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Linda Hamiltonize Me
September 14, 2010 12:26 PM   Subscribe

I can't use free weights effectively due to a previous arm injury. Unfortunately, just about every good weightlifting resource I'm finding seems to loathe machines. Help me tweak my workout and find better resources, please.

Backstory: I broke my elbow several years ago and have a ton of scar tissue that restricts my mobility. If I lift free weights, I'm either babying the "good" arm at the expense of the other or I'm spending all my time catering to the bad one, with resulting bad form. Forget squats. They're just not happening. (I'm not afraid! I just can't do 'em!)

I have a few sessions left with my trainer, and she's been helpful, but I think she's really taking it easy on me. She raised her eyebrow when I said I'd been doing 12 reps x 3 on each exercise -- I thought that was fairly normal!

The exercises I've been doing with her include:

upper
chest: isolateral bench press, pec flye/rear delt, chest press
shoulders: iso-lateral shoulder press, lateral raise
back: lateral pulldown/low row, regular lateral pulldown, back extension
biceps: biceps curl machine, fixed pulley cable crossover
triceps: tricep cable machine pulldown, triceps press

lower
quads: leg extension, leg press
hamstrings: seated leg curl
calves: calf extension
thighs: hip adductor, hip abductor
abs: ab crunch (+ obliques on same machine), ab bench
glutes: glute machine

I'm finding most of them pretty easy even with a fairly decent amount of weight, with the exception of the shoulder presses and anything where I have to extend upwards. Like most women, I've got fairly powerful legs. So here's what I'm wondering...

1. What's the max number of days I can weight train per week? Would 2 days of upper body training and 1 of lower body training be sufficient, or can I do more? I'm looking to build mass and displace fat. (I have also adjusted my diet, and yes, I am doing protein shakes post-workout).

2. I don't believe in this powderpuff "only 10 reps" crap that some other women at my gym seem to do. Or light weights, high reps. But I find it distracting to switch up weight amounts mid-series. Would it be more effective to do 12 x 3 with the same amount of weight all the way through, or...? There's so much conflicting info out there!

3. Is there an optimal order in which to perform the upper muscle group exercises? I've found when my trainer works me in a different order I sometimes have a MUCH harder time lifting with my weaker shoulders, etc than I otherwise do. Or is it better to mix it up all the time?

4. I recently bought a scale that tracks BMI and muscle mass. Is it unrealistic to expect to see those numbers changing in the first month, given that I've changed my diet as well?

5. I'm a visual learner: is there any resource out there that shows which groups of muscles are worked on particular machines or motions, and how they act together, or at the very least, explains which secondary groups of muscles are affected by a particular exercise? I'm trying to get the most bang for my buck in terms of selecting which exercises to do so I don't end up in the gym for more than an hour every day.

6. Speaking of which -- trainer's only working me for 30 minutes at a time. That seems low to me. What would you consider optimal for someone trying to build a lot of muscle? Might as well shoot big here: I'm going for Linda Hamilton-circa-Terminator, not just "no longer fat." Thanks.

p.s. Really. No free weights. Trust me, I've tried.
posted by bitter-girl.com to Health & Fitness (19 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
 
Re 2: 3 sets of 12 reps suggests to me that you aren't lifting heavy enough weights. Try moving to a weight where an 8-10 rep set is all you can muster -- i.e. you should be failing at the end. It's not "powderpuff only 10 reps crap" if you're lifting heavier weights! I often only do 2 sets -- I know, 3 would be better -- but as long as I'm having trouble at the end of each set, it's a workout.

