Home Blog 7 Strategies for Strength Training with the Minimum

7 Strategies for Strength Training with the Minimum

Written on June 20, 2014 at 6:23 pm, by Eric Cressey

Recently, my wife and I vacationed in Italy, and fitness nuts that we are, we frequented several hotel gyms - none of which were particularly well equipped. Here's the one from hotel in Florence; yes, it was just dumbbells up to 10kg.

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Immediately upon leaving, I sent an email to Cressey Performance coach Andrew Zomberg (@AndrewZomberg), who I knew was the guy to write up a post on having a great training effect without much equipment. This is what he pulled together; enjoy! -EC

Greater equipment availability generally yields greater efficiency because in order to induce structural or functional adaptations, you have to “force” the body to do so. Unfortunately, getting to a gym is not always feasible. The good news? Resistance training does not always have to depend on cable machines, power racks, and barbells.

Inaccessibility to gym equipment can be discouraging. The good news is that by creating structured programs and discovering new ways to challenge yourself with progressions, you can easily elicit a comparable training effect, just as if you were in a gym. Here are some options:

1. Body Weight Exercises

Undoubtedly, your body weight is the easiest, most accessible piece of equipment to utilize anywhere, anytime. Allowing for a more natural range of motion, body weight exercises enhance spatial awareness and improve the proficiency of movements since no other load is being used.

Progression: Alter the range of motion by increasing the total distance of the movement. For example, when doing a push-up, rather than keeping your feet in contact with the floor, try elevating them to increase stability demands of the core as well as the shoulder girdle. You can also add isometrics to any bodyweight exercise at halfway points and end ranges to impose added stress. You can use tri-sets to keep rest periods short and work in some bonus mobility work.

Sample Bodyweight Workout

Perform each tri-set three times:

A1) Body-Weighted Squats
A2) Push-up
A3) Wall Hip Flexor Mobilizations

B1) Reverse Lunge
B2) Prone Bridge Arm March
B3) Rocking Ankle Mobilizations

C1) 1-Leg Hip Thrusts off Bench
C2) Side Bridge
C3) Split-Stance Kneeling Adductor Mobilizations

2. TRX Suspension Training

Easily portable, this piece of equipment can be anchored almost anywhere and targets virtually every muscle group. The TRX suspension trainer is a great tool for full-body awareness, as most of the exercises call for optimal body alignment from head to toe. It also places a significant emphasis on the core by challenging your ability to resist unwanted movement in every plane of motion at the lumbar spine.

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Progression: Lengthen the lever arm to reposition your center of mass further from the anchor to increase the total range of motion. Or, slow down the lift to create a greater time under tension effect thus imposing muscular damage for hypertrophy gains.

Sample TRX Workout:

Perform three times through, resting two minutes at the end of each "round."

TRX Anti-Rotation Press: x 8/side
TRX Inverted Row: x 10
TRX Bulgarian Split-Squat: x 8/leg
TRX Push-up: x 8
TRX Fallouts: x 10
TRX Overhead Squat: x 8

On a related note, if you haven't checked out EC's article, 10 Ways to Progress an Inverted Row, it's definitely worth a read!

3. Dumbbell and Kettlebell Exercises

Often found in hotel gyms, these are very affordable for the home or office and provide a wide range of exercise selection. Their biggest advantage is they provide enough options to gain a solid training effect. If the weight selection is too low, you can use higher volume schemes and minimize rest periods. When completing these complexes, execute the exercises without dropping the implement to increase the overall intensity.

DB Progression: Use stability balls, or half and tall kneeling positions to create a greater instability factor. Or, focus on the eccentric portion by taking a few more seconds to lower the weight in order to stress the muscle.

KB Progression: Turn the kettlebell upside down to a “bottoms-up” position to change the dynamic of the exercise. By moving the object’s center of mass further from the rotation (your wrist), you create more instability, forcing co-contractions of all the muscles of the upper extremity.

Sample Dumbbell Workout:

Perform three times through, resting two minutes at the end of each "round."

DB Goblet Squat: x 8
DB Renegade Row: x 8/arm
Offset DB Split-Squat: x 8/side
1-Arm DB Floor Press: x 10/arm
DB Prone Arm Marches: x 6/arm
DB Burpees: 3 x 15

Sample Kettlebell Complex:

Perform three times through, resting two minutes at the end of each "round."

KB Front Squat: x 6/side
KB 1-Arm Row: x 8/arm
KB 1-Arm, 1-Leg RDL: x 8/leg
Half-Kneeling 1-Arm KB OH Press: x 10/arm
KB Swings: x 20
1-Arm KB Bottoms-up Waiter’s Carry: x 25 yards/arm

4. Resistance Bands

Very portable, bands are inexpensive and create an accommodating resistance effect. In other words, where you are biomechanically the weakest, the band will reduce its level of tension at that given position. The same effect will occur as you become biomechanically stronger; the level of tension will increase at that specific range. Bands also allow for direct arm and hip care for deeper muscles that provide the adequate stability for these multi-planar joints.

Progression: Play around with your base of support. Utilizing a narrow stance or tall kneeling position will alter the stability demands, making it more challenging to maintain joint neutrality. Or, add isometrics at the end range by holding the contraction for 5 seconds.

Sample Band Workout:

Perform three times through, resting two minutes at the end of each "round."

Overhead Band Squats: x 10
Band-Resisted Push-up: x 10
Side-Bridge w/Row: x 8/arm
X-Band Walks: x 12/side
Standing Split-Stance Vertical Anti-Extension Press: x 12
1-arm Band Rotational Row w/Weight Shift: x10/arm

5. Medicine Balls

Affordable and found in many hotel gyms, these are great for linear and rotational power, given how quickly you must produce force for maximal output, and how the stretch-shortening cycle plays into each exercise. Medicine balls are also good for core activation due to their emphasis on optimal alignment with overhead and rotational patterns.

