lift alone?
September 23, 2013 1:54 PM   Subscribe

I hate "fitness culture" but I want to learn to lift weights. I have access to a small mostly unstaffed company gym. I would prefer to do this alone - is that reasonable or safe?

I never used a gym on a regular basis before because I hate "fitness culture" (the nutrition and physiology pseudoscience and talk that borders on body dysmorphia and all the other woo) and don't like the idea of competing with fitness bros for equipment that I don't really know how to use properly. That said, my BMI puts me at slightly underweight and I've lost an alarming amount of muscle mass just from stress and having a desk job, and some weight lifting would do me good, but the only way I'll do it is if it's somewhere low key where I can do my thing with no one watching - no Crossfit, etc. So my quiet, small company gym sounds great! No classes or bros! But I still have no idea what I'm doing.

1. How do I design a routine for my goals (weight gain and being in better shape for backpacking trips)? Should I hire a personal trainer for a few sessions then go it alone or is this something you can do right watching enough Youtube? There is so much garbage out there with respect to fitness that it's hard to sift. I'm also aware of the wealth of weightlifting stuff in the archives, but I'm not starting with goals for weight loss or a particular physique or sports cross training - do I want to hire a trainer or just start with something really simple like stronglifts?

2. Are there machines and exercises that are absolutely unsafe to do alone? Ones that are more safe? Everything seems to boil down to squats, deadlifts, and a few other moves, but these seem dangerous for someone clueless without a spotter.

3. Given that I hate "fitness culture", are there online resources that are bro and pseudoscience free (and for that matter, also free of vapid talk about flat abs that is directed at women)?
posted by slow graffiti to Health & Fitness (28 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
(also, in Austin, TX if it matters, and I will have doctor clearance to do this and basic gym orientation so that I don't break the machines)
posted by slow graffiti at 1:56 PM on September 23, 2013

As long as you're not trying to lift huge amounts of weight, you should be okay to work out in the company gym.

As around among your friends, you may either find someone who can help you out with some simple lifting to get you started, or they may know a trainer who can give you the cooks tour of the weights in your work gym.

Body for Life has some nice illustrated workouts you can do and they don't advocate spending shit-tons of time in the gym.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:00 PM on September 23, 2013

If you're open to a trainer, you might consider one who can help you with your form, as well as plan out some basic goals. You don't need to go all protein-shake-and-supplements, but you will want to eat more lean meat and so on if you're looking to build up some weight in muscle mass.
posted by jquinby at 2:03 PM on September 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Without a spotter you should probably avoid doing barbell bench press (one bar with weights on each side). You can use dumbbells (one shorter bar in each hand) and get the same effect. For squats at a minimum you should have one of those setups with parallel bars at hip height to catch the bar if you have to bail out - I can't remember what they are called. For anything (especially squats) you're going to be more at risk from lousy technique than from a lack of a spotter, so see if you can get one of the less bro-y people at your gym or a trainer to show you the ropes.

The exrx "design a workout" is really fact based and goes from beginner on up. It also gives you various alternative exercises that you can pick from depending on the equipment you have at your gym.
posted by true at 2:08 PM on September 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

I got started with a weight lifting routine (by myself) using the book New Rules of Lifting for Women (its counterpart, New Rules of Lifting, is also good, but a bit more dude-bro in tone). It might be a little bit more intense than what you're looking for, but it provided me at the time with the necessary instruction/information to go into the gym with an appropriate level of confidence (and, more importantly, a plan). It definitely emphasizes proper form and overall fitness. Not an online resource, but I hope that helps.
posted by LittleKnitting at 2:13 PM on September 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

I lift alone (in Austin, east side Y) and also hate fitness culture. I've had great results so far with the Stronglifts 5x5 routine that's often mentioned on metafilter. All you need is a barbell. No spotter required, and because you start with an empty bar you learn proper form before the weight gets heavy. Look up "roll of shame" on YouTube to see how to bench without a spotter.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 2:14 PM on September 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Feel free to teach yourself at the start, but get yourself a coach when the weight starts to feel heavy. It's easy to think you've got it when you actually don't. There's a reason that quality coaches seek out coaching for themselves.

