I'm starting everybody else's new years' resolution in May... help?
May 6, 2008 5:59 PM   Subscribe

I've just signed up for a gym membership for the first time in my life... Due to metabolism, I'm not fat, but I'm still really out of shape... what should I start with?

I signed up because there was a huge discount for this place's grand opening and I really should be getting exercise. However, the reason I can afford it is because of the discount. That means I can't really pay for personal training sessions (something like $75 a piece)...

I'm pretty thin, save for my belly which is finally starting to grow ... guess I'm finally old enough that the metabolism is slowing down...

I've lived a sedentary lifestyle for years now, with office jobs that have had me behind a computer all day, and my main hobby being poker -- yay for more sitting!

My main goals are to just be in healthier shape and to hopefully trim down this weird belly that's sitting on a skinny dude's frame. It would be nice to bulk up, but right now that's tertiary to the other two goals.

Some questions:

1) I imagine I'd puke if I tried to run a mile in less than 8 minutes right now. Pathetic, but probably true. What exercises should I start with? Do I want to focus on cardio 'til I'm in decent enough shape to run a couple of miles -- then add in the weightlifting? Or should I rotate between them both right away?

2) I've been having mildly annoying lower back pain when I bend down that gets better, then comes back, then gets better, for the past 8 weeks or so. It's not enough that I've gone to a doctor, because it seriously only hurts a little bit. However, does this make doing cardio stuff before seeing a doctor a stupid idea?

3) My diet isn't terribly unhealthy. However, any recommendations in this realm if I'm looking to eventually get rid of this belly? Is diet even relevant beyond "burn more calories than you take in"?
posted by twiggy to Health & Fitness (25 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
get a trainer, at least for a while to get you started on the right track, most gyms offer this
posted by Mr_Chips at 6:08 PM on May 6, 2008

Any gym worth its salt should have attendants on hand to answer these kinds of questions, and to advise users on how to use the equipment properly. Any less, and they might find them up for negligence if you injure yourself.

My advice for starting out is simply to work at your own level. Whether you're talking strength or endurance, it will build up over time, but psychologically, if you push yourself too hard early on (to the point of extreme fatigue or pain) you'll likely end up seeing the gym as a chore. Try different machines & vary your routine - it's more enjoyable that way.

Also, expect your muscles to hurt like hell for a few days after your first workout. That's normal when dormant muscles are called into use, and it will disappear after a few workouts.

Whether you do cardio first or weights is really a matter of what your intentions are. One of the first things an attendant will ask you is "what's your goal? Bulk? Weight loss? General toning? Fitness?"

If weight loss is your goal, a lot of people recommend lifting weights for the first half of your session, then ending up with cardio. Build muscle, and even your at-rest metabolism will increase, so that's why lifting weights is great for fat loss, and the cardio burn at the end of the session will burn calories, and give your metabolism an extra kick for hours after the workout.
posted by UbuRoivas at 6:11 PM on May 6, 2008

Best answer: The bad news: diet and exercise are immensely complex topics
The good news: other people have packaged up the basics for anyone.

The Men's Health Book of Muscle is a pretty basic but useful primer on nutrition, the basics of hypertrophy, and cardio. If you want a great beginners program I suggest Strength Foundation from RealJock.com. The exercises start off simple so you can learn good form (they have video of each exercise to boot) and they throw in simple cardio. It is a fantastic program and you should get great results from it. That site has many good articles on nutrition you might want to look at as well. I don't know what floats your boat, but it is also a gay site. Just a heads up.
posted by munchingzombie at 6:14 PM on May 6, 2008 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Stretch a lot. Especially your back. Before and after.

My biggest piece of advice, as someone who just started at a gym, is to go at your own pace. Don't be psyched out by people who are faster or stronger. Just start with 20 minutes walking on a treadmill or at a moderate pace on the elliptical. Then build up to faster and longer. If you want to start taking cardio classes, do what you can. If you need to leave halfway through, do it. You're paying for the gym, you do what you want.

And in terms of lifting, f*ck those guys who do fast reps of really heavy weights. That's a dumb, macho way to get hurt. Start light, and do 10 slow reps. Pause, then 10 more. If you can't do more than 8, it's too heavy. If you can easily do more than 12, it's too light.
posted by radioamy at 6:18 PM on May 6, 2008

1) build up a cardio base (that is, get in shape). Treadmill, swimming, or bike.

