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Muscles without reinventing myself
December 2, 2009 9:50 AM   Subscribe

What's the simplest way to build muscle without becoming an exercise person? Please read my whiny, pigheaded conditions inside.

I've known plenty of exercise people. They spend as much time at the gym as at home (or they have a home gym). They're always counting calories and talking about protein shakes and supplements. When they "hang out" with people it invariably involves running, biking, working out, or playing sports. I'm sure these folks have very fulfilling lives and get a lot out of that sort of lifestyle/mindset. I, however, have no desire to be like them. I have other interests that I don't want to replace with always thinking about fitness and doing fitness-y things.

I also have no extra money that I'm willing to spend on fitness-y things like equipment or health food or gym memberships. I hate structured workout routines that involve counting and repeating sets of motions (i.e., "do 10 sets of 10 reps"). I can do something for a certain amount of time but I'd rather not have to keep track of how many X's are left to do before I stop.

How can a stubborn guy like me build some muscle mass? Not looking to bulk up here, just get some definition and maybe strengthen my immune system a bit. Primarily focusing on my arms and abs. I'm a skinny ectomorph who eats whatever he wants and never gains weight. I can do about 10 pushups. I can run full speed for maybe a minute before I'm completely out of breath and sick to my stomach. I don't smoke and rarely drink. Out of shape but mostly healthy. I used to take Aikido lessons and loved them to death but I can't afford to resume that now.

I suppose this sounds like I'm looking for an effective, effortless miracle workout. I realize that, like weight-loss milkshakes, there's no such thing, and I'm willing to work to see some improvement. What I'm really asking for is something I can do that doesn't feel like a workout or require thinking like an exercise person, or acting like one, or restructuring my whole life like one. Is this a pie-in-the-sky request?
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis to Health & Fitness (65 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
 
May I gently suggest that focusing on the people who also exercise might be a defense mechanism to avoid working on it?

Just get a flat bench, three sets of dumbells and do circuit training. You can count reps or not, but you need to exercise to gain muscle mass and definition.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:55 AM on December 2, 2009


There's some counting, but you seem like a good candidate for Shovelglove. I haven't done this personally, but have had it recommended by several proponents.
posted by dirtdirt at 9:55 AM on December 2, 2009 [3 favorites]


Shovelglove. 14 minutes a workout, that's it.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:55 AM on December 2, 2009


What I'm really asking for is something I can do that doesn't feel like a workout or require thinking like an exercise person, or acting like one, or restructuring my whole life like one

Have you considered getting a job which requires you to be active and lift heavy things?

Also, the "exercise person" thing is confirmation bias. You don't notice those who work out who aren't like that because they don't stand out.
posted by ODiV at 9:57 AM on December 2, 2009


You could try climbing. It's great exercise, builds muscle, and is a whole helluva lot of fun. You don't count anything, you just hang out and climb some shit.

Also, you may want to get a random pull-up bar that you can put in your house/apartment/abode. They have some great ones that fit right over your door frame. Whenever you're just hanging around go knock off as many pull-ups as you can do and then get back to whatever it was you were doing. If you really want to destroy your abs, try doing those pullups with your legs extended in front of you.
posted by scrutiny at 9:58 AM on December 2, 2009 [2 favorites]


I can do something for a certain amount of time but I'd rather not have to keep track of how many X's are left to do before I stop.

How about "Do X until you are tired, then do it a little more; take a break, then do X some more until you are tired again"? The act of doing a pushup has a much greater impact on your health than the act of counting it.
posted by Meg_Murry at 9:59 AM on December 2, 2009


Swim. You don't have to count anything if you don't want to. Just swim at a given rate until you're tired. The faster you swim, the more of a workout your muscles get.
posted by zippy at 10:02 AM on December 2, 2009


2nding Shovelglove. The best non-workout workout on the planet.
posted by torquemaniac at 10:04 AM on December 2, 2009


The point of counting exercises is to ensure you do enough to actually get your muscles to fail as opposed to just "being tired". if I biked until I was tired I'd go for about five minutes. Instead, I keep going. I get tired after 2 minutes of swimming. I'm equally tired 40 minutes later. There's a reason people count reps and time exercises.

What you want does not exist.
posted by GuyZero at 10:06 AM on December 2, 2009


Shovelglove looks like it was invented to keep physiotherapists in business. Enjoy pulling your back out.
posted by GuyZero at 10:06 AM on December 2, 2009 [3 favorites]


In case it wasn't obvious, the whole "exercise people" thing was facetious and heavily couched in HAMBURGER. My noticing these folks is definitely confirmation bias too. Jokes aside, I'm hoping to get some tips as to what "normal people" do to stay fit without becoming those "exercise people" I described. Shovelglove looks like a great invention. The other comments here so far also also very helpful!
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 10:06 AM on December 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


Google 'hotel workout' and eat lots of tuna.
posted by the cuban at 10:09 AM on December 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


Have you tried just doing pushups every day?
posted by creasy boy at 10:13 AM on December 2, 2009


Play sports. Join a baseball team or play pickup soccer or find some friends to play basketball with. Or get a Wii and play Wii sports. But sports are the way people exercise without having to lift weights or say the word "cardio."
posted by decathecting at 10:17 AM on December 2, 2009


+1 climbing.

