Can I even lift bro?
November 11, 2019 5:51 AM   Subscribe

I recently started working out with a personal trainer but she missed so many sessions I need to figure out how to move forward without her. I wanted to begin a starting strength program, but she expressed concerns that I wasn't ready for the most common beginner weightlifting programs. Should I begin a training program on my own or find a new personal trainer? Or something else?

Through a nearby college campus I have access to a good gym with very affordable personal training rates; the trainers are mostly students, but seem well-qualified for their jobs. I'm a pretty healthy woman in my mid-40s. I work at a desk but am fairly active (riding my bike most days, often walking, sometimes trail hiking or running), with strong legs, but a bit overweight and I haven't done any sort of weight or resistance training with any kind of consistency over my adult life. I realized it was time to get going with this, out of concerns for muscle mass and aging, etc. I find gym weight rooms intimidating and wasn't sure how to approach a weight training program, so I decided to hire a personal trainer, in large part so I wouldn't have to figure it out on my own.

And it worked, sorta! I met my trainer in August and we planned to meet twice a week to focus especially on strength in my core and upper body. I like her and felt like she was professional and using our time well. I was starting to feel stronger and a bit leaner. But she ended up missing several sessions, especially in October, sometimes cancelling with hardly any notice. She made at least one session every week, but we met twice a week (which was our plan) only about two times.

I didn't really know what to do when we didn't meet (she gave me a workout to do on my own but it's been too complicated for me to follow, which I did tell her). I finally learned enough to start improvising, but it was stressful and annoying and I felt like my progress was limited. When she cancelled again last week, I decided to take a new approach. I did some research and found a beginner weight training program. I suggested to her we drop back to once a week (based on her cancellation patterns, that seemed do-able) and that we shift to me pursuing this program more on my own.

(For what it's worth, she's dealing with some on-going health issues that contributed to the frequent cancellations.)

She has a background in lifting and told me she thought I'd hurt myself if I did that, that I wasn't ready for a high weight/low rep program because of my limited upper body and core strength and posture problems. She thought I was asking her to design a program for me unpaid, and she didn't like that either. The communication (via email) was a bit of a mess and I'm ready to move on.

However, now I'm not sure I should begin what I thought was a beginner program. I can start with another trainer at the college, but now I like the idea of working out on my own twice a week and with a trainer once a week, and I don't think the college's training program has any mechanism for coaching beyond the time you meet with the trainer, so I'd still be designing my own program. But based on what my trainer told me, I'm wondering if I'm getting in over my head even with beginner programs (ouch).

I'm feeling incredibly discouraged by my trainer's comments on my limits, especially since I am generally active, healthy, and injury-free. I don't know if she's being overly cautious or realistic and sensible. I want to keep my momentum but I'm stuck in indecision.

I could join another gym and hire a trainer and coach elsewhere, but that would add hundreds of dollars a month, which would be a financial challenge.

So, what do you think? Is there a good truly entry level program for me? Should I get another trainer through the college or spend a lot more and go elsewhere?
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I guess it depends on the exact arrangement you have with your trainer, but I've worked with people who were open to one-time or recurring appointments as well as "do this workout until it's easy, then come back to me for the next stage". And FYI, both these guys let me note everything down and checked my form until I could do the workout exercises on my own. You might just need someone whose working style is more your speed - maybe look for a new one with the precise goal of "work with me once a week and give me homework to do on my own"?

