Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

Training in the Time of COVID-19

by Carl Raghavan, SSC | May 19, 2020


In these trying times I, like all of you, am stuck with the million-dollar question: How do I train now? Are we gonna sit and watch more Netflix, drink more, and be even more sedentary? Yes. But we can’t be couch potatoes 24/7 – we have to find something productive to do. 

The short answer for those of you like myself who don’t have the luxury of a home barbell and squat rack, is that we have to exercise. What do I mean by exercise? Doesn’t that mean training? It’s the same thing, right? Oh no – hell no! These two couldn’t be more different. Training makes you bigger, faster and stronger, and it does so using a specific program in preparation for a specific event, like a lifting meet or competition. Exercise is random and has no goal other than to make you “feel” a certain way on the day you do it. Exercise is the sweaty chaotic mess that most people do in the weight room most of the time, as they’re wondering why they never see any results. Exercise is a path that goes one of three ways: 1.) you carry on blindly and remain unchanged till we pour dirt on you, 2.) you abandon it and take up another sport, or 3.) you quit physical activity completely. 

Or you look into what training actually is, then drop me an email asking for your first Starting Strength session. 

The best way to approach exercise is with the training mindset. Look to create progression, whether that’s more reps, more sets, less rest, more weight, whatever. The important thing is to improve on what you did in your last workout. Using this method, we can make progress even with the limited tools we might have. Now, if you have a well-equipped home gym, use it. Don’t even bother reading the rest of the article. If you have access to a squat rack and a barbell, you’re good, because the barbell is King in the weight room. It is better than any other tool ever made at creating strength in the human body. 

The meat and veggies of this process has to be the barbell – as a foundational tool it has no equal. More specifically, we know that sets of 5 are the base rep scheme, as this is the highest number of productive reps we can do to create general stress for strength, some hypertrophy and even a little conditioning. (Yes, even conditioning. If you don’t believe me, then you’ve never done a heavy 5x5 set of squats.) Doing 5s with a barbell 3 days per week, we can load this tool incrementally every session, making today's 3 sets of 5 as challenging as the last. Prime numbers are what we like to use for strength training: 1, 2, 3 and 5. It’s very difficult to load a push up using only these rep schemes, but with the bench press we can repeat this process forever. 

Programming, done correctly, utilizes the stress/recovery/adaptation cycle. The analogy we use for programming is like getting a tan. In order to get darker skin, you have to be out in the sun for longer and longer periods of time. The same response happens with squats. In order to get a stronger squat, which is the most general, simple leg-movement pattern with a barbell, you have to squat increasingly heavier weights. No matter how many reps you do with the same kettlebell, it won’t make your deadlift magically soar from double bodyweight to triple. As they say, “reps don’t build singles – singles build reps.” Yet, conversely, a triple-bodyweight deadlift will allow you to handle swings better than someone who only has a double-bodyweight deadlift. Strength is the master key; it unlocks performance in all sorts of other smaller areas, which you can then pursue as a by-product of being strong.

Is there any piece of equipment that is better at producing strength than the barbell? Gymnastics rings? No. Kettlebells? No. Dumbbells? No. Nautilus machines? No. Safety squat bars or trap bars? No. None have the balance tipped more in favor of strength than your classic barbell, and barbells can be trained by the highest percentage of the population. Dumbbells, gymnastics rings, kettlebells, resistance bands, and calisthenics produce relatively little strength-training stress in comparison. Doing a handstand push up, for example, trains all the same muscles as the press, but is far more a display of skill than pure strength, since the load is limited to the person’s bodyweight and balance ability, both minimum and maximum, whereas the barbell press has no upper or lower limit. 

The same goes for pressing a kettlebell or a dumbbell: we are handling lower weights with an unstable single-arm movement compared to a barbell. We know that lifting light things doesn’t make you as strong as lifting heavy things. The logic is undeniable – even just reading the sentence, you know it makes sense. Serge Redding cleaning and pressing 500lbs and Eddie Hall deadlifting 500kg are true feats of pure strength. You can’t get this strong with any other equipment. 

