May 29, 2008

Tortoises and Barbells

Or, Tips for Slackers on Keeping Up a Life-long Strength Training Program.

[By Crabby]

In the exercise world, let's say there are tortoises and there are hares.

The hares get insanely excited when they take up exercise, and they attack their challenging workouts with vigor and ambition. They enter races and break personal records and lift heavy weights and aspire to great things!

Fig. 2: Hares in their natural habitat.

Hares have high expectations and they work their (harey) butts off to achieve their goals... for a while. But sadly, many burn out or injure themselves within a few years. And after that? Well, exercise becomes something they "used to do."

The tortoises, on the other hand, are pleased with themselves for getting out the door and accomplishing anything at all. Even if it's a walk in the park or a few bent knee push-ups.

Figure 3: Migrating Adult Tortoises.

Yet these unambitious tortoises often keep exercising for year after year--ensuring themselves lifelong fitness, even if they may never break any records.

(Of course this is a dumb analogy, because there are couch spuds who never attempt anything at all, and there are tons of folks (the horsies?) who can sprint like the wind but also keep at it year after year. Many horsey-type overachievers actually read this blog, though God knows why. Anyway, it's easier to pretend there are just two kinds of people. Fables and blog posts work much better that way.)

It's my belief that over the long haul, it's better to be a tortoise than a hare. Those of you who came out as a Dan Dogged in Merry's exercise quiz may well agree with me.

I am particularly plodding and unambitious when it comes to strength training. I don't like it. I never have. I never will. But I know it's good for me, and I love the way I look and feel when I do it.

After a couple of false starts in my twenties, strength training finally stuck. It's been somewhere between 15 and 20 years now that I've been doing it, whining and bitching the entire time.

How could a Crabby Tortoise like me manage to keep it up for almost two decades?

(Thanks, TK for the image!)

Here are the things that have worked for me. Your mileage may vary, especially if you are not by nature a Tortoise:

1. Set laughably attainable goals.
After an initial year or so of respectable strength gains and even a bit of buffedness, I shifted my goal to this: attempt to maintain that level of strength every year until I croak. Now my fantasies (at least the ones I can print) may involve continued strength gains and looking like a female action hero from a Hollywood movie, but my goal is to just hang on to what I accomplished that first year.

Some things I actually do better now than I did then, but this is a bonus, not an expectation.

2. Aim for strength training three times a week--but admit that never happens and settle for two.
Or sometimes one. Or sometimes zero.

I don't freak out if vacations or injuries or a hectic schedule prevent me from staying on track for a few weeks. I just make myself drag my ass back to those weights. However, I do ratchet all the weights back a notch or two and work my way back slowly. Impatience, I've learned, just means hurting myself all over again.

Twice a week really does seem to be enough to hang on to the strength I have. For every layoff, there's usually an equal period of renewed dedication and thrice weekly sessions. Eventually, I always get back to baseline.

3. Avoid exercises I hate.
Sometimes, due to injury or lousy gym equipment options, I will have to incorporate an especially loathed exercise into my routine for a few months. Even if it's just one thing ("wall sits" are an example) I will start dreading my entire workout and start skipping out.

I've discovered that for me, it's better to quit doing one exercise than all of them. Eventually, I'll find a substitute. There is almost no yucky exercise that does not have a less yucky alternative, it just sometimes takes a while to find it.

4. Stick to One Set
I read some research a long time ago (which may be the study cited here) that said 3 sets doesn't help you much more than one does. Instead of adding more sets, just keep lifting heavier weights for better results.

Is it still true or has other research contradicted it? Guess what? I don't f*cking care! Three sets would make me three times as miserable working out. I have achieved the optimum level of miserableness already, thank you. Any more and I'd stop working out entirely.

There is one exception to the One Set rule however...

5. Have One "Fun" Goal

Since I mainly work on a maintenance program, I can get discouraged when I notice that I'm not ever actually getting better at anything. So sometimes I pick one or two things and put in some extra effort and make some progress! It's quite motivating. This may mean additional sets, though I usually then do a different variation of the exercise rather than the same damn thing over and over again.

