Workout help wanted (long, a little complex)

I’ve been working out with weights for the last few weeks, and I’ve been improvising my own program, perhaps on principles that are flawed, but now that I’ve gotten into a routine, I’d like to find out more from people who actually know something before I continue with what I’ve been doing. So:

For the purposes of this inquiry, let’s assume that I’ve been working out exclusively on an ab crunching machine. (I haven’t but I’ve been following the same pattern I’m about to describe on several machines, largely to separate my ab-crunching sessions by the ten minutes or so that I work out on the other machines). I realize full well that there’s no such thing as spot-reduction but I’ve been concentrating my efforts on my abs because I do understand that I will use more calories in a given time working a big muscle (such as abs or thighs) than a small muscle (such as trapezius or forearms), so I’ve been devoting my main focus to working the abs. Does this make sense?

I assume it does, or at least that working the abs is as good a place as any to expend calories. I’ve got about an hour to work out, so I’ve been doing about four or five ab-crunch sessions in that hour, broken up by the sessions on a few other machines. At first I started off with fairly light weights, just to make sure I wasn’t trying to do too much and strain something and have to lay off for a week to recover, but I soon started working out at pretty much my maximum capacity, which has steadily increased.

The ab-cruncher, manufactured by HOIST, has sixteen gradations of weights (attached by pulleys to a bar across my chest that I push against). I’m not sure what each one weighs (anyone have an idea? I’m curious) but that hardly matters since I’m now able to include the heaviest weights in my workout. I work out about three times a week, a day or two apart (and run on most of my days off), warming up by doing a few (let’s say 15) reps at a very manageable weight. (Now, I’m starting at “11” 15 times to warm up, plus another 15 reps at “11” with my feet in a slightly different position, in a seated position, thighs and calves roughly 90 degrees-—in the first set I have my thighs and calves at about 120 degrees, which is more difficult). Anyway, I then increase the number of reps in a set as I increase the weight (I’ll do 25 reps of “12” in each position, then do 35 reps of “13”, etc.) just to ensure that I’m not doing anything too strenuous with any stiff muscles. Now that I’m warmed up (am I? Is this a good regimen for warming up the muscles I want to work out—a few sets at manageable weights?) I can do 45 reps at “14” in each position. The last few I’m sort of straining, using a little bit of thigh and back and arm to finish that set, which tells me not to be doing any more reps at “14.” Is this a good standard of a maximum weight—-that weight that I can’t do any more of without “cheating” a little?

In my final two sets at the weights marked “15” and “16,” I have to do fewer reps (I can do 35 reps at “15” and 25 reps at “16”) so I do extra sets. I’ll repeat my “15” set twice, and my “16” set three times. Does this make sense? If so, do I want my ultimate goal to be working out as much as possible at the highest weight, even if that means I do fewer reps at that weight? Or, once I’m sure I’m thoroughly warmed up, should I still include lower weights (the “14”s and the “15"s) at which I can do more reps? Does this matter much? That is, as long as I’m doing a bunch of weights at close to my capacity at each one, am I getting basically the same workout? I guess I’m asking what’s more important, the number of reps or the number of sets, or both or neither? Remember, I’m not doing this particularly to gain strength or any sort of muscle definition (though I’ll accept those as by-products of working out, of course)—my main purpose here is to expend calories and improve my general fitness.

Anyway, if anyone knows about this stuff, I’ll be grateful for your input. (I’m doing this in my university gym, staffed by students, whose input I’d be very dubious about heeding–there are no trainers in this gym to consult, and I’m hoping the SDMB has better advice than a random stranger.) If you need more info, or if I’ve misused any terms (like “set” or ‘rep” which I’m using in a common sense kind of way—I think I’m using them correctly, but maybe not) please feel free to set me straight before I get too far in this regimen. Thanks.

You are spending way too much time doing crunches, based on your goal of “expend calories and improve my general fitness.” You’ll get hard abs and that’s about it.

