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Cardio/calorie blasters for upper-body?
August 18, 2012 12:42 PM   Subscribe

As a woman, is there cardio I can do to help build strength and some bulk in my upper body?

I'm a slightly bottom-heavy hourglass (a skittle/hourglass hybrid in Trinny & Susannah's body shapes - I gain all over but mostly on my thighs). At my best weight, I look like an hourglass, and when I'm overweight I'm more of a pear. I would like to balance my body a bit more while I work on slowly losing the extra pounds, which would ideally mean stronger and larger arms/shoulders/pecs/upper back.

Right now I'm about 15-20 pounds from my personal ideal weight (I'd like to be about 150, with muscle, at 5'6"). I know I can get there in a few months. But for now I'd really like to help balance my strong lower body with some upper body strength - and it would be great to bulk my shoulders, pecs, and traps a little too, as much as a woman can bulk without extreme measures.

I LOVE walking (long walks) and yoga. I do Zumba on occasion. Swimming and biking are okay. I've also tried one of those upper-body stationary bikes, which is okay but doesn't burn as many calories as I'd like (I'm itching to be doing something with my feet while I do it!). I'm looking for exercises that burn a lot of calories (ideally cardio) while targeting my upper body more than my lower body. I'm willing to do strength training, but I find it kind of disheartening since I feel I'm not getting as much calorie-bang for my time-buck, so to speak.

I've tried swimming while mostly using my arms, but that gets really boring, and Boston winters suck for damp hair. More variety would be good!

Despite the strict parameters of this question, I'm open minded about this. Weird exercises are welcome, as is advice to the effect of "this is impossible." Thanks!
posted by lemoncakeisalie to Health & Fitness (18 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm willing to do strength training, but I find it kind of disheartening since I feel I'm not getting as much calorie-bang for my time-buck, so to speak.

There are two sides to this equation: either burn the calories exercising, or don't consume the calories in the first place. What's the average number of calories you burn in an aerobic workout, 300? Skipping out on a scone is 460 calories[*]. You both work at gaining the muscle you want and losing the calories you don't want.

The simple truth is that if your goal is to lose weight then the best "calorie-bang for your time-buck" is to modify your diet.

[*] remember to cut the right things. You won't gain any muscle without a healthy, balanced diet.
posted by sbutler at 12:56 PM on August 18, 2012


If you have access to water, try kayaking. It will exactly target arms/shoulders/back.

Lift anyway. The "calorie burn" numbers are not the whole story. Or do circuits, which keep your heart rate up between sets.
posted by purpleclover at 12:57 PM on August 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Boxing/kickboxing. Straight punches will do your triceps, upper back, shoulders. Hooks (twisting to throw your bodyweight from side to side basically) are great for core and biceps. Round (Thai) kicks will do things to your side abdominal muscles you thought not possible.

Cardio-wise nothing kills me faster. You will get a great leg workout too, though, there's no way around that. But unless you add a lot of resistance somehow it will mostly just be of the hardening and shredding type, not the gigantor leg muscles type.

I know it's not for everyone. But it has taught me that the best way to get yourself to exercise is to find exercise that is enjoyable. So that should be a high priority whatever you choose.
posted by TheRedArmy at 1:03 PM on August 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm looking for exercises that burn a lot of calories (ideally cardio) while targeting my upper body more than my lower body.

If there's a rowing machine at the gym (concept2 is a common brand), that'll cover it. Make sure to use good form, otherwise you won't get the full benefit of the exercise.

And yeah, lift anyway. Strength training is transformative in ways cardio isn't. If you're looking to bulk up, free weights will be far more effective than any machine -- rowing will help you build muscle up to a certain point, but after that it's just cardio, same as the bikes.
posted by vorfeed at 1:07 PM on August 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Circuit training.
posted by koahiatamadl at 1:17 PM on August 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


> I'm looking for exercises that burn a lot of calories (ideally cardio) while targeting my upper body more than my lower body.

