In my previous piece on no load exercise, I outlined the ways in which no load exercise can be useful, particularly for people dealing with injury or disability. The concept of no load exercise involves the flexing of muscles without the use of external weight, and has been shown in research to be similarly effective to traditional weight training for building muscle.
However, as I explored in that previous piece, it also has limitations which hamper its long-term effectiveness. In particular, you build much less strength and you’ll probably build less muscle after a few weeks or months.
All the same, it’s a good way to bridge the gap between disability and full movement, enabling you to start off with no weight before slowly adding some weight in.
The focus of this post is to outline a basic approach for using no load exercise in a typical workout fashion.
When we lift weights, the focus of lifting programs tends to be on about five major movements: the bench press, overhead press, row, squat, and deadlift. Together, these five major movements cover virtually all major muscle groups and movement patterns, allowing you to be maximally prepared for anything your body needs to do.
The focus of a no load exercise program is thus to duplicate these five movements as best as possible. For the sake of completeness, I’ve also gone ahead and added in no load versions of many major accessory lifts, since this makes it easier to cover all our bases, plus gives you a lot more variety/fun to add into the mix.
I would also like to point out that since dysfunction may be asymmetrical, you may not need to use no load training as a full body strategy.
For example, a serious leg injury may compromise your ability to perform lower body work, but you can still do upper body work heavy and with minimal modification. So, you can mix and match standard loading with no load training, depending on your own limitations. As explored in the previous article, some exercisers only struggle with certain movement patterns, and are able to handle traditional loading on all other exercises.
Let’s get to it.
Pectorals/Back - Bench Press and Row
The pectorals are the muscles that make up the chest. These muscles are typically most trained in the bench press. This can be mimicked in one or two arm versions by fully pulling the elbow all the way back, squeezing, and then slowly and forcefully fully extending the arm. This method is fun in that it kills two birds with one stone, also training the row motion. This can be performed seated.
Pectorals/Back - Fly and Reverse Fly
The chest fly is another option. Though not as well liked as the bench press, it will do equally well for building chest muscle. The chest fly essentially involves flapping your arms (thus, the fly) but against resistance. In this case, of course, do the motion slowly and forcefully, contracting the pectorals while performing the fly. As with weighted versions, perform the movement with a slight bend at the elbow. As with the bench press, you can perform the opposite (the reverse fly) on the other end of each rep to also work the back, saving you time. This can be done seated if you have a stool, but should probably be done standing if all you have is backed chairs.
Shoulders/Back - Overhead Press and Pulldown
The overhead press involves forcefully extending the arms overhead, normally against resistance. In this case, you’ll simply focus on activating the triceps (back of the arms) and the shoulders during the extension. On the way down, you can perform the reverse movement, forcefully pulling the elbows down and contracting the lats (sides of the back), pulling your shoulderblades together slightly. Again, this allows you to kill two birds with one stone. This can be done seated or standing.
Shoulders - Shrug
The shrug is normally performed by forcefully shrugging the shoulders while holding onto a pair of dumbbells or a barbell, but it can also be performed without weight. You’ll want to use even higher reps than normal on this exercise. Unfortunately, there’s no reverse shrug to save time on, so this exercise has to be performed alone. This can be done seated or standing.
Legs - Leg Extension and Leg Curl
In a seated position, with the upper part of the leg stabilized on the chair, you perform a leg extension by extending the leg with the knees/quadriceps (large muscles on the front of your legs) until both parts of the leg form a straight line. Squeeze at the top, feel the full contraction of the muscle, and then reverse the movement and “curl” the leg so that the foot comes back down to the floor. From here, if your chair allows it, you can continue the curl a bit further back, to feel the squeeze in the hamstrings (muscles on the back of the legs). This allows you to work out both halves of the leg muscles.
Alternatively, you can also perform this exercise lying down, face to the floor. In this version, you start with the curl, pulling your heels to your butt, and then fully extend the legs back to the floor.
Hips - Hip Hinge or Glute Bridge
The hip hinge involves bending at the hips, keeping the torso straight, going as deep into the bend as you can, and then straightening back up. This allows you to train the glutes (butt), hamstrings, and the lower back. This range of movement may be difficult for people with back injuries, so it may require some practice. Focus on keeping the legs and torso mostly straight, bending as much as possible at the hips. This should be done standing, and you may want to stand next to a chair or table if you need something to support yourself.
