Help me work out.
February 2, 2012 6:21 PM   Subscribe

I'm a 24 year old guy who's very skinny and has never really worked out. However, by virtue of sitting behind a desk every day for the last couple years, I've developed some stomach flab. Besides that, though, still skinny as can be. I want to join a gym to accomplish a few things: - lose the stomach flab - get slightly bigger / more muscular elsewhere (tough since I'm so skinny…main area I'd like to improve are my arms) - get some stamina From what I know, the stamina part will come through cardio, but that'll burn a lot of calories and go against the whole 'getting bigger' idea. Would love for those with knowledge or experience to give me some ideas of what to do…machines to use, exercises to try, etc. Thanks.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (26 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Crossfit, Stronglifts, GOMAD.
posted by yogalemon at 6:39 PM on February 2, 2012

Your gym will have a personal trainer who, for a fee, will guide you through these very issues. If you pay for that extra attention for a limited time, and if you are reasonably self-motivated, you can then move forward on your own.
posted by megatherium at 6:39 PM on February 2, 2012

Our great gym personal trainer / teacher spent Years working on bulking up from being skinny, adding muscle and weight, and it can be tough. So yes, weightlifting and other strength stuff will definitely help do that for you - it's the only way several of my friends have gained weight, and they've done it while increasing their cardio, too.

Most importantly, try a bunch of different stuff and see what's Fun for you - you're way more likely to stick with it if it's fun. I'm a big fan of bootcamp class because it involves a lot of strength and cardio, is more motivating than doing stuff on my own, and the teacher gives us new and different stuff all of the time to keep us interested.
posted by ldthomps at 6:44 PM on February 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

You need to lift weights. Some cardio is good and necessary for overall health, but careful how you time it with respect to the lifting so you don't get too fatigued to lift or overwork muscles. Keep the cardio in short intense bursts (think racquetball or interval training instead of marathons).

But you're trying to alter whatever shape your body naturally gravitates toward, and that's never easy and involves a pretty big commitment to lifestyle modification. Not only do you need to lift heavy several times a week, but you're probably going to need to eat more and cleaner too; switch less desirable empty carbs for proteins and carbs in unprocessed, nutrient dense forms (veggies), less sugar. There's a ton of nutritional woo out there related to body building, and diet is half the battle, but really it's not that complicated and ditching junk carbs (as opposed to whole grains) for proteins and veggies is the basic strategy underlying much of it.
posted by slow graffiti at 6:58 PM on February 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

A session with a trainer is definitely a good idea.

However: cardio is really important to your general health. Don't not do cardio because you're worried you'll lose weight. I see a lot of really out of shape people at the gym spending way too much time on the weight machines, when they should be spending more time on cardio - and maybe cardio with resistance, like biking, using the elliptical on a higher setting, etc. - because building up your cardiovascular strength is hard and lifting weights for a bit can be more gratifying.

Also, don't just work out your arms. Core strength is very important, and having a strong core keeps your body in the proper alignment so that you can avoid injury. And having a weak core can hurt your ability to run, if that's something you're interested in.

And don't let the cardio machines trick you into thinking that you're working out really hard when you're not. The heart-rate monitors on most gym equipment are a little wonky, the calorie meters are total BS, and at twenty-four, your maximum heart-rate should be a lot higher than what the machines recommend. The formula that I've heard used a lot is 220 bpm - your age. So, 196 bpm would be your absolute maximum, give or take a bunch. I'm around your age, and I'm in pretty good shape, and I feel like I'm getting a good work out around 180 bpm. But a lot of cardio machines recommend much lower than that, and I think that's why you see a lot of people on the eliptical, barely breaking a sweat because they want to stay within the "fat loss zone" and not raise their heart rate. But you're young, you're not carrying extra weight around, so run/bike/treadmill/eliptical/whatever your heart out! It's more fun that way.

I'd also really recommend yoga. Power yoga can be a very intense upper body work-out, and it's fun. And when I was going to yoga a lot, I definitely noticed increased muscle tone over my whole body. Find ways to exercise that you enjoy. I go to the gym, but I also run, dance, do yoga, etc.

If you tend toward skinniness, don't get obsessed with bulking up. Lean muscle is sexy!
posted by ablazingsaddle at 7:01 PM on February 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Lean muscle is sexy!