You can also do your last set so you fail out at like 4 reps, and drop to a lower weight to finish the set. THAT is effective.
posted by kestrel251 at 12:31 PM on September 14, 2010


That sounds like a good idea, kestrel251. Like I said, I think she's really taking it easy on me -- if she's got me doing 10s, and only half the exercises are even remotely difficult, well...needs more cowbell. I'm treating the trainer time as a way to discover machines and exercises I hadn't done yet, and make sure my form is solid given the arm stuff. So 8-10 HARD reps would be fine by me if that's enough to push the muscle development forward.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 12:35 PM on September 14, 2010


(I should also probably clarify my "powderpuff" statement above...these women aren't doing 10 to failure like kestrel251 suggested...they're doing 10 reps of something stupid like 5-10 pounds and dropping the weights as if they'd been deadlifting 400 pounds before flouncing back over to the ellipticals. It's enough to drive someone who's trying to be serious about this completely over the edge).
posted by bitter-girl.com at 12:40 PM on September 14, 2010


It sounds like what you're looking for here is a bodybuilding routine -- most of the people on the green who weight train are doing either powerlifting or Olympic, hence our religious (and prudent) devotion to free weights. Given your perceived physical limitations and goals, you should probably check out a bodybuilding specific forum (or better yet, gym) to find the training advice you need.

If for any reason that isn't what you want, or you want to train to get stronger, not just jacked, here's my advice: find a real coach (someone at an Oly or very good Crossfit gym) to teach you free weights. I know that isn't what you want to hear, but free weights really are for everybody, if you can find a coach who is competent enough to work with your issues.
posted by telegraph at 1:00 PM on September 14, 2010


I understand where you're coming from, telegraph, and I appreciate the advice, but if I can't configure myself into the positions required to perform exercises the right way with free weights (despite 2 surgeries and plenty of PT), I don't see what use finding yet another coach is going to be. It's not like I haven't tried free weights -- I have. Unless you know of a coach with a time machine who can take me back to the month before I broke everything, that is...

The machines make it easier for me to do things with good form and accommodate my injury while still being able to lift something, which is why I'm asking about them, and why I am spending pretty much all my discretionary income on the gym already. Maybe in future if some of this scar tissue breaks down, things will be different, but for now, this is what I'm dealing with. Even the physical therapists who worked with me were stumped as to just why it's as bad as it is!
posted by bitter-girl.com at 1:33 PM on September 14, 2010


Hrmmm... how's your ability for bodyweight exercises? Gubernatrix has a good example of what a good bodyweight workout could be - and most of these are easily scaled if your muscles aren't developed to her point yet.

If your scar tissue's tough enough to restrict mobility, I'd also (and here, IANYD) look into seeing a sports therapist and possibly getting some deep tissue massage on a regular basis. Heat and massage could probably help loosen things up and maybe (depending on severity and when the injury occured) help restore some mobility.

Exrx.net has little animated .gifs and lists of muscles used/stabilisers used for each little exercise, though it focuses more on bodyweight/free weight exercise movement.

For putting on muscle... to be dead honest, and here I'm just speaking from experience: I've never found that I've put on real muscle from using machines. I only ever started to drop body fat and put on mass when I started free weights, specifically the clean-and-jerk, snatch and squat movements. That and pull-ups. For the time being, though, if you can do 3x12 for each exercise, you can probably do more. I'm not sure what to suggest for maximising your results using machines - try to get to your max? Maybe try pyramid sets: say, twelve reps at a lowish weight, eleven reps at a higher weight, ten at a higher weight, etc, until you can only do one rep at your max weight. And switch it around, so you're only maxing out certain body parts per workout and not overtraining.

Re: the scale - I'd take it with a grain of salt and maybe only use it once a week or so. For me, it took a solid two months of rowing, cycling and lifting to see a change in muscle mass, but YMMV.

And yeah, 30 minutes sounds a little short to me. Does that include warming-up/cooling-down and technique coaching as well?
posted by zennish at 2:01 PM on September 14, 2010


Zennish, have you heard of the massage/heat/etc helping years after the fact, though?

(I'm about 8 years out at this point and still stuck in more or less the same position...acupuncture and TENS gave me a little more motion than I'd gotten from the year of PT, but not very much)

Willing to try it, though -- what the hell. Apparently I scar worse than just about anyone, or so the plastic surgeon I consulted about scar removal from the operation told me.

