Home Gym – How to Weight Train at Home Safely
Expert-Approved Ways to Weight Train at Home W/O a Spotter
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Type “bench press fail” into your search engine of choice and you won’t have to scroll down too far before you come across a video of some guy getting squashed after trying to lift a weight that’s too heavy.
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Understanding why you don’t want to train in a way that makes you the accidental star of a viral comedy clip is pretty easy. Knowing how to sidestep that pitfall while still getting great results, on the other hand, is a bit more complicated.
Your first task, according to Dr. Adam Feit, head of strength and sports psychology at Precision Nutrition, is to appreciate the differences between gym training and home workouts. Once you’ve done that, you can start to build a regime that will make you bigger, leaner, and stronger than ever.
Differences Between Home and Gym Workouts
According to Feit, there are a few differences between working out in a gym and working out at home.
Less Space, Tools, and Socializing: “The first one is not having a dedicated space. Space in your home can be limited or maybe it’s there but you just haven’t looked at it in that way,” he says. “Your first challenge is: where am I going to [work out]? Secondly, your access to equipment is different. Many gym-goers are used to having top-of-the-line equipment and a lot of different types of equipment. So now we need to think, if I don’t have that item of kit, what will I do? The third thing is the accountability and the sociability piece that comes with training with others in a gym.”
Opportunity to Train the Spots You Don’t See: It’s easy to think of home workouts as being an inferior option to a gym session, but that’s not necessarily the case. You could even see it as an opportunity to address aspects of your training that you’ve been putting off. “I see a lot of guys in the gym training with a mirror muscle mentality,” says Feit. “They train their abs, pecs, biceps, and quads. But this is an opportunity to train the posterior chain [the muscles on the back of your body that you don’t see in the mirror] and work weak spots and the muscle groups that you may have neglected in the past, such as direct glute work, posterior shoulder work, and lower back work.”
Build a More Solid Foundation: If that worthy weight training stuff doesn’t appeal, think of it like this: “A pyramid is only as high as its base,” says Feit. “The stronger you can make the base you press-off, the stronger you’ll be. So if you spend time training your back muscles you’ll have the ability to bench more because you’ll have a stronger back to press into when you’re on the bench press. By training the posterior chain you’re doing the behind the scenes work to set yourself up to be bigger, stronger, and healthier in the long run.”
Safety: Of course, another difference between working out at home and in a gym is safety. Since you might not have a friend or partner around to spot you and your equipment might have different locks and safety features, you need to be extra careful when weight training at home. Luckily, this expert guide is here to help so you can stay safe while still getting strong.
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Go Hard, Not Heavy
Unless you have an enviably well-equipped home gym, this is not the time to attempt a new one-rep max bench press. “If you don’t have a spotter, I’d avoid low-rep, heavy-weight training,” says fitness coach Daniel Ventura. “If we’re thinking about the bench press, you shouldn’t be lifting anything that, if you failed a rep, is going to leave you stuck under the bar.”
Feit agrees, and sees this time at home as a chance to explore new exercises. “I would opt for movements that allow you to train alone effectively, safely, and efficiently,” he says. “Because, after all, who is going to be your new training partner? My new training partner is my eight-year-old son. I’m not counting on him for a spot so I know I need to be smart with the weight selection and the exercise selection that I choose. If, for example, you’re used to doing back squats with safety supports maybe this is a time to switch to doing front squats or goblet squats. If you have a kettlebell you could use them for single-leg exercise variations, such as step-ups and lunges.” His take-home message: “Be smart and think to yourself, ‘how will I train to live another day?’”
Manipulate the Variables
Weight is just one way of fatiguing your muscles and prompting them to get bigger and stronger. When you reduce the weight, you need to adjust other training variables. “For any type of strength or muscle growth you have to have progressive overload, so you need to explore different avenues that let you do that,” says Feit.
“If I don’t have heavy weights, well, weight is only one part of the equation, so how can I adjust my volume [total weight lifted through the session]? It could mean more sets or more reps. I could decrease my rest periods or I could add a movement to another movement that I’m doing. I could add a step-up to a split squat, for example, or maybe add a reverse lunge to increase muscular time under tension.”
