Workout questions

I haven’t had a regular exercise regime in years, and I started back up a few weeks ago. I’ve started doing some reading, and it appears I’m doing it wrong. I’d love to get some advice on this.

I understand that aerobic exercise (treadmill, in my case) is best every day, and that’s what I’m doing. I was (am) pretty out of shape, so I’m building up to it. Right now, I’m just doing a half hour at a pace that makes me sweat - I can respond to questions, but I couldn’t carry on a conversation. The heartrate monitor on the treadmill is absolutely useless. It’ll tell me I’m at 180, and two minutes later it says I’m at 45. I haven’t actually tried the old-fashioned fingers and stopwatch method to figure it out.

Muscle-building, on the other hand, I understand should be every other day. I have been working on a Bowflex, picking a weight (well, tension, actually) for each exercise that I can handle comfortably handle in three sets of 10-15 reps each. I read a few articles that said this isn’t accomplishing anything, that I need a weight that I can barely manage 8-12 reps - to where I couldn’t do another if I had to. I did some experimenting a few days ago and found I could increase the weight by 25 to 30% on each exercise and still be able to do 5 or 10 reps (one set only) before I just couldn’t go any farther.

NOTE: I am not trying to develop a bodybuilder physique, and I’m not trying to be a runner. I’m trying to build my stamina, drop some weight, and build up some muscle to make day-to-day physical work easier. When I buy hay, I want to be able to stack 100-pound bales without having to stop and rest after each 10 or 15 bales. I want to be able to hike a mile uphill without getting winded. I’m 53 years old, and my focus is on FEELING good, not on LOOKING good.

So, my questions:

  1. I’m planning to build up the treadmill to an hour at a fast (4mph) walk, with a gradual speed ramp-up at the beginning for 5 minutes and a ramp-down at the end for 5 minutes. Is that about right? Should I be going every day, or alternating with the Bowflex days?

  2. Do I have the weights right on the Bowflex? Should I be straining to the point where I just can’t go anymore? Should I pick a weight I can only handle 5-10 reps, or something I can do 30-40 reps?

  3. If I do treadmill and Bowflex on the same day, does it matter whether I do them back-to-back, or should I wait in between? Which should go first?

  4. Does it matter whether I exercise before breakfast, after breakfast, or right before bed?

One of the better places to stop by for research-based, unbiased information on health and fitness, especially geared for ordinary, older folk (in sports terms), is

There you’ll find articles like:

Forget Heavy, Think Effort
Muscle Fiber Activation and Rep Range

Light Weights Build Muscle—Study Provides Proof
Intensity, What Is It?

all concerning your question 2; for question 4 there’s

Training on Empty - Still a Bad Idea

There’s a couple dozen entries more there that have pertinent data on your situation, I’m too lazy to hunt them down and copy and paste them here. Much of what Clarence Bass says flies in the face of traditional, macho training wisdom, but he backs everything up by current research and isn’t in the business of selling supplements, like most online sources on strength training and fitness.

Having been working out for a few weeks, you’re still very much in the newbie stage, meaning that almost anything you do will increase your strength and stamina: no need to sweat the small stuff. That being said, it’s a proven practice to start any new weight training regime doing moderately long sets with very moderate resistance before embarking on heavy, high-intensity stuff. Even powerlifters, whose end goal is basically to lift a maximum load one time, start out like this. However, after this initial period of getting your muscles, joints and energy systems used to working hard(er), anything that’s easy doesn’t accomplish jack. Whether you’re doing long sets with moderate weight or short sets with heavy weight, walking for 10 miles or jogging for two, this applies.

My experience has been that for an average adult, physical training needs to be approached pretty seriously for much any gains to happen. One thing that really improves with time is one’s ability to sustain demanding levels of physical effort. Like, you now do a single set of 5 to 10 hard reps and just can’t go any farther: after several months of keeping at it and challenging yourself, you’ll be able to do three or four such sets with only small breaks in between. I think this is especially desirable in your situation, with regards to the manual labour angle.

If doing both cardio and strength training the same day, I’d definitely do cardio last. Doing effective cardio every day in addition to effective resistance training every other may well be too much. I’d probably opt for three cardio workouts and three strength workouts per week, done on separate, alternating days, with one day per week free. And make sure every workout is an improvement over the last, one way or the other.

I really think the single most important thing is to do what you enjoy or what makes you feel powerful. A routine that is 25% less effective than the “ideal” is still 75% more effective than nothing, and I’ve known lots of people that put tons of work into designing some platonic ideal of a program only to wander off a few days or weeks later because the ideal program made them miserable, and being miserable makes you willing to rationalize any excuse to skip. They get it in their heads that they have to do it exactly right if they are going to do it at all, and so they don’t do it at all.

