I would like to not be the Pillsbury Doughgirl.
March 10, 2016 11:16 AM   Subscribe

Helpful folk of Metafilter: I (mid 30s, F, doughy) would like to make use of my gym time to get stronger. The amount of information on the internet is overwhelming. Please help me find an app or a routine or something so that once my frontal cortex gets me TO the gym it can zone out while I get muscles.

I have access to a well-equipped large university gym but there is a lot of stuff in there. In an ideal world I'd like to find an iOS app that will tell me to do some exercises and I will do them and over time the difficulty will slowly ramp up.

I know there are some very basic weightlifting programs out there, using basic barbell lifts, and those look great BUT: the caveat is I will be going to the gym alone, at slightly unpredictable times, and I will not have a spotter. I will not ask random people in the gym to spot for me. That means I am a little uncomfortable doing, say, bench presses, especially at the edge of what I can lift. (I don't think they have Nerf weights.)

I assume this means it's probably best to aim for machines, but there are SO MANY OF THEM. Dumbbells would also be ok, I guess, if someone told me what to do with them.

In an ideal world I would have a personal trainer but that costs money and also my work schedule is really unpredictable during the day, so appointments would be hard to keep. I would like to go this alone. So, I'd like an app that will tell me what to do, and then I'll tell it whether I accomplished the task. I don't care about taking the fastest possible route to maximum strength, as long as there is measurable progress over time. Progress is defined as increased strength and decreased doughiness.
posted by telepanda to Health & Fitness (20 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
I don't have an app recommendation, but I'm going to recommend you schedule 1 session with a trainer. Tell them this question and have them design a basic work out around body weight exercises. (squats, lunges, pushups, pullups, etc.)

I followed that route 2 years ago, and I regularly do some of the exercises the trainer recommended. In my case I booked three appointments, 1x a month to check on progress/correct form/increase difficulty and was very upfront that I would be doing it on my own and didn't take the upsell for more sessions. it was 100% worth it.
posted by larthegreat at 11:22 AM on March 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

  1. Buy the latest edition of Starting Strength. The program is simple, straightforward, and highly effective.
  2. Change bench press to dumbbell bench press. (Or, honestly, get comfortable asking for a spot and just bench normally. It's a common thing, and it might feel weird at first, but you get used to it pretty quick.)
  3. Write out your plan for the week on a sheet of paper.
  4. Go lift.
  5. (Optional) To maximally decrease doughyness, set a calorie + macro goal on IIFYM and stick to it.
If you don't feel comfortable with the movements after reading the book and practicing, then I would second larthegreat's suggestion of scheduling a session or two with a trainer and explaining to them that you want to learn the major barbell movements.
posted by protocoach at 11:29 AM on March 10, 2016 [5 favorites]

If you can run or like to run, try running outside as well. Running on a treadmill takes immense motivation, where running outside can be pleasurable and fun and you don't have to will it into existence as much as going to a gym.

One trick with the gym is for the first couple of weeks just do all the machines in rotation on light/easy weights. You'll get a feel for each one and as you start decide which ones you like more, you can amp up the weight and stop doing the ones you don't like as much.

If you go in first day with a grand strategy as a newbie, the first moment all the pieces don't connect you may get discouraged. Keep it loose and have enough flex in your approach so that one miss or a bad day leaves enough room to still be motivated tomorrow.
posted by four panels at 11:30 AM on March 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

I don't know how much experience you have with weight training, but form is so very important to getting stronger/avoiding injury that at least one session with a trainer where they walk you through what an exercise should look and feel like is very useful.

The bonus is - they can also show you how all those machines work and give you a routine to work on.

Also - I barbell train alone without a spot. There are safe ways in a power cage to get out of every exercise and practicing that skill is very valuable. Bench press examples. This is also true if you plan on using dumbells - learn how to drop weights on something other than yourself by practicing it. No matter what you do - to be safe, if you want to progress, you will have to know how to fail a rep safely because at some point, you will fail.

In terms of Apps - JEFIT is pretty good, has a lot of user-submitted routines, and once you've set all the exercises you are doing is good at counting reps and weights. Starting Strength is the bible and the app is great but if you're dead set against barbell training, it's not going to be useful for you.
posted by scrittore at 11:36 AM on March 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

Assuming that you can lift a 45lb bar (standard olympic bar) over your head now, I think that you would have no trouble whatsover with doing StrongLifts 5x5 without a spotter. It's simple, there's an app, and lots of communities.

