Just a little muscle is all I want!
February 17, 2008 9:16 PM   Subscribe

Suggested workout programs to put on some upper-body muscle and add general torso definition, while leaving room for running?

Background: I'm 20 years old, 5' 11", 155 lbs. I did cross country and track in high school, and I continued running (to a much lesser degree) after entering college. I now run around 15 miles per week. I also play Ultimate once or twice a week.

Over the past few years, as I have begun to consider myself more and more a runner, I have severely neglected my upper body (chest and arms). Back in high school it was okay, but there's hardly anything there anymore. I'd really like to put some muscle on my arms, chest, and back. Also, while I have reasonably hard abs and little body fat (although it's not the lowest it's been in recent history), they can't really be seen. I'd like to get better definition there as well.

What I'm looking for: A workout program that will get me results while maintaining or, better yet, improving the cardiovascular strength I have built up through running. Also, the last time I worked my upper body, using the same machines and weights I had used in high school with no problems, I had trouble lifting my backpack for days afterwards. I don't want my arms dead like that (except maybe for the first few workouts as I adjust). Finally, I'd like to have space in the regimen for the occasional run.

Like I said, I'm a college student. This means a few things for your answers. I'm willing to pay, but not too much. I can dedicate maybe an hour or so every day, but I'd like the regimen to be flexible because my schedule can get crazy at times. We have a great workout room here at school, with machines and dumbbells and exercise balls and whatnot, so that's not a limiting factor. We have a pool, and I'm open to swimming programs, but it's really not my preference because I get bored out of my skull during swim workouts.

Thanks so much for your help.

I searched the site for this question or a variant thereof having been asked previously, but I was surprised to find that it had not been. Correct me (and I apologize) if I'm wrong.
posted by dondiego87 to Health & Fitness (17 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Hm. Do you go to the college gym? Do they offer someone to plan training with you? Many do. It seems to me that you don't need anything fancy, just a basic upper-body program that would include your basic Nautilus (or similar) circuit along with some free-weight and core work. Can you contact your student fitness coordinator and see if they can have someone spend about 30 minutes with you designing a basic program and going over form with you for each exercise? The basics go a long way if you haven't done much before.
posted by Miko at 9:30 PM on February 17, 2008

check out john stone fitness...
posted by dawdle at 9:36 PM on February 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Amateur Strongman Mike Gill's Beginner Program

Serious business.
posted by Wanderlust88 at 9:41 PM on February 17, 2008 [2 favorites]

Wow! With all that running you do your biggest obstacle to gaining muscle mass will be eating enough. Nutrition is as important as what you do in the gym so be sure to read as much as you can on sports nutrition. This is a really good article on the topic to get you started.

You should also keep track of how many calories you eat. Between running, ultimate, and what ever additional things you do in the gym you are going to have a serious calorie deficit. Use FitDay or my favorite Cron-o-meter to make sure you are eating enough and throwing away all that hard work.
posted by munchingzombie at 10:07 PM on February 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Pushups. Perfect pushups.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 11:06 PM on February 17, 2008

Your arms will only be dead like that after the first few workouts.

Do pullups, bench press, shoulder press, dips, etc...basically push horizontally and vertically, and pull horizontally and vertically, and you've got your upper body covered. 3x8 reps worked for me at the beginning. Yeah, you'll have to eat a lot of protein. After a while you'll have to do stuff for your legs like deadlift and squat if you want to keep putting on muscle, but you don't have to worry about that now...you can just work upper body and get lopsided if you want. If you try to run afterwards on that day you'll be a tired son-of-a-bitch but it'll be good for your stamina probably.
posted by creasy boy at 12:50 AM on February 18, 2008

I should add: I was you, i.e. former cross-country runner, I just worked my upper body for a year and went jogging in between. It's definitely doable, but it will make you topheavy.
posted by creasy boy at 12:52 AM on February 18, 2008

you don't need much. broken down by movement:

-cleans/power cleans

-bent over barbell rows
-pull ups (weighted when you can handle it)
-seated cable row

-flat barbell bench press
-standing barbell overhead press or push press
-dips (weighted when you can handle it)


Basically, you want to pull, row, push, and squat. And squat. And squat. This kind of regimen, either in the 4-6 rep range (strength/power) or the 15-20 rep range (muscular endurance) will put meat on your bones, but it'll be functional meat that shouldn't slow you down, if you keep up the cardio. Stay away from the Men's Health garbage like 12 rep hypertrophy curl sets.

Combine the above with good eating (GROWIN FOOD! Freakin eggs, meats, and complex carbs. Add a multivit/multimineral, and you're golden) and you'll put on the meat. You should read Starting Strength if you have the time/money, and are interested in doing much more than "putting on a little muscle".
posted by crunch buttsteak at 1:37 AM on February 18, 2008

I've gotten great results with CrossFit. You might, too. Scale the workout of the day to your ability and equipment. 3 2 1, Go!
posted by phoebus at 2:15 AM on February 18, 2008

I'm like you, I did a ton of running, soccer, cycling before college, so my legs are naturally strong, but my upper body was lacking.

I started swimming (yeah, I hate it too - getting wet, showering, yadda yadda) two or three times a week, and built up my arms and chest quite a bit. Once I hit 25, I started filling out, and when I hit the gym I did basically bench presses and whatever that pull-down machine is plus body combat aerobic classes. That really upped my definition and actual strength, though I never got musclebound (not in my genes, I guess).

As for food, you don't have to eat protein powder, just eat whatever's in your dorm (not fried if you want your abs to show more) or cook healthy food. Learning to eat right is half the battle.
posted by Jhoosier at 3:02 AM on February 18, 2008

Yeah... I'm also a former xc-runner who started doing a little swimming to get better upper body / core strength. It works awesome... plus, if you go to college, you generally get to work out with girls in bikinis. (Gotta find your motivation somewhere, eh?)

The boredom... well, yeah. Compared to running, that's an issue... I look at it as kind of a zen thing, though. Just kinda drift off into the same place I go in the shower: happy fun wet land. (Sadly, I no longer swim at a college, so my workouts are depressingly lacking in girls in bikinis.)

Swimming 6000-8000 meters a week didn't turn my upper body into anything spectacular -- I'm still 5'10" 140lbs -- but it burned off most of the remaining fat bits, gave my upper body pretty good definition. Helped with my running, too. It was really neat watching the muscles grow in my arms over time... I totally know where you're coming from and, I'm sure, whatever you do, you'll get a kick out of what's possible over the course of a few months.

I know lots of runners who do strength training, though. Just go down to your school's rec center and talk to one of the student trainers -- it'll be free or totally cheap.
posted by ph00dz at 5:43 AM on February 18, 2008

I reading a lot of practical responses, but I think something's missing - when I was 20, I wanted some guns! You're gonna have to do the old classics - bench press, pullups, curls.
Work pecs (bench press) twice a week. There's three positions - flat, incline, and decline, and three forms - press with bar, press with dumbells, and crossovers (with two cable stacks). Pick one form for each position for any particular workout. Do one month of three sets, 12 reps each. then a month of 8-10 reps. THen do a month of 5reps, 4 reps, 3 reps. You are now stronger - start over with higher weight.

Back - do pulldowns, both behind and in front of your head, with a bar. Do pull-ups with the parallel handle (from the low row machine) draped over a bar, and pull yourself up so the handle is mid-chest. Since it's much more difficult to add weight, just change your speed - slower is like heavier.

Arms - with proper form and sufficient protein intake, it's easy to build up arms. For biceps you need three exercises - neg curls, where you use both hands to jerk the dumbell up to the upper position but only one to lower it down...s.l.o.w.l.y....for eight reps; preacher curls with a wavy bar and hands to the outsides as far as you can (do the 12reps-one month, 10 reps, 5-4-3 pattern); and twenty ones - alternating dumbell curls 7 overhand, 7 thumbup, 7 underhand. That total of nine sets can alternate with triceps. For triceps, lay on a bench with a wavy bar at your chest; press it up and rotate your arms back toward your head about 45 degrees; now straighten your arms so the weight would be above your head if you were standing up instead of lying down. After ten, kill your tri's off with regular nosebreakers (upper arms vertical, lower the weight from straight-arm to your forehead), fast. The other tri workouts are with the pulldown stack - underhand extensions with the single handle, and rope extensions. Make sure to not just pull the rope down, but spread the rope to each side of your body at the bottom position.

