How to get from scrawny to...normal?
December 26, 2010 2:53 PM   Subscribe

Male, 24, ridiculously skinny/flabby. I have a set of dumbbells and a workout bench. Can I build some muscle with this alone? What exercises/regimen should I follow?

5'8, 135, not an athletic person and I know nothing about weight far as my body frame goes, I look like a scrawny little boy and would rather look like, well, a man. I'm not after big muscles, maybe just a little bit more girth on my arms and a broader chest - enough to actually fill my tee shirts out a little bit instead of feeling like they're hanging off of me.

So I have a bench and some dumbbells (25 max for each). What types of workouts could get me a little bit more in-shape-looking? I'm completely clueless and am having some trouble filtering through all of the potential garbage and forums on the internet. For instance, I already know that I would need to do arm-curls, but how many times a week, how many reps do I shoot for, etc? How do I build my chest? Is it possibly to build it a little bit with only dumbbells? I also probably need to change my diet, but not quite sure how much protein/carbs/calories/whatevers I should be eating daily.

Personal advice or recommended websites are greatly appreciated.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (25 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
The 25-lb dumbbells are good for awhile, though you'll want to increase weight at some point. Arm curls are going to build one of the smallest muscles on your body: the biceps. You can do dumbbell kick-backs for triceps (the muscles on the back of the upper arms), and you can do shoulder presses with them for shoulders. On the bench, do bench presses for chest. Lunges and squats for legs.

If you want to build muscle without a lot of equipment, do bodyweight exercises. Push-ups, bench dips, pull-ups, chin-ups, calf raises, squats, lunges. That will do you well enough for awhile, especially if you concentrate on form and building reps.
posted by xingcat at 2:57 PM on December 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Read Starting Strength before you read anything else on the internet. Get access to a squat rack, barbell, and proper weights -- you can join a cheap gym (check that they have these items first and not just a Smith machine, which is a barbell attached to a pulley system and will do you no good), buy a rack and weights as needed second hand from Craigslist, or make friends with someone who owns this equipment.

25 lb dumbbells will do you no good. To give you some context, I'm a fairly small woman and 25 lb dumbbells would be too light for me to train with aside from some accessory exercises (like, for example, the "arm curls" which are not particularly necessary for anyone). Dumbbell bench press, overhead press, goblet squats might work for you for a week or two, but assuming you're in decent health and eating protein, you'll be too strong to get much out of them very soon.

To repeat -- read Starting Strength. For reasons that are beyond me, novice lifters love nothing more than to cobble together their own program. Don't do that. Read the book.
posted by telegraph at 2:59 PM on December 26, 2010 [9 favorites]

Do what telegraph says. Please. It's literally the best thing you could do right now.
posted by PFL at 3:09 PM on December 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm also a 24 year old guy in bad shape and the best advice I can give you is that if any of your "in-shape" friends try and convince you to join something called "crossfit" run in the opposite direction as quickly as your scrawny legs can carry you.
posted by sarastro at 3:38 PM on December 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

Go with bodyweight exercises for now. All you need is a place to do them. Seriously, look at these guys.

Your triceps actually take up far more mass on your arm than your biceps, and even if you pump the hell out of your biceps, your arms won't look much bigger until your triceps grow. Fortunately, triceps are much easier to train than biceps. You should be doing push ups a plenty. If regular ones are too hard, there's no shame in pivoting from your knees instead of your toes. Try this 3-minute routine, which is plenty. And of course, your chest gets a good workout too.

Also, practice handstands against a wall to get some strength into your shoulders. Just hold yourself up as long as you can, come down, take a quick rest, do it again.

For legs, which also take up a good deal of body mass, do air squats which will do a hell of a job on everything in your legs, or Hindu squats, which focus more on the quadriceps and make for a very intense aerobic workout, too.

Do the backbends in the last video and practice a few pull ups on something, and you've done pretty much your entire body.

DO NOT concern yourself with numbers of reps, counting calories, equipment, etc. It's enough of a burden just getting started; adding all that stuff just makes it complicated and more difficult to stick with.

Your routine: exercise the part of you that hurts the least from the last workout. Then, when you're exhausted, eat something filling and nutritious until you're full.
posted by holterbarbour at 3:52 PM on December 26, 2010 [7 favorites]

Woops, referenced a wrong video link. Backbends here.
posted by holterbarbour at 3:55 PM on December 26, 2010

Read "convict conditioning". All bodyweight exercises, but the author provides sequences of progression from very easy to very difficult.
posted by flutable at 4:01 PM on December 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Fuck yeah, Bodyweight exercise. Fuck yeah, Convict Conditioning.