If you want to burn calories and get general fitness, then you should be on a cardio machine for 30-60 minutes, 3-4 times a week, alternating between a fat-burning pace and an aerobic conditioning pace. That will do much, much more for you than laboring away at set after set of abs. It would be good to mix in some light weight training but allow equal time for all muscle groups.

As far as weight training, but that doesn’t seem to be your goal anyway, the conventional wisdom goes something like this:

Jones, the guy who invented Nautilus machines, preached one set, high intensity, to momentary muscular failure (i.e., can’t do another rep), 8-12 reps. But most serious bodybuilders say you have to do multiple sets. I was trained by an amateur bodybuilder for a while and she had me doing three sets of each exercise with increasing weights (lots of people do decreasing weights, but it’s surprising what happens on the third set with increasing weights). Some people say you have to include free weights in your routine. Many people suggest lower weights with higher reps to mix aerobic conditioning into your weight training workout. Many do split sets–one day do legs, next day do upper body, next day do core–that’s great if you can get to the gym 4-6 days a week. I can’t, so I do full-body every time.

None of these is completely wrong but I’m not sure how right any of them are. This is not an exact science.

It’s also important to vary your routine; your muscles tend to get into a groove for repetitive motion and you plateau out.

The routine that I’ve adopted that works for me is doing some of each for each exercise. I’ll do 3 sets of increasing weight, at least 8 reps on the third set. Next session I’ll do one set with the heaviest weight from the 3 sets, up to 16 reps. Next session I’ll ratchet the weight up about 20% for 8-12 reps.

If you are lifting to gain muscle with the idea that it will help burn calories–that is correct. If you truly want to target large muscles, then reduce that crazy ab routine of yours, and start working the back, shoulders, and chest. Those are the big boys.

If you are going for mass, then go with lower reps of heavier weights.

If you want to tone, then more reps of lighter weights.

Work different areas, and always make sure to take a day off for each muscle group (work shoulders and back one day–then chest and arms for example).

Lastly, and I hardly ever see people doing this, lift slowly!!! If you want to maximize your training, this is key. For example, if you are doing a bicep curly, count to 5 on the way up (slowly), and then take the same amount of time on the way down. This will work the muscles more effectively, and will also ensure you aren’t cheating (rocking your body too much, etc…)

Good luck!

Given your time constraints and your goals, I would strongly suggest you at least check out something like crossfit. the site is full of exercise demo videos and the “workout of the day” which with rare exceptions can be done in around 30-20 minutes. I’ve been working out in this style for a little over a year and am without question in the best shape of my life. I am not actually affiliated with crossfit, and actually have some issues with some of their methods, but I do train athletes in a crossfit style, and have been doing so pretty successfully for about 6 months…I’m happy to answer any questions or help as requested.

But the first piece of advice I give is to stop with the ab-focus, and work on more general lifting of compund movements, and large muscle groups (I really like frint squats and use kettlebells a lot). When done right(especially meaning use of free weights vs. machines…you want to make your body use its stabilizing muscles instead of relying on machines for form), these exercises will destroy (in a good way) your abs and core without a single dedicated situp or crunch.

Don’t forget the legs.

Mmmm. Workout threads. I loves me some kinesthetic conversations.

Anyways - your abs aren’t a “big muscle” group at all. In fact they’re probably close to the worst muscle to train. Your abdominal muscles are in fact relatively small in terms of potential work output. Furthermore they’re a lot more than simple spinal flexors, and the merit of crunches is highly debated.

What is very clear that if you’re primarily looking to lose weight and Look Good Nekkid, lots of crunches are a fantastic way to get a lean, rippled, flat six-pack…an invisible six-pack, hidden beneath inches of bodyfat. Nor will they respond and grow very well under training, similar to calves and forearms.

Implementing squads and deadlifts into your routine will burn calories at a rate that make situps look embarrassed and shift uncomfortably in their seats - and they’ll strengthen your core a lot better too.

