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Hypertrophy from Home: Keep the Gains Coming During Lockdown

by Dr. Mike Israetel, Chief Sport Scientist & Dr. Mel Davis | Mar 22, 2020

First, the bad news: to combat the spread of covid-19, the gym and/or other sport training facilities you've diligently frequented multiple times each week are currently - and indefinitely - closed. 

Now for the good news: effective muscle-sparing workouts can be done at home with just some dumbbells, no matter your training level, so there's no need to put your hard work and physique goals on pause. 

To help, we’ve put together the following instructions for an at-home dumbbell program. Designed to support both muscle maintenance on a cut and muscle gains if you plan to mass, this training will be extremely effective for the coming months. 

To get good hypertrophy training with very limited equipment, we have to get creative. With that, here is how you design a program to train at home with just a pair of dumbbells.

Choose the right exercises

In the absence of heavy weight, you want exercises that can be made difficult via manipulation of other variables. That means conventional deadlifts, traditional squats, and presses are out for many people. Ouch, that hurts. But here are some highly effective options and variations:

Chest
  • Dumbbell flyes from the floor
  • Wide grip slow eccentric push-ups (bonus if you can elevate your hands and go super deep)
  • Feet elevated push-ups (feet on a chair or couch)
Back
  • Dumbbell bent rows to hip
  • Dumbbell bent rows to armpits 
  • Dumbbell bent rows with spinal flexion and extension
  • Dumbbell straight-arm pulls to the hip, 
  • Vertical pulling if you can do it (if you have secure bar or ledge to grab)
Shoulders
  • Lateral raises
  • Laterals with a pause
  • Bent laterals
  • Upright rows
  • Dumbbell face pulls
Biceps
  • Dumbbell curls
  • Dumbbell hammer curls
  • Dumbbell seated curls
  • Dumbbell alternating curls
  • Dumbbell concentration curls
Triceps
  • Inverted skull crushers from the floor (a close grip push-up with your whole forearm touching the ground at the bottom, elbows in) 
  • Close grip push-ups
  • One-arm behind the neck triceps extensions
  • Triceps kickbacks
  • Dumbbell skull crushers
Abs
  • Any crunches
  • V-ups
  • Reaching Sit-ups with Dumbbell
  • Planks 
Calves
  • 2-legged and 1-legged calf raises (on a stair, step, or safe ledge) with or without dumbbells 
Glutes
  • Lunges of different types
  • Single-leg glute bridges
  • 3 second top-hold glute bridges with dumbbells or bodyweight
  • Slow eccentric sumo squats with pauses
Hams
  • Stiff legged deadlifts with narrow, normal, and wide stances
  • Single-leg stiff legged deadlifts
  • Nordic curls if someone can help keep your feet propped and you’re really strong
Quads
  • Heel-elevated close stance squats (a 2-3 inch heel elevation will BLAST your quads)
  • Long-step lunges
  • Slow eccentric squats with dumbbells
  • Rear-foot elevated (on a chair or stairs) 
  • Single leg squats (these are very tough!)

Get close to failure

To make up for the lack of heavy weight and variety of exercises, you have to get close to failure or fail by the end of every set. On the bright side, working with bodyweight and dumbbells means that going to true failure is generally going to be very safe. For those few exercises where it isn't, shoot for 1-2 reps from failure. This strategy will often mean hitting 30 or more reps, given the relatively light weight being used. Yes, this will burn and require some willpower to push through, but the reason to do so is that even sets of up to 40-50 reps taken to failure or very close will robustly grow muscle. It's true that lower rep ranges (5-30 reps) with heavier weights offer a better stimulus, but lower weights/higher reps will also ensure some progress for almost anyone, advanced lifters included.

Rest Less

If you rest a long time between sets for this type of training, it will take more reps to approach failure each set. The harder reps at the end of a set probably stimulate more muscle growth than the first few easier ones, so making reps harder earlier works for you. To accomplish this, keep rest between sets short. As soon as you catch your breath and the burn of the target muscle recedes, start the next set. This structure, called rest-pause or myorep training, is both very effective and very time efficient… but painful, so be ready!

Do more sets

If you’re working with weights that require 30-50 reps to get near failure, sets will not be as stimulative of growth and it might be wise to do more sets than normal. Start with the usual number of sets you’d do per muscle group (2-4 per session in most cases) and add sets from there if you’re not getting sore from the workouts, and your performance is climbing session to session. If you end up having to do as much as 1.5x your usual set number, know that this is expected.

