How I stayed in shape during lockdown

Graham Bower is the co-creator of Reps & Sets and fitness writer for Cult of Mac

I used to go to the gym every day until lockdown began last year. With no weights at home, I didn’t believe it would be possible to maintain my strength and conditioning, but I was determined to try.

12 months later, I’ve managed to stay in shape by doing nothing more than running and simple bodyweight exercises. That’s not the outcome I was expecting and it’s made me to re-evaluate a lot of the things I thought I knew about fitness.

Why fitness matters to me

Fitness means more to me than just my health and appearance. It’s how I turned my life around a few years ago when I was recovering from cancer. Going to the gym helped to rebuild my self confidence.

It became such and important part of my life that I even got qualified as a personal trainer, got a job writing about fitness for Cult of Mac and co-created Reps & Sets.

So when lockdown happened, I couldn’t just let my fitness slide. It was time to put all that fitness knowledge to the test—on myself.

My training routine before lockdown

Running has been a core part of my training regime ever since I got into fitness. It’s not just about burning calories. Running is my daily meditation and I love it.

After every run, I used to spend an hour in the gym. Since I already had cardio covered, I focused on strength training, following a classic five-day split program, targeting a different area each day: Chest, Back, Shoulders, Legs and Arms. The principle of a five day split is to increase intensity, targeting one area while allowing others to recover, and thus reducing the need for rest days.

I used mostly free weights, selecting heavy weights where I reached failure at around 12-15 repetitions. This is a classic bodybuilder’s strategy because it is believed to be the optimal rep range for hypertrophy, (muscle growth).

Before and after: 12 months of no gym

How lockdown forced me to change my routine

Fortunately I’ve been able to continue outdoor running throughout the lockdown, with the minor compromise of wearing a face mask. But my strength training has been completely transformed.

Without access to the gym, I don’t have any heavy weights to train with anymore. Which means I’m limited to bodyweight exercises, like push-ups, pull-ups and squats. My body is relatively light, so this doesn’t give me much to work against.

Also, with these types of multi-joint exercises, several large muscle group work together to perform these moves. Which means they’re less targeted than isolation  exercises I used to do at the gym, like biceps curls.

As a result, I needed to increase the number of repetitions I did of each exercise and reduce my rest intervals to make the workout more challenging. And since I was no longer isolating muscle groups with heavy loads, I decided to switch from a five-day split to doing a different whole-body workout every day.

This style of whole-body workout, with high rep ranges and short rest intervals is generally considered to be for conditioning and endurance rather than building larger muscles. I was risking becoming skinner rather than packing on more muscle, but without the gym I didn’t have much choice.

I needed something to pull on

After training at home for a few weeks, I started struggling with two areas: back and triceps, because I didn’t have anything to pull against. But I couldn’t afford to buy any fancy home gym equipment. So instead I purchased a door-frame chin-up bar, a TRX suspension system and resistance bands.

I also started to use outdoor gyms I passed during my daily run, which often have chin-up bars and dipping stations. When outdoor gyms are closed as well, due to COVID restrictions, I found I can improvise with street furniture like bicycle stands, which are ideal for dips and inverted row.

How to use a bike stand for dips and inverted rows

The results: pushing past a plateau

I’d assumed it was inevitable I’d lose some muscle mass with the switch to this new lockdown training regime. But to my surprise, the opposite was the case.

It’s actually helped me to push part a long-term plateau in my training and make my first real gains in years. My chest, upper arms and thighs have developed. And I can now do over 70 push-ups in a single set – something I could never do before.

I have a two theories for why this is the case:

  1. Variety: I’d got a bit stuck in a rut with my old gym routine. Lockdown has forced me to mix things up and get creative. The resulting muscle confusion has forced my muscles to adapt.
  2. Time under tension: As I’m doing more repetitions, my muscles are under tension for longer and I’m feeling the pump more than ever. The pump is that feeling of tightness when blood flow to your muscles becomes restricted. It’s a trigger for muscle growth.

Since running is my passion, maybe it’s no surprise that my body is better suited to endurance rather than strength training. I feel like for the first time in a long time, I’m on the right track with my training.

So, while I’m still looking forward to getting back to the gym when this whole COVID thing is over, and I’ll definitely reintroduce some heavy lifting, what I’ve learned in the last 12 months has changed the way I train forever.

My No-Gym Training Program

If you’re interested in giving my no-gym training program a try, here it is. This is a four-day program. Each day targets the whole-body. When I’ve done Day 4, I go straight back to Day 1, without taking any rest days. The only equipment required are resistance bands and a TRX.

On days when I use the outdoor gym, I do the Outdoor Gym Workout, which uses the chin-up bar, dipping station and a low bar.

You can download this workout program in Reps & Sets. If you’re viewing this page on your iPhone now and you already have the app installed, just tap on the button below.

You need an iPhone with Reps & Sets installed to download programs.
If you don’t have an iPhone, you can preview the program here:
Graham’s Home Workout – Day 1
Graham’s Home Workout – Day 2
Graham’s Home Workout – Day 3
Graham’s Home Workout – Day 4
Graham’s Outdoor Workout