Personal training without the huge costs.
June 19, 2010 8:18 PM   Subscribe

How do you become your own personal trainer using books or the internets?

I recently joined a very nice gym with a very expensive monthly membership fee. I've been enjoying using the nice treadmills/ellipticals and taking a class here and there for fun, as well as doing the circuit on the weight machines, where I have managed to get off the very bottom tiniest weight up to the next level in most cases. :-)

I got an offer from the gym for personal training sessions, 52 for about $3000. That is a pretty good deal considering they are 1 hour long sessions and if I did a session weekly, it'd be a year's worth of training. But the idea of spending $3000 just kind of blew my mind.

I thought that surely there must be a way using books or the internet that I could find myself a routine to train myself the way I want to train (I want to do some strength training, focus on upper body strength and abs, maybe get a 6 pack if that is even possible!). Previous posts hint at the existence of such resources without giving any specific links or resources.

I know about Crossfit but I've looked through the site and it seems a bit complex/obscure for a beginner. I think I need to read a book in order to just understand what the heck the exercises are on there. Is there anything else?
posted by treehorn+bunny to Health & Fitness (27 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
Since you mention Strength Training, check out Stronglifts 5x5 Beginner Strength Training Program. It's a great whole body strength training program that you can follow, and the website tells you how to do all of the needed exercises. The program forces you to progressively lifter heavier and heavier, which is one of the keys to seeing good results.
posted by Diplodocus at 8:40 PM on June 19, 2010

A year's worth of personal training at $50 / week is excessive. Do they offer something like 8 weeks for $400? That would be enough for you to learn all about different weights, machines, exercises and training programs without busting the bank.

Even better: find a friend who already knows all this stuff and work out with them, you might be surprised that some flabby dude you already know may have a secret history as a much buffer individual. Such a person will probably be willing to get back in shape and teach you how to use the weights without injury / overtraining and push you so that improvement is as fast as possible.
posted by TeatimeGrommit at 8:45 PM on June 19, 2010

Response by poster: good tip, a free e-book! thank you, I like that idea....

Looking at the site it does say the program has you squatting 60kg in 2 months. 60kg is more than my body weight and I currently lift more like 15 lbs.... a bit intimidating....
posted by treehorn+bunny at 8:48 PM on June 19, 2010

Response by poster: @TeatimeGrommit: good thought generally, but I live about 45 mins away from most of my friends, I don't know anyone who lives in my town (not to mention folks who might know anything about training).

I can buy classes in smaller increments but they will cost more like $90 each at regular price. I live in a high cost of living city. So I understand the cost may seem like a lot to many from other parts of the USA or world.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 8:51 PM on June 19, 2010 can be off-putting in its concentration on people already familiar with it, but I've found that just watching a bunch of the videos on the "exercises & demos" menu option is both hugely informative and also motivating. They aren't all going to make sense at first.

I also got a lot out of my subscription to the crossfit journal. ($25 for a year, last I checked.) I've since let it lapse, but getting to go back through the archives online and cherry pick articles of interest to a newbie was fantastically useful.
posted by ctmf at 9:12 PM on June 19, 2010

You don't have to see a personal trainer weekly. It might work to see a trainer 2-3 times and then once every month or two after that. Have them set up a program for you in the first couple of visits, and give you some guidance on how you'd know when to up your weight. Then, just see them periodically for check-in appointments to adjust your routine as needed. You'll probably pay more per hour this way, but you'll pay for a lot fewer hours.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:22 PM on June 19, 2010

It takes a long time to figure out what works for you, but generally, switching things up as much as possible is the best thing to do. It's best to go so, find what your body likes to do, doesn't, what exercises seem to make a difference. Simply beginning, I recommend doing ANYTHING with as little weight as possible - you'll make gains. SLOWLY, add weight, and add less than you think, almost always. As far as books, try, the library. Don't believe any hype, except for eating well and remember that supplements are never better than food and food means Real Food.

That quote of three grand is so excessive as to be humorous. If you need that much money simply to be in shape, you're doing it wrong.

At least in Denver, the city gyms can be spectacular and full of personality. I got a 6-month pass for less than 30 bucks a /month/ that's about to expire, just in time for summertime, which means, if I want to be in shape, I'm outdoors. I mostly cycle, but I map routes that have lots of playgrounds and I just do pullups and pushups, etc when I'm there in a, "Greasing the Groove" method. In the summer, the gym is to be avoided, as the weather here is so incredible. In the winter, I do my time at the gym. It helps with winter-depression and working on things so not to hurt myself during the summer.

It's amazing what cycling for errands and walking places (stopping, sometimes to do some pullups) does to keep form. Walk everywhere you can, don't use escalators. Carry lots of groceries in a basket, instead of a cart - use your strength, daily. Laugh, it makes a difference.

