I need suggestions for fitness programs to build upper-body strength
April 5, 2015 9:07 PM   Subscribe

I am a dragon boat paddler and while I love the sport, I've hit a plateau and I'd like to supplement it with another fitness activity. Also my dragon boat coach has said that I lack upper body strength. So I really really need to build up. The problem is that I either suck at everything I've tried so far, or my hearing loss makes it so that I can't fully participate in it.

I've tried yoga and pilates. But because of my hearing loss, those are very difficult for me since I can't understand what the instructor says. I hear better when I can see people's faces, and yoga and pilates involve looking down or up or elsewhere, so it's a struggle to get everything out of these classes. I just copy what others in the class are doing, but I miss all the instructions. So both of those are out.

I've tried Crossfit on and off a few times. Today I went to an on-ramp class for beginners at a new gym, and I did horribly. I'm soo angry with myself. Struggled with the most basic techniques, like remembering how to hold a barbell. I could barely even lift the barbell without weights. And no matter how many times the instructor AND other members of the class tried to explain it to me, I could not get my back in the right position to do the deadlift. I was so bad that the instructor told me to just stop and watch everyone else do it. He pointed out that my back was uneven (it's due to me having scoliosis). It was pretty embarrassing, everyone was staring at me. He then told me to use a training barbell with a modified "summo lift" stance. No one else needed this kind of modification; they could all use the normal barbell. And we were ALL beginners! He said the problem was that I have long legs and a short torso. So I don't have the right kind of body for Crossfit. Again, embarrassing. This was a beginners' class, and quite a few people had never done it before. Yet everyone else did amazingly. I was the only one who struggled with the most basic, easy, easy stuff. No one else needed modifications, and the other women could all lift the barbell with weights, with no problem. I couldn't even lift it without weights. The instructor was nice, but he implied that I need a lot of work and spent more time correcting me than anyone else. By far I was the worst in the class. I don't know what my problem is and why I couldn't perform like everyone else could. We were ALL beginners! Clearly I am not cut out for Crossfit. So that's out.

I have been "running" since last year, but I suck at that too. After nearly 6 months, I can't run a mile in under 12 minutes. Basically what I do is more like fast walking. I did a 5K but didn't do too well for my age group. There were people who finished in 24 minutes, it took me nearly an hour. So running is out.

I tried just going to the regular gym and doing the machines, but to be honest that is super boring to me. I need variety.

I thought about personal training but I don't have the money for that.

I'm beginning to think my only option is just to buy a set of weights and do some basic lifting at home with YouTube videos, and just do walking for my cardio. There are some hills around here.

I can't think of anything else where 1) I can avoid situations where I'll embarrass myself by not being able to pick up the basic techniques while everyone else in the class has no such problem; 2) I can avoid classes where my hearing loss prevents me from understanding what the instructor is saying.

If anyone else has any suggestions for possible fitness activities, I'd appreciate them.
posted by starpoint to Health & Fitness (20 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not sure where you're located, but I've been doing aerial classes and they've really helped with upper body and core strength. It's a lot of climbing and hanging. I do aerial silks and lyra. I used to be pretty weak, but you get better just by going to the classes and they're usually pretty small so that you get one-on-one attention from the instructor. The classes are hard, and some people pick things up faster than others, but I've found the technique weirdly easier to learn than Crossfit/lifting.
posted by loulou718 at 9:34 PM on April 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

Swimming might be a great one for you to do alongside some strength training.
posted by warriorqueen at 9:35 PM on April 5, 2015 [2 favorites]

I am hearing impaired too (have a profound one at that) and I find yoga is great for upper body strength once you nail down the techniques. They're pretty much the same once you know them. Maybe meet with the instructor before class and he or she will walk you through them and the general sequence?

Weights at home isn't a bad idea and cheap. Only risk is that you may do it incorrectly and injure yourself or can lose discipline from not having a schedule. Start small and do it frequently; besides studies show that smaller weights more frequently in one session actually builds more muscle mass than very heavy weights that you can only do one or two sets of.

I personally love cycling classes that combine weights. They are super easy to follow since you can read the instructor's lips and it's so simple - biking and lifting weights in one portion.

Assuming you live in US / SF - have you ever checked out classpass? they also have a variety of classes to choose from, including weights and cardio, and is pretty cheap. They also have cycling classes and the aerial ones that the above people speak of.
posted by pando11 at 9:40 PM on April 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

You haven't mentioned bodyweight exercises. They work. Pushups, planks, flutter kicks... Do them! /r/fitness has some great tutorials/plans.

Swimming is also pretty good if you have access to a pool/can get around in the water/feel comfortable without hearing aids if that's a thing for you.

