Building A System for At-Home Fitness

Like many fitness enthusiasts out there, working out at home wasn’t in the cards until some months ago. I went from powerlifting and working out 4 times/week at a CrossFit gym to defining a space in my 1 bedroom railroad apartment that could become my at-home “gym.” Luckily, we rearranged, sold, and donated furniture earlier this year to make better use of our space.

When shelter-in-place orders went into effect, I remember feeling lost. How would I keep up my fitness routine without access to a gym? It took a few weeks but once I got into a groove I was pleasantly surprised to see that I could keep it up at home and continue making progress.

Since mid-March I’ve been working out 5 times/week sandwiched between our living space and breakfast bar. I'm leaner, moving faster, and in general, I just feel good. That hasn't always been the story for me. It's rewarding to look back and see how far I've come. I know that I could do this more. It's easy to get caught up in our busy lives and become so focused on marching ahead that we forget to acknowledge our progress from the start. That acknowledgement is sometimes what you need to keep powering on.

I often record my workouts in time-lapse to later check on form. These are some screenshots from the last several months.

To be able to stop and reflect, it's important to capture the journey. I’ve built a system for tracking progress and staying accountable with enough slack that I can still live a comfortable life and even adapt the whole operation to new environments (like being away from home for over a week). There are two key parts to this system: a routine and a curated set of items ("the essentials") that make it all possible.

Routine

My routine makes my workouts feel like clockwork and in the end, more enjoyable. I'm able to focus on working out without any barriers. There's nothing like a good workout at the end of a long day of work. Each workout is prompted by a trigger that was already part of my day. In one of my favorite books Atomic Habits, author James Clear refers to this concept as "habit stacking":

"The key [to habit stacking] is to tie your desired behavior into something you already do each day... [This] allows you to create a set of simple rules that guide your future behavior. It's like you always have a game plan for which action should come next."

During the work week, my workout trigger is the work day coming to end and more specifically, wrapping up our daily Partner end-of-day stand up. I sign off Zoom, change my outfit, grab a gatorade, rearrange some furniture, drop my yoga mat, set up my laptop on a stool, and get back on Zoom. On Saturdays, I like to leave it a bit more open-ended. If it's a normal weekend at home, the trigger is typically finishing a morning coffee with Dana. Prior to COVID, I had different triggers and a different routine.

In addition to triggers, I’ve found that sharing my routine (often through calendar events) with those it may impact has been a powerful way to stay on track. By doing this, I'm able to reduce the potential for conflicts. While staying with Dana’s parents for a couple of weeks, they would always wait to eat dinner until I was done working out. I told them it was unnecessary but they insisted. I never missed a workout or a family dinner! Sometimes I may decide to prioritize another activity during my normal workout time but that doesn't mean I need to skip working out. I can reschedule it to another time in the day or even switch that workout day with a rest day.

In short: With a routine in place, every week and every day starts with a baseline. This doesn't mean I can't change course but it's a conscious decision and only takes a simple step to get back on track.

The Essentials

While my routine is critical for making sure a workout happens, there are a number of essential items that contribute to the workouts themselves and others that keep me at it every week. Below is a breakdown of those items. Some of these were in place pre-COVID but have become increasingly helpful over the past few months.

Whoop

Since signing up late last year, Whoop has been a favorite. You can think of Whoop as a watch without the face. (I hope it stays this way. I love the simplicity.) Whoop is most often worn on the wrist and leverages heart rate data to calculate sleep performance, strain, and recovery. This is all visualized in the Whoop mobile app to show how one impacts the other. For example, recovery can be negatively impacted by a bad night of sleep (sleep performance) after a stressful day, poor diet, and morning run (strain). Recovery is shown as a percentage with a suggestion on how much strain your body should take on the next day to reach a higher recovery in subsequent days. There’s also a daily survey that can be customized to track everything from diet to whether or not you meditate.

A look inside my Whoop app. On the left, you can see my recovery for the given day and tips based on what I track in the daily survey (fairly recent feature). The middle and bottom right show a week of data. The top right is the app dashboard showing recovery, strain, and any activities that have taken place.