Muscle is by definition lean. People who have very visible muscles have very low body fat.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 7:03 PM on February 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Very similar body type/job/age as you. I haven't been focused on getting bigger, but I have managed to consistently exercise for just over a year and counting (and I have data to prove it to myself). When I started my goal was to go to the gym twice a week. On days that I go, I put a red X on that day on my calendar. I try to start early in the week - it feels good to meet my quota early and then anything above that is bonus. I've since upped my quota, but starting with something attainable was totally the way to go.

My current fitness routine centers around an elliptical machine - music to keep me moving, and my Kindle to keep me from getting bored. If my fitness goals change to include putting on muscle, I'll get personal trainer as others have recommended - at least for a while. Having someone to recommend exercises, tell me what i can improve on, give me advice on what I should be eating would be valuable.
posted by itheearl at 7:05 PM on February 2, 2012

Muscle is by definition lean. People who have very visible muscles have very low body fat.

How about lean and muscular? Not meathead? Skinny-ripped?

You know what I mean!
posted by ablazingsaddle at 7:13 PM on February 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Don't worry about getting bulky. It takes a significant caloric intake (and the right macro-nutrient ratios) to get "bulky" in a relatively short period of time.

Lift heavy. You will see a significant response if you've never really lifted before, but this is good. Starting Strength is a great intro program, but the basic "Low Rep - High Weight" philosophy will work regardless of which specific program you choose. On the days you don't weight train, focus on High Intensity Interval Training (H.I.I.T.).

Diet is essential, and the consensus is that it accounts for 80% of your progress toward your ideal figure. Lean meats, fibrous greens is a great start, and you may want to look into Ketogenic diets if you're feeling adventurous. has a great community to offer support / info, as well as and

Good luck!
posted by platosadvocate at 7:14 PM on February 2, 2012

I want to join a gym to accomplish a few things:

1) lose the stomach flab

I suggest not making this an immediate priority. Since you'll be ramping up from a sedentary lifestyle to an active one, you will expend more energy. If, after you're in a comfortable routine, you still feel that you have too much flab, you can always operate at a slight calorie deficit until the desired results are achieved - but my prediction is that taking care of the other items on the list will wipe out the flab as well.

2) get slightly bigger / more muscular elsewhere

Heavy compound lifts. Starting Strength, etc. You'll notice that strength athletes (not bodybuilders) often have gigantic arms despite not doing "arm days, bro". This is because heavy pressing and pulling is an effective way to develop your biceps, triceps, and deltoids without doing 200 rope curls to failure and looking at yourself in the mirror for 10 minutes.

3) get some stamina

You will improve your stamina just by moving from a sedentary lifestyle to an active one. Walking everywhere and bursts of intense cardio will not interfere with strength gains and hypertrophy; becoming a serious distance runner probably will. Cardiovascular health is a worthy stand-alone goal: if you don't give a shit about running a marathon, but your blood pressure is excellent and you don't get winded on stairs or having sex, why worry?

4) machines to use

None. Free weights are superior for general strength development purposes.

5) burn a lot of calories and go against the whole 'getting bigger' idea.

In my experience this is overblown, and if building muscle is not your only goal, why pay much attention to getting that last 5% of gains on the remaining 20% of strict training? When starting lifting, you will enter a period of rapid "beginner's gains" that will typically last a period of months. If, after this period, youfeel exhausted or make no progress despite having a good lifting program, a good and abundant diet, and enough sleep/relaxation, you should consider changing your cardio work. In the meantime, just watch out for repetitive injuries and giving yourself some time to recover from workouts.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 7:55 PM on February 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

just make sure you balance it out. No use having super fit arms with weak legs or crappy back/core muscles.

I hear Crossfit is pretty awesome. But do whatever you enjoy the most or dislike the least, then you're more likely to stick to it
posted by Neekee at 8:51 PM on February 2, 2012

I just started CrossFit a month ago - and it has been great. It isn't cheap though (cheaper than personal training but much more than a regular gym membership. Nthing that you need to do something that you will do - like consistently, a few times a week.
posted by fieldtrip at 9:07 PM on February 2, 2012

Yeah, do what you like. Might be worth trying a few different things (rock climbing's fun and what I personally do, but some people like weightlifting and some people like more organized programs like CrossFit, and.. well, ymmv) because what's most important is to do a physical activity that you enjoy and will thus keep doing because you like the activity and not just for your looks or health or whatnot.