Unless you are actually risking injury, which it doesn’t sound like you are, I’d do what you enjoy/what makes you feel powerful for at least three months–getting habits firmly in place–before worrying about any sort of optimization, and even then, I’d still focus mostly on finding what you are genuinely willing to do, not what you think you should be willing to do.

On #1:

I wouldn’t do a speed ramp at the beginning. In fact, I’d start out the first min a bit on the slow side to let yourself warm up and loosen up a bit. Picking up the pace at the end is fair game.

Also, play with the incline, especially given the the stated goal of “walk up hill without getting winded” (I suspect that was just an example). Walking at an incline is much harder, uses different muscles, and helps mix things up.

Good luck on the new patterns!

General Advice: Don’t start too hard, it’s a big lifestyle change to start exercising, and while exercising too hard isn’t that dangerous (many people will warn you about injury, which is possible) the chief concern is if you go harder than you’re ready for it may weaken your resolve to stick with the plan.

Aerobic Exercise/Cardio: If you’re doing a half hour and you’re breaking a sweat, I think that’s a good level for you. Some people who are just starting off will have trouble even doing 15 minutes, looks like you’re in better shape than that. I would focus on increasing intensity to be honest, until eventually you can do very intense aerobic exercise for 20 minutes straight.

This is controversial, lots of people who are distance runners and those types think the goal of aerobics is to be able to go low-intensity for hours on end. I disagree with that, I think you can get all health benefits of aerobic exercise by gradually building up to intense exercise in which your body actually works anaerobically. On a treadmill or whatever, see how many miles you’ve done in half an hour. I’d set a goal of each week increasing that number by .1 miles, I wouldn’t glue your face to mph display of the treadmill, just gradually increase intensity each week. Anytime you can’t get any further intense, just stay at your current intensity level until you can, try each Friday or something to push yourself and see if you’re ready to go to the next level the following week.

Weights/Resistance Training: I almost would warn you against researching this too much. The number one problem with looking into weight training is most of the literature is developed by people who are bodybuilders or power lifters. Within bodybuilding, there are dozens of different philosophies on proper workout regimens. Within powerlifting, it’s a little more uniform but there are still tons of different theories.

I would actually advise something that most of these forums would hate, because it would seem foreign to them. But I’m looking at it from the perspective of some regular guy wanting to get in shape, and that’s very different than what most of these authorities have as their frame of reference.

With lifting I’m going to advise full body, Monday/Weds/Friday(or any 3 days a week with a day in between.)

Each of those days do the following:

Dumbbell Bench Press
Incline Dumbbell Bench Press
Dumbbell Rows
Pullovers (using a cable machine is best)
Upright Dumbbell or Barbell Rows
Dumbbell Lateral Raises
Dumbbell Curls (or barbell curls)
Overhead Triceps Extensions (Seated or Standing)
Leg Extensions (should be able to do on Bowflex)
Dumbbell Squats
Lying Leg Curls (should be able to do on Bowflex)

That’s decent full body. Now, a lot of people are going to freak out because they think you should have a week in between exercising any major muscle group. Well, you aren’t a bodybuilder or a professional lifter, you’re just a guy trying to get in shape.

I understand you might only have a Bowflex and no dumbbells, I think dumbbells are a really good investment but if you can’t make it, then go to and research the exercises I’ve posted above and see if your Bowflex will allow you to do them or similar.

Really if you can’t make that regimen work just generally hit:

-Few chest exercises (3ish)
-Few back/shoulder exercises (3ish)
-Few leg exercises (2-3)
-Few arm exercises (one isolation bicep, one isolation tricep, then maybe one other if desired)

Do lying leg raises on a bench for abs, or do a “McGill situp”, both of these exercises give good ab workout without the negative back damage that regular situps and crunches can cause.

As for intensity, let me say that you will never be a bodybuilder with that physique without heavily regimented diet plan, so don’t worry about that. What you want to do is build up some muscle and strength because that causes permanent metabolism increase and is a great general boost to your health and fitness.

To achieve that, I want you to do the above 3 day a week routine and with each exercise try to do 2 sets. I know a lot of people advocate 3, 4, 5 sets. I’m not for you, I’m saying do 2 sets. Same weight each set, aim for 10-12 reps per set. The weight should be enough that you aren’t viciously struggling on the first rep, it’s probably about the “sweet spot” if you’re having difficulty on rep 10-12, and it’s “okay” if you can’t get a full 12 in. It’s too heavy if you can’t get to 10.

