Workout advice for a noob
September 19, 2017 10:15 AM   Subscribe

I've just started exercising for the first time in my life and I could use some guidance around what kinds of workouts would be best for me as a 40-something fat guy with zero gym experience. I have a Planet Fitness membership, realistic (I think) goals and expectations, and (so far) a strong will to make this work, but I'd like to know what I can and should do to maximize the return on my efforts.

Here's what I'm working with: I'm 42, 5'11", around 270 lbs. My previous gym experience has consisted of several traumatic experiences in grade/high school. I've fluctuated over the years between "big" and "very big" but now I'm pre-hypertensive, pre-diabetic and probably about to ruin my knees and back if I don't fix this.

On the plus side, I quit smoking several years ago, and last year got on a CPAP machine that has given me new levels of energy I'd forgotten were even possible. My diet is an absolute disaster, but I am making better decisions and dropping the worst of my habits. So now it's on to the general fitness...

I'm two weeks into an every-other-day gym schedule, but I really have no idea what I'm doing and could use some guidance. I find the weight machines intimidating, but the trainer showed me the circuit machines so I've been doing those when possible. My goals are broad - I need to lose some weight, but I'm not trying to get skinny or ripped, I would mostly like to feel better and get healthier and avoid having a heart attack in my 50s.

Here are some routines I've tried:
  • Twice through the 30 minute circuit (steps and weights)
  • 30 minutes of treadmill on "fat burning" (staying around 116 heart rate) followed by the 30 minute circuit
  • Same as above, but with another 30 minutes of treadmill on "cardio" after the circuit (only when I have 90+ minutes, which is maybe twice a week)
I like the circuit machines but I need other options as people tend to camp out in there, and I get frustrated when I'm the only one trying to go in order/on schedule. Also, the weights haven't been great to me when I go at night after a day at work, I feel like I go in sore and worn out and I leave frustrated and borderline injured. On the flip side, I would like to gain some strength, and when I go in the morning I feel fantastic after a circuit. I like the treadmill (and they are always available) and it doesn't matter if my back and shoulders are sore going in, but I don't know how I should be using them? I like the feedback of the calorie burn counter and the possibility of measuring my progress via incline/speed/heart rate, but I don't know if variation is good, or I should be maxing out on one setting or what. I haven't used the ellipticals (they look terrifying) or bikes or stairs. There are SoloFit machines that appear to always be available, but I don't know if I should bother figuring it out? I would love to have 3-4 weight machines I could get comfortable on so I can grab what's available and do the treadmill or bike the rest of the time, but I don't know which machines to pick.

Any advice is appreciated, I'm feeling very positive about this process and I would feel even more positive with a little more information and guidance.
posted by Banky_Edwards to Health & Fitness (21 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I want to recommend YouTube, I think the channel ObesetoBeast will have a lot of positive encouragement and relevant fitness advice. The main things in fitness right now are HIIT cardio and heavy weight lifting. I'd suggest learning the basic weight lifting moves ie bench press, squat, deadlift etc, and make progress on these basic strength moves. That will be a great foundation.
posted by elke_wood at 10:55 AM on September 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

When I was in weightloss mode, I LOVED doing walking incline intervals on the treadmill. I’d set my speed to a comfortable, steady, easy walking pace, then alternate flat and incline every few minutes. The low/flat levels should be easy, and feel like a recovery. The higher inclines should feel challenging and where you cannot wait, and countdown to recovery. Something like:

Speed 3.0 - Incline 1 (5 minutes warmup)
Speed 3.0 - incline 5 (3 minutes)
Speed 3.0 - Incline 1 (3 minutes)
Speed 3.0 - Incline 7.5 (3 minutes)

It may take some time to figure out what settings feel challenging for you. But it's a great way to build leg and core strength, and also get your heart rate up with some good working periods, followed by brief rest (but still moving).

If you do this, please please please don’t hold on to the treadmill, even if there are railings or handlebars. If you need to hold them briefly while the machine adjusts height, that’s fine, but consistent holding is very bad for posture, form, and completely cheats your legs/core. It’s better to walk slowly at 1mph and let your arms swing naturally, than walk at 4mph and hold on for dear life. It also burns considerably fewer calories when one holds on. Let your arms be free!

On ellipticals… I love them! They are not terrifying at all. On those, it’s perfectly fine to hold on to the handlebar things. The consensus is that they may encourage your body to work different things (add in arm strength workout, or more leg focused, etc). Start slow, get comfortable, then you can play with the incline/resistance and do some intervals - like 2 minutes easy, 2 minutes challenging, etc.

