The year 2020 (and parts of 2021) came with plenty of challenges, but one of the more common ones was ‘how do I work out when gyms are shut /I can’t go outside?’ Many of us choose to join a gym or take part in a fitness program like Maxine’s Challenge for the extra incentive it provides us, as well as the structure it gives our workouts.
It also helps that most structured workout spaces are air-conditioned to help control stifling heat and sweat-inducing humidity in summer and are well-stocked with every type of fitness equipment.
But as they say, necessity is the mother of all invention (and inventiveness). And when a few million people started to think about how they could work out at home and write, post, and publish about it, some fantastic ideas emerged.
We’ve talked to our members, read everything we could find and also checked these sources against some ‘tried and true’ tactics to come up with a single comprehensive guide about how to work out best at home. It includes:
- How to set yourself up for success when working out at home
- How to set goals for at-home workouts so you don’t lose the benefits of an out of home or gym workout
- How to set up your workout space/area so that it’s able to deliver the goals that you’ve set out
- Super tactical, practical ways to overcome the temptation to avoid your home workouts
- Specific fitness gear and equipment that you can stock up on to give yourself maximum flexibility and variety with a minimum investment required
Let’s dive right into it.
Why Group Fitness and Gyms Work
Getting the same results from working out at home isn’t as simple as finding four square metres of floor space and a couple of dumbbells.
After all, if we could all work out perfectly well at home, why would gyms exist? Think about it. Gym memberships cost money and need to be renewed every year. And it’s not like many of us have unlimited funds to put towards discretionary expenses like this.
So why is it that gyms, group fitness classes and memberships grow in Australia year after year?
It’s because they work. But the deeper question is, ‘why do they work when we can work out for far less money at home?’ It turns out that there are actually multiple reasons for this, and many of them are psychological. And by understanding these reasons, we are in a much better place to adapt to working out at home with much better prospects of success.
So, high on the list of why gyms work is:
- Accountability – a gym or group fitness membership makes us accountable. This commitment is psychological because we take the positive step of walking into a physical space with the intention of working out, getting fitter and hitting our fitness goals. Compare that with home. We typically walk into our homes with the intention of relaxing after a day at work, unwinding while reading a book or watching a favourite TV show or spending quality time with family.
- Living up to Expectations – the other huge reason why group fitness classes work is that it nudges us towards living up to the expectations of others. If you get used to seeing the same people at your classes or working out with a partner or friend, then you feel like you want to live up to their expectations of you. Skipping classes and sleeping in is far less likely once this happens. Again, compare that to what happens at home: if you miss an at-home workout, will anyone even notice?
- Positive incentives – psychologists will tell you that behaviour change is hard. But it can be influenced. And there are two big factors that influence behaviour change: incentives (positive reinforcement) and penalties (negative reinforcement). Positive reinforcement for working out in group settings is easy to find: words of encouragement and affirmation from trainers, friends and peers all help us get that ‘buzz’. And that feeling is actually driven down at a chemical level in our bodies. Grinding out a home workout alone just doesn’t come with those ‘in-built’ incentives.
- Penalties – penalties also help to change behaviour. We can see that from the huge effect on drink-driving brought about by education campaigns backed up by tough financial penalties for anyone choosing to have a few beers or wines before getting behind the wheel. When it comes to not going to the gym, there’s a financial penalty as well. Every day that you don’t go to a gym is a day when the amount you are paying in membership fees is ‘wasted’. That financial pain is actually a really good motivator to get people out of the house and into the gym or group fitness class. Again, that same penalty doesn’t exist when you simply walk past your workout equipment at home.
Phew! So, it seems like working out at home is tough when compared to a group fitness class or attending a gym. But knowing why can help us plan for it, and more importantly, put in place specific, actionable strategies to overcome these barriers.
Setting Yourself Up for Success Working Out at Home
Just like stretching and a lighter warmup set will put in place the groundwork for a better workout, there are a set of steps to take to set yourself up for a better home workout routine. Steps like these do something really important: it removes the reliance on willpower alone.
Of course, we’d all like to believe we could accomplish our goals, especially our fitness ones, through sheer force of will. But it’s actually far easier to stay in a strong habit than it is to continually try and find motivation over and over.
