How Working Out at Home Helped Me Get Stronger Than Ever

Find out how one woman doubled how much she could lift in less than one year—for $2 per month.

We independently evaluate all recommended products and services. If you click on links we provide, we may receive compensation. Learn more.

woman holding dumbbell doing bicep curl
Photo: Karla Walsh

Exercise and I have had quite the long-term relationship. I double majored in magazine journalism and kinesiology in college, my first adult job was at FITNESS magazine and I've since earned certifications as personal trainer and group fitness instructor. All of this was in an attempt to help inspire others to find non-punishing, healthy and moderate ways to utilize activity after I spent years abusing myself with it. (Burn off every last calorie you eat! "Earn" those charcuterie board snacks by running an extra 3 miles!) But honestly, I was still overdoing it hardcore on the exercise until a car accident 8 years ago shook me up enough to realize that life is too short to spend all of it at war with your body.

Yet the saying "old habits die hard" is so true, and it still took me about 5 more years of two-steps-forward, one-step back dances with my exercise relationship status before we made peace. The first time I stepped into a CYCLEBAR indoor cycling studio was the first time in ages that working out truly, honestly, 100% felt like fun. It felt like empowerment, strength and 0% about anything to do with calories. So I decided to go through "boot camp" to become an instructor last summer, and did just that from August 2019 until March 2020.

But when the pandemic arrived in Iowa and community spread threatened the well-being of my riders, the passion project lost all of its passion. It was a tough decision, but I chose to step down from teaching to prevent possibly spreading more germs. (ICYMI, one asymptomatic infected rider in a single spin class led to 60 COVID-19 cases.) I knew it was the right thing for me to do to help more of our community be at lower-risk. At the same time, I was thinking, "What will I do without my new fitness love?

Getting Fit at Home

As a freelancer working from home—ahem, working from an 780-square-foot apartment—I needed to get creative. Through this recent discovery of a mode of exercise that didn't feel like punishment, I realized that moving my body was actually a huge part of my self care and stress-relieving strategy.

True, I didn't have much in terms of fancy equipment or space. I did, however, have a lot more time after so many parts of life in 2020 were cancelled (I'm sure many of you can relate). I also had some willpower, a yoga mat, a computer and an 8-pound pair of dumbbells. Within days, I discovered that there are some really tiny-space-friendly, pandemic-approved ways to stay fit.

In mid-March, I began sprinkling in an hour of yoga using the DownDog premium app (free for the basic version or $14.99 per year for premium right now, Google Play and Apple App Store) to fight off the stir-crazies. I also started six days each week with 45 to 60 minutes of strength training or circuits with Sydney Cummings' free YouTube channel before I sat down to write. Both resources cost less than $2 per month total. Ten months later, after consistently testing out new flows and diving into Cummings' massive video archives, I've graduated from 8-pound to 15-pound and 22-pound dumbbells on most lifts, have gained about 2 pounds of muscle and finally, for the first time in my 33 years on this planet, completed a full strict pull-up.

5 Tips to Make Home Workouts Work for You

Rather than being something 10-years-ago-me would have fussed about, the extra two pounds of muscle I've gained are a badge of honor for that time spent on the mat and with my dumbbells. This new physical and mental strength has made me feel solid as a rock—and ready to take on anything this crazy year throws our way next.

Here are five things that helped me make this lifelong goal of feeling ripped a reality:

  1. Make it a habit. Just as you gain strength as you complete repetitions of the same exercise over and over again, exercise can become a habit if you incorporate it into your life often enough. Research proves that about 28 days is the fitness habit-making tipping point for many people. This doesn't mean that you have to sweat at the exact same time or in the exact same way daily, though. Find a few times that might work well for your schedule (say, before the kids wake up in the morning, over lunch, after work but before dinner) and have a couple lighter or shorter options when you're not in the mood to go 100%.
  2. Find something you actually enjoy. There's no right or wrong way to move your body and you need not run a 10K to be "an athlete" or to be your fittest self. Rather than just picking one thing that your neighbor or some celebrity swears will "work," and feeling like "I have to exercise," experiment with strength training, Zumba, Pilates, yoga, CrossFit, Peloton, walking...anything. Hopefully you'll eventually land upon something that inspires you to—at least some days—say, "I want to exercise," or even better, "I get to exercise."
  3. Have a "why" that has nothing to do with a number. Whether it's a certain number on a scale, dress size or a dumbbell pound-level to prove progress, these external goals might not actually be your real desired end. Write down how you'd feel if you'd reach that goal, perhaps it's "empowered," "accomplished" or "strong." Then dive deep: Do you really need that number to feel that way or is this feeling your real goal? The other number-based signs of progress can be icing on the cake (if they're meant to happen at all...not everyone needs to lose inches or pounds!). For me, I know I feel less anxious and more powerful after every workout. Having that carrot at the finish line is a nice nudge on the days I'm not exactly in the mood. (Psst...Discover more about why exercise is so great for your mental health.)
  4. Aim for progress, not perfection. If you miss a workout, miffed up a dance step or need to drop down to a lower set of dumbbells for the day, you're not a failure. Give yourself grace for the time you need to breathe and rebuild, and prepare to come back next time determined to give it your all again.
  5. Reward yourself. Most gym memberships cost between $30 to $200 per month depending on where you live and the amenities that are included, and certain pieces of fancy home gym equipment run $2,000 . If you're exercising at home, you're already saving a lot! So keep that in mind as you build your home gym and your workout apparel library. If you have the financial means to do so (used equipment is often available on Facebook Marketplace or certain thrift shops, by the way), invest a little in what will make you jazzed to sweat and what will help you continue to see progress. And if you stick with your new habit for a set amount of time, treat yourself to something as a "thank you," such as a massage gun (this VYBE Percussion Massage Gun was my Christmas gift to myself!) or a new pair of sneakers.
Was this page helpful?
Related Articles