Personal training may be too expensive but if you have an avid gym going friend or teammate they might be able to help you with free weight form? Because weights are great and it makes me sad that the group setting at Crossfit was so anxiety-provoking. Memail me if you are near Philly and want a non-judgmental gym buddy who can show you about free weights and who is also hearing impaired so I get it about Pilates.
posted by skyl1n3 at 9:58 PM on April 5, 2015 [3 favorites]

If you need general-purpose strength for something like paddling, you should be lifting weights. The best way to start for you is to buy the Starting Strength book (the best option) or download StrongLifts 5x5, and do that. Neither unning, nor cardio, nor sports are going to build the same kind of strength that progressive resistance training does.

(A 12-minute mile does raise flags, though. What, um, causes that? Are you running regularly several times a week? Have you tried increasing your speed?)

A note on your CrossFit experience: there is no reason to care that you're the worst person in the class. You're not there to be the best in the class. You're there to make yourself better than you were on your first day. All the things you mention—switching to a sumo deadlift, getting corrective attention from the instructor, being told to watch while other people do the movement—are totally normal and okay. It took me months of lifting to figure out the deadlift, and years to have a good squat, and I'm an athlete! It's okay. Consider going back, because I think coaching with barbells is what you need.
posted by daveliepmann at 10:05 PM on April 5, 2015 [4 favorites]

Do you think you would like indoor rock climbing? Lots of full-body/core/upper/leg strength work there, and it's mentally engaging, and if you learn some basics and find a gym with auto-belays, you can more or less do it alone and there doesn't need to be a lot of verbal back-and-forth with other people. You'll sometimes find the macho competitive types, but overall everyone tends to be pretty focused on their own progress or/and helpful and encouraging of yours.
posted by spelunkingplato at 10:19 PM on April 5, 2015 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: "All the things you mention—switching to a sumo deadlift, getting corrective attention from the instructor, being told to watch while other people do the movement—are totally normal and okay."

I know I'm not supposed to comment, but my goal was NOT to be the best. I just didn't realize how embarrassing it would be to do so poorly while everyone else did so well. I was the ONLY person in that class who needed modifications and extra instruction -- in a friggin beginners' class that was going at an EASY pace. I was being told to watch other beginners who had mastered the movements after only hearing the instructions once! There were women my age in that class who have never done Crossfit before yet you'd think they'd been doing it for years based on how well they performed at their very first class.
posted by starpoint at 10:36 PM on April 5, 2015

No one cares if you are the worst in the class - this is not middle school! Don't worry about it. While the instructor was helping you, the other people in the class were either learning something from what the instructor was saying, or simply continuing with their own workouts.

People in any gym are not going to look at you and mock, they are usually totally absorbed in their own workouts (or their phones).

If you got something from the cross fit workout, go back for more.
posted by monotreme at 11:47 PM on April 5, 2015 [4 favorites]

Like you, I also have long legs and a short torso and it took me a while to squat and deadlift, but I think it was worth it. Part of the problem was that I was really inflexible in key areas, and part of the problem was technique. Getting a personal trainer for just a few sessions (i.e., 3-5, not long-term) could really help here. I saw a trainer after I'd been trying to teach myself the basic lifts for a while, and he basically completely fixed my deadlift and also really improved my squat in a very short period of time, plus was able to give me accessory exercises and stretches.

Also, I have no strong feelings pro or con Crossfit (I have heard that there's high variance in quality of instructors, but you know, where isn't that true). But I do also think that you are getting into your own head about this Crossfit session and may be experiencing it in a sort of distorted way. I think I may know how you feel because I've felt similarly in the past (something about group exercise still dredges up all kinds of terrible phys ed memories). But using a modification is definitely not a sign of weakness, all kinds of bodies can benefit from weightlifting and conditioning, and being the worst Crossfitter [or whatever] in the room or even the world is actually totally fine as long as you feel that doing Crossfit [or whatever] is helping you make progress with your goals. It can even be kind of liberating to relish being the person who is the worst at something and just keeps showing up regardless. Anyway, not to say oh yeah, you should definitely go back -- pick something that appeals to you and that you think will be helpful. But even if you were really the absolute worst ever to show up to that class (which I doubt), I think you could weather that, and even turn it into a point of pride if you were to keep with it.
posted by en forme de poire at 2:03 AM on April 6, 2015 [4 favorites]

I was the ONLY person in that class who needed modifications and extra instruction -- in a friggin beginners' class that was going at an EASY pace.
You were probably also the only person with scoliosis and your legs/torso ratio. All bodies are different and perform differently. It's only embarrassing if you care about what others think, and honestly, they probably weren't paying as much attention as you believe.

