How can I increase the intensity of my workouts?
July 7, 2011 3:36 PM   Subscribe

How can I increase the intensity of my workout without making it longer? Complications: I can't run, lift, or swim.

I'm plateauing in my workouts lately; what used to get me right up to the top of my heart rate zone (150-156 bpm) is now barely cracking the bottom of it. Mmmmaybe by the end of a 45 minute workout I'll start seeing heart rates in the 150 zone, but for most of it I'm puttering in at around 130. This is good, obviously -- increased fitness ftw! -- but I'm trying to lose a significant amount of weight and reverse some insulin resistance, and I need to be working hard.

I'm 5'2" and weigh 240 pounds. I lost nearly forty pounds, effortlessly, while pregnant with my now eight month old baby, but now that I've given birth that weight loss has screeched to a halt. (I do track my calories, I weigh and measure everything, I drink plenty of water, and I've lost two pounds.) I'm working with a dietician / nutritionist and my doctor, and they are both kind of baffled but say it's probably a metabolic thing because I'm breastfeeding, and to just concentrate on measures of health other than my weight.

And those are all going great! My heart rate recovers quickly, my blood pressure is 112/70, I can carry on a conversation while I'm in the middle of a 20 minute session on the rowing machine without slowing down, &c. I'm in terrible shape, but I'm in great condition. But I do need to continue getting a really intense, focused workout.

The two big complicating factors are time and my joints. At the end of March, I became very ill with pneumonia, and spent a long time recovering. In order to get better, I had to take Levaquin, which comes with the possible side effect of tendon rupture that can occur for 6 months to a year after you stop taking the drug. It's a rare side effect to be sure, but when I was finally well enough to start working out again, I gave myself tendinitis in my knee almost instantly doing the same workout I'd been doing before (c25k stuff), and my doctor strongly urged me to be extremely careful. We decided, reluctantly, to take weight training and running off the table for six months, because a tendon injury is something I desperately do not want and cannot afford.

As for the time thing: I have 90 minutes of child care at the gym, full stop. I have to get my 4 year old into the "run around like a crazy thing" child care, then get my 8 month old into the "rock the little baby" child care, which involves nursing and changing him. Between those shenanigans, getting from the child care center to the cardio room, finding an empty machine, cuing up my ipod, working out, stretching afterwards, etc., I really cannot do more than an hour workout. The gym has a pool, but if I add in changing, showering, showering AGAIN, and changing back into my street clothes, I'd only have about 20 minutes in the pool. Going to the gym already in my suit isn't an option because of how our days are structured.

Right now, I'm doing intervals on the elliptical trainer, going from a 12 resistance to a 16 resistance, for 45 minutes, then doing 15 minutes on the rowing machine at the highest resistance. I worry that if I take the resistance any higher on the elliptical, I'll tweak my knee out again.

Any ideas? I do have a plan to start getting into the pool once a week, but I need to be pushing myself hard every day.
posted by KathrynT to Health & Fitness (23 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Tell us about your intervals. How long are you at 12 and how long are you at 16? Which is your intense portion and which is the recovery phase?

Also, why can't you swim? You have plans to get in the pool but say you can't swim.
posted by munchingzombie at 3:44 PM on July 7, 2011

Rather than increasing the resistance, try increasing your cadence. Move faster rather than harder.
posted by axismundi at 3:47 PM on July 7, 2011

I can carry on a conversation while I'm in the middle of a 20 minute session on the rowing machine without slowing down

You're doing intervals wrong! You should be really panting, and unable to talk, during the intervals.

And my joints and tendons are ok, but I never put the rowing machine on the highest resistance or the elliptical anything past 13. I think such sustained high resistance could hurt your tendons -- frankly, more than running might.

So yeah, try decreasing resistance and increasing speed. Both the elliptical and rowing machine should be able to track your steps/strokes per minute.
posted by yarly at 3:57 PM on July 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

You're not doing the rowing machine right if you're goal is to be exhausted but you're talking through the session. Row like a monster for 30 seconds, then go at a rest pace (but don't stop) for 30 more seconds, or some other interval spacing. This can be pretty much applied to any cardio activity you're doing to some extant.