But let’s assume you don’t have access to a barbell right now. Do you give up? No. This is the situation I am in – it’s the situation many of you are in. It’s not ideal. Still, using alternative equipment at home does give us a way to exercise even in “these trying times”. We just have to adjust our expectations. The progress we make using these tools will have incremental strength benefits, but mostly it will make us more skillful over time. So if you can’t get a bar and a rack, these are my top five low-cost exercise home equipment options: 

  • Kettlebells
  • Gymnastics rings
  • Resistance bands (pull-up size)
  • Parallettes
  • Pull-up dip station 

Equipment is hard to come by right now, but you can improvise. Kettlebells can double up as parallettes (assuming they’re the same height). You could use two chairs for dips. You may need to get creative, but don’t kill yourself. Programming will vary depending on what equipment you have. 

Technically speaking, we can’t refer to this sort of home exercise and the idea of its progression as “programming” at all. Using this equipment is more like practice. By practice, I mean time spent honing your skills. Training refers to the accumulation of physiological adaptations – as when a lifter goes from a bodyweight to a double-bodyweight bench. Training starts out simple and basic, moving over time towards the specific, individual, and complex. 

So when you can't train, any effective approach to exercise/practice using this emergency equipment must keep some form of progression in mind. Weight should increase over time – failing that (if you haven't got the equipment), reps and sets must increase, or rest must decrease, in order to make some form of progression happen. This approach can't be sustained for long, since 2000 parallette push-ups is not what we should be trying to do. But some effort in a progressive direction must be on your mind as you busy yourself with the task of not falling apart. 

Exercise isn’t all negative: it can help slow the process of detraining, so that you won’t have lost as much strength when you get back to regular training, but you can also use it as an opportunity to work on areas that you may have neglected pre-COVID. This is what I’m doing. Given that I don’t have access to my usual gym, my overall approach during quarantine has been to improve my conditioning, and it’s happened pretty fast. I have access to rings and kettlebells, so I’m doing the small repertoire of movements that, from past experience, give the most bang for your buck. Ring chin-ups, dips, rows, push-ups and kettlebell swings and snatches are my current go-tos. I know my real barbell strength goals cannot be attained with this equipment – I’m training for a 140kg overhead press and a 270kg squat and deadlift, which is not going to magically occur from swinging a few kettlebells and jumping around on some gymnastics rings – so I’ve had to refocus my energies and curb my expectations. It’s frustrating, but we’re all in the same boat. 

Strength training is a journey, not a destination. This might set you back now, but it’s only a hiccup. It’s not about how you start but how you finish the long and arduous voyage of barbell strength mastery. 

Food-wise I’m consuming fewer calories, but that makes sense with my exercise routine, because the stress produced by rings and kettlebells doesn’t necessitate the same surplus of calories. I’m consuming 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight as a bare minimum. You may want to do something similar: curb your calories but focus on protein intake. We don’t want to get weak and fat – that sucks double. This is especially important if your bodyweight is on the higher side and you’ve been strength-training for a long time. We want to preserve as much lean muscle mass as possible. It’s a good idea to track your macros so you can make sure you’re getting enough protein. Taking quick snapshots of everything you eat is another great way to get a ballpark sense of your diet. Personally, I can already feel a difference in my body: my jeans are almost falling off my waist, my shirts are looking slimmer around my belly, and my arms are looking more jacked, although I’m still kicking around 109kg of bodyweight. 

Maybe we should treat this as a wake-up call. Maybe we should make our training more resilient to future pandemics, so that if this happens again we don’t skip a beat. There are certainly lessons to draw. Cooking more, having a home gym, trying to arrange a work schedule that can be executed from home – all these things are a good idea, and not just during quarantine. Perhaps, in some ways, we should try to see this situation not as a curse but as a blessing. It’s taught me how to make my life more useful from home and how to value the simple things. One day we’ll all be laughing about this – we might even commemorate it with a COVID-19 training day, where we all clap outside our windows at 8pm on a Thursday and do a session the way we used to train in the good ol' days of ‘rona. 

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