Then you get a double benefit: it's fun, and you also get the health+appearance effects you're after.
posted by nat at 10:21 PM on February 2, 2012

Are you sure you're a gym person, if you've never really worked out before. Personally I find gyms really dull - you're doing exercise for exercise's sake. And people tell me it's much less social these days, as everyone does their thing plugged into an iPod.

Consider joining a running/cycling/rowing club. More camaraderie. You probably have a great build for something like mountain biking. It's not to hard to pick up the skills and getting out to the countryside is fun, and gets you fit as a side effect. Also it makes you all round fit, as opposed to working on individual muscle groups. There are tonnes of clubs around with dedicated people organising them.

I mentioned rowing, as I read somewhere it's the best sport for the non-motivated. You agree to go and you can't not turn up, because the other 3 can't row with an odd number. And once you're in the boat, ha!.. you can't stop....

Gyms live from people who think they want to work out, pay the sub, and then don't turn up. Then again, maybe you really are a gym person. Only you can find that out.
posted by guy72277 at 12:35 AM on February 3, 2012

Short term goals!

Do you have a smart phone? If so, download something like JEFIT. You input your weight and reps after each set. This lets you plan your workouts a bit more effectively and gives you a clear data on how much you're improving. This stat tracking has been key for my motivation.

It's a lot easier to go to the gym when your goal is to beat your last workout record than when it's for the more long-term goals like "get bigger", "lose fat", or "increase stamina". It's almost impossible to get myself there when I'm trying to motivate myself with those. Short term goals make working out, dare I say it, fun.
posted by Defenestrator at 1:16 AM on February 3, 2012

To help you on your journey from desk to gym:
posted by Ness at 2:36 AM on February 3, 2012

The best and most sustainable workout is often the one that has the least "friction" to start and maintain. While going to a gym can be easy, all you really need is a few feet of space and comfortable shoes. Try an increasing number of pushups (apps for iphone, ipad, and andriod) with: one hundred push ups

And do spend an hour a day walking, running, or doing another aerobic exercise.
posted by mfoight at 4:51 AM on February 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

The sub-Reddit /r/fitness has a comprehensive FAQ that can help answer your questions.
posted by TorontoSandy at 5:07 AM on February 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm more or less what you're looking to become (5'11, 165-170lbs, mostly lean muscle without bulk and the infamous six pack getting more and more defined...squatting nearly double my body weight and running a 1:40 half marathon); it took about two years and was not a linear progression by any means. I started at 140lbs, weak and fairly slow as far as running is concerned.

Defenestrator is right; set short term goals. Alternate between three to six months of developing one (anaerobic, aerobic) facet of your goals while putting the other in "maintenance mode."

So, if you're trying to make gains while lifting, you do cardio 1-2 times a week at a level that does not affect your ability to lift (for me, that's 6.0MPH for 30-45 minutes.) You eat more, focus largely on proteins and sources of amino acids, and get a lot of rest.

Then you switch to aerobic. The best way, I've found, is to sign up for a half-marathon/other long race and build a training schedule. Include sprints/interval training. Lift weights to maintain your muscle mass but not enough to affect your aerobic exercise of choice; what I usually do is de-load my weights to 60% of my best level and focus more on resistance training (TRX, pilates, etc.) than pure weight lifting. Eat more complex carbs, drink a lot more water and get lots of rest here too.

After two years, you can manage both pretty effectively, and I now do three days lifting (chest and back, arms and legs, shoulders and the holy trinity...squats, benches, cleans) and three days cardio (2x running and 1x cycling) with one rest day per week. If I am trying to race, I just cut back a little on the weight training and add an interval session and I'm set.
posted by Rodrigo Lamaitre at 5:27 AM on February 3, 2012

Cram meat and eggs down your throat and lift heavy free weights focusing on the main compound exercises shall be the whole of the law
posted by a_girl_irl at 7:00 AM on February 3, 2012

6'1" and 155 here.

Most of the advice here is good.

Freeweights, not machines. Resistance bands are awesome, too.
Form is more important than reps.
Guys like us need to eat more. A lot more. Don't worry about getting bulky. You'll need the food to fuel your work. Just eat GOOD food. Not crap. Muscles are actually sculpted in the kitchen, not the gym.

I got P90X for Christmas and I absolutely love it. Great program that concentrates on a lot of body weight exercises (pull ups/push ups.)

