Most people don’t like going to the gym. Fair enough, right?
Most gyms are pretty damn uncomfortable from a social standpoint (I mean, you have to deal with other people for chrissake. Eww. Gross.). Plus, sometimes going to the gym just isn’t feasible whether that’s because of price or accessibility.
And ya know what? You don’t actually need to go to the gym to get fit. Does it help to have more equipment? Sure. But is it necessary? Especially if you’re just starting out, the answer is a firm, “nope”.
Especially if your goal is fat loss, working out comes in a distant second to nutrition, sleep, and stress management. Don’t get me wrong, the health benefits of resistance training are life changing — it’s just not priority #1 when it comes to shedding pounds.
That said, working out is awesome. And you don’t need a gym to build muscle, strength, and make your joints stop feeling like grumpy cat every morning.
From a psychological standpoint, working out is a great foot in to fitness. It’s a good place to start building momentum you can later transfer to tackling your nutrition. Even though nutrition is the most important thing for weight loss, working out is a good place to start, simply because it’s just 3 or 4 hours a week of exercising as opposed to ALL THE HOURS making better dietary choices.
So whether it’s a matter of convenience, or you don’t feel ready to go to the gym yet, or you need a back up plan for when you can’t make it to the gym, this post is going to give you what you need to make a super effective home workout, regardless of where you are in your fitness journey.
First, over basic workout principles regardless of equipment availibility.
Then I'll show you how to build an effective workout program at home with zero equipment.
Next, I’ll give you a minimalist, cost/space effective list of equipment to open up tons of options for your home workouts, keeping your workouts interesting and effective for years to come without a gym membership.
Finally, I’ll show you techniques you can use to continue to challenge yourself when you have limited equipment.
First though, we gotta talk about the components of a comprehensive, full body workout.
As with weight training, you want to make sure you hit all of the fundamental movements which
- Push: Push-Up, Military Press, Bench Press, Pike Press
- Pull: Inverted Row, Dumbbell Row, Pull-Up, Lat Pulldown
- Squat: Goblet Squat, Lunge, Back Squat, Step Up
- Hinge: Deadlift, Hip Thrust, Kettlebell Swing, Romanian Deadlift
- Carry: We’ll skip these for now because this requires weights, but as you can guess, any exercise where you carry something goes in this category
- Everything else: core, mini-band, curls, etc.
Now, push, squat and hinge are fairly straightforward here. Pulls, on the other hand, need some form of equipment, even if it’s just a few exercise bands. Well go into that a bit later.
That said, a workout composed of a push, pull, hinge and some variation of a "not-movement" core exercise can be really solid workout.
Here’s a sample workout using this template:
- A1 Bodyweight Squat (Squat) 5 x 15
- A2 Hip Thrust (Hinge) 5 x 20
- A3 Push-up (Push) 5 x 10
- B1 Plank (Core) 5 x 20 seconds
- A1 Split Squat (Squat) 5 x 10 each leg
- A2 Single Leg Bridge (Hinge) 5 x 10 each leg
- A3 Feet elevated push-up (Push) 5 x 10
- B1 Dead bug (Core) 3 x 12
To make your home workout plan effective and know you’re making progress and stay motivated, you need to have an overarching structure.
Just doing random workouts willy nilly might feel entertaining and novel in the moment, but won’t give you nearly as much motivation as knowing you’re getting better each and every session.
Here’s how you do just that assuming you workout 3 times a week.
- Write out 3 workouts. One for Monday, Wednesday, and Friday respectively (or Tues/Thurs/Saturday, see if I care! You’re not my real dad!).
- Do those workouts for a month before changing them.
- Record your workouts in a training journal with your reps and sets and any other data you find useful.
- Each workout should build on the last. Meaning "Week 2 Day 1" should be harder in some way than "Week 1 Day 1", either by adding reps, or any of the methods I talk about below. The point is, do a little more each workout, and record it in your training journal.
- After 4-6 weeks, write yourself a new program. Or don’t. This is more to prevent boredom than anything else.
Alright, now you know how to structure a workout plan. Let’s go into techniques to advance an exercise without adding weight.
