Solo Gym Tips

Vol. 1

You can still get a great workout without a trainer or training partner. Assuming you already know your way around a gym and have a plan for your workout, there are some great ways to boost your solo workout similar to how a (good) trainer or training partner would.

Alternating Rest Pause

Rest-pause is a technique where you take a set to failure, rest for 10-20 seconds, then with the same weight, try to complete 3-5 more reps. It’s a great way to really work a muscle group past failure. Without someone to assist you with this, big compound exercises like squats, bench presses and overhead presses can become dangerous to take past failure this way. A way to utilize rest-pauses alone is with unilateral exercises, which is using one limb at a time. Since one leg or arm is resting while the other is working, you will be able to complete more reps, albeit with less weight. Many chest and overhead press machines as well as row machines are unilateral, which will allow you to do even some compound exercises with one arm at a time.

Bonus: Unilateral work is also great for correcting and preventing muscle imbalances.


Like rest-pause, dropsets are a great way to add intensity to your workouts and push your muscles past failure. In a dropset, you would reach failure on a given exercise, drop the weight by 10-30 percent (depending on the individual and the exercise) then continue again until failure. I have even done triple dropsets, where this process is repeated a second time. Very intense. Any exercise with a barbell, where weight is added with plates is not ideal for solo training because the time it takes to remove (and add in some cases) reduces the effectiveness of dropsets. For dropsets solo, any machine where the weight is selected via a stack and pin is ideal. For example, if you are using a chest press machine with a weight stack and reach failure at 100 pounds, within a few seconds you can drop the weight to 70 pounds and complete more reps.

  1. Ahtiainen, J. P., Pakarinen, A., Kraemer, W. J., & Häkkinen, K. (2003). Acute hormonal and neuromuscular responses and recovery to forced vs maximum repetitions multiple resistance exercises. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 24(6), 410-418.
  2. G E Fincher, I. I. (2003). The effect of high intensity resistance training on body composition among collegiate football players. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 35(5), S324.
  3. Yarrow, J. F., Borsa, P. A., Borst, S. E., Sitren, H. S., Stevens, B. R., & White, L. J. (2007). Neuroendocrine responses to an acute bout of eccentric-enhanced resistance exercise. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 39(6), 941-947.

Time Under Tension

I’ve mentioned rest breaks before as a great way to increase the intensity of workouts and a way to manipulate them depending on your goals. Another method is the tempo at which you do exercises. The slower you move through each phase of an exercise, the more strain is placed on the muscle(s). This is called time under tension, or TUT.

There are 4 phases to most exercises:

Eccentric: When the weight is lowered, the descent portion of a squat or when you’re lowering the bar to your chest during presses, for example.

Stretched: This is when the muscle is fully stretched. Using the same examples as above, in a squat it is at the very bottom of the movement and on during presses it’s when the bar is making contact with your chest.

Concentric: The opposite of the eccentric portion. This is when the muscle is shortening during an exercise.

Contracted: When the muscle is totally contracted, the top of a squat, or when your arms are locked out during presses.

Unfortunately, most routines and trainers/coaches ignore or otherwise do not utilize TUT, the eccentric phase being very important for developing strength. Though mostly anecdotal evidence (as most cutting edge exercise science is) it is generally accepted that there are TUT ranges for specific goals, just as there are rest periods. To maximize strength, between 5 and 20 seconds; for size the optimal range is 40-60 seconds; endurance training is best between 70 and 100 seconds. Keep in mind these times are for a set. For example, a set of 10 curls done at 4 seconds per rep would be 40 seconds, within the optimal range for size/mass gains.

So next time you’re in the gym, along with keeping track of how long your rest between sets, also be aware of how long each rep is taking to do. Tempo/TUT is a very important and useful factor in any training program.




Squat Sunday

The Squat. One of the ‘big 3’ exercises (along with bench press and deadlift) and a great mass builder and overall physique enhancer. There are many variations of the squat (back squat, front squat, wide stance, narrow stance, etc.) but they all need to be done with proper form to avoid injury and get the most out of the movement.

Squatting is a natural human movement for thousands of years. The squatted position is how humans used to sit around a campfire and eat and how infants pick things up. Many cultures around the world still squat in their daily lives and those people have little to no instance of back disorders, which is an increasingly common problem in the U.S. Everyone can squat, provided there are no injuries or impairments. As infants humans squat constantly, but beginning at school age humans begin to spend increasing amounts of time sitting down. The seated position is, quite frankly, terrible for the spine. And after years of hours a day spent seated, lower back and knee problems can easily develop.

Myths and misconceptions

‘It’s bad for the knees to push over the toes.’

Not the case. In a natural (deep)squat position, the knee will naturally push past the toes. One easy way to see this is to go up or down stairs. Try to use stairs without your knees going past your toes. In a deep squat, the proper way to squat, the knees will naturally go past the toes. This is ok, that’s how the knee joint is designed to flex and extend.

‘Half squats are ok.’

Nope. A proper squat is lowering to the point that the hamstrings are covering the calves, while remaining as upright as possible. Mostly what you see in an average gym is half squats. This is for a few reasons. One is that people believe the above myth, the the knees are harmed in a deep squat. Another, and the more common reason, is ego. With many exercises, proper form is sacrificed for more weight. Always put range of motion before weight used.


Philip Schmieder via strengthsensei

To stretch or not to stretch?

There is a lot of conflicting information regarding the efficacy of stretching. When you should, if you should, what type is best. To be clear, stretching is beneficial. The tricky part is the type and time.