I took a quick look at Gubernatrix... I can't support my (current) body weight for most of those but will give them a try when I can. Thanks!
posted by bitter-girl.com at 2:16 PM on September 14, 2010


Could you speak with adaptive physical education folks, maybe at a local college? You might not be what most people would call "disabled," but the whole point of adaptive phy ed is to adapt to whatever varying level of mobility you have. Where does your arm stop moving?

This anecdote may not be of any help, but I remember trying to do weights for the first time a few years after my elbow surgery. (I had "pretty much powdered" it in a moped accident, but was more or less up to full mobility in normal activities.) Even though I was on a machine, I was really nervous because I had the sort of pain that said, "Who-o-oa; this is weird and I'll probably fall apart!" Which was totally odd because I'd been done with PT for over two years by that point; I KNEW I was fine. So the first few times, I'd stop there and do most of my stuff with just the one arm, and that was boring. Eventually I just went through the pain with very, very light reps, and suddenly I found that it didn't hurt any more and I was loose enough to do what I would consider a normal workout. I don't know if it was just because of tight ligaments or a little bit of scar tissue in there, but ymmv.

My partner/fiance, whose ankle was nearly fused into a flex after disuse from a femur break, decided to push himself and break up some scar tissue by wiggling/moving/massaging/whatever 10 YEARS after his original healing time. It actually worked! So yes, you may be able to improve your situation down the line.

Disclaimer: I am completely not qualified as a PT, nor any other sort of medically trained person.
posted by Madamina at 2:21 PM on September 14, 2010


If you want recommendations on how to work around your injury, you need to describe exactly what mobility limitations you have. I'm having a really hard time picturing how you can have an elbow injury that limits your mobility so that you can't perform any free weight movements and yet you can perform shoulder presses, bicep curls, pulldowns, etc. on machines.

In any case, I don't think there's any way that your elbow injury makes it impossible for you to squat. I've seen a guy who only had one arm doing front squats. There are many options available besides the front and back squat variations -- maybe you could squat with a safety bar, or do zercher squats, or overhead squats, or hack squats, etc.

As for your specific questions:

What's the max number of days I can weight train per week?

In my experience, 3 days a week of full-body training is the most effective approach for beginners.

Would it be more effective to do 12 x 3 with the same amount of weight all the way through, or...?

In my experience, sets across -- meaning you hold the weight constant for all of your working sets, which are performed after your warmup sets -- are most effective for building muscle in beginners. Ramping sets, where the weight increases each set, can also work. I think sets of 5 are the best way for beginners to safely learn technique and build muscle and strength.

Is there an optimal order in which to perform the upper muscle group exercises?

The most important exercises should be performed first. What's most important will depend on your goals. For a beginner, the most important exercises will be the ones using the most muscle mass and the most weight. So a beginner would squat before doing calf raises, and she would bench press before she did curls.

I recently bought a scale that tracks BMI and muscle mass. Is it unrealistic to expect to see those numbers changing in the first month, given that I've changed my diet as well?

BMI is calculated from your height and weight -- you don't need a special scale to calculate it. Scales that calculate bodyfat via electrical impedance are notoriously unreliable. That said, you should be seeing a gain in muscle and/or a loss in fat within your first month of training if you're training correctly.

I'm a visual learner: is there any resource out there that shows which groups of muscles are worked on particular machines or motions, and how they act together, or at the very least, explains which secondary groups of muscles are affected by a particular exercise?

ExRx.net

Speaking of which -- trainer's only working me for 30 minutes at a time. That seems low to me. What would you consider optimal for someone trying to build a lot of muscle?

A beginner can accomplish a full-body barbell workout in about 40 minutes. Workouts will take longer as you become more advanced. I can't speak to how long a machine-only workout should take, but 30 minutes seems short to me. However, workouts are not measured by how long they take to complete.
posted by JohnMarston at 2:32 PM on September 14, 2010


Seconding the bodyweight exercises - I've found this site to be incredibly informative in all aspects of physical fitness.
posted by Evernix at 2:37 PM on September 14, 2010


Doing a bodypart split you can workout 5 to 7 days a week if you want.

There are tons of split routines online so I'm not going to post one. Just make sure you pick something where you are hitting each body part 2 times a week and hit your legs hard.