All of this data provides a clearer picture into how you’re performing on a daily basis, how much activity your body can handle on a given day, and how to manage your training. It also shows other data like resting heart rate, heart rate variability, and respiratory rate. The longer you wear Whoop, the smarter the tips and insights become.

Why I love it

Whoop was helpful for my training pre-COVID but with such a major shift in my daily life, it’s become an even more powerful tool for staying on track. Without exercise, my daily strain (scale of 0-20) went from ~8-9 pre-COVID to ~4-6 working at home. This shows how my commute, walk to work, and being in the office impacted the strain on my body. Whoop has given me a data-driven way to look at the impact of my daily routine and modify accordingly.

I use Whoop as a reference for making more informed decisions on everything from how much I want to push it in a workout to what I eat to how long I sleep. It's helped me stay consistent and even prompted me to keep moving on days off. On those days, I’ll often practice active resting like going for a walk or bike ride to hit a certain level of strain. You can sign up for Whoop with my referral link and get $30 off.

Bowflex Kettlebell

If you're looking to do more than bodyweight workouts, weightlifting equipment is one of the biggest barriers to working out at-home (especially for those with downstairs neighbors in apartments). Not everyone can buy a bunch of weightlifting equipment, dumbbells, kettlebells, etc. I briefly entertained buying a small rack of dumbbells until I came across the Bowflex Kettlebell. It's a kettlebell with 5 weight settings: 8, 12, 20, 25, 35, and 40 lbs. Can you guess why I love it?

Why I love it

It delivers on everything I need when working out in my living room. It's compact, easy to keep out of the way, and can transport if need be. As a kettlebell, there's a lot you can do with it. This makes it possible to cover every muscle group in some shape or form. Weekly workouts often include any or all of the following: deadlifts, squats, a pressing movement, and CrossFit movements such as the single arm kettlebell snatch or kettlebell thruster. (If you're looking for some bodybuilding activity like bicep curls, I'd check out the dumbbell versions out there.) I also love being able to increase or decrease the weight for the movement and/or number of reps. Bonus: Dana is a fan and frequently throws in some squats in the middle of the workday.

Yoga Mat

I'm fairly sure that we all know what a yoga mat is so I won't spend too much time here. Yoga mats come in all kinds. If you do enough searching, I'm confident you can find one with almost anything on it: your favorite fictional character, animal pattern, or whatever else you're into. No matter the look, yoga mats give the ground some needed cushion and that's why I have it on the list.

Why I love it

Many of the workouts I've been doing have lots of movements on and off the ground (burpees, renegade rows, sit ups, lunges, devil's press, jumping jacks). Since I'm in the house 99% of the time, I often workout in bare feet. My yoga mat gives me better grip than my hard floor, makes it a little less noisy for my downstairs neighbor (don't worry, we have an agreement), and is comfy for movements where I'm on the ground. Depending on the workout, I've found it useful to have 2 yoga mats to provide more soft space. Side note: If you're on a rug or you're working out in the grass, a yoga mat can be difficult to use because it won't lay perfectly flat.

Rogue AbMat

The AbMat was new to me when I first started using one at my gym. For more details, I’ll quote Rogue’s website:

"Since its inception over 20 years ago, this fundamental core training accessory has enabled athletes to get the full range of motion necessary to train the entire abdominal muscle groups, as its curved shape helps to flex the spine and lengthen the ab muscles for more effective sit-ups and crunches."

Why I love it

Like the kettlebell, it's easy to tuck away and transport. There are a ton of bodyweight ab movements you can do at-home and while I do these when they're programmed, the AbMat makes it easy and effective to sit down and knock out a bunch of sit ups. I also use it in my workouts when sit ups are programmed.

Rogue Mobility WOD Gemini

Much like a foam roller or other massage tools, the Mobility WOD Gemini is used to loosen up your muscles pre or post-workout. It's designed to target difficult trigger points that you otherwise might not be able to cover effectively. I've used it on my back, feet, and calves.

Why I love it

It's small! Are you seeing a pattern here? No but seriously, it's an effective little tool. It consistently delivers on those "it hurts so good" moments. I often use it right after a workout and/or the next day to work through any sore muscles. I also own a foam roller but in this era of remote-life, this is my go-to when staying somewhere other than home. (Thanks for the recommendation, Peter!)

