Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Garage Strength

by Alan Couzens, MS (Sports Science)

With winter soon upon us, many of us will be progressively moving more and more of our training indoors. For many this means getting back into the groove with strength training and re-activating that old gym membership and making the regular 5 p.m. migration with the masses from the office to the gym.

I’ve outlined in the past some of the reasons that I consider strength training important for the endurance athlete. These benefits include improvements in functional (that is, aerobic) hypertrophy plus improvements in general durability and injury resistance that carry across to the athlete’s in-season. I have personally attributed the ability of an athlete to put together a breakthrough season to one or both of these adaptations caused by early season strength work on more than one occasion.

However, this mass migration to the gym can also bring with it a few less desirable, but very familiar, scenarios:

  • Waiting for the hulk to finish his 18th set of squats because "working in" would mean unloading and reloading 500 pounds per set!
  • Trying to find the tiniest bit of floor space between the "abdominator" and the "bicep blast" machines so you can do an exercise that has the least bit of functionality
  • Limiting yourself to the exercises that attract the least attention so as not to fall prey to the obligatory sales pitch from the personal training staff.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. With a minimal amount of equipment you can set up a more than adequate home gym in your own garage. Your own space where you can mix up exercises as you see fit, you have enough floor space to actually do some integrated, functional whole body movements (that will help you as an athlete!) and you can actually have some fun and do some crazy stuff without attracting the attention of the gym Nazis. Yes, for the early season you can get a good mix of functional hypertrophy training, muscle balance training (pre-hab) and general aerobic conditioning with a very limited amount of equipment in your own garage. So let’s dive right in with the "ingredients list." Here’s what you’ll need:


  • Set of dumbells ($40-80)
  • Select based on strength and bodyweight. Here are some guidelines:


    • If in doubt, go lighter - you can always add some extra weight by throwing small weights in a backpack.
    • As you go through the build you can always buy a new set and build up your iron collection as you go
    • If you’re going to use your garage gym for a hypertrophy period you’ll want to add an additional set of DBs 10-15 pounds heavier than your prep weights or consider the addition of a barbell of corresponding weight (as grip strength can become limiting with super heavy dumbbells).
  • A set of exercise bands – multiple resistance ($20 at Walmart)
  • A set of hooks (to place at multiple heights for your bands on the garage wall
  • A Stability Ball ($15 at Walmart)
  • An adjustable Bench or Step ($50)
  • A pull up bar ($35)


  • Small dumbbells (1-3lbs)
  • Weight belt or durable backpack to carry stuff in/tie stuff to
  • A barbell w/>equivalent load to the heavy DBs
  • Ankle weights (3-5lbs)
  • Slideboard/sliding discs
  • Slant-board
  • Blood pressure cuff (for core work)
  • Balance Tools (BOSU, Airex Pad, Dyna Disc)
  • Agility ladder
  • Plyo hurdles
  • Tire/Sled and Chains for a bit of added fun!


[Click on any image to see a larger version.]

Strength/Power (Lower)

Forward/Reverse Lunge Walk

  1. Holding dumbbells by side, lunge forward with front leg, dropping rear knee close to the floor.
  2. Step off front leg and take a few seconds to balance in the mid position – taking care to keep hips square.
  3. Step through with rear leg to adopt the same lunge position as before but with alternate legs
  4. Repeat as far as you can go in a forward direction and then do the same in reverse.

Difficult option: Add band around waist or add sled/tire pull to increase glute drive.

Cross Step Ups

  1. Stand behind and just to the side of your bench or stool.
  2. Bring your outer leg across your body and place that foot on the step (so legs are crossed).
  3. Keeping the shin perpendicular to the ground, step onto the bench so you are balancing on one leg.
  4. Make sure hips are square and balance in that position for a few seconds.
  5. Slowly descend that rear leg back behind the body so you return to the "cross-legged" position.

Difficult option: Add a band around the waist to increase hip stabilizer emphasis.

Single Leg Squats (option = Slant Board)

  1. Stand on one leg, making sure your hips are square.
  2. Descend slowly by bending at the knee while keeping upper body perpendicular to the floor.
  3. Straighten back to extended position.