Is there any way you can at least deadlift?

Your Bmi scale is crap so yes you'll be able to see changes within hours.
If you want to track progress take weight, measurements, photos of the front, back and side every month in the morning.
posted by zephyr_words at 2:44 PM on September 14, 2010


For the deep-tissue massage: again, this is only from my own personal experience. I've always had really, really deeply inflexible legs and hips - never been injured, but I was inflexible enough that several doctors and podiatrists expressed surprise. Heat and massage have helped loosen twenty-ish years of hardened tendons/muscles up to the point where I'm not constantly suffering from impact-related injuries. Don't get me wrong - I'm never going to be a long-distance runner because I still can't touch my toes and my calf muscles have all the flexibility of a block of wood, but there's less pain, which is always of the good. I don't know if it would work for you, but if it's been 8 years going on it might at least make a bit of a dent. I'm talking about regular applications of massage, though - I'm lucky enough to have someone willing to practise their technique on my leg.

If you do decide to go for deep-tissue massage, I'd suggest drinking a lot of water and taking the day afterwards off from working-out, just so's you don't wrench something by mistake. Deep-tissue tends to really hurt afterwards too, but try not to let that dissuade you from going again. (Again: IANYD!)
posted by zennish at 2:48 PM on September 14, 2010


This is too perfect... I need to post an entire email that my best friend sent me today. It's all about working out using your own body weight, and it's pretty hilarious and informative! It was entitled "Gettin huge, brah"


Hey bud,
Realized that I totally forgot to whip up some workout stuff you can do with just your body weight. True to form, expect this email to be looooooonggg.

You are initially going to think that using your body weight for exercise is lame because you aren't feeling it instantly the way you instantly feel the weight when you unrack a bench press or squat. Obviously it is a very heated debate between meat heads about which is actually better Free Weights (or any metal weight in general) and just your body. Speaking from experience I am finding that I am gaining muscle, staying a consistant weight AND becoming scary strong all from just using body weight. Not to mention that my joints are less sore and my body feels much more balanced.

Running with that for a minute, if you ever feel pain then stop, wiat fro the pain to go away and then go back into what you were doing. Personally when I do push-ups sometimes my shoulders start to feel like all the blood is leaving them and i keep going anyway to finish the set. Occasionally it will be not a level 10 on the pain scale, but it's around 7 or 8 so I take a break, shake off my arms and then finish the set. Remember that it's going to be painful and difficult at first. Understanding which pain equals progress, and which pain could be severe is something you will have to discover about yourself as you get back into it.

I will also say that a lot of my physical progress and increased strenght has come from a REALLY good diet, not just some GNC designer protein shake. Yes, I do take whey protein and I take it not everyday, but certainly several times a week. But again, that is an argument for the meat heads. Just hear me out on this ok. You are going to get super tired of frying up 3-6 eggs or sitting down to eat a whole chicken or tearing into that steak EVERYTIME you finish your workout. wouldn;t you rather just drink it real quick and be done with it? And whey protein metabolizes into your skeletal muscles faster than any other protein that exists (other proteins being derived from nuts, animal, soy, etc). I'm just saying. And if you are already considering getting some whey PLEASE don't go to GNC and buy that bullshit they sell that's full of peptides and zero calorie "cancer creating" sweeteners. Just get it from that bulk foods site I go to. It's as pure as the driven snow! Better yet, I'll fucking give you some. I've still got something like 10 lbs left. Just let me know.

Ooooooook, sorry about that bud. If this were real life then we'd be having an awesome hour long talk about this,b ut since it's all one sided you can just sit there and TAKE IT! YOU WILL LISTEN TO EVERY DAMN WORD I HAVE TO SAY!

The exercises:
What I did, and what you can try is find your One Set MAX for every exercise and then do 10 sets of that max and tell me you don't feel that the next day.