Am doing the program myself. If the earthquake levels Oakland, CC goes in the bug-out kit when we leave. Dropped-on-a-desert-island-&-you-get-only-one-exercise-book-get-this-one kind of recommendation.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 4:47 PM on December 26, 2010

If you have insurance, you might want to find out if it gives you easy / cheap access to a nutritionist. If so, totally take advantage of that. A good general piece of advice, though -- find something you like doing and it becomes a pleasure to do it regularly. For me, getting to the rock gym a couple of times a week has done good things for me physically while totally delivering good, quality entertainment.
posted by ph00dz at 4:57 PM on December 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Hi OP, me again. Just wanted to drop by to comment a bit about bodyweight exercises, not doing Crossfit, and not concerning yourself with details.

Whether you should choose to follow my advice or the advice of some of the other responses here depends largely on your personality. Here's something that I think a lot of people don't realize:

Training the right way benefits novices just as much if not even more than it benefits experts.

A lot of people will tell you not to worry about details like sets and reps, not to bother with "complicated" compound movements like squats and deadlifts, and to simply decide what exercise to do based on whichever part of your body feels the least sore... I mean, a lot of those people have already commented in this thread. Will you become more fit from following any of the advice in this thread? Yes. But if you place a high priority on using your time efficiently and effectively, the Starting Strength routine will give you the absolute best results in the least amount of time. Counting sets and reps is not "just" for experts. It's a proven, basic method that works for everyone, especially beginners.

So that's where personality type comes into it. If you want to do something fairly simple that doesn't require a significant outlay of time or effort, then you should by all means do bodyweight training. You can do this for a few months or years and you'll see slow progress. Some people are happy to do it. But other people will come to the end of those months or years, when some goal is continually eluding them, and say, "If I had paid better attention to my training from the beginning, I would be so much fitter now," and kick themselves (if their mobility allows).

On preview I see that I promised you some advice about Crossfit, so here it is: if you place a low-ish priority on getting fit, do some bodyweight exercises, like 100 pushups when you get up in the morning and some calisthenics. If you place a moderate priority on getting fit, do Starting Strength. If you place a high priority on getting fit, get a moderator to post your general location and we'll recommend an awesome Crossfit gym for you.
posted by telegraph at 5:10 PM on December 26, 2010

I will refine my position: For the detail-oriented person that has the motivation to track their workout/diet data, it's not going to hurt at all, and may very well be key to their success. Seeing real progress being made can be highly motivating.

My concern is that for many people who are just beginning and don't know where to start, it's very easy to get overwhelmed quickly and end up quitting. Jumping right from zero exercise to Crossfit and being discouraged/turned off/overwhelmed by it is a good example. Getting data-intensive risks the same problem. That's why I think, in general, keeping things very simple is a good strategy for beginners. But I will relent and agree that for some, keeping track of things can be useful.
posted by holterbarbour at 5:38 PM on December 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

My husband is tall and thin and has amazing muscles. He does it just with dumbells. In addition to the normal dumbell exercises (which people have outlined here), he also does crunches, sit ups, push ups, pull ups, lunges and squats. It is amazing how muscled he is with just a couple of dumbells and his body as equipment. He also walks 5 miles a day.
posted by fifilaru at 6:36 PM on December 26, 2010

I made exactly your decision at exactly your age; I wasn't flabby though, just lacked muscle. Was always skinny, still am, but I feel lots better about my body (and, heh, other people have felt good about my body).

The important thing is to keep at whatever regimen you decide, but feel free to be flexible about it. Try different things, you might enjoy certain exercises more than others. Also, don't beat yourself up too much if you miss a day, but don't let yourself take too many days off.

But, please keep in mind - it's going to take time. Take days off when you're too sore, work on other parts of your body, and you really want to work on overall body strength to prevent injuries by concentrating on (simple) areas. Look up "compound exercises."

I started out with body resistance exercises and I cannot recommend a chinup bar enough. They're great for shoulder/back muscles which helps you look "good" right away. Chinups and pullups; alternate days. Starting out, do as many as you can, rest a minute or so (like, take your morning crap) and do as many as you can again. Maybe do a third set. Situps and pushups the same way; as many as you can, rest a bit, as many as you can again. Try for an extra "rep" from your last as a personal challenge.