  • You may find this exercise easier if done on a slant-board so ankle flexibility is less limiting. Can also do as a front squat w/barbell.
  • In place of slant board you can use TRX/Band + Backpack or A Stability ball behind the back for similar effect.
  • To increase the resistance at the top of the movement loop a band behind the knee so you have resistance on straightening. If using a barbell, loop a heavy chain to either side of the barbell and resistance will increase as the chain uncurls and is lifted off the floor.

Side Lunge (option slide board)

  1. Holding weights in front of the body take a step to the side with one leg while sitting back into a squat position with the other so that weight is on the bent leg and the other is straight in a "groin stretch" stance.
  2. Step both feet back together as you extend the squat leg.

Note: If done on a slideboard, rather than stepping the straight leg out and in, slide it out and in.
Difficult option: Place one foot on slide board and slide rather than step feet back together. You can also add a band to the ankle to increase resistance on adducters.

Multi Planar Hops (option=ladder)

  1. Set up a 4 square grid of about 1 foot by 1 foot on the garage floor (use industrial tape or chalk).
  2. Stand on one leg with the hips square.
  3. Jump forward, left, back, right on one leg, taking time to stabilize and make sure the knees are soft and the hips square after each jump.
  4. Repeat on the other leg.

Difficult option: To increase the difficulty, attach a resistance band around your waist (via a belt) so you are fighting against the band to stabilize on each jump or jump to balance implements (Bosu, Dyna Disc, etc.).
Note: To make the exercise more of a power/agility move, do multiple rounds quickly (short ground contact time) and focus on stabilizing on the last jump. Various ladder sequences can also be used.

Strength (Upper)

Swim Cordz

  1. Anchor resistance bands or swim cordz high.
  2. Bend forward at the hips and start with the arms hooked in an "over the barrel" catch position.
  3. Pull through as you would for a butterfly swim stroke, applying force directly backward.
  4. Recover the arms forward under the body.

Rows (Dumbbell/Band)

  1. Place one hand and same knee of bench so back is flat.
  2. With free arm, keeping back straight and forearm perpendicular to ground, lift elbow until dumbbell is at chest level. Squeeze shoulder blades together at the top. Note: Do not twist the body.
  3. Return dumbbell to starting position slowly, maintaining a straight back and without twisting the body.

Push Ups or Dumbbell Press on Ball

  1. Place feet or shins on ball according to difficulty level (shins = easy, insteps = mod, toes = hard) and hands on ground or push up station.
  2. Contract abs to set up solid line from head to toes (to test put a broomstick on your back; back of head, spine between shoulder blades and sacrum should all touch the broomstick).
  3. Keeping this position, bend at the elbows and descend chest towards floor -– do a check at the bottom: back of head, upper back and sacrum on the same line.
  4. Straighten elbows and ascend back to starting position.

Difficult options: Place an exercise band over your back and under each hand so you’re pushing up against resistance or replace with a supine dumbbell press on the ball. For an integrated option, combine with the below ball tuck or pike to turn two exercises into one.

Pull-up Option: Jump to Pull-Up
I’ll describe the integrated jump to pull up because it’s a great integrated move and a little less strength demanding. If you’re doing the standard pull up, omit the jump down/jump up.

  1. Stand below pull up bar.
  2. Quickly descend hips back into squat position and jump up to "catch" pull up bar close to the top of the motion (neutral grip: hammer position, thumbs at level of armpits, shoulder blades pressed down and together).
  3. Slowly descend over a period of about five seconds -– keep shoulder blades together, and extend elbows so that you’re at the bottom of a pull up position but still actively depressing shoulder blades.
  4. Let go and drop the short distance to ground, landing with soft knees.

Easier options: Climb (via bench or step tool) rather than jump to the top.
Difficult options: Do weighted with a vest or against the resistance of a band (or two) belted to waist and attached low or do as straight pull up set.

Core/Small Muscle

Calf Raise

  1. Put ball of foot (or feet) on step with heel on ground at max ankle flexion without compensation –- everything still pointing straight ahead.
  2. Without excessive pronation (tipping in), rise onto your toes.
  3. Slowly descend to starting position.

Options: Start as a double leg movement, as you get stronger, progress to two feet on the way up, then lift one and descent on one leg. Progressing up from this: single leg both directions. Progressing from this: holding a dumbbell on shoulder or hips.