Note: if I ever achieve an unassisted pull-up, I will certainly let you know.

6. Try new things... or not.
Variety is good, and I like to experiment with things I read about in magazines or on people's blogs. Particularly if they sound easy, or replace something I don't much like, or claim to prevent some injury I'm prone too.

On the other hand, I have certain exercises I almost like. Should I be trying different versions of them? Probably mixing it up would get me better results. But if I keep wanting to come back to my favorite way of doing it, then screw variety. I'd rather keep doing my favorite and hate my workout less.

What about you? Are you a tortoise or a hare or a spud or a horsie? What keeps you going year after year?


  1. I guess I am a tortoise, because I have been slogging away at my exercise routine for years and years. I do have to try new things periodically so I don't get too bored, but it has to be something I enjoy! Like my trainer says - the best ab exercise is the one you like to do the most....

  2. this is the only thing Im good at (cue barbell shaped confetti!)
    Ive plateaued for years with my cardio (literally. like 8) & can be horrible at shaking other exercise things up ----but the weight training?

    Im all about the adding new twists in and keeping it fun.

    do I win a prize?
    an all expenses paid trip to P-Town?!


  3. I'm afraid I'm a bit of an erratic hare. Even though to look at me you wouldn't think so, weight as I do over 300 lbs .... in the past when I have taken up one exercise or another I have become madly keen on it very quickly, but often abandoned it a few months later.

    I know now that fitness has to be for life and that I *always* need to incoprorate some exercise into my life, so my erratic patterns of the past have bitten me on my big fat bum!

  4. I've got the hare mindset of stronger, faster, more buff! I throw myself at cardio like I'm trying to break records, then lift the heaviest weights I can, for three reps!

    Then I have the tortoise mindset of if I don't feel like doing it today, screw it, I won't. I know that I will the other times of the week.
    I know that there are times when my body is just not up to doing that half an hour on the elliptical AND being able to run 20 minutes on the treadmill. I know that some times will be Really Hard for unknown reasons.

    Most of all, I do try to keep enjoying, because for me that's the best way to keep on the hare enthusiasm while slogging at a tortoise pace on the lifelong uphill quest for strength and endorphin rushes. :)

  5. I seem to fall somewhere between tortoise... and slug. :]

  6. Exercise? there a category between tortoise and couch spud? Perhaps...slug? *eeeuuuwww, don't like that comparison*... Ummm, the Bag Lady is more like a bear - hibernates all winter, then ambles about all summer... she's mean, sometimes, too!!

  7. Tortoise here. I've occasionally tackled a bit of exercise with enthusiasm a la hare, but it never lasts.

  8. From what I can tell, you folks are all underestimating yourselves. I read your blogs and I know what you do both in the gym and out if it. Cows don't get herded and pictures of wilderness don't get taken without a bit of exertion taking place.

    And Jun, 50 minutes of hard cardio does not sound tortoisey, it sounds kind of Horsey to me!

    And goodbye, I sense you're on your way to a transition to more consistency--just a guess, but on your blog you sound determined this time.

    MizFit, you are so the thoroughbred! If I had an extra plane ticket lying around, you'd be a winner.

    Leah and Missicat and Hilary, I think we all have a similar (sensible) approach. Basic tortoiseness with a bit of extra enthusiasm thrown in every now and then.

  9. Awww... we all know where I fall on this spectrum. It's a sickness. But my fave point of yours: don't do things you hate. Life is too short! And there are too many FUN ways to exercise! And I'm going to break out in a cheer any second now!! I was a Goth in high school, really.

  10. I'm a tortoise when it comes to strength training. I love feeling strong and looking good (who doesn't?) but if it takes too much effort, I'm done. I have a short attention span. I keep at it, though, for the future health benefits of stronger bones and whatnot.