A curl bar and a bunch of plates for it is a very economical place to start. Skull crushers are great for working your triceps, which make up 2/3rds of your upper arm, and go a lot further making you "big" than curls. But do both.

Do stretch, though. Not just before and afterwards, but putting on muscle quickly without working on stretching can reduce your range of motion.
posted by porpoise at 6:37 PM on December 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

Oh - don't let telegraph's comment about doing 100 blah blah blah.

When you're starting out, don't worry about how you "stack up" against other people. Think of it as more of a personal project; competing against yourself like how you can improve yourself from yesterday's self, or last week's self.

100 pushups in a row (especially on a time limit) is actually quite difficult. For your age, the population average (in Canada) is 40 but I'm not convinced of the accuracy of that number.

Sorry if telegraph was referring to the 100 pushups meme.

... oh, to expand on the "it's going to take time" - time being on the order of a year or two unless you seriously get into the "gym rat" lifestyle.
posted by porpoise at 6:47 PM on December 26, 2010

Get Bruce Lee's The Art of Expressing the Human Body, and take away from it what helps you most.
posted by zombieApoc at 7:30 PM on December 26, 2010

There are lots of web sites and different variations on routines that folks can link you to, but I think it's far more important for you to understand a few basic guiding principles. The first one is this: to get bigger, to look like a man, you need to get strong. Strength is size, size is strength. This might seem obvious, but it's something a lot of noobs can get misled about. For an advanced lifter it's a slightly more complicated story, but for you it isn't. Nobody goes from skinny and flabby to solid and muscular without getting strong unless they're using steroids. At your level, nothing is going to improve your appearance faster than increasing your strength.

Fortunately, the more of a beginner you are, the faster you can get stronger. This is like the law of diminishing returns -- the closer you are to your genetic potential for strength, the more difficult it becomes to increase your strength further. Since you are completely untrained, you can increase your strength every single workout, whereas an advanced lifter might see increases only every week, or every month. So that would be my next point -- choose a simple beginner's program and stick with it. An effective beginner program uses few exercises, works the whole body every workout, and involves making progress every single session.

Many, many beginners fall into the muscle magazine trap -- they get sucked in by complicated routines with lots of different exotic-sounding exercises, or they try to imitate an advanced bodybuilder's routine, or they try to do something different every few weeks to "confuse their muscles." The fact is, beginners need very few exercises to make progress, they can continue to progress with those same exercises for quite some time, and the ones they benefit the most from will use many muscles working together. Advanced lifters who can no longer make easy progress using these basic routines need to incorporate more variation in their routine, but for a beginner that would be a waste of time. You'll see this in just about every gym -- dudes doing tons of different variations on arm exercises, spending lots of time in the gym, and wondering why they aren't making progress.

That brings me to the next point, which is what exercises you need to do. Here they are: squat, deadlift, bench press, overhead press, chinup, roughly in descending order of importance. That's all you need, really. Stay away from machines at least for now. All of these exercises are natural movements that allow relatively heavy weights to be moved over relatively large ranges of motion. That means you're making efficient use of your time, you're becoming a more "functional" and useful human being rather than just working on your appearance, and you're imposing a large demand on your body which will spur it to adapt by growing new muscle. You will also be working all of the major muscles in your body. Bicep curls, tricep kickbacks, dumbbell flies, calf raises, and a million other things are detail work. They're like window dressing. Those all have their place, but before you work on the window dressing you need to build your foundation. Making window dressing movements the center of your routine as a beginner is what's known as "majoring in the minors." As a beginner you'll be much better off focusing exclusively or nearly so on the basic fundamental movements I've listed above. There's nothing wrong with bodyweight movements, however they'll only get you so far and they're never going to give you a strong low back and legs. Once you can do a certain amount of pushups, for instance, training yourself to be able to do more becomes an exercise in endurance rather than strength. To make it into a strength exercise you'd have to add weight to it. Adding a lot of weight to a pushup is difficult, so we bench press instead. Using weights also makes movements more finely scalable -- you can add as little as one pound at a time to an overhead press, but it's much more difficult to finely scale a handstand pushup, which would be the bodyweight equivalent.