If you must, get a trainer, to get on the right foot, but it's excessive if you just listen to your body and find things you like to do.
posted by alex_skazat at 9:41 PM on June 19, 2010

I would highly recommend a book called the anatomy colouring book. A functional understanding of your own body is going to make working out - and also, life - better.

Any basic books on kinesiology would be extremely helpful to your cause also, as they would give some application of what all the muscles actually do.

the colouring book is just the most fun.
posted by ameliaaah at 9:56 PM on June 19, 2010

It's not that great of a deal and that is a huge load of training. What if you decide a few months in that you would rather just do it on your own? I think trainers can be a big help but they also can be a problem, and this comes from some inside info. They tend to get bored and they sometimes push you into injury. Sometimes that push is what you need to get to the next level, and sometimes it hurts you. I would stick with a purchase option that allows you to bow out with little financial pain - something more like 10 rather than 50 some sessions. Long contracts are the model to financial success for most gyms as most people fall off the workout wagon fairly quickly. Sticking with month to month and limited numbers of training session purchases is best for most people.
posted by caddis at 9:59 PM on June 19, 2010

"Looking at the site it does say the program has you squatting 60kg in 2 months. 60kg is more than my body weight and I currently lift more like 15 lbs.... a bit intimidating...."

No need to be intimidated... you may or may not progress at that rate. But regardless of how much you're lifting or how fast you're progressing, Stronglifts is still a good, balanced set of exercises.
posted by Diplodocus at 10:04 PM on June 19, 2010

(Also, Stronglifts has you start with an empty barbell and gradually increase from there - the empty bar isn't too intimidating)
posted by Diplodocus at 10:06 PM on June 19, 2010

A 60 kg squat is not that big of a deal if you are a guy. You will get there in a few months, 2 to 6 depending upon pace and initial strength. If you are a woman then I would dial back most of those numbers by about 40% or so.
posted by caddis at 10:27 PM on June 19, 2010

Response by poster: @ Diplodocus, thanks for the feedback. I did try the empty bar and it was stupidly challenging but I can do it!

@ caddis, I do want to do it on my own. The question is how!

@ ameliaaah, I am a doctor so I am pretty solid with my anatomy knowledge, but the book sounds cute. :-)

@ alex_skazat, I'm a member of the library and all, but do you know of any good books? I am looking for specific recommendations. Also, I already do have the gym membership and use it regularly, and do fun things outdoors like cycling, running, and hiking. I want to do specific fitness training because I've been doing all that for a pretty long time and I still have terrible upper body strength and no abs.

Appreciate all your ideas everyone.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 10:29 PM on June 19, 2010

also, stronglifts pushes progression of weight pretty heavily. You can go slower, and many people should, and still get all the benefits but at a slower pace. Muscles get strong faster than tendons. Don't outrace your tendons or you will be sorry. This is especially true if you are older, but even teens get into trouble here.
posted by caddis at 10:32 PM on June 19, 2010

The question is how!

I think a trainer is a great beginning, but you don't need 50 lessons to learn good technique. Make sure the trainer you pick is big on technique. Not all of them are. Then get a good book on technique. Starting Strength is very popular on MeFi for that. Stonglifts is a good site but it is a little light on technique I think. Proper technique promotes progress and prevents injury.
posted by caddis at 10:36 PM on June 19, 2010

Response by poster: One thing I wonder, this may be a stupid question but without the trainer there to spot for me, is it still possible to undertake a lifting program using barbells? Since I have no gym buddies, am I sort of out of luck on this count unless I can recruit a buddy?
posted by treehorn+bunny at 11:08 PM on June 19, 2010

100% possible to lift with barbells without a partner. Just don't go overboard on the bench press, which is pretty much the only main barbell exercise where there would be a danger to not having a spotter. (You could do Bench Press with dumbbells instead to eliminate the danger of being stuck under the bar)

And of course you'll need to watch your own form.
posted by Diplodocus at 11:15 PM on June 19, 2010

(I should clarify... for most of the exercises, if you fail and can't lift the weight, the worst case is you drop the weight onto safety pins of the squat rack or let it down into the floor, which is pretty safe)
posted by Diplodocus at 11:20 PM on June 19, 2010

One thing I wonder, this may be a stupid question but without the trainer there to spot for me, is it still possible to undertake a lifting program using barbells? Since I have no gym buddies, am I sort of out of luck on this count unless I can recruit a buddy?

