Developing my own fitness routines?
June 23, 2008 7:03 PM   Subscribe

I'm interested in developing my own workouts. I know what to do, but how do I string it all together?

I like to think I have the puzzle pieces; I just lack the knowledge of how to put the puzzle together.

A little background: I've a membership with my local Y. As a work-related perk, when I joined, I got 6 free sessions with a personal trainer. We've met 5 times, and our last time will be this week. I've enjoyed meeting with him; he's taught me a lot of different moves. I definitely would feel comfortable meeting with him occasionally in the future, or asking him questions as I have them, but I can't really afford to continue meeting with him on a regular basis.

He's typed up our workouts, and so I have a good idea of what we've done. Mostly, we've worked with a stability ball, a resistance band, and free weights. We've also worked with a few of the machines.

I've got my own stability ball, resistance band, and free weights, and of course, access to all those at the Y. I also belong to SparkPeople, which I think has an excellent library of exercises. If I'm ever at a loss, I'm sure I can come back here, too - I saw a lot of great suggestions while reading over other people's related questions.

What I'm looking for, I think, is a set of guiding principles. So far, the most useful thing I have seen is on Stumptuous - specifically the section on this page that discusses building routines. I'd like more information in that vein.

I am looking for general resources - books or websites would be welcome - but I also think that finding answers to the following questions would go a ways toward helping me figure this out:

(1) How do I determine how many minutes of cardio I need to do? Generally, when I'm at the gym on my own, I only do cardio. I do about 25 minutes on the treadmill and 10 minutes on something else (either the arc trainer or a stair stepper or something). I know I need to do more, and work myself up to about an hour. Should I ever do more than that? (Not sure that I will ever have the patience to - I don't like the gym, really - but let's consider it anyway.) How many minutes should I do on days I strength train? Am I trying to quantify this more than I need to? (Note of possible relevance: I'm morbidly obese, so I'm guessing, in general, that the more cardio I do - within reason - the better my health will be.)

(2) How do I determine how many sets I need to do? Or should the number of sets remain consistent - should it be the resistance or weight I change up instead?

(3) And the question that has been bugging me - can I spot train? I keep hearing that you can't spot train, but it's also been framed in a confusing way. Two examples: you can't get rid of upper arm flab just by doing tricep curls; you can't get a six-pack just by doing crunches. It seems to me that what they're saying, really, is that you can't expect to lose fat if you're just doing strength training - you need to do cardio, too. Am I right? If so, well, DUH. But you could still get yourself some pretty nice abs even if they are hidden under a nice layer of fat, right?

(4) Part of the reason I ask the previous question is because my next question is: how do you identify weaker muscles? I'm aware that I need to strengthen the muscles in my lower back. Unfortunately, I am aware of this because I injured it last November and had to go to physical therapy and focus on just that. I'd like to avoid injury, and if I can do so by pinpointing weaker muscle areas, that would be good.

Is there anything that I can ask differently, or that I should ask of my trainer when I see him that last time on Wednesday?

Thanks in advance for your answers!
posted by rikhei to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (15 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Whatever you decide, this should be your number one goal: What can I do to make me want to keep going to the gym? I've been working out for 10 years, and that was my biggest realization.

To lose the weight, you can do cardio. You can strength train too. But you won't lose any weight if you don't make going to the gym a habit.

This is lost on most people. They go to the gym for a week, overwork themselves to the point of exhaustion and pain, and never go back because it was a bad experience. What they don't realize, is that they did this to themselves.

Without your trainer there, it will be tougher because it will be just you. I might not do cardio more than a couple of days at first (this burns a lot of people out because they do cardio every day to the point of exhaustion, get pissed off, and quit).

Do weights. Weights will build muscle, which will boost your metabolism, allowing you to burn more calories throughout the day.

As for a routine...Men's Fitness and Men's Health always have some basic routines that have worked for me. They're even on their websites.

And some bonus random tips: Don't spot train your "vanity" muscles (biceps and abs) because you'll be wasting your time at this point. Concentrate on compound movements that involve more than one muscle group. Each day, include at least two exercises that involve the biggest muscles in your body - those in your thighs and butt. As far as reps...I always fall back to 3 sets, 8-10 reps. It's the middle ground between the "high-rep" and "low-rep" philosophies. Whatever you decide, load up enough weight so that you can barely finish each set. I once read your strength workout shouldn't last more than a half-hour to 45 minutes or you're wasting your time.