The program starts you off with empty bars for most exercises, and then you increase the weight slowly, so you shouldn't at any point really need a spotter. If you're not sure about being able to do the exercises with the bar, use ExRx to research dumbbell versions of the stronglifts lifts.
posted by sparklemotion at 11:41 AM on March 10, 2016 [4 favorites]

Following up on protocoach, you don't have to lift to failure to see significant gains, especially starting out. And the Starting Strength program has you beginning very gradually, to work on technique. Once you've been doing it regularly for several months, you'll also get better at predicting (and therefore avoiding) failure.

If you do, and you end up stuck under a barbell, a little yelp will get you help. Or so a ... umm, friend.. told me. (Several times.)
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 11:42 AM on March 10, 2016

Machines aren't great, especially because most women are not the size that the machines were designed for. They don't train natural movements, and the machine may not be adjustable to your body size/shape. Definitely suggest dumbbells / free weights over most machines. Exceptions: lat pulldown, hip adductor/abductor, assissted pullup/dip, maybe cable row.

I load my workouts into Jefit, which keeps track of how many reps / what weight I did last time and makes doing the exercises autopilot. If you can do more reps, do them. If it's easy or you're doing more than 10 reps for two sets, increase weight.

Exrx.net has a beginner's page with a starter workout and suggestions for what's reasonable. About 10 exercises (including ~4 upper body, ~4 lower body, and abs) for two sets of 8-12 reps, IIRC. Easier to start with than starting strength.

Starting strength is nice because there are a limited number of core exercises so it's not overwhelming and they're all compound movements that use a bunch of muscles (start with one at a time, probably, because it is pretty intense w/r/t form). An alternative to bench press is overhead press, which is also covered in Starting Strength and you can safely do without a spotter.
posted by momus_window at 11:47 AM on March 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

Greetings from another woman heading back to the gym with concerns about irregular hours, good form, etc.

APP: The Strong app is free for the first 4 workouts, then you pay for an upgrade if you want to keep using it. It has a fairly comprehensive list of exercises and allows you to add your own. It's the best app I've found, but if you're on Android instead of iOS, others here may suggest alternatives.

TRAINER: If you're concerned about your abilities and how to build good form, find a good trainer who will listen to you, check you out for any weaknesses or imbalance, and help you build your first program. (You will keep changing your program as you progress, BTW.) You don't need a trainer for every workout. If all you can afford is an opening session and maybe a monthly check-in, a good trainer will accept that.

EXERCISES: Your trainer will probably recommend free weights or bodyweight exercises over machine exercises because full, compound movements, balance and range of motion aren't supported well by machines. They have their place when, for example, an injury eliminates other options, but don't build your routine around them. Starting Strength is cool, but go through your options with a good trainer first. Some alternative free weight exercises can be done well enough with barbells (e.g. dumbbell row for your upper back) while others, such as bench presses, are awful with dumbbells once you start working with a reasonably challenging weight if you are working on your own without a spotter.

DOUGHINESS: Exercise can help make you healthy, and exercisers tend to eat better than sedentary people, but the gym alone won't help a typical woman lose much weight. Start by just tracking what you eat right now and see what it takes to maintain your weight, and then try cutting back moderately for slow weight loss. You only have a finite amount of willpower and focus, so while there may be some more challenging eating plans out there, it will be very difficult to make a new gym habit and a very different way of eating work. See this earlier discussion.

Have fun!
posted by maudlin at 11:52 AM on March 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

Some more thoughts...

Another plug for StrongLifts: Starting Strength is a great resource, and StrongLifts 5x5 is actually based off of it (and SL is free)

When I first started weight training, I was very inspired by Krista at Stumptuous.com. It was her who pointed me to StrongLifts in the first place. She has a a bunch of different recommended workouts, but the Less Thinking, More Doing starter program might be of particular interest to you.
posted by sparklemotion at 12:01 PM on March 10, 2016 [3 favorites]

Form is so, so important. Drag a gym rat buddy with you, or do a few sessions with a trainer. Momus Window is right that machines aren't super ideal for most women, so finding someone who can help you figure out which machines will work for you, and body weight exercises for the rest is key here. Planks and squats are my personal go-tos for building good all over strength (I hate both the gym and machines, so I only do body weight stuff these days)

