Simple Strength for Difficult Times: An 8-Week Progressive Plan

These are difficult times for everyone. The COVID-19 emergency has already forced home half of the world, and it’s rapidly spreading. In January 2020, the infection seemed to be circumscribed in China. But within a month, it reached the rest of Asia, then the Middle East, Italy, and finally the rest of Europe. To date, the contagion keeps extending, knocking at doors across the US, Canada, and several other countries.

Each one of us has to do his or her part to help contain the infection. It doesn’t matter whether you personally fear the virus itself, its widespread economic repercussions, or you believe it’s just “another” flu. It is not only about you. It is about your family and children, your friends, your co-workers. It’s about the first responders and all of those involved in healthcare, who are risking every day their own lives to protect ours.

But what can we do? What does “doing our part” mean if we are not first responders, medical doctors or nurses, and have no knowledge of medical matters? The answer is easy. Doing our part means following the instructions of our governments and of the agencies and organizations in charge of taking care of everyone’s health. And those instructions are to be followed to the letter, with commitment and full trust.

Fabio Zonin Pistol

Do What YOU Can

But we can probably do more, or at least many of us can, according to our area of expertise. I am a strength coach, and as such, I am also involved in people’s health, at least up to a certain degree. It has been shown that the great majority of COVID-19 related deaths happened to those who already presented with a clinical picture compromised by various pathologies. In contrast, those who were strong and healthy before becoming infected have a significantly more favorable prognosis. From my vantage point, this indicates that proper training and nutrition may play a very important role in fighting the disease. This is where I can play a part: by helping people stay strong or become even stronger.

But how can I do this, given that an increasing number of countries have tightened restrictions aimed at combatting the threat, including temporarily closing gyms and forcing people in isolation (or at least encouraging social distancing) at their homes?

By the way, as I’m writing this I am also in isolation and only allowed to leave home for necessary shopping such as groceries and to the pharmacy. And if I do venture out, in addition to wearing a mask and keeping a minimum of one meter (3.3ft) distance from anyone, I must carry a self-certification document in which I clearly indicate the place where I’m going and the reason why I’m going there. If I am caught without that document, or if the reason for which I’m leaving home isn’t considered important enough by the public authorities, I will have to pay a fine and I may also be arrested.

How can I help others if I am also home-bound, and all I have available here is a pullup bar and an incomplete set of kettlebells?

Fabio Zonin Press

I decided to design and share a complete but very flexible plan, that allows you to train and become stronger in any environment and with whatever you have available, whether it is a power rack with a bar and a full set of plates, kettlebells, or just your bodyweight. And of course, if you live in a country without restrictions and gym access, this plan will work well for you also.

A StrongFirst Plan Rather than a Collection of Workouts

Yes, I know, given the international circumstances there are literally thousands of trainers out there who are posting plans and workouts that can be done comfortably at home, and many of them are great. But I’m sharing mine anyway in part because more choices are better than zero choices (as those in isolation can attest), and in part because I wanted to provide an option of a plan in a perfect StrongFirst style.

I also noticed that what many are sharing are basically workouts. While these may be great in the short term, given that this situation is probably (and unfortunately) going to last for more than just a few days, my plan is an 8-week structured progression that leads to some final tests and measurable results.

And by the way, it is exactly the plan I’m following now!

Let’s take a look at it.

The Plan

The plan is based upon three movement patterns, one squat, one press, and one pull.

For each one of the movement patterns, according to your strength and skill level and to the available equipment, you have to pick one kettlebell, one barbell, or one bodyweight exercise.

This table presents a list of options:

For kettlebell and barbell exercises, use a weight that equals to your 8-10 technical rep maximum (TRM). If you don’t have that weight available, switch to a different exercise.

Please note that when I say 8-10TRM I mean a weight which allows you to perform 8-10 perfect reps to technical exhaustion. If you are unsure about what that means, check this article before moving forward.

For bodyweight exercises you must select the appropriate variation—progression or regression—that equals to your 8-10TRM.

For instance, if you choose to do pushups as your press exercise, you must decide whether you will perform them on the ground, on an elevation (stair or box), or with your feet elevated, according to which one of these variations matches your 8-10TRM. 

With the purpose of giving you a better idea, I’m sharing below my personal selections.

