Workout Filter: Help me assess my weight lifting workout.
September 8, 2008 8:22 PM   Subscribe

I've been lifting weights for a long time, but recently decided to switch from the machines to mostly free weights and cable lifts. I've done a lot of reading on the subject, and have cobbled together the following routine that seems to be giving me some results, but I wanted opinions on what muscles I might be missing/which exercises might be superfluous.

I'm a 26 y/o female, 150 pounds, looking to build muscle. I'm doing this workout four to five times a week, alternating arms and legs days. I do a fair amount of walking but am not really doing any cardio on top of this.

The arms workout is as follows:
(sets x reps x weight)
Machine: Tricep pulldown 3 x 10 x 50 lbs
Lat pulldown 3 x 10 x 70 lbs
Row 3 x 10 x 60 lbs

Dumbbell bench press 3 x 10 x 20 lb weights
Bicep curls 3 x 5 x 20 lbs
Overhead tricep curls (holding one dumbbell over my head) 3 x 10 x 20 lbs
Dumbbell row 3 x 10 x 20 lbs
Squats 3 x 10 x 20 lbs bar

And the legs workout:
Lunges 3 x 10 x 20 lb dumbbells
Machine: Back hyperextensions 3 x 10
Situps 3 x 20
Conventional deadlift 3 x 10 x 50 lbs
Machine: Dips 3 x 10 x 80 lbs
Squats 3 x 10 x 20 lbs bar

Any ideas on how to improve this? I am trying to pay attention to form and have found that any more weight degrades my form. Also important to note is that I go to the gym at a high-traffic time of day and am a bit intimidated by the huge muscle-bound men using some of the more “serious” machines. I also don't have a spotter.

I know about the wonderful but would be very open to suggestions of other women-friendly weight lifting sites.
posted by prior to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (17 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Seems pretty good to me, I like that you've got squats and deadlifts in there--work that core!

But: can you explain more what your goals are other than "build muscle?" There are a lot of theories and philosophies on how to achieve various results (gaining "functional" strength vs. bodybuilding, for example), so it'd be useful to know more of what your ideal end result would be.

As far as being intimidated by the muscle bound guys, if there is a possibility of you finder a more woman-friendly gym I'd investigate that, it's always good to feel comfortable working out. Also make sure you can safely drop your weight on the deadlifts (or anything where you feel uncomfortable once you get it up) in the gym: I once was in a gym where a TRAINER gave me shit for drop my weight on the deadlift...beware the "globogym" with uneducated staff. But maybe this is all old hat for you if you've been lifting for a while...
posted by dubitable at 8:34 PM on September 8, 2008

Starting Strength Wiki More reading material, some of the best available. Buy the book if you can.

CrossFit CrossFit isn't for everyone (I love it, but I play a sport where the physicality of it carries over very well), but the site does have a lot of videos and information about performing lifts correctly. Watch the deadlift and squat videos, then correct your form. Watch anything by Rippetoe, he's amazing and hilarious.

Your routine, for someone who is just switching to free weights, is actually pretty damn good. Most people come up with terrible ideas, but you've done well for yourself.

However, a few basic points:
You don't need to do that many lifts. If you stick to the big compound lifts you don't need to do isolation movements unless you are specifically addressing a deficiency, or it is sport specific. Deadlift, overhead press, squat, bench press, power clean, barbell row, pull-up, dip. Those movements will take care of your whole body.

When you are doing fewer lifts, you can combine upper and lower body. I'm rarely in the gym lifting longer than 40 minutes.

You are doing too many reps per set. For a beginner, 5x5 is a great program. Doing only five reps will let you increase your weight without a loss of form, as long as you pay attention, since there won't be as much of an endurance aspect to the set. Also, beginner doesn't reflect how long you have been lifting, but rather how much you can lift or the gains you can make each training session.

If you decided on 5x5, or even 3x5, work on adding weight each session. With a good diet and some intensity, you can maintain this for a while.

You probably don't need to do back extensions and deadlifts.

Work your way to pull-ups rather than doing lat pulldowns.

The most dangerous lift to do without a spotter is the bench press. There is no good way to bail out of a bench press. With any of the other big lifts you can dump the weight on the ground. It's loud, but you'll be safe.

