How to substitute barbells, pulley systems, and treadmills with at-home exercises, according to personal trainers

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  • Large pieces of gym equipment, like cardio machines, barbell racks, and pulley systems, can be difficult for most people to replicate at home.
  • Simple hacks like increasing time under tension and getting creative with cardio can take your home workout to the next level, personal trainers say.
  • The most difficult gym feature to maintain at home is the community, so it's important to find ways to keep your motivation, too.

With many gyms shut down or severely limited for the foreseeable future, some fitness enthusiasts speculate that people might not even need the gym at all if they've acquired workout equipment and made the most of their living rooms, garages, and neighborhood parks for exercise.

But a few gym features, like expensive cardio equipment, cable machines, and weight racks, are difficult to replicate at home. If you're missing these while working out at home, personal trainers recommend increasing tension in weighted movements, getting creative with cardio, and staying social to keep your motivation up until gyms reopen.

To build muscle without heavy weights, time under tension is key

One of the biggest things that clients miss about the gym is weights, according to strength and conditioning coach Mike Boyle. Advertisement

Progressive overload, or challenging your body with increasingly heavy loads to force it to adapt and become stronger, is difficult without weights, Boyle told Insider, but not impossible.

The easiest way to increase the difficulty of an exercise is to increase the volume by adding more repetitions of a movement or more sets. It's possible to increase strength this way using just body weight movements, but that requires a moderate level of fitness to sustain the exercises with good form.

"If you're super fit and can do tons of push-ups and chin-ups, you might be ok. The average person is gonna struggle with that stuff," Boyle said.
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Another simple way to increase difficulty without equipment is to switch from standing on both legs to balancing on a single leg in exercises like squats with little to no weight. For a deadlift, you can balance on one leg and extend the other out behind you parallel to the ground.

If you're able to,consider investing in a small set of weights or better yet, a set of adjustable weights that can increase in resistance as you get stronger, Boyle said.
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To really feel the burn, add partial reps to a movement or slow it down, according to Noam Tamir, founder and CEO of TS Fitness.

A 1 3/4 squat, for instance, involves lowering down into a squat, then rising 75% of the way to standing, then back to a low squat before standing up and repeating. Another technique, a tempo exercise, involves counting to five as you slowly lower down into a squat, push-up, or similar movement, holding at the bottom and moving up slowly.

"The muscle is under tension for longer so it's under stress," Tamir said. Advertisement

You can easily replicate a cardio workout just about anywhere

An air-conditioned treadmill is convenient when it's hot outside, but most cardio is freely available if you know how to keep the intensity high.

To get a great running workout on your own, Boyle recommends aiming for about 70% to 80% of your maximum pace — not exactly a sprint, but not a jog, either. Sustain it for distances of about 100 yards, walking in between to recover before starting again, and repeat for about six cycles.

"My philosophy is a never-jog philosophy," Boyle said, explaining that jogging can be hard on the joints and isn't as efficient of an exercise as either running or walking.Advertisement

If a stationary bike is your favorite, you can get the same high intensity circuit using an actual bike on a steep hill, according to Tamir. Sprint up it, walking the bike back down, and repeat, he said.

The one piece of cardio equipment that's not easily matched at home is a rowing machine. This combines cardio while also engaging your lower body, upper body, and core.

For a combination of strength and cardio, jumping rope and running up and down a set of stairs are good substitutes, Tamir said. Advertisement

A workout buddy is the one gym feature that's irreplaceable

Both Boyle and Tamir said that what they miss most about pre-pandemic gym life is the community. The camaraderie of pushing through challenging exercise together can boost motivation and performance, and is difficult to replicate in even the best-designed Zoom class.

"It's so nice to have the energy of someone else. Even if you're doing completely different workouts. I think that's a big part of what people are missing right now, " Tamir said. To stay social outside the gym, consider getting an accountability buddy, using online workouts, or doing virtual training. Advertisement

But there's nothing that comes close to an old-fashioned in-person sweat session, according to the experts. That's good news for the fitness industry.

"I think that's the one thing that's going to save the gym environment. People are social beings," Boyle said. "I think you have to be really motivated to do that stuff on your own."

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