Basically, do whatever you're doing harder/fast/with smaller rests in between.
posted by QuarterlyProphet at 4:01 PM on July 7, 2011

If you're looking for other non-running, -lifting, or -swimming activities to do, there's assisted pull-ups, which can be pretty intense. You tie a towel or rope to a horizontal bar, then lie at an angle that you're comfortable with, then use the towel to pull yourself up. This is easy on the joints, and you can do tabata intervals with these, or just plain do as many of them as you can.

There's also bodyweight squats. As long as you keep good form (hit YouTube or Google for guidelines), these can be pretty intense. You can build a circuit with these, the assisted pull-ups, push-ups of various sorts, if that floats your boat.
posted by ignignokt at 4:09 PM on July 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seconding the rowing machine, but with a bit more info:

Competitive rowers (almost) never set the machine higher than 3-5 (source: I was a competitive collegiate and post-collegiate rower). What you want to do instead is set it around 3-4 setting, then row hard, and more importantly, *consistently* for a duration or interval.

Messing with the screen, you can press the Change Display and Units buttons to get it to show your Stroke Rate, split (time it takes to go 500m), distance, time elapsed, etc.

I would recommend trying to go a certain distance for time. Once typical workout is 6000m at about 20-24 strokes per minute (probably take you ~30 min). Things to watch would be your stroke rate (to keep it consistent), and the Split (also to keep consistent).

I would recommend trying this out in "easy mode" first to see where you are at. Keep the rate low and pull at something you think you can do consistently for half an hour. Then next time, try to knock 5 seconds off of your split and hold it for the whole race.

If you do this right, your heart rate will certainly elevate, and you definitely won't be able to hold a conversation (that's what makes it fun!). Good luck!
posted by toomanyplugs at 4:14 PM on July 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Resistance on the rowing machine isn't the same as "harder." You probably want it somewhere in the middle, depending on the rower. There is some info floating around the internet in various places. On a Concept2 at your weight, I'd try 5-6 or so as a setting (ideal settings go up by bodyweight).

Look up tabata intervals. Tabatas done correctly on a rower will give you approximately the hardest workout you've ever had. Try one cycle (8 intervals, 4 minutes) and see if you still want to continue exercising.
posted by pekala at 4:18 PM on July 7, 2011

Has anyone skilled at using a rowing machine given you a demonstration on how to use it? I have found that people using the machines at the gym often don't know the proper form for using them. I suggest looking at some video demonstrations online. Try lowering the resistance on the machine. Most rowers keep it at 30% to mimic the resistance of water. Most of your energy should be going into pushing off from the machine with your legs; you motion while moving backwards should go in a sequence of legs, back, and the follow through with the arms. At the 30% resistance, or maybe tops 40-50% resistance, you can increase the speed and power of your workouts in a way that will most likely leave you more fit and at less risk for injury. You should be very, very aware of proper rowing machine form if you are doing anything at such a high resistance.
posted by fineday at 4:22 PM on July 7, 2011

I'm also a former college rower and agree that you need to lower the resistance and row harder/faster (higher stroke rate and/or lower splits). It's simply not possible to be so fit that you can't get your heart rate up on a rowing machine.
posted by Mavri at 4:33 PM on July 7, 2011

There are lots of studies now that show that High Intensity Training is more effective. You will definitely get your pulse up doing that as you go all out sprint. In that respect you probably want the resistance on your training machine (elliptical or whatever you use) to be minimal so it doesn't slow you down.

Here are some studies: 1 2 3 ...
posted by blueyellow at 4:45 PM on July 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Also, why can't you swim? You have plans to get in the pool but say you can't swim.

Because during my daily workout, I simply don't have the time. I'm constrained by the 90 minutes of child care I have. You'd think it would be possible to get 45 minutes of swimming in, but I haven't yet been able to manage it. Plus I can't hear over the PA if I'm being paged because of an issue with my kids, and that makes me kind of uncomfortable. My once-a-week plan involves going on the weekend WITH my husband so that he can be the parent on point for the child care.

