An effective muscle building home workout using only bodyweight, dumbbells and resistance bands.
About this plan
Because of the pandemic, I’ve not been to a commercial gym in almost 12 months. In that time I’ve been trying to do what I can from home, doing body weight workouts, lots of high volume training, which seemed to work fine for maintaining my condition and keeping fit, but didn’t really work for building muscle.
So I created a new plan for myself using the basic equipment I had from home, and I’ve been really happy with the progress I’ve been making; in fact, I’ve made more improvements in the last 8 weeks than I have from the previous 10 months. The plan consists of a workout that can take anywhere from 30-45 minutes, done just 2-3 times per week.
In this post I’m going to share everything with you, from the key principles and science as to why the program is structured the way that it is, a breakdown and demonstration of all the exercises, and how to properly track and monitor your progress.
Is this the best plan for building muscle?
This plan was made specifically for my own personal requirements, based on my level of training/experience and the equipment I had available from home. Out of everything I’ve tried, this plan has been the most successful in terms of making progress with strength and building muscle. However that does not mean it’s an optimal training plan, or that it would necessarily work for other people even though the key principles are all based on a solid foundation. Having access to a full gym and more complete training plan would definitely be better, but I’m just working with what I have until the gyms reopen.
One thing I’ve seen a lot of over the years, are people that are always in the gym but actually never really seem to change their physique. In a lot of cases it’s because they train within a comfort zone, doing 3 sets of 10 reps at weights that don’t really challenge them. They are committed, but they are missing some vital ingredients – Intensity and Progressive Overload. These are the main principles behind this plan.
Is this a completely unique plan?
All training plans are similar, and this is certainly derivative of other plans I have used in my years of training. I’ve taken aspects of many plans and styles of training that I’ve tried, taken what has worked for me personally, and applied this to my current situation of working out from home with minimal time and equipment. I designed it myself, but the principles and exercises are nothing new.
Equipment (everything you need)
The first thing to talk about is all the equipment you need.
Space to train
You’re going to need some space to train, but not a huge amount. I literally commandeer a corner section of my conservatory at home, and train around kids toys.
You’re going to need some dumbbells that have adjustable weights. They don’t need to be fancy ones like mine, any spinlock or clip dumbbells will work fine.
Resistance bands make up a big part of the program. I recommend some really strong, heavy duty bands that not only offer a lot of resistance, but are also reassuringly unlikely to snap! I use these bands by FitBeast, and they are really versatile for home workouts.
Fitbeast Resistance Bands – https://amzn.to/2ObVLVo
Pull up bar
You’re going to need a pull up bar, again mine is kind of fancy, but any basic bar or frame that you can put in a doorway will work fine.
Ideally you would have some way of performing dips; I have some bars that I can attach to my pull up frame, but you could use 2 chairs, a bench, or even just the end of your sofa or bed.
Finally a bench is useful, but not necessary. If you have one then great, if not, you can work around it.
Sportstech Bench – https://amzn.to/3qA4iye
Training Principles (how it works)
The program is based crudely around principles of high intensity training, popularised by people such as Arthur Jones, Mike Mentzer and Dorian Yates, that I adapted based around my own personal needs and resources. The workouts are short and intense, and as a result they hurt – you will likely pull faces like you’re trying to win a gurning competition when performing the exercises.
There is just one single working set performed for each muscle group, but these are compounded with intensifiers. The idea is to create an acute stress response in the muscles, which sends a signal for growth, but the low volume of exercises allows for faster recovery so you can train multiple times per week. As with all muscle building programs, the key principle is progressive overload. This means that every week you should be trying to improve either the number of reps you perform, increasing the weight, or even improving your form from the previous week as your body adapts to the training.
Initially this training was quite a shock to the system, so initially I performed this workout twice per week on a Monday and a Thursday to give myself a chance to recover. After a short time, I then increased this to 3x per week training on a Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Intensifiers (making up for a lack of weight)
Most people, including myself, aren’t fortunate enough to have a lot of equipment or weights. As such we need to raise the difficulty of the exercises with the weight we have using intensifiers.
The first way to increase the intensity of an exercise is to pre-exhaust the target muscle group. So for example, before doing chest flyes, you would first pre-exhaust the muscles with bodyweight push ups.
The next way of increasing the intensity is by manipulating the tempo. For most exercises in this program I use a 4120 tempo. Each number in the tempo represents the number of seconds you take to perform that part of the movement.
- The first number is the eccentric or lowering phase
- The second represents the bottom position of the movement
- The third number represents the concentric or lifting phase
- The fourth number represents the time at the top of the movement
So for example, pushups with a 4120 tempo would have
- A 4 second lowering phase
- A 1 second pause at the bottom to eliminate momentum
- A 2 second push to the top of the movement
- A 0 second pause at the top, so as soon as you reach the top position you immediately return back to the lowering phase
Generally speaking this tempo is considered to be one of the most effective for hypertrophy, which is the increase of muscle mass.
The next intensifier is called a finisher. As soon as the working set is complete, another exercise for the same muscle group is performed. For example, after tricep dips, you would perform a set of tricep push downs.
Next is negative reps; these are used to extend a set when you have failed at the concentric part of the movement. For example, if you can no longer perform any more pull ups, you could jump up to the top of the movement, and just perform the negative phase to extend the set.
Isometric hold (Static contraction)
The final intensifier is to include a static contraction at the end of a set. This is essentially an isometric hold, which is held until the muscle fails. For example, after performing dumbbell curls, you could hold the weights at 90 degrees until you can no longer maintain that position.
These are all the exercises I complete in the program. In the description below there is a link to a Google Sheet so you can copy this if you want to try the program. I’ll now go through and explain how I perform the exercises for each muscle group.
The first exercise I perform is just a standard push up. The aim initially is to get the muscles warm and get the blood flowing, so I just use a simple 1010 tempo. I perform as many reps as I can, stopping about 2-3 reps away from failure, which is normally around 40 reps.
After about 15 seconds, I then perform the first pre-exhaust exercise. This is again push ups, but using a 4120 tempo. I normally perform about 8-10 reps, but stop 1 rep away from complete failure.
For the working set, I perform dumbbell chest flyes. The reason I chose flyes over a pressing movement is because I wanted an adduction based movement, but also because of limitations with weight. I can press more weight than I have at home, but with flyes I can lift a lot less. At the point where I reach concentric failure, I press the weights to the top position and perform a few negatives.
Using a resistance band and the door anchor, I’m able to simulate a cable machine for the straight arm pull down pre-exhaust movement. The focus is to tire my lats without tiring my arms ready for the working set. Depending on the resistance of the band, this can be anything from 10-20 reps.
Using a pull up bar in my doorway, I include a resistance band to assist with the chin ups. At a standard 1010 tempo, I can maybe perform 8-12 good reps, but at the 4122 tempo, I would realistically only get 3-4 reps. The resistance band helps with the weakest part of the movement so I can get between 8-12 reps.
Again when I can no longer complete the concentric phase of the movement, I jump to the top of the bar and perform a few negative reps.
The first movement for shoulders is a lateral raise pre-exhaust using a resistance band. My hands are positioned in such a way that there is constant tension in the deltoids. As soon as I reach concentric failure, I move straight onto the working set.
For the dumbbell press, I have to really concentrate to make sure I don’t press too quickly, I’m aiming for a 2 second concentric. If I was doing this with a barbell, I would go much lower at the bottom of the movement, but with dumbbells I feel I lose tension in my deltoids, so I go just below parallel.
On the last rep, I perform a super slow negative and then hold the weight for as long as I can at the bottom of the movement. I then move straight onto the finisher.
For the finisher it’s banded lateral raises again, but this time with a lighter band. I’m just trying to make sure it’s the shoulders that are completely fatigued.
For the second back set, I start with a seated row as a the pre-exhaust movement. Using my strongest resistance band I loop the band around my feet, and use a tempo of 4122 and really try and squeeze with my back. I normally perform between 8-12 reps on this before moving on to the working set.
The working set is a bent-over dumbbell row. The main focus is to pull with my elbows and not my arms to keep my back engaged.
At this stage my triceps are already quite fatigued, so I go straight into the working set of dips. They normally shake quite a lot, but I again I’m aiming for 8-12 good reps matching the tempo as closely as I can.
At the point of failure, I take a quick 10 second rest, and then I’m able to perform 2 more reps including a slower negative on the final rep.
As soon as I’ve finished I move straight onto the tricep push downs. Depending on how I feel, I sometimes include some additional negative reps at the end of this set.
Although my biceps have been worked in some of the pulling movements, I’ve noticed it’s my forearms that seem to fail first during curls. As such I perform some band hammer curls to help pre-exhaust the biceps before the working set, maintaining constant tension throughout the movement.
For the main curls, I normally use an attachment on my bench to perform a preacher curl, but for this example I’m doing standing bicep curls. On the final rep I use momentum to cheat to get to the top of the movement, but again perform slower negative and bit of an isometric hold.
As soon as the dumbbells hit the ground, I then move onto banded reverse curls to completely exhaust the biceps.
In order to pre-exhaust the legs, I perform a squat complex, normally totalling around 50 reps.
The first 20 reps are standard bodyweight squats at a quick tempo.
The next 10 reps are 1 and a quarter squats, this is where you move approximately a quarter of the way up from the bottom of the movement, but then return to the bottom, and then complete the full movement to the top.
At this point I can feel a nice build up of lactic acid in my legs, and the next 10 reps using the 4120 tempo really add to this fire.
As soon as these reps are complete I then perform 10 jump squats.
Finally I end the complex with an isometric hold, this can be anything from 20 seconds to a minute.
For the working set, I find it’s best to use single leg movements to make up for the lack of weight combined with the slow tempo. As such the split squat works great for this; you can do it standing as I am here, or place your back leg on a bench.
Each week I alternate which leg starts first so I’m not favouring one leg. I perform about 20 reps on each side, but normally stop at form failure.
A lot of people neglect hamstrings when creating home workouts if they don’t have a leg curl attachment for their bench. Although they’ve been worked with the split squat, some direct work is beneficial.
I start by pre-exhausting them using resistance band doing a standing curl. I keep my leg quite far behind me to try and maintain tension even at the bottom of the movement.
For the main movement, I have been experimenting with single leg stiff leg deadlifts, however my balance isn’t good enough to perform this well enough, so I just perform a standard stiff leg deadlift movement, again aiming for 20 reps.
For calves you will need a slightly raised platform to get a good stretch at the bottom of the movement. I’ve found a thick book is normally enough to do the job.
As with the other legs movements, I start with a pre-exhaust that uses both legs at the same time, and then move onto a single leg movement.
With the calf raises, I use a super slow tempo of 4124. I try to really squeeze the calves at the top of the movement with a slow eccentric. I do this until I feel the calves start to cramp, which can be anywhere between 20 and 40 reps.
At this point I then move onto single leg calf raises with a weight, again maintaining the same tempo and alternating which leg starts first.
Legs #2 – Optional HIIT
To end the session I also have a quick high intensity interval training session to finish off my legs. This is optional not just because it’s an extra exercise, but also because I have access to an exercise bike with magnetic resistance that many don’t.
Essentially I set up an interval program lasting anything from 3-7 minutes depending on how I feel. Each week I try to increase the time, distance, calories or watts. I find it very hard after the leg workout, and it really provides a massive pump in your legs.
You need to track your progress to ensure that you are improving, and following the principles of progressive overload. So this could be by increasing the weight or reps, improving your form, whatever it may be to increase the overall intensity.
When it comes to tracking my workouts I record everything using Google Sheets. So in the video above, you can see my latest training block – each block consists of 2 weeks of workouts, and the reason for that is simply down to my own personal OCD. I like to see all my data on the screen without having to horizontally scroll, but you can record your workouts in bigger blocks if you prefer.
At the bottom of the document you can see the different worksheets I have, again all split into 2 week blocks.
Because there is only 1 working set for each exercise, tracking the weight and reps in the columns is really easy to do,
When it comes to recording your data, it doesn’t really matter how you do it so long as you know what it means. For example, I use colour references when referring to my use of resistance bands, I put negative reps or rest pause reps in brackets, when I change the tempo of an exercise I use a forward slash.
As long as you standardise how you do it, you can record it however you wish.
This template is available as a link below, so if you want to try this program you can just copy + paste this document, and then fill it in however you wish.