How to maintain your strength and muscle when you can't go to the gym

  • While it may be harder to do resistance training than cardio or mobility work without a gym, it's entirely possible.
  • If you want to maintain your strength and muscle while self-isolating due to the coronavirus, you need to incorporate key movements and ensure you're eating enough protein.
  • Elite performance coach Luke Worthington explained to Insider how you can create an effective strength workout by performing the five key movements: push, pull, squat, hinge, and lunge.
  • He also said you don't need to worry about suddenly losing all your gains, because that won't happen.
  • Ultimately though, you should see this period as an opportunity to work towards some new goals, not as a setback, advised personal trainer Emily Ricketts.
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

Whether your gym's closed or not, official guidance around the world is that we should all stay at home as much as possible, avoiding any unnecessary social interaction or travel during the coronavirus pandemic.

This has posed something of a challenge for gym fans — and specifically, those with a penchant for weightlifting.

While runners can still run, cyclists can still cycle, and yogis can still flow from their living rooms, when your preferred method of training is picking up and putting down really heavy things, working out while self-isolating is a little more difficult. 

However, you don't need to fear losing all those hard-earned gains, as elite performance coach and human movement specialist Luke Worthington explained to Insider.

You won't suddenly lose all your muscle

If you've been working hard to build muscle and strength, you may be stressing out about not being able to go to the gym, but don't panic.

"Strength and aerobic conditioning are actually pretty resilient and they stay pretty consistent up till a four-week lay-off, after which we start to see a decline — so don't panic!" Worthington said.

"You can absolutely delay and then mitigate that decline by keeping going with your resistance work as much as possible."

Worthington recommends sprints if maintaining speed is a priority.
Luke Worthington

If maintaining speed and power are your main priorities, you might have to put in a bit more effort though.

"Speed and power decline a little more quickly, so do try to incorporate sprinting into one of your cardio sessions to keep on top of that," advised Worthington.

The best ways to maintain strength at home

That said, if you go from working out four times a week to spending three months sitting on the sofa, you can't expect your body to look and perform the same at the end.

"There is truth in the expression 'use it or lose it' when it comes to your physical capabilities, so it's important to keep moving for your physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing," said Worthington.

Although doing resistance-training from home is harder than cardio and mobility work, Worthington said it's the most important — and it is doable.

There are ways to mimic a TRX at home.
Luke Worthington

"All we have to do is be sure to cover the fundamental human movements of push, pull, squat, hinge, and lunge," he said. And here's how:


Yes, we're talking classic push-ups. 

"This is a surprisingly advanced movement to do well — you can regress it by placing your hands on a chair or stool to effectively bring the floor closer to you," said Worthington.

"Or if you're advanced, you can progress it by putting your feet on the chair to take the floor further away. Perform three sets of eight to 10 reps."


Despite being the hardest movement to perform at home, it is possible if you get creative — and be sure to do so safely.

"The simplest way I have found with clients is to improvise a TRX by looping a bath towel around the top corner of a door and using this as an anchor point to perform a row," Worthington said. "Perform four sets of eight to 10 reps."


We might not be hitting PBs any time soon, but squats aren't hard to do at home.

"They're an easy one to replicate as we do this every time we stand up from a chair," Worthington explained. "For a beginner we can simply do this, sit and stand from a dining chair without using your hands.

"If you're more advanced, take the chair away and hold any form of load in front of you. Perform three sets of six to eight reps."


"This is the term we fitness folk use to describe any form of deadlift," Worthington said. "But what we mean is bending down to lift a heavy object from the floor.

"Whilst barbells and dumbbells are designed for this, you can really use any object. Perform four sets of eight to 10 reps."


Lunge movements are anything on one leg, according to Worthington.

"A split squat (sometimes called a static lunge) is a good place to start," he advised. "Before progressing on to reverse lunges, then forward, and eventually lateral (sideways). Perform three sets of eight to 10 on each leg."

Consistency is king

Yes, your usual training will not be able to continue as normal. But adapting is perfectly possible, and the most important thing is to keep doing something — and to do so consistently.