Do your whole body either every other day, or every two days. Whatever you feel is a better idea for you. Try to keep your routine around 30 minutes, though if you are getting really jazzed from working out and want to keep going then go for it, you don't have to worry about that whole "Let's see I did Front Squats Monday, today is Wednesday and so to keep my body guessing I should do Hack Squats and Reverse Lunges. So if I wanted to add and exercise then I'd have to......" Fuck all that. You're crushing your whole body WITH your body. After 10 sets of whatever your legs will be shaking, I'm not a body builder you aren't a body builder. Who cares what miniscule advantage "plateau breaking" gives you.

With that, get creative. Something isn;t hard enough? Find a way to make it harder without injuring yourself.
Example: Push-ups are a little girls exercise. Ok, cool. Put your feet up on the table and try them.
I could do a million body weight squats! Ok, how many One Legged Squats can you do?


Sample Routine: (some exercises you might not recognize, try looking them up)
Always ALWAYS warm up. You can warm up with some Yoga, you could go for a jog, run around outside with the dog. Find some way any way you can do get your body loose.

Warm up
30 seconds of Snowboarders (feet shoulder width apart, squat down and then jump and spin 180. squat, jump and spin 180. Rinse and repeat. See you in hell)
30 seconds Walking Lunges
30 seconds Side Lunges (legs in a split postion, keeping your heels on the ground squat and lean over to your Left knee. Rise back to the center, go the the Right Knee)
Push-ups (Find your One Set Max, then do 10 sets of half of that. {ie; OSM=10 so 10 sets of 5})
Pull-ups (10 sets of 1/2 your OSM)
Alligator Walk Push-Ups (go into a push-up position, do a pushup and then 'walk' your left arm and foot forward just a bit. do a push up and walk your right arm and foot forward just a bit but further then your Left side. this is brutal, the idea is to get a rhythm going and it's easier. Pick a spot on the floor and 'walk' to it and then go back to the start. Do as many sets of these as you can)
30 seconds Toe Touches (Lay on your back, raise your legs straight up off your hips and touch your toes. Try to do these as fast as you can for maximum impact)
-Bonus Round-
See wehre you are for time and what you think could use some more work and fill in the gaps with things like: L Sits for abs and core, Iron Chairs for legs, hold a Handstand position for 45 seconds for shoulders and upper body.

Sorry about the length! good luck buddy!
posted by Glendale at 6:34 PM on September 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


There's so much conflicting info out there!

Yes, there is! Especially with every internet know-it-all giving you advice. Forums can be great as long as it's the right forum. It can be tricky getting advice from forums or trainers, as you may have already found out.
You should seek articles by well known strength coaches. Then go ahead and check the proper forums.
Figure Athlete might just be what you're looking for with both articles and a forum.

There are no hard and fast rules, just general guidelines and sometimes those vary depending on how dogmatic the person you hear it from is

1. What's the max number of days I can weight train per week? Would 2 days of upper body training and 1 of lower body training be sufficient, or can I do more?

Elite athletes train upwards of 6 or 7. You can train somewhere between 3 to 5 and get great results. There's no reason to train the upper body more than the lower, and you could get quite good results from actually concentrating more on the lower.

2. I don't believe in this powderpuff "only 10 reps" crap that some other women at my gym seem to do. Or light weights, high reps. But I find it distracting to switch up weight amounts mid-series. Would it be more effective to do 12 x 3 with the same amount of weight all the way through, or...?

Depends. Most programs, or your body, will require a change in weight/reps.

3. Is there an optimal order in which to perform the upper muscle group exercises? I've found when my trainer works me in a different order I sometimes have a MUCH harder time lifting with my weaker shoulders, etc than I otherwise do. Or is it better to mix it up all the time?

Depends. Some trainers a good at programming. Basic programs tend to be specifc.

4. I recently bought a scale that tracks BMI and muscle mass. Is it unrealistic to expect to see those numbers changing in the first month, given that I've changed my diet as well?

A cheap way to get measured is the 9 site caliper measurment done by the same person every time. Make sure it's the nine site and not the three, and make sure it's done by the same person. It'll be roundabout close, other testing is more time intensive and could be costly.

