Fabulous Muscles (Mama Black Widow Version)
July 27, 2010 2:23 PM   Subscribe

How do skinny, shy people get jacked? (and on finding a gym in DC)

So, hello all, I'm a relatively 'ectomorph' type of person, a decent distance runner. I've got a decent 'force of will' so if there's some kind of regimen that needs to be done or medium challenge (like working out before work), I can handle that.

However, I have a few problems with the whole 'let's go out and do it!' type thing:

First off, as I said, I'm a skinny dude. Possibly it's possible to become more of a strong guy, but I've never made huge strides in this area before - in a season I've been able to ramp up running way better than I've ever ramped up strength-fitness.

Second, I can make a convincing imitation of a normal person, but I am at core a pretty shy software developer. Combined with the fact that an 11 year old could (and in this city, may at some point) beat me up, this means that I'm not ready to waltz in and be that gym guy.

Third, gym memberships seem to be quite expensive in my still-college-mode mind. I can afford them, but I can't help but feeling that it's just not an economically intelligent move. But, on the other hand, are pushups and/or barbells really enough to fuel a workout regimen? Is it better for a rather individual... individual to work out in shame in his own room or in shame in a gym?

And how/when do people exercise? I work one of those crazy jobs that usually is from 9-6:30 or later, and could possibly swing an earlier exit, but... it seems like working out in the morning is a more sustainable practice, because I can head in quite late without consequence.

(reference: why I'm doing this is because I'd like to mix up my lifetime of running-only workout regimen, and I'd like to be stronger, for mental and general reasons. I have very little weight to lose, and am not dependent on getting 'totally jacked', just fitter.)

Bonus question: where are the best gyms near 14th & U NW in DC?
posted by tmcw to Health & Fitness (19 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not familiar with affiliates in DC (maybe someone else can pipe up on this), but if your goal is to generally get fitter and you like a challenge, I can't say enough good things for my experience working out at a Crossfit affiliate gym. Some of the affiliates are not good so do some research. Most will have pre 9 AM class options (my box has classes at 6, 7, and 8 AM).

On the other hand, you will have to interact with people at a CF affiliate, which may or may not be for you (personally it's helped me progress so much faster, but different strokes). If you have access to a barbell, power rack, and some plates, you can "get jacked" with Starting Strength. I don't know what your current running workouts are like, but if you're doing mostly steady state long-ish runs, mixing that up with interval workouts or another form of cardio (biking, swimming, rowing, etc) would be immensely beneficial.
posted by telegraph at 2:38 PM on July 27, 2010

Gyms are great because you can make a regimen of going there and there's really nothing to do but workout -- no distractions. Some people need that. Home gyms are also great, but some people can have a hard time working out for 45 minutes at home when there's so much else to do.

You should probably decide which type of person you are before you invest a lot of money and time in either one (although personally, I can be both of these people, which is why I have a gym membership and a decent home gym). Fortunately as a beginner, you can make huge strides with minimal investment by working out without weights. (And yes, pushups, barbells, and some bodyweight exercises are plenty for the first year or so -- stick to it and you'll see great gains).*

When to exercise? Whenever you can. I've gone through different phases where I get up at 4:30 and go to the gym, and other times that I'll head to the gym at midnight. Lately, I take a bodypump class after work 2 days per week, then lift at home on the weekends. Just try to lift 3-times per week whenever it's convenient and you'll be fine.

There are lots of online resources and books that can help as well. When I got back into working out a few years ago, Bodybuilding.com was a great help -- but stick to the over 40 forum for good advice; there are a lot of jerkoffs in many of the other forums.

Step up your eating if you want to gain muscle. "Muscles are made in the kitchen, not the gym" is a phrase you'll hear a lot, and it's true. Eat protein. And as far as supplements, creatine is the only thing that's ever really made a difference for me.

Finally, a lot of people swear by having a workout partner. But for me, there's nothing wrong with working out alone. Put in your headphones and go!

*If I could only have one piece of workout equipment, it would be my pull-up/dip tower (like this one). Every upper-body muscle group can be worked HARD with it.
posted by coolguymichael at 2:59 PM on July 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's been a long time since I've lived in DC, so I'll pass on the question about which gym.

However...no one at the gym is going to care that you're skinny. Just go in there, lift weights, take a shower, and leave.

Besides, if you're such a good runner, you'll get away from the meatheads before they can throw a barbell at you.
posted by dfriedman at 3:12 PM on July 27, 2010

Huh. Where I am, 'jacked' means mugged. Your question didn't make a lot of sense at first.