There's a saying, "Abs are made in the kitchen, not the gym". It's sadly true. If you are just looking to get more strength and don't care about looking toned, working out is all you need to do. But if you want to actually *see* the results, you are most likely going to need to reduce caloric intake a bit. I'm going to suggest you not worry about dieting for the first couple months at least. Give yourself some time to build those muscles up -- they burn more calories than fat, so your base metabolism will start to go up naturally. Then when you do start to reduce your caloric intake, the weight loss will be easier, and you'll have good workout habits already in place.
posted by ananci at 12:16 PM on March 10, 2016

Does your gym offer classes? Mine has a few different weights-centred classes and I really love the motivation of a fitness instructor/music/other people. It also has helped me learn some exercises so if I am in the gym on my own I feel more confident knowing what I am doing.
posted by rozee at 12:34 PM on March 10, 2016

You can definitely do freeweights, build strength, and not need a spotter. First, you don't have to bench press. And if you want to, you can do it in a power cage where you set the side rails to prevent a dropped bar from hitting you. Or you could do an overhead press as an alternate

I would recommend picking a straightforward freeweight (barbell) program. It doesn't matter which one as long as it features progressive loads (you do more reps or increase the weight each time) 3x a week.

I like 5x5 routines similar to Starr's, which is the ancestor to Starting Strengh and Madcow and many other variants, if only because I find doing a few simple exercises using multiple muscles to be a preferable path towards increased strength and muscle mass.

My iOS app: Strong. I tried a bunch, and it's great (Android: Fitnotes)
posted by zippy at 12:43 PM on March 10, 2016

Nthing StrongLifts 5x5 - the app is easy to use and will help you get to the gym and not have to overthink what you're doing. If you're worried about spotters for the lifting, search youtube videos for how to "fail" different lifts safely - this will show you the ways to get out from under the bar without needing a spotter if it winds up being too heavy. Or, as other have said, you can use dumbells (so you can just drop them) or ask for a spotter. I personally had to start with dumbells anyway because I was too weak to use the bar for the exercises - there's nothing wrong with that, either. I also recommend the subreddit /r/xxfitness - it's focused on women's fitness, and especially has an emphasis on lifting weights. Reading the sidebar information/FAQ would probably be useful to you, and you can always post there if you have further questions, want a form check, aren't sure where to go after StrongLifts, etc.
posted by jouir at 1:53 PM on March 10, 2016

To clarify: I am not dead set against barbell training. I just don't want to get injured. Advice on how to do it safely (alone) is super helpful. For example, this power cage that has been mentioned above - Didn't know that was a thing, will look to see if there is one at my gym.

For now my goal is strength/base metabolism first. (to quote ananci), "Give yourself some time to build those muscles up -- they burn more calories than fat, so your base metabolism will start to go up naturally. Then when you do start to reduce your caloric intake, the weight loss will be easier, and you'll have good workout habits already in place."
posted by telepanda at 1:56 PM on March 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

If you are working at a university gym, I can almost guarantee you that there is someone there who will show you how to lift using correct form ... for free! I guarantee it. Go ask.
posted by nubianinthedesert at 2:49 PM on March 10, 2016

I am coming from a position where I worked out with friends in university and that was the source of my work-out knowledge. Someone would "know" the correct way to do an exercise or what kind of routine to set and we'd follow it. There'd be some checking of internet message boards or magazines but no real guided learning. So please understand that anything I write is from a position of someone who probably knows less than he thinks he does.

I avoid using the barbell for bench press for the same reason you do. You can deal with that by either using the Smith machine (the one where the bar goes up and down on poles) or just using dumb bells (which is what I do because I go to the gym at odd hours and never have someone with me). The Smith machine is also good for getting started with squats until you are comfortable with the movement.

Even if you are starting with low weights it is good to have someone looking over your form to make sure you're doing them right. And when you're starting out it is perfectly normal for bodyweight exercises to be tiring as your body learns how its supposed to move. Apparently most of the gains you get early on are from your body learning what to do as opposed to muscle growth. For some exercises your form may even improve when you are doing it with more weight. Squats are like that for me.

You should work cardio into your exercise program as well. This can be cardio by itself or doing things like jumping jacks in between sets while you're resting the muscles you're working on. If your heart and lungs are in a better condition you'll find yourself needing lest rest between sets/exercises, which lets you either finish your session earlier or fit more exercises into it, and you ought to be able to last longer on the exercises (ie you'll be able to make it to 10 reps instead of 8 on your final set). I say this because I have neglected my cardio for the last 3-4 months and can feel it becoming a limiting factor when I'm working out at the gym. Now that the weather is getting nice my plan is to do cardio outside (running, biking, etc).

