4

So I'm stuck staying at home now and for the foreseeable future, and I don't have enough equipment to keep up with strength goals. Specifically, I have no barbell, no rack, etc. I do have dumbbells and a bench, and I would probably benefit from a few weeks or so of hypertrophy work. Does anyone have a good program to recommend for such limited options?

I have an adjustable bench and a set of adjustable dumbbells (up to 50 lbs. each). My current deadlift SRM is (more likely was) 290 and my squat is/was 215. Those are the two exercises I find hardest to replace. I can make do on bench press (barely; I'll lose a little) and overhead press. The squat is my biggest issue. I don't have a rack, and the dumbbells aren't nearly enough for back squats even if I could figure out a way to do them with dumbbells. That leaves varieties of front squats (goblets/dumbbell front rack), but I'll lose strength.

  • Most exercises found in any pre-written workout program can be adjusted to do dumbbell variations instead of using a barbell. Why not go for a program you're already used to, and simply make those adjustments? – Alec May 6 at 17:15
  • My dumbbell weights aren't heavy enough for that. – Mark Field May 6 at 17:24
  • 2
    Would you like to include some further details on what you have available, what your current status and goals are? These things would certainly help someone craft an answer specific to your situation. – Alec May 6 at 17:28
  • Sure. I should have done that originally I guess. – Mark Field May 6 at 19:18
  • Sure. I should have done that originally I guess. I have an adjustable bench and a set of adjustable dumbbells (up to 50 lbs. each). My current deadlift SRM is (more likely was) 290 and my squat is/was 215. Those are the two exercises I find hardest to replace. I can make do on bench press (barely; I'll lose a little) and overhead press. The squat is my biggest issue. I don't have a rack, and the dumbbells aren't nearly enough for back squats even if I could figure out a way to do them with dumbbells. That leaves varieties of front squats (goblets/dumbbell front rack), but I'll lose strength. – Mark Field May 6 at 19:26
2

Single-leg varieties of regular and Romanian dead-lifts are good choices. These are more than twice as difficult as the bilateral versions because they contain an element of instability that needs to be overcome. And as with all single-leg free-weight exercises, it also makes them provide better multilateral development.

The squat can be replaced with Bulgarian splits, which pre-stretch both the single- (especially psoas and iliacus) and multi-joint (especially rectus femoris) hip flexors. Or alternatively, step-ups or single-leg deep squats would round out the development well. If you lack the flexibility to perform the latter, simply do them on the bench.

As you implied, all the other exercises are relatively easy to replace or emulate with dumbbells.

Remember that hypertrophy is not primarily a function of training load, but rather training volume. Indeed, the largest athletes in the world—bodybuilders—generally have poor relative strength; that is, they are weaker than other strength and power athletes relative to their size. This is because the high volume regimen that is ideal for muscle growth is somewhat incompatible with heavy lifting, since the central nervous system fatigue caused by maximal and near-maximal lifting requires a long recovery. Also, high-volume regimens result in greater development of connective tissue, which is non-contractile. (The positive side to this is that bodybuilders are less prone to connective tissue injuries.)

So although it may be difficult to maintain your strength, it should not be difficult to maintain and build size during this period. With that in mind, your focus should be on maintaining a high training volume, relative to what you would normally have done, whilst using the greatest loads that you can achieve with your available equipment. Volume, in this context, is sets by reps by load, aggregated over the training cycle. If you are not already doing it, it would be worth recording your totals in tons.

I hope that gives you are good starting point. Please feel free to post a comment if you would like me to expand upon any of the above.

| improve this answer | |
  • Good suggestions. Thanks. – Mark Field May 8 at 2:01
  • I'd vouch for the Bulgarian split squats. 50 lbs in each hand should be enough for 10 reps. There's research indicating these can be better for you overall in terms of strength, muscle, symmetry, and target multiple muscles not usually hit such as glute medius. You can also pause at the end of each set when your 3/4 the way up for 10 seconds.. it torches the glutes and takes advantage of the weight you're using(can get away using less weight). I'd also suggest getting adjustable dumbbells, that you can add weight to yourself. It's cheap and the ones I have go to 150 max each – Ace Cabbie May 8 at 3:42
  • The heavier adjustable dumbbells are out of stock and have been since March. I may be able to get some in June, but I suspect lots of folks will want them. Thanks for adding support to the Bulgarian split squats. I'll definitely give that a shot. – Mark Field May 9 at 14:13
1

I'm not going to give you a program.