IMO, rock climbing is like yoga, chess and weightlifting all in one.
posted by krilli at 10:25 AM on December 2, 2009 [2 favorites]


... but actually more fun than any one of them individually.
posted by krilli at 10:26 AM on December 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


I used to stay in shape by commuting to work/school by bike. Now that I don't anymore, it's becoming clear that I need something to fill the void. That said, if you live in a bikeable community, buy a bike and ride it when you can.
posted by Alterscape at 10:26 AM on December 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think your dichotomizing of "normal people" and "exercise people" is silly: but what you are asking for is called "sports". Join a softball league.
posted by whiskeyspider at 10:28 AM on December 2, 2009


Yoga. You'll tone without bulking and stretch at the same time. If you can find a good teacher, you can go occasionally and practice at home without breaking the bank. I wouldn't pay more than $20 per class, once or twice a month is enough to start a serious home practice with the basics and learning form so you don't injure yourself. There are hundreds of poses, so you won't get bored and many different styles depending on your tastes.
posted by archimago at 10:32 AM on December 2, 2009


I love softball, but I can hardly count on it for exercise (and I'm one of the outfielders who actually bothers to backup plays) . I'd have to say the OP's going to have to bundle together a whole bunch of small things, like bike commuting, always taking the stairs, some sports leagues, shovelglove, and the pull up bar. Together, they'll add up. Unfortunately for me, the only ones I ever remember to do regularly are the bike and sports leagues.
posted by Calloused_Foot at 10:34 AM on December 2, 2009


I also have no extra money that I'm willing to spend on fitness-y things like equipment or health food or gym memberships. I hate structured workout routines that involve counting and repeating sets of motions (i.e., "do 10 sets of 10 reps"). I can do something for a certain amount of time but I'd rather not have to keep track of how many X's are left to do before I stop.

How can a stubborn guy like me build some muscle mass? Not looking to bulk up here, just get some definition and maybe strengthen my immune system a bit. Primarily focusing on my arms and abs.


Ok, trying to be helpful: you must first realize that this is pretty silly. You sound like you have little understanding of how exercise works (and there are tons of threads right here on askme with lots of training info) and you expect to get something for nothing. One of the most valuable lessons you can learn about physical training is that all effective programs are difficult. Not all difficult programs are effective, and a program doesn't have to be complicated to be effective, but if it's not difficult it's not going to produce results. So if you don't want to work hard you're not going to get very far.

I guess a good first step would be to figure out what exactly you're trying to accomplish. "Strengthening your immune system" seems like an odd goal for training and a difficult one to measure. You say you want to "build muscle mass" but you don't want to "bulk up," which seems like a contradiction. "Getting definition" means losing fat and doesn't have much to do with strength training. Focusing on your arms and abs is both pointless in my personal opinion and also unlikely to be an effective way to train, as your largest and strongest muscles aren't in your arms and abs. To save myself some typing, read this comment from crunch buttsteak.

Anyhow, as that comment describes, the most effective way for you to gain muscle at first will be to learn how to perform compound barbell movements like the squat, deadlift, and press, and to do them with heavy weights three times a week. Read Starting Strength if you want to learn how to do it correctly. The caveat here is that you're going to have to join a gym or invest in equipment, you're going to have to work hard, and you're going to have to be organized in terms of keeping track of your workouts. All that said, it'll take you an hour or less three times a week, and anyone can do it -- men and women, young and old. It has nothing to do with "restructuring your life" or "becoming an exercise person" any more than training your mind by reading books makes you into a "literature person" who's incapable of interacting with the world.

There are plenty of other ways to exercise which may appeal to you more for one reason or another, but the quickest and most effective path to building muscle for a beginner is the one outlined above, along with plenty of food. You will look better, increase your overall athletic performance, strengthen your joints, increase your balance and flexibility, and you will gain confidence and learn to stop being afraid of doing hard things.
posted by ludwig_van at 10:34 AM on December 2, 2009 [9 favorites]


Normal people who exercise do the same things "exercise people" do. They go to the gym, count sets and reps (seriously, is counting to eight three times really that difficult?) and strive with each visit to lift the same or more as they did last time.

Bitch about "exercise people" all you want but that's the only way to gain muscle mass. You really have your entire head screwed on backwards about this, to be honest.
posted by downing street memo at 10:35 AM on December 2, 2009


I used to take Aikido lessons and loved them to death but I can't afford to resume that now.

usually, there's a part of the class with warmups, situps/pushups, and stretching that was very similar in each class.

Do that bit at home.
posted by yohko at 10:37 AM on December 2, 2009


Pushups and situps, by the way, will do absolutely nothing to build your muscle mass.
posted by downing street memo at 10:39 AM on December 2, 2009


I agree with ludwig_van and downing street memo.

Also, just to pick at a few pet peeves:

There's no such thing as toning. "Toning" is the process of losing fat around your muscle. Yoga doesn't really build muscle, but high intensity yoga does burn fat, b/c you're burning calories.

Honestly, I hate the mindset that people like you have: even if you lift as much as possible, you're not going to wake up one day, look at the mirror, and say "omg, I'm too bulky!" If you're serious about gaining muscle mass, and want to do it as fast as possible, I would lift exactly like a bodybuilder, as they're the experts in putting on as much mass as possible, as fast as possible.

When you're happy with the way you look, stop.

