Household items that sub in as fitness gear — trainers share the hacks they recommend to clients
Get more out of your next at-home workout with these clever ideas
Anyone who's tried to make working out at home their new norm in these unprecedented times knows that access to exercise equipment has been one of the major challenges in trying to match their former routines. As a fitness instructor at Goodlife Fitness, up until its temporary closure due to the coronavirus pandemic, and a condo dweller, I fit into the camp of people who didn't have a lot of gear at home.
Fortunately, some of my colleagues and professionals from the fitness world are quickly coming up with smart and easy hacks using household items to simulate weights and other gym equipment. Maintaining a safe and challenging fitness routine doesn't have to be difficult, expensive or space-consuming with a little MacGyver-like creativity and guidance from the experts.
Reframing your approach
The first step with any fitness program is to take the time to consider what kind of exercises you're planning to do. Working with the space you have, this might require moving some furniture, like the coffee table, out of the way or shifting all your dining room chairs against a wall before a session. However, for most of the workouts described below, you'll only need an area about the size of a yoga matt.
Phil Cormier, head trainer and owner of four F45 Training studios in downtown Toronto reminds us that safety is always the primary concern.
"Let's be honest: no one is going to be hitting their personal bests at home," says Cormier, noting that it's important to stay within your comfort zone with the movements you are doing. "You don't need to reinvent the wheel. Basic [exercises like] lunges, squats, plus different variations of push-ups and stability exercises are great if you're doing things correctly."
In fact, strength training is ineffective, even dangerous, with poor technique. So the first and foremost thing to focus on is proper form. Then you can make any exercise more challenging by doing things like: adding stability aspects to a move (like single-limb training); increasing time-under-tension (loading muscles for a longer period of time) which creates more resistance instead of loading up on weights or, conversely, picking up the tempo and decreasing the reps with heavier loads; and increasing the range of a movement to increase intensity.
Household fitness gear substitutions
Since the start of their temporary closure, the F45 community has been able to tune in and participate in F45 LIVE on Zoom. They offer a free two day trial and their Saturday morning class is free for everyone. Some of the online sessions incorporate traditional equipment but trainers also suggest a lot of alternative options using just body weight or everyday household items as replacements.
"I have people with full gyms and I have others who have a photo album and a soup can," shares Cormier. "People are resilient," says Cormier when he describes the creativity of his members who end up employing things like a tool box for upper back rowing exercises, or duffle bags filled with books instead of dumbells or kettlebells. "If you're going to the grocery store," he advises, "You should be grabbing four-litre jugs of water. If you finish the water, keep the jug. If you [drink] wine, keep the wine bottle. You can put water back in them [and use them as weights]."
The simplest swap for dumbbells are wine bottles or water jugs. They're easy to manage for many movements including lateral raises, rows, reverse flies, tricep extensions and bicep curls.
Instead of a weight plate, try a heavy book to target the anterior deltoid (front of shoulder) in overhead tricep extensions or front raises. Need something a little heavier? Pull out that cocotte or cast iron Dutch oven or use its lids like instructor Diana Marsilio suggests.
Instead of a bench, try using a piece of hard case luggage and progress to a sturdy dining chair or couch for dips, incline or decline push-ups.
Instead of a slider, another colleague, Gareth Nock employs a towel on a smooth hard floor. To target the lower body, he suggests placing your foot on the towel for reverse lunges, lateral lunges and one-leg piston squats. You can also put your hands on towels for core exercises like push-ups with side slides, planks with forward slides, planks with knee tucks, and planks with side knee tucks. If you're in a bind, dryer sheets also work, just be sure to work within your personal limitations and brace your abs throughout the movement for stability and control.
The challenge for personal trainer Candy Wong is in finding things that are heavy enough for her clients who already have a solid fitness foundation and are looking for ways to build strength. "Laundry detergent bottles are one of my favourite pieces, especially the larger [four-litre volume] because it resembles a kettlebell with all the weight situated at the bottle and a handle in the middle at the top."
In fact, a number of items can mimic kettlebells according to our roster of experts. Besides laundry detergent bottles, a four-plus gallon-sized water jug with a top handle can be filled, or emptied, to the desired weight to mimic a range of kettlebell weights. Use them for things like bent-over rows or Romanian deadlifts with kettlebell swings. To create even more weight, you can fill a book bag or thick canvas grocery bag with multiple items, like wine bottles slipped inside socks (so that they don't clink against each other), and/or water jugs, books — any number of items, depending on the amount of weight you can handle.
Instead of a set of dumbells, Cormier suggests using a broomstick with a kettlebell-like weight hung in the middle, between your hands, to ensure the weight is balanced. The setup works well for curls and front raises. You can also load a duffle bag with water bottles and jugs, split its handles and let the mass hang below the body for bent-over rows.
Finally, instead of a sandbag, try holding a weighted duffle bag or a bag of kitty litter for front squats, good mornings, deadlifts, side lunges and even reverse lunges. Wong also recommends using a sack of rice over other dry goods because the bag is sturdier (so there's less fear of it tearing leaving you with a mess to clean up). Simply hug the bag for goblet squats or carry the sack by its handle in split lunges to target your glutes, quadriceps and hamstrings.
Don't forget the back
While there are few limitations in the amount of exercises that could be performed at home, both Cormier and Wong independently point out that the posterior chain — muscles on the backside of the body — should be an area of focus because they are often neglected.
"When we're training at home, it makes sense to target the muscles we benefit most from," says Wong. "Right now, because many of us are spending so much time in front of the computer or television while hunching our backs, it's important to strengthen the back, butt and hamstring muscles."
Equipment-free workouts may include integrated core exercises like a hover with a hand reach, a bird-dog/horse stance pointer or renegade row which challenge abdominal and lumbar activity through instability.
Those looking for external resistance can incorporate dumbbells, wine bottles or water jugs in bent-over rows or rear-delt flies.
Instead of a cable pulley machine, Wong endorses using a broomstick or a dowel in lat pulldown exercises for the upper-and mid-back which can be achieved by lying on your stomach.
Resistance isn't futile
Household items might be a good substitute for gym equipment but if it is possible, do start building your equipment inventory now. Both Cormier and Wong have suggested that multiple thicknesses of resistance bands should be the first investment for strength training and stretching.
Versatile and compact, these low cost tools can be used to help tone and strengthen muscles by adding resistance when you perform exercises in the push or pull direction, both laterally and horizontally. Great for any fitness level, they're also easier on the joints than the pressure put on by external weights.
Many of the exercises mentioned previously — bicep curls, tricep extensions, good mornings, bent-over rows, lat pulldowns, lateral lunges and squats — can be performed with a resistance band depending on how it's set up. Even advanced lifters benefit from incorporating bands in their resistance workouts since it applies constant tension through the range of motion and has the ability to create the greatest resistance at the apex of the exercise.
Most important of all, just stay active in whatever capacity you can whether it's walking outdoors at a socially distant and responsible six-feet away from others or working out at home.
Cormier says, "You need your daily dose of movement. No one is going to come out of this and be three-times stronger than they used to be. For most it's about maintaining muscle mass. And we can focus on the things we can do [involving the] core, mobility, stability and flexibility."
Renée Suen is a Toronto-based freelance restaurant and travel writer/photographer who searches the world for memorable tastes and the stories behind the plate. You can find her work and culinary adventures at reneesuen.com and on Twitter at twitter.com/rssuen