Thanks, all. Some followups: Could we discuss the concept of big and small muscle groups? I really don’t see how I could have gotten this one so wrong, probably from listening to some blowhard, but what are the two or three most efficient muscle groups to work on, to expend calories? That’s where I want to focus, to make the most of my time in the gym. (Me, I think it’s pretty good that I’ve been able to find three hours per week for my workout, plus two more hours of runnng on the beach, but if this is really a pretty scant amount, I still need to use it efficiently.) Just for curiosity’s sake, does anyone know the LEAST effective muscle groups? I’m thinking building up my little pinky muscle, my eyebrows, etc. wouldn’t really work off a lot of calories.

I get the concept of free weights, but honestly they scare me. Most of the guys using them seem to have a partner, to make sure they don’t drop a heavy load on their own necks, and the guys working alone seem to risk doing just that a lot. Ugh. If I can get 90% of the workout using machines, I’m probably better off foregoing the benefits of stabilizing my load.

As I mentioned, I am using machines other than the ab-cruncher, including one that works out my thighs and calves (from a seated recumbent position I push against a weight-and-pulley system). If this is more efficient than the abs, I’ll concentrate on it. My back is a problem–I’ve have periodic back strains that put me totally out of commission for weeks at a stretch, and I’m leery about a program working out the back a lot (I figure that I get a little back workout on the ab cruncher by accident–I certainly feel it mostly in my back when I’,m done with an ab session). Anyway, my goals are avoiding injury while expending maximum calories: if thighs are most efficient, I’ll work on the thighs more. If chest is as efficient (more efficient?) as abs, I’ll work on the chest.

I should add that I’ve been varying the four machines as little as I’ve been in the thought that muscle fatigue wouldn’t be a serious issue if I took a day (sometime two) off between sessions, but that working on the same four muscle groups (abs, thighs, forearms and lateral deltoids) would help me increase the resistence. I’m thinking that if I go a week of so between lateral deltoid workouts, I’ll be stuck at the same load for a long time–a week seems a long time to go between working out a particular muscle. Is it? Should I be able to increase my load if I work on a muscle once every six or seven days?

Thanks for all the help. I’m headed to the gym right now, but I’ll check the boards later today.

what are these?

Same question.

If I want to experiment with free weights, which ones would you recommend to replace the ab crunches? That is, which free weights would expend the most calories, bearing in mind that I’m drawn to the ab cruncher because i seem to have some capacity to lift fairly serious weights with my ab muscles already, so I figure that’s an advantage. With my skinny arms, I’d be starting from a much less advanced position. If the weights are equal, I’m setting the forearms machine at 10 or 11 max, the lat. deltoid machine at 8 or 9, the thigh machine at 13 or 14, but I’ve been able to use the ab cruncher at 16. I’ve been thinking that means I’m getting a more rigorous workout with the ab and thigh machine than the others–is that wrong?

I’ll check out the crossfit stuff, but I don’t think I can fit another book, much less workout equipment, in my apartment. I do have this workout room at the university I work at, which means that I’m there almost every day anyway and am motivated to use the gym they provide.

Compound movements involve more than one joint.(bench press, rowing , squats) The idea is to use multiple muscle groups. As an example, the bench press involves the chest front shoulder and triceps.

Front squats, you place the bar across your shoulders in front instead of behind the neck. Kettlebells look like an iron ball with a handle.

Muscle groups by size big to small.

Thigh(quads and hamstrings/glutes/calf

This is also the order the work should be done in if you are working the whole body each session.

Stick with your ab work.
Can you do a seated row without hurting your back?

This is all good stuff. To elaborate on the compound movements a big more, think of these as more functional, push/pull stuff that migh tapply to real life. You may have to lift something with your legs (squat) or push something (overhead press or bench press) and will rarely in life need to do an isolated bicep curl.

I can certainly see the intimidation in starting with the free weights. I would honestly start with them but start with extremely low weights (even going so far as to do the movements with a broomstick) to get really comfortable doing the movements correctly before adding weight.

Rowing, as mentioned above, is a great all around exercise, especially with resistance…you strengthen and stretch muscle groups will getting the metabolic benefit of cardio exertion.