All the exercises mentioned here (with the exception of climbing) are going to be primarily calorie-burning endurance exercises, which really aren't going to build much muscle mass.

If I were you, I would look into something like crossfit. You can do the workouts on your own, most of them require almost no equipment, but they will involve counting reps.

And as fair as gaining weight, well you need to eat more. Like eat until you feel sick more. Even with all the working out in the world, you're not going to put on weight unless you EAT.
posted by unexpected at 10:42 AM on December 2, 2009


Play rugby. It's a good workout and there's beer.
posted by electroboy at 10:43 AM on December 2, 2009


The attitude about exercise isn't helping. If you make this into a "me versus them" or "I hate it" situation, you'll never develop the consistency to see real improvement.

What can you commit to doing? Ten minutes a day? Twenty minutes 3x a week? Do you have gym access or any home equipment?

Start by defining what you're willing to do consistently. It's nearly worthless to have a fitness goal that you won't do anything to achieve.
posted by 26.2 at 10:45 AM on December 2, 2009


How can a stubborn guy like me build some muscle mass? Not looking to bulk up here

I used to hear this a lot from women more than men - there's some sort of phobia about "accidentally" putting on many pounds of muscle mass if you start lifting weights or something.

If you're generally skinny then there is absolutely no reason to fear bulking up. As in, you could spend 10 hours a day at a gym, count reps and eat all the weird protein power you want, you still probably won't bulk up.

Those all-day-at-the-gym people aren't there to chat. It is really goddamn hard work to bulk up. I had a skinny roommate who spent hours in the gym and it got him nowhere. He was stronger and more fit, sure, but there was literally zero visible change to his body. Well, a little if he was buck naked. In a t-shirt, less than zero change. The only two places that are easy to bulk up are your gut and your ass.

Buy a pair of shoes and take up running. But you're going to have to use a watch and try to work up to running for 30 min or so. Then you'll have some cardio endurance. You may drop a little fat. it'll help your immune system until you over-do it one day and get really sick. It will improve your leg bone density. You may get shin splints. Mostly it will help you get to that place where they serve free lunches faster.
posted by GuyZero at 10:46 AM on December 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


Stop taking elevators, park farther from the store, help friends move, bicycle to work, clean the house. Rake leaves and do other yard work, for money, even. Save a couple of laundry jugs, fill w/ water for free weights, if you're really broke. Salvation Army and Goodwill often have bikes. Dance and sing - dancing is good cardio, singing builds lung capacity. If you like to meet women, take dance classes in any form of partnered dance; men are often scarce. There are lots of straight & gay people at contradances; it's great exercise, and people are nice and hippie-ish. Just watch out for the patchouli. For me, music makes exercise bearable, and often fun.
posted by theora55 at 10:48 AM on December 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


I don't know about "exercise people" but I am with you in hating gyms and the people who work in them.

I go to my local park/reservoir, run around the whole thing, then do a workout with body resistance and a few pieces of equipment like dumbbells and resistance ropes.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:55 AM on December 2, 2009


I would second or third or whatever doing yoga. You don't need to buy any equipment, just look for routines and videos online, though it's probably a good idea to go to a few classes to get the alignments down so you don't hurt yourself. If you do it a few times a week on your own for about half an hour per session you will definitely tone up, and you don't have to remember reps or anything, just hold the positions for as long as you can.
posted by ekroh at 11:03 AM on December 2, 2009


I'm surprised anyone is taking this question seriously. He said he doesn't want to do sports, working out, etc. and everyone is suggesting sports and working out?

I'm a skinny ectomorph who eats whatever he wants and never gains weight
I don't believe you. You probably have some super tiny stomach or eat like 1200 calories a day on average and don't realize it. That plus the fact that you're probably under 30 and your metabolism is still going OK.

GuyZero and unexpected have good sound advice. Definition is from having less fat and more muscle. If you think you are going to spot tone yourself into having awesome looking arms and abs you'll be even more disappointed.

The only way you're going to bulk up is if you eat a ton while on a good strength training program.

My only recommendation for you since you don't want to do anything is to either
A. Get over it and decide to start doing something.
B. Do as many push ups, pull-ups, crunches, and body weight squats (Without counting them of course since that's too hard) as you can every other day.

I like the climbing suggestion from everyone. You'll be off to a pretty good start if you are already skinny and it is a good workout. I must warn you though, it's highly addictive, it is a sport, it will lead to you being outside and you could become a mountain-man.(Well, that's what happened to me at least...)
posted by zephyr_words at 11:06 AM on December 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


Also, here's my more specific feedback on Shovelglove: 5 Die While Shoveling Snow. I mean, go shovel all the snow you want - it's free and hell, you could even earn some money. Just understand that as an exercise it's horrific and possibly life-threatening. And you absolutely will pull a muscle swinging a sledgehammer around.