This is what I have available:

  • Pullup bar
  • 12kg kettlebell—one
  • 16kg kettlebell—one pair
  • 24kg kettlebell—one pair
  • 28kg kettlebell—one
  • 32kg kettlebell—one
  • 36kg kettlebell—one
  • 40kg kettlebell—one

These are my selections:

  • Squat pattern—pistol, with a 24kg kettlebell
  • Press pattern—one arm military press, with a 40kg kettlebell
  • Pull pattern—weighted pullups, with a 16kg kettlebell

Let’s now take a look at the weekly schedule:

Strength Plan Weekly Schedule

Please note that “heavy”, “medium,” and “lightrefer to the volume and not to the intensity. This means that the weights—or the exercise variations in case of bodyweight moves—will remain the same for the entire plan.

Here is the 8-week plan, which is based on repetition ladders:

The three exercises are to be executed in a slow-circuit fashion. This means that you will do a set of the squat of your choice, shake off the tension, take some rest, do a set of your chosen press, shake off the tension and rest, and do a set of your selected pull.

Once you’ve completed the three exercise circuit, the round is over. Take a longer rest before you start the next round.

You should rest about 1 minute after the sets of 2 and 4 reps, and 1-2 minutes after the sets of 6 reps. At the end of each round, you may rest more, up to 2-3 minutes, before starting the next.

For instance, let’s say that I’m about to start Session B of week 2 of my plan, with my chosen exercises:

Sample Session B

My session would call for 2 ladders of 2, 6, 2 reps for the pistol, 2 ladders of 2, 4, 6 reps for the press, and 2 ladders of 2, 4, 2 reps for the pullup.

Here’s how I would do it.

Ladder one, Round one

  • Pistol—2 reps per side
  • 1-minute rest, including fast and loose drills
  • Press—2 reps per side
  • 1-minute rest, including fast and loose drills
  • Pullup—2 reps
  • 2-minute rest, including fast and loose drills

Ladder one, Round two

  • Pistol—6 reps per side
  • 1-minute rest, including fast and loose drills
  • Press—4 reps per side
  • 1-minute rest, including fast and loose drills
  • Pullup—4 reps
  • 2-minute rest, including fast and loose drills

Ladder one, Round three

  • Pistol—2 reps per side
  • 1-minute rest, including fast and loose drills
  • Press—6 reps per side
  • 1-minute rest, including fast and loose drills
  • Pullup—2 reps
  • 2-minute rest, including fast and loose drills

After adequate rest, I would repeat for my second ladder.

What to Do on Alternative Days

You have several choices for the days between your main training sessions. However, no matter what you choose to do, be sure to make them “easy days.” You need to recover from your main sessions—forget about doing “finishers.”

If you have kettlebells, the ultimate option is doing swings. You may do them with two hands, one hand, in a dead-stop fashion, etc. But take it easy.

Here is one of Pavel’s swing protocols that complements this plan:

Two-hand Swings

  • Heavy—32-48kg for men, 24-32kg for women
  • Maximally explosive
  • 7 reps on the top of the minute (1:5 work to rest ratio)
  • 15 sets

You may also add get-ups if you wish.

Personally, I’m doing “timeless” Simple and Sinister, which calls for 100 one-hand swings in sets of 10, and 10 get-ups in single reps, without well-defined rest intervals, but resting according to the talk test.

Actually, I use the “sing test” instead, meaning that I start the next set when I have recovered enough to being able to sing along the heavy metal songs of my MP3 player.

I do my swings and get-ups with a relatively light weight. Again, the goal is to recover between the main training sessions.

If you don’t have kettlebells, you may of course do something else. One of my favorite choices when kettlebells aren’t readily available is crawling. I usually do short crawling sprints in different directions, with a generous rest between sprints. There are several reasons for it, but I will save them for another article.

Finally, feel free to include your favorite correctives and stretches in your “easy days” routine.

Testing

The plan is structured in such a way that the volume builds up gradually in time, and peaks at week 6. Week 7 is a de-load week and week 8 is devoted to testing.

You will test your squat on Session A, your press on Session B, and your pull on Session C.

Given that the plan is flexible, at least as far as the exercise selection goes, the tests are also designed to be so.

If you have a barbell and a set of plates or a full set of kettlebells available, and provided that your chosen exercises are done with these modalities, you may attempt a 1-3TRM test and shoot for a PR. If this is the case, it’s important that you perform the same test prior to starting the plan.