If there's a rowing machine at the gym (concept2 is a common brand), that'll cover it.


Hmm. Most of the power in sliding-seat rowing comes from the legs. Sure, the arms get some work as they finish the motion, but I would hardly say that rowing targets the upper body more.
posted by stopgap at 1:19 PM on August 18, 2012


Swimming using a pull buoy instead of kicking your legs. I do this and it really builds up the upper body.
posted by wandering_not_lost at 1:29 PM on August 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


I should add that I'm also dieting - 1500-1800 calories a day, depending on what exercise I've done. I have a lot of stress at university (really no way around that other than to transfer, but I love where I am and really don't want to). Any less than 1500 calories and I feel like I'm starving because of the cortisol. The only way around it is to burn more, so burn more I will! Which also blasts stress. Two birds.
posted by lemoncakeisalie at 1:31 PM on August 18, 2012


Consider kettlebells. A good snatch/TGU workout will give you everything you are looking for and then some. Memail me if you have questions.
posted by Sternmeyer at 1:49 PM on August 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm looking for exercises that burn a lot of calories (ideally cardio) while targeting my upper body more than my lower body. I'm willing to do strength training, but I find it kind of disheartening since I feel I'm not getting as much calorie-bang for my time-buck, so to speak.

You have two different goals here: lose weight in the form of bodyfat, and gain weight in the form of upper body muscle. These goals are basically opposite, but since you're presumably a beginner to strength training you will be able to accomplish them both at the same time to some degree. But you'll want to be doing different things to accomplish these different goals.

Fat loss results from an energy deficit, which will be largely achieved through diet. To the extent that exercise can help with fat loss, cardio is a good idea. But you don't do cardio to build muscle, you do resistance training. How many calories are burned while resistance training is beside the point.

Basic upper body strength training movements include pushups, chinups/pullups, dips, rows, bench presses, overhead presses, triceps extensions and curls. There's more detail about fat loss and muscle building on this page.
posted by ludwig_van at 2:52 PM on August 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


Is there an assisted pullup machine at your gym? When I regularly do 3 sets of assisted pull ups (15 at the lowest weight, 12 at medium, and 10 at the omg I can barely stand this!), I find that my arms get toned and bigger quickly (my whole upper body), and it's over so quickly it hardly feels like I'm wasting any cardio time on strength training.

Also, do keep in mind that strength training does burn calories, and not only that, boosts your metabolism. I would challenge you to find a way to get some strength training in, it's good for you and it will help your weight loss goals! It's worth the time.
posted by pazazygeek at 2:52 PM on August 18, 2012


I'm looking for exercises that burn a lot of calories (ideally cardio) while targeting my upper body more than my lower body.

If you're trying to lose weight, it's really diet, not exercise, that determines weight loss. Most the calories we consume are burnt through basal metabolic processes. Exercise is really a drop in the bucket compared to that. I danced for nearly two hours last night. Broke a sweat and got blisters on my feet. All that dancing? Barely burnt off the half bottle of soda and cupcake I had at the dance.

Any less than 1500 calories and I feel like I'm starving

I'm sorry to break it to you, but if you want to lose weight, you are going to have to feel like you are starving (occasionally). I'm trying to lose fat, too, and on 1400 Calories a day it's tough - there are times when I'm staaaaarving.... I make sure to eat before exercise, so I'm never hungry during that, but if I'm sitting in front of a computer, it's simply a nagging annoyance.

YMMV - I'm not telling you definitely to eat less, because I don't know your personal health, but your body wants to maintain its current weight, and it WILL send out, "what? No!" signals if you start to dip below that. NOT getting those uncomfortable signals means you won't get your results (or you have a freakishly accommodating body).


I find it kind of disheartening since I feel I'm not getting as much calorie-bang for my time-buck, so to speak.

The article I linked to does actually mention that lower-intensity workouts burn fat more than high-energy workouts (which I'm guessing target glycogen stores, but that's only a guess).