TheraBand Resistance Band

There are all kinds of TheraBand resistance bands with different levels of resistance. I own the set of yellow, red, and green but mostly use the green. This is technically 4.6 lbs of resistance. Resistance bands are traditionally used for stretching and conditioning. If you type "resistance band workouts" into a Google search, you'll see the many different movements you can do leveraging other equipment or the band itself.

Why I love it

At home, I've loved using these for warm-ups and getting coverage on movements that aren't as simple with my kettlebell. For instance, 50-100 reps of bicep curls and front/side raises. In my opinion, resistance bands are an essential whether you're actively working out or not. They're an effective tool for simple movements that promote good posture and flexibility among other important joint issues.

Withings Body+ Scale

There are a ton of smart scales out there but after my research, I found this to be the best option. I gained ~20 lbs in preparation for my first powerlifting competition. Prior to that, I had a scale but barely used it. After putting on the weight, I realized there were other important metrics I should pay attention to. The Withings Body+ Scale provides a full body composition analysis. It monitors weight, body fat percentage, water percentage, muscle mass, and bone mass. While I'm not concerned with all of those, I've enjoyed seeing the impact of my lifestyle choices through the metrics I choose to look at. You can customize what you see when you stand on the scale (even the weather) and after weighing in, everything is visualized within the app. You can also integrate other apps like the iPhone's native Health app to show data like daily steps.

Why I love it

The scale is just another way to stay accountable and on track. There's conflicting opinions about weighing yourself every day but I do. I love having the data. Dana calls me a robot and says I've "gamified" my life. She's not wrong. This is really just the scratching the surface of what's possible today. Like most things in life, fitness is a long-term play. It's hard to see the impact on a daily basis. More data and tracking gives me a better pulse on how I've progressed and what I can do to make further improvements. I know it will always be a work-in-progress and I love the process.

Notebook & SugarWOD App

I figured I'd end with a twist on the most basic workout essential: a notebook paired with the SugarWOD app. I keep it simple with a classic black marble notebook. The SugarWOD app is widely used in the gym community among members and coaches. It's a simple interface that allows for gyms to post workouts and members to log their scores. Users can also log their own workouts and PRs.

Why I love it

Since joining my gym, I've used a notebook to track my workouts. In the past, I tried using my phone but have enjoyed being unplugged during my workouts. When I started working out at home, I stopped using a notebook and relied on the SugarWOD app only but eventually found that they were both valuable in different ways.

Nowadays, I translate my workouts from SugarWOD into my notebook. These few minutes have been a great way to spend some time with the programming before jumping in. I mentally prepare for the movements and get acquainted with the pacing. I then use the notebook throughout my workout to follow along.

I also log every workout in SugarWOD. For me, it's all about the leaderboard. I can benchmark my workout against scores from earlier classes and then after class, see how my score stacks up against the others. It's not so much about the competition but more about the drive to keep getting better. Sometimes we repeat workouts so I'm literally trying to beat a score from months prior. Again, fitness is all about the long-term play. SugarWOD keeps me accountable and pushes me to keep doing better.

Shoutout to my gym

I've mentioned my gym a number of times throughout this post. I want to give a big shout out to Park Slope Community (formerly Crossfit) Fitness and Coach Sam for evolving with all the sudden changes. I'm proud to support them through all of this. If it weren't for our weekly Zoom workouts, it would have been even more challenging to keep consistent. Having the programming in place and the ability to jump on a Zoom with familiar faces has allowed me to put more focus on building this system.

For anyone looking to start or optimize their at-home fitness routine, I'd highly recommend investing in consistent programming. Unless you're a fitness expert, a lack of programming will always be a barrier. When building any new habit or routine, it's important to uncover all barriers and tackle them head on. Design a system that works for your lifestyle and will make you successful. I'll leave you with more wisdom from James Clear (Atomic Habits):

"Most people live in a world others have created for them. But you can alter the spaces where you live and work to increase your exposure to positive cues and reduce your exposure to negative ones. Environment design allows you to take back control and become the architect of your life. Be the designer of your world and not merely the consumer of it."

I know I'm not alone when I say that I can't wait to get my hands on a barbell and feel safe doing so. Until then, I wish you all good health and happy at-home workouts!