The glute bridge performs a similar function. In the glute bridge, you plant your feet flat on the floor with your shoulders also on the floor, and then forcefully contract the glutes, hamstrings, and lower back to raise your butt off the floor into a triangular, ramp-like position with the body. This exercise essentially targets the same muscles, but adds a bit more load, since you’re working against gravity. Thus, it may not be ideal for beginners, but works well if you can handle.
In either case, you want to mentally focus on squeezing the glutes at the end range of motion and activating the surrounding muscles.
Legs - Calf Raises
Calf raises are NOT typically a terribly important exercise. They won't build a ton of muscle or strength, and aren't as important unless you're looking to be a bodybuilder with great calves. However, if you have knee issues, calf work may help to strengthen and stabilize the knee joint, making it a useful activity.
Normally, calf raises are performed against the floor, standing up on your tiptoes repeatedly and contracting the calf muscles (back of the bottom of the leg). This is done with bodyweight, or additional weight is added by holding onto dumbbells or a barbell. However, even bodyweight may be a bit much to start off with, so you can perform a no load version by simply forcefully extending the feet/contracting the calves with your legs extended while seated or lying. Luckily, you should very soon be able to progress into using bodyweight.
Core - Dead Bugs
Rarely is core so compromised that even the most basic core exercises are difficult. However, many default core exercises carry some risk of injury because they involve rapid flexion of the spine, which can cause issues. For this reason, I recommend the dead bug exercise, as it’s pretty available to everyone. This exercise must be performed lying down on your back, although you can perform a mimic of it by standing up and performing a slow high knees exercise.
Shoulders - Lateral Raises
The lateral raise isn’t as effective of a strength or muscle builder compared to the shoulder press, and can’t as easily be combined with the pulldown, but it’s still a useful exercise. Similar to the chest fly, but moving overhead instead of forward and back. This can be done seated or standing.
Arms - Bicep Curl and Tricep Extension
The arms aren’t as important for general movement function, but it’s always nice to have good arms. By forcefully contracting the bicep to curl the arm, and then forcefully contracting the tricep to extend it, we can get a good workout in. This can be done seated, standing, or lying.
A Full Body Workout Plan
Now that you have a list of exercises to use, how can you do this in a weekly workout? Since there’s minimal physical stress (mechanical loading) to the muscles, recovery should be rapid. That means that full body workouts (where you train all muscle groups at once) are your best bet. Here’s an example of such a workout:
Full Body - Repeat
- Leg Extension/Curl - 3x10
- Hip Hinge or Glute Bridge - 3x10
- Calf Raise - 3x15
- Bench Press/Row or Fly/Reverse Fly - 3x10
- Overhead Press/Pulldown or Lateral Raise - 3x10
- Bicep Curl/Tricep Extension - 3x15
- Some kind of cardio if possible - a light walk/cycle for 10-20 min.
While this workout may seem simple, it covers most of your major bases. Even with taking it slowly, you’ll probably get through this workout pretty quickly. Add repetitions each time you repeat the workout, until you can perform at least 20-30 reps per exercise. Once you can do so regularly and experience no pain or limitations in range of motion, you should be able to start adding in a small amount of weight. Start light, build up again to a lot of reps, and repeat. Once you’re able to handle traditional loaded exercise for all exercises, you can start transitioning into a standard beginners exercise program.
- "No Load" Exercise For Those With Impaired Function
- How To Use Light Weights To Get Big
- The Beginner's Guide To Lifting Weights
- Periodization For Beginners
- The Home Gym Guide
Are you interested in perfecting your deadlift and building legendary strength and muscle? Check out my free ebook, Deadlift Every Day.
Interested in coaching? Inquire here. If you don’t have the money or interest in purchasing long term coaching, consider donating a small monthly amount to my Patreon, which also nets you a copy of my book, the UpLift Method. You can also subscribe to my mailing list, which gets you the free GAINS exercise program for maximizing strength, size, and endurance.