2) ask your doctor

3) Eating less than you burn works quite well. See the Hacker's Diet for a good overview.
posted by zippy at 6:20 PM on May 6, 2008

Best answer: nthing the comments on taking it slowly. In addition to your muscles hurting initially, you are likely to have pain in your bones and joints as well. That can be unnerving, especially since we start worrying about permanent joint damage as we get older. However, just like your muscles have to be broken down in order to be built up stronger, so too do your bones. They get stronger by getting microscopic stress/exercise-induced fractures in them, which causes cells that build up bone (osteoblasts) to activate and start laying done more bone material. Since this is bone we're talking about, it takes much longer for them to repair themselves than it takes your muscles and other soft tissue (compare the healing rates between a cut and a clean broken bone). So expect some pain in your bones/joints, especially in places where your tendons insert into the bone. This is normal.

The key, though, is to be gentle with your body to start with and to be consistent. Before you can really get into shape, you have to get your body in shape to get into shape. So many people start going to gym, it hurts, and they quit or start only going irregularly. That really doesn't do you any good. Striking the balance between cardio and weights is also great advice, as is a thorough stretching routine before and after your workout. Sound like a lot to do in one session? It can be, but if you start out with smaller increments, you can get your mind into the habit of doing this every day.

Personal anecdotes now. I'm more of a weight lifter, but I lift for tone more than bulk. I set up my workout so that I lift chest and triceps (bench press, incline press, chest flies, and tricep press) one day and backs and biceps (the rowing motion machines, reverse flies, shoulder shrugs, and bicep curls) on the other. If you start with two or three (max) sets of 10 repetitions each, it shouldn't take very long and should leave you plenty of time to get your cardio workout in. A note on symmetry: when deciding what exercises to do, it's incredibly important to work opposite muscle groups evenly. You don't want to overbalance any of the muscular forces on your skeleton or that can lead to other problems. Most often this can be seen in the back. One possible explanation for your back pain is that people in general have horribly weak back muscles. The deep muscles in your back (the erector spinae) help stabilize your spine as you bend and twist as well as keeping your posture good and your back straight while you sit. Look around you at the posture of most people and you can see that, as a whole, we have weak backs. Weak backs = unstable backs = more likely to hurt. Long story short: ask someone there to point you at a back machine and start using it religiously. For weight amounts for stabilizing muscle groups, don't try to keep adding weight until you have to strain. This is the epitome of low weight, high rep. Be able to do 15-20 in a row without straining.

This is fairly long already (especially for my first post), but I'm kind of a gym freak. If this is helpful and you want more info, I'd be more than happy to provide further suggestions.

Final comment on preview: do NOT be intimidated by anyone in the gym. Every single person there, no matter how in shape they are, started their exercise regimens in the same boat as you. Also, don't be afraid to ask for a spot from someone. It's been my experience that most people are more than happy to help and support someone just starting out. Like I said, we've all been there.
posted by Osrinith at 7:30 PM on May 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: As you are a beginner, i suggest you take things slow. If you have some free time, read this site: www.bodybuilding.com. You can download some beginner workouts for your gender which you can follow at the gym.

To meet your goal, which is to get in shape/tone up, burn some fat and build some sculpting muscles, you would need to combine cardio exercise, with strength training and of course diet.

Your basic gym program should like this, if your schedule permits:

1) Cardio workout first thing in the morning, before breakfast. (if not, it should be done after the strength training for the day).
2) Strength training in the afternoon/evening, after work.
3) Eat 5-6 small meals a day, every 3 hrs. Go for lean protein (lean cuts of meat, fish, egg whites, tofu), whole grains (oatmeal, brownrice), vegetables and fruits.

When you start a workout, do 10 mins of warm up. Always cool down and stretch after your workout.

Cardio workout
For cardio, start slow. Most machines (treadmill, stepper, bike) have a program called interval. Basically this makes you work hard for a min then you go slow for a min and up and down for several 'sets'. Do this for 20 - 30 mins. Even if your 'running' or max is a level 5 or 7.0kph, stick to it. You will improve and your stamina will build up in 2 weeks and you find yourself running faster and take more time before you start panting. Don't exert to the point of breathlessness - this is your safety yardstick/gauge you are overdoing. Vary your cardio workouts (arc trainer, stepper, running on the treadmill, running outside, bike) for variety and workout different muscle groups.

The basic premise of cardio is to get your heart to beat fast (75% of your Maximum Heart Rate). Yes, this sounds and feels tiring but the aftereffects really feel good. As earlier mentioned, start slow. Be ambitious about your weight loss goals but don't start off too enthusiastic and end up lethargic or worse, with injuries.