@true: I think the term you're looking for is "squat cage"
posted by bfranklin at 2:17 PM on September 23, 2013

I got into weightlifting by way of StrongLifts which is mostly without bro-talk, although the author is a bit, uh, congratulatory about his own success.

I recommend this approach because you start with empty bars, add weight slowly, and are encouraged to pay close attention to form. By the time I was lifting enough that I only felt comfortable going forward with a spotter, I was able to quickly identify how much weight was 'too much' without putting myself in any danger.

Anyway, I lost 120lbs following his plan and I still follow it (with some breaks) four years later. It's easy to follow and yields positive results.
posted by Tevin at 2:19 PM on September 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

Read Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe (even if you do Stronglifts or some other program). There is also a website, and a wiki but these are meant to be a complementary to the book, not a replacements for.

In general, if you follow a sensible a routine that revolves around the big compound barbell lifts: Squat, Bench Press, Deadlift, and Overhead Press, and follow the principles of Progressive Overload you will build functional strength that you can apply to life and sport.

As far as lifting safely, you will need access to a power rack. Sometimes called a "cage" or "power cage". The idea is that there are safety bars to catch the weight if you fail a lift. And sooner or later, you are likely to fail a lift (and that is totally fine).

As for the weight gain, there is no other way about this - you're going to have to eat more than you're eating now. Probably MUCH more, once you start training seriously.
posted by jclovebrew at 2:42 PM on September 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

You could do worse than read the FAQ at reddits r/fitness. I know your first impulse will be that thats not what you want, But the FAQ really tries to strip away the broscience that you often find in the subreddit itself. It links to various beginner liftig programs including Starting Strength and Stronglifts, and nutrition info - TDEE calls etc. You can find videos on YouTube showing you how to use the safeties in a rack to "spot" yourself. If you don't have a rack, which you may not in a small company gym, there are dumbbell only programs available too or you may choose to join a gym after looking at some of those programs. I'm a woman who lifts and pretty much everyone, "bro" or not, is far too busy doing their own thing at most gyms I've worked out in to bother me.
posted by jamesonandwater at 2:50 PM on September 23, 2013

You and I had a lot in common. Let me share some general observations before moving on to specific recommendations. First, if you have a training plan, a resource for learning proper technique, and the ability to get yourself to the gym three days a week, you are way ahead. Yes, even compared to those guys with terrifying veins making inchoate noises in the back of the gym. True, they are stronger than you are now, but that is about their only advantage. I could never have walked into a gym when I was getting started, but now I stride confidently in, do my work, and get out. You are there to get strong, not to like the other people at the gym, so who cares what they do?

Specifically, I recommend the Starting Strength program. There's a big wiki, but it's fairly cheap to buy the book and video. The goal of Starting Strength is to bootstrap strength gains for the rank beginner by teaching five barbell lifts and progressively increasing the load. This program has numerous advantages. It develops full-body strength in a balanced way, does not require that you learn to do more than a few exercises, and uses only minimal equipment (essentially, a rack and barbells with weights). Stronglifts, as I understand it, is similar.

There are sections in the book about lifting without spotters. Suffice it to say, bench press without a spotter is foolish. Sure, in the beginning you probably won't crush your trachea, but the whole point is to get strong enough that you'll be benching weights that you can't just swing around. You can die. It is imperative that you get a spotter or else bench with the safety rails preventing the bar from injuring you.

One thing I might ask you to consider is whether you can find a workout partner. It's really hard, even with a blizzard of mirrors surrounding you, to tell whether you're doing a lift correctly. You need someone to look and tell you. If you can find someone else who is also learning, you will benefit greatly from teaching each other. The average "personal trainer" at a big gym, so far as I can tell, knows little about barbell exercises and will not be able to help. If they really knew how to train, they would be making big bucks with private clients, which is why the turnover is so high. The other major benefit of a workout partner is you have someone who will motivate you to go even when you're tired and sore, and will encourage you. Not everyone needs that, but it helps. Also, about those mirrors: There's a lot of sitting around in barbell training while resting for the next set of lifts. Having a companion will give you something to do instead of staring at yourself in the mirror (because the other alternative is staring at the other gymgoers, something that's highly, and rightly, discouraged).

