Fitness in the Time of No Gyms

My goal for 2020 was to squat 225 pounds, which would be almost more than 100 pounds more than my bodyweight. That didn’t happen, since March 2020 was the thing of nightmares, causing my gym–my happy place–to close indefinitely.

I’ve always been athletic, participating in a variety of sports since elementary school. In college, I adopted weight lifting as my primary form of exercise. Every morning before my full class load, I hit the gym for at least an hour, setting a positive tone for the rest of the day. Subjecting myself to the mental and physical challenge of lifting heavy things (especially when I was the only woman in sight doing so) bolstered my confidence, and contributed greatly to my happiness and mental wellbeing.

While I did engage in other forms of movement during the height of my weight lifting journey–including running half-marathons, HIIT workouts, functional plyometrics, spin classes, Power Yoga, and hiking–I felt the most effective way to remain fit was to lift weights. I still think this is true, but have since had to shift my perspective regarding strength training.

Prior to the pandemic, I defined “strength training” as work that required me to lift much more than just my bodyweight. I deemed bodyweight work as mostly ineffective. Why do regular pushups or planks when you can do the same exercise with a 45 pound weight on your back? Why waste your time doing wimpy bodyweight squats when you can exhaust every possible lower-body muscle with a few reps and sets of heavy back squats?

To me, bodyweight exercises were reserved for beginners and warm-ups. I prided myself on being stronger than a majority of girls my age, and even stronger than some of the boys I saw at the gym (not many, but some). I also felt that losing access to the gym would cause me to lose the muscle I had built, and would result in a less favorable body composition and appearance. But gym closure essentially made me into a beginner again, causing me to rethink the effectiveness of alternative workouts, while also making me reassess why I work out.

Upon the fateful gym closures, I invested in “home gym” equipment. Being a broke college student sharing a one-bedroom apartment with two other students at the time, “home gym” equipment meant a kettlebell and yoga ball from Amazon and some resistance bands I found at my friend’s frat house. Essentially, I was starting from scratch in my fitness journey.

However, as I began to research how to stay fit when a pandemic has forced you to stay home, I learned the following steps and implemented them into my daily fitness routine in the hopes of challenging myself in a new landscape.

Hiking has been one of my regular workouts. This photo is from Mount Baldy, an 11 mile hike.
  1. Workout everyday: First, I shifted my methodology away from the American style of strength training to the Soviet style of strength training. This style entails working out everyday, with no break days, but at a lower intensity. With the Soviet method, you will increase the net amount of exercise you complete, doing so in a way that is more sustainable in the long run. Rather than working out five days per week with more intense workouts, I now workout seven days per week with comparatively less intense workouts. This includes long yoga classes or hikes, which are gentler on the body than an intense leg-day, but are still quite challenging.
  2. Isometrics: Additionally, I still implement strength-based workouts, though with a different approach. Because I do not have the luxury of an at-home squat rack, I am working with significantly less weight than I usually would. As such, I employ isometric strength workouts, in which muscles do not noticeably change length. Isometric exercises include planks, wall sits, and strong yoga poses such as chair or crescent that you hold for a long time. In addition to yoga, I’ve used slow movement to my advantage by going extremely slow when engaging in push or pull exercises like squats, kettlebell dead lifts, push ups, tricep dips, and more.
  3. Light workouts throughout the day: Since working from home, I have taken advantage of my position by doing small, light workouts throughout the day. I have an hourly reminder on my phone that reminds me to take a short exercise break. During these breaks, I either do a seven-minute workout (the app “Seven” is quite helpful for these), or some kettlebell swings, crunches, jumping jacks, and squats. Sometimes, I’ll opt for some foam rolling and stretching if I feel like I need extra recovery. These workouts do not require equipment (with the exception of kettlebell swings), are quick, and give you a little boost for the rest of the day. I also will go on a short, 15 to 30 minute walk every morning while in a fasted state.
  4. Kettlebells: Kettlebells are your best friend when working out from home. Not only are they small, making them perfect for those living in small apartments like myself, but they are effective for total body strength exercises, including kettlebell swings, goblet squats, Turkish get-ups, Russian twists, lunges, kettlebell RDLs, and more. This has allowed me to implement similar exercises I would execute at the gym, only with kettlebells instead of barbells, which has helped me maintain strength and feel as though I’m still working out as I would at the gym.
  5. Sports: Growing up, I participated in sports like soccer, gymnastics, basketball, and track and field. During the pandemic, I started playing soccer with my boyfriend and his family, which has served as a fun, yet challenging weekly workout. It has also given me new goals to strive towards, and the competitive nature of the game is helpful for motivation.
  6. HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training): Perhaps the most challenging workouts I implemented include HIIT workouts. In addition to the traditional 15 to 20 minutes HIIT workouts that require 30 seconds of activity, 30 seconds of rest (Natacha Oceane’s are my favorite), I’ve also started running stairs. I go all out on the way up, and allow myself to recover on my way down. Total, my stairs workout involves running a stadium like Drake Stadium at UCLA four times through and takes me about 45 minutes to one hour.

Eight months down the line, and I feel like I am starting to get the hang of this “no gym” thing. While fitness now certainly looks different in my life, I still feel extremely challenged and as in-shape as I did when the gyms were open. In fact, I feel as though I have enhanced certain aspects of my fitness, including my stamina.

I’ve also realized that working out to “look good” isn’t the right way to go about it. While exercising will certainly improve body composition and generally improve health, resulting in an evolutionarily more attractive physique, physical appearance is not the most important thing in the world. What’s more important is how exercising makes you feel. Exercising makes me happy because I know I’m making good use of my time, because I get to practice new skills and feel a sense of accomplishment, because it is good for my mental health, and because it is fun!

Some of my favorite workouts during the pandemic have been PowerYoga classes instructed by Bryan Kest. Kest encourages his pupils to escape the rat race and endless comparison, because the ego ultimately does not advance health, but will destroy it. Rather, Kest teaches that letting go of the unnecessary stress your ego creates is the best possible thing you can do for your health.

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While I still miss the gym, I am extremely grateful for the challenge gym-closures have posed for me, and the knowledge and wisdom I have come to acquire when adapting to that challenge.

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