Don't be intimidated! You are doing well, and anyone that would give you flack in the gym is an asshole.
posted by Loto at 8:41 PM on September 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

First,your focus on form will serve you well.

Second, switching to free weights is the way to go. Carrying the weights adds so much more and you can isolate much better.

I would make one change to overhead curl bar tri extensions from the dumbell ones. The isolation is much better.

Finally,there's no reason to not have a spotter. Ask one of those men--I'm certain that they'll be willing to spot you.also there's no such thing as a "serious" machine--the super lifters are intimidating to a lot of guys too--at first.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:46 PM on September 8, 2008

If it is giving you results, I would not worry about changing it yet. That being said, personally, I think you are squatting and deadlifting way too little. There is nothing wrong with taking it slow while you get a really good feel for the form, but a 20lb squat is very very light. Not even the standard olympic bar. Don't be afraid to challenge yourself, deviating slightly (SLIGHTLY) from perfect form while you push yourself into higher weights can be ok. And you would be surprised how rarely you need a spotter if you aren't bench pressing. I never have a spotter for any other exercise. Does it mean I am slightly more conservative in some of my lifts? Yeah, but it is better to progress slowly than not at all.
You say you know about stumptuous, but if I were you I would go back and re-read the site some more. I think you are still giving in a little bit to the voice that says "not too heavy, not too fast!", as well as paying too little attention to compound lifts over body-part specific stuff. I was where you are now maybe 4 years ago when I finally made the leap to pure compound lifts. You can seriously see results without the bicep curls, tricep pull-downs, etc, but you have to trust that all of us telling you those exercises aren't necessary are really not bullshitting you. We aren't, swear to god. Squat, deadlift, overhead press, pull-ups, push-ups, something for your abs, maybe some dips. If you can do all of those exercises solidly with a decent amount of weight, you are well on your way to strong.
The last thing I would add, there is no reason to do the same number of sets and reps every workout. If nothing else, try to do heavy, medium, and light days, where you do fewer reps for more weight on heavy days, and vice versa on light days. You gotta mix it up or you will plateau.
posted by ch1x0r at 8:47 PM on September 8, 2008

Here's a good site for women weightlifters.

Don't get intimidated by muscle-bound guys. Just like you, they want to get in, finish their workout, and get out. If anything, those are the guys that are the most knowledgeable and most likely to share your goals. The guys to be wary of are the skinny ones on the elliptical machine checking out your ass. They are in the gym to play around.

I would consider these alterations:
- add 30 mins of cardio a few times a week
- If you are working out that much, break up your workout so that you have an upper-body and a lower-body day OR break it up into a 4-day split where you do chest/back on Monday, legs on Tuesday, shoulders on Thursday and arms on Friday
- add in an exercise to work your brachialis, like a preacher curl
- add in shoulder exercises - one for each head (front, lateral and rear)
- add in calf exercises - one for each of the muscles (Gastrocnemius, Soleus, Tibialis Anterior [shin])
- vary your situps so that your exercises hit obliques, upper and lower abs - also include a plank move twice a week or so
- add in 2 chest exercises to balance out your back exercises
- add in a lat pulldown
posted by charlesv at 8:53 PM on September 8, 2008

What Loto and ch1xor said. As I understand it from reading various sources: you don't need to do that many lifts or that many reps and you don't need to be doing isolation exercises. Isolation lifts are for when you're already strong (check out the strength standards here) and need to focus on a particular weak point. Right now your whole body is a weak point so you're wasting your time with isolation exercises. I second the Starting Strength recommendation and I'd also recommend Stronglifts, which outlines a very similar routine. I've been doing the latter for 3 months or so and have seen huge improvements.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:12 PM on September 8, 2008

I said a bunch of stuff here.

I elaborated pretty well in there... but the short of it is, if you're looking to build a lot of muscle quickly, don't waste too much time on the small stuff. Big, powerful exercises are going to make you grow.
posted by crunch buttsteak at 9:13 PM on September 8, 2008

Nthing what people are saying about dropping the isolation exercises. You need to work the large muscle groups if you want to build muscles, so the squats and deadlifts are great. Instead of doing curls with the dumbbells, you could do the stuff at the bottom of this comment.
posted by ignignokt at 9:24 PM on September 8, 2008

Your routine looks quite good, much better than most people starting with free weights. I second the recommendation for starting strength, it's a fairly standard, simple way to get started.

