Joe Clark: Certified Personal Fitness Trainer

This article takes a brief look at the basic principles required to preserve, and where possible, build muscle and strength without access to a gym.


If the goal is to preserve muscle and strength, then putting the body in a favourable position to do this is important. Maintaining energy balance, or even a small caloric surplus, places you in a much more advantageous position to preserve muscle tissue. Unless you can continue to lift with intensity relative to which you could before the gyms closed, then now is not the best time to cut weight. Put simply, a reduced training stimulus, coupled with a caloric deficit, will lead to a reduction in muscle mass. 

The Equipment You Have Will Impact Your Training

Most people don’t have their favourite equipment available, but what does this mean for their exercise routine?

Where possible, try to incorperate the staple compound movements the best you can with what you have, and focus your training program around these movements. Presses, pull ups and squat variations can all be loaded with readily available items such as a backpack. If you have no equipment, investigate maximizing your ability to perform calisthenic (body weight) movements. Now is the time to get creative! For more on fundamental exercise patterns and at-home training, see our article

You May Have to Shift Your Focus

You might have to put a hold on chasing that big bench press or squat and change gears. 

Certain equipment won’t be available, therefore certain lifts won’t be an option. But that doesn’t mean you give up and wait for the gym to open so you can continue as before. Chase a new goal! Now is the perfect time to get better at other lifts and movement patterns; address imbalances, improve mobility, agility, balance and coordination.

You Don’t Need as Much Stimulus to Maintain as you did to Build


An analysis conducted from the results of a series of studies (linked below) on subjects with some resistance training experience, displayed that those who continued to resistance train at heavily reduced frequencies, some as low as one session once per week, maintained almost all of their muscle and strength over prolonged periods of time.

One study took 72 adults and asked them to resistance train 3 times per week for 4 months. They then reduced the amount of training sessions down from 3 sessions a week, to just 1 session per week for 8 months. During this time, the younger individuals actually saw some progress in both muscle mass and strength increase even on one third of the frequency. Elderly individuals did not see the same results, and have to do more to preserve muscle tissue and negate the effects of sarcopenia.

Your Level of Training Experience

Your training experience / amount of years of progressive committed training, will have a large impact on how you will need to train to maintain your muscle and strength. Individuals with a greater amount of training experience and therefore, more relative strength and muscle mass, need a larger training stimulus to maintain their muscle and strength. The studies discussed previously indicate that within year 1 (and likely year 2) of committed training, individuals can continue to make progress without equipment that may only be found in a gym. However, for both experienced and less experienced lifters, optimizing at-home training is key to achieving desirable results.

The takeaway here is that if you’re in the first year or two of training, then don’t worry; a small amount of stimulus will be enough to maintain what you have. 

It Won’t Take Long to Get Back to Where You Left Off

Ever heard of muscle memory? 

It’s the same principle as learning to ride a bike. You learn the skill and reach a certain ability. You can then take a long hiatus from the activity. Upon returning,      re-attaining that skill level takes a fraction of the time in comparison to when you first learned it. This principle holds true for re-building muscle and strength. The neural pathways are already in place, so complex movements come back very quickly. In addition to the motor control aspect of resistance training, there is evidence that supports that ‘muscle memory’ also exists on a genetic level. Periods of skeletal muscle growth are captured within our muscle’s genes, and upon future activation, the muscle can be re-built at an accelerated pace. 

Some Key Principles for At-Home Training

Now we’ve looked at the basic principles behind preserving muscle and strength, let’s look at optimizing training for the best results possible.

Full Body Training

Full body training is most likely the best choice of training split at this time. You likely won’t have as many exercise variations at your disposal. So rather than working one or two body parts and then running out of exercises, switch to a full body routine. This will allow you to hit multiple body parts, multiple times throughout the week. There are many full body exercise programs online that can be adapted depending on equipment.

4 – 6 sessions per week

The amount of stress produced from heavy lifting will likely be less during this time. Most people can’t lift heavy right now. Our ability to recover from training is based upon the variables of volume (amount of reps and sets) and intensity (load lifted). Many external factors also influence recovery, but in this instance, we are just talking about resistance training stimulus. We have a threshold in which volume and intensity can be applied, yet still allows for adequate recovery between sessions. If the intensity in our training sessions is reduced – which it likely will be for most lifters, then our tolerance for volume is greater. Manipulating and potentially increasing frequency and volume may enhance results while loads are lighter.

1 – 2 exercises per body part. 5 – 8 total exercises per session

When training full body, less volume is required for each body-part per session. Instead, the volume is spread across multiple sessions throughout the week.

3 – 4 sets per exercise

This depends on the amount of exercise you choose per workout. 3 – 4 sets is a good guideline for each exercise. 6 exercises that target different body parts and do 4 sets per exercise, gives a total workout volume of 24 sets.

Total workout volume. 

Depending on intensity and your threshold for training volume, aim for 15 – 30 working sets per workout.

Still approach your training like you did before.

Continue to apply basic principles such as progressive overload, sufficient volume and intensity, frequency and periodization where nesesary into your at home training plan. A training approach focused on improvement and progress will drive much better results than just throwing in a few body weight exercises throughout the week.