Do that regimen for probably 12 weeks (3 months.) Your gains won’t be great, but the real goal of this period is to just get you used to the motions, to build up some control, and etc. After the 12 weeks if you want to do something that gives a little more benefit, I would start to advocate you move to 3-4 reps for those exercises, and instead of trying to lift a weigh where it is “difficult to do 10-12 reps but you consistently get them in” instead start lifting a weight where you are sometimes “lifting to fail”, meaning you may not be getting 10-12 but your last rep is the last rep your body can physically handle.

You will also at that point want to research more traditional lifting plans, where you might still only lift 3 days a week, but each of those 3 days are different. So you might do a range of leg exercises on Monday, then you don’t do leg again until the next Monday. On Weds you might do chest and back, and then you don’t touch chest and back again until next Weds, then on Friday do basically “everything else” and etc.

Some people would advocate doing arms 2 times a week because they are smaller and have less recovery time. What I’ll say is doing 12 weeks of a “beginners” plan like I outlined above, you will be in the shape where maybe changing it to a more traditional plan will benefit you and you can do your research at that time.

I concur. You will get a ton of advice, much of it contradictory. Just do it.

That having been said -

If it were me, I would ramp up to a half hour a day, and go a little faster so as to get your heart rate up to about (220 - your age)*80%, or around 135-140. The five minute warm up and cool down is a good idea.

Continuing a set until you cannot do another rep in good form is called “training to failure”. It is relatively advanced, so I wouldn’t do it just yet. When training for strength, “leave one in the tank” - that is, do reps until you could probably get one more, and stop. 10-15 reps per set is fine for a beginner. Once you have been able to do fifteen good reps on all three sets, bump up the weight by 5-10 lbs. and go to 8 reps per set.

Do them back to back. Do five minutes on the treadmill to warm up, do the Bowflex, then do the rest of your cardio and the cool down.

If you can, don’t do three sets in a row of the same exercise. Alternate sets and exercises. If you can, do circuits - one set of a leg exercise, rest for a minute or so, do a set of a back exercise, rest, then chest, rest, arms, rest, etc. If you want endurance, reduce the rest periods over time so you are going straight from one set to the next. It can be difficult to do in a commercial gym, because it looks like you are hogging the equipment, but if you own the Bowflex, the alternate sets way works well.

Whatever you can stick to in the long run is right.


I can’t help but give a “me too” post. The most important thing is to do the exercises that you will keep doing. The difference between what you were doing (nothing) and what you are doing now is HUGE. The difference between some hypothetical optimal approach and what you are doing now, not so dramatic, especially when you are going from low fitness up.

Right now your focus should be on building a basic fitness base and what you are doing is fantastic in that regard. Able to run half an hour hard enough that getting out more than a a full sentence without taking a breath would be tough. Very good. Doing three sets of 10-15 reps of a variety of resistance exercises. Fine (although yes, the Sports Medicine guidelines do recommend the 8-12).

As you stick with it you will sometimes run faster and sometimes longer. You’ll throw in intervals or various sorts. You’ll sometimes do heavier weights for fewer reps and sometimes less weight for more. Maybe add in some core work, be it on a balance disc or doing yoga or whatever. Maybe jumping rope every so often. Or burpees. Variety. Most important it will keep it fun and interesting, but it will also keep your system progressing by using your muscles in different ways.

There are several ways to go about accomplishing what you are looking for. Personally I think you should drop the cardio everyday and change the structure of your week to either 3 or 4 days weight training and 3 days of HIIT OR cardio training.

I’d do a powerlifting routine, but that’s just me and what I’m currently into. So I’d pair 5/3/1 with 20-30 minutes of HIIT training on the days I’m not doing 5/3/1.

I wouldn’t do it everyday - but what is your goal? Is it to be ‘running’ or ‘fast walking’ for most of that 1/2 hour?

If so, you could modify the couch to 5K plan. Instead of the ‘running’ portions, you change it to fast walking.

You do not have to go to failure and I actually don’t think it’s beneficial - but I’m not entirely sure on that.

What I would do is change up my rep ranges ever few months. So, for now, try to get between 5-10 reps per set. When you can get to 11, up the weight some.

In 3 months (or whatever), change your rep range so it’s between 5-8 reps. In another 3 months (or whatever) change it again.

To me, I know when I have to change up my work out when I’m no longer making progress. So if I’m stuck at 10 reps for something, for a few weeks, I will change up my work out (probably upping the weight and reducing the reps).

You should do the bowflex first - the cardio will leave you spent for working out and you won’t be able to go full bore on the exercises.

Some people think so, but I don’t. I think you should exercise when it’s best for you - meaning whenever it fits into your schedule.

