Many things about 2020 have been unprecedented. However, what was truly remarkable was how steadfast people were about their fitness and training goals. Equipment suppliers were loving it. While the economy of the rest of the country crashed, they were flourishing. It was amazing to see social media videos of people plopping half racks in their dining rooms and going at it every single day. I had never seen anything like it.
Unfortunately, not everyone was so lucky. Some gyms closed later than others and some folks did not plan ahead quite soon enough and missed out. Suppliers were quickly sold out and before you knew it demand was so high that a pair of unmatched, used 25lb dumbbells was selling for $140. What is more, is people were paying it too!
There was a ton of creativity that had to happen when it came to programming training for clients. Not just in exercise selection and the 100 different ways to get a whole-body workout from a band. More importantly, was programming and tracking the proper volume, progression, and adherence.
With that all said, here are the biggest lessons I learned from programming quarantine training.
1. Adherence is KING
The Muscle and Strength Training Pyramids do not lie. Without adherence, none of the other rules matter.
Adherence is so important that I found myself “breaking the rules” of other levels of The Pyramid in order to keep adherence. Which really came down to enjoyment. Doing zillions of reps with a band on side lateral raises and curls is not fun. Much less doing them 3 times per week for 4 sets. Folks were bored with that before they even finished one week.
Some of the rules I was breaking were:
- Changing out exercises, if it worked the programmed body part, and doing so ad nauseam.
- Exchanging myo-rep sets for BFR or super-sets for whatever it took to make training fun.
- Not counting reps, which I will get into later.
- Making reps harder through controlling tempo and using pauses. More on this later as well.
The biggest thing I learned is how effective the training was in the end. Much of the world is allowing gyms to open again and I have frequently heard from folks that strength was held on to remarkably well. Even our good Dr. Helms was pleasantly surprised that he lost no strength at all while in quarantine. Furthermore, athletes who were already quite lean looked slightly leaner while gaining weight. Which led me to believe that some significant muscle mass had been gained.
These observations answer a question we have all heard time and time again. Can progress be made while training from home?
2. Do reps really matter (for hypertrophy)?
When training with loads that are 25% of what you are capable of, who has the focus or the attention span to count reps? When the 2nd edition of the Muscle and Strength Training Pyramids came out, we changed our stance to quantifying volume through total sets as opposed to previously, as total reps. As a result, when designing programs that was exactly what I did.
Programmed 10 – 20 sets per week, across however many times the athlete wanted to train, and made sure that each body part was trained in sum total to what fell into that range (of course, with the understanding that what is optimal for some individuals might fall outside of these norms).
Often what that ended up looking like was whole body sessions that trained each body part for 3 to 4 sets, 3 to 5 times per week. This allowed anywhere from 12 to 20 sets to be done per week per body part. Then I simply allowed the client to choose and sub out exercises as desired for enjoyment and adherence and programmed some sort of a deload every 4th or 5th week. Then when it came down to when to end a set, I simply programmed a “fatigue stop RPE”, meaning you would do reps until you hit a certain distance from failure.
So, regardless of the reps performed, you knew when to stop a set. From what we now know of the current body of research for program design to maximize hypertrophy, so long as a set falls within pretty broad ranges (~5-6 to ~30-40 reps; ~30-85% 1RM) and they are sufficiently challenging (i.e. a high enough RPE), rep ranges don’t matter so much. Rather, the number of sets that meet the above criteria is what best approximates the hypertrophy stimulus.
3. Using tempo and pauses to make reps harder.
As we all know, effort matters a great deal when it comes to quality volume. That is essentially the whole purpose of autoregulation. Controlling the effort more and not manipulating load without respect to its difficulty on a day to day basis. As a result, this was another rule I bent/broke to make the difficult reps happen sooner than later; I was modifying my athletes’ normal tempos, something I didn’t often do previously.
An advantageous approach if you are using light loads, or bodyweight only, and you can perform dozens of repetitions. Controlled tempos and pauses also made it easier to assess the RPE of any given repetition.
My go-to was using a 2 – 3 second eccentric with a slight pause following the eccentric. Then a fast concentric making each rep look explosive following a controlled lowering phase.
Once again, fatigue stops using RPE were easily assessed, because as soon as the rep no longer had a fast concentric, we knew a high RPE (~8 or 9) had been met. The difficult part was then having the mental fortitude to push through the tremendous burn that would build up long before the reps slowed; which in and of itself took tremendous effort.
I do not think that any one of these items was responsible for the overall success of clients that followed these recommendations. Instead, I think it was the sum of ALL of them that contributed. Now I will say in all honesty that not ALL athletes that followed this type of programming benefitted. However, what I can say is that 100% of them stuck with it the whole time they were in quarantine. In fact, some are still in quarantine and sticking to these modifications. For that, those clients need to be commended.
Another unexpected outcome of quarantine training was the injuries that existed prior to quarantine healed, while not losing significant strength, and new injuries were largely a non-factor. Something to think about when you are grappling with the notion that you will lose your gains if you stop benching for a few weeks.
If you are not counting reps and you cannot add load, how does one progress? Obviously, this is the one area we could not program for in every case. However, we knew that this was going to be a short-lived ordeal, so in many ways we simply were okay with not having planned progression, and we just let effort produce whatever progression could be had. That made it all the nicer when the return to the gym happened, because the straightforward tools of progressive overload were once more available.
Depending on the person’s setup though, there were ways to progress if you got creative enough. Simply increasing the RPE over the weeks until you finished a “block” at failure, and in some instances beyond failure (like doing partials or self-spotting).
Other examples of creativity were on the table depending on what tools were available. If they owned multiple bands, a stiffer band could be used as weeks progressed. Or, switching to more difficult exercises, such as starting with lunges and then moving to split squats. For the upper body, doing pushups with the knees down, and then going to normal push-ups, and eventually to doing them with your feet up on a couch or wall.
What it all boils down to, is progression was only limited by lack of creativity. Further, if they had a belief that progress could be made, we could come up with creative solutions to achieve follow through on that belief together.
This ultimately leads me to the last lesson I learned from quarantine training. I cover this in my course on the 3DMJ Vault “Gaining Strength While Cutting” – the number 1 key: mindset.
If you allow yourself to be okay with losing strength, not progressing, and essentially preprogramming yourself to expect failure, you’re ensuring that you won’t give it your all. It becomes a foregone conclusion regardless of what may or may not actually be possible. Of course, what you will end up with is less than favorable results.
I tried to instill in each of the athletes that step one was at the very least the openness to the possibility, or ideally, a strong belief that they could succeed. This had to come first before they could really give the program a fair shake. Having this belief was necessary so that they could hold on to muscle, or maybe possibly gain some if they weren’t dieting, and turned their mindset from focusing on barriers, to thinking proactively, trying to find ways to make progress in some way shape or form.
The athletes that I mention that gained some sort of success did so with that belief as the foundation of the program before even a single rep was done.
As weeks passed, some even enjoyed the training. Stating it was a nice change and with each passing week that level of enthusiasm remained. If you can believe it, some are even sticking to these approaches, even though gyms are open in their part of the world. It’s a good reminder, a larger measure of success is just sticking to it.
If you were able to execute quarantine training right up to the day that gyms opened, or were set to open, you were successful. Good Job!