"In my experience, there are two key fundamentals to success and results in a training plan, neither of which are exclusive to happening inside the gym walls. These are consistency and progression," personal trainer Emily Ricketts told Insider.

Emily Ricketts recommends adapting your goals.
Emily Ricketts

"Consistently showing up — week in, week out. Just because you can't head to the gym, doesn't mean you need to cancel that 30, 40, 60 minutes a day that you usually commit to a workout. It just means you're showing up in a different way!"

Ricketts recommended scheduling time into your diary to work out like you might do with your normal gym sessions: "Carve out a dedicated chunk of time, no matter how small, in the day which is dedicated to some kind of movement in whatever way you can."

When it comes to progression, you likely won't be able to increase the weights you're lifting as easily as you would add 2.5kg on to a barbell in the gym.

"Most of us gym-goers hear the words 'progressive overload' thrown around as one of the key principles to making gains," Ricketts explained.

"This is true, but it's also not as well known that there are lots of ways to progressively overload that don't purely rely on you to increase the load."

She suggests progressively challenging your body with the following methods:

  • Increasing the volume (doing more sets or reps)
  • Increasing the time under tension (making the muscles work for longer)
  • Increasing the intensity (reducing rest times) 
  • Lifting the same weight for the same amount of sets and reps, but with better form.

Invest in some basic equipment

While you can get an efficient strength workout in using just your bodyweight, investing in some very basic equipment can help by giving you more exercise possibilities— and you don't need to spend lots of money either.

Ricketts recommends one or two pairs of dumbbells (one lighter, one heavier), resistance bands (both long and short), and a mat. A step, box, or lightweight bench can be useful too, but a chair can work just as well, she said.

For those willing to spend a little more money, Worthington recommended: "If you can invest in a TRX, a couple of kettlebells, and a one-inch resistance band then you can absolutely do a very effective home workout."

But ultimately, you can get a good workout in with whatever you have.

View this post on Instagram

No gym, no kit, NO PROBLEM ??? Over the next few weeks I’m determined to bring you some of the best inspo & ideas of how to get a good workout in, without leaving the house!! This one is a ZERO kit, full-body circuit — LIKE, SAVE & LET’S GOOO ?????? ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ 50 secs work, then 10 secs rest. Complete each exercise back to back, and rest for 1-2 minutes between rounds. Complete 3-5 ROUNDS: ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ▫️Reverse Lunge + Lift [25sec each side] ▫️Incline Press-ups ▫️Pause Squats ▫️Tricep Dips ▫️Feet Up Crunches ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ If you’re training at home like me, then my EMPOWER Core Guide is totally home & minimal kit friendly! 8 Weeks. 16 Workouts. 35 Different Exercises. 100’s of Women. 1 mission: to make you feel EMPOWERED, to the core. Link in bio to join me & hundreds of other incredible Women #EMPOWER ?? Wearing @underarmouruk [on-going paid partnership] ⚡️

A post shared by Emily Ricketts (@emrickettz) on

"I think the keyword to stress is adaptability," Ricketts said.

"Although it doesn't feel like it, there is an adaptable exercise or movement for almost everything. It's about doing what you can, with what you've got.

"Not adding more stress and worry to what that perfect kit list is, but simply showing up, being resourceful, being adaptive, and being open to the idea that things are going to feel a little different."

Be mindful of your diet

To maintain your muscle mass, you need to make sure you're maintaining a sufficiently high protein intake — Worthington recommends aiming for 2g of protein per kg of body weight. So if you weigh 70kg, you should be trying to consume 140g of protein every day.

And if you want to maintain your current body composition — ie. body fat level — you might want to have a look at how much food you're consuming overall if you're being less active than usual.

"Be mindful of diet," Worthington advised. "If activity levels drop then we should be mindful of this. Especially if we're living from stockpiled food.

"A protein intake of 2g per kg of body weight is sufficient to maintain your muscle mass, but be reasonably mindful of the other macronutrients [carbs and fat] if you are staying indoors for 14 days."

Create new goals for yourself

Although you may want to curl up in a ball and cry about how much you miss the squat rack, that's not going to get you anywhere. 

