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How to strength train without dumbbells

It's possible to build muscle and get stronger even if you don't have a set of weights.

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Simple moves like planks and push-ups can help you build muscle and get strong.

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When dumbbells, kettlebells and basically every form of strength-training equipment sold out soon after lockdown, I felt secretly relieved. As someone who gravitates towards cardio workouts, yoga and body weight exercises, I've always shied away from lifting weights. But as a fitness writer, I know how beneficial strength training is, and I've always felt obligated to do it more. When the pandemic struck, gyms closed and weights sold out across the US and the internet, I thought I had a solid excuse to keep up my weight-free workouts.

Now, weights are a bit easier to come by, but I realized that my workout routines weren't totally devoid of strength training. Even though I don't think of them in that way, they include exercises that feel challenging and, through using my own body weight, resistance bands or even lighter weights, totally count as strength training. 

To find out more about how you can build muscle and get stronger without heavy weights or strength-training machines, I talked to Nadia Murdock, a certified personal trainer and founder of Nadia Murdock Fit. Keep reading below to find out all of the ways you get stronger without a heavy dumbbell in sight. 

Why strength train without weights?

Tons of people have yet to get their hands on a set of dumbbells to use at home, which is one reason why people may opt for weight-free workouts. There's also the intimidation factor, which is a real hurdle for people to overcome. "Lifting weights can be intimidating, especially if you are new to working out. Many people feel they have lift really heavy to feel as though they are accomplishing something," says Murdock.

In addition to the intimidation factor of lifting weights, there's also the fact that weights are often an investment if you can find them. This "might be a deterrent for some people to even get started," says Murdock.

Training with weights, especially heavy ones, is not for the faint of heart. Especially if you're working out at home, there's a real risk of injury unless you know what you're doing. 

"The risk of injury is definitely another reason why someone may shy away from lifting. If you aren't using a trainer or familiar with weight training you can easily cause injury," Murdock says.

If you're opting out of weight training out of necessity, preference or other reasons, the good news is that you can still build strength using your own body weight, or through a variety of other workout methods like the one below.

Body weight exercises 

Body weight workouts are no joke. You know this if you've ever done push-ups, planks or pull-ups, since they're all super-challenging moves that use your body's own weight. "Using your own body resistance can be an effective way to build strength especially if you are just starting out or on a budget," Murdock says. "It's important to note that when working out without weights you have to train slightly differently in order to see results," she says. 

For example, if you're training with lighter weights or no weights, you may need to add more repetitions and less rest time to challenge yourself. Remember if the move feels easy, it's probably not challenging you enough.  Mastering common body weight exercises (like the ones below) is a good first step before transitioning to doing more advanced moves or the same moves with added weight. Once you feel more confident in the basics, adding more weight will feel less intimidating, especially if you've never lifted weights before or took a long break from working out. 

The following moves below work all different parts of your body and you can adjust the intensity as you get stronger by increasing the number of reps and sets you do, with less rest or breaks in between.

Planks

"A traditional plank is an excellent workout that works just about the entire body, focusing on the Transverse Abdominis and the rectus abdominis," says Murdock. "To intensify this move I like to add movement to this static exercise. Moves like plank jacks, mountain climbers or hip drops can help to keep you challenged." 

Russian Twist

"[The Russian twist] works a ton of muscles including obliques, rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, hip flexors, latissimus dorsi and erector spinae," says Murdock. "[To intensify the move] try twisting by elevating your feet at a tabletop position, add cross-body punches with each rotation or arm pulses overhead in between each rotation." 

Barre class

Barre classes might look easy, but trust me, they are far from it. Once you start working smaller muscles in isometric holds, you feel sore in a way you never expected. "Barre is an excellent way to train smaller muscle groups that often get overlooked in traditional weight lifting classes/training. As a barre instructor, we focus on isometric exercises which are great for maintaining and building muscle strength," Murdock says. 

Even if you do plan to lift weights in the future, Murdock says barre classes can help set you up for success. "A lot of the movements and exercises performed in class help to create a strong foundation for heavier weight bearing workouts. Through these workouts, you have a stronger mind and body connection which will also help perfect your form and allow you to listen to your body," Murdock says.

If you can't get to a barre studio right now you can stream barre workouts at home with popular brands like  Pure Barre, Xtend Barre on OpenFitBarre3, Glo and Alo Moves all offer barre workout classes. Most classes don't require an actual ballet barre and you can use a chair or other steady surface in place of a barre. If you're looking to invest in a barre for your home gym, you can purchase them online. Amazon sells plenty of barres under $150 -- like this one. If you're looking to invest more for a different aesthetic -- Xtend Barre Founder, Andrea Rogers recently launched this custom at home barre that comes in acrylic or metal finishes for $400. 

If you're not ready to subscribe to a streaming platform just yet, YouTube is a great place to see what barre classes are like before you commit to a plan or paid app. The video below is a full 45-minute workout that's equipment free.

Resistance bands

Resistance bands are inexpensive, portable and easy to find, making them great additions to your at-home workout toolbox. "Resistance bands are an excellent option for building total-body strength. In comparison to weights, they offer constant tension on the muscles throughout the entire exercise, encouraging muscle growth," Murdock says. While using bands isn't necessarily better than using weights, the tension you get from working with a band is different than using a dumbbell which means your muscles get challenged in a new way.

Whether you're currently lifting weights or not, resistance bands deserve a spot in your workouts since they are simple and effective tools to work your muscles in new ways. You can constantly challenge yourself and progress with bands (like weights) since you can buy bands with increased resistance and tension as you get stronger.

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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.