I would say that you should probably eat before hand or you could get light headed and all that goes along with low blood sugar. You probably wouldn’t have the energy to really ‘push it’ in the gym.

Meatros, while I wouldn’t want to mess with what works well for you, you may find of note ecent research that suggests mixing it up more often, even within the same work out, is even more beneficial.

Pertinent to our op’s goals, functional fitness to do things like stack hay bales and hike up hills, this study of firemen illustrates that “undulating training” made for more functional fitness than did the traditional mesocycle periodization. Same when looking at weights alone.

(Here is an example of a bodybuilder site’s take on creating an undulating periodization work out plan.)

You might want to add some range-of-motion exercises to your routine.

About weight training… it is certainly possible to over-research this, as others have said. When you’re just starting out, a lot of research isn’t necessary. Just get going and you can learn more as you progress.

HOWEVER, I do strongly feel that you should learn proper form when doing weight training. First, because it can keep you from injuring yourself. Second, because it can keep you from wasting your time.

I’m not kidding. During the cardio classes at my gym, for example, a lot of people do their “free squats” by bending forward from the waist, scarcely bending their knees at all. This takes less effort, but it won’t produce the results that they need. Ditto for people who do their various presses by moving the weights quickly over a very small distance. This may seem like a workout, but it will produce very little by way of results.

The same holds true for a lot of cardio moves, BTW, albeit to a lesser extent.

Be careful if you do the treadmill every day when starting out. Aerobically it’s fine, but your joints may take a little while to get used to the regular effort. Watch for your ankles/knees feeling a little sore. You may need a day off between treadmill days until your joints are used to the effort. Try to land softly on the treadmill. If you are making THUMP-THUMP-THUMP noises you are landing hard on your heel and putting a lot of stress on your body. Try to make swish-swish-swish noises by landing on more of your forefoot.

The day of recovery is needed for muscles building, but only if you are actually working the muscle hard enough to stress it. A light workout doesn’t stress the muscle enough that it needs to repair. Actually, a light muscle workout is really not effective at much of anything. You burn a few calories doing the exercise, but that’s about it. There will not be any additional calories burned repairing the muscle and no additional muscle mass added. The muscle may appear a little firmer depending on how you are working out, but it won’t really be stronger.

A hard workout will cause micro-tears in the muscle fibers that need a day to repair. Those repairs are what adds additional muscle mass.

However, don’t worry about dialing in the perfect weight workout now. A weight workout should always be increasing each time you do it. Start with 8 reps and work up to 12. When you get to 12, bump the weight and go back to 8. If the reps feel easy, go up by two. So let’s say you’re doing biceps at a weight of 25. You do 8 repititions, rest, then do another 8. Your workout might go like this:

Mon: 25 lbs 8 reps 2 times
Wed: 25 lbs 10 reps 2 times <-- workout easy. bump up by 2
Fri: 25 lbs 12 reps 2 times
Sun: 30 lbs 8
Tue: 30 10
Thu: 30 12
Sat: 35 8 <-- Starting to get harder
Mon: 35 9 <-- goes up by 1
Wed: 35 11

Your initial 25/8 was easy but in a few weeks you zero in on your muscle building zone. But you don’t stay in that zone forever. You continually bump up the reps and weight.

Oh, and get a workout notebook to keep track of your weight/rep values for each exercise. You need to make sure you are properly increasing the workout each time.

Thanks for all the advice. I’m reading the cites and experimenting with the workouts. I may be back with more questions soon.

I see several recommendations here to keep increasing the workout. On the treadmill, this is pretty easy, as I have an objective measure to use (There’s a “calories burned” indicator on the treadmill. I don’t care whether it reflects actual calories; I can just look to see if the number is bigger than last time).

How do I translate a Bowflex workout into a number? Is 50 pounds, 10 reps, 3 sets less than or greater than 60 pounds, 5 reps, 2 sets? I build a spreadsheet, but my measurement system is somewhat arbitrary, and I don’t think pounds times reps is a meaningful number (11 reps of 100 pounds can’t really be the same as 10 reps of 110 pounds).

I don’t think you can translate the workout into a number like that. Rather, find a weight that you can do 8 times and then do an extra rep each day you workout. When you get to 12 reps, increase the weight and go back down to 8 reps the next workout.

I would recommend just 2 sets for starting out. At the proper weight for your muscle strength, that 3rd set will be quite challenging and it’s easy to get injured.

Since the bowflex only goes up in 10-pound increments (5 on each side), I may have to go farther than 12 reps before I can increase the weight and still do 8.

I already dropped it back to two – and I’m taking a few minutes in between them.