Step Right Up

How to use those health club machines to your post-holiday advantage

Jan 1, 1998
Outside Magazine

Technically, it is possible to run outdoors or even bicycle on the streets of Chicago every day of the year, including those glacial days in January. Few do, however, and even fewer would recommend it to others. There's slush to contend with, for one thing. And the wind can slow you down, especially when it's blowing hard and horizontally and is full of those teensy, needlelike ice crystals.

This time of year, even the most brazen outdoor athletes find themselves at the local gym in search of a quality indoor experience. And except for those who've outfitted their own homes with a piece of automated equipment (see Review, page 91), a health club room full of cardiovascular contraptions — stationary bikes, stair climbers, treadmills, and rowing machines — is the most comforting place to turn. Take, for instance, Chicago's gargantuan East Bank Club, where 3,000 people may check in on a given day; in January, an extra horde of 500 can show up at the doors. These foul-weather fans may be coming off a particularly indulgent holiday jag, or even just a month or so of inactivity. Such is the power of cold weather and post-fruitcake resolve.

In the club's main, 14,000-square-foot cardiovascular area, some 220 machines stand in rows in a mirrored, tall-ceilinged space once occupied by tennis courts. Mounted high, two separate banks of TVs, their audio signals available on personal stereo headsets, show sports, soaps, the news — whatever's on. Over against the walls, people on mats crunch their abs and breathlessly flirt.

If it's been a while, you might wisely head straight for the machine that mimics what you ordinarily do. But then the question often becomes, now what? Should you climb the Eiffel Tower? Is it better to set it on manual and go until exhaustion? What are all these buttons? Where are the trees? The East Bank Club's fitness director, exercise physiologist Janice Slater, has seen the confusion. "When people first walk into the gym, they aren't quite sure what to do," Slater says. "That's understandable; I'm not going to walk into a law office and start practicing law."

She suggests using apparatuses that allow you to control resistance and change it easily in mid-effort. And if you're looking for tangible results — not merely a diversion from the couch — her routines will require real concentration. "You can't read and do this at the same time," she says firmly. Which is to say that you, not the machine, should establish the speed of the exercise.

To return to a level of fitness resembling your base, Slater suggests three 30-minute sessions a week on your favorite machine at about 65 percent of your maximum heart rate. This will meet your fledgling cardiovascular needs, using major muscle groups and moving a lot of oxygen through your system. Following a strength-training routine on two of your noncardio days will help you cover the fitness bases. Together, the plan is a life preserver: just substantial enough to get you back on board. "The biggest thing is don't try to pick up where you left off," says Slater, noting that it takes barely two weeks without exercise for your fitness to wane. "If you've taken a month off, give yourself a month to get up to speed." Stick with it, and before long your life should be perfect.

Exercise Bike

The popularity of this piece of equipment can be attributed to a simple fact: You get to sit down. While the bike is the easiest place to get lost in a good magazine article, if you adopt the appropriate posture and use the toe clips to pull up as you pedal, you'll get a fine workout for the hamstrings in addition to the quadriceps, heart, and lungs — even if you use one of the really comfortable recumbent models. In either case, with the proper seat adjustment, each leg should show a five-degree bend at the knee when it's fully extended. On the upright bikes, hold the grips lightly, sit up like Mary Poppins, and be sure your knees point straight forward.

Most stationary bikes allow you to control resistance, the program setting (which simulates the contour of the terrain) and of course, your own pedaling speed. In Slater's workout you'll alternate sets of hill climbs and sprints, with recovery periods after each one. Hill climbs offer conditioning through a progressive increase in resistance. Sprints, which should be done on "flat ground," let you go hard in short bouts of intensity, challenging yourself in a way you couldn't over a longer period. As you work into shape, simply increase the resistance.

For the warm-up, pedal easily on a level program for five minutes, keeping the resistance low enough so that your quads don't start to burn. You'll feel your body getting warm, though you shouldn't start to sweat or breathe heavily. Next, divide the 20-minute body of the workout thus: Alternate four-minute segments of hill climbing and sprinting, following each segment with a minute of recovery pedaling at your warm-up rate.

On the hill climbs, choose a medium level of resistance and a hill with a steady incline, not a series of peaks and valleys. For the second hill climb, pedal 30 seconds at a moderate resistance, then 30 seconds at the same level but going faster, and repeat the sequence three more times. It's fine to bend forward, keeping your back flat, and you can stand if the bike allows it — that is, if your pedaling remains smooth. Think about digging in with your heels. Think about Jan Ullrich.

For the sprints, go like lightning for your four minutes, at a resistance level that lets you keep the thing at 90 rpm. Finally, cool down for five minutes, pedaling at your warm-up pace, riding steady as your heart rate starts to drop.

