COVID-19. Day 4,702. Feels like years ago since anyone stepped foot in a gym. Hopefully soon we can re-emerge from this uncertain workout darkness and have the option of hitting the gym or crushing an at-home bodyweight workout. The struggle is real, but in the meantime we’ll have to keep our patience levels high and our bodies moving. Just like we have Zoom to combat social isolation, we have exercise to combat a sedentary, quarantined lifestyle.

While we may have to continue with our bodyweight workouts, this doesn’t mean that we can’t still challenge ourselves within the comfort of our own home. This week I wanted to explore ways we can increase the intensity of our workouts while at home, while still adhering to the exercises I’ve programmed for you in this week’s free 7-day workout plan (link).    

The topics I wanted to briefly cover this week for your personal workout toolbox are tempo, volume, intensity, and rest. The good news is that we can modify these movement variables to increase or decrease the intensity of your home workouts. I like to think of these variables as having the ability to turn the dial up or down on our exercise as necessary.

Tempo

In the strength and conditioning world, tempo basically refers to the speed at which you perform a particular activity or movement. There are three main parts of an exercise in which an individual can alter the tempo if they wish: concentric, eccentric, or isometric (Haff & Triplett, p 33).

Concentric exercise is probably the most common form of exercise that the general population is familiar with. This entails contracting and shortening of a muscle to produce energy. Generally speaking,   most people may commonly think of a concentric exercise as the “upwards” portion of an exercise, although there are a few exceptions. This means that the portion of the squat where you need to explode up to the standing position, the portion of a push-up where you need to push your torso up from the floor, and the portion of a bicep curl when you curl the weight up from an extended position are considered concentric segments of those exercises.

Isometric exercise occurs when there is no movement occurring at the joint being stressed, but a muscular contraction is still occurring. This is basically the type of exercise when you hold a position during a movement, such as if you were to hold the bottom position of a push-up, or hold the bottom position of a squat, or even hold the weight at a certain range while performing a bicep curl without moving your arm. For individuals rehabbing from injury, isometrics can be good introductory methods of exercise as well since the joints move minimally and the muscles involved still contract and get stronger. Other examples of full-body isometrics could be a traditional plank or even a wall-sit (you’re not really moving, but your muscles are working).

Eccentric exercise, the last type, involves muscular energy being stored as the muscle lengthens across a joint. For some individuals, eccentric exercise can be the most challenging because it requires a lot of muscular control and energy to perform correctly. Common examples of eccentric movements would be the downward portion of a squat, the downward portion of a push-up, and the downward portion of a bicep curl as your arm extends. Eccentrics are also key exercises that can help us smoothly absorb force, such as when we jump, sprint, or cut to change direction in sport (Beato et al, 2019).

Typically, tempo will be articulated by three numbers, in which the order illustrates the eccentric, isometric, and concentric portions of a workout. So a standard push-up with a tempo of “(5-3-1)” indicates a 5 second eccentric portion (lowering down), 3 second isometric portion (holding bottom position), and a 1 second concentric portion (exploding back up to start position).   

With these modifications, we can switch up the way we perform an exercise to challenge ourselves in different ways, even if it’s just bodyweight training. If you were to do a classic push-up, think about how that exercise differs now from an eccentric push-up where you take 5 seconds on the way down, pause for 1 second at the bottom position, and then explode back up to the starting position. Chances are, this eccentric variation may be slightly harder for you since we are requiring more muscular control of our pecs, shoulder muscles, and core to perform this exercise. Our ability to modify isometric, eccentric and concentric variations of the same exercise now allows us to tap into a tempo that we choose to intensify a movement.

Intensity

When we typically talk about intensity, we talk about how much weight (load) we use for an exercise. During this quarantine, we have to be as resourceful as possible to still try to workout with load (or some form of weights) while we wait to return to the gym. For some people, pure bodyweight exercise is more than enough for an effective workout. For others who may be used to lifting heavier weights on a regular basis, we might need to find ways to add a little load. The following are some things you can use around the house to spice things up:

  • Backpacks/duffel bags/Suitcases (fill em’ up!)
  • Cases of Water
  • Brooms
  • Chairs/Couches
  • Heavy Textbooks (as weights to put in a backpack, or as an elevated surface)
  • Towels (for isometric exercises)
  • Walls/Doorways
  • Buckets of Water, Rocks, etc
  • Pets (please don’t drop them)
  • Children (definitely don’t drop them)
  • Significant Others (don’t even think about dropping them)

If you want a visual of how to use some of these resources effectively with your workout, check out my free 7-day workout program for this week (along with my workouts from the previous few weeks as well (link)). As a side note, if you’re unsure if you’re able to safely increase the reps in your workouts, you can go by the 2 for 2 rule. This means that if you can comfortably complete two or more reps of an exercise during the last set of that exercise in two consecutive workouts, then you should be safe to increase the number of reps for that exercise (Haff & Triplett, p 459).

Volume

Equally important is how we can modify exercise volume during our workouts. Volume usually accounts for how many sets and reps of a particular exercise we are performing in total. In future posts, we can dive deeper into how we calculate personal volume percentages based on the different lifts you perform in the gym, but for now we’re going to keep things simple; An easy way to increase intensity of a workout is to increase the reps of an exercise (doing 15 squats instead of 10 squats), or merely increasing the number of total sets of a workout (instead of 3 sets of 10 squats, doing 4 sets of 10 squats). This may seem like an overly basic strategy, but keep in mind that everyone and every body is different. For some individuals, 5 sets of 10 reps of an exercise may be sufficient to feel nice and sweaty, while 2 sets of 10 reps of the same exercise for a different person may elicit the same response for them. Moral of the story, do what feels right for you.

Rest

Rest ratios in between sets of exercises should depend on the specific training goal at hand (ie muscle hypertrophy, strength, endurance, etc), the training experience of the individual, as well as the amount of load that is lifted during an exercise (lifting heavier weight may warrant a longer rest period) (Haff & Triplett, p 465). In terms of bodyweight resistance training, we are not necessarily working with the same intensities as we would in the gym with weights. To supplement the full body resistance days in the program I made for this week, we could add rest intervals anywhere between 30 seconds to 2 minutes after completing each set of exercises, since different individuals may respond differently to the bodyweight exercises they perform. Once we return to the gym, I can post more information regarding the specifics behind rest ratios and the type of workout you’re performing, but for now, simply decreasing the rest time in between sets can be an easy strategy to intensify your workout at home.

Final Thoughts

Now that we have a better grasp of how to manipulate tempo, intensity, volume, and rest during our workouts, we can tailor our personal movement practices to our individual needs. Having a fundamental understanding of these variables can give us the most bang for our buck during our quarantine workouts AND give us more structure in our exercise when we do return to the gym.

Enjoy the week!

Nati Schnitman, CSCS

References:

Beato M, Bigby AEJ, De Keijzer KL, Nakamura FY, Coratella G, McErlain-Naylor SA. (2019) Post-activation potentiation effect of eccentric overload and traditional weightlifting exercise on jumping and sprinting performance in male athletes. PLoS ONE 14(9): e0222466.

https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0222466

Haff G, Triplett T. (2016) Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. National Strength and Conditioning Association. 4th edition, pp 33, 459, & 465.