I am all for eating real food, but according to research the optimum amount of protein consumption for building strength is about 1 gram per kilo of lean body weight per day. That's a lot of protein, so unless you want to be eating a couple packets of beek jerky every day, you might consider Source organic whey, which is as close to real food as you can get with a whey protein powder.

After you've been practicing for a couple months, you might consider going to the weekend seminar in Witchita Falls, TX.

I was really, really weak when I started. I was fat. I had never lifted a barbell. I am still fat. Now I am decently strong (though my bench press is weak). You can do it.
posted by wnissen at 2:51 PM on September 23, 2013

It's my experience that in gyms people pretty much ignore one another. It's a bit like public transport. Perhaps it's the gyms I've been to, but they haven't really had what I would identify as a bro culture. I know there's a certain stereotype of the users of free weights - but consider your stereotypes of people who use treadmills, stationary bicycles and stair climbers.

If you want to bench press alone and the gym is quiet you can set up the bench in the squat rack, with the height set so the bar doesn't rest on your chest. This can be awkward if you want to lower the bar right down to your chest but it's better than doing it in a more dangerous way.
posted by Mike1024 at 2:52 PM on September 23, 2013

SomethingAwful has a very good fitness board too, with a strong female contingent and a very no-bullshit/no sexist asshattery policy. Does cost $10 to join though.
posted by Sebmojo at 3:12 PM on September 23, 2013

From your question it sounds like the gym has machines. Great -- use the machines. You don't need a spotter and they're easy to use. People who are serious about fitness will tell you this isn't the best way to get stronger. They're probably right! But so what? You aren't trying to optimize your workout, you're trying to do something easy and cheap and convenient that will make you stronger, and lifting weights on the machines will indeed make you stronger.
posted by escabeche at 3:16 PM on September 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Everyone here already gave you excellent advice so I just wanted to pipe in with a few:

1. If you are naturally skinny and you want to gain weight, you have to eat a lot in general, not just consume X grams of protein per day. It's important to eat enough carbs and fats as well. I mention this because a few years ago I tried to gain weight through lifting and did all the protein shake stuff and didn't have much success. Now I don't drink any protein shakes or supplements, I just eat a ton more than I used to and I've managed to gain around 12lb in the past 3 months.

This article says the optimal amount for muscle gain is 0.82g/lb of bodyweight which isn't really that much, since you describe yourself as underweight. Eggs for breakfast and meat for lunch and dinner would probably be more than enough for you.

2. If you can't find someone to correct your form, you can always video yourself exercising. Obviously it isn't as efficient as someone critiquing you in real time, but it can help if you are honest with yourself. Can also help with counting reps if you lose count during exercise.
posted by pravit at 3:54 PM on September 23, 2013

Hating "fitness culture" seems like a false excuse. The pseudoscience, body dysmorphia, bro-talk, and bad fashion all exist at the gym ... but I'd say that 75% of the people at any gym have headphones on and are in their own private little world, and aren't taking part in any of that.

I've learned far more from workout partners and websites like Livestrong than from most trainers. There are some good ones out there, but be selective! A lot will try to sell you on whatever trademarked routine their gym is promoting that month. It can be challenging to find one that will help you with your specific goals.

Bodybuilders all lift heavy weights, but I don't think us mortals need to do that. The times I've made the biggest weight gains was when I was going to the gym regularly, but using low to moderate weights.
posted by kanewai at 4:10 PM on September 23, 2013

I've lifted alone, in a company gym, and have never felt unsafe. That's where I learned to lift too. It's not totally isolated, however, so I figured if I screamed out in pain someone would probably notice, which made feel a little better at the beginning.

Others have mentioned starting strength. I'll second that - both the book and the DVD, since the videos are very helpful.

Rippetoe's website is also good:

The forums there are likely to be very helpful... if you're doing the program.

As far as safety goes, you'll need a squat rack or power cage. Start with low weights. Bench presses can be a little scary to do alone, but if you have the right setup they can be perfectly safe.