Gains are coming quickly. Clothes already fitting differently.
posted by Thistledown at 7:04 AM on February 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Getting fit boils down to a few simple things:
  • Three days a week pick up the heaviest thing you can and put it down. Do this repeatedly.
  • Two days a week do cardio. Light to moderate intensity, you don't need to kill yourself. Conditioning work, like bodyweight circuits are also fine on these days.
  • Two days a week do recovery. Go for a walk. Play a sport. Take a yoga class. Stretch. Soak in a bath, etc.
  • Start paying attention to what and how much you you eat.
  • Weigh and measure your food to track your calorie intake
  • Eat real food. Lots of protein, lots of vegetables cut back on things like pasta and bread a bit.
  • Keep a training log
  • Keep a food log
Have a cheat day every once in a while though. Your bodyweight * 14 or 16 is a good place to start for calories. Track your weight, if it's going in a direction you don't want add/subtract 250 calories a day for a week, rinse and repeat.

As said above, free weights are better than machines. Compound exercises are better than isolated ones. The big lifts are bench press, squatting, deadlift, and overhead press. There are lots of variations on these. Look into learning them. Starting Strength is a wonderful resource for this, but you can also use youtube:

So you think you can Squat
So you think you can bench
How to deadlift

The basics of lifting boil down to this: Protect your spine and protect your joints. Keep your abs engaged and your back straight and your spine will be fine. If you don't know what a straight (neutral) spine looks or feels like, take a yoga class or two. If your limbs start to feel a sharp pain, re-evaluate your grip/positioning, start asking more questions and trying different variations of the lift. Keep your feet flat on the ground. If you can't, look into different techniques for increasing mobility. Injuries happen in the gym, but most of them come from not paying attention to your body. Form takes precedence over numbers.

Speaking of mobility, I should mention stretching. Before working out stretching's purpose is to regain mobility, to work towards your current full range of motion. This means dynamic stretching/moving. Arm/leg swinging, walking lunges, etc. If you want to lengthen your muscles do this after a workout. Stretching to lengthen damages muscles in a similar way that lifting weights damages muscles (this is a good thing, the muscles need to rebuild to change). But if you do it before a workout your muscles are pre-damaged, which means at best you will not be able to lift as much. At worst it means your form will suffer.

If you don't have a barbell, dumbbells also work well. Machines force your body to work in a path set by the machine, which has two problems: your body will not be 100% matched to the machine and your body can move in ways a machine can't.

Starting strength and stronglifts are often recommended as they're based on a 3 x 5 or 5 x 5 program. You need to lift as heavy as you can, not as long as you can. Low reps build strength and increasing the weight every time you go to the gym will cause your muscles to grow. We want to build strength so that you have a foundation to work from.

When it comes to recovering, moving > not moving. Things are going to be sore after working out. This is normal and OK, but learn the difference between something being injured and a muscle being sore. Soreness starts 24-48 hours after a workout and goes away when you start moving and with time. After a while things will stop hurting after workouts. This doesn't mean your workout was less effective, only that your muscles are starting to adapt.

You will see lots of things about how you should stick to diet A or diet B, or only do certain lifts, about timing of post-workout nutrition, about the efficiency of different kinds of cardio, about overtraining, about plateaus. This is all fun to read about, but don't let the choices paralyze you. Stick to what's simple and basic because those are what's easiest to do and do regularly. In the end most of it won't matter as long as you are doing something. To get muscles you have to challenge them. To get fit you have to exercise and eat right.
posted by swashedbuckles at 8:47 AM on February 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Belly flab is the last to go, and it may never completely go away. So you have to really focus on diet and core work. Might as well do the rest of the body while you're at it.

Don't eat deficit calories. You'll have to eat more to build muscle!

Watch your $$$ float away as you buy lean meat (turkey/fish), egg whites, low-fat cheeses, a FEW nuts but don't go overboard, LOW SODIUM FOOD! Fresh/frozen veggies are good but keep the fruits down for a while. Skim milk and Nesquik for post-workout. Protein powder in soup (get the "less foul taste" kind). Multivitamin for backup nutrients, and adequate rest. Water water water. Protein bar for a snack at the desk between breakfast and lunch. Water water water.

First month is brutal. You might not be able to pull your shirt over your head some days. Don't take need to know when you are about to injure yourself! I have to use knee wraps for squats because of genetics and proportions.