My gym has workout sheets and pencils so you can record your exercises and what you did, as well as a filing cabinet to store your sheets. It is pretty low-tech but it means I don't have to carry my phone with me when I'm working out which I like.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 3:27 PM on March 10, 2016

If you're just starting out then failing a bench isn't the worst thing in the world - it only starts to be dangerous when you're talking 50kg+. It might be instructive to let the weight rest on your chest and see that it's not so awful.
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 8:51 PM on March 10, 2016

Another 30-something female who works out in a university-style gym here. I have a few thoughts which are slightly different from some other folks above, although I agree with everything else posted. I'm into a completely minimalist approach, and the following allows for a completely body-weight driven program.

1) Just Six Weeks - fantastic sleek interface which gives you a way to take a baseline test, then configures workouts for you to eventually work up to 100 pushups, 200 situps, 150 dips, 200 squats and 20 pull ups. Absolutely no cortex required, and gives a neat graph showing your progress. ($1.99 I think will be overall cheaper than Jefit which I haven't used, but seems to have in-app purchases for various workouts, and looks very overwhelming for a beginner). Between these basic exercises you will get a full-body strength workout without the fuss of weights.

2) A Couch-to-5k running program - there are several apps out there for this, although my personal favorite is Ease into 5k because I love the English women's voice saying "you are half way there." If you like running outside great, it'll work there and map your run to boot. If you like to run on the treadmill, great, you just tell it how far and how long and it will still track your progress.

3) If you really hate to run, like I do, make sure you have fabulous workout music. There are now numerous studies showing the impact of motivating music and tempo on increased workout performance. Most streaming services have a "workout" collection which makes the sweating go down a little easier.

Best of luck!
posted by eglenner at 7:58 PM on March 11, 2016

Michelle Burmaster, founder of the Body Positive Fitness Alliance, has a great ebook called What Do I Do at the Gym. She gives a nice, easy to follow dumbbell routine that is very scalable as you increase strength. The ebook makes it easy to take with you to the gym and she also has videos demonstrating each of the exercises so you know exactly what it should look like. (Full disclosure: Michelle also owns the gym I go to and I think she is an an amazing trainer and all around awesome person!)
posted by platinum at 4:18 PM on March 12, 2016

I'd like to be yet one more person to suggest Stronglifts 5x5. Starting Strength is a good program, but it requires you to do power cleans, which are slightly more complicated than the lifts that stronglifts has you doing. Stronglifts has a great, easy-to-use app. This is likely a result of the man who created it being a software developer IIRC.

It sounds like your main concern is getting stronger without accidentally killing yourself. I fucked around in gyms, lifting weights with no clear pattern or progression, from the age of 17 to about 24. I probably got stronger at some point in there, but it wasn't until I started and stuck with Stronglifts that I knew I was getting stronger. As a novice lifter, any linear progression program will likely yield strength gains for you, but Stronglifts has a good app and it is easy to do.

You are concerned about form and hurting yourself, which is something I too used to be afraid of when it came to squats and deadlifts. Mark Rippetoe, the Starting Strength man, has a series of videos he did for the Art of Manliness that are pretty good for covering the basics of how to do the main barbell lifts. Just search "Mark Rippetoe Squat" in the YouTube and it should come up. I would suggest watching those to get a general idea of the movements you are trying to mimic. Then, I suggest going to the gym and trying the movements with the 45 lb bar. You might be able to get a trainer to watch you and tell you if you have good form, or you might have to film yourself and then see if you can find someplace to upload the video and get honest feedback. It can be intimidating to upload a video of yourself doing something unfamiliar to the internet, but I think the starting strength and stronglifts forums are pretty friendly.

Lastly, I too know how you feel about doing things without a spotter. I hate asking some random person to spot me, but I also fear the death and embarrassment which comes with having your windpipe crushed in a public place. If you can find a squat rack, that eliminates the need for a spotter on the squat. As for the bench, you've got some options which others have covered but I'll retread. You could just use dumbbells, which won't be too bad. You could use a power rack to bench, which allows for a full range of motion if you set up the safeties right and arch your back a bit. Lastly, you could just do the bench without a spotter and always stop right before you reach failure. Once you've been lifting for a bit, you should be able to tell when that is.

I hope I answered your question. I really can't over emphasize how instrumental Stronglifts was in me achieving measurable results in terms of strength. Please hit me up if you've got any questions.
posted by A Bad Catholic at 11:45 AM on March 13, 2016

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