Ask A Swole Woman is an advice column for people who are sick of clean eating, perfect gym outfits, and chiseled abs. Casey Johnston, who is not a doctor or personal trainer but isn't afraid to tell gym bros to get the hell away from her squat rack, is here to answer all your fitness questions, and wants you to be healthy, enjoy carbs, and get jacked.
I recently moved in with my mother so that I can provide support and hospice care for her. As such, I don't have time to go out to a gym so I've switched to using dumbbells at home every other day. I was wondering what you would recommend for a complete body strength training routine that uses only dumbbells. Also is it better to have multiple sets of different weights? Currently I'm doing: Goblet squats, squat jumps, straight leg lifts, shoulder press and bicep curls at 40 lbs. Thanks so much! -Cameron
You have a tough circumstance, which is that how you spend your time and when you have the freedom to exercise is going to be out of your hands for the foreseeable future (I’m very sorry for your mother). However, I really commend your commitment to trying to continue to take care of yourself even in these emotionally difficult times, and support taking this time for yourself as a way to help maintain your physical and mental well-being.
Working out at home is a tricky concept. There are few hotter SEO topics that indulging people’s imaginations about all the ways they might have the best of both worlds—able to stay in peak physical condition while not having to endure any of the discomforts associated with being in public, fully clothed, fighting for equipment, and enduring the scrutiny of others.
This is more directed at the general audience than the letter writer, but I need to disclose my bias, which is that I think home workouts are kind of bullshit, and I call bullshit in particular on the entire idea of “building a butt” or “chiseling your abs” at home. This is MOSTLY an issue of what these workouts tend to subtly promise (totally transformed bodies with 10 minutes of effort, a few days a week) and what they deliver (probably some health benefits and that’s it). Working out at home is a platonic ideal for many, and while it sounds good in concept, it can actually be harder to execute or maintain when your couch is right there; you need look no further than the innumerable jokes about home ellipticals and basement treadmills and office Pelotons being way more likely to end up as clothing trees than actual tools for working out.
My personal bias aside: I think there is a lot to be gotten from giving physical activity a real place of privilege in your schedule and devoting a good chunk of time and attention to it, rather than trying to stuff it into the hairline cracks in your life. There are many more benefits that come from working out other than getting your blood pumping, or even building strength: you are creating time for your own interests, and giving yourself an opportunity to check out mentally and focus on very simple tasks. These are abstract concepts, but putting on real, purpose-built workout clothes and going to a real, purpose-built location have tangible benefits that sweating to a fitness influencer’s YouTube video may not. If you are really trying to get in shape, home workouts or workouts in rinky-dink gyms are better thought of as (legitimate, sometimes necessary!) stop-gaps than as holistic paths forward. I’m framing this answer assuming you're looking to keep up some level of training/upward fitness mobility, not that you just want to do some moving around (in which case you don’t really need my guidance).
It’s tough to build a lot of strength or otherwise make progress without the incremental weights you find at a gym; it’s possible, especially for upper-body stuff because your upper body muscles are relatively small and your whole body is a much better counterweight for them than for your much stronger and more capable leg muscles (I’ve talked about this before). The idea that you will vastly change your body composition and lose a lot of fat, or get in really excellent shape at home, is probably unrealistic unless you have a really extensive setup. But a few inexpensive home tools and specific movements can go a long way.
Working out at home, you can run the risk of “majoring in the minors,” which means putting a lot of effort and intensity into activities that just don’t have that much payoff. One non-exercise example of this would be rigorously organizing and cleaning your home’s two closets when your actual living room, bedroom, and kitchen are cluttered with junk you don’t need. An exercise example of this would be, going absolutely nuts doing bicep curls when those only work a single small muscle in your arm, when you could do bench presses or pullups to work lots of muscles at once, resulting in more functional strength overall for about the same time investment. Another example would be doing a billion crunches imagining that this is the move that will finally “give you abs,” when visible abs are more about how low your body fat is than how much you work those muscles. Whole-body strength training will change your body fat much more effectively than just running your teeny ab muscles into the ground.
