(Sometimes a reader will email me a question that needs a full article to answer properly, and sometimes it’s an answer I think others will benefit from hearing. This is one of those times.)
QUESTION: I no longer have access to a gym, and I don’t have the space or money to make one at home. Will I still be able to build muscle without weights or any special equipment? Or am I just totally screwed?
ANSWER: Whenever someone asks me about building muscle at home without a gym (or significant equipment or even the bare minimum of free weights), my first response is a question of my own… why?
I mean, it doesn’t take a genius to realize that this isn’t exactly a great scenario for someone trying to build muscle to be in, so my first goal is always to try to solve whatever the big issue is that’s preventing things from being more ideal.
Can’t you find a way to get to a gym? Can’t you maybe cut down on iPhone app purchases and put that money towards a gym membership? Can’t you throw out some of the crap sitting in your basement or garage and get yourself some free weights?
In very rare cases, these questions strike a chord with the person and the big issue gets solved and their muscle building scenario is instantly improved. But much more often, the answer to all of the above is a big NO. And in that case, they’re stuck in this obviously less-than-ideal situation.
And that brings us back to their original question…
Can You Build Muscle At Home Without Weights? YES! But…
The good news is that the answer to this question is definitely yes. You CAN workout at home and STILL build muscle without all of the fancy equipment most gyms contain. Adding a lack of free weights on top of this certainly doesn’t help matters, but even still… it can be done.
The bad news however is that it’s going to be much more inconvenient, significantly trickier and just a whole lot harder overall. Here’s why…
How To Build Muscle: The Primary Requirements
Building muscle mostly requires 2 fundamental principles.
- Applying progressive overload in an environment capable of stimulating growth. (Meaning, getting stronger using an intelligently designed workout routine.)
- Having a diet capable of supporting growth. (Meaning, above all else, consuming a sufficient amount of calories and protein.)
As long as both principles are in place correctly, consistently and long enough for it to actually work… muscle will be built.
Great Tools vs Good Tools vs Crappy Tools
Now, you may have noticed that I didn’t mention gym memberships anywhere in those requirements, nor did I mention free weights, machines or equipment of any kind.
That’s because none of that is what builds muscle. They just tend to be the best tools for the job.
Not just in terms of actually allowing you to do the exercises that will effectively train each muscle group and provide the growth stimulus you need, but also in terms of how you’ll then increase the load on those exercises so that progressive overload can continue to happen.
That’s why gyms are filled with dumbbells from 5lbs to 100lbs+ in 5lb increments, barbells and plates from as small as 2.5lbs to as big as 45lbs (also in 5lb increments), benches that can adjust to every angle, racks that can accommodate any exercise, cable columns and various machines for every muscle group and movement pattern whose resistance can also be adjusted in small increments with as little effort as pushing a pin into a different slot.
So I’m not going to lie to you here. If you want to build muscle, all of the above is going to be the best and most efficient way of doing it. Without some of it, you may just be at a tiny disadvantage. But without all of it, you’re going to be at a huge disadvantage.
But like I said before, it can still be done. There are plenty of different tools that can be used for this job (building muscle), and even the worst tool in the toolbox can usually get the job done assuming it’s used properly.
So… What Can You Do?
For starters, you have one great piece of equipment at home whether you know it or not… your own body weight. With it (and a little ingenuity), you’ll be able to do all kinds of exercises. Off the top of my head…
- Push-ups (and its many variations).
- Pull-ups (and its many variations).
- Inverted rows.
- Handstand push-ups.
- Body weight biceps curls.
- Body weight triceps extensions.
- Lunges (and its many variations).
- Split squats/Bulgarian split squats.
- Pistol squats.
- Single leg Romanian deadlifts.
- Body weight leg curls.
Now that is by no means meant to be a complete list of body weight exercises. You’ll find a bunch of others if you search around.
But, this alone is enough to get the job done. There are enough exercises on this list for you to put together an effective muscle building routine that can be done at home with no real weights or expensive gym equipment of any kind. Hooray for your own body weight!
Add in something as basic as bands on top of this, and you can now do dozens of other exercises too (band rows, band pull-downs, band presses, band front/lateral raises, band curls, band triceps extensions, etc.).
So as far as exercises go, you’re fine. That’s the good news. Now for the less-good news…
Progression Will Be Tricky, But It Can Be Done
Progressing at these exercises (the #1 requirement of muscle growth) can be tough, especially as you get stronger. After all, your body weight isn’t instantly adjustable. You can’t just add 5lbs and progress to the next weight like you can with a barbell or dumbbells.
Fortunately, this won’t be much of an issue early on, as there are 2 great ways around this.
The first is progressing from an easier exercise to a harder one (e.g. from assisted pull-ups to body weight pull-ups). That’s perfect. After that, progressing in reps is awesome. For example, if you can only do 3 sets of 5 on some exercise, you can gradually work up to 3 sets of 12.
But at a certain point, you’re going to run out of harder exercise variations to move on to, and you can only add reps for so long before you end up training more for muscle endurance rather than muscle growth.
So what do you do then? Well, you either keep doing what you’re doing and never get stronger or build any more muscle, or you come up with a way to add some resistance. For example…
- There are weighted vests.
- There are pull-up/dip belts.
- There are progressively ‘heavier’ bands.
- There are rings, TRX, Jungle Gym XT and other similar products.
- There’s Never Gymless.
- There are semi-affordable and easily adjustable dumbbell sets designed for saving space.
Depending on the specific exercise, there is almost always going to be some way to make it harder, add some weight to it or just increase the tension in some way so progressive overload can continue to take place and muscle can continue to be built.
You just need to make an effort to figure that way out for each exercise you’re doing and actually put it into action. This is key.
If you don’t, you’ll end up like most of the people who work out at home without much in the way of free weights or special equipment… forever stuck in the same spot doing the same stuff with nothing new to show for it for the rest of their lives.
What About The Workouts I Design? Can They Be Done At Home?
Between The Muscle Building Workout Routine, The Beginner Routine, and the collection of programs that make up The Best Workout Routines, I’ve probably gotten around 30-40 emails in the last year or so from people who work out at home with varying degrees of equipment.
Some have a full size rack, adjustable bench, hundreds of pounds of free weights and even a gym-quality leg press (lucky bastard!). Others have a few dumbbells and a pull-up bar. And others have nothing whatsoever.
And they all ask the same thing… can these workouts still be done effectively?
The answer obviously depends on exactly what the person has to work with. But if I had to guess, I’d say 99% of the time, every single thing that needs to be done can either be done at home with whatever the person has OR it can be easily substituted with another similar exercise.
Why Are You Looking For “At-Home Workouts” Anyway?
And this is why I don’t really design “home workouts.” I design effective workouts.
If you happen to train at home with limited equipment, then it’s really just a matter of adapting things to your needs and making whatever exercise adjustments you need to make (this is significantly easier than you may think) to end up doing your own closest version.
And this, technically speaking, makes EVERY workout a potential “home workout.”
(P.S. If you’re using any of the workouts in The Best Workout Routines and think there are exercises you might be unable to do, just send me an email and tell me what equipment you have and what exercises you can’t do. I’ll gladly recommend perfectly suitable and equally effective replacements like I’ve done for others already.)