I am very much an ectomorph (6'5" and 180lbs), and I just wanted to pass on my experience to you because I feel it could be relevant. I used to work in a factory pushing around 500lb barrels of glycerine all day. I was the same size then as I am now. I moved to the office there and sat on my ass all day. I was the same size then as I am now. I think you see where this is going. I worked out religiously, slowly and methodically, several times a week for months on end. You guessed it. I ran five days a week. Yep.

I have incredible bodyshape inertia, apparently, and there's very little that will actually change my size, muscles, or anything else. I know it's possible, though, because rock climbing made my arms harder and slightly bigger. That's a start.

So don't be disappointed if you don't have instant results. Some of us just aren't built to change. Fortunately I have come to like myself just the way I am.
posted by komara at 3:14 PM on July 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Fellow ectomorph here. I have been rock climbing for about 10 months, and in that span of time I have been able to shed the moniker of 'skinny guy'. I've put on about 10 lbs of muscle since I started climbing, and feel significantly stronger.

Where I live there is a great community at the local climbing gym (no mountains around here). Perhaps best of all is that working on climbing 'problems' at the gym doesn't feel like working out, but rather a fun activity.
posted by axismundi at 3:27 PM on July 27, 2010

However you choose to work out, establish a routine and stick to it.
Notice/identify anything that gets in the way of you working out (mental excuses, work, tiredness, etc) and factor that in to your planning of a workout routine.
Personally, I run and lift weights at home most days and have never felt better, physically and mentally. Avoided the gym as I couldn't stand the judgements.
posted by MT at 3:43 PM on July 27, 2010

Since you're totally unadapted to lifting, anything you do will work for a couple of weeks; however, if you want continued steady progress and a solid foundation in technique I'd recommend learning from a proven resource, like Starting Strength.

Read the wiki, then buy the book, then do the program. You should also check out the forums and the coach directory.

You might like Crossfit, but I wouldn't recommend it until you've already built up a base level of strength. Crossfit is often criticized for failing to effectively develop strength in beginners. Stopping by a Crossfit affiliate is potentially a good way to get coached on the lifts, though.

Beginners don't need complexity, and Starting Strength is as simple as it gets, and very effective. You could do it at home, if you have a power rack, an olympic barbell, plates, and a flat bench at home. If you don't have those things, you need to join a gym. You'll be fine.

If you want to gain muscle, you'll need to eat more, probably a lot more, protein in particular. Many a skinny guy has blamed his failure to gain mass on his genetics when it's his eating that's actually to blame. You may also need to cut back on the running volume for a little while. Feel free to memail me with questions.
posted by useyourmachinegunarm at 3:52 PM on July 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

As far as local gyms go, there's Results The Gym at 16 and U, which I believe is being converted into a Vida Gym, of which there is another at P and 17th. Both are enormous. Results has a reputation as a gay pick up joint, but that may change or not, I have no idea. There's also a large Washington Sports Club at U/Florida and Connecticut.

I go to Mint at 18th and U. It's more expensive than the others but smaller, which is the point. It's never very crowded and I chose it for the reasons you've stated: I wanted to learn how to start working out in a non-judgmental environment. Let me put it this way: there are far more middle aged ladies there than meat-heads. They play soothing music and nobody is allowed to use their cell phones. Mint and eucalyptus waft through the air.
posted by gabrielsamoza at 3:54 PM on July 27, 2010

I second Starting Strength or Stronglifts. Both are very effective programs, assuming you're eating enough. You'll almost certainly need a gym membership, though, unless you want to invest ~$500 for a power rack, a bench, and barbell with plates.

You could also work out at home with a bench, an adjustable dumbbell set, and bodyweight exercises. You can get everything you need for this on Craigslist or at a sporting goods store for around $100. This is a good beginners' dumbbell program, and so is this.

As for which is better, that depends on you. Some people are gym people, some are work-out-at-home people, some are gym and work-out-at-home people, and it's hard to tell which you'll be until you try both. Most gyms have a way you can try them, via individual daily fees, a punchcard, or a short-term membership -- this might be a good way to feel out the gyms in your area, and to find out whether you like going to the gym in general. Likewise, you can get a cheap set of dumbbells and a bench on Craigslist, work out for a couple months, and then sell them again if you end up preferring the gym. If you stick with a home workout plan for six months or so, I think you might feel better about making the leap to the gym, too... give 'em both a try and see what you think.
posted by vorfeed at 4:35 PM on July 27, 2010

Well, if you do end up choosing to get a gym membership, my coworker lives around 14th and V and swears by Balance Gym in Thomas Circle, which has fairly reasonable rates and appeals to his Midwestern frugality. He goes there with his laptop and does P90X, so I assume its pretty nonjudgemental. They also offer Crossfit.

Also, Fitness First is the absolute cheapest gym in DC. According to Yelp reviews, it can get down to around $30 per month. It's not going to be super-fancy but, you know, whatever.

