peak Performance explains, setting up your own home gym could be easier than you think

As the coronavirus epidemic continues to gather pace, nearly three billion people across the world are in various states of lockdown in an effort to slow the spread of the virus. In my country (the UK), all fitness and recreation centers, gyms and swimming pools are now closed until further notice. Apart from collecting essentials such as food and medicines, travel to and from work for key workers, or one exercise session per day outdoors alone (a walk, run or bike ride), people are mandated to remain at home.

Strength: develop, maintain or lose?

As we’ve mentioned numerous times before, strength training is invaluable for endurance athletes. Not only does it reduce the risk of injury, it also improves endurance performance by increasing muscle economy (the amount of oxygen required to maintain a given steady pace – see this article for more on strength and muscle economy). In short, strength training is essential for any endurance athlete who wants to maximize endurance performance.

But with lockdowns in place across many regions of the globe, the options for strength training are extremely limited. Although many endurance athletes such as runners and cyclists are still able to continue endurance training while maintaining social isolation, strength training is almost certainly much more difficult. That’s because most strength training takes place in gyms, club houses and sports centres, most of which are now closed. Even more frustratingly, with many other leisure activities and work severely curtailed, now is actually a great time for athletes to be working on strength – to build resilience and ensure that they are firing on all cylinders once normal sporting activities are resumed (which they will be at some point).

Free weights at home

If you want to develop more strength, or maintain the strength you have already worked hard to achieve, maybe it’s time to consider a strength training facility – in your very own home! At the time of writing, many fitness equipment retailers are still supplying products online, so in this article, we will discuss what that involves. Unless you’re very rich and live in a mansion where you can install a professional gym, this will mean setting up a free-weight facility somewhere in your house. However, those of you who have only been used to training on resistance machines down at local gym need not worry – adapting to free weight training is straightforward enough and there are lots of excellent instructional videos online, which you can use to check your form. The two main advantages of free weights are money and space – if you haven’t got much of either – free weight resistance training can deliver the goods and also offers the ability to perform a large range of exercises with very little equipment.

What do I need, how much do I need?

The requirements for free weight training are surprisingly minimal; you will need (at the very least) a barbell or a set of dumbbells and a bench. Barbells are long solid bars, designed to be held with two hands. They have removable weight plates at either end. Dumbbells are short solid bars (normally about 12ins long) designed to be used with one hand only. Like barbells, many dumbbells have removable plates at each end to allow adjustment of the weight. However some dumbbells come in pairs of fixed weight. Although offering the advantages of securely fixed weights that can’t fall of the ends and convenience, the disadvantage is that you need a set of these providing a range of different weights (since not all muscle groups and movements you will be working are equally as strong), This in turn means more cost.

An alternative system aiming to offer the best of both worlds is the ‘selectorized dumbbell system’. This nifty system uses a selector pin (just like those found on machines using weight stacks) to allow the user to select a range of weights. Once the weight is selected you simply pick up the dumbbells and hey presto! – the weight of the dumbbells is adjusted accordingly. This makes for an extremely compact system, ideal where space is at a premium, and without the need for loads of different fixed weight dumbbells cluttering up the place.

Adjustable barbells and dumbbells will come equipped with locking collars to secure the removable weight plates. These should ALWAYS be used. ‘Olympic’ barbells have a wider outside sleeve for the removable weight plates (often 2ins in diameter) which tends to make loading and unloading easier as well as allowing more weight to be accommodated on the bar. Expect to pay a premium for these however.

Barbells are more appropriate for exercises requiring greater weights since both arms are used to lift the weight. The drawback with barbells is the fact that any imbalance or asymmetry in strength between left and right sides of the body (which most of us have to some degree) will remain unaddressed since the dominant side can assist the weaker side. This is not the case with dumbbells, where both sides are forced to work independently of each other. Another potential drawback with barbells is that they are harder to discard safely in the event of loss of balance or some other event, especially when placed on the shoulders or upper back. Dumbbells on the hand tend to be used with lighter weights, and because they are always held in the hands, can be released more quickly in the event of an emergency. In reality your training will include the use of both dumbbells and barbells.

Although there is relatively little engineering as such in producing dumbbells and barbells, better quality brands will be machined to tighter tolerances and allow a closer fit of the weight plate onto the end of the dumbbell/barbell. This reduces wobble and ‘clanging’ in use. Better quality barbells will flex less under load and should always spring back perfectly straight when the weight is removed. For adjustable dumbbells/barbells you will need to purchase sufficient weight plates. Don’t go too mad and buy 100s of kilos of weight at the beginning – you can always add more plates later as your strength increases! Aim for a good spread of weight among the individual plates, remembering also that (when using dumbbells) you will require not 2 but 4 of a particular denomination. Sit down and make a few calculations about the most economical combination of plates that could be used both on a barbell and a pair of dumbbells BEFORE you rush out and buy. Higher quality plates may have rubberized surrounds – these give quieter handling characteristics and are somewhat safer if accidentally dropped.