So you need to get strong, and the best way to do it is to use a few basic movements. The best resource that I know of for teaching yourself those movements is Starting Strength, recommended above. It's mostly a book about how to perform the lifts, but it also has a program that you can follow. It works and I'd recommend it for you.

In fact I'd concur with just about everything telegraph said, with the major caveat that I would absolutely not recommend CrossFit for you. There are a whole host of reasons -- for one, CrossFit is a brand name and every CrossFit gym is different. Some are good places to train, others are not. But more importantly, the program, such as it is, is not very well-suited for your goals. CrossFit borrows from many disciplines and intends to train many different physical characteristics at once -- strength, stamina, speed, etc. Training with many goals necessarily means each individual goal gets less attention. As I said above, strength will be by far the most useful thing for you to improve right now, so doing a program that focuses a little on strength and a little on a bunch of other things is an inefficient use of your time, not to mention your money, and joining a CrossFit gym is expensive.

Nutrition is just as important as working out, but I'm not going to spend as many words on it because for you it's going to be pretty simple. To get bigger you're going to need to eat more. At 5'8 135, you're not eating enough. If you start lifting and continue to not eat enough, you will get stuck quickly. The most important thing for you to get is sufficient protein. Your bodyweight in grams of protein should be your bare minimum daily goal -- I'd recommend aiming for more like 200g/day. You can use whey protein powder to help you get there. You don't need anything fancy or expensive, just plain whey. Aside from that, you don't need to stress out too much about nutrition yet. There's no need to count calories. Just get your protein in and try to eat mostly whole foods.

Finally, for future lifting-related questions I'd recommend checking out some lifting-specific forums -- in particular I'd recommend the starting strength, strength villain, and power and bulk forums.

Here are my qualifications: I could've written this question a few years ago. At age 23 I was 6', 145, and extremely weak. Around 2.5 years later I'm a little over 200 lbs. and look like a different person -- a man rather than a boy is exactly how my girlfriend has described the difference. I used to swim in my t-shirts and now they cling to my chest and shoulders, I have an ass now, etc. I've done several different things since I began with Starting Strength, but mostly what I did was get strong. I started out squatting and bench pressing 85, overhead pressing 45, and deadlifting 115. Today I squat 400+, deadlift 500+, bench 250+, and press 200+. Get strong. Good luck.
posted by Anatoly Pisarenko at 7:46 PM on December 26, 2010 [34 favorites]

I've found the gym routine too boring to sustain for any period of time. Even had a personal trainer a couple of years ago, and that habit didn't last.

What has worked for me is yoga. Mrs arcticseal got me into it at the start of the year after I'd seen the effects on her. Mocked it as being a bit hippy, but the first session kicked my ass. Spent 6 months doing 1 class at weekends with my wife as a couple thing, but when I moved to China in August started going 3-4 times a week as I didn't want to spend all my time in bars in the 2 months before Mrs arcticseal and the arcticcat joined me here. After keeping up with it, I'm in the best shape I've ever been. Flexibility has increased, I'm toned, have a waist and muscle definition.

Yoga by itself is probably not going to give you massive muscle mass, but it will lean you up and has the side benefit of being relaxing. So far, I've not found myself getting bored with it and actively look forward to my classes.
posted by arcticseal at 8:20 PM on December 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

So, I'm going to be that guy and recommend p90x. If you can commit to an hour a day, you don't need much more than you already have. I did it along with a friend who was in your same situation (I needed to lose weight, not put on muscle) and his results were exactly what he was looking for. I lost 20 lbs, fwiw. I'm a fan of the program, because once you're done, you have all the information you need to keep building a lifetime of fitness.
posted by still at 8:22 PM on December 26, 2010

Different things work for different people. It's possible that you'll get where you want with just dumbbells and bodyweight exercises, because some people just grow muscle easily. I tried that and got good results for a couple of months, but then stopped improving. It wasn't until I got a barbell and a squat rack and started doing compound lifts that I got real results - in particular, my body started to actually change shape rather than just becoming slightly firmer in parts, which was all I got from the dumbbell/bodyweight routine (it didn't help that I find bodyweight exercise really dull). I had a bench press, squat, overhead press and row routine that worked for me but YMMV.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 12:06 AM on December 27, 2010

Let me second the advice about nutrition - I logged my diet meticulously for about 3 months, and realized it is really, really hard to get as much protein as you need to build mass without supplementing. My target is ~240g per day, and I do it by eating a lot more egg-whites (5 in my breakfast sandwiches) and 32oz of whey protein shake every day. Some of my friends swear by creatine supplementation as well, but for me just increasing protein intake makes a big difference.