At the gym, if a weight feels easy you just add weight. At home, you don’t have that option. Instead, you have to employ some different techniques to continue to challenge yourself as you get stronger.
Here’s what I mean. Say you’re doing bodyweight squats. You start doing 3 sets of 10, then eventually work your way up to 3 sets of 20. Then 3 x 20 gets kinda easy i.e., you know it’s not challenging enough to force your body to change.
Now, I’ll show you a bunch of ways to make an exercise harder for the same weight and same number of reps. All of these techniques can of course work great with barbells and dumbbells as well, but they're especially useful when equipment is limited.
Mind Muscle connection
This one comes first because you can employ this technique, and should employ this on every rep.
The mind muscle connection, as the name implies, is your ability to feel a muscle contracting during an exercise. So if you do glute bridges and your booty feels like you have a hot coals on your buttcheeks, you have a good mind-muscle connection with your glutes.
Muscles don’t know weight, they only know tension. By creating more tension in the target muscle(s), you get a better training effect with a lighter weight.
To do this, you need to have a basic knowledge of the main muscles involved in whatever exercise you’re doing. I.e., what muscles are meant to be moving the weight.
Here’s a simple list to give you a basic idea:
- Push (Pec, tricep, or deltoid dominant)
- Pull (Upper back dominant)
- Squat (quad dominant)
- Hinge (hamstring or glute dominant)
- Carry (Everything dominant)
Building a good mind muscle connection can take years depending on the muscle group. So be patient. Just because you don’t feel a muscle working that hard doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. Just keep working on it.
You’re training your nervous system to communicate with your muscles better, and much like training your nervous system to do anything (juggling anyone?) it takes time.
One thing you can do to speed up the process is flex that muscle as hard as you can a few times throughout the day. I know it’s silly, but it works. I remember a client laughing uproariously when I confessed I often squeezed my butt for 15s when waiting for the subway.
The more you fire off a muscle throughout the day, the more control you’ll have over it.
This trick also comes in useful during your workouts. Before an exercise squeeze your target muscle as hard as you f%$£ing can for 30s. Then, without resting, go right into the exercise, actively trying to feel that muscle stretch on the way down, and squeeze on the way up.
Do that for every set and that muscle will be burning like the fires of Mt. Doom.
Slow the eff down
Doing an exercise slowly sucks. Like, seriously. It’s stupid. But it’s a great way to create muscle damage which is one of the physiological mechanisms that cause muscle growth in the places you want muscle growth. Slow eccentrics, as they’re called, are also really good for the joints. Slow eccentrics fortify the joints and teach your body to stabilise them.
Quick movements are harder to control. Rushing through movements means there’s a lot that can go unnoticed. You might be shrugging your shoulders during a bench press (not ideal) and have zero idea.
Forcing yourself to take 4 whole seconds to get to the bottom of your squat will teach you a few things about how your body moves and about being present.
Going slow will give you more ownership of the movement and make you more in tune with your body. You’ll be able to sense what feels right and what doesn’t. You’ll also be more aware of what muscles you’re using i.e., mind muscle connection.
All this isn’t to say there isn’t a time and a place to be explosive--just that that time and place is kettlebell swings and the olympic lifts. There’s also a big difference between controlled explosiveness and flopping around like an emu at a dance party.
Pausing at the bottom of a rep is another way to make an exercise suck more. The bottom position of a lift is usually the toughest part of the move, so getting strong in that position shores up weak points which makes you stronger overall and makes your movements smoother -- even when you’re tired and gasping for air.
Now, this doesn’t mean during the pause you just and chill for a few seconds until you decide to finish the rep. It means when you pause, you create as much total body tension as you can muster.
Do 5 second pauses if you’re trying to hold the bottom for 3 seconds, and 7 seconds if you want to pause for 5 seconds.
You’ll be amazed how fast you think time is going when you’re in the bottom of a squat. Hint: you’re not approaching the speed of light so time still is going at the same speed, you just count faster than you think :P
These are a nice twist to advance an exercise without adding weight. To do an elevator rep of the squat, go into the bottom of your squat, but instead of standing all the way up, only stand up about ¾ of the way, then you go back into the bottom, only then do you stand up all the way.