As I mentioned earlier, my favorite “toy” is the kettlebell. If you were to buy a single 35 lb kettlebell, you can get an amazing full body workout with more cardio exertion than you ever thought possible in a short time with a few basic movements. The weight is low enough so that you don’t really run the risk of losing control and hurting yourself, while the odd balance and full compound movements increase stregth, flexibility and endurance all at once. And done right, the abs will get worked over but good!

I have had lingering low back pain for a while, stemming from a broken back some time ago, and the doc basically had me doing low bakc strengthening exercises (alternating back extensions and weighted straight-leg deadlifts to increase flexibility and strength) and the doc (an osteopath) enthusicastically endorsed the kettlebells as a great way to work out your whole body in a balanced, funtional way.

Dunno. Never tried. They have a rowing machine of sorts in my gym–weights on pulleys which you lift with your upper body in a rowing position. Looks scary, like it would yank my lower back out all at once, but I suppose I could give it a shot at a very low weight to start. What muscles would that work on? Back? Arms?

I can check out kettlebells at a sporting goods store–where can I read about the variety of kettlebell exercises I might start with?

The rowing machine works primarily the upper back and the lower back if you bend forward and then pull back. The arms(biceps, forearms)also get some work. You can also use a pulldown machine to work the upper back without involving the lower. I’ve never worked with kettlebells. I’ll leave that to someone with more knowledge than me.

If you want some great beginner kettlebell training, you can’t beat anything written by a Russian trainer named Pavel Tsatsouline. He pretty much brought kettlebells into their modern use, and is an extremely knowlegeable trainer. His books (I recommend starting with Enter The Kettlebell) are a bit expensive and pretty full of Russian bravado (and ads for his other books), but the info is solid. This is where I learned the basics when I was starting. There is a DVD version that has the same info, and he is entertaining as well. His website is There is a pretty active forum community there that can answer questions, and Pavel himself is pretty good at responding. Another author who teaches extensively on the 'bells is Jeff Martone. I haven’t read or watched too much of his stuff, but hes got a solid reputation.

The crossfit site has some demo videos of some kettlebell exercises on its free demo videos page.

Honestly, pseudotriton, I would worry about four lifts above all else:

The benchpress, squat, deadlift, and seated row. I challenge anybody to find a muscle group that isn’t targeted by these. Most of them also come with loads of bad press who assure you that you moment you sling a barball over your shoulders, both kneecaps will spontaneously detonate out of your legs and the bloody, bony shrapnel will rip apart your lower back, too.

It’s all bullshit, and it’s all because of idiots doing the lifts improperly. I encourage you to do some research on these supposedly dangerous lifts, as they are undeniably the most efficient, and arguably most effective, way of training your muscles. Most squatting and deadlifting injuries, for example, stem from a functional lack of hip mobility.

“Tight hips” are, in my opinion, the single most deleterious, easily preventable problems around. It’s a combination of tight hip flexors, overactive quadriceps, and underactive glute/hamstrings. I’ll be back, I’m sure, to defend this position and wax verbose about posture; for now, gostretch your hipflexors immediately. I’d be surprised if you didn’t feel a lot better afterwards.

Anecdote/data arguments aside, I completely eliminated nagging lower-back pain with daily stretches to increase hip mobility. It’ll also allow you to do the most effective exercises in your workout arsenal safely and properly.

ETA: I’d be wary of kettleballs at the moment. Correct me if I’m wrong but I get the impression you’re relatively new to the iron game. Kettleballs are fantastic, to be sure - but the proper use thereof requires the ability to safely preform what is essentially a deadlift, squat, and overhead press simultaneously. My personal recommendation would be to learn the fundamental compound lifts first, and work from there.

Plus, movements like the squat and deadlift allow you to pile on weight and progress very quickly - catching surreptitious glances as you’re loading multiple plates onto the bar can be a gratifying experience.

