Seeking Body Weight-Based Upper Body Strength Workout
December 2, 2017 7:44 PM   Subscribe

I am a tubby middle-aged female with flabby arms who would like to improve my upper body strength so I can pick up heavy parcels with ease.

I sometimes pick up overseas parcels from warehouses myself to save on delivery fees. I've discovered that I can pick up bulky parcels of about 13 pounds with ease and transport them but about 17 pounds seems to be my limit. I would like to improve my upper body strength so that I can carry heavier parcels though I don't know what my physical limits are as a middle-aged female (22 pounds?).

Could mefites recommend a good workout? I tried looking at weight training books for women but they were too jargony and intimidating. I am looking for simple exercises.

Be free and can be found online (e.g. on youtube)
Simple to follow and jargon-free
Last 20 mins or less
Do not require any equipment
Be appropriate for an overweight middle-aged female, not an fit twenty-something gym-goer

If I can stick to this routine and see results, I intend to invest in a set of free weights. That would probably be my New Year's resolution for 2018.

Thank you!
posted by whitelotus to Health & Fitness (21 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
I'd say start with the basics:
-push-ups (start with wall push-ups and gradually go lower and lower until you can do knee push-ups)
-Dips (aka triceps dips) gradually going deeper as you gain strength
-plank (start on knees until you can do full plank- training your whole core will help with upper body strength)

It's hard to train upper body beyond these moves unless you invest in free weights, but this is a really good start!!
posted by elke_wood at 7:54 PM on December 2, 2017 [4 favorites]

You know that you pick up parcels with your whole body, not just your upper body, right?

I mean, you can do a bunch of pushups and modified chin-ups and whatever else, but the powerhouse of your body is your entire torso.

The best way to develop strength is to work your whole body, and to focus particularly on the kinds of movements you want to do.

As well, if you can only carry 13 pounds comfortably I’m worried for your future. Take this on to keep yourself walking and getting off the toilet at 80, and not just for packages.

I’m also a middle aged overweight woman. And I’m on my 61st or so appointment with physical therapy for my back (not kidding) so I’m far from my peak shape. I’ve had to pick up sand and mortor at the hardware store this week. Both 50 pound bags. One day I forgot my cart so I carried the 50 pound bag from the way back warehouse, about a block and a half.

What I’m saying is your goals are too small. You won’t get stronger, and 17 pounds won’t feel easy, unless you start lifting hundreds of pounds.

You want squats. Deadlifts. Farmers carries. Lifting as heavy as you can.
You won’t improve with body weight alone. And then practice picking up boxes.

Give yourself the gift of strength the rest of your life. Get a trainer. Learn the lifts. Get strong and healthy. YOU CAN DO IT.
posted by littlewater at 7:57 PM on December 2, 2017 [32 favorites]

Fitness Blender has a few options.

I think that in the long run, you'll be better off if you work out your whole body, not just your upper body.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 8:02 PM on December 2, 2017

When you're picking up heavy objects, the majority of the force expended should actually be in your quads and nearby. If you're picking them up with arm strength only, you're going to hurt your back eventually. So, yes, you need to think about your whole body if you want to meet that specific goal.

You may want to look at, which probably hasn't been updated since 2003 but does list pretty much every basic muscle-building available, with bodyweight, free weights, or machines. Similarly, Stumptuous also hasn't been updated, but has a bunch of advice for beginners, including workout routine options. (The site's definitely got an ideology but it's also very pro-women and pro-older women lifting.)
posted by praemunire at 8:30 PM on December 2, 2017 [3 favorites]

Agreed with littlewater. A gallon of milk is 8.5lbs. So definitely boost your goal - nothing physical is going to get easier from here on out.

Push ups and especially planks would be great. There are 30-day plank challenges easily googled. Start there! Also, consider taking long walks, good for your body, good for your bone health and might get you in the mood to add on some additional exercises while you’re at it.

But goals should be looking toward the long haul. I learned the hard way that being able to exercise is a privilege.
posted by crankyrogalsky at 8:52 PM on December 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

100 pushups

I don't know if that's the thing that got me into it, it was years ago. But it's a start.

100 pushups. That's the goal. If you can do that you can lift anything reasonable and more.
posted by sanka at 9:02 PM on December 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'm in a "functional fitness" class that's supposed to be all about helping you pick up heavy packages and the like. We do about a zillion variations of squats with weights. Building up the glutes and core to protect your lower back is where it's at.
posted by TwoStride at 9:30 PM on December 2, 2017

OK, so. If your goal is to move heavy shit, I know what you need to know. If you want Michelle Obama's arms, yeah well, don't we all.

I also am a tubby middle-aged woman! But I have a part-time (surprisingly lucrative and fun) job that requires me to move lots of heavy things; I work for a catering/bartending company. We have a few middle-aged women in our crew. We routinely lift, move and carry many hundreds of pounds in a day. These are the things you want to know:

1. No, seriously. Lift with your legs. If your knees aren't in good enough shape to let you squat and pick things up with a straight back, you need to work on your knees, not your arms.

2. Sometimes you can't lift with your legs (loading a truck you can't stand up in, etc.) Do the best you can, but try to change direction using your feet and not your back. *lift-step-pivot-lower*, not *lift-twist-lower*

If your goal is really to lift and lower heavy parcels, this is all you need to know. Lift properly, with the long muscles of your legs. and watch your posture. Lift moderate weights (get yourself a milk crate; four gallons of water is 33 pounds, give or take) regularly and often. Raise your milk crate of water jugs to waist height, then to shoulder height, then over your head as you progress. I can carry 8 gallons of water some distance over not-steep terrain without too much trouble.

Your goal is very achievable, and my physical strength is one of the things that allows me to walk confidently on the earth.
posted by workerant at 10:18 PM on December 2, 2017 [10 favorites]

posted by benzenedream at 12:34 AM on December 3, 2017

I find it much easier to follow someone else doing a routine then do my own. I have been enjoying a series of YouTube videos called 'hasfit'. They have a number of no equipment strength routines of different lengths. As well as some with equipment. The two instructors are pretty fun and show variations on each exercise to cater for different abilities. If you go onto their website there is even a complete program you can follow. But I just do the videos.
posted by daffodil at 1:02 AM on December 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

I would say block out at least 30 minutes a day, then go over to Fitness Blender and spend at least 20 of those minutes on HIIT. The remaining 10 on almost anything else. That should be enough to start you off.

Just as everyone will tell you you can’t spot reduce, you also can’t really spot strengthen. Exercise your whole body.

As for the weights you can currently lift and carry, it depends how far you want to carry them and in what context? I weigh 120 pounds so my day bag shouldn’t really be heavier than 12 pounds, and I don’t think that’s too alarming.
posted by tel3path at 1:25 AM on December 3, 2017

This is interesting to me because my ability to carry things in the gym greatly exceeds what I can carry functionally because I am not smart about how I use my hands. Like, straight wrist deadlift? Barbell squats? My body weight (and beyond) is no problem.

One friendly vacuum cleaner in one hand? Wrist injury, because I didn't realize that my wrist was not designed to hold weight in that direction without some help, and I wasn't helping. I also have a habit of not picking things up with more than fingertips, instead of my whole hand, and this also makes me seem a lot weaker than my 'perfect easy to grab gym weight' self.

I saw that you mentioned the bulkiness of your packages several times in your question, so I wonder if part of your question is how to be stronger and smarter in your hands / wrists, or how to use your body in a smarter way for leverage with unwieldy shapes. On this point, I wish I had answers, since it's still a weak link in my personal functional fitness.

Aside from that, yeah, for sure you'll want to work your entire body. If you want to stick with bodyweight exercises, I think glute bridges, squats, and split squats will do you good; if you like that enough, I'd go with one kettlebell instead of free weights, maybe 30-40lb: start with deadlifting it, move on to swinging it and using it for a one-handed carry.
posted by batter_my_heart at 1:43 AM on December 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

You should also practice farmer's walks. Get two containers which are easy to hold, fill with water, walk as far as you can carrying them. As that gets easier, fill with more water. (You can use anything -- kettlebells, dumbbells, whatever -- but a plastic container filled with water is cheap and can be made heavier very easily.)
posted by jeather at 4:53 AM on December 3, 2017 [2 favorites]

Yoga for whole body strength. Great to help develop a mind-body relationship while increasing strength and flexibility.

Strength comes from form in addition to muscle and can be hindered by mindset.

You are capable of lifting and carrying way, way more than 22 pounds. You don't need huge muscles to carry 50+ pounds comfortably.

You've got this!
posted by slipthought at 6:00 AM on December 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

The nice thing about using a couple of one-gallon orange juice jugs as weights is, when you get tired during your walk, you can empty them. Or drink out of them. Cheap, portable and practical.
posted by TrishaU at 6:14 AM on December 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

100 pushups

Please don’t do this, or at least not *just* this. You’ll end up horribly imbalanced, with tight, strong pecs and wildly underdeveloped back muscles. Worst case you injure your shoulders as a consequence & it could easily take a year to fully recover. Well balanced programs include both pushing and pulling exercises for exactly this reason.

If you want a bodyweight focused program, I can recommend the r/bodyweightfitness (on reddit, obv) recommended routine + associated app.
posted by pharm at 6:17 AM on December 3, 2017 [2 favorites]

Medicine ball: get a 12 pounder, it will feel heavier and harder to lift than a 12 lb package.

You can use it to work core, arms, legs, also as a stretch aid for flexibility.

I find it a fun workout (ymmv), and it will definitely make you better at lifting heavy packages.

22 lbs should be a totally reasonable goal btw, and I think you’ll get there surprisingly soon if you stick to a basic routine of anything.
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:16 AM on December 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

Thank you for your responses!
batter_my_heart: yes, dumbbells are a lot easier to carry than my parcels because they are bulky and unwieldy and often odd shapes like trapezoids besides being heavy. I think anyone would find them awkward.

I'll check out Fitness Blender and I may also try yoga as slipthought suggests. I've never taken a yoga class though and can't really afford a class so I am somewhat worried about my form if I am following an online video.

workerant: You and your coworkers are inspiring! You are awesome. And here I was thinking that maybe 29 pounds would be too heavy for a middle-aged woman.
posted by whitelotus at 2:31 AM on December 4, 2017

Tip for online yoga: look for "senior" yoga videos instead of "beginner." Like this one. They tend to be "gentler" which is good for beginners or folks with less flexibility/strength starting out, not just seniors!
posted by slipthought at 7:39 AM on December 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

I do strongman training, powerlifting, and olympic weightlifting. If you want to get good at picking up heavy, bulky, weirdly-shaped objects and moving with them, strongman training is THE way to go. There's a free program at Starting Strongman (scroll a bit down the page).

A data point for you: I'm a middle-aged woman, and last night, as part of my workout, I cleaned and pressed a 55# dumbbell one-handed, from the ground to the floor, six times; did other things, and then flipped a 500# tire ten times. A couple days before that, I picked up a 100# sandbag and put it over a chest-high bar a few times. I've picked up 165# kegs and husafel stones and carried them for time. And I'm overweight enough to be firmly in the super heavyweight weight class.

Your goals are way, way too small. Think big! You've got the capacity to be much stronger than you think.
posted by culfinglin at 2:33 PM on December 5, 2017 [2 favorites]

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