I have definitely been using the rowing machine wrong. I've been doing high resistance / slow cadence stuff on the elliptical because I'm worried about further messing up my knee; when I was first recovering from that injury, this was the only way I could get my heart rate up without my knee hurting like hell. How can I check that to make sure it's safe now?

I will try the tabatas the next time I'm in the gym. That looks like exactly what I'm looking for!
posted by KathrynT at 4:57 PM on July 7, 2011

I do High Intensity Interval Training for, seriously, 7 minutes 3 days a week, and I am actually losing weight. Slowly but steadily. As I understand it, on the intense part, you need to be going at a rate where you feel like you almost can't make it. I do 15 seconds and by the end of that 15 seconds, I am making funny noises and at my limit. I don't think someone could possibly go that intensely for 15 minutes. I am no expert, but it sounds like maybe switching up your rowing to HIIT might get you off the plateau.
posted by Vaike at 4:57 PM on July 7, 2011

You could walk on the treadmill at a steep incline, and work your way up to 10%.
posted by shortyJBot at 7:27 PM on July 7, 2011

Not sure if this is your cup of tea or if it would work for your schedule, but you could try a spin class. If there isn't a convenient class scheduled but you have access to the bikes, you could spin on your own to a podcast. (I have a pouch that sits on my waist so that I don't need to balance my ipod on anything and it stays out of the way.) I've found it relatively easy to adjust resistance/cadence during spin class to keep my heart rate in the range I'm aiming for.

(I feel your pain - I also got pneumonia this winter and took Levaquin and freaked out when I found out about the possible side effects! I was out of commission for a while.)
posted by Terriniski at 7:57 PM on July 7, 2011

Yea its easy to plateau by just adding more time to bike/elliptical sessions. My feet would be numb and so would my brain from 45mins on the elliptical, I've been conscious to not increase the time but increase the intensity. I found this snippet about form on an elliptical useful.
posted by Ness at 2:30 AM on July 8, 2011

Check to see if your gym has a hand crank/ergometer. (My gym has precisely one, located in a back corner.) It'll take some practice to get a good cardio workout on it, but it'll take the pressure off of your lower body.
posted by anaelith at 3:09 AM on July 8, 2011

When you start to get stronger at cardio type workouts the key is to think "faster" rather than "harder". I do cycling and this mental image is quite useful to break through the plateaus.

You mention some difficulty to attain the higher heart rate. Failure to hit the target beats per minute during an interval is a classic sign of fatigue. If it is resolved by adjusting your motivation (faster, not harder technique) then you may need to attain more rest. As a parent I know this is much easier said than done, so another approach is to do shorter intervals. Don't expect to go hard for the full set, but plan to have 3-5 minute bursts that are very intense with appropriate recovery in between.
posted by dgran at 6:48 AM on July 8, 2011

I think that, given your knee problems and weights, you should be a little cautious when ramping up on the intervals, rather than following the Tabata plans you find online. Start out with more gentle intervals -- maybe getting yourself up to 145 bpm for one minute, then back down for a minute, repeating for a total of 5 intervals. Back off if your knee starts to hurt. Your goal should be getting your heart rate fairly high for a few minutes, rather than long workouts.

(As a side question, I'm curious to know why your doc prescribed Levaquin? those seem like pretty serious side effects.)
posted by yarly at 6:48 AM on July 8, 2011

Also, in your overall weightloss plan, don't discount all the non-aerobic movement you can add in during the day, in addition to your gym time. Walk as much as possible, do a yoga DVD while the babies nap, go for a bike ride when your husband gets home and takes over the kids. This all adds up to burned calories.
posted by yarly at 6:49 AM on July 8, 2011

Response by poster: My doctor prescribed Levaquin because I was very, very, very sick, and rapidly getting sicker. The other option was to admit me to the hospital immediately, and I didn't have anyone to look after my kids during the day. We'd tried a Z-pack first, which was as useless as a sugar pill, and the next antibiotic you'd ordinarily try (doxycycline) is incompatible with nursing.

