More sets, fewer reps per set or fewer sets, more reps?
December 29, 2009 12:37 AM   Subscribe

Help me plan my (somewhat pathetic) workouts!

I've been on the hack diet for nine months, and have lost lots of weight (65 down, have another 15 or so to go). I also started doing the exercise program recommended in the diet, though I've substituted different exercises for some of the oddball (and not very back-healthy) ones laid out in the diet.

I'm 42, if it matters. This program is my first experience exercising, other than walking around. While I still look mushy, there is progress being made. I literally could not do a single push-up (never have been able to) before starting on this, so I'm OK with how much I've accomplished so far.

Right now, I've built up to doing four sets (I decided on four sets kind of randomly, based on doing four different exercises) of the following:
Push-ups (7 reps)
Toe touches, double touch (20 reps)
Crunches, lower abdominals (15 reps)
Crunches, upper abdominals (15 reps)
Squats (15 reps)
After those four sets, I then do 8 sets of:
75 steps (counting right foot only) jogging in place
10 jumping jacks
I add reps as I make progress. I do this workout between four and six times per week.

My current workout is close to my limit by the fourth set of push-ups and crunches for my arms, chest and abdominals. When I feel I can do "one more" in the fourth set, I add a rep to all sets after my next day off. I also add a few steps each week to the jogging in place, when I reach 75 I add another set of jumping jacks. My heart and lungs get going but I never feel like I'm close to their limits.

My goal is to be fit and reasonably strong. I don't expect to make the cover of Men's Fitness with this sort of routine (there isn't that much wax in the world, anyway!). This question is for future reference, I've gots lots of work left to do before I need to worry about out-growing what I currently do.

As I increase my strength and fitness, would I be better to keep to four sets and simply increase the number of reps per set even if they get quite large, or build up to a certain number and then add a complete new set, or should I look to add a more challenging exercise in place of one I currently do, keeping the number of reps limited?

Example: Would it be "better" to do
(a) 10 push-ups / 25 touches / (20/20)crunches / 20 squats x 6 sets
(b) 15 push-ups / 30 touches / (25/25) crunches / 30 squats x 4 sets
or even do three smaller (a) sets and then a fourth set doing each exercise to failure?
posted by maxwelton to Health & Fitness (18 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
First of all, congratulations on starting a new workout program and doing so well at it.

A third option to consider is gradually raising the difficulty of these exercises. For example, push-ups get a more difficult the more your feet are raised off the ground. Crunches while holding a weight are also killer. I'm not a physical trainer, but I think that increasing difficulty increases calories burned without making your workout take longer.
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 12:55 AM on December 29, 2009

Congrats on sticking to a fitness goal! To save time, I would switch up the exercises with more challenging versions and start ramping up on the new, harder versions.

Some substitutions:
Push-ups - elevated feet pushups, medicine ball pushups (one hand on ball, one on floor, alternate hands), chest pushups (place hands directly underneath chest with elbows out), clapping pushups
Toe touches - lie on your back with your legs straight up and reach for your toes with both arms.
Crunches - bicycle crunches, or extend arms/legs fully out and bring legs/arms in while crunching
Squats - do squats with alternating kicks, or kick your leg across your body on the way up and try to touch your hand to your foot.
Jogging in place - jump lunges, jump rope, when that gets too easy, do double unders

You can also switch to Tabata-style reps, where the time remains constant, but you try to do as many reps as possible in a certain time (I do 20 seconds on + 10 seconds rest X 8 rounds).

I'd also check out burpees, sprawls, mountain climbers, spiderman climbs, and planks. Most of these exercises should have youtube videos explaining how to do them properly.
posted by benzenedream at 2:06 AM on December 29, 2009

Is there a reason you're doing calisthenics and not lifting weights? Calisthenics aren't bad for you but you will get results much faster by lifting free weights.

That said if there is a reason you're sticking to calisthenics the suggestions above on how to make them more difficult are very good.
posted by dfriedman at 3:12 AM on December 29, 2009

Thanks for suggestions and input!

I'm not doing free weights because I don't like gyms and our current house doesn't have space for them. Weights are on my list--we're currently in the market for a house, so hopefully in the spring I'll have a corner in the shop for them.
posted by maxwelton at 4:17 AM on December 29, 2009

Check out SimpleFit until you get some weights. It will be a great, scalable way to start out. When you get weights, check out some of the questions in the archives!

