What should I do at the gym today?
February 18, 2016 12:35 PM   Subscribe

I'd like to have a vague plan for what to do at the gym when a.) I don't want to feel like I'm wasting my time, and b.) I can't commit to going on a regular schedule/keeping track of progress/etc. because [REASONS]. All of my lame excuses and beanplating within...

Tonight, I want to go to the gym and get a workout. But I don't want to make commitments that I'll fail at, and I don't just want to aimlessly wander between machines.

My immediate goal is really just to check off the "have you moved your body today?" box on various lists of things-to-do-when-your-brain-is-being-your-enemy.

Long term nice to haves would be: fat loss, muscle gains, strength, and, in my dreams I would maybe someday be able to participate in local amateur powerlifting competitions.

If I could trust myself, I would make tonight the 5th or 6th time that I started the StrongLifts 5x5 program, I know it's not perfect, but I like its progressive format, and I find it easier to follow than the programs in Starting Strength (which I own and have read) and The New Rules of Lifting for Women (ditto). But, my brain is being my enemy -- I don't trust myself to stick with it, and it's hard to motivate myself through those first (kind of humiliating, with the bare-bar and all) workouts, and the inevitable DOMS and achiness that will come along with trying to get swole again.

One thing that has worked for me at times like this is going to a directed group class, like yoga, or Les Mills BodyFlow or BodyPump. Basically -- I don't have to think because someone else is telling me what to do. Unfortunately there are none scheduled at my gym at times that will work for me tonight.

Cardio machines (or just walking the track) haven't really worked for me in the past because I never know what settings to use to get a "decent" workout. If I try to use the heart rate monitors on one of the "Fat Burn," or "Cardio" modes, the machines tend to yell at me to slow down because my heart rate goes up too fast, and then I ended up doing 30 minutes with zero resistance trying to go as slow as possible and feeling shamed by the machine for being so out of shape.

Walking/jogging the track seems too aimless to me. I also have trouble feeling like I'm really exercising when I'm walking, and being fat with janky knees makes me wary of jogging. There's a pool, but swimming laps also seems too aimless (and also boring, because no podcasts to listen to), and then I have to deal with all of the after swim shower/drying/wet swimsuit nonsense.

A personal trainer would be a good idea (to try again), but again, I can't promise myself that I can commit to appointments right now (nor would I be likely to get an appointment for tonight).

Help me stop overthinking this. What should I do tonight?
posted by sparklemotion to Health & Fitness (20 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Given that you've done StrongLifts before and know exactly how to do it, it seems like the obvious choice. Your main con for it is that "my brain is being my enemy"... but it's being your enemy for everything else too. So just do it.

(Also, ignore the heart rate monitor on the cardio machines. Just go by perceived exertion: you know your body better than the machine does.)
posted by asterix at 12:45 PM on February 18, 2016 [3 favorites]

Well if your goal is just to get there maybe just start with getting there and work up to "decent" workout? I usually just bring some sort of media to consume that is about as long as I want to work out (about an hour) and then just do the thing for an hour figuring that it's better than not doing the thing for an hour. For me that can be as straightforward as setting the treadmill to 4 mph and just staying on it (try some standard rate and up it a little if it's too easy and lower it if it's too hard, ignore machine messages, take your own pulse if you want). Or doing the exercise bike at a level that feels challenging. A little dull, sure. At some level the things that works for you is the thing that helps you scale Nope Mountain and get there. For me incentives have been

- favorite shower stuff at gym not home (shampoo, soap, whatever)
- tv I only watched on ipad at gym
- no dessert unless I go to the gym
- using an app to track like HabitBull so I'd only get "credit" if I went.

For other people it can be having a fitness buddy or doing something like Health Month to track it.
posted by jessamyn at 12:46 PM on February 18, 2016

The StrongLifts 5x5 seems like a good idea, but I don't understand your demotivations:
1) Why is bare bar lifting humiliating? No one is watching you and thinking "Wow, what a weakling". Everyone has to start somewhere.
2) DOMS and achiness- this is basically how you know it's working. Why would you dread something like this? And these don't really even come into play until the next day at the earliest. If you're talking about that point where you get to muscle failure, again, that's how you know you've done a good workout. Why dread it if it's half the point of doing it?
posted by thewumpusisdead at 12:47 PM on February 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

Sworkit is a pretty good app that I use when I don't have the motivation to do much else from an exercise perspective. It does circuit style training. Just choose a type of exercise, how long you want to go for and let it tell you what to do.

FWIW--I am very much a class person. Sworkit gives me that kind of "don't have to think about it" workout.
posted by chiefthe at 12:48 PM on February 18, 2016


Yes. It has to feel good. I tell people this a lot - go to the gym, and just sit there, and read a magazine, and then go home. And do this every day.