Take it easy at first. If you get frustrated, take a rest. Make sure you want to come back tomorrow. And the next day. Eventually, you'll feel so good after you're done, NOT going to the gym will be weird.
posted by producerpod at 7:30 PM on June 23, 2008

Here, I'll get one of these:

(3) And the question that has been bugging me - can I spot train?

Nope. Sorry. Can't happen, doesn't exist. The body does not derive energy from the fat tissues surrounding a given area, rather, from the whole body.

The thing is, you know this. Watch: if spot reduction was possible...fat people who chewed gum, would have skinny faces. And they don't.

If you weight train you have the opportunity to increase lean muscle mass. If you perform more cardio and reduce your daily amount of calories, you'll burn fat (and not muscle), reducing the amount of fat on your body. Again, you know this: A very fat person, must have strong muscles to be able to move around. So, yes, you can have 'great abs' under lots of fat.

And your implication is almost dead on: tons of people do tons of ab work, pretty much without the results they want...because there's fat on top, and it's unlikely to be seen. 'More work' isn't always 'good work'.
posted by filmgeek at 7:38 PM on June 23, 2008

First of all, ditto what producerpod said. Above all, find a way that you keep going. Exercise will do squat for you if you don't develop a routine.

Secondly, I like, there is a ton of great info on that site, including some answers to the questions you asked. sounds like you are asking a bunch of questions that your personal trainer would be most qualified to answer. Have you asked him these things? They are all particular to your training goals and your current fitness level. If he cannot answer them then drop him and find someone who is NSCA certified (I believe there are other certs too that are good, but that is the one I'm most familiar with).

In addition, there are many different theories about the best way to do things, but again it depends on your goals: are you training for general fitness, endurance sports, bodybuilding, etc.?

To answer #3, it's no surprise that you are confused. There is a ton of conflicting information about how this works. But think about it this way: if you are trying to gain definition and lose fat (note I did not say weight) through exercise, there are two important things going on. One is that you need to reduce the fat covering your muscles so they are revealed (i.e. lower your body fat percentage). Two, you need to help build muscles so there is something worth showing when you lose that fat. To generalize, men tend to gain fat most visibly in their stomach, women tend to gain it in their hips and butt, but your body places fat wherever it wants, and it doesn't remove it just because you exercise the muscles underneath; you must have an overall energy deficit for you body to burn that fat.

However, you can't just consume less calories than you burn every day if you want to lose fat (sure, that will work for losing weight...but do you want to lose muscle mass too?)--you must intelligently replenish your calorie deficit by crafting a quality diet plan--and this includes eating strategies: for example, eating 5-6 evenly spaced-out small meals a day of lean protein and complex carbohydrates will keep your metabolism up and ensure that you aren't replacing fat with fat. I won't get into this more than that but I will repeat the old bodybuilder saying: great abs are made in the kitchen, not the gym.

To address your question about what type of training to use, I believe the best strategy is to find something that, first of all, you will do regularly, and that is not harming you. Secondly, I think you'd do well to do both cardio as well as incorporate strength training into your regime. It's not true that you will not lose fat when strength training, and the more muscle you build the more you will burn just sitting there: to generalize, your cardio will be more effective if you have more muscle mass, you'll burn more faster, and it'll keep your metabolism up during the day (also a point that producerpod made).

There is also something called high intensity interval training that is basically anaerobic activity that supposedly (and anecdotally, in my own personal experience) helps burn a good deal of fat. If you get into exercise, you might want to check this out. Also look into Crossfit which puts this strategy (and others) into practice--I like it because it encourages short, interesting workouts. It keeps me interested and works well for me.

So, I would suggest to you that you stop thinking about "spot training" and just work on learning more about how your body works. It's a complex system and you will have your own quirks and things particular to you.

(4) Part of the reason I ask the previous question is because my next question is: how do you identify weaker muscles?