For cardio, intervals are really great, no matter what machine you’re doing. They “confuse” your body some, give you more of an after calorie burn, but also allow you to get some moments of rest (or decreased intensity) in with some pretty challenging rotations. Intervals all the way!
posted by raztaj at 11:04 AM on September 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

My main suggestion would be to spend a bit more time with a trainer to familiarize yourself with free weight exercises. It will likely take a couple of sessions to remember exactly how the exercises work although you can likely find youtube videos to help refresh your memory as well. I am not going to tell you that free weights are better than the machines but it seems like the machines are busy when you want to use them so if you can use the free weights instead you can get on with your workout without waiting too long.

As far as the cardio machines are concerned, my favourite is the elliptical machine because it is so low impact (if I am running too much my knees will tell me but then it is too late). I feel terrible when I run too much and pick up a twinge in my knee and then have to take things easy until it feels better. The elliptical is something you could practice with a trainer to get comfortable with because yeah it does look pretty scary but once you're used to it it isn't scary at all.

You mention that you like the feedback of the calorie burner, so make sure that you keep track of what you're doing with the weights (exercise, weight, reps, etc) because then you get some feedback on how you've been doing on those too.

One thing as well, don't be afraid to ask other people for a spot or some help on how to do an exercise properly. I know in high school there can be a lot of jerks but they have been very rare in the gyms I've been to since then.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 11:06 AM on September 19, 2017

Getting your smoking, eating, and sleep under control is huge, so congrats on that. Also just going to the gym regularly is a hurdle many people can't seem to clear, so you're already like 90% of the way to achieving your goals.

Circuits are great, keep doing those. Find or create a stretching routine you can do off to the side of the room - flexibility in general helps keep you healthy and mobile, and it's a good way to productively kill time at the gym while waiting for a machine to open up.

I like doing things at the gym that I can't do at home, so I use it mostly for weight-training. Squats, deadlifts, bench- and shoulder-press, and pulls/rows (especially like doing this at the gym, as it's hard to do pulling motions elsewhere). Do this with light weights or even just the bar while you figure out how to use a machine or how to move your body through the motion. The goal is to engage your large muscle groups - definitely don't try to move enough weight that you might get injured - this is directly contrary to your stated goals.

Lastly, cardio on the treadmill is great (not substantially different than walking outside, but it's easier mentally for some because you can read a book or watch whatever is on the gym TV). I wouldn't bother with the elliptical, it's not an efficient calorie-burn for the time. Definitely try the stair-climber and row machine, if you want to mix things up.
posted by smokysunday at 11:07 AM on September 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

You mention a trainer showing you the machines. Was that a one-time thing? I would highly recommend a few sessions with a trainer who can help you develop a program that's really tailored to your needs. It will be money well spent. You are going to be susceptible to injury, and a good trainer can help you avoid that. (I've injured myself more than once trying to go it alone.)

The other thing I'd say is that, while I understand wanting to go full force and do a lot of work now, it's probably more important for you to develop a habit of exercising, even if you're not doing as much. Your long-term goal should be doing this for the rest of your life - so it's very important at this stage not to get burnt out.

Congratulations on your successes!
posted by FencingGal at 11:11 AM on September 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

If your gym has a rowing machine, do that. It's the best workout you can get. If not, do some interval training on an exercise bike. I find the bike is easier to do interval work on because you're sitting down. You don't have to psych yourself into getting up and going hard again.
posted by kevinbelt at 11:11 AM on September 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

The best thing I've done for my fitness, which sounds crazy, is doing the workout with my trainer once a week. I would consider adding a day with him if I could afford it, but man, working out with him and REALLY DOING IT HARD, has made a huge difference. He challenges me in ways that I don't think to challenge myself, and he also helps me work on things that I want help on. He knows more than I do and he's also expecting me every week - it does a lot to keep me committed. I also see him at the gym almost every time I'm there, which helps - he's a paid workout buddy who knows how to get my deadlifts back on track, he helped advise me about how much I needed to eat, he observes and figures out if what we're doing is working. If you can afford it, adding a once weekly session with a human is really, really good.

And good luck! You're doing great!
posted by Medieval Maven at 11:27 AM on September 19, 2017

As a 42 year old dude who was getting fat, here's what worked for me. I went to a nutritionist. I was always very active and had been working out for months prior to my first visit, but, because of a love for craft brews my weight kept creeping up over the years. My nutritionist help me rethink what I was doing with my eating. She also gave me workouts to do in addition to a detailed meal plan. Also, having some accountability to a person that you are paying to help you is a big motivator to stay on track. I was able to loose 30lbs while putting on something like 20lbs of muscle over a period of about 8 months. I was never really hungry and I was eating like 8 times a day, but, it really worked well and I think about my diet completely differently now.
posted by trbrts at 11:43 AM on September 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I'd say get an occasional session with a trainer. Gyms sometimes push training packages pretty hard, which can be expensive. But it would be good to get an occasional session because you'll get feedback and instruction on correct form, and learn some new exercises. This will help you gain confidence to try out other weights and machines that seem daunting to you now. I personally have trouble with trainers sometimes because I tend not to respond to their default interaction styles the way most people do (I guess).

The biggest thing though is don't injure yourself! I have to constantly monitor my form when I lift, because I'm impatient and think I should be progressing faster than I am, then I use heavier weights than I should, which leads to bad form, which leads to pain which prevents me from working out. So don't be like me.

Another side of that is that sometimes I heaven't timed my eating right or I'm tired when I work out, so sometimes I can't lift as much as I did the previous time which is frustrating. If that happens to you, don't force it. Use a weight you can do. Doing the activity is more important than how much weight you're using in a given session.

Finally, consider taking some "before" pictures, and also measurements if you want. When I get in a fitness cycle I usually forget to take measurements and "before" pictures, then after I've shaped up I really wish I had.
posted by under_petticoat_rule at 11:46 AM on September 19, 2017

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for the answers, so much good stuff here, I'm definitely going to be referring to this for a while.

Let me just clear up a couple of things - there is a trainer at the gym, but his hours are limited and don't match well with my free time. It was frustrating enough trying to track him down for an introductory session. I am ready and willing to use him as a resource if the opportunity arises but I'm not seeking that out as I'm all about eliminating even mild roadblocks that would give me excuses to not go.

Once I have some good habits firmly established, I absolutely intend to step it up - sessions with a trainer, a better gym with more accessible staff and more weight options, whatever makes sense. I would love to learn free weights, but in terms of anxiety they (and the people who hang in that area) are the high diving board at the pool. For now I've just managed to get comfortable using the kickboard in the shallow end, and I intend to stay there until I'm less afraid of drowning.

Advice on trainers or weights or anything else is still good though, this is a journey and I'm not averse to thinking about where it goes. You guys are awesome!
posted by Banky_Edwards at 12:24 PM on September 19, 2017

You have a bunch of good advice already, but one thing that worked for me was keeping it interesting on the treadmill so that each time could feel like an accomplishment. Here were some of my favorites:

* The "rule of 7," where speed + incline has to equal 7. I'd mix it up every 3 minutes, up to 30. (When I started, this was the rule of 6. When I was at my fastest, it was the rule of 8.)
* Speed up .1 every two minutes (resetting at 10 and 20).
* Keep an Excel sheet that tracks your distance/time/pace, with a spot for notes. That will allow you really see the progress you are making and stay motivated.
posted by AgentRocket at 1:48 PM on September 19, 2017

The most important part of adding fitness to your life is doing it regularly (you are) and doing something you like (you seem pretty positive on that aspect too), so that you'll stick to it long term.

Exactly. Don't worry so much about details. Find something that's somewhat challenging but not so punishing that you will burn out or get injured.

For general health and fitness, the bad news is that there are no shortcuts: You have to put in the time and effort. The good news is that there are no shortcuts: If you put in the time and effort, you'll get there, no matter what the form of cardio (walking, elliptical, rowing, circuit training; steady or intervals) or the form of weights (machines or free; many reps at low weights or a few at high).

You're two weeks in. I promise that if you exercise every other day for 3 months, you will see amazing progress, no matter what you do.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 2:13 PM on September 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'm in your age range, but very active. I agree with Mr.Know-it-some. Keep it simple, don't overthink it, just make sure you work out consistently. You're two weeks in. Worry about optimizing later.

This is good, stay with this: I go in the morning I feel fantastic after a circuit

This is bad, avoid this: I feel like I go in sore and worn out and I leave frustrated and borderline injured.