If your gym has a Smith machine, that can help with some of the lifts you feel you want to make sure are a little safer. The Smith machine has stops, so you won't get trapped under a barbell should you go past failure, and they also help form a bit because the bar is on a track.
posted by xingcat at 5:04 AM on June 20, 2010

(I should add that the best form is with free weights, but for a beginner with weight training, safety trumps.)
posted by xingcat at 5:05 AM on June 20, 2010

The New Rules of Lifting (posting via phone; sorry for no link) has men's and women's editions. Includes general plan & philosophy, photos, and detailed exercise plans. I bet it's right up your alley.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 7:15 AM on June 20, 2010

Best answer: Glad you asked! It's the internets! You can learn almost anything without having to resort to spending money on books, but I'll include some book suggestions anyway.
Let's start with the simplest of info to start off. The first thing you should do is figure out what your goals are. Let's break it down a little.
Do you want to train for an event, or do you just want to look better? If you want to change the way you look, than the question is do you want to go up or down in weight? That means you have to have your diet in order. An easy way to track this is Weight on the scale, and is the simplest of metrics to track your goals by. Bodyfat % is nitpicking and isn't really useful until you get down to single digits. But If you do want to know the specifics than you should get hydrostatically weighed. Skinfold caliper measurements aren't much better than using a scale, a mirror, and a bit of guesswork. Here is a good article about looking better, The Seven Keys to a Successful Body Transformation.
If you're talking about an event of any kind i.e.: “I want to X event/time/reps/sets/etc. in Y event/exercise/time”, than make sure your training revolves around that. For example: if you're training for a marathon than the last thing you should be doing is a strength program, and so on.
BUT diet is key and should be the second thing, after goals, you figure out.

Here's a nice chart to look at:
Rep schemes; listed with first, second, tertiary priorities & effects:

% of Max / Reps / Dur.(in Sec.) / =Effects
85-100 / 1-5 / 5-20 /
=1st Strength increase through enhanced neural eff.
=2nd Stimulation of functional muscle hypertrophy
=3rd Increase in muscle density
80-85 / 6-8 / 20-40 /
=1st Stimulation in functional muscle hypertrophy
=2nd Strength increase
70-80 / 9-12 / 40-60 /
=1st Stimulation of functional & non-functional muscle hypertrophy
=2nd Increase in muscle endurance and lactic acid tolerance
50-70 / 13-30 / 60-120 /
=1st Increase in non-functional hypertrophy
=2nd Increase in muscle endurance
=3rd improved capillarization
-50 / 30+ / 120+ /
=1st Increase in muscle endurance
=2nd Improved capillarization
=3rd Active recovery
=4th Speeds up recovery from tendon injuries

Are you done looking at the chart? That chart will lead you to figuring out your total amount of volume. Volume = Total amount of work performed in a training phase (workout, week, month, etc). Or basically multiply sets x reps x weight per workout. What are the differences between high and low volume and why is it different from the scientific formula for work?

So that's to get you started thinking, but you'll need a bit more reading. A good place to start is . It's a bit dry for me but is packed with a ton of info. My go to for the past ten years has been T-Nation or T-Muscle or whatever they're calling the site now. The content they put out is the wheat cut from the chaff. I believe it is the best one-stop on any type of weightlifting info you deem important. A lot of people here like Stumptous. It's a bit bloggy but it generally has solid well written articles. This article about personal trainers might interest you (and anyone here who actually thinks good training advice is a single-link to their favorite book is often bad advice).
Some other good resources:
MyFitTribe - more than just bodybuilding articles
DragonDoor - in Russia, Kettlebell train YOU!
Putting the "fun" into Functional Training:
CrossFit - workout 'till you throw up!
Get strong:
Starting Strength Wiki - and you thought you had to buy a book
Dan John
Here's some good places to go for help with your diet:
Hacker's Diet
The Daily Plate
The Daily Burn

If you need a good place to visually reference an exercise, checkout YouTube for instructional videos. Perform Better is a great place to buy workout equipment.

Book suggestions:
1) Science and Practice of Strength Training
2) Periodization: Theory and Methodology of Training
Both of those authors together have laid a significant portion of the foundation for how athletes workout today. If you really want to understand the science behind working out than these books are what you want to read, full stop.
3) Supertraining (and) is out of print but if you can get a hold of this book read it!

Books for athletes:
Some of the best training for young athletes can be found in Bigger Faster Stronger program.
Personally I feel that functional training is some of the best stuff to have come out of training circles in a long time. Mike Boyle wrote a couple of books about it, Functional Training for Sports and Advances in Functional Training (I haven't read his second book but I regularly read his articles and have never found him to be off the mark).
Jumping into Plyometrics - If your involved in a dynamic and explosive sport, I don't know why you wouldn't be doing plyos.
I enjoy Ross Enamait articles and have looked through a couple of his books and find them to be pretty solid.

