Do I really need to pump iron?
July 8, 2005 8:50 AM   Subscribe

What's the bare minimum of strength training I can get away with?

I've joined a gym, and I really like doing 45 minutes or so of cardio. I'm trained in yoga, so I also do about 30 minutes of stretching, which includes some balance and resistance work. Problem is, I know that I need to mix it up with some strength training. I don't think I'd be disciplined about free weights (and that area of my gym is always full). I go to the gym three times a week for at about an hour, but even making time for that is a huge struggle. Can I get away with taking one class a week on weight training, or just doing some pushups and crunches at home? Is there a way to build adequate core strength through my yoga routine?

Note: I do not need my gym routine to eat my life, as I'm just in for the minimum--more energy, maybe losing some weight, building strength. In short, I want arms like Sarah Jessica Parker's, but I treasure my time zoning out with a magazine on the elliptical trainer.
posted by hamster to Health & Fitness (14 answers total)
The bare minimum you need is none. That said, having more muscles will help you burn calories and achieve your other goals. I find stack machines are a lot easier to sit in and zone out than free weights. And I find I get distracted doing crunches at home—they're easier to get done on the mats at the gym, and more comfortable.

I think the number one rule for most people in a fitness program is find something sustainable. If you really can't stand weight training, then maybe you should just start by taking that class—you'll at least be doing something then, and you know you can stand one class a week. If you try doing free weights seven days a week, you might burn out pretty quick.
posted by grouse at 9:00 AM on July 8, 2005

I agree with grouse, you don't have to do any weight training but will benefit mightily from doing some.

But if it's free weights that intimidate you or put you off in whatever way, by all means look into a good abs routine (crunches, lateral crunches, leg raises, etc etc) and things like dips, various types of push ups, calf raises, exercises with resistance bands etc.
posted by jamesonandwater at 10:04 AM on July 8, 2005

Look into high intensity strenght training. Hard work 2x a week. One set to failure.

My typical workouts are 6-8 exercises (one set) for a total of 30 min. fully body.

It's freaking hard work. No fun.

Longer than 96 hours and the work is less productive. But it's about every third day for me.

What I think you're asking though, is can you get your arms more defined - sure, combination of strength training + losing fat.

if you're willing to go hard...try negative chins 1x a week.
That's one set of:
Standing on a stool, putting your chin above the bar, lowering yourself for ten seconds...then...with zero rest, jumping back up and repeating this.

It's brutal, it's tough on the connective tissue, will get you sorer than you've ever been in your life...and will take five days or so to recover.

Take a quick look at google searches for high intensity training.

Oh, and freeweights are merely a stimulus. Machines, pulling a car...anything that provides overload (within approx 3 min), will cause a change, given rest.
posted by filmgeek at 10:23 AM on July 8, 2005

Once a week. Seriously, studies have shown that once a week of weight training will allow you to maintain your current levels of strength. If you want to get stronger, it's gonna take longer. I might suggest that you try to go 2-3x/wk for about three months, and then cut back to the once a week. This would give you something to maintain.

But, yoga will also make you strong as f*ck, so maybe you need nothing.
posted by OmieWise at 10:23 AM on July 8, 2005

You can go for about 5 reps with 3-5 sets to at like 75% of max to just gain strength. Women, by virtue of their lack of testicles, have a real problem with hypertrophy so if you really want those SJP fitness-trainer arms you should really try doing a male regiment of 8-10 reps with 4 sets and doing as close to max as you can get. Doing it once a week probably won't get you noticeable results. The cable machines will work pretty much just as well as free weights. They're pretty easy to zone out on, though I noticed I was using the machine to make the work easier -- and getting a much better work out with free weights.
posted by geoff. at 10:29 AM on July 8, 2005

I've been doing Pilates for light strength building, and as a bonus it's low impact so doesn't hurt my knees. It's less about building big muscles and more about learning to control your own body weight to get long, lean, defined muscles. It looks pretty similar to Yoga. There seems to be a million different types of Pilates, from the kind that requires nothing more than a mat and you, to the kind that requires gym type equipment. It's something you could easily do at home on your own time (with the aid of a video), but you could probably find a class to take if you wanted to.
posted by geeky at 10:34 AM on July 8, 2005

The nice thing about weigh training is that swapping time for intensity works far better than the reverse - you can frequently get a better workout going HARD at the weights for half an hour rather than moving around one pound dumbells for hours at a time.
posted by sid at 10:50 AM on July 8, 2005

If you don't like free weights, just do push-ups and pull-ups. If you are weak, start doing push-ups from your knees instead of toes, you can also do pull-ups with someone holding your feet so that there is less resistance.
posted by sic at 11:35 AM on July 8, 2005

I've done a 30-minute slo-mo workout once a week for about two years, and have gotten HUGE.

