We all recognize strength days at the gym. It’s usually some lift followed by a number of sets and reps and we talk at the whiteboard about the goal for the workout being to move the heaviest weight you can for the day. We know these days are important not only to make us stronger, but to build stronger bones, burn fat, and allow us to push ourselves deeper down the conditioning rabbit hole during the metcons. Plus, it’s just fun and you usually leave feeling like a badass. What do those days look like at home though?

After all, most of us don’t have home gyms equipped with an assortment of adjustable weights. If we have weights at all it may only be a set of dumbbells which we can make some gains with, but we know we have to increase the stressor if we want our bodies to continue to adapt and get stronger. This is where we have to get more creative.

One tool we have are tempos. Tempos are where we assign a tempo, or pace, that the rep must be completed with. We can break all movements down to 4 phases: the eccentric phase, the transition from eccentric to concentric, the concentric phase, and then the switch back from concentric to eccentric. Using an air squat as our example: lowering into the squat, the bottom position, standing back up, and the top position. Using a tempo we can spend as much time as we want in any of these 4 phases, which will increase our time under tension.

Time under tension is another way to increase the stressor on a muscle. In the gym, if we can back squat a weight no problem, then the next set we’ll add some more weight, and that increases the stressor we’re placing on our squat muscles. At home, we don’t have that as an option but we can spend more time under tension which will also create an adaptation of more muscle tissue, or more strength. An example would be a squat with a 10-sec. lower and a 10-sec. pause in the bottom. Try a few of those and see for yourself if it’s challenging enough to illicit a strength gain. A tempo also allows us to slow our movements down so we have more time to focus on the finer details of the movement, something that often falls by the way way side when we’re focusing on more weight.

Using our knowledge of the different types of muscle contractions we can also bias a particular part of the movement that we want to spend more time in. We know that we can have an even bigger stressor by spending more time in the eccentric portion, so we can choose for that to be slower than the other phases. We also know that we can get more balance and coordination in a position by spending more time there, so maybe we also throw in some extra time in the bottom or the top. The combinations are endless, and the more time we spend there, the more strength we’re building. If I know I can do 10 consecutive push-ups with a 7-sec. lower, I’m not too worried about my bench press in terms of my general fitness.

Similar to lifting more and more weight, there is a point of diminishing returns with how long we spend on a single rep, but most of us will not get there. And while it’s not as sexy as using a barbell loaded with huge plates, there is something to be said for a perfectly executed air squat over and over. Besides, what else are you going to do in the meantime? Not get stronger?