Ball Tuck/Pike

See setup notes on ball push up regarding core being "switched on."

  1. If doing the tuck, start with ball on thighs and arms fully extended above head so head is close to the ground.
  2. Pull hands underneath your shoulders and knees underneath your hips while arching back.
  3. Return to start position.

Difficult option: For pike version, start with ball at knee level and raise hips to that toes are on top of ball (under hips) and upper body is in "handstand" position.

Ball Curl

  1. Lay supine on the ground with ball under calves.
  2. "Bridge up" with the hips so that hips are off the ground and body forms a straight line, head to heels.
  3. Roll the ball in towards the butt while raising hips; keep toes pointing directly up.
  4. Return to starting position; keeping the hips up between reps.

Difficult options: Discs in place of ball, single leg ball curls, incline board curls, bands attached to ankles.

Side Plank with Abduction

  1. Lay on your side with elbow under your body and your lower leg flexed at the knee to 90 degrees.
  2. "‘Bridge up" from the hips so that your lower knee and elbow is supporting your body and you form a straight line from knee to head.
  3. From this position, slightly lift (abduct) the upper leg to a position where it is almost parallel with the ground (but not beyond this point). Keep hips square & knee pointing sideways through the whole motion, don’t externally rotate/turn the knee up.
  4. Return to the starting position but keep the hips up through the whole set.

Easier option: Just bridge and hold for a period of time (no leg lift).
Difficult options:

  • Do from the feet -- keep legs extended and bridge up, lifting legs from the ground.
  • Add ankle weights to the upper leg or tie band around legs at knees (easier) or ankles (harder)
  • Do from a BOSU or stability ball – GOOD LUCK!

Hip Flexion (Band)

  1. Lay supine with a band around one ankle and core tight.
  2. Raise knee towards chest while keeping body straight and other leg on the ground.

Note: Take care not to turn the knee in or out when lifting the leg.
Difficult options: Do from a bridge position or standing position.

Horse Stance

  1. Position yourself on all fours, ideally with a broomstick resting on the back (head, upper back, sacrum). Draw the abdominals in (while keeping an arch in your back and continuing to breath!).
  2. Raise one hand and the opposite knee slightly off the floor and hold the position (no compensation, continue breathing).
  3. Repeat with the other side.

Difficult options:

  • Rather than lifting, extend the arm and the opposing leg forward and back respectively (thumb up)
  • Rather than lifting, extend to the side (fire hydrant pose)
  • Add ankle/wrist weights
  • Do the exercise on a BOSU or stability ball.

Supine TVA Series

  1. Position yourself supine with knees flexed to 90 degrees and feet on the floor.
  2. Place your hand (or a blood pressure cuff) underneath your lower back and contract the abdominals to hold a constant pressure while continuing to breathe.
  3. Hold this constant pressure (and check visually using the manometer if using the cuff) as you alternately lift one foot and then the other off the floor.

Difficult options:

  • Start with both feet up (hips flexed to 90 deg) and drop feet all the way down to the floor (alternately)
  • Slide legs out straight externally while holding constant pressure
  • Start with both legs straight up and slowly lower to the floor (while holding constant pressure)

    Rotator Cuff (External Rotation)

    1. Place a small rolled hand towel under each armpit so arm is abducted slightly away from the body.
    2. Flex elbows to 90 degrees and hold a theraband or very light exercise band between hands.
    3. Externally rotate arms at the shoulders so that the elbows are kept close to the side but the lower arms move out (away from the body).

    Note: Only repeat for as many as you can while keeping a full range of motion.
    Difficult option: For a time saver option, add the same movement with a light dumbbell to the upper arm in the side plank exercise.

    There are three basic ways of doing the workout that I would suggest depending on where you are with your strength training in the season:

    1. Early season: No dumbbells/light dumbbells, challenge balance and core – 1-3 x through @ 12-20 reps dictated by form
    2. Mid/late season (Strength): Heavy dumbbells - Alternate lower strength/upper strength/core in "super set" fashion - 2-4 x 6-12 upper/lower, 1-2 x 10-20 core
    3. Mid/late season (Muscular endurance): Light dumbbells – Do all lower, all upper, all core together - 2-4 x 20 Upper / Lower 1-2 x 20 core

Have fun decorating your home gym/garage this winter and train smart!

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