by Nick Biebel
When COVID-induced lockdowns hit in 2020, many of us found ourselves struggling without gym access. Now that gyms are opening again, some of us have more consistent opportunities to train heavy. Others, however, still deal with limitations. Maybe your local gym closed for good. You might be stuck with Planet Fitness. Maybe you invested in some equipment to train at home--not quite what you’re used to, but enough to justify not paying a gym membership. Access to heavy strongman equipment in particular might be hard to come by. Maybe you can only make it to Strongman Saturday once in a while. You might just have a lifestyle with limited gym access. Or you’re traveling for a while. The point is, it’s helpful to know how to best stay in shape as a strongman/strongwoman with limited equipment available, whatever the reason.
Where does strength come from?
The key to tackling this problem is knowing what actually happens when we “get strong.” Strength involves both hypertrophy and neural factors. In other words, strength comes from increasing the size of the muscle, and our nervous system’s ability to use that muscle for specific expressions of strength (both consciously and unconsciously). If you think back to when you first started training, you got a lot stronger in those first few weeks before you really grew a lot of muscle. Those gains came from changes in neural factors--your ability to recruit and use the muscle you had.
So what does this mean when it comes to having limited equipment access? It means that while you may unavoidably lose some of your neural adaptations that enable you to move heavy weight in specific ways, these adaptations should return if you maintain your muscle mass as much as possible. For example, you may not have access to a 130lb log. But if you can maintain muscle in your shoulders, arms, upper back, posterior chain, etc with lighter hypertrophy training, you should recover the ability to move that 130lb log once your body gets used to heavy log again. So if a 130lb log was doable for you at one time, it may feel awkward and hard at first. But if you’ve kept your muscle, your body should re-learn how to use the muscle to lift that log again with some practice.
How to maintain muscle mass
So if the solution is to maintain muscle mass while equipment access is limited and then relearn to use that muscle for strongman-style expressions of strength, you might be wondering: How do you maintain muscle mass? The answer really depends on what sort of limited access you have.
Do you have some equipment? If you have some equipment--say, 275lb of plates and a barbell when you’re used to deadlifting 500--you can train movement variations that require lighter loads to reach fatigue. For example, sets of 12-15 Romanian deadlifts will go a long way toward maintaining muscle in your hamstrings, glutes, and back when you can’t deadlift your usual conventional sets at 405. This approach is typically more doable for upper body work, where relatively lighter loads are used. A pair of 35lb dumbbells might be perfect for tricep extensions, but not as readily useful for training your squat if you squat 350. And as you probably realized by now, relative size and strength are a big factor here. If your strict overhead max is 80lb, you can accomplish a lot with bricks, bags full of items, resistance bands, etc. If your strict overhead max is 250, the situation is a bit more difficult. Like DJ Khaled, you might find yourself suffering from success.
Do you have very limited equipment? So suppose you are the person with only 35lb dumbbells. What then? Here are some suggestions for those training with very limited equipment. Fair warning: What follows is not for the faint of heart. If you despise working sets of more than ten reps, you might have to buck up to hear this advice:
Use sets of 15-30+ reps. “That sounds terrible,” you may be saying. Or worse. Trust me, I won’t argue with you there. But contrary to traditional opinion, sets of 15+ reps (using loads as low as 30-40% of your one-rep max) are effective, if taken to near failure. A study a few years back (Lasevicius et al 2018) found that both high and low load training, when volume (number of sets) was equated, produced similar results in terms of hypertrophy (amount of muscle mass gained). For a full picture, check out the Stronger by Science article on the “hypertrophy range.” Be aware that your muscular endurance and cardiovascular ability might limit you at first. But if you push through and give yourself time to adapt, this type of training can help you maintain muscle.
Use rest-pause sets (myo-reps). Rest-pause sets, or myo-reps, involve performing one set to failure and then multiple following sets at or near failure on very short rest (about 20 seconds). For example, perform a set of band tricep pressdowns to failure, rest about 20 seconds, perform another set, and repeat 2-3 more times. Recent evidence suggests that results for muscle hypertrophy are similar when the same number of sets are done rest-pause as compared with traditional longer rest periods (Prestes et al 2019, for a more extensive take see the 3DMJ article on rest-pause work). The advantage here is that if you have limited equipment, you won’t need to do several sets of 20+ reps, because the sets done on short rest will involve significantly fewer reps. Plus you save time.
Incorporate unilateral work and supersets. While there’s really no way around high-rep sets with limited equipment, unilateral work and supersets can make them a bit more bearable. Instead of doing sets of 40 goblet squats with light weight, do 20-25 Bulgarian split squats per side (I’m aware that’s also terrible). Or perform a band press one arm at a time. Supersetting movements that train similar muscle groups can also reduce the need to perform one movement in sets of 30+ reps.
Get some resistance bands. You can add resistance to almost any movement with bands that you could with free weights, and they’re much cheaper than free weights. Bands work especially well for movements like pressing, rows, curls, tricep extensions, and rotational movements. You can also perform good mornings, deadlifts, and squats with a band, although you won’t be able to add resistance quite comparable to that of a barbell or axle. When using bands, keep in mind that the resistance increases as the band is stretched (whereas it’s constant with free weights). If overhead pressing with a band, for example, the lockout will feel more difficult relative to the rest of the movement than it would with free weights. The variable resistance of a band also means the difficulty of the exercise will vary depending on the length of the section of the band being stretched. This means, for example, you can make band pull-aparts harder by taking a grip closer to the center of the band.
Pick up a sandbag or make your own weighted bag. Your local hardware store probably has 40-60lb sandbags for pretty cheap. Just be careful not to rip them, or you can wrap them in a sack. They make solid weight for good mornings, squats/extensions, weighted push-ups, carries, and more. You could even wrap a few of them together. If you have a backpack or suitcase around, fill it with textbooks or other items and enjoy the possibilities.
Remember that loaded carries are a thing. On the topic of sandbags and weighted bags, be aware that as a strongman/strongwoman, you can probably get better at moving events even with limited equipment. Pick up some sandbags or make your own weighted bag. It’s usually not too hard to pick up a keg and fill it too (I did it pretty easily, and if I can do it, you can do it--trust me). The weight may be lighter than your typical competition weight, but practice for speed and longer distances will lead to improvement in overall performance. Speed and endurance may even be weak points you need to work on.
So far we’ve looked at all the physical components involved in staying in “strongman shape” with limited equipment. The psychological part of training is important too though. Think about why you train. Remember that the pursuit of strongman/strongwoman goals should bring joy. Maybe you can change your perspective and enjoy the new ways to train.
However, if you really hate training sets of 25 Bulgarian split squats and you now dread your sessions instead of looking forward to them like you used to, remember--you don’t have to do this. Yes, physical strength is necessary for overall health. But it’s okay to take a break and not maintain 100% of your muscle. Pursuing strength for health isn’t quite the same as pursuing it for maximal performance in the sport of strongman. Maybe do some split squats once every week or two, and find new ways to move for a while. Go hiking, play pick-up sports, maybe even try...running? (I know, I know). Heavy training will always be there when you want to return to it. Keep in mind that your body regains muscle faster than it builds it the first time around. You’ll be alright.
Whether you’re training heavy frequently or find yourself with limited equipment access, we hope you can join us for a Strongman Saturday with The Strongman Club. In addition to a lot of cool equipment, you’ll find coaching and instruction and support from a community all about building each other up. Or if you’re not around NorCal, we hope resources like this article help you on your journey to strength--whatever that looks like for you at the moment.