How to Build & Maintain Muscle at Home Without Gym Equipment

Research shows that you can still build and maintain muscle with little to no gym equipment. Learn the benefits of metabolic stress training and how to incorporate it at home to maximize your workouts.

As a dedicated gym rat, you are probably also anxious that you might lose all your gains while you can’t make it to the gym. I know because I’ve thought the same thing. Fortunately, I got over that panic and began to think logically again. If you do the same and apply the training strategies I’m about to outline you can maintain (and possibly) gain muscle mass whilst in quarantine.

First things first, a few weeks off the gym will not cause you to lose all your muscle. In fact, you won’t lose any. This isn’t just wishful thinking on my part. There is plenty of research to back it up. A study from 2013 and one from 2017 found that experienced lifters didn’t lose any muscle mass when taking up to 3 weeks off training.

Even better, it is much easier to maintain muscle than it is to build it. So, even if your training is very limited over the weeks and months you’re away from the gym, you can retain your gains with very little training and minimal equipment. Research supports this statement too. A 2011 study concluded that muscle mass could be maintained with only 1/9th of usual training volume for 32 weeks! Another study from 2013, established that just 1-2 workouts a week were enough to maintain strength.

Taking some time away from training reduces your level of fatigue, allows for full recovery, and “re-sensitises” your body to the muscle building stimulus of bodybuilding training.

A final point to consider is that, some time off the gym might be just what you need. Strategic deconditioning is a fundamental principle of Hypertrophy Specific Training (HST). It can actually help you build more muscle long-term. Taking some time away from training, reduces your level of fatigue, allows for full recovery, and “re-sensitises” your body to the muscle building stimulus of traditional bodybuilding style training. When you take advantage of this you get a better response when you return to training than you would have by simply grinding away in the gym non-stop. Hardly anyone ever capitalises on this strategy though because of their emotional attachment to being in the gym. With your ability to attend the gym taken out of your hands, you might finally learn the benefits of strategic deconditioning.

Long story short, if you’ve been training hard this year then, having some time (2-3 weeks) completely off from training is no bad thing. In fact, it is probably exactly what you need.

Muscular man working out at home

Beyond 3 Weeks Without Workouts You Will Start to Lose Muscle

Beyond that 3-week mark though, you probably do want to do some resistance exercise to keep making (or at least maintaining) gains.

Since many of us are without a gym for the foreseeable, it makes sense to have some contingency plans. I have been putting together lots of home workouts for my online and in-person clients.

Some of them have no equipment at home and some of them have quite a lot. I’ve had to get a bit creative to provide them with effective workouts, but I’m very confident they will all see great results from these workouts.

You will too if you follow the ones listed at the bottom of this article.

Can You Build Muscle With Light Weight?

The biggest concern my clients have had so far is that they don’t have sufficient resistance to make their training effective. Unless you have a fully equipped home gym you’ve probably had the same worry.

I’ve got good news for you...

You can build muscle using lighter weights than you are used to. A 2016 study found that there was no difference in muscle gains when using 30% or 80% of your 1-rep max and training to failure. Another study in 2018 found that loads of 40, 60, and 80% produced equal amounts of growth. They found that 20% was suboptimal though. Other studies have shown that similar muscle growth occurs when training to failure anywhere between 5 and 30 reps. As a result, we can confidently say that you’ll be just fine so long as you are using loads around your 30-rep max (or heavier) and you train to failure.

Not a Time for Wacky Workouts

Working out from home is not a reason to start doing wacky workouts. You probably cannot train as you normally would in the gym, but it does not mean you should start doing crazy workouts with funky exercises.

The principles of training still apply!

As such, you should program workouts with the 6 key movement patterns at their core.

These are:

  1. Squat pattern (single leg versions – like lunges, split squats, pistols, step-ups count!)
  2. Hip hinge
  3. Horizontal push
  4. Horizontal Pull
  5. Vertical Push
  6. Vertical Pull

If you do workouts based on these movement patterns and work hard you can make plenty of progress training from home.

Still not convinced? Consider these 5 key things:

  1. Maintaining muscle is much easier than building it
  2. 1-3 weeks of no training might actually be just what you need
  3. Given the wide rep range that is effective, your workouts don’t need expensive gym equipment 
  4. When training (in the gym or at home) we are trying to create an internal response in the muscle to an external load. This external load can come in various forms. Bodyweight, bands, heavy backpacks, and a TRX can do the job just as well as barbells and dumbbells (at least in the short-term)
  5. This is an opportunity to take advantage of one of the key mechanisms of hypertrophy which is often neglected – this could actually unlock some gains that remain untapped by your normal training

Hopefully, that puts your mind at rest!

Metabolic Stress Focused Workout For Home

There are three mechanisms of hypertrophy:

  1. Mechanical Tension
  2. Metabolic Stress
  3. Muscle Damage

Home workouts are the perfect opportunity to take advantage of number two on that list.

