Training With Gym Closures

by Mike Tuchscherer, 16 March 2020

With many gyms around the world now closing for the next several weeks due to COVID-19, we’ve had several of our lifters suddenly without a place to train. Over the last few years, I’ve often found myself on the road for various reasons also without a training facility — just making due with what I could carry in a suitcase and do in a hotel room. In the case of my move a few years ago, I kept this up for basically a couple of months. While this isn’t the same thing as what lifters are facing now, I do feel it’s given me perspective on what a powerlifter could do in a situation like this to make sure this bump-in-the-road has minimal impact.

Some things you (might) already know…
In the grand scheme, missing a month of training isn’t going to kill your powerlifting career. You’ll retain most of your muscle. The muscle you do lose will come back quickly. Your strength will come back. And a period of time with reduced training load can help you get over those aches and pains you’ve been ignoring lately.

Those are all great reasons not to STRESS OUT over this period of time. If you find yourself feeling anxious regarding your training… 1) I get it. This is something that is important to you and that you’ve put a lot of work into. 2) Remind yourself of the above points. But even if you aren’t stressing out over it, there are things you can do to lessen the overall impact.

What CAN you do?
I’m going to assume for the rest of this article that you don’t have access to a normal gym setup. If you do, even if it’s limited, what you do is quite different and will depend on what equipment you have. Instead I’m going to write for the people who are in an apartment with basically no normal training equipment. Take from it what you can and apply it to your situation. #ideafuel

Make bodyweight exercises harder
Let’s start with the obvious — you can do push ups instead of bench press. But there will be limitations for it’s effectiveness. If you are strong enough to do more than about 40 push ups, they will lose their desired effect pretty quickly. And even if you’re not over that number, it may be useful to have a few “heavier” sets.

My typical way to add resistance to push ups (or most of the exercises I’ll be discussing) is to use bands. If you have a band or two, you can put them behind your shoulders and away you go. A little goes a long way when it comes to bands. If you don’t have bands, try loading a backpack with some additional weights in the form of books or even canned foods.

If that still doesn’t work, either because you’re very strong or very hungry, don’t fear….

Blood Flow Restriction (BFR)
This has been very useful for me training in equipment-limited settings. Some time ago, I picked up some BFR bands from BFR Shop and I’m glad I did. It’s easy to get them on and get a consistent tension. If you don’t have BFR bands, you can make due with knee wraps, voodoo bands, or even just regular mini bands. I’ve tried them all. The trick is getting the tension right.

If you’ve never done BFR training, I highly recommend Alberto Nunez’s articles part 1 and part 2.

The actual training
Once I have the BFR cuffs on, I’ll put a band around my back and start doing push ups. If I get more than 40 on my first set, then I’ll try to add more bands during the next session. I’ll continue the set until a real 9 or 10RPE. Then rest about 45 seconds and go again. I take each set to pretty much failure and reduce the resistance bands if the reps fall below 12 or 15.

How many sets? I typically match the number of hard sets I was planning to do in my normal training. If you’re in RTS Classroom, you can utilize stress index to help you here. The model of stress index, which works quite well for normal weight training movements and loads, is not a perfect fit for BFR bodyweight exercise. But it does provide a “close enough” solution that should allow you to adjust the workload up or down depending on your response. Of course use some good judgment. If it’s your first time ever doing BFR work, try around 3-4 sets and see how you do.

Once all the sets are done, then you can take the BFR cuffs off.

Beyond Push ups
Once the push ups are done, I’ll typically repeat the process with Bulgarian Split Squats and Bodyweight Rows using a knock-off TRX. Same ideas — adding band or external resistance as it’s available, carrying sets to failure or as close as I can stand. Those three movements should cover your bases. But if you’d like to get creative and use different exercises, that’s fine. As long as you’re not going absolutely bonkers with your total workload, you should be fine.

You can still be mindful of your progression. Aim for more total reps or more resistance as you complete more sessions. Like the sets-per-workout, the number of sessions you should do in a given week should start out quite close to your normal training, then make adjustments as you begin to feel out your performance and recovery.

  • Example Program Summary
    • BFR Push Ups (adding resistance as needed)
      • 10-40 reps @9-10 RPE
      • 3-4 sets or as needed via Stress Index
    • BFR Bulgarian Split Squat (adding resistance as needed)
      • 10-40 reps @9-10 RPE
      • 3-4 sets or as needed via Stress Index
    • Bodyweight Rows (adding BFR or resistance as needed)
      • 10-40 reps @9-10 RPE
      • 3-4 sets or as needed via Stress Index

BFR work isn’t for everyone. If you have a heart condition or other issue where restricting bloodflow to various working muscles might cause a problem, then don’t risk it.

If you carry out a program like this for 3-4 weeks, don’t expect to retain all of your strength. But you should retain a good deal of it and you’ll certainly fare better than allowing your strength to free fall. One thing I like about this work is that it actually feels like training, which is a pretty important part of it.

A bridge too far…
If all this BFR stuff, working around limitations, and whatever else you’ve got going on is just too much to deal with, you might be ready to start your own home gym. If that’s the case, RTS coach John Garafano has some advice for you here.

You may not be in control over whether you get to train like normal or not. But whether it’s travel or pandemic, you can do something to advance your position.

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