You don’t need heavy weights, a PT or a studio to make significant strength gains. With a little technical know-how, you can elevate your home workouts to ensure that you’re continuously improving and getting stronger.
“The gyms are closed and all the kettlebells in the country seem to have vanished – so I’m never going to gain strength at home”. How many of us have had that thought over the past year? As someone who thrives on performing heavy deadlifts and adding weights to the bar, the prospect of going through another gym-less lockdown was daunting – until I realised that the core principle for making strength gains was as applicable to home workouts as it is to those in a weights room: progressive overloading.
According to Sara Catriona, a London-based strength and conditioning coach, progressive overloading “stimulates greater muscle fibre recruitment which helps to build muscle strength and power”. But what exactly is progressive overloading, and how can we do it?
Strength and conditioning coach Kate Whapples says that “progressive overloading is the gradual increase of demand that your training is putting on your musculoskeletal system.” Our bodies respond and adapt to whatever we put them through, so we need to continuously challenge them in order to make progress. This is where progressive overloading comes in. “If you don’t provide a progressively harder stimulus, there is no reason for your muscles to make any adaptations as they can already meet the demands of your training,” says Kate.
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Progressive overloading requires you to follow a well-structured workout routine, completing the same exercises each week for at least a month at a time. This differs vastly from the sporadic training styles and plans you might see on Instagram; changing up your workout every day might cure the boredom but it won’t be constructive if you want to make sustained physical progress. In a gym setting, all you have to do is increase the amount of weight you lift each session, but that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to achieve at home. Kate and Sara both agree that you can progressively overload just as easily without weights by adjusting five different aspects of your training.
How to progressively overload at home
Increase the repetitions
“If you don’t have access to weights, an easy way to make your training progressively harder is to increase the repetitions (or reps),” Kate says. For example, “if you managed four sets of eight press-ups in your last session, why not try four sets of 10 press-ups this time?”
The key here, Sara says, is gradual progression: “Don’t start with 10 reps one week and then do 50 the next, as this is only going to be detrimental to your progress. The key is to build slowly and consistently; that way you’ll remain motivated (since you’re not too sore or achy) and more inclined to continue.”
If your goal is hypertrophy (muscle growth), however, “the science points to a rep range of eight to twelve to be ideal” – so, while rep count is a great short-term option (you can keep on adding until you can’t do another rep), there are other ways of pushing your load.
Add an extra set
“Can’t squeeze out any more reps? Then you could try increasing the volume,” says Kate. Usually, this means adding more sets of an exercise into your session, which can be perfect for when you’ve reached the upper limit of those hypertrophy-friendly repetitions.
“If you usually do three sets of an exercise,” says Kate, “try adding that fourth or fifth for an extra boost.”
Something to note here is that adding extra sets to your workouts can marginally increase your workout time. If you’re on a strict timetable and can’t budge by ten minutes, another method might be better.
Train more frequently
Increasing the frequency of your training is also a way to progressively overload your muscles or cardiovascular system. “Increasing frequency typically means adding in training,” Kate says. That might mean upping your leg sessions to three a week from two, or dropping in a third run.
However, Kate warns, “while this is constructive for the majority of people, if you already have a hectic training schedule you should be cautious not to overtrain, as this will put you at a higher risk of injury.” It’s really important to make sure you’re getting enough rest in between sessions because that’s where the muscle growth magic happens.
Increase the time under tension
The phrase “time under tension” refers to the time a muscle spends under strain or load. To implement this into your training, focus on making one part of a rep last longer than the others. The most common way to do this by increasing the eccentric (downward) portion of the movement.
“For instance,” says Kate, “press-ups are much easier if you complete the movement at a constant pace – usually one second down and one second up. By increasing the eccentric phase to three seconds, pausing in the bottom position and then pressing explosively upwards, you can increase the time your muscles are under tension which consequently increases the difficulty of the movement.”
Looking to build strong leg muscles? Try squatting to the count of 3-1: squat down for 3 seconds, hold for 1 second and then shoot back up to the start. It’s that three-second descent that gets the glutes, quads and hamstrings working hard so the slower you take it, the more you’ll be working.
Spend less time resting between sets
Another very effective way of using progressive overload in your home workouts is reducing the recovery time between sets and exercises.
In the first week of training, “you may feel the need to take longer breaks but as the days and weeks go by, you’ll feel stronger both physically and mentally – giving you the ability to push through and jump straight into the next set or exercise after finishing the previous one,” says Sara.
You might begin by resting for 60 seconds in between each set and two minutes in between each exercise. The following week, aim to reduce that rest period to 45 seconds between each set and 90 seconds between each exercise. By reducing your resting time, you’ll improve muscular and cardiovascular endurance, allowing you to handle a bigger load in a smaller space of time and increasing muscular strength.
Try progressive overloading at home with this legs and core workout from Sara (with 20 seconds rest in between each exercise):
Week 1 (sets x reps)
Sumo Squats: 3 x 10
Backward Lunges: 3 x 10 (each leg)
Narrow Squats: 3 x 10
Donkey Kicks: 3 x 15 (each leg)
Lying Leg Raises: 2 x 10
Mountain Climbers: 2 x 20
Sit-Ups: 2 x10
Week 2 (sets x reps)
Sumo Squats: 3 x 10; 12; 12
Backwards Lunges: 3 x 10; 12; 12 (each leg)
Narrow Squats: 3 x 10; 12; 12
Donkey Kicks: 3 x 15 ; 15; 20 (each leg)
Lying Leg Raises: 3 x 10; 10; 8
Mountain Climbers: 3 x 10; 10; 8
Sit Ups: 2 x 10; 12
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