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Lift ALL the weights!
October 8, 2012 9:11 AM   Subscribe

My husband has recently started using the weight machines at the Y. He wants to build strength and muscle mass as quickly as possible, while hopefully also losing some fat. What is the best strategy if we assume that for the time being, he is not going to switch to free weights?

My husband occasionally gets bursts of fitness enthusiasm. His current fitness love affair is with the weight machines at the Y, which we recently joined. There are 13 machines he uses. They have a networked electronic system that keeps track of your workouts, weights and settings that he really likes. It's socially "gamified" in that you earn points for various things and can track your own progress and rank yourself against other members in various ways. So for several reasons, let's just assume that he is not going to switch to free weights for a while, even if we might all agree that they are more efficient. Right now his goal is to gain strength, gain muscle mass, and lose body fat; all are about of equal importance.

Now, when he gets these bursts of fitness enthusiasm, he--in both of our opinions--has to fight the tendency to overdo things. So, after only a few sessions in the weight room, one evening he texted me to say he would be running late, and it turns out it was because he wound up doing a 2-hour workout (all weights). That seemed like a bad idea to me, since it was only maybe his 3rd or 4th time working out in the weight room, and I told him so.

Since then he's backed off a bit on the length of workouts, but he still says his goal is to do 1.5 hour workouts on alternating days. A 1.5 hr weights-only workout still seems longer than what I normally see suggested. I told him that based on what I had read, that one sees maximum gains from doing fewer reps at higher weights, and that if he was able to spend 90 minutes in the weight room that he probably wasn't lifting the optimal amount, at least in terms of strength/muscle mass gains--i.e., that he should be doing fewer reps/sets at higher weights. Right now he is doing 3-6 sets on each machine at 12 reps.

He's also about 3 months into re-starting his running program but has cut back on running in favor of the weight room. My thought is that if he wants to get a really effective aerobic workout plus a really effective strength-building workout, he'd be better served by doing something like a good 30-45 minute run 3x/week, plus a more intense 30-45 minute weights workout 3x/week, rather than these 90 minute weights workouts where he's trying to get both aerobic and strength gains in the same session.

Is there support for my suggestion? Are there any good resources for designing workouts etc when working with machines rather than free weights? If he would really rather do a long weights workouts (90-120 minutes), is that likely to be harmful in some way?

FWIW, he is 42 and has a BMI of 28.
posted by drlith to Health & Fitness (12 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
He needs to speak with a qualified personal trainer, or someone with formal training in kinesiology. He should do this sooner rather than later, because if he has a 'tendency to overdo things', he could very easily injuring himself in ways that will not be immediately apparent.

There's absolutely no way that anybody can provide him with reliable advice without speaking to him at the very least.

And are there good resources for designing workout routines around machines? Absolutely, and a bit of Google-fu will bring you to them within seconds. However, if your husband has a clear idea of what he wants to get out of his workouts, he would probably be best served by meeting with a trainer for a few sessions. When he's arranging this, he should be clear that he's looking to develop a sustainable workout routine.
posted by BrandonW at 9:21 AM on October 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


That seemed like a bad idea to me, since it was only maybe his 3rd or 4th time working out in the weight room, and I told him so.

Yeah, if you're spending more than an hour on weights, you're wasting your time on macho bullshit and you're going to hurt yourself. If you want to get the best results out of your weight room, you go in with a list of things to do that's part of a larger plan, you do only those things and then you stop.

A copy of Mark Rippetoe's "Starting Strength", that might also help.
posted by mhoye at 9:27 AM on October 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


Right now his goal is to gain strength, gain muscle mass, and lose body fat; all are about of equal importance.

He needs to pick one goal at a time. Either (1) gain strength and muscle or (2) lose fat. Goal 1 requires a caloric surplus and Goal 2 requires a caloric deficit.

I agree with your advice that he would be doing more good with fewer reps at higher weights. I bet you dollars to doughnuts that he is doing a routine out of Muscle and Fitness or some other such magazine. A resistance work out of 90 minutes, let alone two hours, is ridiculous.

I would recommend a program like Rippetoe's Starting Strength. While this is a free weight routine, it could be reasonably adapted to machines. For example, using a hack squat machine for squats or Smith machine for bench/bent rows. Your Y may even have a deadlift machine. If your husband wants to build muscle, he should be doing these compound movements and not simple movements like bicep curls.

Also, please do not think that a resistance workout is not cardiovascular. At three sets of 12, I agree that one's heart is barely beating. But, try a five rep set of deadlifts and see if your heart isn't racing and your lungs gasping for air.
posted by Tanizaki at 10:11 AM on October 8, 2012


Yeah, if you're spending more than an hour on weights, you're wasting your time on macho bullshit and you're going to hurt yourself.

This is completely false.

Mark Rippetoe's "Starting Strength"

Has nothing to say about machine-based workouts, so it's mostly irrelevant to the OP's husband.

He needs to pick one goal at a time. Either (1) gain strength and muscle or (2) lose fat. Goal 1 requires a caloric surplus and Goal 2 requires a caloric deficit.

This is not the case for overweight beginners like the OP's husband. If he eats a reasonable caloric deficit with adequate protein and trains hard, he can gain muscle and lose fat in the same period. Once he's been training for awhile, accomplishing both at once will require a much more finely-tuned approach.