(FYI, both guys I worked with were of the firm opinion core strength and endurance has to be built up first before lifting, and I'm still working my way up to it after three months.)
posted by I claim sanctuary at 6:22 AM on November 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

That's ridiculous. You are the perfect candidate for a weight program. I got a trainer through my university employer, went one time a week, and he designed a program for me for workouts three days a week. When my package ended, he gave me a whole bunch of variations with instructions for progressing and told me to email him with any questions as I went along. So, it can be done. Not that it matters, but I'm a lot older than you and was a total weakling and there were zero concerns about me starting on weights--more like wow, let's get you stronger asap.
posted by HotToddy at 6:23 AM on November 11, 2019 [6 favorites]

I have a similar profile to yours: 40s, female, overweight but active. I've tried a couple of trainers over the years, but never got that much out of them. I've worked strength training plans out of books and off the internet with varying levels of success, starting from scratch several times when I let my training lapse. I'm currently about a year in to a regular lifting routine and I feel stronger than I've ever been. I've been sore, for sure, but I've never gotten injured from weight lifting, and I bet you won't either. Just use common sense and don't try to lift too heavy, too soon. If your core is weak, I'd focus on that first, as it will help stabilize everything else.
posted by libraryhead at 6:27 AM on November 11, 2019

I started that way and it's fine (though with a trainer, but I have a lot of trouble sensing my body in space so I can mostly only get my form right by practicing a lot with someone telling me where I am wrong, I can rarely feel that I have done it wrong -- also I was not terribly active before starting). And someone who HAS lifted is not necessarily someone who is able to train someone else.

Your weights aren't going to start out terribly high -- you're not going to start with squatting 100 pounds, you're probably going to start with dumbbells and kettlebells, or even just a lot of bodyweight work. If this person doesn't want to design programs for you to do, find someone else who is willing to do it.

When I get home I'll try to find my original programs when I started just so you get a sense of what someone else might have offered to someone in a similar position.
posted by jeather at 6:35 AM on November 11, 2019

Starting Strength is a book and it's got a good solid beginner program in it but I'd definitely see if you can get someone who is familiar with that program to help you out at the beginning. I know that there are some options available with SS that allow for online coaching (so you send them videos and then they critique them) if there's no in-person coaching available to you, but I have no idea in terms of cost for that. (My gym is an affiliate so I train at that with certified coaches in person.)
posted by sperose at 6:39 AM on November 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

I've worked with several different trainers, and in my experience, there's a world of difference between a pro who is dedicated to training people and somebody who likes to exercise and got certified to make extra money. I actually worked with someone who was herself training for the Olympics (she made the US team, but didn't medal). I liked her personally and she tried her best, but she really didn't know how to work with someone like me (older, out of shape, obese, very much a nonexerciser then).

There are people who can work with someone like you. You just need to find them.
posted by FencingGal at 7:00 AM on November 11, 2019

I also 100% recommend just starting with weightlifting. I did the StrongLifts 5x5 app myself, starting with basically zero core and upper body strength, and I have loved it so much.

A few caveats:
I do recommend booking a single session with a trainer who focuses on weightlifting to check your form before you get too far into the program
Take it very slow and add in more core work -- I did manage to hurt my hip by trying to increase my squats too quickly
Finally, I found that all of the weightlifting programs I tried have you progress more quickly than I liked. They all are easy to modify, though -- just feel it out, and don't hesitate to de-load or repeat a weight if you're not ready to progress yet.

I highly recommend browsing through the archives of Ask a Swole Woman on both the Hairpin and Vice, I found her very comforting when I was first starting!
posted by EmilyFlew at 7:24 AM on November 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

Another option would be to hire another trainer and focus on them teaching you to be able to navigate things more on your own. I feel like she might've been making things a little more complicated than they need to be if you couldn't follow her workout plans.
posted by slidell at 8:18 AM on November 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

Depending on where you are, if you want to update a mod with that information, MeFites could recommend different trainers to you, just a thought since this is anonymous.

Other than that, I think your trainer is not right, you can start a strength program with low weight and work up. I was 35 when I started lifting and I didn't do anything special to prepare for it, I just picked up the barbell.
posted by Medieval Maven at 9:03 AM on November 11, 2019

I'd say get Starting Strength and just go to the gym and lift. You don't need a trainer.