Honestly people - how the hell can you suggest such a dumb idea with a straight face? Coal miners weren't fit - they retired physically broken. Breathing coal dust was the best part of that hell-on-earth job.
posted by GuyZero at 11:13 AM on December 2, 2009


A few clarifications I think I need to make, based on some of the responses:
  • I'm not looking for something for nothing. I'm willing to work hard.
  • I don't have any contempt toward fitness or people who enjoy it. In my experience people who make fitness a significant part of their lifestyles are generally very happy and well-adjusted. Perhaps even more than people who don't. I was being intentionally silly and hyperbolic, though it's true that I don't want fitness to consume my life or override my other priorities and interests. And I have never found working out in the traditional sense to be very pleasurable when I've tried it, like some of my friends seem to.
  • I don't want to become a bulging, rippling Mr. Universe or Abercrombie model. I'm not even sure that I could with my lanky body type, anyway. I'm also not concerned with burning fat or losing weight because I'm so skinny. I'm 5'10" and weigh 130 lbs. I would like to see my arms become a bit stronger, and develop a modest six-pack, and that's all, really.
  • Suggestions on things I can do that don't feel like traditional workouts and don't require purchasing equipment are great (homemade stuff like the shovelglove or cheap things like doorway pull-up bars might be okay).
  • Counting reps really is difficult for me, because I find working out to be so draining that I have trouble focusing on the numbers. That's probably just me being stubborn -- I might be able to overcome it with some discipline.
  • I don't know how many calories I eat but I do seem to consume a lot of carbs and snack on junk food whenever I feel like it. My meal portions are average size. I drink a TON of water throughout the day.
Hope those points clear up some of the confusion. Do stretching and yoga help with what I'm talking about? I was under the impression those are more about flexibility and don't do much to increase strength. Side note: I'm actually absurdly flexible right now, though I'm becoming less so as I get older and I don't turn myself into a pretzel as often as I did as a kid.

Where can I try rock climbing for free? I do live near mountains but I guess I'd need to get a bunch of equipment and find partners to show me the ropes. Plus it's getting dang cold outside lately. How much does it usually cost to scale an indoor wall? Does that include equipment rental? What else might I be overlooking?

Thanks for all the suggestions, and special thanks to you "exercise people" who have dropped in, for keeping the condescension to a minimum.

HAMBURGER and winky face ;-)
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 11:13 AM on December 2, 2009


-okay, i'm going to put forth a positive mindset and I'm willing to give you more advice b/c you seem willing to listen. on your points:

-Even if you lift incredibly heavy weights, day and night, you're not going to become a Mr. Universe or Abercrombie model without YEARS of effort. To further expound on this point, your weight is controlled by how much you eat. I saw this chart on reddit yesterday, and liked it, so i copy it here:

Eat alot, don't workout : You gain weight in the form of fat.
Eat alot, work out a lot: You gain weight in the form of muscle.
Eat little, work out little: you don't gain weight/lose weight, stay shrimpy
Eat little, work out a lot: you become lean and ripped.

AT 5'10, 130 lb, you really could gain some weight. At least 20-30 lbs. If you want to gain 20-30 lbs of straight muscle, this would take you 2-3 years of hard effort and dieting.

Just put that in perspective- think about that for a second. You wouldn't even be Mr. Universe in that time span- those guys are 5'10, 240 lbs.

Budget seems to be a big issue for you, so let's work with it. If I were you, I would pick up a copy of "Starting Strength" so that you know what ideally, you should be doing. Starting strength involves heavy use of a gym, but it will give you some background into the "gold standard" as to what people in your situation do.

Then I would explore Crossfit. Additionally, I would look at workouts of body types that I like. You seem, for instance, to want to look like a sprinter. Sprinting involves HIIT training and weightlifting. You can look up their workouts online and imitate them.

You also need to keep track of your food. You're not going to gain weight unless you eat more. I've spent years thinking about this stuff, and I'm totally convinced now that there's no such thing as ecto/endo/mesomorph- we just like to eat more or less based on psychological factors. Counting calories eliminates this. You need to do this if you want to gain weight.

If you're willing to work hard, you'll put in the effort.
posted by unexpected at 11:32 AM on December 2, 2009 [2 favorites]


Get you a kettlebell and the book/DVD combo of Pavel's Enter The Kettlebell. Get the DVD and the book because while the book is a great resource to go back to, seeing the moves in action is really, REALLY useful.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 11:39 AM on December 2, 2009


If you're lifting weights to build muscle, you can dispense with the counting. You just stop when you can't do anymore. Then rest for a minute, and do it again.

Mainly, I think you should take into consideration the fact that most people, when they successfully establish a good exercise routine, actually find they like it and desire it. Whatever it does or doesn't do to the way your body looks, it just makes you feel better.

Whatever you decide on is going to involve sucking it up a little bit. So, suck it up and buy or check out a book on exercising, then suck it up and do what the book says.

If that sounds too daunting, go work for UPS or something.

I don't know what 'HAMBURGER' means.
posted by Darth Fedor at 11:39 AM on December 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


So somehow I have become what my friends would likely term an "exercise person" and I have no idea how it happened but I will try and give suggestions that won't turn you into one too.

SPORTS! It's becoming winter, try skiing (cross-country or downhill), snowboarding, hiking. Anything that is a physically strenuous activity but also a fun social one seems to be what you are looking for. Cross-country skiing is great for that - it's tons of hard work, but it's also awesome and enjoyable and people definitely love it not for what it does to their bodies but for what they get out of it.

Other than that, try to make friends with people who are active, even if all you do with them is exercise. I have found that my roomates and close circle of friends are entertained by my exercise habit but feel no desire to participate in it, so I also have friends who I visit by working out with them. We run together, or something else exciting, and it's both social and a workout. Makes it go by faster and feel like less "work" and more something I enjoy doing.
posted by hepta at 11:41 AM on December 2, 2009


I don't know how many calories I eat but I do seem to consume a lot of carbs and snack on junk food whenever I feel like it. My meal portions are average size. I drink a TON of water throughout the day.