OP, here is a good guide for your husband to read on the basics of diet and strength training. Important things I would emphasize are:

1. Dietary adherence. You're not going to change your body composition (gain muscle and lose fat) without paying attention to your diet.
2. A balanced program. He should be sure to work his whole body over the course of a week rather than focusing on some body parts to the exclusion of others. Using machines exclusively will mean doing a lot of different movements to hit everything, but that's just how it goes. He'll probably want to use a body part split, e.g. spend one day on chest/triceps exercises, another day on back/biceps, another on shoulders/legs, etc. There are lots of programs out there you can google for.
3. Full range of motion. Don't cheat by moving the weights a smaller distance in order to use heavier loads.
4. Warmup. Don't neglect it.

He can hire a trainer if he wants, but unless he has major injuries he's trying to work around he shouldn't need one.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:06 AM on October 8, 2012 [9 favorites]


Machines are fun when you're starting because you can progress pretty quickly. I like to lift super heavy, super slow (meaning I can do maybe 2 sets to failure--as heavy as I can go.) I do upper body 1 day, rest or slow cardio the next, then lower body, rest/slow cardio and then maybe abs. I take 1 or 2 days off a week, but since going every day is part of building the habit, so I might do just 4 mph on the treadmill and rest only 1 day.

If he drops his carbs to under 30 grams a day, eats enough protein, he can certainly burn fat and get stronger. Go by pant size not the scale.

He's a bit intensive, but I trust Lyle MacDonald.
posted by Ideefixe at 11:41 AM on October 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


You mentioned that he works out at the Y ... I don't know if it's the case where you live, but our Y membership includes free access to the personal trainers on staff there. They will happily spend an hour with him designing a program and training him on how to use the machines properly, and in what order.
posted by jbickers at 11:54 AM on October 8, 2012


I told him that based on what I had read, that one sees maximum gains from doing fewer reps at higher weights, and that if he was able to spend 90 minutes in the weight room that he probably wasn't lifting the optimal amount, at least in terms of strength/muscle mass gains--i.e., that he should be doing fewer reps/sets at higher weights. Right now he is doing 3-6 sets on each machine at 12 reps.

I do a fairly aggressive high weight program, and I'll take more than 90 minutes in the gym. A lot of that is recovery time, between sets and between exercises.

As for the rest - I agree with ludwig_van. Machines are not my thing, but people seem to like 'em. He will probably have better results with a focus on compound-type lifts - chest press, overhead press, Smith machine, leg press. Strength and muscle mass will also develop with diet - high protein is the way to go. For a beginner, he can lose fat and gain strength at the same time, but it will be slow(er) going and body measurements (waist, hips, thigh circumference) will be better indicators.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 3:55 PM on October 8, 2012


This is the general rep/weight chart from Starting Strength that always gets kicked around. I don't really understand what it is based on, other than experience.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 3:59 PM on October 8, 2012


I wouldn't be so concerned about pushing cardio back into his regimen. 2 hrs of high-rep lifting of any sort will trigger noticeable aerobic adaptations - unless he's taking powerlifter-style rest pauses it's quite likely his HR is at least staying north of 100bpm the entire session. That's decent cardiac output training whichever way you slice it, even if he thinks he's doing strength training.

My suggestion is you let him go on and have his fun. Machines are suboptimal in many regards and certainly present some risk of exacerbating poor motor patterns, but they're not death traps, and most people tend to soon wise up and start training properly before any major joint issues arise. It's highly probable during these first few months that he's fixing more postural issues than he stands to accrue from machine use. And he's forming an exercise habit, which is positive regardless of how effectively exercise is currently being performed. If machine workouts gets him in the gym on a regular basis, those are the best workouts for him.
posted by Kandarp Von Bontee at 4:42 PM on October 8, 2012


There is a huge bias against machines on the internet, so beware.

Machines were originally designed for a specific training protocol which relies on training to complete muscle failure. Training to complete muscular failure is not safe with free weights (form breaks down before the muscles fail, and form is critical with free weights).

Nowadays there are a lot of people (trainers included) who think they can just use free weight style sets-and-reps training on machines. This is where machines are suboptimal and ineffective. The only way to effectively use machines is with failure training.


The two popular failure training methods today are High Intensity Training (which is what Nautilus (the original machine circuit) was originally invented for) and Super Slow. They are both pretty similar. I don't really know a whole lot about High Intensity Training, but the good current Super Slow books are Body by Science and Power of Ten (I prefer Power of Ten).
posted by robokevin at 7:16 PM on October 8, 2012


as quickly as possible

42 and has a BMI of 28

There's a good chance he's going to injure himself and render him unable to keep exercising in order to achieve his goals.

He does has goals, right?

The regimen he's proscribed himself doesn't seem healthy/sustainable.

It also sounds like he really needs to do a lot more research, or at least let go of his current ideas of what it takes to be "healthy."

By doing it half-assed/self-assessed, it's more likely that he'll give it up before any of the gains really show or do it wrong enough to hurt himself. This is a situation where a trusted and trustworthy professional is really worth their time in your money.

Future question: how to find an excellent personal trainer/what is a "healthy" lifestyle.
posted by porpoise at 7:19 PM on October 8, 2012


The best workout is the one you do.
posted by bongo_x at 8:26 AM on October 9, 2012


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