If instead you have a limited selection of weights, or you have opted for bodyweight exercises, you may test your TRM and still shoot for a PR. Also in this case, it’s important that you perform the same type of test prior to starting the plan.

You may also decide to test your 1-3TRM in some exercises and your TRM in others, according to your initial choices as far as for exercises and your available selection of weights.

In my case, for instance, at the end of the plan I will test my TRM in the pistol and the press, and my 1-3RM in the pullups. This is because I only have kettlebells up to 40kg, and my current pistol and press 1-3RMs are already above that weight.

Fabio Zonin Pullup

Final Words

Whether you live in an area that is facing the virus emergency and you are home-bound due to the imposed restrictions, or in a safe area which allows you to train at a gym, I hope you will give this plan a shot and enjoy some very good results. And in case you hadn’t yet realized, with the 8 exercise variations I provided for each pattern, you have over a year of training sessions ready to go. Simply follow up a week of de-loading with a new trifecta for each new 8-week cycle.

Finally, no matter where you live, train well, eat healthy, get strong, always be respectful of the rules, and care about others. Being healthy and part of a community are gifts that we too often take for granted. We realize how important they are only when we are at risk of losing them or have already lost them. Be smart, value these gifts while you own them.

Stay safe. Stay strong.

You may also like

Fabio Zonin
Fabio Zonin is a Master StrongFirst Certified Instructor. He is a former powerlifter, natural bodybuilder, and owner of fitness centers. He was the first Italian to accomplish the Beast Tamer Challenge and has been a Master Teacher for FIF (Italian Federation of Fitness) for almost two decades (1994-2012).

He is the Former vice president of the AINBB (Italian Association of Natural Bodybuilding), and has trained many athletes at national and international level in natural bodybuilding, powerlifting and other sports.

He has authored numerous articles for Italian popular magazines and websites dedicated to fitness, bodybuilding, and strength training, and has worked with to leading Italian companies in the field of sports equipment, body composition evaluation software, and nutritional supplements.

55 thoughts on “Simple Strength for Difficult Times: An 8-Week Progressive Plan

  • I am going to give this a whirl. All I have is a 55lb KB, 35lb DM and a set of rings. Just curious what you mean by “fast and loose drills” Thanks for the post.

  • Hi Fabio, is it possible to add some form of a hip hinge based exercise to the program with the same set and rep scheme while keeping the other three drills?

    I don’t have access to a KB right now and in any case, I’m not proficient with swings.

    Thank you very much!

    • Hi Francesco!

      I didn’t include a hip hinge based exercise in part for the sake of minimalism and in part because I am suggesting swings on alternate days.

      However, you may certainly add a hip hinge movement with the same with the same set and rep scheme while keeping the other three exercises.

      If you decide to do so, I would switch to 4 sessions per week, done in the following manner.

      Session A
      Squat (Heavy)
      Press (Medium)
      Hinge (Light)

      Session B
      Pull (Heavy)
      Squat (Medium)
      Press (Light)

      Session C
      Hinge (Heavy)
      Pull (Medium)
      Squat (Light)

      Session D
      Press (heavy)
      Hinge (Medium)
      Pull (Light)

      I hope this helps

  • Thank you Fabio! My wife and I have been struggling to find a solid program since our gym closed. This matches our needs perfectly! I have chosen goblet squats (24kg), feet elevated pushups, and chinups. Swings as described above on alternate days (32kg). Stay strong and safe brother! BTW, great music taste. Exodus is my all time fave! 🤘🏻

  • Dear Fabio,
    thank you very much for sharing this great program.
    I’ve a question about it: once I’ve selected the three options among the movement patterns, is it possible to change this option each different week? For example, first week : bb front squat – kb one arm press – bw pull ups; second week: bb back squat – kb dbl press – bw chin ups…..
    Thanks again, best regards.
    Cristina

    • Thank you, Cristina!

      Yes, you may do that if you wish, but I don’t personally see it as the best choice.

      While changing exercises every week may sound more entertaining, it will end up turning an organized strength plan into a bunch of workouts.
      It is hard to make progress if you keep swapping among different skills.

      “Continuity of the training process” and consistency are fundamental for making progress.

      For that above I suggest that you stick to the same skills for the entire plan.

      I hope you will find my explanation helpful.

  • Fabio,

    Thank you for this resource!