Row when you feel like it, ride, swim, take a Zumba class, try different things. You just need to be consistent.
posted by Borborygmus at 2:26 PM on September 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

Just want to emphasize that it's a really long term project, the longest term, less is more, don't burn out. Skip a machine that's a bit scary now, it'll be new and fun in five years. A huge excited new burst of effort that pulls a muscle and shuts one down for weeks doesn't help -- find what's fun, take it easy, and keep at it. Make it just part of your life that you just do, and look forward to every time.
posted by sammyo at 3:17 PM on September 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

If you like numbers, you might like a heartrate monitor. They're pretty sophisticated now I think. I would set mine to vibrate if my heart rate went to low. I would also use it for interval training, so I'd go hard until it hit an upper limit, I think 90% (and buzz), and then slow down until it hit my lower limit (I think 75%).

Anyway, just a fun numbers and tracking toy to consider.
posted by kjs4 at 6:15 PM on September 19, 2017

Hi, I haven't read all the comments but what I have read seems like great advice. My $0.02 -- sorry if they're repetitive cents.

Firstly, CONGRATULATIONS on making this decision. In my mind, this is the hardest step - committing to being healthy. Here are a few workout things I feel like I've really benefited from:

1. If you find weight machines intimidating (like I did), try buying a couple of sets of dumbells, at varying weights (I started with 2 lb and 5 lb, am now up to 10 lb dumbells) and doing some workout videos on youtube. I recommend doing this in front of a mirror so you can watch your posture and be sure you are not injuring yourself. This has done wonders for my confidence with weights.

Also, I grunt a lot while doing weights and don't really like to be around other people while doing that (and I also don't really like hearing other people grunting), so I do this a lot at home. A benefit of this is that I can get a quick workout in without having to commute to a gym on crazy busy days. Got a yoga mat for the exercises on my back. I found a website called HASfit in the past few months, and it is my favorite for a good variety of exercises -- good for when you feel like you have limited mobility or time or when you want to target a specific area. Also, it is not cheesy (I find that workout videos can be). They also have nutrition plans on their websites, but I haven't really tried those so I can't vouch for those:

For exercises that require being on your knees, you might experience some pain/sensitivity if you're not used to it - I got around this by getting a portable yoga mat that can be folded up and using that underneath my knees. Weights are one of the most efficient ways to lose fat, so whichever way, be sure to do plenty of weights.

2. Foam rollers -- if you find that your leg muscles begin to feel sore and tight from the exercise, I recommend investing in a foam roller. I have a cheap Target Gaiam one, and it does the trick. Game changer for stretching out your muscles. Don't use the foam roller on your back, but you can get massage balls like these on amazon for pretty cheap: . I have found these also to be a very worthwhile investment.

3. Do you like running or run/walking?** I ask because joining a running group (even if not super regularly!) can be really helpful for getting in the groove. I like running and also signed up for Runner's World magazine as a motivation technique -- i.e. it reminds me I like running, and I read about other people who like running, and it helps motivate me. Just this week, they had an article about people in a somewhat similar situation to you, and I found the story very inspiring -- check it out if it interests you:

4. Remember that progress can take a while. I am still getting over a running injury from over a year ago, and I am still not up to my regular strength. But you know what? Every little bit is a step in the right direction, and I give myself a pat on the back for every try. I try to remind myself of this whenever I'm tired/lacking motivation for whatever reason. Also, you are completely normal if you get frustrated and want to skip exercising. When that happens, I try to do little rewards for myself (e.g., if I go running, I allow myself to buy [insert catchy song I've been enjoying] on amazon music so that I can play it while I work out. I can only do this if I also commit to going to work out).

5. For whatever it's worth: I remind myself often that everything is a matter of habituation and rehabituation. Every now and then I go through periods of eating a lot of sugar. I gradually work my way down by replacing with less and less sugary snacks I enjoy (hello, dark chocolate covered almonds from Trader Joe's), and eventually, I don't crave the sugar at all -- in fact, I'm so used to the healthier snacks, that I crave those instead. Similar for exercise -- once I'm in the groove, I love working out, though it can sometimes take a while to get there if I'm out of shape.

You can do this!!

**A note about liking running: I didn't know I liked running until I tried running 5 miles regularly. It sucked at first because getting to a place where running 5 miles and feeling like I could keep going a while longer takes a while if I'm coming back from a period of not running, and, frankly, it feels awful. However, once I finally hit that sweet spot, I LOVE running. It is one of the most empowering things I do (if I can run a half marathon, I'm basically a beast, and I can basically do anything I decide I'm going to do). For you, it may be a mile, or half a mile, or a long walk -- whatever it is, give it a shot -- excellent for your cardiovascular health!
posted by dubhemerak3000 at 7:02 PM on September 19, 2017

