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August 31, 2011 8:56 PM   Subscribe

Please concoct me a free-weights routine. Pretty much beginner.

I've sort of halfheartedly lifted weights before but never knew what the hell I was doing. I have access to a gym with free weights and I'd like to get into a routine. What I'm looking to get out of it is general fitness / accessory to weight loss. I am a male, 5'11" and 200lbs. I have strong lower body muscles and a pathetically weak upper body.

I'm looking for a specific set of exercises to do that will give me a good general workout. I already get cardio most days in the form of a bike commute. I am looking for something that is on the less time-consuming end of what's effective; this will be in the morning before I go about my business and I don't have time to hang out in the gym all day.

Assume I don't know very much at all. Is it better to do more reps with less weight or fewer than more? Is it better to progress through the same set of exercises multiple times? No clue.

posted by threeants to Health & Fitness (14 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Simple free weight exercises:

For all exercises — exhale on the difficult bit, inhale as you return to starting position.
For all exercises — avoiding jerky motion. Make the weight travel gradually along its trajectory, both going up and coming down.
For all exercises — avoid compensating using other muscle groups. You can curl a heavier weight if you put your back into it, but that will only sprain your back and fail to train your arms. If the weight is too much to do the exercise with proper form, choose a lighter weight.
For all exercises — avoid locking your elbows/knees/shoulders/other joints. Support weights with your muscle strength, don't let them dangle at the ends of your arms.

As far as more weight versus more reps — you want to reach a state of being unable to do more of a given exercise. More weight will let you reach that state faster, but you will need to exercise more discipline in keeping proper form.

Shoulders — front raise, side raise, rear raise
Biceps — dumbbell curl, hammer curl
Triceps — dumbbell kickbacks, dumbbell extension
Chest — dumbbell press, incline flyes
Trapezoidals — dumbbell shrugs
Back — dumbbell row, pullups, chinups
posted by Nomyte at 9:23 PM on August 31, 2011

Try out the Starting Strength programme. It's quick (30min-1hr workouts) and you will see gains right away. It's basically compound lifts, high weights, low reps, designed to quickly strengthen a beginner. The book explains how it works and has neat anatomy-type info, but if you just want to go do the programme, there's enough info online to get you started.
posted by Xianny at 9:28 PM on August 31, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Sorry, I misused some terminology. I said freeweights, but I meant dumbbells only. I recognize that barbells etc. might be equally/more effective, but realistically I know I'm too daunted by them to really get into it at this point. Thanks though Xianny!
posted by threeants at 9:33 PM on August 31, 2011

Here's your guy...


He offers a ton of detailed info including various workout plans for free. And he's funny.
posted by eeby at 9:39 PM on August 31, 2011

You will move more weight safer with barbells. Dumbbells require much more stabilization, making them less effective for at least some of the big compound lifts. Then with others, such as squat and deadlift, it's almost impossible to do them with the heavy weights that provide growth-promoting spinal loading.

That said, the Practical Programming Novice Program or the old Stronglifts program could be somewhat effective using only dumbbells.

The old SL went something like:

Day A: Squat, Bench, Inverted Rows, Pushups (3 x failure), Reverse Crunches (3 x 12)
Day B: Squat, Overhead Press, Deadlift (1x5), Chin-Ups or Pull-Ups (3 x failure), Planks (3 x failure)

All exercises performed for 5 sets of 5 reps unless otherwise indicated.
posted by Earl the Polliwog at 9:44 PM on August 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

Here, maybe this will be more helpful than my previous post...

Scooby's workshop

Incidentally, his routines involve mainly dumbbells and he assumes you're working out at home. He has some really clever ways to do resistance training without the benefit of gym equipment.
posted by eeby at 9:47 PM on August 31, 2011

There are no respectable DB-only strength routines for the reason that it's practically impossible (especially for a technique-shy beginner; are you willing to one-arm snatch, windmill, clean and squat?) to develop any decent amount of strength with them. More than developing a program around substandard equipment, it would behoove you to approach a barbell and get the hang of the thing, even if you need to (ugh) hire a personal trainer to show you the angles.

In furtherance to this advice, the answer is the aforementioned Starting Strength, or Bill Starr's 5x5.
posted by Kandarp Von Bontee at 9:48 PM on August 31, 2011 [2 favorites]

it's practically impossible to develop any decent amount of strength with [dumbbells].

I think that really depends on your definition of strength. You *might* not increase your strength as quickly or effectively with dumbbells but to write them off entirely is a bit much, I think. Dumbbells appeal to beginners and can give you a decent workout routine, depending on your goals.
posted by smoke at 9:55 PM on August 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've achieved great results by sticking to a few very simple compound movements. Weighted dips, weighted chinups, flat bench dumbell presses, one arm dumbell rows, squats, and romanian deadlifts.

I would split those exercises into two separate workouts - chins, dips and either squats or deadlifts on one day, presses, rows, and either squats and deadlifts on the second.

I follow the HIT style of training because it works for me and fits my schedule, but there are many good programs out there.

I would avoid wasting time with simple isolation movements, and focus on functional compound movements. You'll gain more usable strength this way, and will get much more bang for your buck.