    I have chosen 32kg goblet squat, 24kg military press, and barbell deadlift (as the pull) at 75% 1RM and half the reps in the chart (e.g. 1,2,3 instead of 2,4,6).

    I find it to be a meditative, almost palliative structure in these stressful times. So far I leave every session recharged and “stimulated” rather than “annihilated”.

    • You are welcome, Sean!

      Good choice for the deadlift (I wish I had a barbell home). I suggested a 2, 4, 6 ladder because most people don’t have access to heavy enough weights at home. But since that you do, the 1, 2, 3 ladder work perfectly.

      Grate to hear that you are feel recharged and stimulated at the end of each session, you make me feel proud, Sir.

      Thank you!

  • Thank you for the great article, Fabio.

    Out of curiosity: do you listen to Gojira? Any heavy metal recommendations?

    Thanks!

    • Hi Nathan,

      Actually I have never listened to Gojira, but I’ll check them out right away!

      I’m a big fan of heavy metal bands from the 80s, and my favorite bands are Iron Maiden, Accept, Judas Priest, Ozzy Osbourne, R. J. Dio, Manowar, Helloween, etc. Out of the new bands I am a big fan of Sabaton, a Swedish band.

  • By far the best Article I’ve read on Home Training during these hard timed! Thank you very much Mr Zonin!

    Normally I’m not the one to change a Plan, but due to personal preferences and circumstances I really would like to do BW-Pullups with a supinated Grip. At home, I just have a Pullup-Bar in the Doorway and therefore I can’t add load unfortunately.
    My Max are 20 Pullups. Would it be ok to just do them with some higher Reps? Like 6, 9 and 12 Reps or maybe even 8, 10 and 12 Reps instead of the 2, 4, and 6 Reps as in the other exercises or wpuld this destroy the whole program?
    My other option would be one-arm KB-Rows with the 32kg-Kettlebell. Those I could do exactly as written in the program, but I really prefer the Pull-Ups.
    My other choices are Goblet-Squats (32kg), KB-Press (one arm a time, 24kg) and two-handed Kettlebell-Swings on the off days.

    • Thank you, Nicolas!

      Yes, you may use one of the following ladder schemes for your pullups and keep them as they are for your squat and presses.
      3, 5, 8
      3, 6, 9
      4, 6, 10
      5, 7, 12
      As you see in all of those above, the third digit is the sum of the first two.

      I would rather stay with the first two options, though, as I fear that too high reps will lead to too much lactic acid accumulation, which may compromise your ability to complete the following rounds with perfect technique.

      I also suggest that you always keep the pullup as the last exercise of the round (as it actually is in the original plan) and keep a long rest (no less than 3 minutes) after you did your set, before you start the next round.

      • I already started yesterday evening with the first training, i planned to do the Chin-Ups with a 6/8/10 ladder, so that meant 6, 8, 6 reps x2.
        It was pretty easy, but it was of course the easy day for the Pull and the first week, so I think I’m gonna change it to the 4/6/10 or 3/6/9 rep scheme
        Already looking forward to the KB-Swings today.

        Thank you very much for you kind feedback!
        Greetings from Switzerland

  • Superb Article,

    I am new to the website. What are your thoughts in the single leg deadlift as a squat variation as this is an option for me?

    • Thank you, Sir.

      Actually the single leg deadlift falls within the category of hip hinge movement patterns.

      However, if you are not planning to do other hip hinges on alternate days—in the article I suggested the swing—you may pick that one instead of a squat variation.

  • Thank you very much! Liked very much the simplicity of the program

    Is it possible to “rinse and repeat”? How would you do that?

    • You mean run through the plan a second time once you have finished it?

      Of course you can, and you have two options for doing it. Once you have tested your results, you can either:
      a) Start from the beginning with heavier weights or harder progressions of the same exercises. How heavier/harder depends on your results. You will use your new 8-10TRMs.
      b) Select different exercises for your squat, press and pull and go from there.

    • Hi Marcin,

      Yes you may.

      I would still prefer doing them on alternate days. But if that’s not an option for you, adding them at the end of the session will work.

      However, since this is a strength plan, I would not do them in a “finisher” fashion, but according to the guidelines I provided in the article.

  • This is an amazing article. It reminds me of Joe Kenns Tier System structure and is how I am converting my training over to kettlebells during these hard times.