Train more often

Lighter weight and more reps favor slower twitch fibers which heal more quickly, allowing you to recover faster and train more often. Also, lighter weights are less taxing for joints and connective tissues, which also means less requisite recovery time between training days. For example, with barbells and heavier weights, you might train your quads twice a week. When training with just bodyweight and dumbbells, however, you can likely train quads three or eventually even four times a week, thanks to the faster recovery. A good rule of thumb is: if a muscle isn’t sore and your rep strength is as high as ever, you can train that muscle again!

Get progressive overload via reps rather than weight

If you have one set of dumbbells at home, you won’t be able to add weight week to week. But you can add volume across weeks: a great strategy that can work for a long time. If some exercises are easier and you start with even as high as 30 reps, you can continue to get good gains as you move up to as many as 50 reps. Realistically, it takes weeks of training to be able to do 20 more reps of an exercise, so adding reps can buy you months of progress.

Use small variations when you need to make a change

With any luck, we'll be back at our gyms before multiple mesocycle considerations have to be made... but here are a few just in case. With limited equipment, varying exercises is harder, but not impossible. Foot and grip position differences become your best friends. Do hammer curls and close grip push-ups for a few months, then switch to supinated curls and medium grip push-ups for the next few months. Another tool of variation is cadence. Do curls and rows dynamically for a few months, then try rows with a pause and one second hold at the top and curls with a slow eccentric phase (slow down your descent to span 3 seconds). 


Save time with antagonist and non-overlapping muscle group supersets

Choose one exercise for one muscle group, and another exercise for its antagonist muscle group. Antagonist muscle groups are those that move the body in opposite directions from each other. For example, chest and back muscles: do a set of push-ups, then, with no rest, a set of dumbbell rows. Because the main muscles involved don’t overlap, one muscle group rests while the other works. Add to that short rests between supersets, and you are putting in some efficient and effective work. You can also use muscle group pairs that aren’t antagonists but are non-overlapping. For example, you can do squats and then push-ups without resting between. 

Before we wrap up this article with a sample program, let's briefly chat about the kind of dumbbells to get (provided you don't already have some lying around): 

  • Adjustable dumbbells with a broad range of options are the ideal choice
  • The next best thing are three sets of dumbbells, one to use for legs/back (heaviest), one for chest/triceps (moderate), and one for shoulders and arms (lightest). 
  • To determine the weights you'll need, use the following guide based on your knowledge of your capabilities:
    • Your 10-15 rep max for dumbbell lunges = your heaviest dumbbell weight
    • Your 10-15 rep max for incline dumbbell press = your moderate dumbbell weight
    • Your 10-15 rep max for dumbbell curls = your lightest dumbbell weight

This errs on the side of heavier weights since you will have a broad range of reps, but no ability to increase weight incrementally across weeks. Better to end up only getting six reps with a weight that is heavy for you and have room to move all the way up to 50 reps (that's a lot of "room to grow")!

The last - but still effective - choice, is  a single pair of dumbbells that’s light enough for you to curl and lateral raise for at least 5-10 reps, and heavy enough to stiff-legged deadlift for 30 or fewer reps. If there is a single weight that fits these two specifications, you’ll be golden for months of effective training.

Lastly, in dire circumstances where dumbbells are completely sold out online and you (wisely) plan to stay out of physical stores until the "all clear", there is still hope for hypertrophy. As you can imagine, making this work requires innovation! Water jugs can act as dumbbell like weights and backpacks can be loaded with weight for leg workouts. Word to the wise: stick with your lower weights over a backpack of 200lb of household items (and/or dogs/kids:) -- unwieldy loads can make lifts more accident prone, and injury will of course interfere with your progress at best, and force you into a clinic at worst, defeating the original purpose of all of your "quarantined creativity". If you get really (but safely) creative with household weight construction, you might even be able to overload weight a bit. 


In Closing  

We at RP support both the choice to pause fitness pursuits during this complicated time and the choice to push through any obstacle to continue to make gains (or at least not lose any). 

To help you make informed fitness choices or just fill some quarantine time with quality reading and videos, we've made RP+, our online learning environment FREE between now and July 1, so add this $0 offer to your RP cart now for immediate access (including a weekly webinar and user Q&A with Drs. Mike Israetel and James Hoffmann)! 

Also, please check out the RP Gym-Free dumbbell-only training program*, currently marked down by 60% to do our part to support the fitness community.  *This program is geared for the ladies, but its male counterpart is expected in just days -- please look for emails and social media announcements! 

For maintaining and making headway on your diet during these times, this recent article from our Chief Physician, Dr. Spencer Nadolsky has great, bite-sized info: Meal Prep And Diet Guidelines For Weathering COVID-19