Stair Climber

Not even the late Lanny Potts could have guessed what a sensation his invention, the vaunted StairMaster, would become. Now, in addition to the standard separate-pedal varieties, we have machines with continuously revolving escalator-like treads — another Potts invention that didn't take off until more recently. Slater prefers this sort because it more closely simulates the action of climbing steps, since your muscles have to work against gravity.

All climbers will deliver a workout, however. They mostly exercise your quadriceps and your cardiovascular system, although a recent study conducted at Skidmore College turned up another virtue. Eight college-age female runners worked out on pedal-type climbers for three weeks, and the effects of that training, as measured by such factors as heart rate and VO2 max, were compared to those of running. The findings? No statistical difference in the fitness benefits of the two forms of exercise. It's great news for runners who temporarily can't handle high-impact work. "Say you've got a nagging pain on the bottom of your foot," says exercise physiologist Patricia Fehling, the Skidmore professor who coauthored the study. "You can still work out at the same intensity."

As for Slater's regimen, you'll get the best results by standing up straight and not leaning on the rails. They exist only to help you balance, so if you find yourself tempted to use them, slow it down. And it's best not to let the steps sink all the way to the bottom.

Slater recommends following a pyramid, in which you steadily increase and then decrease resistance while stepping to the same pace. For the warm-up, five minutes of low-resistance stepping at level one should suffice. After that, do two minutes each at levels three, six, nine, and 12, followed by four minutes at level 14. Then come down: two minutes at levels 12, nine, six, and three, ending with a five-minute cool-down.


 A long row of occupied treadmills will offer every variation you can imagine in the way of fitness couture, audio technology, and public expressions of self-esteem. You'll see walkers, talkers, and marathon men. Everybody's doing something slightly different from the person at the next machine. They're drawn to the exercise requiring the least adjustment in making the transition from the outdoors.

It's this realism that makes the treadmill such a great workout. Primarily another lower-body operation, it calls on the calves, hamstrings, quadriceps, glutes, and hip flexors. "Everybody's got their favorite little machine, but you don't have to overcome gravity with a lot of them," says J.P. Slovak, fitness director at the Cooper Fitness Center in Dallas. "On a treadmill, you do. It's the best thing."

Run with your chest up, arms loose, and elbows driving straight back on each stride. Slater suggests another pyramid plan here. Start with a five minute warm-up on level ground. Then run one-minute sequences in this elevation order: one, three, five, seven, five, three, and one. Repeat the sequence twice more and cap off your run with a level, five-minute cool-down.

Rowing Machine

Just a few inches off the ground, rowing machines tend to get lost in the forest of taller equipment. But for a cardio workout that taxes your upper body thoroughly, it's your only option — and a good one. The rowing machine calls into action your arms, legs, and some of your back muscles. (Because some arch their backs incorrectly as they row, victims of lower-back problems may want to stay away.)

Rowers differ from other cardio machines in that the harder you go, the more rigorous the effort required. Also, on some versions, the flywheel you're spinning by pulling on the bar makes a nice breeze, so you can imagine there's actually water and fresh air nearby, and perhaps a barbecue grill.

The basic form requires pushing with your legs and then pulling with your arms. Holding the bar with an overhand grip, bring it to your abdomen, keeping your elbows out. When you've got the bar pulled in, your back should be straight, not arched or hyperextended. Warm up with five minutes of easy, steady rowing. Then do seven rounds of three-minute sequences — one minute hard, two minutes easy. Wrap it up with a five-minute cool-down. Who knows? After a few sessions, you may develop a reluctance to stop. While you're on one of these machines your life is in order. You're not eating, not drinking beer, not wasting time. For a few minutes, anyway, you're irreproachable.

Joanne Trestrail is a writer and editor who lives in Chicago and exercises at the East Bank Club.

Lift Smarter
Say good-bye to that annoying, Nautilus-sharing minuet you do between sets during weight-room rush hour. Now you're free to move on after each exercise, thanks to soon-to-be-released guidelines from the American College of Sports Medicine that recommend performing single sets of weight repetitions rather than the three sets we've been following since the Neolithic. Of course, with this freedom comes responsibility. To make one set effective, you need to force yourself to go S-L-O-W, lifting for two seconds and then picturing molasses as you lower for four seconds. "One set of eight to 12 repetitions, two to three times a week, is going to get you what you need," says exercise physiologist Michael Pollock, who coauthored the guidelines and did the research behind them. He found that over the course of six months, lifting three sets resulted in no strength gains over lifting one set. Counter to what you might expect, it's best not to increase the weight you've been lifting. "Don't change your weight, but change your technique to make every rep count," Pollock emphasizes. "It's about intensity."
— Laura Hilgers

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