Perspective

If you frame the situation as aping a barbell program with dumbbells, you'll only lose. I understand that it's hard to give up on a good streak with any training modality, but you'll get better results if you approach each tool on its own terms.

You won't be able to achieve maximal resistance in low-rep, bilateral, compound movements. But dumbbells still provide access to sufficient resistance if you tweak any of those parameters, and I bet you have other athletic goals anyway. It's time to find them.

Other athletic qualities

The Juggernaut training systems folks have a Limited Equipment Training Template that I find refreshing in how it presents its recommendations: abstract, since specific situations vary, and blunt, because they know folks miss their power racks. They identity five alternative training focii:

  • High Velocity/Explosive Movements
  • Very High Volume/High Tension Training
  • Building Work Capacity
  • Introducing New and Neglected Movement Patterns
  • Get Healthy

These methods, and developing attributes like speed, explosiveness, muscle mass, range of motion, and joint health, will position you well to better progress at your maximal strength movements once you reintroduce them. For instance, higher work capacity and movement quality transfer extremely well to deep squat training.

I also recommend looking into materials for athletes who are not training for a specific athletic domain. Coaches like Ross Enamait don't bias their training against conditioning in favor of strength. To the contrary, he thrives on high reps, and his tremendous work output gives him impressive strength despite not focusing on maximal strength. (For instance, see Never Gymless.)

Tools

Single limb work is going to be key. Think lunges, single-leg Romanian deadlifts, Cossack squats, curtsey squats, one-arm overhead press, one-arm bench press.

It could be mentally engaging to develop familiarity with lots of calisthenic movements. Burpees, jump rope, push-ups, mountain climbers, planks and so on are a whole world unto themselves. We never outgrow the fundamentals.

Maximal-strength proselytizing is useful, but let's not believe the over-the-top hype that high-rep work isn't great and athletic. Circuits with a dumbbell can be brutal. I prefer 5 to 10 minute efforts with two to four (five?) movements and often a short rest period between rounds. Develop a competitive perspective on challenge workouts like the Magic 50 or some of the less-ridiculous CrossFit "names". Don't forget swings (like a kettlebell) as strength/strength-endurance/cardio work.

Odd movements are also tremendously useful for producing all-over strength, as well as body sense. The Turkish get-up is chief among them, but think also of its constituent components (lunge with press overhead, weighted sit-ups, hip heists) plus windmills, bent presses, Atlas swings, and so on. Each of these is a skill to learn on its own, and an exercise to start light with and gradually introduce higher reps and weight if you want to develop a long-term relationship with it.

A program

I said I'm not going to recommend a program to you, but I'll share some inchoate thoughts about how I'm structuring my own training these days.

I spent about two weeks "trying out" movements and workouts, to see which ones felt productive and could fit into a program that met my goals and felt enjoyable while I did it. I settled on several exercises that I would push hard on for strength and hypertrophy, and some other exercises which I would do for skill work, mobility, stability, or conditioning. The first group includes kettlebell swings and pull-ups (weighted and unweighted); the second, things like Turkish get-ups and Cossack squats. I took each exercise easy for the first few workouts while I figured out the set/rep scheme I needed for it.

After about a month of fiddling, I have something like the following. Brackets indicate alternating between exercises. I'm specifically not recommending this for you; it's purely an example of the process.

A workout: [pull-ups, Cossack squats], [Jefferson curls, Hindu push-ups]

B workout: circuit of [jump rope, Turkish get-ups]

C workout: pull-ups (either weighted or unweighted, whichever I didn't do in A), kettlebell swings, windmills

Many movements stayed bodyweight-only for quite a long time before adding weight, but the reps-at-given-weight can progress quickly once reaching that point. For me this applied to both pull-ups and Cossack squats.

| improve this answer | |
  • Good answer and very helpful. Thanks. – Mark Field May 6 at 21:44

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.