I second swimming, if you feel that would work for you.
posted by Too-Ticky at 3:19 AM on April 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

(A 12-minute mile does raise flags, though. What, um, causes that? Are you running regularly several times a week? Have you tried increasing your speed?)

Okay, really? It's clear that OP is already very sensitive about what he/she perceives as underperforming athletically. I don't see how a comment like this is useful or helpful. OP, for some people running is just not their forte (I'm like that) and it is a-okay. Don't listen to this kind of judgmental crap.

Given your hearing impairment, what about watching instructional videos for pilates and yoga? You could turn the volume up as high as you like, and watch people doing the exercises. Maybe even watch the video, take some notes, and then work out. Pilates in particular is a blast, so I'd hate to see you miss out on this form of exercise. Alternately, you might try doing some private Pilates sessions, but they are usually super pricey.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 3:32 AM on April 6, 2015 [5 favorites]

Cross fit is kind of an extreme form of weight lifting. You can still lift and not be part of that program! I would consider a personal trainer to learn the techniques and proper form with a barbell and to come up with a workout routind designed for your abilities and goals. Don't give up on it because some Cross fit jerks made you feel bad. Honestly if all you want is more upper body strength, resistance training is the way to go!
posted by deathpanels at 4:43 AM on April 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

"Today I went to an on-ramp class for beginners at a new gym, and I did horribly. I'm soo angry with myself. Struggled with the most basic techniques, like remembering how to hold a barbell. I could barely even lift the barbell without weights. And no matter how many times the instructor AND other members of the class tried to explain it to me, I could not get my back in the right position to do the deadlift."

I'm going to give you the advice that finally got me to stick with an exercise routine despite feeling EXACTLY the same way you did.

Learn to be ok with sucking. Accept that for a long while, you may be the worst person in the class.

I've been taking boxing classes for 18 months and I'm STILL using modifications for some of the exercises I do 3-4 time a week. Some of these are because of the way my body works, the weight that I carry, my age combined with many years of sedentary behaviour before I started working out.

Another thing I'm going to mention about a lot of "beginner" classes at gyms. A lot of the people who take them are only beginners at that particular type of activity. I regularly encounter newbies at my gym who are better than me after just a handful of classes -- because they've been working out / running / triathloning etc for years or even decades.

But you know what? After sticking with it despite the regular feeling that I'm horrible at it, I've learned the only way to win is to constantly compete with myself only. So what if 90% of the other people at my gym can do 100 burpees without breaking a sweat -- I didn't used to be able to do it at all, and now I can.
posted by id girl at 5:12 AM on April 6, 2015 [4 favorites]

Agree with loulou718 on the aerials classes. I just took a few intro classes and really loved it, but like you, I'm lacking upper body strength. I'm now doing push-ups and planks on a regular basis and getting a doorway pullup bar to start training for chin-ups and pull-ups.

Mastering this sort of thing takes time and dedication. And learn to be okay with being corrected. I have been doing kettlebell training for two years and my instructor still corrects me on a regular basis. I used to feel self conscious about that, but I soon realized that each correction left me with better form, which means a more effective workout. That said, I likely would have bailed on the Crossfit scenario you describe above.

I compete only with myself and the things I could do yesterday.
posted by futureisunwritten at 5:33 AM on April 6, 2015

If it makes you feel better, I can only run a 15 minute mile. But hey, that's better than running no miles at all!

I think your Crossfit experience is abnormal- I have taken about 5 beginner CF classes and in EVERY class, there is somebody who can't do the strength skill without modification. Also, color me shocked they are having first-timers squat and deadlift with barbells. My beginner classes have used nothing, or occasionally a light kettle bell.

What I'm saying is, I think you went to a Crossfit location that is poorly run for beginners. They're not all like that. Try another. I agree with the people above that what you need is weightlifting to build upper body strength. You could lift on your own at the gym but i think you will have a more positive experience with an instructor, and classes are cheaper than personal training.
posted by joan_holloway at 6:33 AM on April 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

You might have better luck working one-on-one with a personal trainer for a few sessions. I know you said you can't really afford it but a lot of gyms offer you a free session (followed by a hard sell, admittedly). If there is a YMCA near you that is another option for less expensive stuff.

Also this: "He said the problem was that I have long legs and a short torso. So I don't have the right kind of body for Crossfit"

is just needlessly obnoxious bullshit. there is no "right" or "wrong" body for fitness. he's just a shitty teacher who is not smart enough or experienced enough to keep a beginner's class moving while also spending time with a student who needs additional help.