You could consider for your situps doing declined situps and adding weight. There are also lots of other fun exercises for the abs. Similarly, you can grab a weight and hold it to your chest during your back hyperextensions.

I'd also add decline bench press to the mix, but that's just because I love it. I'd really consider looking it up online and then trying it out, it's super fun to do.

The other thing that I'd add is that some of your weights are awfully low, and your volume is awfully high. There's a lot of differing thought on this, but my impression is that if you just want to increase strength, it's better to do lower volume and higher weight. For example, a lot of the stuff in the Starting Strength book recommends that you do 3x5s instead of 3x10s. 20 lb squats is especially low, and 50 lb deadlift seems kinda low to me too. Have you been increasing your weight roughly once every 1-2 weeks? I would encourage you to try bumping things up very gradually (5-10 lbs at a time) to really push yourself. Obviously having good form and making good progress are the most important things, but I've noticed that I tend to do much lower than I really could, just because I'm a little uncomfortable or nervous. Then I'll accidentally add 20 lbs more than I mean to, and realize I just set a new personal best.
posted by !Jim at 9:36 PM on September 8, 2008

Just some pointers:
-you need to prioritize those compound lifts. Squat, deadlift, bench press, and upright barbell row (I don't know if that's what you mean by barbell row) should be done first, with their more isolating accessories done afterwards.
-make sure you are squatting ass-to-grass. It is an amazing compound exercise, and you should milk its range of motion for all that you can. Also, I've noticed I have an easier time if I inhale before I start the motion rather than during it.
-With that said, your squat, dead, and bench are disproportionately low. Doing sets of 10 reps is fine. Doing sets of 6 reps is fine. Doing sets of 20 reps is fine. Just make sure the weight you are doing is causing you to fail/nearly fail on the last rep (even not getting the last 1 or 2 reps is preferable to cruising through all of them).
-People at the gym are generally friendly, so asking for a spot shouldn't be a big deal. Don't be shy!
-Huge screaming guys are obnoxious for everybody, don't worry. I see guys twice my size throwing around the same amount of weight that I do, only for some reason they have to scream while they do it. They're a joke and you should disregard them. On the other hand, though, it's always exciting to see girls do what most women would consider "boy exercises" they would never go near, and when they do them do them properly.
posted by GooseOnTheLoose at 9:36 PM on September 8, 2008

Oh, and don't worry about the gym dudes. Talk to them some time, and you'll realize that most of them are super-knowledgeable and nice people. Well, at least at my gym, YMMV. They're also generally happy to provide a spot.
posted by !Jim at 9:39 PM on September 8, 2008

You say you're familiar with -- yay!! -- but have you seen Krista's neat video section showing how you can learn to properly squat ass-to-grass? I agree that pushing yourself to squat more weight would be great, but you have to have rock-solid technique first.
posted by maudlin at 3:46 AM on September 9, 2008

1. You have to eat right for this to work. 1.4 grams of protein per pound of lean body mass per day, minimum. You gotta eat. Eating and sleeping makes you grow. End of story.

2. You gotta avoid injury. If it feels wrong, if something hurts the wrong way, ease off fast. Don't be afraid to say "that sucks, I need to fix the form". Sounds like you got this one down with the current routine.

3. Generally there are 3 variables. 1) reps; 2) weight; 3) rest. Any workout is just a manipulation of these variables. After about 5 weeks, your body adapts to the combination of these variables and growth slows. This is why whenever you switch training plans, you get a bump in growth.

Bottom line: plan your meals, plan your changes, take notes.

p.s. what are your weak points? just like there are guys in the gym with huge biceps and nothing else, you can make some muscles bigger. what look are you going for?

p.p.s. Generally, everyone needs to do more core muscle work. it burns calories, looks good, and reduces injury rates. what's not to love?
posted by ewkpates at 4:37 AM on September 9, 2008

Prior, you didn't say what your goal in weightlifting is? Do you want to build muscle or get defintion? I would say that your workout seems to be toward the definition side of things. If you want to build muscle mass, I would suggest 2 sets of 8 reps at the heaviest weight where you are exhausted after 8.

