What to do if you can’t train with a barbell?

As I write this article the Coronavirus is high on everyone’s mind, and many gyms and fitness centers are set to close down for 2-4 weeks, perhaps even longer.  Many serious lifters are wondering – what should I do?  How can I train to at least maintain if not increase my strength?  What if I have a competition in a month or two?

My goal is to help answer those questions by both explaining how your body works and specifying what you can do to put yourself in the best position possible. 

Let’s begin with the practical info.

First the bad news: The barbell is the single most effective tool to build maximal strength, and there is no perfect replica that emulates training with a barbell that is isn’t a barbell.  If you don’t have access to a barbell that sucks, and there is a reason why all sports that test maximal strength (powerlifting and Olympic lifting) use a barbell.

However, there is a big difference between training optimally and not doing anything all.  If you can’t train at your gym, you should at least do something.  Let’s look at each lift specifically.

Bench Press

Powered primarily by the pecs, shoulders, triceps, and lats.  Ideally, we want to continue to train these muscles and we want to do so in a way that emulates how our bodies work in a competition – which is a short demonstration of maximal strength using the phosphagen energy system.

Push-ups are the simplest at-home exercise that most resemble the bench press, however the key is to do the right kind of push-up for you.  Simply smashing endless reps on push-ups is likely not ideal, and if you are already pretty strong you might find doing basic push-ups actually negatively impacts your maximal strength.  As a guideline, when you perform a standard push-up you are lifting about 60% of your weight.  Translate that to a bar, so for me as a 190 lb person that is 115 lbs of resistance when I do a push-up.  Just like benching 115 lbs for a bunch of reps won’t help me lift 400 lbs, neither will regularly performing 60-70 push-ups in a row.

Listed below are various push-ups to try.  They are listed based on how easy push-ups are for you – if push-ups are quite hard (you can’t do 5) start with the first or second exercise.  If push-ups are really easy (you can do 60+) use the last exercise or two.  In general, you want to set it up so that 3-5 reps present a bit of a challenge for you.

  • Couch Push-ups
  • Negative Modified Push-ups
  • Hand Release Push-ups
  • Push-ups
  • Negative Push-ups
  • Banded Push-ups
  • Clap Push-ups
  • Double or Triple Clap Push-ups
  • Drop Catch Push-ups from knees
  • Drop Catch Push-ups from toes (very advanced – if you know anyone who can push themselves back up to a standing position let me know as I would love to see that)

Demos of the above exercises.

Programming for these can vary but remember the goal is to make them moderately intense.  Negative contractions create a lot of muscle damage and plyometric exercises can put the tissues under a lot of stress, so generally do these 2-4 times a week.  I would suggest 5-10 sets of 1-10 reps and try to visualize the bench press while you are performing these lifts.

Squat

Powered primarily by the glutes, quads, hamstrings, erectors, and adductors.  Unfortunately, because of the strength of those muscle groups and the limited equipment one has at home, this lift is tougher to mimic than the bench press.  However, you can still work on the squat by doing the following:

  • Squat visualizations
  • Squat jumps
  • Box squat jumps (sitting on a box and then jumping)
  • Jumps to a box
  • Broad Jumps
  • Hill Sprints

A squat visualization is where you put something on your back (broomstick, pvc pipe, light bar, etc) and you pretend you are squatting heavier weight.  I’ll talk more about this later. 

For the squat jumps I would descend lower and slower than you would for a normal jump (more like a squat) and then blast up powerfully and explosively.  Holding weights or wearing a weight vest can help make this more intense.  For hill sprints it doesn’t have to be very long, I would suggest 40 yds or less and even 5-10 yds can be useful, just a couple of powerful strides up.  You are trying to teach your legs to be explosive and you might find the improved fitness benefits you over the long day that a meet can last. 

Deadlifts

Powered primarily by the erectors, traps, glutes, hamstrings, quads, and grip muscles (forearm flexors).  The good news is that deadlifts need the least amount of work in the short term.  The bad news is that deads are not that easy to build with limited equipment either.  Some exercises that can be useful to mimic deadlifts are:

  • KB or DB Swings
  • Med ball throws
  • Vertical Jumps
  • Stone lifts

If you are used to training pretty intensely with a barbell on the big lifts and you suddenly stop, the good news is that you should now have lots of energy that you can spend doing other exercises.  The goal for these other exercises is to train the involved muscles, work on weak points, and improve one’s overall strength, cardio, and endurance.  It is okay if these exercises don’t specifically match how we train for powerlifting because their movement patterns and energy systems won’t mess up how we perform on the platform.

Great exercises you can likely set up at home with limited or minimal equipment are:

  • Bodyweight rows
  • Pull-ups
  • Dips
  • Fly Push-ups
  • Crunches and Sit-ups
  • Strongman Exercises – car push, sled drag, stone carry

For these lifts I still think it is preferable to set it up so that it gets challenging around rep 15 or so (vs rep 80) but ultimately it doesn’t matter that much.  The strongman exercises can be a lot of fun, can be challenging, and ultimately can be used to lift a reasonable amount of weight. 

For the sled drag, here’s an article on how to make your own sled: https://www.t-nation.com/training/build-your-own-sled

And for the stones, you can literally go into the woods and find a stone, clean it off, and carry it around.  Lifting it up to your waist or shouldering it are probably the most lifting specific ways to do it.