I agree with damn near every word of this, wholeheartedly. Especially the hip flexor stuff. Make stretching out the hip flexors a daily ritual, even if thats all you do. My anecdote is largely the same…back pain is often the result of hip flexor (and general) lack of flexibility…a lesson i learned the hard way.

I can even see the point about kettlebells, and would agree to get comfortable with the basic lifts as mentioned above (and not the machine variant)…I’d add pullups to the basic regimen as well. I do think that at low weight, kettlebells can allow you to practice these basic moves without the fear of heavy weight or the need of a spotter, and are a great way to get a quick and intense workout any time, since the thing stashes so easily in a corner…

I just had an idea (that won’t take off calories, I know, even if the idea is a heavy one) that could mean fewer trips in to the gym: what’s the thinking on pushups lately?

I had a hard time doing any (skinny arms and thick torso) but since I’ve lost almost 60 pounds and been working on my arms, I’m thinking I might try a pushup program on the days I’m going in to school solely for use of the gym. Any recent thinking on the pushup over the last few decades? (It must be almost thirty years since I did a pushup.)

There’s another thread on a program to build up to 100 pushups, you’ll find some commentary in there. IMHO pushups do not bear enough weight to be a significant strength-training tool. Depends on your goals but it won’t build you up.

Here it is:

Truthfully, it doesn’t seem like you’re in any position to improvise your own routine.

You follow a logical progression, but it is derived from faulty information (that abs are a “big” muscle). Time spent on abs is pretty costly in terms of time spent vs overall benefits.

What do you mean ab-crunch sessions? You only have an hour and you’re focusing on abs? That’s really inefficient in my opinion. For that matter get off the machines, right now they are actually harming you more than helping.

The machine should be telling you what you are doing. I don’t really understand the rest of the paragraph, but that which I do understand seems wrong.

I think you’re misguided on the science and knowledge behind burning calories and fitness. That isn’t necessarily your fault though, I see lots of people going into the gym doing near identical routines to the one you’re describing (i.e. sporadic and irrational) since they have been fed nothing but bullshit about health.

You need to reassess your goals (what does general fitness mean? why do you want to expend calories? etc.) and then completely revamp your regimen. From what I can tell, you seem pretty directionless with everything; and that will end you with you becoming discouraged and demotivated. You need to constantly have tangible outcomes in mind and figure out how to get there, and while you are doing that you will wake up one day and realize that you feel better. I can’t comment on the students working at your gym, but you’re right in being hesitant to follow their advice.

I think you’re putting the cart before the oxen. prr doesn’t have any of the fundamentals in place, Crossfit or kettleballs (which I have no problem with) are behind his/her means right now. Compound lifts and scrapping the ab-centric workout are solid advice.

Right. Abs are something you focus on when you get to a point where you need to isolate or spot-train parts of your body. You are not at that point, prr, and they are in fact one of the worse muscle groups to focus on. If you are fat understand that doing a lot of ab workouts will result in you having a visually bigger stomach. Squats, deadlifts, and bench press are the lifts you need to incorporate for “general” fitness. If you do want to work on your abs as a part, not a focus, of your workout (which I recommend) then crunch machines or regular crunches are not the way to do it.

The three lifts that focus on big muscles and the smaller stabilizing muscles are squats, deadlift, and bench press.

If you really want to compress cardio into a small time frame look into HIIT. I am not sure if your fitness level can handle it, but keep it in mind. How are you running? Try to make more time if it is possible, if your health goes the time spent on other activities will seem inconsequential.

You’re wrong, but not alone, in the way you feel about free weights. Think about it like this - when you carry a bunch of groceries, move a television, or just reach to grab something off a top shelf are you moving in a controlled, fixed manner? No. You don’t live life on a machine, so why train as if you do? If you overwork the big muscles and let the stabilizers degenerate, which is exactly what machines do, you face consequences such as becoming more injury prone.