Therefore, it’s important to make sure you prioritize compound movements—movements that work muscle systems, not individual muscles—as a core component of your routine. The sub-benefit here as well is saving time: You could learn like seven different movements to work all the same muscles as a bench press, or you could just… learn to bench press. People shy away from these bigger movements—squat, bench, deadlift, row, overhead press—because they think they’re too “hardcore,” but if you want to talk about an efficient workout, you will get a lot more done in less time if you accept them as the way forward.
In that vein, you’re already doing pretty well! Goblet squats and squat jumps are some of the best movements you can do for your lower body when all you have is dumbbells. You could also try lunge variations, split squats, step-ups, and deadlift variations. My dumb tip is if you google “tk exercise dumbbell variation,” Al Gore’s internet will tell you how to accomplish virtually anything you might normally do in the gym using plates and barbells with dumbbells instead; all the relative-difficulty warnings still apply, and when you reach a certain strength threshold it will eventually become too awkward to hold heavy-enough dumbells; just for instance, I still can’t dumbbell squat more than two 40lb dumbbells because they are too hard and awkward to hold, but surpassed that weight in a barbell squat after about two months of thrice-weekly gym sessions. For your upper body, you could work in some chest presses (if you don’t have a bench, you can press just lying on the floor; the range of motion isn’t as big but it’s not nothing), pushups, row variations, and, yes, some of the bro-ier accessories like curls or tricep extensions. If you’re able to get your hands on a pullup bar that can be installed in a doorway, great. Suspension straps can also be a fairly inexpensive way to add some intensity; learning to do a pullup is hard but doable with just a pullup bar, and the straps will allow you do some more intense types of rows as well as things like chest flys, if you’re feeling that.
You may be confused about how to organize all this info into a routine; my personal approach in this scenario would be to get in three sets of 8-10 reps of four movements, two upper body and two lower body. You can “super-set,” or alternate them to make them go quicker (e.g. do a set of split squats, then a set of overhead presses, so one half your body is resting while the other is working). If you want a little more instruction, there are a number of dumbbell/bodyweight routines you can try that will more specifically tell you which movements to do when; much of what’s publicly available has been cobbled together by normal people as opposed to big-deal personal trainers, but this is because a lot of proprietary fitness content involves needlessly dressing up the basics, when the basics will get you very far (at least until you are very fit, very bored, or both). But the basics can truly lay the groundwork to get your body’s muscles working together in ways that will noticeably pay off in your daily life. Here is a balanced novice-level dumbbell program, and a couple of dumbbell program variations courtesy of the r/fitness subreddit. If you need to start even slower, without dumbbells, Nerd Fitness has a nice progression of modified bodyweight movements that build to more difficult versions (this won’t get you far in terms of fitness progress and is more of the “get moving” variety of exercise, but if you’re starting from zero, it'll onramp you to real weights). On that note, there is something to be said for bodyweight exercises too; though I find the movements tough to do, you might find it fun to try some of these things out. Here is another very simple beginner-type dumbbell routine from SELF.
If I had any caveat about home workouts (and there are plenty in here already), it would be that human bodies are able to get stronger and more capable faster than many people think, and the equipment that will give them the results they are picturing is actually kind of extensive; more than a few resistance bands and dumbbells, anyway. It’s possible to go from lifting no weight to lifting a hundred pounds—in some cases—in a matter of weeks, and it won't make you veiny and overly tan the way a lot of fitness-related media suggests. Restricting yourself to home workouts for the long term may mean shortchanging yourself on achieving your own fitness goals and potential, and there is a lot to be learned from asserting yourself in a gym-type space, not to mention friends to make, and a sense of personal validation to tap into. On-ramping yourself in small doses to new habits can be helpful, but it’s important to be careful about being stingy with your time and desires—only allowing yourself tiny half-nibbles—when you actually might need to take one big chomp in order to make the new habits stick. But other times, when those habits are built and you aren’t just being sort of cruel to yourself, this is a great time to be patient and maintaining your strength in different ways until you can make it back to the gym.
Update 3/15/2020: This post has been updated with more at-home bodyweight workout information.
Disclaimer: Casey Johnston is not a doctor, nutritionist, dietitian, personal trainer, physiotherapist, psychotherapist, doctor, or lawyer; she is simply someone who done a lot of, and read a lot about, lifting weights.