Go to the gym, don't even work out. Just GO. Because the habit of going to the gym is more important than the work out. Because it doesn't matter what you do. You can have fun - but as long as you're having fun, you continue to do it.

But what happens is you get a trainer, your whole body is sore, you can't feel your legs, and you're not coming back the next day - you might not come back for a year!

I worked my way up to 2 hours a day. I ENJOY my workouts. They are my peace, my joy - I get my whole head together! I value that time more than my shower! And it really gets me together. But it's a habit.

There are times when - I'm not even kidding - there are times when I"m in the middle of a work out, and actually woke up because i am so engrained with going to the gym and being there - it's that much of a habit to me. The first thing I do in the morning is work out - I lay out my workout clothes the night before, and just hop in 'em.

So lay out your clothes, and go to the gym, and relax.


But sooner or later, you WILL work out.

posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:51 PM on February 18, 2016 [6 favorites]

I am also fat and middle aged and don't have great knees and have a hamster wheel of a brain. I know that swimming seems aimless, but it gives you a chance to think (which, hey, if your brain is arguing with you might not be a great thing, but I daydream, plan my day tomorrow, whatever), it's nice and zen and relaxing, and it skips the hurting/soreness because it's not load bearing. I'm having a lot of success right now with classes when my schedule allows (as you mentioned) and swimming when it doesn't. Yea, I have to deal with the wet suit etc afterwards, but being pretty much weightless in the water feels so damn good, it's worth it. AND my gym has a hot tub, which is the best thing ever.

If your goal is just to move today, just go and get in the water, even for 15 minutes. Jog in the water if you don't want to swim. Then sack out in the hot tub or steam room and relax. :)
posted by joycehealy at 12:58 PM on February 18, 2016

I do StrongLifts and personally love it. I like the structure, the linear progression, the fact that I know exactly what I'm going to do before I even step foot in the gym. It's all laid out. All I have to do is lift the weight that I've already decided to lift.

I was a little self conscious about starting out with a bare bar as well (I'm currently about 7 weeks into my 3rd time starting SL over the last 5 years). You know what someone squatting a bare bar looks like? Someone working on form. Two days from now, when you add 5lbs to the bar, you know what someone squatting with a 2.5lb plate on each side of the bar looks like? Someone on day 2 of StrongLifts.

I see people in my gym all the time starting out on StrongLifts (we all have the SL app running on our phones). Some you can tell started last week, some you can tell have been doing this a very long time. They're there with a purpose. They have a mission.

You've done SL before. Do it again. Yes, you start with a bare bar. Yes, that's not much weight. Yes, you're learning proper form with the weight while it's light so you don't injure yourself when it gets heavy. It will get heavy. When it's time to get heavy.

A thousand mile journey begins with a single step. Go in, lift weights, maybe do some cardio, and then go again in two days. Then go again. Then go again.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 1:02 PM on February 18, 2016 [6 favorites]

Your nervous system knows how to lift, so you'll get back to the strength you had last time on StrongLifts quicker. Get excited about getting swole!
posted by hollyholly at 1:06 PM on February 18, 2016

If you're looking for "settings on a treadmill that will give you a decent workout" try pyramids. Warm up, then start off at normal speed, and each minute go up by 1mph until you are dying. Then go back down by 1mph/minute until you get back to your starting speed. Repeat three or four times. It is a killer.

(And don't use the heart rate monitors on the treadmill handrail, they're rubbish and you can't run properly while you're hanging off them).
posted by tinkletown at 1:30 PM on February 18, 2016 [3 favorites]

Cardio machines ... haven't really worked for me in the past because I never know what settings to use to get a "decent" workout.

I find that interval workouts are more interesting than steady state. It's easy to give it a try. Just warm up for a few minutes, then go hard for a bit, until you get really tired, then repeat. Really any timing works; can be 3 minutes on and 1 off, or 30 seconds on and 1 minute off, etc. The key is to work until it's really hard, then rest until you feel ready to do it again. For variety, switch among a few different machines.

You can definitely ignore the heart rate monitor (unless you think you're at risk of a heart attack, in which case you should be talking to your doctor, not us). As for settings, many machines, like rowing machines, don't use them. For the others, don't worry about the setting you're on, just use the up and down button to adjust to the exertion level you want.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 1:33 PM on February 18, 2016

Hi there! I've been doing Stronglifts for the last few weeks as I recover from an injury, so I started all the lifts with the bare bar to make sure I didn't aggravate my injury.

Folks who lift regularly know that it's totally normal to deload to get past a plateau, correct a bad habit with your form, or recover from injury. Anyone who gives you a hard time or nasty looks for lifting the bare bar is an un-empathetic jerk.
posted by burntflowers at 1:36 PM on February 18, 2016

If you can lift the bare bar, you're doing great. I started out a couple steps back from that and being strong enough to easily move the bar around felt awesome, everyone starts somewhere.