There's no magic to shoulder workouts - just flyes and military presses.

The chest workout takes a while, what with recovery. The back workout is pretty quick. The arm workout is lighting fast. Couple each with a run of opposite length.
posted by notsnot at 6:38 AM on February 18, 2008 [2 favorites]

me: 6', 165 lb, 24 years old. All through high school and college I was 145-150 lbs, good distance runner/hiker but no real experience with upper-body exercise (and, unfortunately, not much desire. weight training is boring!). Last year I started rock climbing and have lost what little fat I had, replacing it with really toned muscle (and getting more all the time). I've also grown an inch taller from a combination of improved muscle tone and posture (really -- my parents have a new mark on the measuring wall!). Weight training may work well for you, and that's great. You'll probably gain more, faster. But I have to mention climbing because of the overall workout and how much fun I've had. It's cheaper than a regular gym membership and I think the people are generally much more friendly. I can still run (doing a trail-run in the morning and then bouldering for a few hours is a great way to spend a saturday morning) and my overall cardiovascular health is better than it's ever been.

You will probably experience dead arms at first with ANY exercise regimen. I did. It gets much easier.
posted by Chris4d at 10:45 AM on February 18, 2008

Pushups + chin-up bar are cheap and fast and can be done at home. I don't have a chin-up bar, but even with just the daily pushups my chest and arms are in better shape than they used to be. I shoot for 50 a day, which was REALLY hard at first. Arms were sore. Chest hurt. Within a short amount of time, several weeks at the most, all 50 could be done in one go, and I wasn't sore afterwards any more.

I know you've already said you aren't interested, but man - I'd kill to have a convenient pool again. Nothing will give you better shoulders and upper body strength than swimming as often as you can do it.
posted by caution live frogs at 11:48 AM on February 18, 2008

I second everything crunch buttsteak said. Here's a basic writeup on how to do it.
posted by kepano at 3:41 AM on February 19, 2008

Building muscle is 50% diet, 25% exercise, 25% rest. I could even argue that, at least for me, diet is 75%.

diet -- Protein, protein, protein. COOKED eggs (hard boiled eggs are super-convenient, but raw eggs will get you nowhere), chicken breasts, nuts... and I suppose protein powder or bars if that's all you can do. Eat as much protein as you can, as often as you can. Five or six times a day. This is more important than exercise if you want to build muscle. Took me a WHILE to learn this lesson -- wish I'd have known this at your age. (I always focused on the training, and diet was an afterthought.) Just be careful not to keep eating like this when you're not training.

exercise -- Plenty of good advice here. Just keep in mind that working out for 3 hours every day won't build much if you don't eat right.

rest -- Again, this is usually overlooked, especially when you're young and full of enthusiasm, but you need to give your muscles time to grow. Working out breaks 'em down, rest + diet builds 'em up. Working out every single day sure feels like you're doing a lot, but it's counterproductive. I'd say 2 times a week for any one group should be your max. Do cardio on your off days.

I'm not a dietician or anything, just a guy who used to be a "hard gainer". I'm weight training just once per week now, but eating LOTS of protein, and having very good results -- and I'm keeping up my cardio, once or twice a week. (Cardio also helps with depression, so it's a must-have for me.)
posted by LordSludge at 6:50 AM on February 19, 2008

Response by poster: Wow! Thanks for all the excellent responses. There's a lot to choose from, of course. I'll probably end up going to the fitness center to see if they have any kind of trainer services for free, as suggested by Miko. (I'm guessing they won't, it's a pretty small operation there.) All of your other suggestions will be great though in customizing my routine as I go along. Also, the diet advice is really helpful.

Followup question to anyone who may come across this: It would probably work best for me to do my workouts at night (8 pm or so). Would this be alright? What about early in the morning (7 am or so)?

@Jhoosier and @ph00dz:
I may well end up swimming after all. I just discovered that we have a swim club that meets an hour every weekday. Maybe my problems with boredom would be solved by some other people being present.

I very seriously considered rock climbing, but there's no wall anywhere near me.
posted by dondiego87 at 6:40 PM on February 20, 2008

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