Your trainer should REALLY be helping you with this. You identify weak muscles but starting out on really small amounts (or just the bar) for various lifting exercises and make sure you have the form down before you increase the amounts incrementally (at least, that's one way, and a real trainer will have a better answer for this).

But please, tell me, have you had this conversation with your trainer? Please do. This shouldn't be a mystery to you if you've already seen him five times; did he ask you any questions when you started like, "have you had an injuries in the past?"
posted by dubitable at 7:46 PM on June 23, 2008

If you just want to lose weight, you don't even have to do any exercise. It is all about caloric deficit. If exercising is inconvenient/unpleasant for you, this might be worth looking into/prioritizing. Just eat far less. Exercising will expedite the process, though, as you can rack up a much higher caloric deficit if you are burning more calories. The thing to remember is: exercise without diet management can have unpredictable results, sometimes even weight gain. Diet management without exercise will have guarenteed weight loss results. Pay attention to the latter, and only add the former if you would like to further increase caloric deficit.

As far as what you should be doing for your exercise, I would hazard a guess at: anything. If you are obese, walking, running, swimming, lifting, and just about anything else will burn a significant amount of calories and should not be discounted.

What you need to worry about is body fat %, not where the fat is. The fat's location is dictated by genetics, so getting hung up on that is only going to impede your ultimate weight loss goals with silly abrolling exercises and resistance band curls.

When you see your trainer, ask him/her to recommend some healthy, tasty foods that can become your staples for your new active lifestyle. Exercizing and eating should be a lifestyle shift (thus everybody insisting on enjoyment of what you are doing, because you are going to "living" it more than just "doing" it). In addition to that, make sure you have a list of compound lifts that cover the majority of your muscle groups. Compound lifts will target the areas that need muscle the most, and bring them in line with the rest of your body.
posted by GooseOnTheLoose at 8:16 PM on June 23, 2008

Please, please, print out dubitable's post and tape it to your wall. I agree with all of that.

To add my two cents, here are the basic principles in my exercise world:
* To look good is to have low body fat percentage.
* Losing weight does not necessarily improve your body fat percentage. Losing fat does.
* The best way to lose fat is to eat a healthy diet with a balanced ratio of lean protein; carbohydrates from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains; and healthy fats.
* Resistance exercise is the next best tool. It helps build or maintain muscle mass, boosts your metabolism, triggers a beneficial hormonal response, and burns a fair amount of calories.
* Cardio is the least essential piece of the puzzle. It is not necessary to do cardio if you eat right and lift weights. It should be used more as a supplemental calorie-burning activity.

So then, my answer to your first question is: you should prioritize your diet above all. Without a good diet, all else is for naught. After that, you want to aim for at least 2-3 resistance exercise sessions per week. That could be weightlifting, resistance bands, calisthenics, whatever. Weightlifting is best but if you're not totally keen on it that's okay. Personally I think women who hit the weights are extra awesome for breaking out of their comfort zone. Finally, there's cardio. You can do as much as you want, whenever you want, it frankly doesn't really matter. People will get into arguments about doing it morning or night, before or after lifting, on an empty or full stomach, etc. It doesn't matter. What matters is doing it.

Onwards to your second question: the amount of weight you do is the variable that should increase over time. You do not need to do more sets or more reps, just up the weight as you get stronger. A good rule of thumb is to pick a rep range, say 8 to 12 reps. If you can do more than 12 reps then the weight is too light, so increase it by 5-10lbs the next set. Conversely if you can't manage 8 reps then you should lower the weight next time. This ensures that you're always pushing yourself, which is key. Always push yourself with your resistance exercise.

And now the third query: "It seems to me that what they're saying, really, is that you can't expect to lose fat if you're just doing strength training - you need to do cardio, too. Am I right?" Using my bulleted principles above, we can now answer this question: no! It is a common misconception that you have to do cardio to burn fat. All you have to do is burn calories, and strength training does that just as well as cardio. What is true is that you cannot target a specific area for fat loss with any type of exercise. Your body will burn fat in whatever manner it chooses. In fact, it will most likely burn fat in the exact opposite order that you would like. Self-conscious about your butt? That'll probably be the last part of your body to thin out, then. Our bodies are perverse like that.