Lastly, I am huge fan of walking to improve the general health of strength athletes.  I’d suggest walking for 10-120 minutes preferably outside in the fresh air and under the warm sun.  If you are on the light side or very used to walking, then carrying a backpack with 10-20 lbs is likely a helpful bonus.

Visualization

Visualization is another tool that is always available that most lifters don’t understand, and many don’t appreciate how effective it can be to at least maintain, if not improve, strength over the short term.  To make visualization the most effective, find a quiet place where you will not be disturbed for 10-20 minutes.  Visualize that you are performing the lift.  Try to include as much detail as possible.  I would suggest starting about 30 seconds prior to the lift itself.  Do you pace back and forth before you squat?  Do you hit your chest twice before you bench?  Do you jump before you deadlift?  Include those things in your mental imagery.  How many breaths do you take before your hands touch the bar?  Feel the knurling on your hands, on your back.  See your feet moving into position.  Feel your chest rise, your shoulders tighten, your body begin to tense.  What are you seeing, what are you hearing, what are you smelling?  Where are you?  Include all of your senses and go through the complete lift, remembering your key cues to focus on.  If you want to really go down the rabbit hole of visualization you can visualize an entire workout that you miss, not just one rep here or there.  I would suggest that you start out visualizing a lift of 90% or something that you know you can do successfully.  Then as you get more familiar with it increase the mental load.

Research is very clear that when you go through practiced visualization you fire your motor nerves in the same pattern as the actual lift and you stimulate your muscle cells as well.  Two quick anecdotes can help you see the power of this.  There’s a story of an Olympic weightlifter who was injured and could not train for several weeks.  His coach went to his hospital room each day and they visualized their entire workouts, every warm-up set, every working rep, every exercise.  His competition was right after he was released from the hospital and he performed very well. 

I had to do something similar.  When I was in college, I dislocated a rib and could not put any weight on my back without significant pain.  The only problem was this injury occurred 8 weeks out from Collegiate Nationals.  For 5 weeks I could not squat at all – I was fortunate enough to have access to a leg press that I could use – and then I only had 3 weeks to prep with squatting before the meet and I was still able to tie my PR.  I did receive chiropractic treatment during that time, but I used a lot of visualization to help me stay in tune with the heavy weights. 

The Challenge

Finally, I want to leave with you a challenge.  How strong are you, and how weak are you going to get in a couple of weeks?  Strength is quite consistent, much more so that most people realize.  An honest 10% swing in strength is huge.  Instead of being fearful and seeing/imagining that your gains are slipping way, work backward.  Think about it this way.  What if you had to take 1 month off from lifting?  Could you lift 50% of what you can do now? Of course, you could.  50% is a giant drop. 

If you can squat 500 you can take a month off and still squat 250 no problem.  It might feel like shit and it might feel heavier than 250 should but you can still do it.  If you can bench 400 of course you can bench 200 a month later.  What about 60%?  You could probably do that.  What about 70%?  Still pretty likely.  You might not be able to lift 90%, particularly on squats.  Here’s a very rough estimate of the strength that people typically lose.  In my experience younger athletes and those who have not been strong very long tend to lose strength quicker (some it may simply be mental); older athletes and those who have been strong for a long time tend to lose it slower.

Estimated Strength Decrease Over Time

Exercise Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4 Week 8 Week 16 Week 24
Squat 0 0-5% 5-15% 10-25% 20-35% 30-50% 40-60%
Bench 0 0-5% 5-15% 10-25% 15-30% 20-40% 35-50%
Deadlift 0 0 0-10% 5-15% 10-20% 15-30% 20-40%

The lifts don’t decrease the same because the motor patterns don’t degrade at the same rate – squats tend to degrade the quickest, then the bench; the deadlift motor pattern tends to remain the longest. 

Also, the stability of the joints affects the lifts – the shoulders get the least stable the quickest, then the joints involved in the squat, and the joints involved in the deadlift tend to remain the most stable.  Of note, a significant drop in body weight will compound these effects. 

Certainly, it can be very frustrating not being able to do the things you want, having your routine disrupted, and not being able to train the way you would like.  And to be blunt there is no perfect substitute for a barbell.  If you don’t have a meet on the near horizon, I wouldn’t worry about it too much, work on other areas of fitness and use these methods to maintain your strength.  If you do have a meet coming up think of this as a challenge.  Powerlifters should have good physical and mental fortitude, we often think of ourselves as warriors.  Well, here is a challenge for you.  Do you think real warriors only have to fight under perfect conditions, after perfect training sessions, after eating just the right food?  Sometimes you have to fight even with the conditions suck and the world is conspiring against you.  If nothing else see it as a science experiment and find out how this type of training really does affect you and your lifts. 

As a follow-up to this article, because it appears that this quarantine will be longer rather than shorter, I am making a part 2 of this article entitled Massive Home Workout Template which you might find useful in creating your own home workouts. 

Know someone who wants to get strong?...Share on Facebook
Facebook
Tweet about this on Twitter
Twitter
Share on Tumblr
Tumblr
Share on Reddit
Reddit
Email this to someone
email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *