What you’ll learn here
Can home workout routines be effective? Well, let’s be honest.
While many of us associate the word ‘convenient’ with home workouts, ‘effective’ is likely one that doesn’t come to mind. But the closure of gyms worldwide (thanks, coronavirus!) have decimated many of our usual fitness routines in one fell swoop.
And that means more of us have been working out at home instead.
This begs the question: are home workout routines effective? Especially if you don’t have a lot of fancy-ass equipment (e.g. whole rack of dumbbells, barbell, or the cable machine) at your disposal?
Thankfully, yes (1).
That said, there are a few things you need to keep in mind. Here are 13 tips that’ll help you cement the connection between the word ‘effective’ and ‘home workouts’ once and for all.
#1: Push close to failure on your exercises
Just because there’s no one to impress at home, doesn’t mean you should put in less work!
If you’re breezing through every exercise and barely working up a sweat, then your workout is not effective. That’s regardless of any claims of ‘getting abs in 2 weeks’ on YouTube. Which is not possible, by the way.
Instead, you should ensure that you’re pushing close to failure on every set of exercises. This is especially if you’re using only your body weight, or light weights, to train.
For those unaware, ‘training to failure’ refers to the point of momentary muscular failure, where you’re no longer able to perform even one more rep with proper form.
It’s where you can’t do another curl without bending back, like in yoga. It’s also where your back involuntary rounds when you try to push out another rep of heavy deadlifts.
Why push close to failure for home workout routines?
I can hear you asking: ‘Why would I torture myself like that?’
Well, because if you stop well short of failure (aka taking it too easy), you’ll fail to fully activate your muscles (2). And that means a significant decrease in the effectiveness of your workout! And that isn’t something you want, right?
Always make sure that the last few reps of your exercises have got you making all kinds of funny noises and faces. That’s how you know you’re maximizing your home workout routines.
OK, because I know you’re still fixated on the ‘getting abs in 2 weeks’ part, let me just tell you that the road to that sexy, chiseled core isn’t hours of ab exercises.
Instead, what you need is a holistic approach to fitness. One that takes into consideration your diet – because if you’re not losing body fat (by being in a suitable calorie balance), those abs aren’t going to appear.
Home workout routines can be effective if you make sure you push every set of your exercise to as close to failure as possible. This boosts muscle activation for a more effective home workout.
#2: Perform rest-pause sets
The former tip is good and all. But let’s be real – I think we all know that we’re bad at estimating just how close to failure we are.
There have been many times that I’ve stopped doing my banded hip thrusts, thinking that I haven’t got any left in me … only to realize that I had at least 5 left in the tank. 5!
In case talking about hip thrusts got you thinking about glutes, here’s an article on getting a bigger butt with a science-based approach.
So, for my fellow poor estimators, here’s something that’ll save your gains: rest-pause sets.
Using rest-pause sets during your workouts can help you push closer to failure during your exercises (3). And it’s not just that. When it’s compared to the traditional sets, it’s been shown to provide a slight benefit for muscle growth (i.e. more effective!)
How to perform rest-pause sets
Want to try it out for yourself? Excellent. Here’s how you can go about it:
- Perform your first set until you’re sure you can’t perform another rep
- Remember how many reps you’ve gotten. This is how many you need to accumulate over your remaining sets. Let’s assume you clocked 23 reps.
- Rest for 20 seconds.
- Go right back into the exercise, and again, take it to failure (or close enough to failure.)
- Rest for 20 seconds.
- Keep repeating this rest-and-work cycle until the total number of reps matches the number of reps you got in your first set (i.e. 23.) It doesn’t matter how many sets you eventually take.
While rest-pause sets can be a godsend for increasing the effectiveness of your home workout routines when you’re working with bodyweight exercises or light weights, you really don’t want to replicate this with a heavier load. Like when you get back to the gym, for example.
Because that can get really risky and counterproductive. Imagine trying to do as many deadlifts as possible during your first set! Nope – just, no. Don’t do that.
Rest-pause sets not only help you push closer to failure than you typically would, but also provide a slight benefit for muscle growth.
#3: Add compound exercises into home workout routines
Adding compound exercises can take your home workout routines from good to excellent.
But – why? It’s because of compound exercises’ very nature. To be clear, compound exercises are multi-joint movements that work several muscles or muscle groups at a time (4).
A good example is the squat, which engages many muscles in the lower body – such as hamstrings, calves, and glutes – and core.
Another great example is the pull-up, which works a great number of upper-body muscles (including the core). And if you’re wondering whether you’re even capable of doing it, here’s some good news: you can learn how to do a pull-up progressively!
Gain more muscle mass
Because compound exercises put multiple muscle groups and joints to work, they can help you gain more muscle mass and burn more calories, all while saving you time during your workouts, when contrasted to isolation exercises.
How does that happen? When you lift weights, you’re actually damaging your muscle fibers (creating microscopic tears). And this damage signals a hormonal response – a cocktail of growth hormone, testosterone, and insulin-like growth factors – that helps rebuild your muscle fibers (5).
Because you activate and break down more muscle groups during compound exercises, you end up building more muscle than you would have on spending the same amount of time on isolation exercises.
Allows for progressive overloading
Also, more muscle groups mean you’re able to use heavier weights than with isolation exercises – something that’ll help you progressively overload your muscles (and experience faster muscle growth) once you get back to the gym.
Now, that’s not all the benefits compound exercises bring.
Translates well to day-to-day movements
In addition to their calorie-burning, muscle-building powers – as functional movements – compound exercises teach your different muscle groups to coordinate better.
This translates to improved movement skills when tackling day-to-day activities.
Think: not rounding your back when you bend over to pick something up or activating your back muscles to help lift something versus just depending on your arms.
Home workout routines are even more effective when you include compound exercises. They help you burn more calories, build more muscle, and translate well into day-to-day movements.
#4: Overcoming isometrics
If you’re not new to the fitness game, chances are, you’d find it very difficult to push every set of exercise close to failure with just your body weight, or even light weights (e.g. resistance bands or 2 kg dumbbells) with your home workout routines.
What do you do then? Well, there’s always the option of upping the number of reps you perform. That’d bring up the working volume (and, supposedly, muscle growth.)
But here’s the unfortunate reality.
If you push your rep range too high for each set of an exercise (like 60 to 70 reps), you might be compromising the effectiveness of your workout! To be more specific, research shows that you might be cutting your muscle growth rates by half (9). Ouch!
Here’s what to do if you’re pumping out 50 reps of glute bridges – or any exercise – with no problem: overcome isometrics.
OK, let me get rid of that puzzled expression on your face.
Put simply, overcoming isometrics involves trying to move an immovable object with maximum effort. In other words, you’ll be putting every bit of energy and effort into something that isn’t going to budge.
‘Why would anyone do such a pointless thing,’ I hear you ask.
And this increased number of muscle fibers activated will continue to stay ‘on’ when you immediately transit into doing your bodyweight or lightweight exercises. Meaning that you’re increasing the effectiveness of your home workout routines without changing anything else!
Cool, isn’t it?
How to perform ‘overcoming isometrics’
As to how you can perform ‘overcoming isometrics’ at home, well, all you’ll need is a towel. Or a bedsheet. The set-up for each exercise looks a little different. But the general idea is that you’ll want it configured in a way that’ll make the towel immovable.
- Grab your towel and step in the middle of it. Grab each end of your towel with each of your hands (one in each side).
- Try as hard as you can to stand up, as if you’re just coming up from a squat. (Yes, if you’re doing this correctly, you won’t move.)
- Hold this position for 20 to 30 seconds. Make sure you’re still pulling as hard as you can throughout.
- When you can feel tears streaming down your face, immediately go right into your set of bodyweight or lightweight squats.
Isometric bicep curl
- Grab your towel and step on the end of it with your right foot. Grab the other end with your right hand.
- Then, curl the end you’re holding up as though you’re doing a bicep curl.
- Hold it at the most contracted state for 20 to 30 seconds. Make sure you’re pulling as hard as you can throughout.
- When you can no longer stand it, immediately go into your set of banded or lightweight curls.
Isometric bent-over row
- Sit down on the floor with your legs extended straight in front of you.
- Place the middle of your towel around the heel of your feet. Grab each end with each of your hands (one side in each hand).
- Then, pull the towel toward your abs as though you’re performing the seated cable row.
- Hold it at the most contracted state for 20 to 30 seconds. As usual, make sure you’re pulling as hard as you can throughout.
- When you start trembling uncontrollably, immediately go into your set of banded or lightweight bent-over rows.
By now, you must have realized that ‘overcoming isometrics’ basically works with all muscle groups.
You just have to find a configuration that’ll allow you to hold the contracted position with the maximal effort, without actually moving the load. Which, in this case, is your towel.
Home workout routines can be effective even if you only have light weights. But you would need to make use of something called ‘overcoming isometrics,’ which helps ‘turn on’ your muscles so they stay better engaged during the set.
#5: Execute movements with proper form
One easy way to make each and every exercise of your home workout more effective is to ensure that you’re performing the movements with proper form.
Many exercises are targeted to hit specific muscle groups.
A lack of good form can cause you to activate a completely different muscle or excessively strain the muscle you were targeting. Proper form, on the other hand, ensures optimal results in the target muscle groups.
In addition to that, there are also three more added benefits to lifting with proper form:
- Prevents injuries – If you’re performing exercises with improper form, you can place your muscles, joints, and tendons in awkward positions not meant for weight-bearing. And this could potentially lead to strains or tears in the long-term.
- Enhances performance – To perform at your best (i.e. push close to failure), your muscles need to be in the ideal position to generate force. By maintaining proper form, you’ll be allowing that to happen, which ups the effectiveness of your workout.
- Maximizes range of motion (ROM) – When you execute an exercise with proper form, you’re maximizing the ROM that the target muscle is going through (aka how long it can bend and straighten). This is a crucial factor that’ll lead to significant increases in strength and proposed muscle growth (12, 13).
So, what you should do is to include a tiny pause after every rep to make sure that your posture is solid. And, if at all possible, keep an eye on your body movements with the use of a mirror.
Home workouts are effective if you execute all exercises with proper form. It helps you:
- Hit your target muscles (i.e. work what you want to work)
- Prevent injuries
- Enhance performance
- Maximize range of motion (ROM)
Thus, upping the effectiveness of your home workout routines.
#6: Mind-muscle connection: Focus on the muscle that is working
Ever felt like you were just going through the motions during your home workouts?
Chances are, you have. But here’s the thing. Home workouts are not effective if we rush through our reps or mentally disassociate from the workout session. That’s because we’re missing out on one of the most important secrets to success: the mind-muscle connection!
Sounds like bro-science, I know. But it’s not.
Research suggests that the more you can improve on your mind-muscle connection, the more muscle fibers you’ll recruit (14). And if you’ve been paying attention, you know what that means: yes, a better, more effective home workout!
So, make sure you feel each and every rep in your target muscle group. Better yet, contract them as hard as possible (15).
Focus on contracting your biceps when you’re doing bicep curls. Focus on squeezing your glutes when you’re doing hip thrusts. And, of course, feel your shoulders when you’re performing overhead presses. If you want a truly effective workout, you’ve got to learn to make every single rep count.
There’s a world of difference between simply getting 15 reps and actually doing 15 reps.
The more you focus on ‘feeling’ the muscle you’re working, the more muscle fibers you’ll recruit. And that can mean a world of difference when it comes to the effectiveness of your home workout.
#7: Progressive overload is key
Remember how your muscles break down, then rebuild, after your workouts? Yes, it’s this process that helps your muscles adapt to the previous training stimulus you placed on it.
But for further progress and gains, you’ll have to progressively overload your muscles. Why would they continue making further adaptations if you don’t force them to do more than they’re accustomed to (16, 17, 18)?
Or, in other words, if you want a more effective workout each and every time you lay out the mat, you must continually make your muscles work harder than they’re used.
Most often, that means increasing the resistance.
But because we’re talking about home workouts here, of course, we can’t do that. Unless you have access to a home gym – in which case, why are you even here, you lucky, lucky girl?
Wondering about progressive overload? Learn more about reps, sets and training volume to understand what it’s all about.
How to progressively overload your muscles at home
OK, back to the matter at hand. There are other ways of forcing your muscles to do more without ordering a whole rack of dumbbells and weight plates off Amazon, including:
- Do more reps – Well, this should be self-explanatory but still worth explaining. If you’ve been doing only 12 reps of bodyweight squats and they’re starting to feel less challenging, increasing the number of reps you’re doing to 15 or 20 can make the same workouts feel harder again. Just don’t go beyond 50 reps, because that’s mostly just counterproductive.
- Do more sets – This works in the same way as increasing the number of reps you perform. Ultimately, either upping the sets or reps will help increase your workout volume, which further challenges your muscles!
- Include paused reps – Including paused reps during your exercises makes them more challenging. When you pause, you’re breaking your momentum. That means you can’t just ‘bounce’ from rep to rep. All you’ve got are your muscles to produce the force you need to complete the rep. And that makes your workout extra challenging.
- Try pulsing movements – Shortening your ROM allows your muscles to stay contracted the entire time. This isolates the active muscles and fatigues them more quickly, which helps build their endurance. Don’t nix your full-range movements altogether, though; instead, only throw in pulsing reps at the last set of an exercise.
- Attempt a more challenging variation – Only have your body weight to work with? No worries. Even then, you can progressively overload your muscles by performing more challenging exercise variations. Elevate your feet and do decline push-ups, for example. Or, opt for the one-legged exercise variations, like the pistol squat. Easy.
Make use of progressive overload to continue challenging your muscles as they grow stronger and bigger. You need to ‘force’ them to adapt.
#8: Combine resistance bands with free weights
Dumbbells + resistance bands = twice (or thrice!) the results.
Yep, you can quote me on that. If you’re anything like me, chances are, you’re going to at least have a few lightweight dumbbells and resistance bands lying around. So, why not make the most of it by using them together?
This combination doesn’t just increase the resistance, either.
See, one of the reasons I love resistance bands is that the more they lengthen, the more resistance they provide. That’s why they complement the resistance curve of many dumbbell exercises very well.
Instead of losing tension at the top of your bicep curl as you would with only dumbbells, resistance bands provide increasing resistance as you lift the weights.
That means you’re forcing your muscles to work harder than they typically would have over the full range of an exercise.
There you have it: a more effective home workout! So, do get creative and add resistance bands to the mix whenever possible. You’re not just limited to banded biceps curls. There’s also banded-dumbbell squats, Romanian deadlifts, and even overhead presses.
Tension is tension, after all. Your muscles aren’t going to differentiate between increased resistance in the form of heavier weight or an added resistance band!
Here’s a comprehensive guide on how to use resistance bands to get your started!
Combining resistance bands and dumbbells is going to increase the load on your muscles. And because tension is tension, your muscles will grow in response to this increased demand!
#9: Minimize rest time between exercises
Here’s something I’ve been guilty of ever since I started working out at home: I’d pick my phone up in-between sets, and … just like that, 10 minutes had blown by.
Don’t let this happen to you! If you want to get the most from your home workout routines, you need to keep a close eye on the amount of time you spend resting between sets.
Of course, ‘minimizing’ doesn’t mean ‘cutting out.’ You don’t want to go right into the next set without any rest at all.
But how long should you rest for, exactly? Well, that depends on your fitness goals:
- Lose weight or improve muscle endurance: 20 to 60 seconds between sets. This keeps your heart rate up, while still enabling the muscles to recover a bit so they can continue pushing the next set.
- Build strength: 2 to 5 minutes between sets. This enables your muscles to replenish the energy they need for contraction and allows your nervous system to also recover. This is only when you’re lifting heavy (which is relative to your strength), of course.
- Muscle growth: 1 minute between sets. Resting for a minute maximizes the amount of metabolic stress (a major contributor to muscle growth) your muscles undergo, while still allowing enough recuperation so you’re able to continue pushing hard in the next set.
Bottom line: you should never browse Instagram or TikTok in the middle of your workout. It’s a black hole. Trust me.
If you want an effective (and time-efficient) workout, minimize your rest time. Regardless of your fitness goal, you should never rest more than 5 minutes between sets. Put that phone away!
#10: Hit your daily protein intake requirements
Along with tweaking various factors of your workout to boost its effectiveness, you also need to make sure you’re eating properly!
Because even the most well-planned, optimized home workout routine isn’t going to help you lose weight or build muscle or get stronger if your diet is crap. You simply can’t out-train a bad diet. In my opinion, this should be a commandment or something.
Regardless, back to the topic at hand.
One of the most crucial parts of your diet is your protein intake. You’ve got to have enough of it. Why? Well, because protein (or, more specifically, amino acids) serve as the building blocks of your muscle.
Remember how you cause tiny tears in your muscles during workouts? The protein you consume over the day is going to be the ‘Lego blocks’ your muscles need to repair and rebuild (19, 20, 21). Not to mention, grow bigger.