  • Thanks for the great article and training program !
    Today I am starting second week. My drills of choice: Goblet squat, Banded Push Ups, Dead Stop Clean

    Strong Endurance on alternate days. Switching between two arm and one arm swings

    So far so good 🙂

  • Thank you for the pull/press/pull progression with leaving swings for alternate days.

    I have been doing swings/dbl kb presses / squats / renegade rows on the same day and by the time I get to the rows I’m shot :p

    Have to get over my love of heavy swings for warm up and move to a more balanced program.

    Cheers

  • Many thanks not only for the well thought out and cleaarly described training plan which I am sure I will benefit from, but also the kind, measured and sensible advice and encouragement. We are a community among mnay communities all of whom need to come together globally to mange this pandemic.
    Stay safe, stay well, and with your help stay strong.

  • Hi thanks a lot for sharing. I just tried one of the days and am a bit puzzled by the rep range. 2 reps for a squat seems somewhat low. I am used to powerlifting-type workout and 2-rep range is more of a 85-90% RM.

    So for 1st week Friday (C) for example it would be 2 squats + 2 presses + 2 pulls for the first round?

    Or am I misunderstanding somehow?

    • You are welcome, sir.

      The reps range from 2 to 6 for all exercises and the weight to be used is an 8-10TRM, so around 75-80%1RM.

      What varies is the buffer, which is high when one does the sets of 2 and low when he/she does the sets of 6.

      A high buffer allows to preform many sets with perfect technique and therefore a high-quality and high-volume training.

      Session C calls for light squats (please remember that heavy, medium and light in this plan refer to the volume and not to the weight) and therefore the reps are low.

      Session A instead calls for heavy squats and there are some sets of 6.

      Moving forward with the weeks there are more and more sets of 4 and 6. This applies to the squat and also to the other exercises.

      I hope this explains.

  • Great plan! I’ve already initiated it, and I’m wondering if rest between sets would be less than a minute, like few breaths?

    • Thank you for appreciating it.

      Yes, given that the three exercises involve different body parts you may compress the rest between exercises in one round.

      But then you will have to take a longer rest between rounds in order to avoid excessive lactic acid accumulation. It’s intended to be a strength plan, not a metcon.

      One option is, in case you are using kettlebells, that of turning it into a double ketlebell complex. E.g. double kettlebell front squat + double kettlebell press + renegade row. In this case, however, you will have to usa a weight adjusted in order to allow you to perform all the prescribed reps in your weakest exercise, which will most likely be the press.

      If you have barbells available and you are able to perform a power clean you may turn this into a barbell complex also. E.g. front squat + military press (or push press) + row.

      I hope this helps.

  • My girlfriend is a nurse and we are planning on the possibility of two weeks or more in quarantine. This article is a perfect fit for our planning.

  • Thanks for this! 2 quick questions:

    1. is there any disadvantage to increasing the duration between Rounds e.g. 7 min., 15 min. or 30 min. between each Round?
    2. Thinking of GTG, could this be modified from a circuit to 3 exercises done throughout the day, perhaps under lighter load?

  • This is why I love Strongfirst. You are always looking at the bigger picture and leading from the front. Keep doing what you do!

    Right, off to do my armour building.

    Craig

  • Thank you very much for sharing the program! Looks really good! I do think you should record some of your heavy metal singing, though!

    Strength to you, and to all of us!

  • Thank you so much for writing and sharing this program! I was looking for something like this. I did S&S for several months about two years ago and I was looking for something similar do to at home during these hard times.

  • Thank you so much for sharing.

    My fiance and I are going to make the best use of our time to start our fitness journey together.

    Both of us are in our late 40’s and moderately overweight. Is this a good program for “beginners”. (we both have previously been very fit and have lots of experience with exercise)

    Thank you again!

  • Thank you for this! I’m on my second run through Reload right now after seeing some fantastic results with the first run. I’ve also shared your programming (I made them buy it) with two friends and they are enjoying every sesh. We appreciate the hard work!

  • Thank you very much for sharing.

    But why not use the time at home for some hypertrophy work? Enough time to cook, eat, sleep. This. sounds perfect for a full hypertrophy cycle.

    Is it able to change the rep ranges? Or better do something different?

Leave a Comment (Ladies and Gentlemen Only):

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam on comments and reviews. Learn how your data is processed.