Since you mentioned liking yoga I would suggest you find a class at a studio that does only yoga; they are more likely to have not only super beginners classes but also classes for people with disabilities, or smaller class sizes at off-peak times of day, etc. Before I got more comfortable with the class structure at my yoga place I always sat right up front so I could hear as much as possible, and I took some private sessions to get a better handle on things where I could stop and ask as many questions as I wanted without the pressure of doing it in front of a dozen strangers. It's also totally okay to stop in the middle of class and just watch the instructor's examples before trying anything yourself.

Again, a good teacher at any discipline will be able to accommodate students with both visible and invisible disabilities. IME with yoga it is the studios that are the most hippy-ish that are the most willing and able. I take yoga at an actual ashram and the classes are incredibly diverse and the instructors would never, ever tell anyone that they have the wrong body for anything.

Finally, you didn't embarrass yourself. A jerk embarrassed you because he's a bad teacher.
posted by poffin boffin at 6:34 AM on April 6, 2015 [4 favorites]

Competitive (ex-)dragonboater, current outrigger paddler here. Please please please email me if you want to geek out about dragonboat.

I cross-trained with outrigger canoes (OC1) when I was dragonboating, but that might not be an option for you. Being the ONLY person on the boat, versus being 1 of 20, means you figure stuff out pretty fast.

I also went to the gym regularly (2-3x a week, on top of 3-4x a week paddling.) I was following a program designed by a personal trainer who competed on the national dragonboat team - MeMail me if you want details. Can you go with a friend? That was the easiest way for me to stay committed to it, and keep things interesting.

The strength and cardio are two different things, and will require different training. Dragonboat is primarily a sprint sport. The standard 500 m race should not take much longer than a couple of minutes, so being able to run fast for more than 10 minutes is kind of a moot point. I don't run fast - there's a lot of women on my team who would beat me handily in a footrace. But, I had one of the fastest 5K (paddling) time trials on my team among the women because I knew how to paddle efficiently.

Strength will help, but technique will win out in long run (and help prevent injury!) Good luck.
posted by invokeuse at 8:20 AM on April 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oh goodness this question makes me so sad, and I feel your anxiety from that horrible class!

I have been lifting for over a decade, and I have seen a lot of different weightlifting trainers, and each trainer has their own method and style.

You might also back way up and think about styles of strength training -- there is Arnold-style bodybuilding, powerlifting, olympic lifting, Crossfit, strong(wo)man, and sport-specific training.
You are looking for sport specific training, I think!
Also, Crossfit is new to the weightlifting world, and a quick Google of it will show you that a lot of the strength training community is pretty negative on Crossfit's methods. I think your experience in that class is just another data point for the rest of the voices in the strength training community against this method.
I know that every Crossfit place is different, but I might argue that Crossfit it more about metabolic conditioning and less about true strength training.
I guess I am using the long way to saying that Crossfit is probably not the way for you to accomplish your goals of being better at Dragon boat.

I think hiring a trainer, even just for 2-3 sessions, that can help you figure out what you need to work on to build strength specific to your sport, as well as supportive exercises that will help protect you from injury, is what you need. I usually have 2-3 sessions per year, and I have been lifting like that for decades. A smart trainer will be able to give you 1 hour of advice that you can use for MONTHS.

And when that trainer is teaching you lifts, you should be comfortable with the communication and methods. I have had lots of lifting coaching, and I have had every style, from "now move your toes a few tiny millimeters out" to "just pick up the bar and see if it feels right."
And both of those approaches are correct, and you will learn different things from both. But find the style of trainer that makes you comfortable, and helps you learn.

I am so sorry you had a bad experience with weightlifting. Please keep in mind that is one (controversial!) style of weightlifting and not representative of how lots of people lift weights. Keep at it and you will get stronger!
posted by littlewater at 8:30 AM on April 6, 2015

Do you have a smart phone? There's been a few questions recently about fitness apps - it's like having a free personal trainer in your pocket! You can focus on upper body strength; at no expense and with no embarrassment or hassle about going to a gym. Ones I really like are Sworkit, MyFitnessPal and Runkeeper.
posted by atlantica at 10:44 AM on April 6, 2015

Sorry, your trainer wasn't very good- they put you in a position of comparing yourself to the students in the class when they had you watch others, instead of properly coaching you on technique. I second the recommendation for finding a personal trainer for awhile. I used to coach gymnastics and I am also a person whose body just can't do things by watching other people, it takes me a really long time to get the proper form and muscle memory of things. I resign myself to being a slow learner of physical things, but I do learn, and that's what counts. Not the other people.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:43 AM on April 6, 2015

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