You can also take videos of yourself, both to check your own form, and to post on forums. If you ask nicely, you can even get Rippetoe to look at your form - but make sure you're doing the program before asking. Really, you're likely to get a lot better coaching that way than with some random personal trainer at a gym.
posted by unix at 4:29 PM on September 23, 2013

I have always lifted weights "alone" - even at the gym. A power cage for squats is helpful, especially one you can drag a bench into for benchpresses, but if you're not lifting heavy, and you're careful, I don't think it's a necessity. For me, a mirror was actually the most helpful lifting assistance device when I started out. It's much easier to check your form when it's right in front of you, as it were.

There are ways to lift more and less safely, but for example I never used a spotter when benching, and never felt in danger. Why? Because I was only benching max 60kg, and it was comfortably within my capabilities, and it met my goals. People may feel that was dangerous and foolish, maybe so, but you know when you're just starting out, you've got a ways to go before you're getting into dangerous weights territory, imho, and if you're careful and responsible, you will be okay.
posted by smoke at 5:29 PM on September 23, 2013

Stronglifts 5x5 actually sounds like a great fit for you. You'd be on your own, but with a set plan and a ton of online support and instruction. Oh - and it works! Although the basic tenant of any program or routine that works is simply... CONSISTENCY.

If you should decide to go the Stronglifts route, I'd highly recommend that you up front go to a trainer and get instruction on the movements on things such as squats and deadlifts. They are truly essential to the weight-lifting basics, and it's heart-breaking to see how many people do them flat out WRONG with horrible form that will eventually only get them injured. Do not let them talk you into anything more than what you're asking for - which is basic instruction and feedback on the movements that you're interested in doing... squats, deadlifts, benchpress, shoulder press, etc (i.e. the stronglifts exercises). You don't need a 12 package trainer session, you don't need an annual contract. You just need 2 or MAYBE 3 sessions with a trainer to make sure your form is right and safe. If they pressure you... dump 'em.

Eventually you'll need a spotter as you increase in weight, but I'll bet you a protein shake that by the time you reach that point, you'll be comfortable enough in the environment to not be squigged out to ask someone for a spot.

Good luck and have FUN with it! Also... the iPhone/Android app for stronglifts 5x5 for planning and tracking your sessions/progress is simple and excellent.
posted by matty at 6:05 PM on September 23, 2013 [2 favorites] is a site full of very supportive people who will give you tons of info about weightlifting. Unlike many other bodybuilding sites, the tone is very friendly and everyone is supportive, even if you can't do a single pushup.

Working with weights by yourself is totally doable, as long as you don't push things to the limit. Using the starting strength or stronglifts template is a great idea, starting with a few key lifts, starting out at low weights and slowly working your way up.
posted by markblasco at 6:07 PM on September 23, 2013

Lifting alone without a basic foundation (form, routine, recovery) sounds like a good way to either injure yourself or waste your time on ineffective workouts. There's really no substitute for a real life human giving you feedback on your form and routine. At least try it for a few weeks so that you get the basics -- neutral spine position, ensuring that the workouts do not strain your joints, pacing and pushing yourself, nutrition, recovery techniques (e.g. RICE), and getting a basic core routine started. The goal is to equip yourself with a set of tools that you can then apply to new routines (from wherever you'd like). Once you have a good foundation, then you can go nuts on any home workouts you want.
posted by spiderskull at 7:30 PM on September 23, 2013

Just want to chime in supporting Starting Strength (or Strong Lifts, which is based on Starting Strength). I tried it for a year based on Mefi recommendations and got amazing results.
posted by vecchio at 8:21 PM on September 23, 2013

slow graffiti: "Are there machines and exercises that are absolutely unsafe to do alone? Ones that are more safe?"

People will have different risk tolerances and therefore draw the line at different places but there's pretty good agreement on the ordering. In terms of acute injuries, machines (e.g., leg press) are safer than slow free weight lifts (deadlift, squat, bench, overhead) are safer than Olympic lifts (clean and jerk, snatch).

Personally, I won't do Olympic lifts unless somebody I trust has coached me until I get the form down. Just because I'm scared of throwing 105 lbs of steel right at my face. I've learned to clean now, but I don't jerk the bar at the end, and I don't snatch at all. Some people won't do Olympic lifts. And some people will watch a video and just start snatching things.
posted by d. z. wang at 9:03 PM on September 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Live from the gym: I'm looking around, and I'm seeing an awful lot of really poor form on the machines. I see jerking, I see people with the wrong settings (machines lock you into one form, and it's not always a good one), I see people 'cheating' to lift too heavy, I see people using machines that don't actually do much ... it hurts to watch.