- Overweight or obese: 1.2–1.5 grams per kilogram bodyweight
- A healthy weight, active, and trying to lose weight: 1.8-2.7 grams per kilogram body weight
- A healthy weight, active, and trying to gain muscle: 1.4-2.4 grams per kilogram body weight
- Experienced lifter on a bulk: 3.3 grams per kilogram body weight
Of course, when it comes to your diet, daily protein intake is not the only thing that matters. You should also be eating at your optimum calorie intake and macronutrient ratio – while ensuring that you’re including tons of nutrient-dense foods.
Doing these would truly boost the effectiveness of your home workout routines. Don’t work in vain!
There are no two ways around it. You just can’t out-train a bad diet. To see the quickest and most significant results from your home workout routines, you need to eat right. And that means taking care of your macronutrient and micronutrient intake.
#11: Plan in recovery days
With most of us stuck at home, it can be tempting to work out every day. While that isn’t necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, doing too much, too fast can lead to some undesirable effects, including:
- Increased risk of injuries – This is pretty self-explanatory. If you’re pushing your body too hard, you could end up compromising your form for the exercises. And that sets you up for muscle strains or worse, tears.
- Severe muscle soreness – Delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) usually peaks 48 to 72 hours post-workout (23, 24, 25), and is caused by the microscopic tears in the muscles post-workout. Not giving your body enough time to recover is just going to intensify muscle soreness. And that’s going to affect your performance.
- Training plateaus – It is during the rest periods that you gain the results you worked for during the workout session. That’s when your muscles repair and rebuild to become bigger than before. Take away rest days, and you’re taking away your gains.
So, if you want to make sure you’re getting in as effective a home workout routine as possible, you need to schedule recovery into your training.
Of course, it goes without saying you should adopt the evidence-based recovery methods that work best for you. Find out what helps for sore muscles after workouts.
Regardless, though, you should account for rest days in your training plan. Me, personally, I like to put a rest day in the middle of the week. And then one again during the weekends (either Saturday or Sunday.)
Ideally, you should only work out between 3 to 5 days per week.
When it comes to working out, more is not always better. Home workout routines are effective only when you take care of your recovery. That’s why you should always include rest days in your training plan.
#12: Clock enough sleep nightly
Surviving on fewer than 5 hours of sleep a day and only running on a potent combination of 5 cups of coffee and 2 heaping scoops of pre-workout?
Well, first off, that’s probably too much caffeine. And secondly (more importantly), that’s way too little sleep! Did you know that people who exercise may need more sleep than their inactive counterparts?
When you think about it, that makes sense.
Since the role of sleep is to restore your body’s energy supply, it goes without saying that the more physically active you are, the more sleep you require.
After all, research shows that the dreamless non-REM sleep phase, in particular, increases protein synthesis and the mobilization of free fatty acids to provide you with energy, which helps repair the muscles you broke down during your workout (26).
Clocking enough zzz every night is not just about maximizing recovery, either.
The truth is that your exercise performance can decline very quickly after just one night of restricted sleep (27, 28). That’s because a bad night’s sleep can make your workouts feel harder. Which will only make you fatigue sooner (29).
And if that wasn’t bad news enough, it turns out that poor sleep can also wreck your motivation to work out at all (30). Ouch.
So, whenever possible, clock 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night. Your muscles will thank you for it. I have written an article exploring how you can sleep better – be sure to check it out!
Home workout routines are effective if you get enough sleep each night. Sufficient sleep is crucial for muscle growth, workout performance, and motivation levels. Make sure you’re getting at least 7 to 8 hours of shuteye per night!
#13: Do home workout routines you actually enjoy
As with a diet, the most effective workout will be one that you’re consistent with. And do you know what helps with consistency? Well, enjoyment, of course!
The closer you can come to not just tolerating but flat-out loving your home workout, the better your results will be (31). So, don’t do barre or pilates workout routines just because your mom, best friend, or colleague did them and found great results with them.
Instead, start with an activity that you’re interested in or already enjoy. What matters is that you like it.
The truth is that if you despise it, you’re going to find every excuse you can to skip it tonight (and tomorrow, and the next day – and months to come.)
And if you’re trying to stay driven, here’s an article with useful tips on keeping your workout motivation strong.
Home workout routines are only effective if you’re consistent. And that’s not going to happen if you absolutely dread every session. So, be sure to only do workouts you actually enjoy!
Ultimately, when it comes to the question of ‘are home workout routines effective?’ the answer is a resounding ‘Yes,’ if you incorporate the above tips. Now, what are you waiting for? There are gains to be had even from the living room. Let’s start sweating.