I'm a mid 40's guy who started lifting weights a couple years ago. I went from generally active but not fit to weight lifting with Starting Strength. The contents of Starting Strength are directed at someone who has almost never been in a gym. It has some macho so brace yourself for that.

I went to a trainer a two times and then just did the lifts in starting strength. About 4 months in I asked a friend who lifted to let me know if I was doing anything wrong. Just doing the basic lifts went great for me for well over a year. After that I had enough of an idea of how to add work to keep making progress.

Another thing, at a university they see a lot of younger people and they might have the false impression that older people are fragile. Your trainers comments about limits are likely from a perception of fragility of older people due to working with that population for physical therapy.

I think trainers are often overly cautious because they don't want to say "Oh ya it's awesome that you are making progress on your deadlift" then hear that your hurt yourself. But exercise now is the difference between being active 60 or 70 year old.

The folks here Barbell Medicine: the Beginner Prescription have a good perspective on lifting: "Physical inactivity is a major health problem worldwide and is the fourth greatest global risk factor for mortality according to the World Health Organization (WHO), behind high blood pressure, tobacco use, and elevated blood sugar (WHO 2009)."
posted by bdc34 at 9:18 AM on November 11, 2019

Do your beginner program. Start with the smallest weight the gym has available. Increase the weight by the smallest possible increment every time. That's how you get stronger - how else would it work?
posted by waffleriot at 9:44 AM on November 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

I started doing one of those beginner strength programs with my friends while I was in college, and my core strength is so bad, relatively, that pushups are almost more of an abdominal workout than an upper body workout. And my posture was nothing to write home about. None of that was a problem, and it helped me feel in a lot better shape and probably gave me a lot better posture. And it's not like you should be throwing the big, heavy plates on the bar from the get go. You will be working your way up slowly from someplace comfortable.

Now, these exercise programs are basically just a list of exercises and guidelines for increasing weight appropriately slowly. There's not any secret magic to them. The only tricky part is learning the proper form and maintaining it as you increase weight. This is something where having a trainer might help. One of my friends had been lifting longer than the rest of us and did a little bit of coaching, but honestly a lot of it was just going out and watching youtube videos of professional lifters demonstrating the proper form, then watching each other and giving feedback, and it worked well enough. You'd probably do great making sure your form is right at the beginning with professional trainer.

I expect your main problem here is the social problem of getting someone who isn't going to second guess you. I mean the usual advice there is going to apply: be very clear and specific about what you want. And it sounds like you do, in fact, have a very specific idea of what you want, and no it's not unreasonable, and I hope that if you just say "I am a new lifter doing this exercise program, I need someone for a couple of sessions to coach me on the proper form for bench press, overhead press, squats, barbell row, and deadlift" you'll get someone who can do just that for you. And then it's probably good to check in every once in a while to make sure your form hasn't gotten sloppy as you've increased in weight.

I mean the other standard advice is just a couple things:

Always, always warm up. Every single workout, start with an empty bar, the lowest weight, and then increase incrementally in 2 or three steps until you get to the weight you are doing for the day.

Increase weight slowly and don't be afraid to deload and go back down a few steps on a given lift if you feel like your form is bad, or if it feels like you might be straining something or, you just don't feel up to as much that week.

If you are showing up to the gym and doing the lifts, you are still maintaining your fitness and getting stronger, even if you aren't "pushing it" or lifting bigger numbers. The thing that's going to stop you from showing up and doing the work is hurting yourself is trying to do too much, too fast. Don't push yourself hard, just show up and stick it out for the long haul.

I'm sure that's your outlook already, given your goals, but I think it can't be repeated enough. The only time I hurt myself was ignoring that advice doing deadlifts, and trying to get back up to a weight I'd done before too fast after taking a break from lifting.

Well, the other thing for me is that I had to switch out other leg exercises for squats, because... well... I'm overweight and my knees kind of suck, and for whatever reason squats really make my knees ache at even light weights in ways even other similar exercises just don't. So I ended up substituting those out for other leg exercises that hurt me less.

Go easy, listen to your body, always warm up, and work your way up from easy weights. Be patient, know your limits, and you'll do fine.

The only other thoughts I have are that if the 45 lb/20kg standard bar is heavy for you starting out, you can probably nab a lighter weight bicep curl bar to begin with, and if the 2.5 lb/1 kg weight increments are proving to be too big a jump, I know a friend who brought their own 1.25 lb/ 0.5 kg plates so they could increase weight more smoothly rather than having to increase in quite as big of jumps.

Good luck out there, and I hope you find a routine that works for you.
posted by Zalzidrax at 12:28 PM on November 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

The xxfitness community on Reddit would be a good place to ask this question, too. And all future questions, really. It’s a very helpful community for exactly this.

I am more conservative about form, possibly because I’m injury-prone, but if you go slow, pay attention to your body, and take form seriously (you can do form checks r/xxfitness), you should be fine. Be prepared for a two steps forward, one step back type of process, since the compound barbell lifts tend to bring any imbalances or weak points into relief. You’ll also want to be careful to warm up and roll out afterwards. (I got lazy about this and now I can’t squat again until I fix the glute medius / IT issue that’s screwing up my knees and it is a bummer.)

But yeah that trainer experience sounds ...not good. I wouldn’t listen to her.
posted by schadenfrau at 12:40 PM on November 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

Anecdata: I've been working with a trainer three times a week since the beginning of October, and she's been incredibly helpful, supportive, and receptive. If I came to her with an idea/plan for doing more lifting in between our sessions and she responded the way your trainer did, which was basically to say "No, you're not ready, and also, I don't appreciate you making more work for me," I'd be pretty taken aback.

It'd be one thing to say, "This plan looks like too much too soon, but we can definitely start incorporating lifting into our future sessions and I can show you some good strength-building exercises to work on by yourself," but to just shut it down and kind of scold you for doing your own research and setting a new fitness goal? Seems pretty un-trainer-ly. Maybe I'm reading too much into this, but it sounds like she might have reacted defensively to your weight program plan because she knows she's been dropping the ball re: missing appointments and isn't giving you all the coaching support she knows she should be? Not a great excuse, but one possible explanation.

If you still want to work with her, it might be worth coming back with something like, "Okay, maybe that plan was a little ambitious, but I'm still interested in starting to pursue lifting. Can we incorporate more of this into our future sessions and do you have any good cross-training exercises you recommend I do in between our sessions to help build more strength where I'd need it for lifting?" But frankly, if my trainer spoke to me the way yours spoke to you, I'd be finding a new trainer, whether at the college or elsewhere. Fitness is a fraught enough topic for me without feeling like I might be snapped at for daring to have opinions and preferences about my own exercise plan and fitness goals.

FWIW: Despite starting out basically from full sedentary back at the beginning of October, I more-or-less successfully managed my first actually-heavy squat lift and started to learn proper deadlift form with a lighter barbell today. If I, a mostly unfit lady, can manage this with a couple of weeks of coaching, I feel quite confident that you could start successfully lifting heavy things fairly quickly with the right trainer to help you get started. It's not you--it's your trainer. Good luck, you can do it!
posted by helloimjennsco at 1:25 PM on November 11, 2019

I've competed in Olympic weightlifting and strongman and have about ten years of experience under my belt. I would actually listen to your old trainer and find someone who is able to work on your form/postural issues. Tight hips, weak glutes, poor movement patterns are EXTREMELY common among most developed-world adults, particularly if you work in an office.

Healthy can refer to VO2max, cholesterol, blood sugar, and healthy can also refer to movement patterns: can you reach a deep squat position without collapsing forward? If you do a deadlift can you lift the bar without letting your lower back round? Do you have enough core strength to do a plank? That's all just examples, stuff can get more technical. But I bring that up because not paying attention to structural and movement weaknesses can lead to injury down the road. I'm a big fan of lifting, but if you're in it for general health and the long run you HAVE to pay attention to form, and in the beginning this means having someone work with you or being extremely scrupulous about recording yourself and getting feedback on forums or similar.