PS> Yoga may not be a relaxation fact I struggle with it more than any other squat/curl/interval training. At first I was like "Yoga! Finally! Easy day!"...Nope! Tougher!
posted by Khazk at 9:10 AM on February 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

You need some resources, since an AskMeFi thread can't cover everything you need to do. Here's a broad outline of some stuff you should think about, and some resources that you might find will help you in your journey:

1. Your goal will be to increase your lean body mass. There are two ways of doing this: adding muscle and losing fat. You're in the happy position of being new to working out, so you'll be able to do both at the beginning. Seeing as you're skinny and new to working out, priority number one is to build muscle. A readable book on this is The New Rules of Lifting. Pick up a copy on Amazon for a few bucks or check it out of the library. Put very simply, you want to do concentrate on your big muscle groups. You'll get the most bang for your exercise buck on this. You'll want to lift hard and lift heavy (and safely). You'll make serious gains within two months by getting in the gym consistently. The most common recommendations are stronglifts and starting strength. They're excellent because they're effective. Stronglifts has an easy to follow free e-pub that you can check out. Use free weights as much as you can, not machines. This will help immensely.

2. You'll need to make changes to your diet to support the changes you want to make in your diet. The best book on this I've read is The Body Fat Solution by Tom Venuto. In short, you want to eat big amounts of protein, a sufficient amount of fat, and fill the rest of your diet in with vegetables, some complex healthy carbs, and fruit. You don't need to take supplements and other stuff (except maybe protein powder, that might be really useful). But stop eating junk food, processed food, food with added sugar, and most starchy carbs like breads, white rice, white potatoes, etc. Design your meals around lean cuts of meat, fish, chicken, eat tons of veggies, and have sweet potatoes, oatmeal, quinoa and similar stuff.

3. If you want to improve your stamina, you'll be surprised how much intense lifting sessions will improve it without cardio. Since your priority is gaining lean body mass, you may want to not jump right into a lot of cardio without really thinking about it first. That being said, doing cardio won't be a horrible sin or anything. It just not make the most efficient and productive use of your exercise time. You might consider waiting 2 or 3 months until you feel like a change and then start doing some interval training, which gives you big cardio gains for the amount of time you spend on it. It's just really grueling.

4. You'll benefit from support and places that can answer your questions. Try nerdfitness and John Stone fitness. These forums are awesome. John's transformation will absolutely blow you away, too. But questions like yours are answered all the time on these forums and they're generally friendlier and less intimidating than places like or t-nation.
posted by MoonOrb at 10:13 AM on February 3, 2012

I'll reiterate alot of what's already been said. It works.

Starting Strength + Diet (possibly GOMAD) + Rest

Starting Strength:
Starting Strength the book is invaluable. Fantastic descriptions of the important compound lifts. There's also a wiki out there that has a lot of useful information. Here's an addendum by the author with some more info about progressing on the program. Supposedly, you're supposed to bulk, then cut, because building muscle without gaining any fat is very difficult and requires more discipline, especially with regards to diet. It's alot easier to just eat more, increase your lifts linearly (add weight every workout), and gain a little fat along the way. Then when you've hit a target weight, you can cut which I've heard is pretty easy for guys like us (Can't say this for certain since I haven't done a cut yet).

GOMAD = Gallon Of Milk A Day, and that's whole milk. Don't be afraid to consume fat while you're doing this, as long as you're also consuming a lot of protein. And you don't have to do a gallon. I did about a quarter gallon a day as part of a protein shake and that worked pretty well for me. Straight up food will work too, but milk is one of the easiest and cheapest ways to get the calories you'll need with the right combo of protein/fat/carbs.

This is important. Make sure you rest on your off days and get plenty of sleep. Some light cardio may be ok 1-2 times a week.

As far as cardio, you can do it if you want, but it may not be necessary. If you want to do cardio and lift on the same day, cardio should be done after you lift. Otherwise you may be too tired to do your lifts properly. Another note, if you do Starting Strength correctly and do it with the warm-up sets, you'll notice your heart rate go up during your workout. So that may be enough cardio for you at this point.

I went from 130 lbs at 5'9", to 170 lbs. I'm actually still trying to gain more weight before I do a cut. As a skinny guy, you'll be surprised how much weight you can put on and still look slim. But instead of just being skinny, you'll be slim with some noticable muscle.
posted by villafoyager at 11:43 AM on February 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Note that GOMAD is not the way you want to discover you might be lactose intolerant.
posted by stopgap at 11:45 AM on February 3, 2012

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