You’re approaching this wrong. You need a well rounded routine, you can’t just say I’ll take these benefits and to hell with the rest. Your body works together, as a total product of many different components. If you feel it in your back then you’re doing the abs wrong, which is likely a by product of both the hodgepodge workout and the machine forcing your body to move in a certain way. If your back is a problem you want to work out your back more, not less. Working out other muscles while giving your back a rest can make sense in a twisted sort of way, but it actually contributes to worsening your back situation. Think of it this way, by performing leg exercises on that machine you are strengthening your quads (even if it is in an inefficient way). What happens when you want to lift something heavy up? Your legs say, “I can handle this prr, no problem, I have been working out and getting stronger after all.” So you decide to lift it up, but wait, your back goes, “Ah crap, what is this physical strain occurring? I am not used to exerting this much power at all.” And thus, an injury is borne.

Yes, it’s wrong. If your abs are strong in comparison with everything else than you should be focusing your attention elsewhere. Focus on your body’s weaknesses and they will eventually become your strengths. To replace the ab crunches there are a whole bunch of different exercises you can do; decline weighted situps, windshield wipers, medicine ball routines, and so on. Still though, don’t place such a heavy emphasis on your abs.

Yup. If your goal is to become an expert at doing pushups, then pushups are a great exercise; other than that it is about as effective as your ab workout to bettering your health level (that is to say, not very).

I think you could also benefit from reading through fluiddruid’s thread on strength training for weight loss. Understand the general theories behind working out (why you do certain things) and I think you will realize that you are off-base in how you are currently conceptualizing fitness. Once you have done that, if you want to discuss a beginner’s workout plan pm me.

Thanks for the long post–I appreciate all that effort. Some quick clarifications. I’m looking to increase my calories expended and reduce my calories taken in, for general fitness and weight control. What I’ve done up this point has enabled to me to lose over 50 pounds in the past 18 months, so I feel I’ve been something right, despite my total lack of knowledge and understanding. Now that I’m in better shape I’m looking for exercises that will be efficient in the time I have alloted (4-7 hours per week, roughly), that will fit into my budget (my crappy university gym is free, but not always convenient) and will be enjoyable by my own standards–i.e., I like to run but not to swim, so if swimming beats running in efficiency, I’m still going to prefer to run. I’ll read the material about pushups, but mostly I haven’t done them in recent years because I found it hard to lift my own weight off the floor. Now, not so much. If can reach the point where I can do a set of 50 pushups, how exactly is that not expending the calories it takes to lift 200 pounds a foot off the floor with both arms 50 times? Seems to me that’s what I’m doing, if I did 50 pushups, and should be about a effective as lifting 200 pounds of weights a foot in the air, roughly speaking, in terms of the work expended. If it’s only 75% as effective, for some technical reason, it’s still a better alternative than saying “Oh, hell, I don’t have time to travel in to the gym today–no workout for me.” But I get from you (above) that it’s more or less a total waste of my time and effort. Could you estimate for me, just in terms of doing work and expending calories, the percentage that ten minutes spent doing pushups would be if lifting equivalent free weights ranks at 100%? Obviously if it’s 75 % or more, I’ll do them if that’s my only feasible alternative. If it’s 10% as effective, then I’m clearly depriving myself of some of the benefit I think I’m getting from doing pushups–though it is hard for me to believe that the difference could be as great is a 90% loss.

I’m still not getting why my goals are hard to understand. I want to find an exercise program that I won’t find boring or grueling, that will use up calories up to an hour per day, while I reduce my caloric intake. If I find a program that works for me, that I enjoy (running on the beach, particularly at sunrise, is so beautiful and peaceful that I feel I get benefits from it apart from the caloric stuff), that I’ll actually do, then it doesn’t matter if it’s slightly less efficient than than the best possible regimen in the universe. I’m just trying to learn which exercise programs are wastes of my time.

BTW, I did figure out recently where I got the misinformation that abs are big muscles–I read it in a book by an MD named something like Roizen. I’ll get a quote when I find that book (I think I left it at home) and if he says indeed that abs are a large muscle system, then I’ll tend to regard his other opinions as suspect.