As for something missing, a couple of things jump out at me: not enough abs or core work, no exercises for the shoulders, and not much for the chest apart from the dumbell press. I would throw pushups in there. Krista on Stumptuous swears by them and gives great advice about why they are so good as well as how to build up to them. I swear by them and have found that they give me the most benefit for effort. I don't have much time to work out each day so I try to do exercises that hit a bunch of different muscles at one time and hit them well. For upper body I always do pushups (sets of 12-15 between other exercises), and dips and pullups on the assisted dip/pullup machine. I do other exercises as well, but make sure to get those in. For lower body I always do squats and the the butt blaster machine. I could probably just stick with those two for lower body and be good.
posted by kenzi23 at 9:39 AM on September 9, 2008

After posting I read the other comments and got a lot of great advice for my own workouts. Yay!

One thing I didn't see anyone mention is the need for rest in between workouts. Take a break of 48 hours in between the workout for one body grouping. My schedule looks like this:

day 1: upper body
day 2: lower body/abs
day 3: off (usually out on my bike)
day 4: upper body
day 5: lower body
repeat as needed

I read this on Stumptuous so you probably did too: when you work out a muscle to exhaustion you are tearing the muscle fiber and when you rest you allow the muscle to rebuild; your muscles prepare for future abuse by putting on a little extra...this is you building muscle. You MUST MUST MUST rest or you will not build muscle consistently, and you will be more likely to injure yourself. More is not necessarily better, working out for 2 hours each time is not necessarily better. Go for quality and you will see better results.
posted by kenzi23 at 9:51 AM on September 9, 2008

You can't go wrong with Starting Strength. I mean, you probably could, but it would be hard. Starting Strength gives you an encyclopedic look at the correct form and anatomy of each of your major lifts. It's a fascinating read that's indispensable for anyone learning to lift.

The weights you listed are your starting weights, right? Progressive overload is the name of the game. If your squat and deadlift numbers are small now, adding 5 or 10 pounds a week will quickly increase them, while giving you lots of time to work on your form before it gets very heavy. But you want to go heavy because it will elicit a bigger neuromuscular response which will lead to bigger gains in muscle. At least that's what one website I read said. ;)

I have been impressed with Figure Athlete, site for the weightlifting ladies. Lots of good stuff there, and the forum-dwellers seem real supportive.

Hope you make good progress!
posted by Barry B. Palindromer at 4:50 PM on September 9, 2008

"1. You have to eat right for this to work. 1.4 grams of protein per pound of lean body mass per day, minimum. You gotta eat. Eating and sleeping makes you grow. End of story."

You do have to eat right and sleep to grow, but 1.4 grams is more than anybody but a bodybuilder, offensive lineman, or professional strongman, needs. Ultimate fighter Mac Danzig, for example, only gets 100-140 grams of protein when he is training for a fight. Training to fight is hard, and extremely taxing on the body. He may be trying to maintain a constant weight, but I bet the OP won't be putting in nearly as much work as Danzig does. I am of the opinion that 1.4 grams per pound of bodyweight is only for the athletes who are trying to get enormous.

Eliminate the small muscle movements, like Tricep pushdowns and curls. Your arms will get plenty of work benching, overhead pressing, and doing chinups, dips, and pushups.

If I'm just doing strength work, I like to lift 3X per week. Each workout hits my whole body, but each exercise is done only once a week. So for example I might lift M-W-F, and swim, run, bike, or do circuit or interval training on T-Thu-Sat. My lifting might look like M: Deadlift-5X5, Overhead Press 5X5, Pullups 4 sets, max reps. W: Squats-5X5, Bench Press-5X5, Bent row-5X5. F: Power Cleans-5X3, Turkish Getups5X3, Dips-4 sets, max reps. Maybe finish up with a different ab exercise each day. Just as an example. But rather than do the same thing several times a week, consider a different protocol: each workout hits your whole body, but you only do each lift once a week. And when you do that lift, you do it hard.
posted by HighTechUnderpants at 2:23 PM on September 11, 2008 [2 favorites]

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