Strength training
Plan for a 3-4 day a week gym training workout, 60-90- mins each time. One part for each day. Cardio is done before

E.g. Day 1: 3 exercises for Quads, 3 exercises for Hamstrings, 1 exercise for calves, 2 exercises for ABs.

Day 2: Rest

Day 3: 3 exercises for chest, 3 exercises for triceps, 2 exercises for abs.

Day 4: Rest

Day 5: 3 exercises for biceps, 3 exercises for shoulders, 2 exercises for abs.

Day 6: 3 exercises for back, 2 exercises for abs.

Day 7: Rest

The basic premise for strength training is to carry a weight you can sufficiently do 20-25 repetitions with, for a total of 3-4 sets (1 set = 20 - 25 repetitions). Don't be ambitious and try to carry a weight you think you will look macho carrying in the gym only to have to slam it down after 3 lifts. Go for a weight that make you expend effort (grunt, snort, make faces if you have to while you heave and lift) but it should make your muscles work out. :)

Most importantly, safety first and love yourself. Enjoy your workouts and enjoy your rest days (yes, your muscles need to recover) :D Keep us posted on your progress.

p.S; if you have muscle ache the day or two after, it is normal. Make sure to differentiate muscle ache (from tired muscles) from muscle pain (strain/injury). Eat more protein and take your vitamins to allow the muscle to recover. Even if you ache, stick to your program.
posted by prudie at 7:43 PM on May 6, 2008 [2 favorites]

Best answer: So very much empathy. I've got the girl-version of your complaints. Very skinny person getting a belly, not cardio-fit, annoying-but-not-severe back pains. Oh, yeah, and the doc says, "welcome to being 34."

So, I just joined a gym. May 1.

I'm happy with how things are going right now. In these first couple of weeks, I'm setting my sights pretty low and not overdoing it in order to motivate me to go back day after day. "Fitness" is not going to happen all at once anyway, so no need to stress out or get mad or get myself so sore that I can't go back for a week.

I'm doing 15-20 minutes of cardio (picking a different type of elliptical, bike, whatever, different each time so that I can figure out which version I like best), then doing the circuit machines (which I find satisfying and not-terribly intimidating), then going back and doing another round of cardio if I have time. I spend an hour to an hour and a half at the gym. Is this a terribly strenuous or complete workout? Hell no. Major bits missing. But if this "working out" thing is going to work, it has to be a habit, so I'm trying to develop one while I figure out where I stand, endurance-wise. I'll add more cardio and some freeweights as I go. I'll try group cardio classes as soon as I can handle a solid 30 min on an elliptical (a week or so.) Meanwhile, I hear that the group lifting classes are actually pretty fun.

Does your gym give you a couple of free sessions with a trainer as a bonus when you join? Even if they don't, consider meeting with a trainer once or twice. Go ahead and point out that you can't afford regular sessions, but you'd really like some help setting up a routine. They'll do this gladly. Trainers get that not everyone can afford them twice a week.
posted by desuetude at 7:47 PM on May 6, 2008

Best answer: I know other people have stated this before, but whatever you do start slow. Make goals, long term and short term. Both of these suggestions I'm making so you will keep going to the gym longer than a couple of months. Which is what most people end up doing ( and how the gyms make a killing every first of the year). You could also get some headphones to block out extraneous sounds, people, etc. The only website suggestion I would make is T-Nation. It has more than enough information for anything you would want to accomplish in the gym.
posted by P.o.B. at 7:47 PM on May 6, 2008

Best answer: Start slow, yes. However, you do not need to do any of the following:
1) Only lift weights that will let you do X reps, where X is 5,8,10,12,20,25, or in fact any number at all. Even for a beginner that is simplistic advice. Once you have mastered the form of whatever you are trying to do, mixing up the weights and reps between sessions will do you much good.
2) Hire a trainer. Most trainers suck and are a waste of time. Some are actively bad (here's a hint, if your trainer tells you to do squats in a smith machine, they are a BAD TRAINER). Sure, some are good, but it is damn hard for a beginner to tell, and frankly, you really don't need one.
3) Isolation exercises. Bicep curls, tricep pull-downs, abductors, adductors, any of that crap. Also a waste of your time. (ok, this is my personal opinion as a person not particularly concerned with impressing the ladiezz with my gun show, but I have gotten and stayed quite strong on a diet of mostly squats, deadlifts, presses, pull-ups, push-ups, sit-ups, and the occasional running. Saves lots of time too).

