The gains must go on…
Unless you’ve gone and joined a secret underground lifting cult, you’re probably reading this at home.
The gym is probably a distant memory, and you’re probably curled up in a ball, cradling your tub of protein powder like a newborn baby for comfort.
You’ve probably been tempted to binge eat that entire box of peanut butter protein bars for the last three days (emotional eating is never the answer).
You’ve probably rewatched Terminator 12 times. You’re probably feeling a little anxious about atrophy and you’re worried that all of your hard-earned gains are about to disappear faster than toilet paper in a pandemic.
While we don’t want to dwell too long on the C-word, the reality is that the gym just isn’t an option for most lifters right now. But hope is not lost. In fact, if lifters can master the art of adaptation, we can survive our gym hiatus with our gains intact!
If it doesn’t already feel like we’re living in an episode of The Walking Dead, we all know lifters can become a bit zombie-like without the gym (mindlessly staggering around, with nowhere to go).
But while we might not have the same creature comforts at home compared to our local gym (unless you’re Mark Whalberg), there’s absolutely no reason we can’t keep training with the same intensity and living our best life through fitness. In fact, with a basic understanding of the concept of hypertrophy and a bit of creative thinking, we can stay on board the gains train while housebound in self-isolation or social distancing.
So let’s start with the basics...what is hypertrophy?
You bench three plates and leave a small dent in the earth after deadlifts, we know that you know what hypertrophy is: it’s muscles getting bigger. But on a deeper, scientific level, hypertrophy is when the cross-sectional area of the muscle, and diameter of the individual fibers becomes bigger, due to an increase in myofibril size and sarcomeres. This is what happens during muscle protein synthesis, following the microtrauma that a heavy lifting session inflicts on our muscle fibers.
Firstly, it’s important to be aware that when we’re writing about maintaining your gains at home, we’re referring purely to hypertrophy (the size of the muscle cell). When it comes to strength, experienced lifters might find that their maxes on the big lifts may initially be lower after a few months of training at home without barbells. However if we keep training hard and maintaining our pure muscle mass, that drop in strength should mostly be down to rusty motor patterns, which can return in the space of 2-4 weeks for most people.
Now, while researchers haven’t exactly been clamouring to discover exactly how you can gain Ronnie Coleman-sized biceps, we know there’s a few things which have a strong connection to stimulating hypertrophy. Namely, mechanical tension and fatigue (metabolic stress).
If you’re head over heels for hypertrophy, mechanical tension is the number one thing you should be thinking about. Let’s break it down.
When your muscles are actively contracting during a lifting session, they’re exerting a force against some form of resistance, whether that’s gravity, inertia or the barbell itself. This happens either while the muscle is shortening (concentric), lengthening (eccentric) or remaining at a constant length (isometric). That force is mechanical tension. This is depicted perfectly here, with every lifter's leg day favourite.
Think about the amount of tension flowing through your muscles during a heavy back squat. Think about how you stretch every single sinew just to grind out that final rep. That same tension is what stimulates hypertrophy of the muscle cells.
However, it’s important to remember that hypertrophy isn’t about increasing mechanical tension on the whole muscle-tendon unit, but rather the tension experienced by each individual muscle fiber.
When we’re at the gym lifting heavy iron, it’s those five plates of steel on either side that creates the mechanical tension in the muscle fibres. The heavier load causes the slower contraction, which then causes the individual muscle fibres to exert more force.
However since we’re going to be training at home without the luxuries of weight plates and heavy dumbbells, we have to think of ways to recreate that mechanical tension without heavy loading. We still need the load to stimulate the high threshold motor units, but the load doesn't have to come from weight alone. Remember, when it comes to hypertrophy, your muscles don’t know you’re doing a 200KG deadlift, all they know is the tension experienced by each individual muscle fiber!
Let’s say you’ve been able to salvage a few light dumbbells and kettlebells from wreckage of a ransacked Walmart or K-Mart…
Pounding out reps as quickly as you can isn’t the best way to get on the hypertrophy highway. When we lift lighter loads with maximal speed, the weight moves fast, but the overall muscle force is low, because each muscle fiber is only exerting a small force when it shortens quickly.