Change your snacks to protein or (good) fat-rich alternatives: almonds, cottage cheese, etc. If you do you'll notice more energy, and it will be easier to build muscle.
posted by blue_beetle at 11:42 AM on December 2, 2009


I'm 5'10" and weigh 130 lbs. I would like to see my arms become a bit stronger, and develop a modest six-pack, and that's all, really. Suggestions on things I can do that don't feel like traditional workouts and don't require purchasing equipment are great (homemade stuff like the shovelglove or cheap things like doorway pull-up bars might be okay).

You're in danger of dying from skinniness. I have been there and it's no way to live. In order to stave off death you will have to train. There are lots of activities which may be fun and physically demanding but are not training, e.g. yoga, softball, and this shovelglove foolishness. You can do things that don't feel like traditional workouts but traditional workouts are the best and fastest way to gain muscle and get strong. A doorway pullup bar is very useful, but it is not a training regimen.

What do you mean you want to see your arms become stronger? Is there something that you do with your arms which you'd be able to do better if you had more strength? Or do you mean you just want them to look bigger and more aesthetically pleasing? Regardless, training your arms only is not the best way to make your arms grow, especially at your weight. If you want bigger arms you need to train your whole body. There are no shortcuts.

As for a sixpack, again that is largely dependent on bodyfat percentage. If at 5'10" 130 your abs are not visible, you are skinnyfat, which is all the more reason you should focus on working your whole body correctly.

Counting reps really is difficult for me, because I find working out to be so draining that I have trouble focusing on the numbers. That's probably just me being stubborn -- I might be able to overcome it with some discipline.

Without commenting further on the absurdity of this statement (oops I guess I just did), beginners are best served by sets of 5 reps, which ought to be pretty easy to count to.



on preview: unexpected, it sounds like we largely agree, but I have a few quibbles:

AT 5'10, 130 lb, you really could gain some weight. At least 20-30 lbs. If you want to gain 20-30 lbs of straight muscle, this would take you 2-3 years of hard effort and dieting.

I'm not sure if you mean gaining 30 lbs. of muscle after bulking and then cutting several times or something, but at his height and weight he could gain 60 lbs. in a year and most of it would be muscle. It would take dedication to lifting and eating, but it's absolutely possible and people do it all the time.

Then I would explore Crossfit.

A brief word on CrossFit: it can be great, but it's important to understand what it is. It is not a strength program -- it is a GPP, or general physical preparedness, program. There is currently a lot of debate going on in the CrossFit community about their training methods, particularly the role of strength in their workouts, and the quality of some of their affiliate gyms. There have been several CrossFit variants developed to address a perceived lack of strength work in the standard program. So while it can be effective at many things, it is not the most effective way to build strength and muscle. I also wouldn't say that most of the workouts require no equipment. There are plenty that don't require equipment, but I'd say most of them do. Looking at the most recent few WODs on the mainpage right now, you've got dumbbell thrusters, bench presses, front squats, pull ups, deadlifts, front squats, cleans and snatches.

If you're lifting weights to build muscle, you can dispense with the counting. You just stop when you can't do anymore. Then rest for a minute, and do it again.

This is not an effective approach to training.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:44 AM on December 2, 2009 [3 favorites]


Hmm, maybe part of my problem is the solitude. Whenever I've worked out in the past, I've done it by myself at home. Maybe that social element I'm missing would help a lot. Although, come to think of it, back in college a friend dragged me to the gym with her and it ended up being way more humiliating than fun. I was a totally awkward weakling who couldn't keep up and didn't know how to work the machines. I'd rather not experience that again.

ludwig_van: I would like to be able to carry heavier things, but I'm also trying to improve my looks. I'm pretty scrawny looking right now. The more I think about my feelings toward counting reps, the more I realize how irrational it is. Doesn't make it easier for me, but at least I can see how stupid it is.

Darth Fedor: HAMBURGER is code for indicating sarcasm.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 11:56 AM on December 2, 2009


The Fitness Ladder is part of the Hacker's Diet. It's a quick set of exercises that you do each day to gain/maintain general fitness. It's cheap, you do it in your home, you don't need any equipment. It does use counting of reps, but I have found that if you keep track of the time that the reps take, you can then do the exercises for that type of time. eg: If it takes 30 seconds to do 20 pushups, then next time, don't count the pushups, but set a timer for 30 seconds and just do pushups. After a few weeks or a month, do the counting again and see if you are doing more in the same time.

