How to Lift for Strength and Power Without a Gym
3 Strategies for enhancing your at-home strength workouts to become a more powerful runner.
Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness, nutrition, and adventure courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+.
Being able to strength train appropriately at home is incredibly challenging. Most of us don’t have the necessary equipment like barbells, squat racks, and a variety of plates for extra weight. So how do we get similar benefits as strength training in the gym if we’re working out at home without the required equipment?
First, we have to understand why we lift in the gym. The goals are not muscle growth (hypertrophy), metabolic conditioning (aerobic conditioning), or endurance. Instead, we’re lifting for strength and power.
Strength is the ability to produce force (in practical terms, the ability to lift more weight).
Power is a combination of strength and speed. Practically speaking, it’s the ability of a runner to produce force quickly.
Strong, powerful runners are able to exert a tremendous amount of force into the ground very quickly. This gives them a more powerful stride, helping them cover more distance with every step.
Heavy weightlifting in the gym helps accomplish this goal. As does more explosive lifts like the power clean, by engaging more of the neuromuscular system. But if you don’t have access to the equipment needed for these lifts, we have to use bodyweight strength exercises to get similar results.
We just need to perform them a bit differently.
1) Perform More Repetitions
Bodyweight exercises don’t build as much strength as weighted exercises because they’re easier. There’s less weight involved so the stress is lower, and adaptations are fewer.
But adding weight isn’t the only way to increase the stress of a certain exercise. We can also make it more challenging by doing more repetitions.
Increasing the number of reps by 50–100% will bring you much closer to failure, thereby prompting your body to get stronger. For example, if you typically complete three sets of ten squats with weight, try 3 x 15 (or even 3 x 20) bodyweight squats.
The increase in repetitions replaces the need for extra weight.
While adding reps to a series of exercises is a great way to make the workout more challenging, just be cautious of the injury risk. Doubling the number of repetitions in a workout is like increasing your weekly mileage too quickly – be aware of how you feel and do less if you need to.
2) Lift with Slow Eccentrics, Powerful Concentrics
Performing an exercise more slowly makes it feel a lot more difficult. We can further increase the stress of an exercise by adding a powerful concentric muscle contraction after a slower eccentric contraction.
Take the squat, for example. The eccentric phase of this exercise is when you’re squatting down because the major muscle in the squat (quadriceps) is lengthening while under load. The concentric contraction is when the quad shortens or flexes as you stand up.
To perform a bodyweight squat in this style, squat down more slowly than usual, taking about 5 seconds to get your thighs parallel to the ground. Then, explode upward with a forceful, powerful movement to the standing position. That’s one rep.
Eccentric contractions cause more muscle damage (this is why running hard downhill leaves you so sore). But damage isn’t all bad! It’s how you signal your body to grow stronger. By increasing the time that your muscles are under tension, you’re increasing the stress. And that extra stress prompts more adaptations and ultimately, more strength.
What’s more is that you’re teaching the neuromuscular system to fire faster with the powerful concentric contraction. This means you’ll be able to produce force more quickly in the future when you need to run fast.
3) Combine Stress with Supersets
A superset is simply when you move from one exercise to the next with no rest or very little rest. We can make this style of strength training work for runners by using it to target similar muscles.
Supersets that focus on the same muscle group help “pre-fatigue” your legs, making them more challenging (and helping you get more out of the strength workout). It’s similar to a 20 mile long run where you’d run the last 5 miles at goal marathon pace. The 5 miles of work gives you more benefits because it’s after 15 miles of running. You’re already tired.
A good example is combining lunges with squats (either a traditional squat or any variety of squats). First, complete a series of 10–20 walking lunges before starting a set of 10–20 bodyweight squats.
These exercises are different, but still focus on the same muscle groups.
Combine and Expand
You could combine the superset strategy with slow eccentrics and powerful concentric muscle contractions to continue to build strength despite not having a gym.
Ultimately, we must continually look for strategies that prompt more adaptation. In the weight room, that usually means lifting heavier weights. But at home, we need to get more creative.
If you’re still struggling to make your bodyweight strength workouts challenging like your gym sessions, try these other strategies:
- Lift with a greater range of motion to make the movement more difficult (i.e., squatting “ATG” or past parallel)
- Try new movements (i.e., plank variations like the spiderman instead of a standard prone plank)
- Incorporate more single-leg exercises (i.e., pistol squats or one-legged deadlifts)
No matter how you decide to structure your at-home strength workouts, always look for ways to make an exercise more challenging. That will keep your strength and power from plateauing.
Indeed, you may even return to the gym stronger than ever!
Jason Fitzgerald is the host of the Strength Running Podcast and the founder of Strength Running. A 2:39 marathoner, he’s coached thousands of runners to faster finishing times and fewer injuries with his results-oriented coaching philosophy. Follow him on Instagram or YouTube.