And finally, your fourth question: actually, let me answer the question you meant to ask—"How do I make sure I don't injure myself?" It's not easy to pinpoint a particular muscle that is going to fail on you in the future. If you have a complete full-body workout plan, though, you'll minimize your risk of injury by strengthening all of the muscles in your body. That's what you should do anyways, not just for injury prevention but also because, well, it just makes sense. Hit all of your major areas with your strength training: arms, shoulders, chest, upper back, lower back and abs (AKA your core), quads, and hamstrings. Injury prevention is all about keeping your complementary muscle groups in balance. Work your back as much as your chest, your abs as much as your lower back, your quads as much as your hamstrings. For every exercise where you "push", do another where you "pull". For example, if you do leg extensions for your quads, follow that up with leg curls for your hamstrings. If you do crunches for your abs, follow that up with back extensions.

If you have any more questions please do post a follow-up here, or send MeMail me. I love to talk shop, so to speak. I think you're asking really intelligent questions and are headed in a good direction. Stay strong and keep plugging away. The results will be fantastic. It feels so good to conquer this demon, it really does. You can do it. Good luck!
posted by Khalad at 8:58 PM on June 23, 2008

I can't emphasize enough how great it is that you're asking these questions. One of my pet peeves is people who just do some fad diet like South Beach or pick a workout routine from the latest Men's Health.

It's really important to understand why you're doing what you're doing. Is it okay to eat this burrito? What's a good chest exercise? Is it okay to eat at bedtime? I bike an hour a day, why do I still look flabby?

People that don't educate themselves, that don't think critically about their diet and exercise plans, often end up spinning their wheels. They try to compensate for their poor plan by working twice as hard at it. Eating less when the answer is to eat more. Working out harder when they should workout smarter.

Personally I think a lot of personal trainers are misinformed and misguided and give out bad advice to their clients. So I am hesitant to tell you to just ask your trainer all of the questions you have, because they might just give you completely wrong answers. It happens all the time, unfortunately. Might I suggest you run your future questions by us as well? Or keep reading at places like Stumptuous; that site is fantastic, and you can't go wrong following the advice from there.
posted by Khalad at 9:12 PM on June 23, 2008

Just wanted to chime in and agree with most of what has been said.

You do not need cardio to lose weight. You should do cardio because it is good for you and will make you feel better. 20 minutes of HIIT can do wonders. If you want to do more cardio than that,do it because you enjoy it, not for any other reason.

Lower reps will build muscle size, higher reps will build tone.

Weightloss is 100% about the calorie deficit.

You can't spot-reduce fat, but you can build muscle whereever you want by focusing exercise on those areas. When the fat dissappears the muscles will look awesome.
posted by blue_beetle at 5:28 AM on June 24, 2008

I'll take this one:

(2) How do I determine how many sets I need to do? Or should the number of sets remain consistent - should it be the resistance or weight I change up instead?

If your goals include becoming more muscular than you are now, you should be changing your resistance and weight as you become stronger, and as your muscular endurance improves.

Say you can bench press 135lbs 20 times: unless your ultimate fitness goal is to bench press 135lbs 300 times in a row, you can move on from that. You put more weight on the bar and go for sets of 4-6 for strength, sets of 8-12 for hypertrophy, and 15+ for endurance. Again, if you're just working on strength and muscularity, I would work on strength and hypertrophy rep ranges most of the time.

As a general tip I give to everyone who asks me for advice, you're going to be better, faster, and stronger if you work out in such a way that you cover all your bases. The easiest way to do this is to use compound lifting first, and include isolation training as an ancillary tool. Your most important, basic compound lifts are squats, deadlifts, bench presses, overhead presses, rows, pulldowns. Sprinkle with your choice of assistive lifts and you should be good.
posted by crunch buttsteak at 8:22 AM on June 24, 2008

Agree with everything above, except: "Lower reps will build muscle size, higher reps will build tone." That is not true. Doing higher reps at lower weights because you don't want to get bulky is a common mistake. Here's what Stumptuous has to say:
LIE: Weight training will make you huge and masculine.