Benches

After dumbbells and barbells, the next most important piece of equipment is a bench. This will enable you to position your body correctly allowing you to perform exercises such as bench presses for the chest muscles (see section on exercises). You might think that a bench is just a bench and be tempted to go for the cheapest on offer, but think again! A good bench should be wide enough and adequately padded to support your back properly when lying down. Narrow benches with insufficient padding will not only bruise your back but will make you feel unstable, especially when handling heavy weights above your head.

The base and frame should be heavy duty and sturdy in nature and should not flex or move when you sit or lie on the bench. Make sure that any barbell supports are strong and sturdy enough to take the heaviest weight you are likely to use, bearing in mind that your training weights will increase substantially as your fitness improves. Many of the better manufacturers will provide guidelines on maximum loadings. Some benches are equipped with supports that are more widely separated than just by a bench width. These offer more stability – in fact as a rule of thumb, the more widely spaced the supports, the greater the stability. Check too that the height adjustment is smooth and offers sufficient range. The ability to alter the incline of the bench can be useful especially in providing extra variety to the basic exercises.

Squat or power racks

For those wishing to work the leg muscles with free weights a squat rack or power rack will be extremely useful. Squat racks come in varying styles – the simplest comprising of two adjustable uprights each containing a yoke at the top to hold the barbell. Squat racks are needed for exercises where the start and finish of the movement is from an elevated position. Good racks will have large and heavy bases which allow the weight carrying barbell to be dropped into place without becoming unstable – avoid those which ‘sway’ alarmingly even when the barbell is set down with care! Enclosed power racks are more stable and flexible but also more expensive and space consuming.

Clothing

Clothing should be cool and loose but not so baggy that it gets caught in the equipment or causes you to trip over it. Belts are a very popular accessory with regular strength trainers and can provide some extra support to the lower back by allowing for increased intra-abdominal pressure. What they can’t do however is to stop injuries arising from inherently poor form and those who rely on a belt rather than good form for lower back support may be doing more harm than good. As a rule of thumb, if your weight is so heavy that you’re having to rely regularly on the belt, you’re probably lifting too much – better to drop the weight a little, tighten up on the form and add a few extra reps.

Like belts, gloves are popular for lifting weights. However while they can improve grip in very sweaty training sessions and may protect the skin on the hands so preventing callous formation, they should not be thought of as essential. Shoes on the other hand are important. Go for a shoe that provides good grip and stability with a firm sole. Highly cushioned shoes such as running shoes are NOT ideal for lifting weights in. An often overlooked but important accessory is a full-length wall-mounted mirror. This is not so you can stand and admire your wonderful looks, but rather enables you to check that you are executing the exercises with the correct form! Remember that when free weight training (unlike machines), YOU have to ensure the limb movement is through the correct line or arc of travel – there is no machine to force you to make the correct movement. Finally, and to help with the above, don’t forget that there are some excellent books and videos available, which not only illustrate the wide range of free weight exercises that can be performed but also how to execute them correctly and effectively.

Other considerations for free weight use at home

  • *Siting – if you are strong and intend to use heavy weights in a flat with people living below, be considerate; your neighbors are likely to think that an earthquake has just begun if you drop barbells and dumbbells on the floor! Really heavy weight lifters should also bear in mind that not all floors between flats are purpose designed – imagine the embarrassment of having to go downstairs to retrieve your dumbbell which has just come crashing through your neighbors ceiling!
  • *Clutter – unless you take the trouble to put away bars and plates after use, you will find the room soon becomes littered with equipment strewn across the floor. This is not only unsightly but dangerous, leading to possible tripping or slips. Tidy up after each exercise!
  • *Use the correct weight – this may seem obvious, but it is surprising how many people don’t. The right weight is the weight which allows you to complete a set of between 6 and 12 repetitions of an exercise USING STRICT FORM, but which induces high levels of fatigue at the end of the set. If you can manage more than 12 reps the weight is too light – increase the weight a little and try again. If you can’t manage 6 reps without really struggling or losing form, the weight is too heavy – stop, rest, reduce the weight and try again.
  • *Make your training progressive – an exercise that tires you after 8 reps at a certain weight will soon begin to feel easier as your strength increases. When you can perform at least 12 strict reps for three consecutive training sessions, increase the weight slightly and drop the reps back. As you advance you can add further ‘sets’ to each exercise.
  • *Form – perform the movements smoothly without jerking or ‘throwing’ the weights about. Ensure that the lowering phase of the exercise is not rushed. Try to keep relaxed and don’t hold your breath during the exercises.
  • *Order – work the major muscle groups (legs, back chest, shoulders) before small groups (arms). If you work the arms first, they will be too tired to assist you in the compound movements required to work bigger muscle groups.
  • *Rest – allow small rest periods between sets (up to a couple of minutes maximum), but don’t go wandering off and make yourself a cup of tea after every exercise. A shorter more intense workout will provide more benefits than a long drawn out one.
  • *Warm-up/cool-downalways warm up for 5-10 minutes with some gentle aerobic work and a little stretching before using weights. Some experienced trainers also like to begin with a set of 20-30 reps of an exercise on an extremely light weight to provide a muscle specific warm-up. A 5 minute cool-down of gentle aerobic work will help flush the lactate produced by intense training out of the muscles.

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