Good job on starting to exercise!
posted by Loto at 4:22 AM on December 29, 2009

Not more sets, add more pace. Not quantity, speed. You don't mention how fast you do any of this. One way to increase the effect is to apply time limits to each station.

Also, add some variety. Instead of running in place, try some step aerobics on a platform or stool or step. MWF do only aerobics, TTF do push-ups and other anerobic/weight stations.

Build rest into your schedule. Push yourself hard enough to need rest to recover.

Exercise will get boring unless you find a way to make it exciting. Set some 'world records' and then try to break them once a week. i.e. Most pushups on one minute or any other goofy goal you can entice yourself with to keep at it. Type A people are all over this one but many people who just do it for the feeling eventually hit the wall without incentives or accomplishments.
posted by birdwatcher at 4:57 AM on December 29, 2009

Get one of those rubber bands to add resistance.
They take up about as much room as a rolled up sock, and you can get varying degrees of strength (they are color coded). I'd start out with green or blue. You can get a short piece from a physiotherapist for free or as little as a few bucks (instead of buying a whole roll).
posted by smartypantz at 4:58 AM on December 29, 2009

If you want to build strength, you'll need to start adding weight soon. If you squat, deadlift, bench press, and overhead press you'll cover pretty much everything.
posted by ludwig_van at 6:07 AM on December 29, 2009

dump the crunches and go with leg lifts. My doctor told me that sit ups just put too much stress on your back and that leg lifts are actually much better at isolating the abs.
posted by any major dude at 6:40 AM on December 29, 2009

At your level of strength, you can do pretty much whatever you want and it will bring results. This is a good thing. As long as you're getting stronger it just does not matter.

Weights are probably a bad idea for you at the moment, and this is coming from someone who's been involved in powerlifting for years. It just doesn't make sense:

In fact when you think about it, the only reason to ever use external load (i.e. weights) is because your bodyweight is not enough resistance. Yet most guys are making exercises harder by adding external load, when they aren’t capable of handling their bodyweight in the same exercise. I’m constantly amazed by how many people I meet who can bench press whatever pounds of weight, but are unable to perform 10 correct push ups (typically due to a lack of core strength and synergistic muscle stability. As far as I’m concerned – unless you can do an easy twenty push ups, you have no business getting under a bar for bench pressing.
posted by past at 6:49 AM on December 29, 2009

Sit-ups are terrible for your back. Crunches are great for it. (They develop muscles that help to stabilize things.) There's some evidence that leg lifts actually put more strain on your lower back.
posted by moira at 8:24 AM on December 29, 2009

Wow, way to go! It's awesome that you're progressing so fast and losing so much weight! I agree with all of the above suggestions, but I have a question. Have you thought about doing a sport? You don't have to start running the floor in basketball or diving for a ball in volleyball, but starting to maybe kick a soccer ball around a field or hitting a few balls in a raquetball court will give you a break from all that working out (which can get boring, trust me). Plus, as you gain strength and lose weight, you'll find yourself doing better and better at your sport, and you'll have something to show off to your friends or significant other if you decide to start playing in leagues or pickup games. Good luck!
posted by wayofthedodo at 8:48 AM on December 29, 2009

Yet most guys are making exercises harder by adding external load, when they aren’t capable of handling their bodyweight in the same exercise. I’m constantly amazed by how many people I meet who can bench press whatever pounds of weight, but are unable to perform 10 correct push ups (typically due to a lack of core strength and synergistic muscle stability. As far as I’m concerned – unless you can do an easy twenty push ups, you have no business getting under a bar for bench pressing.

To elaborate on my first comment -- the premise of the above paragraph is basically sound, with some caveats. Simple bodyweight exercises will be effective for building strength up to a point. Not everyone will agree about where that point lies. I'd have to disagree that someone needs to be able to perform an easy 20 pushups before attempting a bench press for a few reasons. The bench press and the pushup aren't exactly the same exercise -- weighted vs. unweighted squats or chinups would be a much better illustration of the basic point here. In any case, sets of 5 bench presses performed with light weights are going to be much easier than a set of 20 pushups for a novice. The load of that bench press can be increased in very small increments, so steadily increasing the weight on the bar is a reliable method for steadily increasing strength. Even someone who can't perform a single pushup can bench press with very light weights and steadily increase the load. I'd argue that most people will have an easier time reaching a set of 20 pushups by progressively loading their bench press than by hammering away at pushups and trying to get more reps.

