Pimp my gym routine so I get stronger
January 25, 2016 10:19 AM   Subscribe

I'm mid-fifties female, normal weight but looking to strengthen and firm up. I've been a gym rat off and on for decades. I just never really see any results from gyms and this is killing my motivation.

I used to do two workouts a day and still didn't see results. My friends commented that I looked great but my clothes fit the same and there was no change that I could see. I still have half a year's membership at a gym and when that ends I'll use youtube videos which I enjoy.

I can't do classes because I walk the dog in the morning when classes are on. I can go only after lunch.

My routine is 20 minutes on a cardio machine (spin bike, stepclimber) and then 20 minutes on weight resistance machines.

How can I ramp this up? I've got a flabby tummy but more importantly I need to feel strong.
posted by Coffeetyme to Health & Fitness (21 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: One of my favorite non-class gym activities is to do incline intervals on the treadmill. Do a couple minutes low, and a couple minutes high - and repeat. Find an incline & speed that is challenging for you on the "high" points, but do NOT do this and hold on to any part of the treadmill - let your arms swing by your side naturally. Holding on can considerably reduce your effort and calorie burn, and it keeps your legs and big muscles from doing the super strong-ass work. Plus it just looks super weird. Lower the speed/incline to build your strength up. Has me sweating bullets, and definitely makes me feel strong to hike up a high or maxed out incline.
posted by raztaj at 10:28 AM on January 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

I find that bodyweight exercises and just regular old exercise-exercises are very helpful - squats, pushups, tricep dips, sit-ups, that thing where you stand and lift your leg while reaching out to your toes with your arms, the hundred. I also find that free weights are better than weight machines - try doing some of the same kinds of things that you do on the machinese, like curls and lat raises, with dumbbells. I also find barbell chest press and overhead press to be very helpful.

Eating enough protein and taking a day between weight days are both helpful things - I do cardio and floor exercises one day, then less cardio and weights, then cardio and floor, etc.

I have made big gains in core and arm strength in the past year - no one would say I'm strong per se, but I"m a hell of a lot stronger than I was, and I can feel it when I move or lift things.
posted by Frowner at 10:34 AM on January 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

So, I think it's important to mentally separate two aspects of fitness. One is the aspect of losing fat / weight, and the other is the aspect of gaining muscle and overall healthiness.

1. Losing fat. The most important exercise for losing fat is "Fork put-downs". Haha! That's a joke. "Toning" is kind of a fitness myth. If you look at how many calories you burn in 20 minutes of running, it's very depressingly low. Something like 120 calories - or two oreos. And you build up an appetite after to eat 20 oreos! But the real only way to "tone up" or get rid of excess body fat is in the kitchen, not the gym. Focusing on lower calorie, but filling meals is key to finding the right diet. I recommend tracking calorie consumption using the myfitnesspal app (most common app) for a week or two to get a baseline, and then reduce that amount of calories by 25%. You shouldn't feel very restricted, but you will be more aware of what foods are high or low calorie. You'd be surprised with the number of calories in a single cookie, or how few calories are in a huge balsamic salad. Is protein important? Yes - it keeps you fuller for longer and isn't chock full of calories like fat and carbs. In general, foods that "sound healthy" are filling without having lots of calories - but it's easy to make foods that "sound unhealthy" but are actually very low calorie. I fill a cup with whipped cream, greek yogurt, strawberry mousse graham cracker crumbs with a cherry on top, and it's 200 calories. That same cup full of ice cream would be 500 calories. It's just things like that.

2. Gaining muscle and other healthy habits to be done in the gym. Those machines are doing you good - you are building muscles under your tummy fat and the treadmill / cardio helps strengthen your heart and lungs, and having cardio time is excellent for heart health and overall life outlook. What would amping this up look like? You can look into HIIT exercises which are supposed to be a more efficient use of time than jogging. I like the 7 minute exercise plan done 3 times in a row. If you'd like, you can move from the machines to freeweights. The goals of all of these exercises should be to build you up, so make sure you are increasing either the weights or number of reps you do each time you go to the gym! So, if you usually put 20 lbs on the machines for 20 reps, consider upping it to 30 lbs for 10 reps, then try to get back up to 20 reps over the following weeks. I personally shoot for ranges between 8 and 12 reps - when I can do 12, next workout I increase the weight and go for 8 reps.

One other myth - just because you are planning on getting stronger with the weights / machines doesn't mean you'll look like a buff fitness coach lady. Many of those people take T-suppliments, and they are in the gym all the time. Adding muscle to your body usually makes you look more feminine.