That’s one rep. Have fun :)
And it doesn’t just work for squats. This works awesome for most exercises.
Decrease rest time
How can you make a workout harder? Less rest in between exercise. Use a timer. If you typically rest 1 minute, shave it down to 55s, then 50s, etc. Pretty straightforward.
The next level
Now, there will come a time where home bodyweight exercises alone aren’t going to cut it. But don’t worry. It won’t be for a while. It won’t be until you’ve got the exercise bug, until exercise is something you look forward to because it makes you feel strong and confident.
At this point, you’ll need something a bit more advanced.
Don’t get me wrong, bodyweight work doesn’t really have any limits in terms of training. However, as bodyweight training becomes more advanced, it basically just turns into gymnastics, which means you’ll umm... wait for it... need to go to a gym (or park) for.
So how can you make a killer home gym even in the smallest of apartments, and/or with a small budget? Never fear -- here’s your guide to knowing what equipment to buy for the best results with the smallest dent in your wallet.
Each one of these tools is extremely versatile (except the pull up bar, but it doesn’t need to be because pull-ups are such a killer exercise).
The kettlebell is the a Swiss Army knife of fitness equipment -- it can do pretty much anything to a good enough degree. If you’re only going to buy one piece of equipment, buy a kettlebell.
You’re main exercises will be the swing, the goblet squat, the overhead press, and the turkish get up if you have enough space for it. However, you can do plenty of other stuff like bent over rows, lunges, suitcase carries, overhead carries, and even tricep extensions.
Start with a 26 lbs or 35 lbs, that will last you a few years before you need to upgrade to a heavier bell, or an additional bell of the same weight.
A kettlebell combined with bodyweight exercises can make a surprisingly comprehensive workout.
Try this one:
- Kettlebell Swings (10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1,)
- Goblet Squats (10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1,)
- Push-ups (10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1,)
Plus, with a kettlebell you can add weighted carries into your workouts, which are so simple and effective at building total body strength people don’t really do them.
The farmer walk is the monarch of weighted carries, but that requires two weights, so here are awesome variations that only require a single kettlebell.
- Farmer Walk
- Suitcase carry
- Goblet carry
- Overhead carry
- Bottoms up KB carry
Simply add in a few sets of carries at the end of your workout.
How far should you walk? A little farther each time is the right answer.
You can do just one variation, or combine them into a medly (recommended).
If you have a small apartment, you’ll just have to do lots of turns.
TRX/gymnastic rings and/or Pull-up bar
The importance of bodyweight pulling exercises can’t be overstated. Learning/getting good at pull-ups will dramatically change your upper body.
If you can’t do pull-ups yet, get a TRX or some rings. They’re compact and will allow you to build up you’re pulling strength by doing inverted rows.
This is how I get my clients to bang out chin-ups even if they’ve never done one before. So you can too.
Even if you can do pull-ups, the TRX (or rings) allows you to do horizontal rows which are super important for posture, shoulder health, and overall strength. Inverted rows are an important exercise in their own right, not just as a means to get your first pull-up or chin-up.
That said, if you’re going really barebones, you can build a really fit physique with just a kettlebell and a pull-up bar.
Bands are awesome because they level up any piece of equipment, don’t take up space, and are relatively cheap.
You can use them to advance the difficulty on push-ups, squats, or anything really. Plus, they allow you to add in horizontal rows into the mix. Not to mention they fit easily into a suitcase.
It’d be impossible for me to include every way you can use the bands, but here are a few of the more useful ways.
- Hip Thrusts
So there you have it, everything you need to get fit AF without setting foot in a gym. Just like in the gym though, don’t make this super complicated.
Simple always wins.
Regardless of equipment, focus on:
- Sticking to a structured plan
- Increasing the difficulty of the exercise just a little bit each week.
- Hitting all of the fundamental movements, improving your movement quality and mind muscle connection.
- Track your progress to ensure you’re pushing yourself a little more each week.
- Don’t get exercise ADD and do random exercises every workout just because you can.