"My biggest piece of advice right now would be to stop focusing on all that you can't do, and really focus that energy on what you can," Ricketts said.

"It's natural to feel a little daunted and anxious (we all do) but I know for me personally, maintaining some level of movement and exercise is non-negotiable for my mental health. So, it's all about focusing that energy into new goals, new ways of moving, and challenging yourself which don't require you to put yourself or others at risk in the process."

So instead of aiming for deadlift PBs and doing more pull-ups, how about aiming to do a headstand, or an unassisted push-up, or the splits?

View this post on Instagram

I’m working on my hip mobility, cardio and improving my neck strength for jiu jitsu. – All body weight. – No weights. – Lots of dynamic and static stretching. – Bridging drills for my neck. – And a mix of low & high intensity cardio. – Otherwise, I’m still having a big ass salad daily. – Staying hydrated af. – Prioritizing sleep. – Protein at every meal. – Lots of fruit. – And focusing on what I can control rather than complain about what I can’t. – This is a crazy time for all of us. – And I have no clue what in the literal fuck is going on. – But I do know I’m not gonna spend this time worrying about losing all my progress. – Because I won’t. (You won’t either). – And there are so many things you can improve on while you can’t go the gym. (All the things you usually say you don’t have time for). – So. – Sending love and prayers out to everyone. Wishing you happiness and health. – And also. – Make the most of this time. – You’re only limited by your imagination and willingness to work. – #corona #run #cardio #walk #coronavirus #handstand #sprint #yoga #mobility #flexibility #stretch #jump #jumprope #split #splits #pushup #pushups #situp

A post shared by Jordan Syatt – SyattFitness (@syattfitness) on

"In a few months' time, the PBs you wanted to smash will still be there, the gym will still be there — you're not giving up on those goals, you're just respecting that right now you've been thrown a different challenge and you'll come back to that when the time's right," advised Ricketts.

"See this as a new challenge, not a setback. There are hundreds of ways to move that require just the weight of your own body, never underestimate how challenging in themselves those exercises can be!"

Give yourself structure

Ultimately, you can only do what you can — but you need to put the effort in.

"Absolutely try as much as you can to keep incorporating physical activity into your day," said Worthington. "Maintaining normality and routine where possible is important for mental health."

If you need some guidance, consider buying an online plan from one of the PTs whose classes you usually attend, or another you enjoy following — many of whom are sharing free bodyweight strength workouts on Instagram, like Laura Hoggins.

View this post on Instagram

Yes team, as promised here is the first in my workout series created @foundryfit for if you don’t have access to a gym, and want to stay active! Fitness for me is as much for my mental health as it is for my physical health, so don’t worry about losing the gains, there’s a lot you can still do!⁣ ⁣ I’ve created 7 workouts, all bodyweight, some more strength focused, some more cardio based. Simple formats and movements. Take your time, focus on quality of movement and adapt as you need.⁣ ⁣ Bodyweight Strength ⁣ ⁣ 5 rounds of the following:⁣ 40 seconds work, 20s seconds rest⁣. 60-90s rest in between each round! 1. Air Squat 3s lower, 2s pause at parallel 2. Curtesy Lunges⁣ 3. Glute Bridge Marches⁣ 4. Plank Reaches⁣ 5. Superman to Hollow Hold⁣ ⁣ Enjoy! Drop me a comment if you’ve got any questions!⁣ ⁣ Big love, Biceps xx⁣

A post shared by LAURA ‘BICEPS’ HOGGINS (@laurabiceps) on

"Be a little aware of your favorite fitness instructor or PT," Worthington said. "They are almost certainly self-employed or freelance, so will be faced with some very uncertain times.

"I have seen some face criticism for selling online training sessions — however, this is a little like criticizing your local shop for selling toilet roll. It's something everyone needs, but your local shopkeeper still needs to pay their rent and eat, the same goes for the community of fitness professionals."

Worthington himself has a 12-week six-phase core training guide, and Ricketts is launching a new full-body home-workout guide called "EMPOWERED: At Home" at the end of March.

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