What you’re getting into: ~1400 words, 5-10 minute read time
What this is: Techniques to apply, and how to apply them, to make minimal load training as effective as possible, and an example set up for a lower body day.
What this isn’t: Another article on doing burpees, using a deck of cards to make a bad workout worse, or 40 variations of push ups that are really just stupid variations of regular push ups.
By Stephen Trippe
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”
~ Fred Rogers
We don’t get to choose our circumstances, only how we respond to them. As orders come in across the US to shelter in place, and many small businesses and gyms have been asked to close their doors, I’ve made a point to look for the ‘helpers’.
I’m not in a great position to help someone’s grandmother pick up supplies or provide a place to stay for someone that might be down on their rent payment due to businesses closing. However, I do have a particular set of skills. Skills that make me brutally effective at training people with minimal equipment. So this article is me sharing what I can.
I’ve been a strongman competitor for 15 years and have coached lifters for the last 8 — I’ve coached lifters you’ve watched on TV, followed on youtube, and stalked on Instagram. I’m known for getting people strong and healthy.
I’m also active duty military and have frequently had to program for myself and others while deployed with extremely limited equipment. I know how to do a lot with very little. I’m here to share years of trial, error, and research to help guide you in your own home training endeavors.
Structuring At Home Workouts
My goal here is to teach you to fish rather than feeding you dinner; after all you’re all likely to have slightly different equipment at home. So rather than a specific program, I’m sharing my tips for creating your own program based on what you have available.
These techniques will help make those home workouts more productive — they help prevent strength loss, despite a lack of equipment, while building speed and mobility (two incredibly important qualities in strongman). Each of these techniques could easily be an entire article on their own, so this is obviously a very brief overview, but it will give you an idea of how I’ve structured my own workouts, as well as training for many others with limited equipment availability with great success.
The biggest issue with strength training at home is obviously load. Bodyweight can only go so far, and doing reps on reps only gets you so far. Our goal should be to maximize muscular recruitment, and one of the most effective ways to do that is through speed work; plyometrics fit the bill.
Plyometrics should likely come first in your workout to ensure you’re fresh and can generate as much force as possible. That said, be careful not to overdo this.
Five to ten sets of 3-8 reps is my general recommendation, erring on the lower side of that if you’ve never done any kind of of plyos in the past. Plyometric push ups, box jumps, jumping lunges (one of my favorites), etc, are all great options here.
High Tension Exercises for Home Workouts
High tension exercises are where people focus most of their time in home training, and with good reason. If you can add a load in some way, you can recreate “heavy” training.
The question becomes, how do we do this? Greg Nuckols goes into more detail on exercise variations here, I just want to briefly highlight a few specific options here:
Unilateral Movements: Strict step ups, single leg deadlifts, and lunges (Bulgarian, elevated, etc) should probably make up the bulk of your lower body training, as they let you more effectively use whatever load you do have. An 80lb sandbag would never be enough for deadlift training. Focus on single leg RDLs instead, and it becomes quite the challenge.
Many people can do weighted hip thrusters with 315lbs or more, but ask them to do the single leg variations, and they struggle.
The reason I list this one first is two-fold. Obviously it makes it easier to overload (if you only have 60lbs of bands for overhead work, do single arm work and boom: 120lbs of load!), but also because it’s a quality that’s too often neglected in strongman. Watch any competitor with a big squat and deadlift that struggles on yoke and you’re guaranteed to see hip and knee sway and instability. Build this up and watch your times go down.
Resistance Bands: Well, obviously, right? The key is to make sure you’re maximizing effectiveness here.
For example, combine bodyweight, additional load, and bands. A bodyweight pushup may be easy, but wrap a green EFS band around the back, holding one end in either hand, and suddenly that same movement becomes a productive exercise.
Paused Work: I’ve seen competitors struggle to pause squat 50% of their back squat properly. These same competitors often complain of adductor and hip flexor strains, and lower back pain. This isn’t a coincidence.
Not only is paused work a great way to increase what you can get out of light weight, but it can be used to address weaknesses and build mobility and strength in an extended ROM, both qualities crucial to injury prevention. I’ve only ever had one competitor come to me with what I deemed to be adequate flexibility: a hyper-mobile former gymnast who required more stability and strength in stretched position. The best way to build that stability: still more paused work.
Speed work: Traditional dynamic work, especially with resistance in the form of bands, can enable you to use a lighter load to continue to train strength. All those other “lighter” movements such as push ups, pull ups, lunges, and overhead pressing can be done for dynamic effort training. You are not restricted to SBD!
Repetitive effort: Finally, there’s the option to bang out a ton of reps. Band push downs, high rep light load, etc all have their place. Research has been done to show that as long as the set goes to near failure, strength and hypertrophy can still be gained, even with a lighter load.
However, many people implement this improperly. Here, I would dedicate most of the time to rest-pause, extended sets, and timed sets. Doing a rest-pause set of 30/16/8, with each mini-set taken near failure, achieves a high amount of tension 3 times, but without the wear and tear (and mundanity) of 3×30. Some famous examples of this include Poundstone Curls, Kroc Rows, Escalating Density Training, Westside 100-rep band sets, and Crossfit style EMOMs or METCONs.
Building Your At Home Workout: How to Set It All Up
We need to reach a certain level of fatigue for our rep work to be productive — and we want to hit high rate-of-force development exercises when we can develop the most force and tension.
So when I write a program like this, I start with a warm up and activation work, program in plyometrics, move to traditional speed work, and then try to hit the “heavy” movements. Your high rep “finishers” should come at the end.
Plyometric: Jump Lunge, 5 sets of 4-6 each leg, 60 seconds between sets
Dynamic Effort: Deadlift Against Bands (this might end up being mostly band tension for many of you): 8-12 sets of 3-5, 60-90 seconds between sets
“Heavy” Legs: Bulgarian Split Squats, 4-6 sets, rep range depends on set up but try to keep it low. Can utilize a pause if not enough weight available.
Repetition Effort: Goblet squat with band, 2 sets x 120 seconds each
Become a Better Strongman
This kind of training is almost guaranteed to be “easier” than traditional gym weight training; so use this time to build work capacity. Train a bit more often, and add in agility, mobility, and other components you may usually neglect.
It’s not likely that you’re going to come out of this hitting a deadlift PR — but that doesn’t mean this time can’t help you to become a better strongman.