I'm a bigger guy who likes to exercise—here's how I make it work
Working out should feel great, no matter your size.
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A new year is here again—and I'll admit, I've been that guy who signs up for the latest fitness or weight-loss thing around or after the holidays. Sometimes I get somewhere, but often I get frustrated and even angry when trying to make progress with a fitness routine, even when guided by a personal trainer or a group fitness class.
But let me back up a bit before I explain where I'm coming from. I'm a big guy. I'm 5 feet 11 inches with broad shoulders, thick legs, and a gut. Over the years, my weight has fluctuated as much as 80 pounds.
I've also finished more than 20 half-marathons, and dozens of other races so I'm familiar with difficulty, fatigue, and discomfort. I love both my single-speed fat-tire cruiser and my Peloton indoor bike, I'm never happier than when I'm exploring trails (yes, even in New York City), and I have so much fun coaching other runners. But after a frustrating tendon injury in my right foot and the pandemic that interrupted my physical therapy and slowed my healing, it’s been a tough few years. The good news is my repaired foot is getting stronger and I'm ready to ramp up my workouts and activity level. But the last thing I want or need is to hurt myself so seriously again. Even basic exercises that trainers or coaches think should be easy to master can be really, really hard and possibly risky because of the size of my body, my weight, and even my flexibility.
And I don't think I'm alone. If you've had a similar experience, then you know how that frustration can mess with your physical and mental health. I spoke to Coach Dorothy Evans, a personal trainer and running coach, for advice on how to set up myself—and you—for successfully beginning and continuing a new fitness routine.
Think of your current body as an asset, not the enemy (and find a trainer who agrees)
Your ultimate goal may be to change your body, whether you want to lose weight or build muscle. That’s all well and good—but you shouldn’t just ignore or discount the body you already have. "What a lot of trainers fail to recognize is that a person who is bearing extra weight is already working harder doing even a simple movement," Evans says. "If I took an athlete who is 5 feet 11 inches and 160 pounds and made that person wear a vest that weighs 80-plus pounds, they would not be able to perform any movement easily."
I'm always wearing a weight vest, so to speak.
A few years ago, when a gym trainer offered me that ubiquitous "free intro training session" and then had me do box jumps, battle ropes, and burpees in the first 10 minutes, I wanted to die. I actually cut the session short and said I couldn't keep up. The trainer replied, "Well, I'm trying to shock your system." Seriously? I ignored his annoying followup texts trying to get me to buy a training multipack.
"It is important as a personal trainer to custom fit a program to your client. I take every client as is. What I mean by that is you could have been an athlete 10 years ago or perhaps [you just] quit smoking," says Evans, who’s been training clients for 25 years. "It is important to set a program that is realistic. For most people, small achievements keep them going forward."
Work with your abilities, not against them
For me, this means understanding that my body has some limitations. Admitting this is hard but it's true. My belly just prevents me from folding or twisting as far as I'd like. And some exercises that I hate to do, even though I have relatively strong legs, are things like squats, box jumps, lunges. I almost immediately feel pain in my knees and my lower back.
I don't complain about these moves because they're hard. I complain about them because they cause me pain—and not the good kind. And then I get frustrated or hurt and don't want to exercise again for days or weeks until I'm confident that I haven't done something more serious than a pulled muscle.
So what can I do to mitigate this? A good trainer will say that I (or any client) need to first learn good form. Evans says she focuses on teaching proper technique and not overdoing it in any given session. "Just like having a proper doctor examination, I would suggest that people learn proper form from a specialist," she says. "When you are first working out, doing 15 minutes of proper form, proper speed movement is great."
This involves taking one's range of motion into account, too. As I mentioned earlier, my range of motion, or ROM, isn't great in some places. Some of that is due to chronic pains and lack of flexibility. Some of it is almost certainly related to my size, but it doesn't have to be. "Some people with larger BMI [body-mass index] have limited ROM but that isn't always the case," Evans says. "I have some larger clients who have great ROM and some smaller clients with poor ROM."
Use props to improve your form
One thing I have learned to not feel bad about is using gear to help me with my limitations. I thank yoga class for this because yoga teachers have never made me feel "bad" about using a strap, bolster, or block to help my body get into a certain position. I also don't limit using blocks to yoga, either, as they can work as a great tool to help with a host of moves. I have a few sets of Amazon Basics blocks, which I use to prop up my knees, hips, and even hands when I'm doing floor workouts. For example, doing pushups with my hands flat on the floor tends to put pressure on my wrists, so I hold blocks instead. I also like using a large, thick yoga mat such as Lululemon's 5mm (Big) Mat, which cushions my limbs.
Evans says that blocks with cut-outs and different shapes, such as those from Three Minute Egg, can help you hit different angles. But she discourages using too soft or thick a mat for all workouts. "Thicker pads and balance balls make the movements more challenging and may end up making things worse," she says. "I would work on good form on a flat surface before introducing balance work."
Evans says she often sees people doing exercises like squats and lunges incorrectly by forcing too much weight into their knees when they lower down, most likely because they find it hard to hold their balance without allowing knees to shoot forward past their toes. Her advice: "When you squat back, lift your toes off the floor. This will force your weight into your heels and keep your knees from jutting forward." If you need help, she recommends putting wedges under the toes to make sure your weight is on the heels. You can also use a ballet bar, steady chair, or workout bench as tools for balance or to provide feedback. The bar can serve as an extra thing to grip onto and having a chair or workout bench under you allows you to gently tap your butt to the surface and then rise. And if the movement hurts too much, say in your knees or lower back, you can just sit and take a break instead of risking injury.
But avoid using certain tools as crutches
I've had back problems on and off for years. Terrible sciatica pain hobbled me for an entire summer. Last year, as I worked to recover from foot surgery, I often had excruciating back pain when weaning myself off a knee scooter and, later, crutches. And last fall, I strained my lower back doing simple leg lifts from a lying-down position, which sidelined me for days. So sometimes I wear a weight-lifting belt when I do certain exercises, at the suggestion of a doctor. I've even worn it when I do dishes.
But Evans says to use caution. "[Weight belts] actually make the back muscles weaker," she says. If you feel back strain when working out, don’t go right for the belt. Instead, try doing fewer reps at first. Two or three good squats, with precise form and slow movements, are a lot better than 10 bad, painful ones. (And, if you feel pain and strain no matter what you do, your best bet is probably to see a physical therapist.)
Get creative with your workouts
Sometimes, you have to try things you aren’t expecting. Evans says she has successfully challenged clients of all sizes to try several workouts using the TRX Suspension Trainer system. The benefit of this system is that you use your own body weight but can vary the difficulty of the moves by adjusting the length of the straps. Reviewed’s managing editor Meghan Kavanaugh loves her TRX set, which she says provides her with a fuller range of motion in her workouts because she can use them to better control her form, thus challenging her more.
Among the many things the trash year 2020 taught me, "Don't make resolutions'' is up there. Last year was a master class in preparing for anything and learning to be patient and adaptable.
So craft an exercise strategy rather than a resolution. Evans says becoming an athlete involves working on flexibility, mobility, cardio endurance, cardio strength, muscle endurance, and muscle strength—and not one thing over and at the expense of another. "A good program takes all of these into consideration," she says. "As they say, 'Rome wasn't built in a day.'"
Fitness takes focus, commitment, and, perhaps most of all, an open mind.
And be kind to yourself. It's taken me forty-something years to learn that.
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