  11. Yay Gena!

    And Charlotte--really??? You were a high-school Goth?

    I love to picture you on the rowing machine at the gym in full Goth regalia.

  12. I'm definitely a tortise. There's a lot less pressure and a realization that I don't have to be perfect, which is a big deal for me.

  13. I'm a tortoise, but lately my body is doing some kind of fscked up thing where... what animal is it when you drop 2 pounds, then gain back half a pound, then drop another 2... all while eating the same diet and doing the same exercise routine?

    Can I trade it in for a nice tortoise?

  14. I'm an energizer bunny (though not terribly athletic) but sometimes I do think to myself, as I walk through the gym doors for the upteenth time that month, "What happens when the day comes and I just get sick and tired of working out. Then what? Am I just screwed?" I'm sure I can't keep up my normal pace forever, particularly if kids enter the picture, but I'm just taking advantage of my energy now. I AM AN ANIMAL!

  15. I think I have hare tendencies, in that way of getting totally ramped up about the obsession-of-the-month, then getting burnt out. I learned the way to keep it up is setting fitness goals, like a race for my running, a weight goal for lifting, etc. I'm also hoping that by sticking to it to make long-term goals, that habits will stick a little better for many tortoise-y years.

  16. I don't know about tortoise and hares, I like to think of myself as a panther.
    But really, I think I have been both a hare and a tortoise. I can stick to my routine, but I also go through burst of increasing intensity and setting crazy goals.

  17. Clearly I'm a tortoise. I wouldn't be out there walking if my neighbors weren't slinging rocks at the window.

  18. I would say I am a tortoise. I love to workout and set new goals. I am mainly at maintenance right now, but am always setting some type of goal to achieve!

  19. I just emerged from a long spud phase this past Feb. and am hoping I'm in the process of becoming a horse, not a hare ... [crossing hooves]

  20. I am definitely a hare - the cardio queen aka Crazy Running Woman but a complete slug with the strength training. Strength training is something I do because I'm 48 and know I should. You completely covered it for me with eliminating one that you hate instead of all of it and the sets issue. I've been working with a personal trainer and it ticks her off that I will eliminate stuff I hate and will only do 2 sets. Otherwise by the 3rd set I'm hating all of it. I finally told her 1. If I eliminate something she needs to come up with something I will do and 2. I will do more exercises at 2 sets than at 3 and 2 is better than 0 so she just needed to get over it since if I do 0 she no longer gets to collect $50 an hour from me.

  21. I think I'm a horse...I play rugby and also try to run when I can, so that definitely keeps me active!

    I'd add one more thing to your list--join a fun league if you can. Walking groups, running groups, frisbee, dodgeball, whatever--there are leagues in a lot of cities, and when you're playing, you forget that you're exercising too! Or maybe that's just me being competitive & having the attention span of a goldfish...

  22. Heart the tortoise-ing. It makes life much easier:)

  23. After reading this I'm realizing I've been a tortoise for the past 22 years! Since my mother and I started working out with Jane Fonda in the mid 80's. (Yes, leotards and leg warmers. Yikes!)
    The sad part is, there have been many attempts, over the years, to turn myself into a hare (or a horsey), and I'm just not. And that's OK!

    (Like Charlotte, I went through my goth period. Let me tell ya, working out to The Smiths is just NOT fun!)

  24. Like "The Eagles" said, "Who is gonna make it, we'll find out, in the LONG RUN!"

    Great post!!

    Dr. J

  25. I used to be more tortoise-like - getting in my daily exercise and not changing it up at all. Thinking more along the lines of "if it aint broke, don't fix it".
    Now I think of myself as more like a tortoise with hare like tendancies - I've gotten very enthusiastic and actually stuck with it for more than a millisecond!

  26. I'm fat and out of shape! There I said it. I guess that would make me a hare, I try things, then get bored and go back to the couch.

  27. I'm not sure what I am, maybe a tortoise with horse tendencies? I've just recently gotten to a place where I can call myself fit again, love running and actually like the weight training but don't consider myself fast or gung ho by any means.