As far as exercise goes - I used to go to the gym to lift, but now I train jiu jitsu 6-8 times a week, and while I am not putting on the bulk that I used to, I am leaner and stronger than I've ever been. Bodyweight exercises are no joke, with the right trainer/motivation.
posted by bashos_frog at 4:31 AM on December 27, 2010

Ton up.

10 pressups, 25 metre sprint, turn around and sprint back
10 pressups, 10 situps, 25 metre sprint, turn around and sprint back
10 pressups, 10 situps, 10 leg raises, 25 metre sprint, turn around and sprint back
10 pressups, 10 situps, 10 leg raises, 10 tricep dips, 25 metre sprint, turn around and sprint back...

I guess you get the picture? No equipment needed and if you do one a day, every day, you'll be buff in a month.
posted by dougrayrankin at 4:55 AM on December 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

You are 24, and thin. You are lucky. Forget weights and find a sport that you can play the rest of your life. Something fun. Tennis or Squash are two examples. Have fun, you will naturally build muscle, look and feel good. You will become a "master" at the sport as you grow older and enjoy the companionship along the way. It's a wonderful life, enjoy it.
posted by cjared at 7:58 AM on December 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

You are 24, and thin. You are lucky. Forget weights and find a sport that you can play the rest of your life. Something fun. Tennis or Squash are two examples. Have fun, you will naturally build muscle, look and feel good.

"Skinny/flabby" isn't "thin" (note the flabby part), and a racquet is not any more "natural" than weights. Sports are great, and they're a fine idea for the long term, but tennis or squash aren't likely to do what the OP wants them to do over the short term... whereas he'll be where he wants to be after just six months or a year of doing compound lifts for forty-five minutes three times a week.

Listen to telegraph and Anatoly. You want Starting Strength, or a similar program like Stronglifts 5x5, combined with plenty of protein and rest.
posted by vorfeed at 12:58 PM on December 27, 2010

Well we don't know what the OP wants, and that's always the problem with these questions. We don't have well defined goals for the person. Acheiving an athletic look is just as "simple" as bulking up.

Let's cover some simple things.
There are other sites or blogs that some people like more, but I've been reading T-Nation for 10 years and I believe it has the widest and best quality of articles around:
Mass Made Simple by one of my favorite Strength Coach/Authors Dan John may be a good place to start. This post by zephyr_woods looks somewhat close to the article. Or Westside For Skinny Bastards is also a good place to start.

If you've never been taught how to properly weight train in High School or College than by all means pick up SS by Rippetoe, AND THEN for the love of Bog please also read at least one of these books (they'll cover all the info that is not in SS, like everything that isn't 5x5's) -
Science and Practice of Strength Training
Periodization: Theory and Methodology of Training
And if I was going to recomend another book after someone went through all those I would say pick up Advances in Functional Training: Training Techniques for Coaches, Personal Trainers and Athletes
Also, Strength Training Anatomy is a great visual reference.

OK. To answer your question: Yes, you could use nothing but a couple of dumbells and a bench to achieve a normal "toned", lean, athletic look. If that is what you are asking, which it sounds like by the use of "normal", and that's all you care to invest.
The thing is about that answer, either I or another trainer would have to specifically write out a program and show you how to do it.

Bodyweight exercises are also fine. Everyone should do some type of bodyweight exercise. It's your body, you should be profoundly aware of how it moves and how to move it. Whether that be through some type of athletic endeavor like dance or martial arts or doing lunges up and down a field as in a Crossfit workout. Sorry compound movement fans, barbell exercises do not teach you that.

Along, with a proper exercise program you're going to have to learn how to eat to fit your goals. Try the Paleo or Green Faces diet or whatever suits you.

Lastly, whatever type of program you pck should be something you want to do. Consistency is going to be key in any program, regardless of what it is. Finding something you like to do will ensure that.
posted by P.o.B. at 3:48 PM on December 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

Huh, I didn't finish this thought -
The thing is about that answer, either I or another trainer would have to specifically write out a program and show you how to do it *which isn't really a problem but you're better off finding a suitable program and then trying to fit your schedule and money around that.
posted by P.o.B. at 4:03 PM on December 27, 2010

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