I would go read Stumptuous, even though you're a dude. She has an absolutely excellent introduction to the most important basic weight training exercises and a lot of sane things to say about workout planning and diet. Read getting started, then check out her pages on form, and some of her workout routine suggestions. This is like basic gymrat knowledge distilled into a web page. You might do things differently if you are an expert training for something similar, but it is a great place for any beginner to start.

Finally, if your back hurts, try working your abs.
posted by ch1x0r at 8:21 PM on May 6, 2008 [2 favorites]

Start through the Couch to 5K running plan on a treadmill. If you get on a treadmill and just run hard you're going to get tired fast and feel discouraged.
posted by tomble at 8:29 PM on May 6, 2008

Best answer: I'm exactly the same as you, but a couple months ahead. Skinny dude with a growing paunch and a lifetime of tech/desk work. Get on the elliptical machine (preferably one with the moving arm things) and take a few weeks to get yourself up to 45 minutes. Fast / slow, forwards / backwards, whatever, you just need to get those muscles moving and your heart conditioned. I did just 30 minute workouts for the first week, and I do pretty modest RPMs on the machine (in the 50s).

Remember to stretch and hydrate.

That's about all I know so far. Get the heart and lungs into a minimum of shape, and then go talk to trainers or do something more rigorous. I'm not there yet myself :) Personally I'm all about cardio and could care less about weights or weight machines, but that's probably because of my body type.

The most important thing is to not flake out. Set a minimum number of gym trips per week and never violate that minimum.
posted by intermod at 9:45 PM on May 6, 2008

Oh and elliptical trainers are much easier to start with than treadmills. Plus you can get away with Chuck Taylors on an elliptical.
posted by intermod at 9:46 PM on May 6, 2008

Treadmills also fuck up your knees, or at least that's my experience - running is a very shitty form of exercise all round, as far as I'm concerned.

Elliptical trainers with the arms (y'know, the ones that make it kinda like yr doing x-country skiing) use a nice smooth motion so your knees don't get jarred senseless, and you get a bunch of bicep / tricep / shoulder / back / chest exercise as well (tho more of an endurance / toning thing than bulking up).
posted by UbuRoivas at 10:33 PM on May 6, 2008

Every gym I've been a member of, especially the big corporate chain ones, has offered new members a free one-to-one evaluation (not a personal training session) with one of the instructors.

This usually involves taking a short history covering any health problems, lifestyle, exercise history and goals. The instructor will then recommend a programme of exercise based on what it is you want to achieve. (They'll also try to sell you personal training sessions, but there's no need to take those up. If they offer you a free one, then by all means go for that.) Many gyms will write up your programme on a card, with a progress chart, so when you visit the gym, you can retrieve your card from the filing system, follow the programme and mark your progress.

If classes are included in your membership, try a few out. They're not all girly dance-type things. Spinning classes are good, as is body pump, which involves weights. Tell the instructor you're new and they'll be kind to you and help you through the class.

But if I were you my first port of call would be to ask about a free evaluation with an experienced member of staff.
posted by essexjan at 11:45 PM on May 6, 2008

Response by poster: Wow, thanks for all of the great information so far... now I'm chomping at the bit and the damn gym doesn't open for another week and a half!

I'll be doing lots of reading and figuring out... but it looks like my initial theory of starting out with slooooow cardio and working my way up before jumping into weight training is probably on the right track...

I'll keep checking back for more, but what's already here is great.. thanks so much.
posted by twiggy at 11:59 PM on May 6, 2008

Best answer: You can start right into weightlifting even as a skinny bastard, no need to 'ramp up'. If you're like me starting out, you might be weak and feel bad when you struggle with 40 pounds when some guy next to you is slinging around 120, especially on muscle groups like shoulders that don't get much normal weight. Just put the blinders on and do your personal best and realize nobody cares.

Starting out I'd do something like this:
A 'Set' is a group of repetitions. Important: Try to choose weight such that you go to failure on the 10th rep. If you are able to do 10 repetitions and feel you could do more, then you should use more weight. If you fail by the 3rd or 4th drop a little bit. Space out your sets enough to let your muscles recover. As long as you are going to failure each set, you are doing the right amount of work, whatever the weight it happens to be.