5. I'm a visual learner: is there any resource out there that shows which groups of muscles are worked on particular machines or motions, and how they act together, or at the very least, explains which secondary groups of muscles are affected by a particular exercise? I'm trying to get the most bang for my buck in terms of selecting which exercises to do so I don't end up in the gym for more than an hour every day.

Other than ExRx you might want to check out Strength Training Anatomy from a library.

6. Speaking of which -- trainer's only working me for 30 minutes at a time. That seems low to me. What would you consider optimal for someone trying to build a lot of muscle?

An hour(ish). It sounds like your trainer was trying to optimize her time.

Good luck!
posted by P.o.B. at 7:49 PM on September 14, 2010


I have recently heard some very good things about TrainForStrength.com's workouts, a few of which use only your own body weight.
posted by Earl the Polliwog at 7:50 PM on September 14, 2010


I managed to slightly tear a muscle in my upper back on a machine at a gym a few years ago and did some PT to help recover. One thing my physical therapist told me is that switching to free weights will likely prevent such injuries in the future because, in addition to working the primary muscle groups, they also work out and build strength in the stabilizer muscles. Since machines do a lot of the balancing for you, you don't get that.

I'm not saying that you should switch to free weights despite you injury but it is something you should consider. I would think that the body weight exercises mentioned above (where you can do them) should help with that a bunch.
posted by VTX at 7:58 PM on September 14, 2010


No deadlifts?
posted by tiburon at 1:56 PM on September 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


I see a few issues with your approach as follows:

1) Regarding reps. If you are stopping at 10 and can do 12, you aren't using enough weight. The weight should be adjusted to near failure. A proverbial rule of thumb is low reps for power (4-6), high reps (over 12) for endurance/toning, but there's a lot of debate over that. 10 reps reasonable, but a lot of people will tell you to go for 4 x 8 instead of 3 x 10, or to pyramid your sets with escalating weight. It's more important that you are using good form, and an appropriate amount of weight (again near to complete fatigue), giving it that squeeze on final contraction, and taking advantage of the negatives (eccentric phase) by performing them in a slow controlled fashion.

2) I know you don't like free weights, but I don't see why restricted elbow mobility should limit ALL free weights. The problem with your routine is that you have limited yourself entirely to isolation exercise, which is really at your stage the wrong way to go. Compound exercises are your friend. Most notably for the legs, where even if you can't do standard squats, your elbow shouldn't keep you from deadlifts or dumbbell split squats or kettlebell swings. The key is that by working multiple muscle groups, you are getting way more bang for your buck, and also working all the important stabilizers and critical core muscles that you're borking right now by isolating.

3) Serious power lifting will possibly by you 2-3 pounds of muscle a month up front with diminishing gains over time. But it's critical that you realize that you're not building muscle in the gym, you're breaking it down. You're building muscle in the kitchen and while sleeping. I know you're having a protein shake, but have you bothered to actually calculate your total protein intake? For maximal gains, you may need over a gram per pound of body weight if not moreso. That requires a concerted effort for most people.

4) In terms of order, a good rule of thumb is to start with the compound exercises working the large central muscle groups then work your way peripherally. If you want to work your back with rows, you don't want your fatigued biceps from the curls you just did limiting how much you pull for example. If you do it the other way around, your lats/traps get a workout, and then down the line, the biceps which are already warmed up can be targeted with curls.

5) It's helpful to have lots of exercises to try for the same muscle groups. Mixing up the exercise/angle/grip is what keeps your muscles guessing.
posted by drpynchon at 3:45 PM on September 15, 2010


I know you're having a protein shake, but have you bothered to actually calculate your total protein intake? For maximal gains, you may need over a gram per pound of body weight if not moreso. That requires a concerted effort for most people.

Agreed. The biggest challenge for me diet-wise has been eating more times / day. The reason I drink the protein shakes (we're using this; my boyfriend was training pretty heavily for a while and his research found it) is because I just cannot eat any more solid food in a day.

It's funny you mention kettlebell, the guy in the studio across from mine is a kettlebell trainer and I was going to try working out with him once I get a little stronger.

Thank you, everyone, for your input.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 7:12 AM on September 16, 2010


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