    Thank you for reminding me that no one cares if I don't do the exercises I hate, you're right -there's always something slightly less annoying.

    I like plugging away till it's done.

  28. im a professional tortoise - i move just as slow as they do @_@

  29. I'm a tortoise with hare-trigger delusions. Right after I do those "few bent-legged push-ups", I feel as galvanized as if I'd run a marathon. I sprint down to do more loads of laundry, smiling at myself with satisfaction, easily imagining myself like GI Jane. Utterly deluded.

    I can't do stuff I hate for very long either. For the sake of variety, just a bit now and then, and it isn't worth aiming for the perfectly designed exercise and rep count if I never want to do it. Most days, good enough is good enough, and at least a few days a month I'm spectacular. Or the specs are more rose-colored than usual then.

  30. I can run and bike for hours but ask me to bench press and I cringe! My goal has always been to do an unassisted pull up, and let's just say it won't be happening anytime soon.
    I do however love me some lunges and squats. What does that make me? (think animal with large,yet strong rear end....)

  31. One thing you have to do is to try to stick to the plan as best as possible. Every little exercise or rep adds up over time.

  32. Currently an oooold cooooold tortoise.
    Have you seen them when they are cold, before sunning? Slow as cold molasses.
    I'm blaming my thyroid, it is kicking in and out, and when it's on strike I feel like a V-8 running on 4 cylinders. When it ramps back up or I again adjust meds, I feel much more like my "old" self, when I loved weights and cycling. I still walk (2 miles) and cycle (12 miles) about 4-5 times a week, but the strength training is now only coming from playing tug with my mini Poodle, he is ferocious, and I grab his toy several times a day (when he shoves it at me) and lift with him hanging on (20 pounds) for as many reps as I can, at least 10, and thus doing curls!

    I do manage consistent stretching though, so I don't freeze up.

    How I miss the fire of youth.

  33. Oh my goodness, you guys are making me laugh out loud. (I actually startled the cat).

    Too many wise/clever comments to address them all--reminding me that I may be a tortoise when it comes to weight training, but kind of a hare when it comes to blogging.

  34. great post, crabby! especially since i've been contemplating strength training lately myself!

  35. I believe (thanks to your insightful analagies and whatnot) that I am a tortoise trying and desperately wanting to be a hare. Or a horse. Or anything that moves quicker than a snail. Maybe I'm a snail. That's better than a slug, I think.

    Anyways. Perhaps now, in my self-realization, I can convince myself to be content as a tortoise. Thanks for the insightful insights! :)

  36. I'm a spud.

    I wish I were a horsie.

    Realisticly, the closest I'll probably ever get is a tortoise. So I guess I'm tortoise-curious?

    I exercise for the sake of exercise rather infrequently, to say the least; mainly because I hate most forms of it. I like the idea of exercise, just not the actual doing. Also, I think exercise would be a lot easier if I were already trim and fit and could jog around in little lulu lemon yoga pants looking like a sunbronzed trendy ipoded goddess.

  37. Definitely a tortoise, but with the expectations of a hare. "I worked out for a WHOLE WEEK. What do you mean I don't fit back into my jeans yet?" That said, I did an outdoor women's bootcamp a few years ago, got in super wicked shape and then...relapsed to standard form.

    I started working out again on my own, bootcamp-like exercise in the gym mostly, combo of strength training and cardio and I AM seeing results. My climbing is better. My legs are already stronger. I have better endurance rock climbing. Did I mention my climbing is better?

    A week into my new self-insprired program I taped my monthly results print out from bootcamp on my closet in my bedroom. To remind myself that it takes time, and consistency is the key. And I know in 4 more months, I will be back to super-wicked and I just need to keep going.

    Glamour-geek who still can't remember her password.

  38. Y'all are so cool.

    Hoop, I wish there were yoga leagues.

    Dance leagues? Where cheerleading is not required?



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