For beginners who don't have access to a knowledgeable trainer or who don't feel comfortable posting videos online, I have actually moved towards advocating for a mix of yoga and a weight program that mixes dumbbells and machines. The former will help limber you up and build core strength to get you ready for barbell stuff down the road, the latter will build that basic strength. I'm pretty conservative in my recommendations these days because I've seen too many examples of people going straight from no lifting to barbell training without being anal about form and then ending up with nagging knee or back or shoulder pain that compromises their quality of life. If you are just trying to get healthy it's worth it to take things a bit slower and work up to squats and deads. Most trainers will be able to get you on a machines/dumbbells program and there are a lot of free yoga resources out there. I really like
posted by schroedinger at 4:39 PM on November 11, 2019 [5 favorites]

I vote get a different trainer through the college. The first one was a bad fit for a variety of reasons. Now you have a better mental frame work and vocabulary to discuss your goals; even better, you'll recognize if something's not working with new trainer and iron it out, or cut your losses, sooner. Keep the entirely new gym/more expensive trainer option in your back pocket. Go slow and be safe.
posted by Iris Gambol at 5:58 PM on November 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

Yeah, agree that good athletes are not necessarily good coaches and good coaches are, for idiosyncratic interpersonal reasons, sometimes not good coaches for particular people.

I would suggest trying again through the college now that you have a concrete plan. It's perfectly fine to tell a personal trainer that your goal is to do a specific set of exercises. This is the same as hiring a tennis coach or a running coach: if you're not yet able to play tennis or to run, you will be assigned work to get you there.

Not having seen you lift, I can't comment on your previous coach's claim that you are not able to do Starting Strength safely. You can't really be too weak, unless you're bedridden or something, because you can scale the weight all the way down to zero. However, it is possible to have insufficient range of motion for these exercises (especially the squat) and to compensate for it in ultimately unsafe ways. A good coach will be able to identify your problems and in most cases assign remedial work to fix it. Or tell you that you need physical therapy.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 6:31 PM on November 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

I have been doing weight training for about 2 years. I am pretty sure could not have done anything with a barbell when I first started; now I am entirely comfortable with barbell deads, squats, bench press, barbell rows, and strict press (using a lighter bar for strict press). Maybe you are stronger than I was, but it's also entirely possible that you really aren't strong enough *yet* for lifts with barbells but will be with a bit more work. Form is also quite important.

Also - I started in my late 40s for similar reasons to yours. For my first trainer I wanted to work with a middle aged woman who would understand where I was coming from. She was fine, but my second trainer - a 22-ish year old a year or two out of school who herself did Olympic lifts in competition - was excellent and totally understood and met my interests and needs, despite having a very different background athletically and being in a very different place herself than I was.
posted by 2 cats in the yard at 4:24 PM on November 12, 2019

I disagree with quite a few people on here and in general think you really do need someone to teach you for the first while until you get the hang of it yourself, even the machines. I've been going to the gym for the last 20 years and I still get trainers a few times a year to go over my form with me. And even though I'm 'experienced' I always find that I have slipped into some bad habits. I also see people at the gym doing their weights wrong, even on the machines, every single day. This can cause injury or just mean that you fail to get the most out of your workout.

If you want to squat, bench or deadlift, it is imperative that you get a trainer. You cannot teach yourself those things properly and there is a high chance of injury. I have been teaching my husband how to squat and it has been a process of some months now. It took me a long time before I was able to say confidently that I actually know how to do these exercises (and I still get people to check my form).

I suggest you get a more reliable trainer.
posted by thereader at 10:04 PM on November 12, 2019

« Older D&D etiquette, or how can we become a better...   |   Is all work "a pie-eating contest where first... Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments