We’re now well into autumn, and just a few weeks away from winter.  With gyms still closed in many areas, and the weather making outdoor workouts increasingly difficult, plenty of us are going to be bringing our workouts back indoors after a few months of open air exercise. Thankfully, we’ve got you covered with some tips to make home workouts more effective.  

Prioritize weights over cardio.

Weight training is important even if you don’t care about getting big or building too much muscle. It keeps you strong and mobile as you age, and studies show that weight training is more effective than cardio for losing fat and preventing weight gain.

More importantly, in the long run, consistent weight training is associated with a longer lifespan and higher quality of life.  

Get the right equipment.

Your home is never going to have anywhere near the variety of equipment that’s available in a gym, and that’s okay.  You just need a few key pieces of equipment to allow you to work every part of your body with sufficient intensity.  Here’s what to get:

  • A pair of adjustable-weight dumbbells. These are far more flexible than fixed-weight dumbbells and allow you to cater the weights to a workout.  For lower-body exercises, like goblet squats and single-arm deadlifts, for example, you’ll want something significantly heavier  (anywhere from 30 pounds for a beginner to 60+ for a more advanced trainee) than what you’d use for a bicep curl.
  • A jump rope. This is the simplest in-home cardio option, and is also easy t travel with.  
  • A yoga mat. Even if you’re not necessarily doing yoga on the regular, having a mat at the ready is important if you plan on doing any kind of floor work, like ab workouts. 
  • A set of compact resistance bands. These tube-shaped resistance bands have handles to make them easy to use, and they’re a super easy way to build up your strength with small resistance movements. These are great for any home gym because they’re easy to tuck away, too.  
  • A pair of foam blocks. These come into handy a lot when it comes to yoga or Pilates moves that help with deeper stretching and stability movements.

Optimize your exercise selection.

The most effective and efficient exercises are those that involve multiple muscle groups, i.e., compound movements. (Exercises that work only a single muscle group, on the other hand, are called isolation movements.)

In addition to focusing on compound exercises, you also want to perform exercises with a full range of motion — moving your limbs and joints as far as they can go in either direction without becoming hyperextended.  

Here are some examples of good compound movements that are performed with a full range of motion:

  • Squats, going lower than the level at which your thighs become parallel to the floor
  • Dumbbell deadlifts, allowing the dumbbell to touch the floor on each rep
  • Dumbbell or resistance band shoulder presses, going from shoulder height to full arm extension 
  • Bicycle crunches
  • Bent-over dumbbell rows

Work your whole body every time. 

Traditional weight training dogma favors body part splits — arm day, leg day, ab day, and so on. This tends to result in uneven muscular development, since it’s hard to split the body into several equal-sized parts.

Most studies, though, show that whole-body workouts result in greater muscular development for a given training volume. And this actually understates the case, because training your full body regularly allows you to get more exercise done in less time. Full-body training makes it easier to use short rest periods as well, keeping your heart rate up so that weight training can effectively double as cardio. 

Speaking of which…

Do some circuit-style training.

Traditional strength training sessions are usually organized something like this: five sets of shoulder presses, then five sets of squats, then five sets of crunches, and so on.

In other words, you do one exercise over and over again, then another over and over again, usually resting several minutes between sets.  

Circuit training mixes different exercises together, so you would do a set of shoulder presses, then a set of squats, then a set of crunches, then back to shoulder presses.  This allows you to take shorter rests and get through your workout faster.  Despite that, it actually gives individual muscles more rest between sets of a given exercise, so you can train harder.

Circuit training also keeps your heart rate up and burns more calories, which means it can effectively substitute as cardio. (Of course, if you finish up your circuits and find yourself wanting to throw in a short run or round of jump-roping to top it all off, far be it from us to stop you.) 

Work out later in the day (or get some caffeine).

There is a widespread misconception that the best time of the day to work out is first thing in the morning.  This is based partially on the (totally false, to be blunt) assumption that if it’s unpleasant it must be good for you, and partially on the (okay, totally valid) rationale that getting your workout out of the way early ensures that it at least gets done.

Of course, you have to work with your schedule, but from a purely physiological standpoint, it’s better to train later in the day.  You can build more muscle by training in the afternoon or early evening, and athletic performance is also higher later in the day, at least partially because your metabolism and core body temperature are higher.

If you do train earlier in the day, you can use caffeine or [pre-workout supplements] to raise your energy level and core body temperature so you get a more effective workout.  Just don’t overdo the caffeine, or you won’t sleep well that night.  

Stretch at the end of the workout.

Contrary to popular belief, stretching before a workout, or during your warm-up, actually reduces strength and force output during the workout.  Consequently, it also reduces muscle growth and calories burned.

Stretching after a workout, though, may help you to relax and loosen up your muscles. It doesn’t need to be hard, though. You should stretch to the point of mild discomfort, not pain, and hold the stretch for only 10–30 seconds.

Eat protein before and after your workouts.

No surprise here — protein is the building block of muscle tissue (and most of the body), and fueling your body with protein will help you build and preserve muscle mass. By extension, you’ll burn more fat as your muscle mass starts to increase. 
As a general guideline, consume at least 20 grams of protein within two hours of your workout on either side, i.e., the two hours before your workout and again the two hours after.