You can use that timer advice for any exercise that you choose: lifting weights, doing pushups/pullups, squats/lunges, jumping rope, whatever. Look for an interval timer to set up an automated schedule so that you exercise for 30 seconds and rest for a minute (or whatever), then repeat. Here's one online.
posted by CathyG at 12:01 PM on December 2, 2009


Climbing comes up a lot because it's fun. It's wired into our reptilian brain and the worse you are at it, the better the workout. In addition, climbers have nice muscle definition without looking bulked up. Unfortunately, it's easiest to start in a climbing gym. Here in Colorado, gym admission is around $15.00 per session. You'll rent shoes, harness and belay device to start, but this equipment will set you back about $160.00 to $200.00. On the other hand, the gear lasts a long time. Memberships are not required.
Check out this website. This will help you find climbing locations and gyms in your area.
Based on your self description, you might find that climbing people are more like yourself. It's a rather cerebral activity (in addition to the strength and fitness thing). It attracts a sort of geeky type.
Every activity (except exercise at home) has an associated culture that can be alienating to beginners. Unless you're willing to change careers and work construction, there is little you can do to alter your body without surrendering a little of the attitude and/or a little cash.
posted by Carmody'sPrize at 12:03 PM on December 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


One more thing, bouldering (climbing low without ropes) is free, you simply need shoes.
posted by Carmody'sPrize at 12:05 PM on December 2, 2009


If you're lifting weights to build muscle, you can dispense with the counting. You just stop when you can't do anymore. Then rest for a minute, and do it again.

This is not an effective approach to training.


That's funny, because this is EXACTLY what my trainer told me to do.
posted by desuetude at 12:26 PM on December 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm a skinny ectomorph who eats whatever he wants and never gains weight.

Me, too, and yet suddenly I'm gaining weight and muscle mass. Here's how:

1. I hit my 30s. Everybody gets some weight when this happens, even ectomorphs. I went from 145 at age 30 to 160 today.

2. I had twins, and had to carry them around everywhere. When you're always carrying kids, one in each arm, you get muscles in your back and arms and chest. It just happens. In a way, carrying your kids every day is like working out every day, except with kids your weight set has to have diaper changes and get tucked in at night.

3. As the kids got a little older, I didn't have to carry them around so much, and so I decided to find opportunities to keep lifting them up. So I throw them in the air, I wrestle them, and sometimes I bench-press them.

4. Because of the three things I've noted above, suddenly I have muscles I've never had before, and bulk. Seeing these improvements encouraged me to think more about exercise, and now I realize I have an interest (whereas before I rejected it, mostly because my few pitiful attempts didn't give me any results when I was a teenager.)

So: you can either "accidentally" exercise like me, once you've waited long enough for your body to show signs that it is changing from age and might actually respond to exercise -- or you can suck it up and start exercising now, so that you're in the habit of doing it when your body's ready to respond.

It might help if you try not to think of it as exercise for bulk or strength, but for health. To that end, I started roller-skating last year for fun and general cardio health, and the other day I looked in the mirror at my suddenly larger, muscular legs and was shocked.
posted by davejay at 12:28 PM on December 2, 2009 [2 favorites]


Oh, hey, and start doing pushups. You say you can do ten a day? Fine. Every other day, do ten. In two weeks, start shooting for twenty, doing as many as you can but stopping at twenty. Two weeks later (assuming you got to twenty, which you will) aim for thirty.

Small amounts of exercise, starting NOW and done regularly, will go a lot further than putting it off for another year than starting a big exercise program.
posted by davejay at 12:30 PM on December 2, 2009


If you join a gym, look into their 'personal trainer' program. I joined one that came with one free session, which was used quite effectively to teach me how to use all their machines, how to do proper form for different basic moves, and to give me a fitness baseline. I had thought it would be totally useless, but it turned out to be really useful and removed my avoidance of the equipment.

Perhaps you could look for fitness programs through your local parks and rec? The ones they have here have multiple skill level classes for different activities and age groups.

Swimming and rowing are great workouts. Swimming is a whole-body workout that also improves your lung capacity/breath control. For swimming, good form (i.e. stroke efficiency) makes a huge difference in the amount of work required. Joining a masters team (masters = post-college, not super-awesome) is relatively cheap in most areas and will get you a lot of stroke help and a consistent regimen, but just going yourself would be a good first step.
posted by bookdragoness at 12:38 PM on December 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


Oh, and if you don't eat protein, you will not gain muscle. So, while you're training, eat enough, eat healthily, and make sure you include protein.
posted by bookdragoness at 12:40 PM on December 2, 2009


Hmm, maybe part of my problem is the solitude. Whenever I've worked out in the past, I've done it by myself at home. Maybe that social element I'm missing would help a lot. Although, come to think of it, back in college a friend dragged me to the gym with her and it ended up being way more humiliating than fun. I was a totally awkward weakling who couldn't keep up and didn't know how to work the machines. I'd rather not experience that again.

OK, so now we get to the psychological part of it.

What you had is a very common reaction to exposure to a gym that keeps a lot of people from getting in shape.

Think of it this way: your friend took you to a pool. You did not know how to swim. Your friend then pushed you in the deep end. Thankfully you did not drown. You don't have to go back to a gym, but understand you have developed an aversion that has nothing to do with gyms or fitness but with a feeling of alienation and inadequacy.

Having said that there's really no need to cure yourself of this aversion really. There are thousands of sports or activities you could do to improve your fitness and/or bulk up a bit. The main thing is to pick one you like. Skiing, cycling, swimming, rock climbing, running, frisbee, whatever. Unfortunately none of these will help you gain any muscle bulk like weight lifting will. You can do push ups and pull ups and other such exercises but ultimately the way people get more muscle mass is by lifting weights. Unsurprisingly, it's not very hard to learn to lift weights. Get a book from the library. Buy some weights, go to a gym, whichever.