Anything you do at the gym is better than not being there at all. Give yourself permission to just show up in workout clothes and do what you feel like you can handle (weight, number of exercises). Some days you'll feel stronger than others, this is normal and fine. Just keep doing what you can, consistently, and you'll see results.

And yeah, try to reframe soreness as a reminder of how swole you're getting and what a total beast you are.
posted by momus_window at 1:39 PM on February 18, 2016

I don't know what your gym's setup is like but mine (planet fitness) has a little "Express" workout corner that is 20 or so stations that alternate between resistance machines and step aerobics and a traffic light that flashes red to tell you to switch stations and green to tell you to step for 60 seconds or do 12 reps. Also re: cardio you can try an interval mix, it's mildly annoying to boost the speed up every 30 seconds when you start but eventually your running for longer duration and it's less of a thing. The music changes are in charge of how fast you run and you don't have to hold onto the "please-don't-sue-us-heart-rate-monitors." This is a podrunner interval program.http://www.djsteveboy.com/1day25k.html
posted by edbles at 2:33 PM on February 18, 2016

I know you mentioned specifically going to the gym, so this might not be what you want, but since you mention yoga, I love Yoga with Adriene's online classes (free on YouTube). She's a great teacher, and, like you, I love being able to follow along to a class instead of having to think about what to do next. (Also, since it's a predetermined length, it's much easier to get myself to do the whole video instead of, say, five more minutes of running or whatever.)

Specifically, for me, the "at home" part is a feature, not a bug, but that may not be the case for you. I'm terrible at getting myself to yoga classes on time and at the times they're offered, so this is a great alternative for me.
posted by bananacabana at 2:57 PM on February 18, 2016 [6 favorites]

Do some kind of cardio thing, but alternate periods of high-intensity stuff and low-intensity stuff. Don't worry about the heartrate monitor (which are notoriously inaccurate on gym machines anyway), do what it feels like you can sustain for a couple minutes and then back off, then ramp up again. I can only use a treadmill when it feels interesting to me, which means I alternate walking at a pretty brisk pace (3-3.5 mph) with something that's a higher level of exertion for me (either jogging/running or increasing the incline significantly). So, if I want to work out for about 45 minutes it might look like:

-5 min warmup walk
-10 min jogging at 5.5 mph
-5 min brisk walking
-10 min running at 6 mph
-5 min brisk walking
-10 min jogging at 5.5 mph
-5 min cooldown

And for me, as a Slow Person, that would feel like enough work to "count" and it's the only way I could possibly motivate myself to get 30 minutes of jogging on a treadmill in.
posted by charmedimsure at 3:08 PM on February 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

Anyone you can go with the gym with? I used to lift with a partner and it helped a lot. He and I were good friends and would have great conversations interspersed with "don't be a wuss!".

And nth-ing stronglifts. Just start again, I see lots of people, women included, doing this at my gym (Vim in Cambridge).
posted by Farce_First at 3:15 PM on February 18, 2016

I hope I'm not too late for tonight, but re: machines:

I always set whatever machine I'm using (and now I usually use elliptical because my knees are rickety) to manual. I put it on at a steady but brisk pace that I know I can maintain for however long I want to do it. I'll also put it on a slight incline. Sometimes I'll do a HIIT routine and manually increase/decrease it myself. The clock is right there on the dashboard and watching the time gives me something to concentrate on other than how much I hate exercise.

Nthing the heart rate monitor is useless. Do you know how to measure your own heart rate? If not, it's easy. This is how I've always kept track if I'm pushing myself too hard or not hard enough.

Other than that, I wish I could help with your other questions. Working out consistently on an ongoing basis has been an struggle for my entire adult life. The only thing that's worked for me is using a personal trainer, but obviously that gets pretty expensive. If you ever want a workout buddy, let me know!
posted by triggerfinger at 4:05 PM on February 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

Don't bother going! Or, just chill in the pool, shoot hoops, get on the rowing machine for a few minutes, watch tv or the cardio bunnies or something. The iron should be respected and committed to and if you keep starting over and over again, every time it just hurts alot more. The iron will bring to you pain.

Moving is better than not moving, but don't restart a 5x5, it will hurt alot until you commit (then it hurts less but more frequently).
posted by Barry B. Palindromer at 4:28 PM on February 18, 2016

You can do the lifts from stronglifts without following the progression too closely if you're worried about consistency. Just lift what you can and try to lift more when you're up for it. Your progress won't be as fast as if you followed the program to the letter, but it will be a hell of a lot better than if you just wander between the machines or whatever.
posted by callmejay at 6:55 PM on February 18, 2016

kind of humiliating, with the bare-bar and all

Harumph -- I do that, and it never occured to me that it's something I should be ashamed of. It's 45 lbs, which is more than the zero lbs that most people do.
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:00 PM on February 25, 2016

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