Making more from less - Home workout hacks

Whilst everyone is jumping on the home workout bandwagon, I figured I ought to as well. Except, instead of writing a workout template, I’m going to give you a few conceptual tools that might help in designing a more efficient plan for yourself when working around big limitations in equipment and external load.
The following four recommendations are tentative, but logical extensions of fundamentals of training science that can help you get or stay more jacked from less.

1 – Use higher volumes per-session than you otherwise would.

As I’ve previously written about (here, here, and here) and as others have previously written (here, here, here, here) it’s likely that there’s something like an inverted-U shape in the growth stimulus from the number of sets you perform per-session. You grow by doing more up until a point, after which returns flatline and decrease.
All of the authors listed above estimate the sweetspot to be somewhere in the 8-10 hard (meaning near-failure) sets range per session, with some wiggle-room either side.
However, there ARE instances in research in which higher volume conditions than that seemed to outperform more moderate volumes (Huan 2018, Schoenfield 2019). There’s a couple of factors that might describe the difference.
One is that the two studies I cited used largely compound movements, and so stress was distributed over multiple joints/muscles, making performing more volume tolerable or even necessary to promote maximal growth. Given the mixed evidence as to whether the addition of isolation work to compound work promotes more growth, I’m not entirely sold on that hypothesis, as in low to moderate volume conditions you’d expect the more stimulative condition to cause more growth, too.
The second, and I think more important, factor is that in both studies sets appear on paper to have been further from failure, and fatigue from restricted rest intervals impaired per-set performance. With restricted rest periods, higher central fatigue can impair the recruitment of high-threshold motor units (those most apt for growth). Combining sets that are further from failure with impaired motor recruitment is a recipe for overall less stimulative training. This may ALSO tie into the compound movement explanation that I posited earlier – as Krieger has suggested that the benefits of longer rest periods might be more pronounced in compound movements.
The upshot of all of that is this – training with large limitations in external load and unfamiliar movements, you’re likely to find it harder to estimate or reach true muscular failure. Our ability to estimate reps in reserve accurately also seems to diminish as the number of reps performed increase, and the discomfort of performing higher reps generally might make achieving true failure pretty difficult for many people.
All in all, training with higher reps, likely on shorter rests, with lighter weights, in unfamiliar movement patterns is a recipe for performing less stimulative sets. Given the evidence that we have from more regular resistance training, it’s reasonable to assume that performing more volume will get you better returns under those conditions. Given that training to or close to failure is particularly important with more submaximal loads when training for growth, that should remain the goal, but buffering against the difficulty of doing so is probably sensible.

2 – Use more diverse movements.

There’s a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, there is some evidence for regional hypertrophy, whereby hypertrophy is not uniform within the entirety of a muscle depending on regional differences in activation that can occur depending on the strength curves or line of pull etc within an exercise. Differences in the type of contraction employed (concentric or eccentric) as well as which joint action is trained in biarticular muscles, may also promote differences in regional hypertrophy.
For many of us training at home, the movements that we perform will only be truly challenging through smaller portions of a joint’s range of motion. Consider that whilst, say, a hack squat challenges the quads through the entire range of motion pretty significantly, a band-resisted terminal knee extension is only remotely challenging one end of it. Distributing your increased set volume over a few movements that challenge different portions of the range of each joint is a potential way to overcome this, with the shortcomings of each movement made up for in others.
Where you are using primarily resistance bands, this can be exacerbated, as when doing (say) a band tricep pushdown only a small portion of the movement is even challenging. Where possible, using accommodating resistance to lengthen the range under which a movement is difficult, rather than accentuating a peak contraction seems like good practice. Where that fails, having enough diversity of movement to ensure that as much muscle is truly stimulated as possible is a good fail-safe.
Aside from the potential differences in regional stimulus and our limited ability to provide overload with given exercises, the next reason is just to stave off boredom. There’s only so many times you can do the same 4 exercises with the same 2 dumbbells, and whilst you don’t have to do 5 different tricep exercises per workout that you do, having a rotation as you go through them could keep things fresher for longer.

3 – Do more unilateral work.

The last two tips have been predicated upon the fact that our loads are likely to be less challenging, and our movements overall less stimulative than when we have tonnes of iron at our disposal. This one instead seeks to make things as stimulative as we can.
Unilateral work allows you to ramp up the relative intensity far beyond what you can when working with both limbs at your disposal. Many of the drawbacks of working in the 25-40RM range disappear nearly entirely when we get on one leg and turn those weights into 15-20RMs.
For growth purposes, it’s probably to your benefit to do this mostly when the stability challenge of exercises won’t impede you performing them well, so it’s not quite as simple as saying “I’ll perform all of my deadlifts on one leg”. However, judiciously performing some exercises for each muscle group unilateral will help you squeeze more out of your limited weights.
For instance
– Banded tricep pushdowns can be performed unilaterally with nearly 0 additional challenge
– A split squat is stable enough for most people to train their legs very effectively. Pistol squats, and even Bulgarian split squats for some may not be.
– Single-legged deadlifts are hard for many people, but putting the non-working leg against a wall can mitigate this somewhat. You can also perform most deadlifts bilaterally but then perform hamstring bridges or hip thrusts on one leg, as your shoulders give you an additional point of contact with the ground that makes them more manageable.
– A load that isn’t challenging to barbell row becomes very challenging to Meadows Row.

4 – Experiment with tempo descents.

This one is specifically for higher rep work, and is probably the least well-supported of my ideas. There’s probably limited benefit to super slow eccentrics under most circumstances. However, when lifting very light loads the first however many reps are minimally stimulative. They’re like penance that you have to pay to get to the reps that truly promote growth.
My reasoning for this one is based on basic muscle physiology. Muscles are made up of distinct units of muscle fibres called motor units. They vary in size from very small to very large, and during exercise are recruited in an orderly pattern (starting small, and progressing until the largest are in play). This allows us to match force production to task demands (so that you don’t perform a max deadlift when trying to pick up a pencil and end up jumping through the ceiling). When we DO have to do a very heavy lift, we recruit all, or nearly all, of our available motor units immediately, whereas when we do light lifting to failure, we cycle through all of the motor units at our disposal as they get progressively fatigued and their contribution to force production ceases. Because muscle fibres need to be activated and fatigued to some degree to be trained, high rep sets especially need to be continued to somewhere approaching failure to be maximally effective. For more on this, google Henneman’s Size Principle.
Now, the reason that I say you should experiment with tempo descents is this; force = mass x acceleration, and slowing your descent down requires force. You are reducing the rate of negative acceleration (ie reducing the speed of your descent, where gravity would otherwise have you accelerating downward at 9.8m/s^2).
By increasing the force producing demands of that portion of the lift, from nearly negligible as compared to when you’re doing 10RM loads or heavier to something bordering on appreciable, I suspect that you can make them a little more stimulative. What’s more, doing so will bring on fatigue a little quicker. Given that stretch under load is a contributor to growth stimulus, there’s every reason to think that maximising eccentric tension is going to help at least a little.
So, for the likely benefit of more stimulative sets and not having to do as many reps (which we can all appreciate), I’d say it’s worth putting some effort into controlling your descents. This, of course, sits alongside the other unconditionals of good execution, being using a full range of motion and standardised form.

So, that’s a wrap. To summarise – if your training is likely to be less stimulative per set, and with stimulus less broadly distributed, doing a little bit more work across a more diverse range of movements is likely to help. You can make movements more stimulative by doing them unilaterally, if it allows you to bump up relative intensity without sacrificing stability too greatly, and taking care of your execution rep by rep.

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