Just one last note - it's hard to visibly see progress - you should take a log of your weight over time and your strength over time in your exercises - I get sad when I look in the mirror and I look the same, but looking at my charts I've come a long way!
posted by bbqturtle at 10:38 AM on January 25, 2016 [8 favorites]

I discovered barbell exercises thanks to Nerd Fitness. Barbell squats, and deadlifts do amazing things for your body (and your mind), and Nerd Fitness has workout plans to make it less intimidating and get you off to a good start. They also have dumbbell and bodyweight plans if you'd rather try those.

Also, I don't do cardio and weights on the same day - if you have forty minutes a day to exercise, I'd switch it up to one day of cardio, then one day of weights.

And of course, while exercise is important, diet is equally if not more important.
posted by mogget at 10:48 AM on January 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

I started doing (slightly modified) Starting Strength a few months ago and the gains are fast and noticeable. The ebook has all the information you'll need, but you may want to get a session or two with a trainer to make sure your form is good and to get some basic safety info for using the weights. The squat and deadlift really help strengthen your core and help with basically all movement, plus tone the thighs and butt. I'm a mid-thirties woman who hates working out and this program seems to work for me - I do three sets of five squats, three sets of five deadlifts, one set of shoulder presses (I don't do the power clean yet due to space/equipment issues), and I attempt some chin ups (I progressed from barely being able to hang from the bar to doing one full chin up over the course of a few months) - doing this whole routine with my husband (and swapping weights between sets b/c he can lift way more) takes less than 45 mins, so with just you it should be able to fit within your time constraints, though you may have to drop cardio (or alternate days). If you do it, make sure you're eating enough protein and overall calories to actually build muscle.

Other similar programs include Strong Lifts and New Rules of Lifting for Women, /r/xxfitness has a number of threads on each program. Even just incorporating deadlifts and nothing else will help you feel stronger and sturdier overall. And, don't worry, they won't make you bulky. Here's a 97lb woman in her 40s deadlifting 331lbs.
posted by melissasaurus at 10:57 AM on January 25, 2016 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Sumptuous might be worth a look.
posted by bunderful at 11:02 AM on January 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Starting Strength is what you need to try. It's a good idea to hire a trainer for a couple of sessions to help you nail down a good starting weight and teach you proper form.

There isn't anything special about the program other than sticking with compound lifts (multiple muscle groups are involved in make the weight move), heavy weights, lower reps, and steady linear progress (which won't always stay linear).

To setup my own straw-man, I know that a lot of people think that if women work out like that, they'll look like a giant, muscle-bound freak or something but that just isn't going to happen. You'll end up looking more like Scarlett Johansson or this woman. It should be noted that I'm 35, 200Lbs, 5'9" and while I'm about to go downstairs and lift more weight than Staci can, it's not a lot more.

I firmly believe that everyone who can should engage in some kind of strength program.

Stay off of those weight machines, you're actually less likely to hurt yourself with free-weights. They don't work any of the stabilizer muscles since the machine keeps the weight straight for you. Eventually, those muscles won't be strong enough to keep up with the bigger muscles and something will tear. I found all this out after doing exactly that to a muscle in my neck/upper back and my physical therapist explained it to me.

Bbqturtle is right on that losing fat and gaining fitness (strength, endurance, etc) are two different, if related and interdependent, things. Working out can make you hungry and a bad diet can affect your ability to build and strengthen muscle but "abs are made in the kitchen" and "you can't out-run a bad diet" are common sayings for a reason. Also remember that while the work that builds muscles is done in the gym, the actual building of the muscle happens while you sleep.

If you really want to track your progress, warm up and figure out your single rep max for every lift and then, after six weeks, do it again and marvel at how much more weight you can lift. Odds are good that you'll be able to see and feel the difference without doing that

You'll be extra sore the day after you lift for a while but that piece gets trained and improves just like everything else. I was sore for 4 DAYS after the first time I did squats, now it's only the next day and it's not nearly as severe.
posted by VTX at 11:05 AM on January 25, 2016 [4 favorites]

Nthing everybody:
- Intervals for cardio (I like this high-intensity interval segment for my time-impoverished days. I've been doing intervals for 20+ years and anything that follows that basic model is great.
- Give up weight resistance machines and move to free weights. Starting Strength looks good but again, the basic model has been around a long time. I really like The New Rules of Lifting for Women as my own reference for this. Critical point: progress to heavier and heavier weights over time. Many women start out with a light weight and stay there ("I don't want to bulk up.") but increasing the weight as you get stronger is the key.
- Eat less. Swap out a post-workout snack for a protein recovery drink instead. It'll replenish your muscles, keep you fuller longer, and counteract the impulse to stuff your face after a workout so the 'fat burning' of weight lifting can continue after the workout. Basically a triple benefit.
posted by cocoagirl at 11:21 AM on January 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Try working with a trainer.
posted by Iris Gambol at 11:28 AM on January 25, 2016

then 20 minutes on weight resistance machines.