So, think of the following steps as useful ways to ‘hack’ your routine, mindset and habits with the goal of creating a strong, sustainable working out at home habit.
Step 1: Set Up Your Space
This is probably the most practical, easy thing you can do, and it’s also a great one to get the first ‘domino’ in your habit to fall. First of all, buy a yoga mat or rubber mat of some kind. Having this and laying it out signals that a workout space has been created, not just for you, but for anyone else you share your living space with. As we saw above, that ‘public commitment’ element of gyms and group fitness is part of what makes them so effective. Signalling that you’re doing the same at home (even if it’s just to yourself) helps to mimic that same effect at home.
The next step is selecting a space. Ideally, you want somewhere where you can lay out your mat and other fitness equipment in a more permanent way. We’re definitely not saying that you need to have space for a weights rack, bench and treadmill. But having all of your stuff laid out in one place where you don’t have to pack it away after every use gives a sense of ‘permanence’ and longevity to the habit. A spare room, a courtyard space or a spot in the living room that doesn’t get used very often during the week are all options here. And of course, if you’re having guests over or something like that, it’s definitely better to put your home workout equipment away. But the goal is to have it ‘front of mind’ and harder to forget/avoid.
We totally understand that this step is not as easy if you are in a shared house situation or very space-constrained. But you can still get some of the benefits by identifying a consistent space and then, when you pack your stuff away (say, away from the common areas), leaving it in visual sight (for example, at the foot of your bed) to get the same mental effect.
Step 2: Set Up Your ‘Other’ Equipment
Gyms and group fitness classes spend a lot of time thinking about things like lighting and music to help people who attend feel great while they are working out. You can do the same at home. The first and easiest step is grabbing a small table from somewhere and putting it in your workout space. On it, put a workout diary that you use to track the dates of your workouts and the exercises you do. Do that, and you can track your progress and make sure you are dialling up the intensity/duration of your home workouts to avoid plateaus.
The other thing you’ll want to put on that table is a smart speaker that you can pair to your phone or your headphones (wireless or wired). Once you’ve done that, the next step is putting together a specific, exercise-focussed playlist. If you’ve got Spotify or Apple Music, there are already dozens of great options out there to choose from. Or if you want to put together your own, go for it. Don’t be tempted to just listen to the radio or work out in silence. The key is having an audio backdrop that you associate with getting your heart rate up and your muscles working, just like in a gym. And it’s been proven that workouts out to music can have beneficial effects on your workout, which is why many professional sporting teams incorporate the practice in the training sessions.
Setting Yourself Up for Success: Practical ‘Sticking to It’ Strategies
Obviously, laying out your equipment and setting up your space is only part of the battle. The main part is doing that first workout at home, then the next one, then getting into a healthy, consistent routine and, most importantly, sticking to it.
What’s Your Goal?
‘Work out four times a week at home’ is a good tangible goal, but it’s not a particularly inspiring one. Inspiring goals or one’s that we are motivated by are far more likely to help us with motivation and habit formation. Gyms and group fitness know all about this. That’s why they help their members out with programs like 12-week challenges, complete with statistical tracking, photos and a celebration when it’s all done and dusted.
Set yourself a motivating, inspiring goal when you begin working out at home. It might be being able to do a certain number of challenging circuits in a routine. Or it might be hitting a personal best when it comes to something measurable (like weights lifted or inches lost off your waistline).
The next step is to write that goal down on the front page of your workout journal that we talked about above. Every time you ‘log’ a workout in that journal, open to the first page and remind yourself why you’re doing your home workouts, and give yourself a pat on the back for ticking off another milestone.
What’s Your Scheduled Time?
If you’ve ever done group fitness or had a personal trainer, you know one of the best things is the fact that the time that class or session happens takes up a spot in your schedule. Your other appointments, meetings and commitments have to fall into place around that.
We reckon not having that set time in your day is one of the most challenging things about working out at home. When you are home, any number of things can intrude on that workout time. It might be putting on a load of washing, cutting a workout short to start dinner or helping out a partner or child with something.
That’s why you need to carve out a regular time on each day that you are going to work out. You also need to stick to it and hold yourself accountable for ‘turning up’ to your home workout area at that time, as a personal trainer would. And it also will help heaps if you can make that time the same each time you work out – your subconscious brain loves routine. That regularity also helps others in your household get used to the pattern of home workouts.