Day A - Chest/Triceps/ Core

Dumbbell Bench Press - the bar can be intimidating for new lifters. Dumbbells are great because you can drop them if you get into trouble. 4 sets of 8-10. Squeeze the dumbbells together at the top.
Incline DB or bar press
Decline DB or bar press
Chest flies, either cable or DB
Triceps - Dips. Use a machine with a weight assist if you can't do bodyweight ones
Some kind of extensions, either skullcrushers or cable pulldowns.
Core - Weighted sit-ups
Leg raises (captain's chair)
Obliques (side raises w/ 1 dumbbell)

Day B - Back / Lower Back/ Shoulders / Biceps

* Deadlifts - really good for the back but are a complex lift. Get a musclehead to critique your form/show you how to do this if you are unsure.
Pullups, wide grip palms facing away - use an assist if bodyweight is too tough
Cable pulldowns
Close-Grip seated rows
Bent-Over Rows
Shoulder Press
Military Press
Can do bicep curls, though usually they will be hit hard from the rows/pullups
Hyperextensions - These rock. Hold some weight in your hands if you can do 10 easily.

Day C - Legs
Quad extensions - get some blood flowing before...
Squats - No way around it, back squats are the best leg workout. Drop far enough that your thighs are parallel to the ground, keep your feet flat + back straight. Practice with minimal weight.
Calf raises
posted by spatula at 12:09 AM on May 7, 2008

it looks like my initial theory of starting out with slooooow cardio and working my way up

cool, good luck!

and take an ipod and/or some magazines - the time flies by if you're distracted.
posted by UbuRoivas at 12:11 AM on May 7, 2008

One quick aside: a hidden enemy in some of these items may be boredom, especially on those elliptical trainers. When I started out, I thought I was hopeless because I'd "tire out" after eight minutes or so. The big realization was when I brought a magazine from home to hold my interest (not one of the ones they have at the gym), and I could go pretty much forever. I wasn't tired--I was bored.

Bring something to read, try to time it for when something you like is on TV, listen to audiobooks, any of these could help your "endurance" starting out.
posted by gimonca at 4:56 AM on May 7, 2008

Start slow, don't work too hard. A huge number of injuries occur in the first 3 weeks of a new training plan.

Everyone has to eat more protein. .8 grams per pound keeps your muscles from shrinking, 1.4 is a good target if you want to add muscle.

Some of what has been said so far is the basic line any trainer will give you. If that's too much, then here's the core:

Legs Back Bicepts, Chest Shoulders Tricepts.

You can split it or do all of it every day. If you only do 1-3 sets of each at low weight, every day is fine. When starting a workout... for the first 3 weeks... showing up is all that counts.
posted by ewkpates at 5:55 AM on May 7, 2008

Best answer: I'm surprised no one has recommended Crossfit yet - - it's a great all-around program, and there's a link in the "Start Here" section to BrandX, which scales the exercises down from world-class athlete level to tubby-IT-slob level. I've been doing it for six months or so, and I LOVE it.
posted by restless_nomad at 7:25 AM on May 7, 2008

It took me about a year to work out that, when doing cardio exercise (rowing machine/elliptical trainer/treadmill etc.), going flat out for ten minutes made me feel horrible and didn't do me much good. Going at 80-90% of my capacity for 30 minutes, however, really did do me good and was much more satisfying.

The other thing I'd say is don't try and beat your personal best every time you go back to the gym. Do that, and you'll dread it. Some days I'm more tired than others and the times will be awful but I'll feel better for it. That's OK.
posted by unless I'm very much mistaken at 7:53 AM on May 7, 2008

There's also the option of skipping the gym entirely. Granted, you may benefit immensely from a personal trainer and gym equipment. Personally, I get bored very quickly in gyms, it is a weird setting to me. You can try to incorporate more exercise into your every day life -- walk more, bike more, lift more, get out and play some intramural sports and socialize.

However, if you like to monitor your progress, the gym route might be best. I know that for myself I can't keep it up for very long and would just prefer to get outside. Especially this time of year.
posted by Flying Squirrel at 12:07 PM on May 7, 2008

Best answer: Stronglifts.com

Great website and beginner/intermediate/advanced strength training forum.

He has a detailed workout that anyone can do, as long as you get some help the first few times with techniques. Best way to lose fat and build muscle hands down.
posted by ba11k at 1:48 PM on May 7, 2008

You might want to see if your gym will offer yoga classes as part of your membership. This would likely help with the back pain. Yoga is also good for toning.
posted by All.star at 12:13 PM on May 8, 2008

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