If you switch to free weights like dumbbells and barbells, I suggest not trying to use as much weight as you do on the machines at first. This is so you can get the movement patterns down and get used to using the secondary muscles as well.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 11:29 AM on January 25, 2016

"20 minutes on weight resistance machines" is extremely vague. I went to the gym with my mom once, and the way she did resistance machines was she just went on one machine and did it non-stop for a minute or two and then went to another machine, and she called that resistance training -- that's not how it works. She thought she was doing weight resistance, but she really wasn't.

People have different thoughts on the number of reps and sets you do, but the basic principle is the same, so here's what I do: Do 15 reps at a weight that is difficult but comfortable. The weight shouldn't be so high that it prevents you from a smooth, natural fluid motion -- you don't want to be struggling to do it right off the bat. Rest for a minute or two. Then do another 15. Rest for a minute or two. Then do another 15. By your third and final set, it should be very difficult to finish, if not impossible. The goal is to fatigue your muscles. If you finish a third set with ease, your starting weight is too low. Once you do that, then you move on to the next machine. Never do the same weight training exercises two days in a row, you need to rest your muscles for a day so they can repair themselves.

If you do what I outlined above, you will notice better toning and tighter muscles within about four weeks. You will also find that you need to increase the weight to reach that muscle fatigue I mentioned. In other words, you will become stronger.

For your stomach, honestly, just do sit-ups and crunches. Lift your chin/head up to the ceiling, not back toward your body.
posted by AppleTurnover at 11:57 AM on January 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

I found a personal trainer at a tiny little box of a gym who does small group weight training classes (with dumbbells, body weight exercises, kettle bells, Olympic lifting etc.) and it has really changed my life and level of fitness.

I am not any lighter, but I am way stronger and I feel much better about my body than I did before I started because I can do more things! And you can see the muscles in my arms! And my clothes fit better! The aerobic recreational activities I do for fun (skiing, hiking) have become even more fun because of the weight training strength gains. If I were you I'd figure out a 2-3 full body free weight routines- there are a lot of good resources in this thread, or, better, you could see if you can find a trainer to work with you for a few workouts- and go from there. Add in some aerobic interval training at some point and you'll be extra-golden.

One of the things I like about my trainer is the periodic fitness testing he does with us, so we can see progress and make sure we are both doing our jobs. We log and document it so we can see, oh, yeah, the first time I rowed 500m on the rower as fast as I could it took me 2 and a half minutes, but now I'm down below 2 minutes! I could lift the bench press bar 30 times in 2 minutes but now I can do it 50 times etc. etc. I find this really motivating and it helps me and the trainer on track. If I were to start a program without him now I would be sure to do this for myself.
posted by charmedimsure at 12:45 PM on January 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Nthing Starting Strength and Stumptuous.

Hie thee to a squat rack and get yourself under a barbell. Yea, verily, the gains will come.
posted by culfinglin at 1:28 PM on January 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: For your stomach, honestly, just do sit-ups and crunches. Lift your chin/head up to the ceiling, not back toward your body.

A while back I had wanted to add an exercise to work my biceps (for vanity reasons). Rather than do barbell curls that will only affect my biceps and not do anything else useful, I looked for a compound movement that would be better. Pull-ups (with palms facing you) target the biceps reasonably well but also work your back and, I've found, really work my stomach/abs. Even without that, the big core movements will strengthen all of your core muscles, abs included, without having to do anything to specifically target them.
posted by VTX at 1:55 PM on January 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

In re barbell squats: these can be very hard on your hips. I have an old hip injury and had to stop doing them. They also triggered acid reflux like whoa and I started seeing new broken veins in my thighs, neither of which are apparently, per the internet, uncommon with serious weightlifting.

It was such a drag because I was seeing strength results very, very fast.

My point being - if you're going to do barbell squats, they are awesome, but start slowly and recognize that they may not be for everyone. (I do overhead press and chest press with no problem.)
posted by Frowner at 2:14 PM on January 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

A common rule of thumb for building muscle is lifting things heavy enough that you fail (reach volitional fatigue) after 8-10 reps. Exrx has useful beginner's pages.

Re: flabby stomachs - some people just aren't built with trim waists. I (34F) lift, I have visible abs (although not a six pack), but my stomach isn't flat and that's where my body likes to deposit fat. This has also been the case for female relatives. I'm also short-waisted, which is another factor in having a thicker waist. Try abdominal vacuum exercises (suck in stomach as hard as you can, hold 30 seconds), but remember that you can't change where your body keeps your fat, and you need some fat.
posted by momus_window at 3:52 PM on January 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm a mid-50's woman -- I've been weight training the past couple of years. About a year ago, I decided to try competitive weight lifting. This lady lives at my dad's Veteran's home in Napa County -- she set the world record for bench press and deadlift in the 85-89 y/o age group and the world record for bench press in the 90+ age group. I aspire to be lifting at her age!