Probably the worst lie ever. People look at women bodybuilders and say, "Ohmigawd, they're huge and if I lift anything heavy I'll look like that too." Nope. In general, women are not able to build monstrous muscle mass in the same manner as men, due to a number of physiological factors. It's a rare woman that can become a competitive bodybuilder, and to get that big she has to combine genetics, extensive long-term training, strict diet, and supplementation (legal or otherwise).


The average woman (that's you) cannot achieve a masculine monster look simply through strength training. You're not going to wake up after a workout and be huge. You don't believe me? OK, then, try to get huge. Just try. And see how far you get. If you don't believe me, check out what happened in my before and after pics. I've had people tell me that they think my legs are "too big" (too big for what?) but the old gams were a whole lot bigger before I started training.

LIE: Men train, women tone.

To be serious about strength training, eliminate the T-word-"tone"-from your vocabulary. Lifting a tiny weight for a hundred reps is a waste of time and energy, plus it never really stresses your muscles enough to make them much stronger. As the good Sgt. Robo says, "More isn't better, better is better."
posted by Khalad at 8:26 AM on June 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

Oops, bad link. I meant to link to Lies in the gym above.
posted by Khalad at 8:27 AM on June 24, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for the responses so far. A few clarifications/responses:

- It seems like it might help to clarify what I hope to get out of strength training. While I would like to lose weight, that is not my main motivation. I would like to make sustainable changes to my current lifestyle - and in my mind, that means exercising regularly, eating better, and adopting several other self-care activities. I want to assure you that just because I didn't mention these things doesn't mean I'm not already working on or thinking about them.

In any case, I realize that I can't just do the same workouts my trainer gave me over and over again - I figure that if I know how to design my own, then I'll likely be more invested and more interested in doing them.

My goal right now is just to improve my general fitness and avoid injuries if possible. (One day, though, I think it would be nice to have arms like Angela Bassett had in the mid-1990s.)

- I think spot training means something other than what I think it means; I didn't word that question well. Khalad, you said "What is true is that you cannot target a specific area for fat loss with any type of exercise." That is what I suspected, and what I have assumed that people mean when they say you can't spot train. What I want to know, though, is whether you can target a specific area for increasing muscle mass.

That might be a stupid question...I'm thinking about it, again, in the context of my back injury. Would it make sense, for example, to work more on strengthening my lower back than, say, working on my arms? (And when I say "more" I guess I mean "more reps.")

- I'm not sure whether my trainer asked me, or whether I volunteered the information, but yes, he knows about my lower back injury and has been gentle with it. Yes, I will chat with him tomorrow. I haven't asked him any of these questions yet, as I really didn't know what my questions were until I sat down and started writing them here.

Thanks again for the input so far.
posted by rikhei at 9:23 AM on June 24, 2008

What I want to know, though, is whether you can target a specific area for increasing muscle mass.

Yes, absolutely. I would not go nuts with lower back exercises, though. You can definitely injure yourself by doing too much, like I did two weeks ago doing really heavy deadlifts. You don't need to do extra for your back; just do something every week and over time your muscles will strengthen. Knees, shoulders, and the lower back and the most easily injured areas, so take it easy with those areas.
posted by Khalad at 9:57 AM on June 24, 2008

I would take it easy on the back exercises - start with moderately light (50-60% of your max weight for that given exercise) stiff-legged deadlifts, good mornings, and back extensions, all with good form. Keep up with these and the rest of your posterior chain, and you will build yourself an invincible back.

About two and a half years ago, and I gave myself some very bad back strain. After rehabbing for several months, my doctor told me to look into lifting as a form of injury prevention. I took it several steps further, and since then, have never had any form of chronic back pain.

I can honestly say having strong, robust spinal erectors is one of the best benefits I've gotten out of lifting.
posted by crunch buttsteak at 1:33 PM on June 24, 2008

This website may be helpful.
posted by P.o.B. at 9:02 PM on June 24, 2008

You might want to think about doing pilates and/or yoga. I was working out with weights and cardio for about a year and got into kind of a rut. I go to the Y and started taking a couple of pilates classes every week and I've really noticed a difference that the weight lifting/cardio was not doing on it's own. It has been really good for my posture also.
posted by Melsky at 8:42 PM on June 25, 2008

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