Strength Training... Gym Optional?

Personal Training in Tucson - The Protocol Strength & Conditioning, Llc

By: Jerry Trubman, Owner and Founder

 

For those who follow me on the socials, I started posting a series of videos called “Strength training. Gym optional, part <>” In case you haven’t seen them, here they are (tap on each exercise to watch the video):

One-Arm Pushup

One Leg Squat (Pistol)

Handstand Pushup

One-Arm Chinup 

The inspiration for these videos came from a new online student that I began working with a few months back. He is an airline pilot and spends a lot of his time on the road where gyms are either unavailable or unpredictable. He also has a history of being a serious lifter in the past, so he knows what real strength training is. His question was a pretty simple one, “Can I get strong using only bodyweight exercise?” My answer, “Absolutely!”

However, there are some things to understand about how to program this, so I thought I’d take a moment and share some of those principles in today’s post.

First off, you don’t just wake up one morning being able to do the exercises in the videos above. Unlike a conventional gym where you add and remove weight based on your ability, bodyweight training requires you to be able to modify the movement from simple to more advanced. This can be a challenging and frustrating thing to do.

I’ve heard bodyweight training compared to signing up for a gym membership, but on the first day you walk in, every implement in the gym weighs as much as you do. On the first day, you’ll be very limited as to what exercises you can work on unless you’re already very strong. Maybe a deadlift on the first day? A squat if you’re strong? You certainly aren’t putting any of those weights over your head on day one unless you’re walking in there already a beast.

You essentially have three options to advance in this modality: Improve your skill at these movements through diligent practice (get better at them by doing them a lot), get smaller (lose weight), or get stronger. Hopefully, you’ll accomplish a delightful combination of the three.

The biggest mistake I see with most bodyweight-only training programs is on the other side of the spectrum: Taking exercises that are WAY too easy and just doing tons and tons of repetitions (picture your typical outdoor boot-camp program). This is not ‘strength training’, it’s ‘wearing out your joints’ training.

Making the necessary adjustments to fix this is pretty easy: If you wouldn’t do it in a gym with weights, you shouldn’t do it with bodyweight training. For example: Most people who are serious about strength training wouldn’t go to a big-box gym and adjust the machines to their easiest settings and hop around doing tons of mindless reps. If you wouldn’t do it with the gym equipment, don’t do it without.   

This means that 1000’s of crunches is not strength training either! I’ve seen the bro-est of the gym bros guilty of doing ab training like this. Abs are muscles, kids. And they get stronger just like any other muscle in the body: High-tension and low reps. If you can do more than ten reps of your ab training, it’s time to start figuring out how to make those reps harder.

If you can do 20 pushups with good form, it’s time start figuring out how to make that movement harder too. If ‘Mr. 20 Pushups’ wants to progress without wearing out his shoulders, he should probably start looking at one-arm pushup progressions.

The fact is, doing tons of useless reps of random exercises is quite punishing on the joints. I am of the belief that muscles, joints, tendons, connective tissues, etc. must be trained with equal importance if you want to still be doing this stuff when you’re 80, and the conventional high-intensity run-yourself-into-the-ground HIIT workouts just won’t stand the test of time due to this simple fact.

Makes sense, right? Grandma Betty can do low-volume skill work for years and years with no issues, but she probably wouldn’t be too keen on signing up for a HIIT program.

“That’s fine, Jerry. I’m not Grandma Betty, so I’ll stick to my butt-kicking workouts. When I get too old for that, I’ll try something else.”

Suit yourself, but I must warn you, this mentality will shorten your ‘serious training’ lifespan significantly. Some say, “Pain is temporary, pride is forever.” However, I can tell you, from experience working with older populations, that sometimes pain is forever. Consider yourself warned.

In our system, we have designed training progressions in virtually all the main bodyweight skills, and can provide you with programs that can meet where you are and move you to the next level… gym optional.

There are two simple tools that you can purchase to work on these progressions. The first is a simple set of rings or a Jungle Gym XT (click the photo to purchase)

The reason we use these in our gym instead of the other similar options is their versatility, and for someone who is on the road a lot, these can easily fold up and fit into a travel bag. As far as bang-for-the-buck goes, you can’t beat a good set of suspension trainers.

The second thing is to invest in a good pullup bar. Historically, these have fallen into two categories: A solid setup with good mounting brackets that you would bolt up in a garage or patio, or a really cheap unit that wedges into a door. The former is more expensive and cumbersome, the latter just plain sucks (they ruin your door jamb and have been known to fall off during use, causing potential injuries). Recently, Rogue came to the rescue with a very nice over-the-door setup that is cheaper than the bracket system, but WAY sturdier than the door jamb ones. Here’s what it looks like (click the photo for more info and/or purchase):

This bar also serves as a solid anchor to attach your Jungle Gym.

Even if you’re a dedicated gym rat, having a solid arsenal of bodyweight strength is very helpful when you’re too busy to make it to the gym or find yourself in a situation when gym equipment is not available. Or, as Pavel says, “In case civilization is temporary.” Secondly, I happen to be of the opinion that mastering bodyweight movements can actually aid the big lifts. For example, if your bench press has stalled out at a number that you’re not happy with, and you are unable to perform a set of 20 strict pushups, this is low-hanging fruit to improve your bench. No special contraptions needed. I attribute much of my powerlifting capacity to my maintenance of good relative strength through bodyweight exercise.

If you are interested in obtaining a copy of any of our bodyweight progressions, please reach out me.

Until next time, 

Jerry Trubman is a coach, clinician, author, blogger, and powerlifting state champion. With over two decades of lifting experience, he has devoted himself to seeking out better answers, and distilling them into practical programs that produce great results. Jerry has coached "Team Protocol" to 4 National Powerlifting Championships in the 100% Raw federation. He writes the internationally-read blog, “The Healthy Addiction” and lives in Tucson, Arizona with his wife Marie and dog Sadie. To subscribe to his blog, click here.

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