Progression: Speed up the movement to increase your heart rate and enhance your power skills. Or, simply add more volume to the complex.

Sample Medicine Ball Workout:

Perform three times through, resting two minutes at the end of each "round."

Overhead Med Ball Slams: x 12
Rotational Scoop Toss: x 8/side
Side-to-Side Overhead Slams: x 8/side
Tall Kneeling Chest Passes: x 12
Hip-Scoops to Wall: x 12

6. Gliders

Very portable, gliders (our favorite is the ValSlide) can conveniently be replaced by household items - like furniture sliders or even towels - if you're in a pinch. Given their size and usage, these disks provide a tremendous amount of direct and indirect core work, since most of the exercises force you to fight against gravity in an anti-extension and anti-rotational manner. Gliders also improve stability due to the unnatural surface environment on which each exercise is performed.

Progression: Change your base of support by elevating an arm or leg off the floor. Decreased points of stability will call for greater concentration of the core in order to maintain optimal spinal alignment during each movement. If accessible, add an external load such as a weighted vest for a real challenge.

Sample Glider Routine:

Perform three times through, resting two minutes at the end of each "round."

Reverse Lunges: x 8/leg
1-arm Push-up: x 8/arm
Leg Curls: x 12
Bodysaws: x 10
Mounting Climbers: x 30 seconds

7. Stability Ball Exercises

A staple in most hotel gyms and very affordable for home or office use, stability balls provide a level of volatility that challenges your strength. Basically, in order to combat the dynamic perturbations of stability balls, additional muscles must co-contract to prevent joint deviations.

Progression: Elevate your feet or attempt pause reps at the end range to make the unstable environment even more challenging. Or, create additional perturbations by having a training partner hit the ball in different directions in an effort to knock you off your stability during the lift.

Sample Stability Ball Workout:

Perform three times through, resting two minutes at the end of each "round."

Elevated Push-ups: x 8
Leg Curls: x 10
Stability Ball Rollouts: x 10
Dead Bugs – arms and legs: x 6/side

A Few Notes

  • Be sure to invest a few minutes with soft-tissue work and ground-base and dynamic movements to prepare your body for the workout and prevent injury.
  • Be mindful of areas that need more emphasis than others. For example, structural balance is a common issue due to postural adaptations. Placing more emphasis on the posterior chain and upper back will reduce the overused areas and still provide a solid training effect.
  • Select "casual" rest intervals for most programs. But if you decide to create a greater disturbance, reduce the rest time. Just make sure the load is relatively low so form is not compromised. For complexes, the goal is not to put the object down until you have completed the entire round of exercises prescribed!
  • Make an effort to log your workouts. Noting your exercise selection, volume, load, and tempo will spare time in programming your next workout so you do not backtrack but rather progress.

Give some of these ideas a try next time you're in an "equipment pinch" and I think you'll find them to be a lot harder than they look!

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  • Skygod

    No matter how sparse the gym, hotels always have plenty of stairs.

  • Scott

    That is an EXCELLENT article. I am an exercise buff who works out at home – I use bands, TRX, dumbells/bench with dip/pull-up attachments, clubbells, kettlebells, furniture slides, medicine balls, stability ball, various smr ‘devices’and more! I will be using most if not all of these workouts at some point. Thanks for such a practical and comprehensive article.

  • Magalita

    Yes, stairs, and usually a pool. Along with the excellent advice provided up above, you can get some pretty challenging workouts in no matter where you are.

    Remember to pack your bands and your trx…I carry mine wherever I go.

    Thank you for the excellent post.

  • Tracey

    This was really well put together!

  • Maurizio Paolini

    This blog is interesting and useful as a good T= nation article…..very good stuff Mr Zomberg….By the way I hope that you enjoyed our beautiful Tuscany Eric……:=}

  • dilan

    Pullups can be done almost anywhere if you get a little creative! I also put my luggage on my bed (or a person) and do deadlifts 😉

  • Mike Mathews

    When I travel I usually carry a backpack that can be very useful when loaded up with heavy items. Pull-ups, inverted rows, step ups, a long walk, and other exercises can be progressed by adding a heavy pack.

  • Imm

    Always wondered how to incorporate these kind of exercises if doing a strengh program such as 5/3/1 for example. While 5/3/1 is oriented at maximum strenght, these exercises are not. Doing them for a prolonged period of time will result in strenght losses, or not?

  • This is exactly why i bring my door pull up bar on any vacation.

    Vacations without a gym readily available is a great time to really work on calisthenics, which lifters should do every now and then anyway.

    But like the guy above me said, the great thing about pull ups is finding places to do them. Works your arms and back in all different ways.

  • Barry C.

    This was really well put together!

    DITTO…

  • Imm,

    These wouldn’t fit into a 5-3-1 set-up. You’d need external loading for that. These are just fillers that you can use in a pinch when you’re lacking equipment.

  • Peter Spanidis

    Great write up and great comments guys. I’m always into connected with like minded people and bouncing ideas off each other so feel free to add me on facebook or twitter 🙂 Peter Spanidis

  • My Rip Trainer turned up this moinrng. What a great workout I had with it! But more importantly used with my clients in the afternoon, who loved it. It will transform my training sessions, thank you!Are you running any training courses?

  • This is one of the most useful articles I have ever come across on the subject of program design. Thank you so much for your contributions I learn so much from your articles and videos.

    Alex
    Toronto,Ontario


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