I recommend working with a trainer if you can afford it. I have bum knees (arthritis) and I am up to deadlifting 300 pounds and squatting 185 pounds without (knock wood) any knee problems. The difference between correct form and incorrect form is small. Incorrect form at best is less effective - at worst, it can be damaging.

If you can't work with a trainer, you can video your lifts and ask for a "form check" in the reddit forums xxfitness and fitness30plus (those tend to be more friendly than the powerlifting forum in my opinion).
posted by elmay at 7:52 PM on January 25, 2016

The important thing in getting stronger is that you need to operate near the limit of your strength. As a beginner, you can do this just about every work out. As you progress, you'll only hit limits every couple of weeks or maybe every month ("periodisation"). But if you don't ever consciously try to do more than you ever could before, you will not get stronger. Just showing up and using the machines won't work without a programme of progressively increasing the work you do. "Progressive increase" can mean increasing weight, or it can mean doing more reps/sets, or a bit of both. There's a tonne of advice on what is basically a simple principle: from time to time, add weight, do more reps; when it's comfortable, add more.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 8:49 PM on January 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

My routine is 20 minutes on a cardio machine (spin bike, stepclimber) and then 20 minutes on weight resistance machines.
Try replacing the weight resistance machines with 40 minutes of core weight lifting exercises. Weight lifting is not just for meat heads! Everyone can benefit from compound lifts. If you could only do two exercises ever again for the rest of your life, squats and deadlifts would get you the best mileage. Start with low weight and work your way up according to your own pace and abilities. You might be amazed how it changes you.

The other thing: your diet really makes a huge difference in your results from working out. You can work out twice a day for the rest of your life and still be overweight if you're eating above your caloric requirements. Start tracking your food and switching to a paleo diet. It's a bit arbitrary but it is one of the few fad diets that actually is a good, well-rounded diet for active people.
posted by deathpanels at 9:26 PM on January 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

I highly recommend reading or downloading Steve Maxwell's videos. He is a legendary trainer and coach. He's also over 60.

I'm over 50. Back in the day I was trainer at a boxing gym for a dozen or so years. And a boxer before that. Which has unfortunately left higher than average mileage on my body. As a result I've also been struggling with staying strong due to hip and back injuries and am frustrated by the fact I know HOW to get strong.

Or thought I did. Turns out what I knew, like so many people, is how to make a 25 year old strong. Making a fifty year old strong is just not the same.

Here's is what I know:

Cardio on the same day as strength will limit your gains.

The most efficient means of strength development - like traditional compound olympic lifts, and HITT methods (or god forbid CrossFit) - are not very well suited to people over fifty to leap into. Lurking somewhere inside you is a tiny little flaw that has worn it's way into a joint just waiting to pop and say hello!

You can pack a ton of muscle on a 25 year old with just squat, deadlift, bench, row, pull-ups, and press three days a week.

For somebody over fifty you must use safer variants (like replacing the much safer goblet squat for back squat) of those six lifts and better at two days a week. It's all you need. They will train three of the five pillars of movement that relate most to strength. Push, pull, and hinge. It's boring but it works.

Personally I've been sticking to low volume body weight and static contraction (isometric) exercises three days a week with just one day of traditional lifting. Body weight and SC will make you strong with lo risk, lo complexity, to high reward. They will also double as good cardio replacement. And. They will prepare your joints and ligaments for more traditional basic lifts mention above.

Take a gander at guys like Steve Maxwell. It's worth it.
posted by innocentsabored at 3:47 PM on January 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm going to suggest trap bar deadsquats (starting at a light weight, natch) with some proper form instruction from either a trainer or an obviously-experienced lifter within the gym itself. While it's not quite as good as doing the two movements (deadlift and back squat) separately with a barbell, it is nevertheless an excellent compromise between the two, is a fairly natural movement, and will be a lot easier on your back.

A trap bar is a barbell that basically has a hex frame that you stand inside, and two handles that are conveniently located where your hands naturally rest when you are standing normally. You squat down to grip it, and then do your best to think about bringing your hips up by using your feet to push your shoulders away from the floor. Start with say 80lbs total (the bar itself will be around 40lbs, and then you use two 20lb bumper plates) just to get the hang of it.

Another excellent thing to do is kettlebell swings and Turkish getups (again, starting with a light weight). I would also strongly recommend loaded carries of some description (perhaps even using the aforementioned trap bar). On the scale of things, the loaded carry is probably the best all-over exercise you can do for your entire body.

One thing to remember is that you are probably stronger than you think, but it's your grip that fails you when you try to test that theory. Your body won't pick up what your hands can't hold. So the trap bar deadsquat, trap bar carries, and kettlebell swings are all useful in that regard as they help to build grip strength.
posted by turbid dahlia at 6:34 PM on January 26, 2016

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