Good for you, it sounds like you've made some impressive permanent steps forward! Just came to throw a couple of suggestions into the mix. Consider trying Couch to 5K (C25K) on the treadmill! You can read all about it, but the gist is 3x 30min workouts a week over a period of many weeks, earbuds listening to a coach tell you to "walk briskly for 8 minutes... now jog slowly for 2 minutes..." and so on, increasing the amount of jogging as the weeks pass. If Week 1 feels hard, you do it for 2 weeks, and then try Week 2. Point is, you see progress in how you feel and how much you can do, and that feels great. Maybe those 3x/week you pair it with a circuit, or weights. You're dedicating this time anyway, why not try it with the structure of the C25K program and see what you think? Lots of free C2AK resources out there, using either prerecorded podcasts, or measured prompts over your own music. Once you get to where you can do Week 5 on pace with the prompts, consider signing up for a 5K the next month. Even if you go and pump your arms and walk the whole thing you'll feel great. Make sure you have good shoes.

On a completely separate note, if you get to the point of committing to a drastic change in nutrition, consider trying the Whole30. It's 30 days of basic clean eating, omitting entire categories of food (e.g., grains, dairy, alcohol) and will be hard. But it's only 30 days. Grab the book (and cookbook if available) from the library and give it some thought. The testimonials alone re health improvements—around diabetes and so much more—will truly inspire.
posted by AnOrigamiLife at 12:16 AM on September 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

I recently read, and started using, The New Rules of Lifting for Life after seeing it recommended elsewhere here. It's aimed at those in "mid life". I'm not in the same boat as you - I've been going to the gym for years (but without much structure) and I'm not trying to lose weight, but you still might find it interesting/useful.

The book contains a load of types of exercises, each with different difficulty variations, and a (slightly complex) structure to put them in. But even if you don't follow the structure I think it's a good guideline of the kinds of exercises you can try, and what mixture of them is good. There are probably other books that would also be useful but this is the only one I've tried.
posted by fabius at 3:06 AM on September 20, 2017

If your gym has a rowing machine, do that. It's the best workout you can get.

This is completely true - rowing is one of the most efficient full body exercises out there, highly recommended- but please either have someone watch your form or watch a youtube video on rowing form. Doing it wrong can hurt your back quickly.
posted by oryelle at 7:13 AM on September 20, 2017

For strength training, if machines and squat racks/benches are taken, you can get pretty damn strong and lose weight focusing on just a few movements (with various options).

1. Some sort of upper body pushing movement: push-ups, dips (assisted if necessary), one-arm overhead press with a dumbbell
2. Some sort of upper body pulling movement: dumbbell rows (one arm at a time), assisted pull-ups/chin-ups, cable rows
3. Some sort of squat movement: goblet squat with a dumbbell is the best squat exercise you can do without a barbell
4. "Posterior chain": Kettlebell or dumbbell swings, or one legged deadlift with dumbbells

A sample circuit might look like this:

5 reps goblet squat,
5-10 pushups, or 5 reps one-arm standing overhead press
5 reps dumbbell rows (each side),
10 kettlebell or dumbbell swings

Do anywhere from 3-10 circuits depending on how much time you have, how much energy you feel like you have, etc. The important part is just getting in there and doing something as frequently/regularly as you can. And if you like this kind of workout, invest in a 30 or 50 lb kettlebell so you can do this at home. There is really no need to spend an hour plus at the gym. You can get a circuit workout like this done in 20 minutes and have a really good workout.

Also, if, on days that you aren't strength training (or before/after your strength training session), you have 20 or 30 minutes to spare, I would recommend loading up a backpack with books, bricks, plates, or other heavy things and just taking a brisk walk. It's safer than running in terms of avoiding injuries, especially for bigger guys, and has almost all of the same benefits. You can do this on a treadmill if you'd like.
posted by AceRock at 10:17 AM on September 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

As a not particularly athletic middle aged woman, let me put in a vote for a starter free-weight program. I've been doing StrongLifts 5x5 since this May, and it's been great for me.

There's not that much to learn -- five exercises, you watch a couple of videos, get some advice from a trainer maybe, and you're good to go. It'll improve your cardio fitness as well as your muscles, and it'll make it easier to do anything else physical you want to switch to later.

I found the meathead culture (apologies to anyone who's meathead-identified, but you know what I mean) around lifting off-putting, and felt like an idiot in the free-weight part of the gym around all the huge guys, but if you grit your teeth and ignore all that, it's a very pleasant and effective workout.
posted by LizardBreath at 10:19 AM on September 20, 2017

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