If you do end up going the Crossfit route, you could also try Primal Fitness down by the Convention Center which, incidentally, also offers Parkour courses.

Also, don't worry, nobody's going to be judging you about your skinniness. But I have no advice on how to help you bulk up.
posted by superquail at 4:57 PM on July 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

There's also a Balance Gym on 14th (just north of Mass, I think?) that does Crossfit. I've never gone, but it's supposed to be pretty good.

[And now that I reread superquail's post, Thomas Circle is the one I mean.]

Last time I looked, they did have morning classes.
posted by inigo2 at 6:21 PM on July 27, 2010

there's Results The Gym at 16 and U, which I believe is being converted into a Vida Gym, of which there is another at P and 17th. Both are enormous. Results has a reputation as a gay pick up joint, but that may change or not, I have no idea.

Yes, it is being converted to a Vida Gym (adding a pool on the roof and everything), which means you could start there and end up in the middle of their renovations and have to find somewhere new. As for the reputation, it does have that, but as a straight dude I never felt uncomfortable there or anything like that. I liked that place, but it definitely priced me out. Memberships were up to around $90/month or so when I quit. A bit rich for my blood, though they do have a ton of classes; if you take advantage of those (unlike me) then $90 isn't bad at all.
posted by inigo2 at 6:23 PM on July 27, 2010

I'm an ectomorph and have an extremely high metabolism. One thing that I've found is that for someone like me, less is more. Don't feel like you need to do strength training three times a week - especially not in the beginning. Once a week may actually work better if you're like me. Similarly, I found that the less exercises I used the better. After years of experimenting and countless hours wasted in the gym trying to figure out how to gain muscle these are the only exercises I use: pull up, push up, burpee, bicycle crunch. Of course, I add some variation now and then, but that's basically all I do. And you certainly don't need a gym membership to do these things. I do them in my room, at the track, or where ever is most convenient. It doesn't matter where you do it. Just buy a pull up bar, or find a nice tree branch and you're set. Good luck :)
posted by smokingmonkey at 6:28 PM on July 27, 2010

If your primary goal is to get stronger, follow a lifting program that focuses on compound movements and low rep loads. Here is an overview of some great ones:
  • Original Starting Strength has been mentioned a lot and is fantastic, especially since it has you do cleans. The only strike against it is it neglects pull ups.
  • Starting Strength Alternatives like Practical Programming and Onus Wunsler. These add pull ups / chin ups at the expense of frequency of cleans and deadlifts.
  • Strong Lifts involves more body weight exercises and core exercises. The necessity and benefits of these are debatable and depend on your goals, but certainly can't hurt.
If you're just interested in general fitness, CrossFit is basically as good as it gets, but spending a few months doing a heavy lifting program before you start CrossFit will give you tremendous benefits. You can find scaled versions of CrossFit workouts posted on the BrandX forums which you'll need as a beginner.

Regardless of the program you choose, make sure you pay attention to your diet as well. In the beginning of any of these programs, especially with your body type, eat much, much more than you're used to eating. You should be full most of the time. Make sure you're eating at least 1g protein per lb body weight and you should be at more like 1.25-1.5. This is hard.

Finally, make sure you're keeping track of your progress. All of the lifting programs require keeping track of your lifting progress down to the pound. You should be keeping data for CrossFit style programs as well. You can do this with an online fitness tracker (disclosure: I am part of that website) or a spreadsheet.
posted by christonabike at 7:27 PM on July 27, 2010

I live in DC and I'm a Washington Sports Club member. There are tons of locations so if I need to run an errand somewhere and want to go to a class after, I have lots of options. They also offer lots of classes and there's a pool at the Columbia Heights club. My particular membership also works at any of the clubs in NY, Philadelphia, and Boston. Most of the treadmills have TV screens so you can watch a show while you work out. I've never been to Results but several of my colleagues go to Vida. I've heard it's really nice. I used to be a Gold's Gym member but I didn't really like it. If you can find a few friends, I think you can get a family membership at the YMCA and it's pretty reasonable.
posted by kat518 at 7:39 PM on July 27, 2010

Figure out your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE), and eat 20% over that every few days. You say you've lifted in the past, but how seriously? Whole body days, two day splits, three day splits, four day splits? What kinds of sets did you do? How many reps? You sound like you're more interested in training for hypertrophy than for strength and you have to keep in mind that each goal requires slightly different training.

why I'm doing this is because I'd like to mix up my lifetime of running-only workout regimen

If your goal is to build muscle, cut out the running. If you *must* run to be happy, keep it to once a week, if you're serious about being bigger. Seriously, there's a reason runners have lean physiques.