I do try to be active during the day, and I largely succeed. Heck, pushing the giant cart around Costco with two kids in it is a pretty good workout all on its own! But going for a bike ride after my husband gets home ain't happening. He works 8 hour days plus a total of a 3 hour commute, and my time with him is very precious. (and my 4 year old doesn't nap any more, sigh.)

as for fatigue: oh, yes. I am so tired. The baby is still up nursing at night, and right now he's on the verge of cutting his first tooth so he is nursing a LOT. I get a decent chunk of sleep from about 11:30 to 3:30 but everything after that is terrible.
posted by KathrynT at 10:02 AM on July 8, 2011

Because during my daily workout, I simply don't have the time. I'm constrained by the 90 minutes of child care I have. You'd think it would be possible to get 45 minutes of swimming in, but I haven't yet been able to manage it. Plus I can't hear over the PA if I'm being paged because of an issue with my kids, and that makes me kind of uncomfortable. My once-a-week plan involves going on the weekend WITH my husband so that he can be the parent on point for the child care.

I do HIIT in the pool and it takes me 20 minutes with warm up/cool down. Do two laps to warm up. Do one lap full out, but make sure your form is still good. Do two relaxed laps. Repeats the 1-intense 2-recovery a total of five times.

Just something additional you can try.
posted by munchingzombie at 10:11 AM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


Jesus. I've never been so beat up in seven minutes in my life. I took a 5 minute rest and then did a half hour at a moderate intensity on the elliptical just to get the calorie burn in, and I feel like I could eat a 72-ounce steak right now. I managed to do the 8 reps of 20/10, but wow, only barely.
posted by KathrynT at 2:39 PM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Competitive rower here. Don't set the drag level on your erg to Level 10. I rarely go outside of Levels 4-5 on a Concept2 rowing machine.

Increasing your speed/stroke rating doesn't necessarily make you burn more calories or row faster, especially if you're rowing poorly (and, yes. it's very possible and easy to have bad technique on an erg; more on that in a second).

Your strokes/minute rating is kind of important, but you can ignore it for now. The big number you want to look at is your split time; that is, how many seconds it takes you to row 500m.

Interval workouts are great, and we do them all the time (albeit somewhat differently than tabata). Most rowing machines allow you to program intervals into the computer. You can play around with various intervals to figure out what works for you, or can program distance-based intervals (ie. row 2km; rest 2 minutes; repeat).

Now, technique. Honestly, you'll want to pull somebody aside and have them show you proper rowing technique. That said, a few pointers:

Watch this video (or this one). Both of the guys in it are very good, and very strong rowers. Ignore this for a little bit, but pay attention to the things that make them good rowers.
  • Watch how quick his stroke is, and then notice how slowly he returns to the "Catch" position before taking another stroke. This is called the "recovery." Your recovery should take you about 2-3 times as long as your stroke. If not longer. If you remember nothing else from my comment, remember this. Your timing is crucial -- even on an erg. This takes your strokes/minute rating down, and that's OK, because you're actually going to cover more distance with each stroke, and have a moment to catch your breath so that each stroke is as powerful and explosive as the last.  
  • Now, notice the amount of time in his stroke that is dedicated solely to pushing with his legs. Notice that his arms are fully extended and his elbows are locked until his legs are 95% extended. Contrary to popular belief, rowing is primarily a lower-body sport. Also notice how much distance he pulls the chain during the leg-drive, compared to the fairly short amount of chain that gets pulled during the back/arms portion of the stroke. Your back/arms are really just using the momentum generated by your legs to carry your "oar" a bit further. This is even true for short people. If you're not pushing off of the foot-holder-things with all your might, you're not rowing correctly. Use your legs!  
  • Now notice that his recovery sequence is very similar to his stroke sequence, but in reverse. This is also important. Your arms should be extended, and your body should be upright before you begin retracting your legs.  
  • Take a look at the angle of his body throughout the stroke. For the most part, it stays in a fixed position until the very end of the stroke. Try to emulate this as best as you can.

posted by schmod at 9:07 AM on July 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

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