I was ambivalent about trainers in my earlier post. I've reevaluated, and really think you should start with one.

And have them teach you free weights! They'll work your core and supporting muscles, which machines don't, and your risk of injury will actually decease.
posted by kanewai at 10:28 PM on September 23, 2013

I have the exact same perspective - prefer to work out at home for this reason. Routine-wise, I like the p90x program, although I haven't managed to stick with it for more than a few months at a time. It's mostly dumbbells and body weight exercises, which are safer than barbells with no spotter.

If you have the money though, a personal trainer is probably ideal for you, since they can look at the specific machines/etc available in your gym and show you how to use them with good form.
posted by randomnity at 8:08 AM on September 24, 2013

I agree on the trainer thing. Especially if you are looking into compound lifts (squats - deadlifts - presses) and want to gain weight. You need to be clear with your trainer that this is your goal and you want to be taught proper form on these and other solid movements. Some trainers are better than others. Make sure they are listening to you and don't have you doing ridiculous core work forever or 'toning' exercises.

As for your hate on 'fitness culture', you are imagining things. I walk into a gym and put on my headphones and workout the way I want to workout. I don't have bro's trying to sell me on the latest mass gain powder or telling me I am too small, or trying to recruit me into their 'culture'. It reads like an excuse as a way of avoiding a regular gym. As others have said people go and do their own thing. Some workout with partners but most don't. You have a goal in mind, you get to it. You might have some people trying to offer you suggestions from time to time but as a general rule offering advice out of the blue is a big gym faux pas. Unless someone is about to seriously injure themselves then it may be called for.

Also as far as the pseudoscience is concerned, some of it is actually true and works. Bodybuilders have been honing their diets for many decades now and they know what works and what doesn't. It may not be healthy from a psychological standpoint but you can't argue with the results they are able to achieve. I am not even talking about the supplements and drugs.

Oh one resource that hasn't been mentioned is Stumptuous. Great site from women for women on the art of lifting properly. Some great workout suggestions and other info.
posted by WickedPissah at 8:57 AM on September 24, 2013

I've been doing SS for about 7 months.

Learning the compound lifts is an iterative process. They're not just a matter of having a trainer show you how to do them. Read the starting strength book to get some basics on the mechanics, the point and the method behind each of them, watch how-to videos on youtube, go out and do them, then reread starting strength, etc. It took me about three months to feel competent with squat and I'm sure there's still plenty I can improve on. I'm still working on muscle memory with deadlift (as in I still have to spend a lot of conscious effort to pull the weight as well as I am capable of). Even overhead press and bench press are mechanically complicated and require the same process.

As far as trainers I only recommend them if you can find one who specializes in teaching weightlifting. Without that background you're better of saving your money and going it alone. 90% of the trainers you will find in a regular gym will be entirely unqualified and will be interested in having you simply do whatever is popular at the moment - which is currently crossfit style workouts.
posted by MillMan at 2:03 PM on September 24, 2013

Saw a couple of people warning away from the big lifts without a spotter. You'll be fine.

Here's a simple routine to get you started an oriented:
If you want, spend 30 minutes doing 1 of 4 lifts (Overhead Press, Bench press, deadlift, squat). Start with an empty bar. Add 10 lbs every set until you you don't feel comfortable lifting it. Then take off 10 at a time until you are back to an empty bar.

Safety first:
Do these lifts in a rack. Set the safety bars to just underneath the range of motion.
For a benchpress, you may get the bar stuck on your chest. Don't use the clips to hold the weight on! Not using the clips will allow you to slide the weights off one side and then the other.

As you do the routine for a month or two - observe other people. Politely ask them questions about what they are doing. Ask a staff member to give you a quick form check.

I started slow by myself. Picked up a personal trainer for 2 months. Kept going.
It's been about 2.5 years now and I wish I'd started much sooner. I'm not ripped, but I'm confident in knowing what my body can really do.
posted by jander03 at 3:23 PM on September 24, 2013

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