Metabolic stress is commonly known as the “pump” and it refers to the cell swelling and increased acidity (the “burn”) in a muscle during training.

Metabolic stress is an extremely powerful training stimulus. I often program phases aimed at targeting this muscle building pathway as the final block of a mass gain phase. After traditional bodybuilding work has become stale and a plateau has been hit, a metabolite style training phase can be just what is needed. In my experience, this type of training is an extremely effective growth stimulus in the short-term. 

Metabolic stress workouts are incredibly effective for about a month. I have found the body responds incredibly well to this type of training. Then diminishing returns kick in and the novelty factor subsides and the gains slow down again. Hopefully, you are a bit more upbeat about the prospect of training from home and can see that the next month might actually represent a muscle building opportunity for you.

Luckily, the training techniques best used to create metabolic stress require less weight than usual gym training. They also generally require higher reps, shorter rest periods, and intensity boosting techniques like partial reps, circuits, super-sets, tri-sets, giant sets, and drop sets.

Resistance Training Not Weight Training

Most of us refer to our gym training as weight training. Sure, we often lift weights, but the key thing is we are using an external load to create an internal effect. Done properly this results in increases in size and strength. Technically, the correct term is resistance training. That resistance can take many forms and shouldn’t be exclusively limited to dumbbells, bars, and weight plates.

As long as the resistance creates sufficient tension on the target muscle then it can be effective at building muscle.

While it is possible to create metabolic stress using only bodyweight exercises, some cheap gym equipment can help make workouts even more effective. Here is a list of equipment I have suggested to my clients maximize their progress during their home workouts:

  • Adjustable DBs
  • Resistance Bands
  • TRX or similar
  • Slider Discs
  • Ab Wheel
  • Swiss Ball
  • Heavy Backpacks
  • Sandbags
  • Pull-up bars/stands
  • Sleds/prowlers
  • Weight vests
  • Large water bottles (filled up obviously!)
  • Kettlebells
  • BFR cuffs
  • Stationary bikes

You might have some of these items. If not, you might be able to get hold of some of them. If you can then, you can make great gains during this period of home workouts.

Editor’s note: You can download free home based workouts that require little or no equipment from our workouts database. See the home workouts section here.

Fit man chip ups outdoors

Do What You Can, With What You Have, Where You Are

I mentioned earlier the three mechanisms of hypertrophy and that of these, metabolic stress, is the one you should focus on right now. Mechanical tension is the most powerful of the three mechanisms but it requires heavier loads than most of us have access to at home.

Mechanical tension is the amount of force that your muscles need to produce to shift a weight from point A to B. Creating high levels of mechanical tension is best achieved using relatively heavy weights. Work in the 6-10 rep range places lots of tension on the working muscles. Unfortunately, most of the implements you have available at home don’t represent a challenge in the 6-10 rep range.

I haven’t paid much attention to the third driver of hypertrophy so far. Muscle damage tends to be highest when training with slow lowering phases, pauses in the stretched position, and movements that generate a deep stretch on the working muscle. However, plenty of research shows it is possible to build muscle without high levels of muscle damage. 

Muscle damage is more of a secondary mechanism of hypertrophy. Training that causes high levels of mechanical tension and metabolic stress also generate significant amounts of muscle damage. As such, I don’t think muscle damage should be the primary avenue you pursue during your training. Instead it is simply a by-product of training that effectively targets the other mechanisms of hypertrophy.

Metabolic stress is commonly known as the “pump” and it refers to the cell swelling and increased acidity (the “burn”) in a muscle during training. This happens when performing higher reps with shorter rest periods and there is a lot of scientific research showing that it contributes towards muscle growth.

When designing programs to target metabolic stress I often use sets of 15-30 reps. This is a rep range generally ignored by most lifters. Given it is not widely used rep range it offers a fresh stimulus. This will cause an accelerated muscle building response for a month or so while the body is adapting to it.

Here are some quick tips to optimize your approach to metabolite style training:

  1. Use shorter rest periods than you would in the gym (e.g. 30-60 seconds)
  2. Combine exercises (e.g. supersets, tri-sets, mechanical drop sets etc.)
  3. Train with a higher frequency – with these types of workouts you can train more often. Six days a week is doable for most people. You can also hit each muscle group more often. Training a muscle every 48hours is fine
  4. Consider using blood flow restriction (BFR) as it means you can get results with very light loads
  5. Program single limb work. For example, split squats require much less external load than regular squats
  6. Slow your tempo down – especially on the lowering phase
  7. Paused reps – stop at the hardest point in the movement and contract the muscle hard for a few seconds

One Final Key Tip

When training to create metabolic stress, and build muscle in higher rep ranges, it is crucial that you push your sets close to failure. Research indicates that training to (or very close) to failure is more important when performing high rep sets. You can build just as much muscle performing up to 30 reps as you can from 5 reps, but you need to be approaching failure on the higher rep sets for them to be effective. 

