There are several devices - dumbbells, benches, a power rack, cable machines, selectorized machines, a Smith machine, a locker room - that are nice to have access to when you’re looking to reshape your physique into a body that’s bigger, stronger and more defined.
But at the same time, these implements, while very helpful, aren’t absolutely required. You see, with only the bare minimum - a barbell and weight plates - you can train your entire body with basic exercises, moves that are among the best at building muscle mass, strength and power. Such little equipment is inexpensive (you can find a 300-pound Olympic barbell set for $200-$300 online or at a sporting goods store) and compact, easily fitting in a home basement, spare bedroom or garage.
That’s the basis of our latest installment of at-home training. These workouts train the entire body with good old-fashioned free-weight moves that are guaranteed to pack muscle onto your frame. And it doesn’t take a $75 monthly gym membership: A bar, some plates and a modest amount of floor space is all you need.
As you can imagine, a workout that exclusively involves a barbell might employ compound exercises to hit each muscle group. With the exception of some isolation work for smaller bodyparts like biceps, for example, compound exercises are exactly what this at-home program entails. One benefit of utilizing only a barbell is you’re less dependent on stabilizing muscles to assist in the movement, unlike with dumbbell exercises, in which you use smaller muscles to help you balance each dumbbell. This means you use more power during barbell exercises and will, therefore, get stronger. Over time, your ability to lift more weight will help you gain more mass.
Barbells are also great for power moves, many of which can be done in an open space such as a garage or large basement. Developing explosive power allows you to gain mass because power training recruits a higher percentage of fast-twitch muscle fibers, which have a greater potential for growth, compared to slow-twitch fibers.
The following program consists of four days of training per week: Day 1 is an upper-body push workout (chest, shoulders, triceps); Day 2 is a lower-body session (quads, glutes, hamstrings, calves); Day 3 is upper-body pull (back, traps, biceps, forearms); and Day 4 is a power-training day that focuses on full-body movements. (We suggest taking a rest day between training Days 3 and 4 to ensure that your body is sufficiently rested for the taxing full-body power day.)
On Days 1-3, there are two rep ranges for each exercise: one for building strength and one for mass. Select your rep range based on your goal, or use a combination of strength and mass rep ranges to subject your muscles to varying resistances for gains in both areas. During power workouts, use relatively light weight (about 30%-50% of your 1RM), and keep reps between 3-5. Don’t take any sets to failure because you want every rep to be your maximum effort and performed as explosively as possible to develop muscular power. Getting overly fatigued doesn’t help you develop power and can actually contribute to injury.
The exercises in this program are, for the most part, basic moves that you’re probably familiar with. However, in the absence of some basic equipment (specifically, a bench), we had to get creative. For example, we included a floor bench press, which mimics a standard bench press in form, but you might not be able to lower the bar all the way to your chest. You might think this limits the effectiveness of the exercise, but, in fact, it will serve as a nice break from traditional barbell and dumbbell bench presses.
Another twist on a classic exercise is an overhead press from a standing position. At first, you may be forced to use a lighter weight than you’d use for seated overhead presses because when seated you’re using the seat back for support and as leverage to help you lift the weight. However, after doing the standing version for a while - and once your lower back is strengthened through adaptation - you’ll be able to lift as much, if not more, weight standing as seated. Not to mention, the core strength you’ll develop as a result of not having support structures like a low-back bench will benefit you in not only overall body strength in the gym but in regular activities as well.
The workouts that follow can be used in a number of ways. They can constitute your entire lifting program if you choose to train only at home with a barbell and plates (that is, until you add onto your home gym), or they can supplement the training you do at the gym. If, for example, you don’t feel like driving to the gym for a chest/shoulders/triceps workout, simply do Workout 1. Or if you want a break from the leg machines (leg press, hack squat machine, Smith machine), Workout 2 will provide a good shock to your legs.
Either way, our at-home workouts show that it doesn’t take fancy machines, decked-out locker rooms or even dumbbells to pack on mass and get more defined. Sometimes, going back to the basics - and into the friendly confines of your basement or garage - is just what you need.