And about being that guy in the gym? So what. I started working out when I had thirty pounds to lose, and I was the *only* female I saw using the bench press for almost six months. Sure, I felt out-of-place. But I wanted that body badly enough to hammer down that feeling of social discomfort. Now guys just casually ask if they can work in on my sets, because they know I'll be there for a while. I see guys all the time who lift less than me in some areas, but you know what? I don't think anything of it, because we're all there to get somewhere and I know they're on their way. You're also there to have fun, don't forget that.

As for money, shop around. ask about joining fees and specials, but remember that convenience is king. YMCA because it's cheap, and happily it's also the closest gym to my house. I take ten hours of classes right now and work almost 40 hours a week, and I still work out seven hours a week (four hours of lifting and at least three of cardio, sometimes more). I get up early in the morning and do it, and if I oversleep by some chance, I go after work or after class. The gym is only open 7-10 on weekdays and until 5 p.m. on weekends and I still manage to work it in. I've worked out at home and I've worked out at the gym, and believe me that the gym will end up inspiring you more, even if you're an introvert.

As for motivation, I'm the kind of person that geeks out on notes and charts and results. I bring in a paper with my routine every workout, and make a mark after every set, noting how hard the weight was and if I should go up or stay next time. Also, most of my sets cover a range of reps, and I mark how many reps I was able to complete with that weight and that exercise. Then I go home and think about the next workout, and I measure everything once a week, and tally up muscle gained for the week. I have two upper body routines and two lower body routines, and I've had some pretty amazing results considering that I've been restricting calories (which is a shitty way to build muscle). Another note on routine: stick to the basics, and change things up when you plateau or when you get bored, probably somewhere around the three month mark.

Nutrition is extremely important. Eat the right things in the right amounts at the right times, if you want to bulk up. Of course if you're just interested in having fun, do what you want, but it sounds like you're specifically looking for size. I eat 50/30/20 and it works pretty well for me. Occasionally my fat drops as low as 10%, but ideally I stick around 50/30/20.

Feel free to email me if you have any questions.
posted by tejolote at 9:20 PM on July 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

As an ectomorph with your problem, I can say this: a change in diet with vitamin supplements plus a 3-4 times per week simple exercise routine with pushups, situps, pullups and the like have kept me able to lift my twins up, throw 'em around and keep up with 'em -- and of course, carrying them both around (one in each arm) for a couple of years didn't hurt, either.

But bulk? Nah, all the above got me was strength -- didn't improve the bulkiness of my body. Oddly, though, after a year of roller skating indoors (2-4 times a month, an hour each time) my legs have gotten much larger. If you're an ectomorph, you're really going to have to stick with something, and feed it well, to see improvements. But if all you want is to be stronger, just exercise and don't worry about how it looks.
posted by davejay at 9:54 PM on July 27, 2010

Nthing people who say get in a gym and get started on whatever program works for you. I think Starting Strength and Stronglifts are good for beginners.

To address your concern about being shy/awkward in the gym: In your average gym, no one is judging the skinny guy, the fat woman, or the old guy. They're just like us, average people trying to get their workout in and get on with their life. Besides, we're all too busy being disgusted by the guy with a fake tan, gel in his hair, and biceps three times the size of his calves. No one will notice that you're not lifting as much weight as the average DC 11 year-old because we're hoping that guy will stop grunting his way through his 18,000 set of curls right in front of the mirror.

Basically if you're just in the gym to get a workout no one will give you a second glance.
posted by Aizkolari at 2:42 AM on July 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Most of the DC area gyms offer free trials. (Ab)use this to your advantage, and shop around.

I was very unimpressed with Results' Capitol Hill location, considering the steep price ($100/month, but with the potential for some decent discounts, provided you can rope friends into their pyramid scheme). The U St location is supposedly a lot nicer, but will be turning into a Vida, which will likely cost even more.

Mint is known for its mint-scented gym towels, and has art hanging on its walls. Coincidentally, their name also provides a hint to what the monthly rates are if the previous two details didn't already do so.

Golds' is the cheapest of the bunch, is somewhat spartan, but honestly wasn't all THAT bad. It was clean, and the cardio equipment was actually better and more plentiful than what Results had. My work also offers a small discount, so I'll most likely be joining there once I can scrape the time/money together. Odds are, the classes aren't remotely as good as the others, but if you're a independent sort of guy....

Primal is supposedly hardcore, which has a certain allure, and apparently lives up to the name. Crossfit also has a reputation for mercilessly (and effectively) beating you into shape, and there are quite a few affiliate programs in the DC area, not all of which are necessarily affiliated with a gym. I'll be doing that in the winter once my rowing season ends. Need to find a way to work on my upper body in the meantime....
posted by schmod at 9:25 PM on July 28, 2010

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