Here’s an example you can do right now. Get on the floor and perform 10 push ups as fast as you can. Done? Now perform another 10, this time with 6 second eccentric and 6 second concentric contractions. Feel the difference in tension and overall fatigue? This is why embracing slower contractions with our lighter weights can help us keep our gains.
So to create a similar level of mechanical tension, we should be trying to lift our lighter loads slower, as the active individual muscle fibers will have to exert a greater force. When the contraction velocity in the muscle fiber is slower, there’s more mechanical tension. More mechanical tension means more hypertrophy!
Here’s a study where a group who performed 8 slow speed reps, gained three times as much muscle as a group performing 8 fast reps, following 12 weeks of training the same exercise.
There’s also a bunch of studies here, here and here explaining that pure hypertrophy is not about how heavy your weights are, but rather how much mechanical loading your muscle fibres experience. 30-50 seconds seems to be the universal sweet spot when it comes to time under tension, however we also want to be getting close to, or reaching failure during our home workouts. This is where fatigue comes in...
Studies show us that strength training with lighter loads to failure will produce identical muscle growth to strength training with heavy loads. Recreating the mechanical tension through things like slowed contractions, shorter rest periods and unilateral training are just ways of reaching fatigue sooner. Fatigue is important, because it’s your peripheral fatigue that leads to increased motor unit recruitment, as extra muscle fibers are now being activated to compensate for the lower forces the weakened muscles are generating, as the shortening velocity decreases due to increase in metabolites like lactate.
So, as long as we’re keeping our mechanical loading consistent and training close to fatigue somewhere in the 5-30 rep range, there’s absolutely no reason why we can’t keep hustling for hypertrophy at home.
Could we have skipped the sermon and just told you that? Maybe, but we think that by truly understanding things like tension and fatigue, we can reduce a lot of the anxiety lifters might be feeling. Anyway, you’ve got plenty of time on your hands at the moment, right?
So we know exercises that take thousands of reps to create metabolic stress aren’t going to cut it. But there’s still plenty of things we can do to maximise mechanical tension and reach the right level of fatigue when barbells are barren.
You might’ve heard fables of wartime prisoners using isometric holds to maintain their muscle in the POW camps. Turns out there’s some pretty solid science behind pulling and pushing on prison bars, with isometric contractions shown to build some serious muscle. An isometric contraction is when the muscles experience tension, but don’t change length. By holding contractions for long enough (maximum 20 seconds), we can recruit up to 10% more motor units than dynamic exercises. Some great examples of this are single-arm hangs for our biceps, an isometric push up hold or a Nordic hamstring hold.
CHANGE BODYWEIGHT DISTRIBUTION
Your body is a barbell, and while we can’t just add more weight when we feel like it to get that progressive overload, we can change our body weight distribution to make simple exercises harder. One example of this is doing more unilateral work. Push ups are pretty easy, but what about single arm push ups? What about elevating one arm to increase the stretch through your pec? Even single leg hack squats are something that plenty of lifters find super challenging!
ADJUST THE ANGLES
Sometimes we just need to look at things from a different angle. Many lifters have only scratched the surface when it comes to bodyweight training, and adjusting the angle of your body is an excellent way of increasing mechanical tension and reaching fatigue earlier. Elevate your feet to make push ups more difficult. Change the elevation of the table for your inverted row. Even by angling our torso and legs forward during dips, we can place more tension on the chest, rather than the triceps.
The only home workout program you need...
Here’s an example of an hypertrophy program that should challenge most lifters. While you can do this three day split with just a chin up bar and a table, adding resistance in the form of bands or dumbbells can take your home workouts to the next level. Remember to slow your reps down and perform each exercise close to failure!
Because research indicates that a majority of an athlete's strength capacity is recovered within the first minute after finishing a set, we recommend using rest intervals of 60-90 seconds. Any shorter and you won’t have enough time to regain muscular strength, and longer and the amount of metabolic stress will be compromised. Around one minute is our happy medium, with moderate rest also shown to provoke a spike in anabolic hormone concentrations!
Starting to see the silver linings to lockdown?
Ryderwear’s self-isolation survival guide doesn’t stop here! We’ll be continually updating you with inspiration, advice and hints on how to keep healthy and home. Check out some of our other content below
Using Rest To Plan Your Gains: Making the most of self-isolation