At any rate, here is every exercise in a nutshell: pick a muscle. Use that muscle a lot and put resistance on it, typically something heavy that gets lifted up and down. Do this until you get tired or until you meet a pre-set number of movements. Have fun choosing one or more muscles and one or more ways to use them. Repeat daily until you die.
posted by GuyZero at 12:44 PM on December 2, 2009


A weight-training guy told me to do "five to eight reps to failure once per body part, and then allow your body to recover."

"To failure" means to the point where it is physically impossible for your body to lift that weight again.

So you need to start out by finding a weight that you can lift between five to eight times and then not be able to lift it anymore. If you can lift it more than eight times without muscle failure, you are not using enough weight.

Your recovery period will vary based on your age and body condition. It may be 3 days, may be a week.

If you have recovered and go to lift again, you should be able to (a) do more reps with the same weight without failing, or (b) do the same number of reps with a bigger weight.

If you can't do (a) or (b), then you have not gained muscle mass and you are doing something wrong. You should gain muscle mass every single time you work out, and the only way to do this is to lift to failure.
posted by meadowlark lime at 1:28 PM on December 2, 2009


Where can I try rock climbing for free? I do live near mountains but I guess I'd need to get a bunch of equipment and find partners to show me the ropes. Plus it's getting dang cold outside lately. How much does it usually cost to scale an indoor wall? Does that include equipment rental? What else might I be overlooking?

OK, I shoulda been clearer earlier - there are different types of climbing. There's the climbing you do on rocks tied to a rope and stuff, and there's bouldering where you only need shoes and finger-chalk, and then there's indoor climbing, which is akin to bouldering.

I have mainly done indoors climbing, which is much easier to get into than the outdoors stuff - the handholds are far easier, generally, than what you find on natural rock.

In my local climbing gym here in Iceland, you pay for each entry or get various discount cards, and they'll rent you shoes for less than $2 per session while you're trying it out, and they lend you a chalk bag. So at certain gyms, there is basically no cost of entry. Just show up and see if it speaks to you. That's the beauty.

Incidentally, climbing types are very different IMO from the other sporty types. More introspective and shy, generally. If I may overgeneralize.
posted by krilli at 2:21 PM on December 2, 2009


Listen to ludwig_van. I am skinnier and the same height as you. I have been doing the Starting Strength program, eating as much as I can and using my bike as my only mode of travel. I have not done a single arm curl or sit up but because the program trains your whole body I have have people outside of the gym say they have noticed growth in my arms and for the first time in my nice I have started to see more definition in my abs.

maybe strengthen my immune system a bit.

Do you plan to fight off infectious diseases with your new big arms?
posted by Midnight Rambler at 2:23 PM on December 2, 2009 [3 favorites]


I gotta weigh in here and put down this 'one body part till it hurts so bad' business - that's a really shitty way to exercise, and will put you on the the express train to injury so fast it's not funny. At your weight and fitness level isolation exercises will be demoralising and unnecessary. Whatever you decide to do; try to make it all compound exercises, i.e movements that exercise lots and lots of muscles. Pull ups not curls, etc.

I was just like you about 10 years ago, Parker, and had many similar attitudes to you (back then) about exercise gyms etc. What I really recommend you do is check out Starting Strength and/or Stronglifts, just to get a good idea of the basics - even if you don't follow them through. The beauty of these workouts is that (especially at the beginning) you can get in and out in 1/2 hour.

If you want to keep it low key and relaxed, pick up some dumbbells or preferably a barbell. You'll get a set really cheap second-hand on ebay or craigslist. So cheap. Then:

Workout a: Squats
Benchpress
Bent-over row
Pushups
Pull ups if you have the means
Planks for abs

Workout B: Squats
Overhead press ('shoulder press')
Deadlifts
Chin ups if you have the means
Dips if you have the means
reverse-crunches (legs in the air, roll your knees back over your nipples and beyond!)

Start with really light weights, concentrate on form and posture, do 3x8 of 5x5. Have protein after each work out. Chin ups etc will destroy you at first, try jumping up and simply lowering yourself down at first. If you are getting enough protein, you will see almost shocking gains on a program like this, or something similar.

Take heart, exercise doesn't have to be painful, awkward or embarrassing. Should you decide to think abotu going to the gym again, remember that everyone is there for the same reason as you: to get fit. Only true fuckwits are gonna judge you based on your exercises, and who cares what a fuckwit thinks anyway?? (also, fuckwits tend to know remarkably little about exercise and they are a timebomb for injury). People at most gyms are actually really nice and collaborative and helpful. They tend to welcome new members to their community and enjoy helping others. But you could do the above workout at home largely until you start getting to heavier weights and will need a squat rack.
posted by smoke at 2:49 PM on December 2, 2009


first time in my nice...

nice=life
posted by Midnight Rambler at 2:53 PM on December 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


Midnight Rambler: When I have big new arms I'll be a virus-punching machine.

Haha, maybe not, but was it wrong of me to assume that getting in shape and raising my overall fitness level will increase my body's ability to ward off sickness? I figured just breathing deeper and getting my blood pumping would help with that.

Thanks, everybody, for all your helpful tips. It's such a huge infodump right now but when I've had a chance to evaluate everything I'll mark best answers and formulate a plan for myself. :-)
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 3:12 PM on December 2, 2009


Re. the immune system - I'm pretty sure that being in good shape helps to keep you alive and well. This question actually warrants its own AskMeFi ...
posted by krilli at 3:43 PM on December 2, 2009


Looks like mild to moderate exercise improves your immune system, while intense exercise can depress it.
posted by electroboy at 4:03 PM on December 2, 2009


That's funny, because this is EXACTLY what my trainer told me to do.