Books for liftin' weights and working out:
A lot of books repeat the same information you can find in more comprehensive books. Most books are unbalanced as far as the information that is presented. So each of these books I believe offer something that the others don't.
The New Rules of Lifting
Maximum Strength
Startling Strength and Pratical Programming by Rippetoe are good books and a sound investment. Although I would caution that there is a persistent echo chamber that cultishly believe his books are the only ones you should buy or need to read. Ridiculously untrue.
Lastly Strength Training Anatomy is an awesome book that shows you anatomically what's going on when you exercise.
posted by P.o.B. at 7:30 AM on June 20, 2010 [31 favorites]

Starting Strength will teach you how to perform the basic barbell exercises, which are the most important and useful movements as far as lifting goes. As you'll learn, the Smith machine is not a substitute for a barbell exercise. The only movement that will require a spotter is the bench press. You'll have to ask someone at the gym for a spot , but most folks will be happy to help you.

Practical Programming will teach you how the body adapts to training, and how to create a training program for strength, power, or mass.

Read those two books and you'll know as much or more about lifting than any of the trainers at your gym or on metafilter.
posted by useyourmachinegunarm at 8:42 AM on June 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

I will tell you what I wish I had known when I started working out. Working out with the heaviest possible weights at low reps is not the only way to do it. You don't have to be on a set schedule of lifting heavier and heavier weights. You don't have to be a powerlifter.

There's sites and message boards which will tell you that you must do really, really intense heavy weight lifting and that doing lower weights and higher reps was a big joke, you're cheating yourself, waste of time, etc. I bought into that and really tried to do a schedule of heavy progressive weights (I tried body for life) and I really didn't progress at it at the rate that I thought I should and I felt uncomfortable and like a failure. I had several periods of starting/stopping.

Now I'm on a program where I am doing a much slower pace, I actually do daily workouts with lower weights/high reps (8, 10, 12 pounds) and then once a week or so lift heavier weights at lower reps. I also take pilates, do spinning and interval cardio. The program is sustainable for me, I'm happy and have kept with it regularly for 6 and a half months, and especially recently my body is really changing. I'm wearing smaller size clothes and my muscles are showing.

I know those intense programs work for a lot of people but if they don't work for you it doesn't mean that you are a failure or need to give up. People's bodies, lifestyles, personalities are different and the absolute best scientifically proven training methods don't work for every person. I wish I had started a more moderate and varied program a lot earlier. I wish I'd listened to my body more than I listened to people on the internet.
posted by Melsky at 9:04 AM on June 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'll second P.o.B.'s recommendation of ExRx. It's a great place for detailed descriptions and visual examples of almost every exercise you'll need.

The forums at John Stone Fitness are a good place to ask questions and learn about the basics of weight training and nutrition. It's a wonderfully supportive community and they'll be glad to help you. It's also a fantastic source of motivation and inspiration.

And finally, for a specific book: I highly recommend reading Wendler's 531 ebook. It contains an easy-to-follow program that offers slow, steady progress. It's the most practical approach to lifting I've found and is flexible enough to suit beginner, intermediate, and advanced lifters. And the book provides excellent descriptions of the most important exercises. It will give you a solid foundation in strength conditioning.
posted by ecrivain at 9:17 AM on June 20, 2010

Ah! I can't second Melsky enough. Find something you like and will stick with, whatever it may be. Those two things will insure you keep working out and returning to exercise rather than slogging through workouts that you hate.
posted by P.o.B. at 1:10 PM on June 20, 2010

You can become your own trainer, just know that the degree to which you succeed is likely to correspond with the time you put into it. The good news is, it's likely you don't have to put in much time at all to be better than most of the trainers at your gym.

Here is my edited version of PoB's extensive list for the beginner:
Stumptuous is a classic for good reason. It is really an excellent resource, it strips things down to the basics, and omits the testosterone-driven "rarr you will lift SO MANY POUNDS FAST" thing that some of the more male-oriented sites have. If nothing else, spend some time here.
Starting Strength is best in book form. It is advanced, but it will be a good reference to have as you grow into weights.
ExRx is fine. Not amazing. But fine, and useful to know about.

Finally, Crossfit is fun, and cultish for a reason, but I really, really do not recommend people go into it as newbies without a trainer, and alas, it is even more important to be sure you get a good trainer/coach if you do it, and even more difficult for the beginner to evaluate the quality of coaching.

BTW, if your goal is 6-pack abs, you need to worry more about your diet than anything else. Stumptuous has some decent stuff on this, but that is such a matter of personal inclinations, body type, culture, that it is hard to give any definitive resource on the matter.
posted by ch1x0r at 1:36 PM on June 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

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