3 Ways to Increase Intensity With At-Home Workouts

How a professional powerlifter increases intensity with at-home workouts.

Well, for most of us, quarantine measures are still in effect, which means gym time is probably limited or non-existent. That sucks – especially if you’re wasting that time completely off rather than making the most of it. 

To help you avoid that pitfall, I’m sharing some creative ways to use your downtime productively. Last month, I wrote about three ways you could make time “forced” time off from the gym more productive.  

This time, we’re going to look at three ways you can make any sort of training you perform at home more productive. I’m assuming, of course, that you are training in one way or another at home. Now, if you’re lucky enough to have a home gym setup with plates and barbells, it’s smooth sailing. There are plenty of great training programs that don’t require the use of machines, and if you include resistance bands, you can a huge variety of non-barbell movements to your arsenal as well.

pistol squat
thedesailifestyle/Shutterstock

If you’re without a home gym, and relying solely on bands and your own bodyweight, things can get a little more complicated – at least with regard to programming. The biggest pitfall is simple: it’s very difficult to increase the amount of resistance you use from one week to another with these methods alone. And, as you already know, if you want to progress, you do have to increase your training stimulus over time.

Fortunately, increasing resistance isn’t the only way of increasing the training stimulus. Here are three progression methods you can try using just bands and bodyweight, if those are the tools you’re limited to right now.

1. Increase Volume

This is the most obvious. If you’ve watched my very first programming video on YouTube, you’re already familiar with the two most important variables in the training equation: volume and intensity.

For our purposes, intensity refers to the amount of resistance you’re using (typically represented as a percentage of your 1-rep max) and volume refers to the total number of reps you do in a given period of time (typically one calendar week).  

If you’re training at home, the amount of resistance you can use might be limited to whatever you can rig up using bands and bodyweight – and that might only be a very small percentage of your 1RM. So, in order to progress, you must therefore increase volume while holding intensity constant.  

The simplest way to do this, of course, is to just perform more reps. That’s easy, but there’s a point of diminishing returns. When you’re performing sets of 30, 50, or even 100 reps, you’re probably doing more for endurance than for strength and size. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it might be worth investigating other methods of increasing volume.

My recommendation: increase your training frequency, or the number of times you’re training in a calendar week. When you’re using heavy loads, higher frequency training can be difficult to adapt to, but that’s rarely the case for lower training intensities. In fact, I’d go so far to say that you could train as much as three times every day if you’re relying solely on bodyweight and bands for resistance.

 A sample progression using this method might look something like this:

 

  • Week 1: Stick to your standard 4-day powerlifting split, with two upper-body and two lower-body training days per week.
  • Week 2: Increase that frequency to 6 days per week, with 3 upper days and 3 lower days.
  • Week 3: Try doubling up on upper-body days, so you’re training 9 times per week.  Upper days have two workouts each (AM and PM) and lower body workouts have just one.

You can, of course, modify this progression for different lengths of time, but I’m trying to stay optimistic and hope that most of you will have gym access before too much longer!

2. Increase Speed

Now, the use of speed training for raw strength is a bit controversial, but I believe it can work if applied properly.  When it comes to band or bodyweight training, however, speed work is admittedly really tricky to accomplish.  A set of 2 or 3 pushups, for example, is unlikely to do much of anything for you, no matter how fast those pushups might be.

Instead, consider implementing plyometrics.  These are a form of speed training that don’t require the use of a barbell but can still carry over to the competition lifts.  There are a ton of great resources available here on Barbend regarding plyometrics:

Be sure that if you implement this method, you start off very conservatively.  The risk of injury here is worth considering, as you’re trying a whole new, high-impact training method, and the last thing you want to do during a “break” from regular training is to get hurt.

push-up variations
4 PM production / Shutterstock

If you need help getting started, try this very simple beginning plyometric routine:

  • Start with single-leg running. I like this movement because it require no equipment and is not as high-impact as other forms of plyometrics. For your first session, just practice! Try to work up to 3-5 sets of about 10-20 hops per leg, switching legs each “set.”
  • Then, try the same thing for squat jumps. These shouldn’t take much practice: do a full air squat and hang out in the bottom position while maintaining tightness for a 5-count. Then explode up as high as you can without using your arms. Land back in the full squat, then repeat for sets of 15-25.  Again, 3-5 sets is likely PLENTY. If this is too easy, you could try depth jumps or box jumps as well.
  • Finally, try some clapping pushups. I like to choose a fixed number of sets and try to increase my total reps across all sets while keeping rest times short.

3. Change Positions Or Movements

This is my least-preferred option, and honestly, I’d treat it as sort of a last resort, if you don’t have the time or equipment necessary to use one of the other methods presented in this article. Still, let’s be realistic: most of us have had to move to last resorts with regard to training (and perhaps other areas as well). There’s nothing wrong with that!

So, if you’re stuck working 16-hour days (like my fiancée), or caring for your children who are now out of school in addition to your regular workload (like my coach), or in an unfamiliar environment (like myself), it might be time to investigate how you can use different movements or positions to allow yourself to continue to progress despite having limited time to train and limited methods to increase your intensity or volume.  

This method will require some more creativity than the other two, but it can still be effective.  Here are three examples:

  • Let’s say you only have bodyweight movements available. You can go from performing regular pushups to close-grip pushups, stretch pushups (with your hands elevated on books or blocks), or decline pushups.
  • If you have access to a barbell, but limited amount of weights to load, you could go from low-bar squats to high bar squats or front squats; or from competition deadlifts to stiff-leg or deficit deadlifts.
  • Bands are perhaps the most challenging tool to use here, but it’s still possible! If you’re using a band for presses, you can instead perform flyes; if you’re using them for rows, try pullovers instead.

If I were to generalize the use of this method, I’d say to look for positions that either increase your range of motion or shift the emphasis of a movement to smaller or weaker muscle groups.

Please remember: this is by no means an exhaustive list of options. There are virtually no limits to what you can achieve with bodyweight alone, so don’t feel too discouraged at having to take a break from your normal routine. Make the most of that time so that when you can return to the gym, you come back even stronger!

Feature image from 4 PM production / Shutterstock

Ben Pollack

Ben Pollack

Ben Pollack is a professional powerlifter and holds the all-time world record raw total of 2039 in the 198-pound class. He has won best overall lifter at the largest raw meets in the world, including the US Open, Boss of Bosses, and Reebok Record Breakers.

Ben earned his Ph.D. in the history and management of strength and fitness from the University of Texas at Austin in 2018, and has published articles in a number of scholarly publications, including The Journal of Sport History, The Journal of Sport Management, and Iron Game History: The Journal of Physical Culture. He also coaches strength athletes of all skill levels, including several internationally-elite powerlifters and world record holders. You can contact Ben through his website (phdeadlift.com) or via email at [email protected]

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