It’s also important to treat these scheduled times as hard commitments in your diary. When other regular life things like being on the phone or just spending an extra 30 minutes working start to encroach on your workout time, treat it the same way you would if you had any other set appointment: politely make your excuses and leave! You wouldn’t bail on a group fitness session or a personal training appointment (especially if you’d already paid for it), so that’s the mentality you need to put in place for your home workouts too.
What’s Your Plan?
The other big challenge with home workouts is the ‘what’ of them, meaning the ‘what should I be doing?’ This is where talking to a trainer to see what exercises can be adapted, swapped and replaced at home can be really helpful. For example, if you’ve done a group fitness program like Maxine’s Challenge in the past, but you want to adapt parts of it for home, then working through resources like the free training guides can help you set up your routine.
Then, you can write down your workout routine, right down to exercises, sets and reps. Doing all that means that when you walk into your home workout area, you are just ready to go. And it also means that you don’t lose time between sets or exercises thinking about what to do next. Cardio fitness relies on keeping your heart rate elevated for extended periods, so the last thing you want to be doing is pausing for extended periods during your workout to think about what to do next or have to Google something.
Being really specific with your plan also is a great help to staying on track. This can mean writing down prompts right down to which stretches you are going to do during your active warmup or which playlist you want to listen to on which day (for example, you might want something a bit more up-tempo on a cardio circuit day, but a bit lower fidelity on a flexibility/stretching day).
Setting Up Your Home Workouts: Equipment
Gyms have literally hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment on offer (seriously) to members. And if you try and replicate anything like that at home, chances are you’re going to have to really commit to your home workouts because you won’t be able to afford anything else!
But there’s no need to go down that road. You can get a lot of benefits from a compact, tailored list of equipment. And the benefit to keeping that list of equipment short is that you don’t have to spend six weeks wages on setting up your home workouts.
The things we’re about to list can be the basis for a whole range of exercises, from strength training to weighted flexibility moves to heart-pumping cardio circuits. The focus is on equipment that is flexible, and that can be adapted to multiple uses. So that means that you won’t see expensive, specialised items like a hex bar or an EZ curl bar on this list.
- Mat/Yoga Mat – we’ve already mentioned this one for its ‘set up’ purposes, but it’s also got some good practical benefits. For a start, it provides a softer surface to do lying down exercises on than a tiled or wooden floor. And if you’ve got carpet, it protects the carpet from getting worn out and stops you from getting carpet burn too. The padded surface also helps to soften and deaden any noise from your exercises.
- Resistance bands – these bands hit all the required criteria of flexible, adaptable and versatile. The higher quality ones from established companies also come with metal attachments on the end that handles can be attached to, or you can simply grasp the end of the bands for other exercises. They also come with ‘door anchors’ so you can secure them around the top, sides or bottom of a door to rapidly increase the number of exercises you can do with them.
For example, by standing on the bands and grasping the band directly, you can perform a hammer curl. Alternatively, you can attach the handles and door anchor and perform a traditional bicep curl.
These bands are made with different levels of tension so read the product description carefully before choosing one. If possible, head into a physical retailer and ask to try a couple out – remember you are looking for resistance in that ‘goldilocks’ zone – not too heavy, not too light.
- Dumbbells – the humble dumbbell is an obvious candidate for inclusion here. Adjustable dumbbells give you the most flexibility with adding resistance as you progress. Alternatively, just choose a weight that’s challenging for you, and add reps and sets to dial up the difficulty as you get stronger. In addition to the obvious upper body applications, dumbbells also add a degree of difficulty to lunges, step-ups and abdominal exercises.
- Kettlebells – much the same as dumbbells, kettlebells are an obvious candidate for inclusion. Their strength is their long acceptance by the ‘functional movement and fitness’ movement, meaning that dozens of exercises exist for these handy pieces of gym equipment. They are also stellar as part of a high-intensity interval training circuit.
The great part about all of the above? Buying one of each item (two in the case of the dumbbells would set you back somewhere in the region of $200–$300. Compared to the annual cost of a gym membership, that compares very favourably.
All that would be left would be to set up your specific training program and get started! To get high-quality information about training and also making sure your food and nutrition is supporting your training goals, be sure to look through the extensive resources we’ve published right here to get you started