Also, anybody with a decent bench press who can't do 10 pushups due to "lack of core strength" is not squatting, deadlifting, or pressing overhead. Heavy movements like these that are performed on your feet will provide plenty of work for all of the muscles of the lower back and abdomen. Crunches, situps, leg-raises, etc., are all fine assistance movements, but are not really necessary in a program incorporating the aforementioned major lifts.

So, in conclusion: unweighted movements will make you stronger up to a point where weight will become a more useful variable to manipulate than reps. YMMV. There is no reason to be afraid of weighted movements provided you start light and learn to lift correctly. And you don't need to be obsessed with "core" exercises if your program incorporates heavy full-body movements. Also I meant to say that toe-touches are not a useful strength movement like pushups and squats.
posted by ludwig_van at 10:04 AM on December 29, 2009

moira, please direct me to the source of your evidence, thanks
posted by any major dude at 11:24 AM on December 29, 2009

Sit-ups vs. crunches is pretty much common knowledge. As for leg lifts, I have back issues and did a lot of digging to find the amount of information that I did. I apologize, but I haven't currently got the time or energy to find those specific physicians/studies again. Certainly don't just take my word for it, though. That's not unreasonable at all. I should probably avoid stating things like that when I don't have cites under my fingers, as well.
posted by moira at 1:24 PM on December 29, 2009

Beyond changing exercise, which is always a fantastic idea, there are only a few varables you need to look at to change the intensity of your workouts. These are all interrelated and will change depending on your goals

-Time (speed falls under this)

Tension is going to be set since you are doing bodyweight exercises (and we aren't talking about dynamic exercises like plyometrics). Repetitions are going to probably be a fairly linear upward vector due to tension constraints and increases in neuromuscular efficiency. Time is going to be the biggest factor here. You can take any instance and change it to have major affects on your workouts. Change of rest time between sets. Change of lowering or lifting speed during reps. Change of possible pause times within the sets (between reps, pause at full contraction, etc.) Or you could use time as the deciding factor in how long your sets take rather than reps. X second(s) sets while counting reps to keep tabs on changes therein. And so on.

I also second what past said.

Keep up what you're doing and have fun!
posted by P.o.B. at 4:44 PM on December 29, 2009

I have a question about time, then: If I, say, try to redo my sets into time-based activity (say, to start. as many pushups as I can do in half a minute) is the rule to pace yourself so you're failing at 29 seconds, or to do as many as quickly as you can and then see what else you can squeak in even if you have to rest for a few seconds at 20 seconds in, or is it to continue for 30 seconds, period, even if it takes you three minutes to get an actual 30 seconds of a particular exercise?

My wife has been bugging me to do some outside activity, and with good reason, so I think I'll start doing the strength-building stuff on MWF, and do a brisk walk or a bike ride for at least half an hour TTS, to start.

On a program like Simple Fit for bodyweight exercises, I can do way more squats, for example, than I can do pushups or pullups (I'm ordering a bar for my doorway, but I'm not sure I'll be able to do one pullup just yet). Do I keep to their sets, or mix and match until my arms catch up to my legs?
posted by maxwelton at 10:16 PM on December 29, 2009

Totally up to you on how you vary the time factors. I would say the general idea is that you are fully engaged for the full thirty seconds. It's common that you are pushing out the "last" rep when the timer beeps, whether you hit the wall 15 seconds in and you may want to keep trying or even try holding a static position. If you are easily blowing through a ton of reps and the timer beeps you can definitely slow down to make things harder. Specific time constrains on reps would be Tempo, but you really don't need to worry about all that, just slow down on the lowering part. You may want to take a closer look at Circuit Training to get a better idea on how to set up your workouts.
Your legs are always going to be vastly stronger than your arms so don't worry about trying to match them.
posted by P.o.B. at 1:26 AM on December 30, 2009

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