Okay, just kidding, but I've found it to be the least schedule-impacting weight training I've ever done, the easiest on my joints, and definitely the hardest on my muscles. I've tried a number of different programs (heavy weight, low rep; the opposite; Body for Life workouts; etc.) but I like this the best.

Basic tenet is you do one set of each exercise, but VERY slowly -- approx 20 second reps -- and you don't take any short-breaks at the top or bottom between reps. You always keep your muscles under load. I do 5-7 reps a set; one set an exercise; six exercises a workout; one workout every five days or so. With one-minute breaks between exercises you're sometimes looking at less than twenty minutes of lifting a week.

Power of Ten is a book that describes basically this exact workout (and includes a generic diet plan). There are other articles and sites and trainers that have described this same idea for quite a long time.

It's a great once-a-week workout and is seriously hard. What you save in time you pay for in pain, but it's good pain!
posted by johndavi at 11:37 AM on July 8, 2005

Filmgeek pretty much nailed it. It really is about exhausting your muscles. If you can bring it to failure, it's amazine how little weight lifting time you'll need.

If you can exhaust your bicep with one set, you don't need four, you couldn't do four.

If machines are working for you, great, but I'd go with free weights if at all possible.

And you'll get a lot stronger than if you just did "yoga".
posted by justgary at 1:44 PM on July 8, 2005

You can get a pretty decent bodyweight strength routine going just through yoga, if you tailor your routine with that intent. (See here for example) Crow pose, side arm balance, pendulum pose, and the like will work your arms pretty well. When you do chatarunga, do the full version (body straight & hovering a few inches from the floor, not the version with knees & chest touching the floor). Lots of time in downward-facing dog helps as well.

It's not as potent for strength-building as serious weight-lifting would be, but I enjoy the fact that I'm building my strength at the same time as I'm working my flexibility, my stamina, my balance, and my general body awareness. It ends up being a net time-saver.
posted by tdismukes at 3:12 PM on July 8, 2005

It's less about building big muscles and more about learning to control your own body weight to get long, lean, defined muscles.

Point of clarification here: you cannot change a muscle's shape through exercise. If your muscles look long, lean and defined, it's because there's less fat covering them up. Or they've got bigger. But your muscle length is pretty much permanent.

People who are going for serious size increase generally have to accept some proportionate fat gain as well, which is why off-season body-builders, and powerlifters, often look somewhat tubby and smooth.

If you're doing yoga, I'm not so sure that you do in fact NEED strength training. My experience of yoga is that it is far more than just stretching. Watch big meaty guys do yoga! Watch them fall over in exhaustion as they fail to support their own weight!

On preview, what tdismukes said.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 3:49 PM on July 8, 2005

I'm basically with geoff. In terms of specifics, one possibility that I've had success with is doing 3 sets of 8-12 reps on any given weight. The way you do it, is you find a weight where you can comfortably do 3 sets of 8, and do it 2-3 times a week (always at least 1 day of rest between though). The next week, same weight, 3 sets of 9. Etc, up through 12 reps, then the next week bump up the weight and drop back down to 8 reps. Doesn't necessarily matter how close you get to your max, as long as it's not TOO much to the point where you're hurting yourself; just make sure it's not super-easy and you should notice new strength in a couple of months.

And it doesn't take long; for the 3 sets, you should wait something like a minute in between so no particular exercise should take you more than 10 minutes. In fact, you can probably compress it if you rotate, such that one muscle group is resting as you do another exercise, and fit 4 or 5 machines into half an hour. As someone else up there said, it's important to find something sustainable, so if you get tired after, say, 3 exercises in 20 minutes, just pick your favorite 3 and keep it up week after week.

Also, to expand on joe's_spleen's point a bit, many pro body builders do go through "build" and "cut" cycles where they bulk up in both muscle and fat, and then slim down in both muscle and fat, the theory being that you build more muscle during strength training and you lose more fat during cario so at the end of a cut cycle, you should be looking lean and mean. Of course, many pro body builders also take steroids, so, grain of salt. But it is a good point that all gains and losses tend to include both muscle and fat, so be ready for that if you commit to strength training for a while, and maybe be ready to phase it out for a bit if you're feeling puffy.
posted by rkent at 5:44 PM on July 8, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks, folks. (I love that "yoga" is in quotes, justgary, like it's theoretical exercise.) I'm going to attend a class that mixes cardio and weight training once a week, and step up my strength training through yoga. Some crunches and push ups while I'm watching Good Morning America can't hurt, either.
posted by hamster at 6:46 PM on July 9, 2005

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