Renaissance Periodization Gym-Free Review

It's time for another workout program review!  I've been sort of jumping around and experimenting a little as I get more experienced, so there's not a lot of consistency in what I'm reviewing here.  But that's OK.  If nothing else, it gives others an idea of what the different options out there look like.

Today, we're going to talk about the Gym-Free training template from Renaissance Periodization.  I first learned about RP from their YouTube channel, where I frequently listen to Dr. Mike Israetel explain fitness and muscle building concepts.  In addition to having lots of interesting information, I enjoy his dry sense of humor.

General Structure

The RP gym-free program is, as the name suggests, intended to be done from home.  It's a six-week program that is designed to be do-able with nothing but a pair of dumbbells.  Obviously it's easier if you have a range of weights available (either a set of dumbbells or an adjustable one), but the program includes guidance on what to do if you have limited weight available. I actually did three rounds of this, which I'll talk more about below. 

When you purchase the plan, you select two option: your sex (there's a men's plan and a women's plan) and how many days per week you want to train, between two and six.  I chose the men's plan at four days per week, so that's what I'll be reviewing.  I assume the other options probably have a similar structure, but I have not seen them.  In the 4-day version, there is no split - every workout is total-body.  

As I mentioned, this is a six-week program, but you only get one week of workouts.  You do a different workout each day of the week, and then progress the next week by doing the same workout, but adding one set of each exercise.  After being used to the Athlean-X programs, this put me off a bit at first.  After a while, though, I actually came to like it.  Doing the same workout each week means that you can more easily see your progress in terms of getting stronger and gives you more practice in refining your technique for each exercise.

The exercises themselves were mostly old classics - pushup variations, rows, deadlifts, squats, lateral raises, etc.  Nothing crazy or exotic here.  Again, this was a change from the almost pathological variety in programs like AX, but I actually found that I enjoyed the consistency and focus on the basics.  

The most interesting thing about the workouts is the structure.  There's a little bit of variation between days, but the basic pattern is three exercises for myoreps and then three sets of supersets.   I was not familiar with the concept of myoreps and the program doesn't really use the text-book version of them, but the idea is that you take almost no rest time.  So you take the first set to failure, rest for only 5 - 10 seconds, and then immediately start the next set, repeating until you finish all the tests.  You follow those up with supersets, which involve doing two exercises back-to-back with no rest.  So you'd do exercise 1 to failure and immediately transition to exercise 2 and that would be one set.  Then you rest for 30 seconds and do the next set.

As I mentioned above, progression is done by adding sets.  So the first week, you do two sets of each exercise.  That's 6 total sets of myoreps plus 6 sets of supersets for a total of 18 sets.  The next week you do three of everything.  Then four, then five, then six.  On the sixth week, you get a deload week, so you only do one set of everything.  After completing the first cycle, the recommended progression is to start again, but add another set every week, so starting at 3 and going up to 7.

Program Presentation

In terms of the actual product you get and use, the RP gym-free plan is pretty basic.  (I haven't used their other templates, but I would assume they're similar.)  Basically, you just get a few PDF files and a spreadsheet.  That's it.  I got a one-page "orientation" PDF, a two-page FAQ PDF, an Excel spreadsheet for progress tracking, and a four-page PDF of the actual workouts (one page per day).  The workout PDF did include links to YouTube videos demonstrating each of the exercises, but the videos were very short (just 10 - 20 seconds or so) and didn't include more than a sentence or two of instructions or commentary.

I found this presentation to be...fine.  I mean, it conveys the required information, which is all you really need.  It would have been nice to have some more detail or discussion in some of the demo videos, as there were a few things I had to figure out for myself.  (The extra discussion and background was actually my favorite part about the Athlean-X programs.)  On the up side, the workout PDF looks nice and is laid out well, so it's good as a reference tool.  The general feeling I got from the materials was that this was written by and for people with some weight lifting experience.  It wasn't unfriendly to less experienced lifters, but it didn't do a whole lot of hand-holding.

In terms of tracking the workouts, I tried using the Excel sheet for a few weeks, but ended up just writing them down in a notebook.  I found that using the sheet was a little awkward on my tablet.  I mean, you can do it, but trying to type into Excel sheet cells on a touch screen while you're sweaty and breathing hard isn't great.  I guess I could have printed out the spreadsheets, but that seemed like too much trouble.  I had a spare spiral notebook laying around, so I just hand-wrote my own table with the same information.  I found that easier to do in the moment and easier to look back at, because you can just turn the page rather than having to scroll up and down.

My Experience

I found this to be a very challenging program.  As I mentioned, I did three rounds of this.  The second round, I increased the weight I was using and continued doing the same number of sets.  The third time, I increased the number of tests.

As you might have noticed, but the time you get to week 5 of this program, you're getting a lot of volume.  That's six sets of everything, which comes to 54 sets in all.  When I did the set-bump for my third round, week five was 7 sets of everything for a total of 63 sets.  That's one workout.  Granted, the myorep sets tend to be short (because you're going to failure on the first one and not resting), but that's still a lot of sets.

The good part of this is that it really works - I'm no expert, but from my understanding, volume is one of the big drivers of hypertrophy.  So if you can maintain the level of intensity, adding more sets is likely to lead to more muscle development.  And I feel like I did see some noticeable growth from doing three rounds of this program.  I certainly noticed some increases in strength.

Sadly, there are also some down sides to this approach.  The first is that all this volume can really drag out the workouts.  By week five of my third round, I was closing in on 90 minutes per workout.  And even on the first round, it was around an hour by week 5.  So if you're habitually pressed for time, this might not be a great program for you.

My more serious problem, though, was fatigue.  This program has you doing a lot of sets, and they're all to failure.  I frequently found myself exhausted and sore after workouts and managed to mildly injure myself a couple of times.  It was just a couple of minor pulls or tweaks - not enough to stop me from working out, but enough to make me adapt my form for a couple of exercises.  But still, it underscores that it's important to be mindful of your form, especially as you get more tired.

But it wasn't just getting tired during the workouts.  Although there was a lot of that.  By the end of the program (especially round three), I was getting more out of breath from lifting weights than get from running.  But there was also a lot of carry over of that fatigue from one workout to the next.  This meant that I wasn't able to keep up the same level of intensity though the entire program.  I fact, I noticed that even with the same weight, the number of reps I could do on the first set of an exercise started to fall over the weeks.

Never having done a deload week before, I was a little skeptical when I saw that on the program, but by week five it was pretty clear to me that this was absolutely necessary.  And as a matter of fact, I found that one week was barely sufficient at best.  After the third round, I didn't feel like I'd fully recovered until the second or third week of the next program!

To sum up

Overall, I liked this program.  It was pretty no-frills, but I feel like I learned a lot and made good strength progress.  However, it's very challenging and I had some trouble recovering from the workouts.  Your mileage may vary.  Definitely worth the money, though.

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