Be sure to warm up properly - first warm up the core with some cycling or jogging, and then do a few warmup sets with light weights, and progressively ease into your target weight.
posted by spacediver at 10:12 PM on August 31, 2011

How I took the plunge from dumbells to barbells:

Joined a Crossfit gym. The induction session covered the basic barbell lifts. I keep my gym membership and go to Crossfit classes on a pay as you go basis.

At the regular gym. Put videos/animated gifs of the starting strength lifts on my smartphone/ipod. Check lift video, do lift. Gifs from exrx.net, videos from weightlifting.com.

The prospect of not having a spotter was one of the things that put me off at first but I soon realised I didn't need one. I built up my confidence going to Crossfit where you're often lifting barbells without any kind of rack, figured out how to make use of racks and squat racks in the regular gym and realised that I didn't need to do lying presses (do standing instead).
posted by Ness at 12:51 AM on September 1, 2011

One other remark on the bench press, which scares a lot of people off - do them in the power rack. The safety pins will catch the bar if it comes down too hard. Or, just use the floor press.
posted by Earl the Polliwog at 6:38 AM on September 1, 2011

Sorry about the length of this post, I can really geek out about fitness.

Some exercise options to start out with dumbbells are thrusters, overhead presses, jerks, cleans, power snatches, squats, and swings. Some good bodyweight exercises are pushups, handstand pushups, butterfly situps, bicycle situps, hollow holds, and pistols. I would highly recommend getting a pullup bar as well, and if you can't do pullups, do negative reps, partial reps, jumping pullups, or assisted with a stretchy band. As you get more comfortable, try out Turkish get-ups. Also google "dumbbell complexes".

All the above exercises are easily googleable for more details. Instructions for each dumbbell exercise can be found by googling the name with "dumbbell " before it. If a bodyweight exercise is too difficult then add "assisted " before your search. These are all compound functional movements for fitness, and as you get into practicing stuff, you will inevitably find more movements that you like.

You can do a lot with dumbbells, but like others have said, it will be difficult to train for maximal strength without barbells. However, that is not the only route to fitness.

I would recommend doing an interval system, which will provide both conditioning and muscular endurance. It would also be good tendon, ligament, and joint preparation for any maximal strength barbell routine you might do in the future.

An interval system consists simply of doing something intensely for a period of time and then resting for a period of time. The "Tabata Method" does 20 seconds work, ten seconds rest. Try that to start out with, and as you go along, you can play with the amount of work and amount of rest. I am a huge fan of decreasing intervals, which is where the work interval decreases a little bit each round, so you can play with that after a few weeks.

Then, how do you know what exercises to do? You can generally stick to a roughly full-body routine for one day, and you can split up the major groups into legs, push, and pull. If you hit all three of those groups, then you've roughly done a full body workout. Muscular endurance and conditioning is not an exact science.

Tabatas can be divided into discrete chunks. One round is 30 seconds (20 on, 10 off). One chunk is 8 rounds (4 minutes). Rest 1 minute between rounds.

Pick an exercise (such as air squats), and do a full 4-minute Tabata chunk doing only that exercise. So you'll do as many air squats as you can in 20 seconds, then you'll rest ten seconds. Once the 4 minutes is over, rest a minute. Then do pushups for the next chunk, and jumping pullups for the last chunk. It is only a 15 minute workout, but you will certainly feel it. This was just an example.

Some of my favorite tabata exercises are thrusters, front squats (a squat with the weight held in front), burpees, burpee to pullup, jerks, dips, cleans, and kettlebell swings (just as easily performed with dumbbells).

Build in rest days depending on your schedule. You can do it crossfit style with 3 days on, 1 day rest. Or you can do every other day. Like I said, muscular endurance and conditioning are not exact sciences.

Your score in the tabatas is the lowest reps you got among all your rounds. You can keep track of your progress in this way.
posted by aesacus at 8:33 AM on September 1, 2011

for simplicity's sake just to get started i'd recommend body weight exercises--chin ups, pull ups, dips, etc. doubly so bc you mention an underdeveloped upper body in particular. and the visible difference will come faster, which might give you the motivation to press on. that said, if you're really in it for weight loss and you figure muscle development will help that (due to metabolism, though be careful; it doesn't make as hue a difference as people often think, though it can help), it would make sense to work the largest muscles in your body, which are in your legs and back. when you get to that point, you can look into compound lifts if you like. generally, more weight at lower reps (bc the weight's supposed to be heavy enough you can't do more than a few reps) is more effective for getting stronger faster. if you just want your muscles to look big and the pounds you can lift don't matter to you, you could try a bodybuilder approach instead.
posted by ifjuly at 8:45 AM on September 1, 2011

it would behoove you to approach a barbell and get the hang of the thing

Agreed, and 2nd-ing bodyweight exercises as well.

Dumbbells seem simple because they come in very light weights. In reality, they are more complex and make it very easy to lift with poor form. This increases you chances of getting injured as well. They are really better left to more advanced weight trainers who want to isolate individual muscle groups -- something that justs wastes workout time if you're a beginner.

Stick to compound barbell and bodyweight exercises. You'll get a much better arm (and overall!) workout from pull-ups/chin-ups/dips than you will from arm curls and tricep kickbacks.
posted by coolguymichael at 12:56 PM on September 1, 2011

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