In light of this information, it is important that all of your sets should be taken close to failure. I generally recommend never leaving more than 2 reps in reserve on any of your sets when using metabolite style training. I also suggest the last set you do of an exercise is taken to failure. 

Below I have listed some example workouts that require minimal equipment.

No Gym Equipment Workouts

Editor’s Notes:

  • AMRAP = As Many Reps As Possible
  • RIR = Reps In Reserve
  • Tempo is listed as four numbers (e.g. 4211). Each number corresponds to a phase of the lift. The first number is always the lowering/lengthening phase. So, 4211 on split squats means, lower in 4 seconds, pause for 2 seconds at the bottom, lift in 1 second, hold at the top for 1 second…repeat for the next rep. On chin ups, 2010, means lower in 2 seconds, no pause at the bottom, lift in 1 second, no pause at the top.
Band Only Muscle Building Workout
Band Workout Day 1: Push
Exercise Sets/Reps Tempo Rests
Standing Band Shoulder Press 3xAMRAP (0-2RIR) 2-0-1-1 30-45s
Band Push Ups 3xAMRAP (0-2RIR) 3-0-1-1 30-45s
Single Arm Band Standing Flys 3xAMRAP (0-2RIR) 2-0-1-1 30-45s
Band Lateral Raise 3xAMRAP (0-2RIR) 2-0-1-1 30-45s
Triceps Pushdown 3xAMRAP (0-2RIR) 2-0-1-1 30-45s
Band Pallof Press 3xAMRAP (0-2RIR) 2-0-1-5 30-45s

Band Workout Day 2: Pull
Exercise Sets/Reps Tempo Rests
Kneeling Band Lat Pulldowns 3xAMRAP (0-2RIR) 3-0-1-1 30-45s
Seated Neutral Grip Band Rows 3xAMRAP (0-2RIR) 2-0-1-2 30-45s
Band Moto Rows 3xAMRAP (0-2RIR) 3-1-1-1 30-45s
Band Upright Rows 3xAMRAP (0-2RIR) 2-0-1-2 30-45s
Band Hammer Curls 3xAMRAP (0-2RIR) 2-0-1-2 30-45s
Band Pull-Aparts 3xAMRAP (0-2RIR) 2-0-1-2 30-45s

Band Workout Day 3: Legs
Exercise Sets/Reps Tempo Rests
Bulgarian Split Squats 3xAMRAP (0-2RIR) 2-0-1-1 30-45s
Band Assisted Nordic Curls 3xAMRAP (0-2RIR) 4-0-1-0 30-45s
Heel Elevated One & A Quarter Band Squats* 3xAMRAP (0-2RIR) 2-0-1-1 30-45s
Lying Leg Curls 3xAMRAP (0-2RIR) 2-0-1-3 30-45s
Terminal Knee Extension 3xAMRAP (0-2RIR) 1-0-1-2 30-45s
Band Goodmornings 3xAMRAP (0-2RIR) 2-0-1-1 30-45s
Notes
* One rep = go all the way down, up a quarter, back down then all the way up
The Dumbbell Only Muscle Building Workout
Dumbbell Workout Day 1: Push
Exercise Sets/Reps Tempo Rests
Bulgarian Split Squats 4xAMRAP (0-2RIR) 4-2-1-1 30-45s
Half Kneeling Single Arm Shoulder Press 4xAMRAP (0-2RIR) 4-0-1-0 30-45s
Push Ups 4xAMRAP (0-1RIR) 4-2-1-1 30-45s
Chair Dips 3xAMRAP (0-1RIR) 3-2-1-1 30-45s
Floor DB Flys 3xAMRAP (0-1RIR) 3-2-1-1 30-45s
DB Lateral Raise 3xAMRAP (0-1RIR) 3-2-1-1 30-45s

Dumbbell Workout Day 2: Pull
Exercise Sets/Reps Tempo Rests
Chin Ups 5xAMRAP (0-2RIR) 2-0-1-0 30-45s
Table Inverted Rows 4xAMRAP (0-1RIR) 2-1-1-1 30-45s
DB Lying Leg Curls 4xAMRAP (0-1RIR) 3-1-1-0 30-45s
DB Biceps Curls 3xAMRAP (0-1RIR) 3-0-1-0 30-45s
Rear Delt Fly 3xAMRAP (0-1RIR) 3-1-1-1 30-45s
Mountain Climbers 3xAMRAP (0-1RIR) 3-1-1-1 30-45s

With these workouts, you can be confident that you can...

…Stay home, stay fit, and stay healthy!