Pre workout/warm up

Before a workout, used as a warm up, dynamic stretching is most effective. Dynamic stretching is when the stretches are short and ballistic. Another great way of stretching pre-workout is PNF, or proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation. With PNF you would statically stretch the target muscle, then contract it isometrically, then stretch it statically again. This method is very effective for stretching through a greater range of motion and it helps to prepare the nervous system for training. Utilizing the wrong method of stretching is the reason for criticism of pre-workout stretching.

Post workout/cool down

After working out, stretching is still beneficial. Again, the key is the type used. Following a workout, static stretching seems to be the most useful for helping recovery, boosting strength gains, and enhancing flexibility. Static stretching is pretty straightforward, the target muscle is held in a stretch for a given time, then released. Static stretching post workout has been shown to lead to strength increases for most muscle groups.

Get your stretching in. Just be sure to use the right type depending on when you’re stretching.

Bonus: The stretching done in most yoga helps to decrease stress and improve immune function. Following yoga sessions, participants in a study had higher levels of testosterone and immunoglobulin and lower levels of cortisol, the stress hormone.

Workout Anywhere

No excuses!

Can’t afford a gym? Don’t have time to follow an elaborate training routine? No problem. You can still get a great workout in. With minimal equipment and some creativity you can get a great workout and do it outside in the sunshine. There are a ton of parks all around that will provide most of what you need.

Hill Sprints

All you need is a steep(-ish) hill and a good pair of shoes. Hill sprints are a basic form of H.I.I.T. Sprint up the hill, go back down at a slow pace. Repeat. For added difficulty try doing lunges up the hill.

Alternating split squat jumps

For these all you need is some open space. Get in a split squat position. Jump and land in the alternate position. Repeat until you feel the burn. Another variation of this is walking lunges with arms stretched up overhead.

Incline/Decline Pushups

A park bench is all that’s required for these. Either put your feet on the bench or start with your feet on the ground and your hands on the bench. Or alternate between sets of both; the different angles will hit different areas of the pecs.


Another park bench exercise. Alternating step-ups on a park bench will hit your quads, hamstrings, and glutes. Work those buns!

Pull/Chin Ups

Monkey bars will suffice for this classic move. For added difficulty try these with the rings that most playgrounds have.

Get out there and exercise! No excuses; if you want it make it happen.

You are what you eat

I get asked a lot about what to eat before working out. A pre-workout meal doesn’t have to be the same thing every time or exactly what I eat. It does, however have to meet some requirements to be beneficial for your overall health and your workout.

Some goals for a pre-workout meal (courtesy of Coach Poliquin):


As I’ve covered in a previous post ( is vital to performance. It takes more than just water to stay hydrated; proper amounts of sodium are needed for the body to stay hydrated and for muscles to be ready for growth.


Real, whole foods are best so I always tell people to leave about 90 minutes between their meal and working out, or 45 minutes at the minimum. Some workouts will be a little taxing on the body, like leg day, so I usually space the meal and workout further apart for those.


You’re not going to have a good workout if you’re not focused on the task at hand. What you eat can help you get there. The brain uses acetylcholine and dopamine for drive and focus. The meat and nuts meal, which is also covered in a previous post (, provide both of these vital neurotransmitters. Carbs have been shown to decrease IQ by up to 20%, which is never a good thing, but especially not before working out.

Insulin and pH.

During a training session higher Cortisol is beneficial for growing muscles, so insulin must be kept low. To keep insulin low avoid carbs pre-workout, they aren’t needed pre-workout as the body utilizes stored glycogen. A slightly elevated pH helps during training due to anabolism being triggered by inflammatory processes.

Supplement Focus: Amino Acids

The term can be a bit ambiguous to many. For the sake of time and post-space, amino acids are what makes up proteins; when your body breaks down protein it becomes amino acids. There are many different types with many different purposes. For the most part, amino acid supplements will be branched-chain amino acids (BCAA) and less often essential amino acids (EAA).

BCAAs are made of 3 amino acids: valine, leucine, and isoleucine. With many reported benefits, they are used and recommended often. Some alleged benefits are: increased muscle protein synthesis (MPS), decreased muscle breakdown (catabolism), enhanced recovery, and improved immune function. While there are many conflicting studies, mostly due to poor study design, the consensus is that while beneficial in some aspects, they are not as great as manufacturers and retailers would have you believe.

MPS is not significantly affected by bcaas, nor is catabolism. The reasoning for this, in simple terms, is that absorption of amino acids into muscle is a natural process (with up to 70% of catabolized muscle being reabsorbed naturally) and can only be enhanced to a certain degree.

While pure athletic performance has yet to be observed in a quality clinical trial, recovery from exercise has been observed along with better immune function. Bcaas boost recovery by increasing peripheral blood mononuclear cell proliferation, which basically means that cell damage caused by intense exercise is mitigated with bcaas. Bcaas also change the way cytokines (signaling proteins) are produced post-exercise which reduces the stress placed on the immune system.

One caveat to the above: most studies on bcaas look at the combination of amino acids listed. There are a few studies showing that leucine alone, in higher doses than found in most bcaas, can be beneficial to performance and recovery. Another amino acid that is overlooked is tyrosine. While not as important for athletic performance, tyrosine is essential for production of L-DOPA, dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. Because of this tyrosine can help with depression, acute stress, and narcolepsy; general mood improvement can be expected with tyrosine.