So how might that actually work in a session? “Let’s say you usually do three sets of 10 reps of 120lbs on the bench press,” says Ventura. “If you only have a pair of dumbbells that weigh 25lbs a side, doing three sets of 10 isn’t going to adequately fatigue your muscles. So you could do three sets of 15, or 5 sets of 10. You could also slow down the lowering phase of each rep so that each rep lasts two seconds longer than it ordinarily would. All of those things will give you a similar training effect with a lighter weight.”
Instead of doing the same exercises that you’ve always done, this is the time to freshen things up. “As a coach, working out at home has allowed me to explore the edges of how to develop a muscle group or a movement pattern with limited equipment,” says Feit. “It has allowed me to do more tempo work, explore different positions and change the range of motion of exercises. I’ve also explored how I can stack different exercises. I may not be able to overload a heavy bench press but what can I do with push-ups and resistance bands and hybrid movements?”
This isn’t, however, an invitation to throw any old exercises together. You may think your one-arm dumbbell press with a resistance band row while doing squats on a BOSU ball looks cool but, in reality, you’re exercising your imagination, not your muscles. “There needs to be a reason for putting two or more exercises together,” says Ventura. “If you’re looking to add muscular strength and size, you also need to create sufficient tension in the target muscle. So can you feel your muscle really working? Can you feel a burn towards the end of the set? If not, it’s probably not having the effect you want.”
Do Some Home (Workout) Improvement
Don’t have a ton of weight training tools at home? Then improvise and make your own. “I would challenge you to think how you can use the space around you,” says Feit. “If you have access to sheet rock or an extra wall, can you put in some eye-hole anchors to anchor bands or carabiners so you can use a suspension training system? You can buy a cable or suspension training device or you could create your own with a few simple items from Home Depot.”
If you’re not that handy or you’re living in a rental apartment with an unsympathetic landlord, there are easier homemade options, too. “I didn’t have heavy dumbbells for farmer’s walks [an exercise where you carry a heavy weight while walking] so I filled two large containers with water and did the walks holding one in each hand,” says Joe Warner, founder of New Body Plan.
At-Home Weight Training Essentials
Build your ideal home gym with advice from transformation coach Joe Warner.
“A pair of dumbbells is probably the first thing I’d buy,” says Warner. “They don’t take up much space and they are incredibly versatile. They allow you to target any body part with both compound (multi-joint) and isolation (single-joint) exercises. You want a set with at least about 25 lbs per side and if you can get an adjustable pair, that will make your life easier and save time mid-workout.
Our pick: Hhusali Adjustable Dumbbell, $102.75 at Amazon.com
“Kettlebells make a great space-saving alternative or addition to your dumbbells,” says Warner. “They allow you to work in a very functional way that translates into real-world and sporting movements. Exercises such as the kettlebell swing are great at working your posterior chain and building an excellent strength base. If you’re a beginner or an intermediate lifter, get one that is either 35lbs or 40lbs.”
Our pick: Rogue Kettlebell Powder Coat (options range from 13 lb to 88 lb), From $35 at RogueFitness.com
“A bench allows you to do a wide variety of chest exercises such as chest presses and flyes,” says Warner. “If you get one with an incline setting you can also do useful back exercises such as prone rows and flyes. The main thing you are looking for is stability.”
Our pick: Marcy Multi-Position Workout Utility Bench, $157.99 at Amazon.com
“A barbell will allow you to lift some serious weight and build real strength,” says Warner. “If you’re serious about training, it is worth investing in an Olympic bar and plates because they move well and allow you to set up for exercises such as deadlift variations.”
Our pick: Body-Solid 300lb Olympic Weight Set, $688 at Americanfitness.com
“This is a great option if you want to do squats and overhead presses without taking over an entire room. Without stands, you are limited by what you can get from the floor onto your back safely. With stands, you can walk in and get into position more easily. You can also use your bench to do barbell bench presses. Just don’t go too heavy because you don’t have safety bars to protect you if you fail a rep.”
Our pick: Rogue Echo Squat Stand 2.0, $275 at RogueFitness.com
“If you’re building a serious garage gym, this is will allow you to lift heavy and safely on your own,” says Warner. “The safety bars in the cage can be positioned so that even if you fail a rep you won’t get trapped under the bar. They usually also have added pull-up and chin-up features so you can add those moves to your workouts, too.”
Our pick: Fitness Reality 810XLT Super Max Power Cage, $257.16 at Amazon.com
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