I'm sorry to hear that. It's an unfortunate fact that many "personal trainers" (the majority of them at commercial gyms, in my experience) know next to nothing about strength training, which is why I think people should educate themselves before entrusting their fitness routine to a trainer. Stopping in at your local CrossFit affiliate can be an easy way to get some decent coaching, though.

A weight-training guy told me to do "five to eight reps to failure once per body part, and then allow your body to recover."

If you have recovered and go to lift again, you should be able to (a) do more reps with the same weight without failing, or (b) do the same number of reps with a bigger weight.

You should gain muscle mass every single time you work out, and the only way to do this is to lift to failure.


Sets of 5 reps are recommended for beginners because they provide a good balance of increased neural efficiency (which leads to greater strength without mass gain) and muscular hypertrophy. Around 8 reps, motor control starts to deteriorate, which can be dangerous for a novice without strongly ingrained motor patterns. Gradually increasing weight is a much more reliable method for steady improvement as a novice than increasing reps. But most importantly, training to failure is absolutely not the only way to gain muscle mass, and training to failure is not what novices should be doing. It's dangerous at worst and ineffective at best.
posted by ludwig_van at 6:56 PM on December 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


but was it wrong of me to assume that getting in shape and raising my overall fitness level will increase my body's ability to ward off sickness? I figured just breathing deeper and getting my blood pumping would help with that.

As a very fit person that gets sick all the damn time, sadly no, fitness is not enough to keep you well. I seem to be possibly having some luck with Vitamin D supplementation, but if you are concerned about your immune system I would concentrate on getting enough sleep and avoiding stress. And no cigarettes.

Ludwig_van knows what he is talking about. Let me say this: I find "counting reps" to be boring as hell. I'm currently in rehab for an injury that requires me to do a few exercises for 3 sets of 10 every other day, and I am DYING of boredom from it. Why? Well, for one thing, it isn't challenging, mentally or physically. I'm not pushing myself to hit a better time, or a new strength limit. I don't have to clear my mind and concentrate every essence of my being on hitting those reps, and I am bored as fuck. Reps don't have to be boring, but they will if you aren't fighting to earn them.
It is for this reason that I find it very difficult to work out at home. Because most of the shit you can do at home is pretty boring, and you're probably working around some to many inefficiencies from a limited setup. You don't have enough weight, or enough room, or few distractions, or the right music, or whatever. Working out at home simply does not inspire me in the way that a focused routine at the gym does. Sometimes it is easy to blame the overhead of going to the gym for your lack of desire to exercise and maybe that is the case for you, but I bet for every person this is true for there is another person that would actually do much better if they just sucked it up and made a habit of getting to the gym (or some other external place).
posted by ch1x0r at 8:41 PM on December 2, 2009


As a very fit person that gets sick all the damn time, sadly no, fitness is not enough to keep you well. I seem to be possibly having some luck with Vitamin D supplementation, but if you are concerned about your immune system I would concentrate on getting enough sleep and avoiding stress. And no cigarettes.

Well put, ch1x0r. I must add that I have difficulties with sleeping enough, and with smoking less and stressing out less. Physical exercise definitely helps with precisely that - I sleep better, crave less nicotine and stress is released when I exercise.

So exercise may have a direct effect on the physiology, but it also definitely helps keep the body in a rhythm conductive to keeping the immune system in good shape.
posted by krilli at 2:33 AM on December 3, 2009


Just start by doing pushups, burpees, and pullups. That will cover your chest, biceps, triceps, back, and abs. See if you can get up to 40 pushups, 20 burpees, and 10 proper pullups. If you can get to that, you will have the core strength to join a gym and start lifting weights with confidence. You will not be able to gain muscle mass without lifting weights and eating properly.
posted by jasondigitized at 9:33 AM on December 3, 2009


It's an unfortunate fact that many "personal trainers" (the majority of them at commercial gyms, in my experience) know next to nothing about strength training, which is why I think people should educate themselves before entrusting their fitness routine to a trainer. Stopping in at your local CrossFit affiliate can be an easy way to get some decent coaching, though.

Wikipedia: "CrossFit has also been criticized for lax certification standards and for failing to provide any oversight of affiliates. Everyone who pays $1,000 to attend a weekend seminar is certified as a CrossFit trainer; there are no pre-requisites or exams. Certification as a "Level 2" trainer requires extensive practical testing and the failure rate ranges from 50% and 80%."
posted by iviken at 1:46 PM on December 3, 2009


Oh wow you really got me there, guy! Some CrossFit affiliates are great, others aren't. I mentioned the controversy and growing pains above. I've been fortunate enough to work out at a CF affiliate with some very kind and knowledgeable folks. Like I said, people should educate themselves, but as far as easily accessible training goes, CF is a much better bet than your local globo-gym.
posted by ludwig_van at 7:04 PM on December 3, 2009


You mention lack of money as an obstacle. Another solution to this is to earn more money. This is probably harder than the exercise itself, but there are options for this too.
posted by sninctown at 11:37 AM on December 18, 2009


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