Anywho.... long way round to your question, you say you like yoga - a few years back I used to do, gosh, I can't remember the name of it, but all I can describe it as is "fast yoga". We'd repeat each pose many times, and didn't really "hold" each pose - went quickly to the next one (naturally there were certain poses we didn't do). I was breathing quickly but not sweating. If you do that and incorporate a lot of upper body poses (e.g. plank) it might work.
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 2:53 PM on August 18, 2012


If there's a rowing machine at the gym (concept2 is a common brand), that'll cover it.

actually, if you are rowing correctly, you would be using your leg and back muscles for the bulk of the work. rowing is a great exercise to work all your major muscle groups but it's a misconception to state that it is all—or mostly—all upper body work because it most definitely is not.

(i am a former rower and coxswain.)

but yes, as others have stated, if your goal is to lose weight, you need to be expending more calories than you consume, period. that can be done through exercise, calorie restriction, or a combination of both but that's the bottom line, and that's what needs to be the end result in order to lose weight regardless of how you get it. what has always worked for me if i don't want to be feel hungry all the time (and yes, i have managed to lose about 15lbs before purely through a 1000 cal/day restriction), has been 5x/week 4-6mi run and 3x week 45 mins of strength training. building strength helps with burning calories and it just feels a lot better when you feel stronger.
posted by violetk at 3:04 PM on August 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


The article I linked to does actually mention that lower-intensity workouts burn fat more than high-energy workouts (which I'm guessing target glycogen stores, but that's only a guess).

That's not really true. In the "fat-burning zone" (usually indicated in a table on cardio machines with heart-rate meters), your body burns fat as a higher percentage of total fuel. But working out at a higher intensity burns so many more calories in total that you burn more fat anyway (even though it is a lower percentage of total fuel burned).
posted by stopgap at 3:13 PM on August 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm sorry to break it to you, but if you want to lose weight, you are going to have to feel like you are starving (occasionally

Not so. When I lost thirty-five pounds a few years ago, I ate three square meals a day (the first one to include a poptart plus Kashi Golean cereal with soy milk) and incorporated a lot of exercise.) I did watch my portions but I did NOT count calories-in fact I had the occasional cheese or the occasional ice cream. I lost weight one to two pounds a week. I did get hungry at meal time but was not roaming around seeking whom I could devour, so to speak.

You can lose inches by just exercising but doing both diet and exercise worked the best for me to see the scale change.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 4:35 PM on August 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Anywho.... long way round to your question, you say you like yoga - a few years back I used to do, gosh, I can't remember the name of it, but all I can describe it as is "fast yoga". We'd repeat each pose many times, and didn't really "hold" each pose - went quickly to the next one (naturally there were certain poses we didn't do). I was breathing quickly but not sweating.

If you weren't sweating it was probably vinyasa flow, but lemoncakeisalie should try ashtanga (power) yoga which is more intense and meant to work up a sweat. There are some good upper body moves in Pilates too, but I think yoga's better if you want strength and cardio at once.

My friend does Muay Thai and she's ripped... You could try that!

On preview, you say you're in Boston? Girl you should join Healthworks! Their classes are AMAZING.... You can't go wrong at that place.
posted by désoeuvrée at 6:08 PM on August 18, 2012


You have two different goals here: lose weight in the form of bodyfat, and gain weight in the form of upper body muscle.

This. You cannot "gain bulk" while also losing weight. I would recommend getting to your goal weight and then slowly bulking from there. Also, once you reach your goal weight, your upper body may be more defined because less fat is covering it.
posted by Tanizaki at 6:39 PM on August 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


In the gym, try an elliptical (cross-trainer) but really concentrate on using your arms rather than just letting them take a ride while your legs do all the work. Be aware of pushing and pulling with your arms as you stride away. You'll get an upper-body work-out, trust me. :-)
posted by Decani at 10:41 AM on August 19, 2012


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