So you want to start working out and get in better shape or maybe just be healthier. You might not necessarily be interested in getting super strong or muscular, but you wouldn’t mind tightening up a few spots, feeling better, or dropping a couple of pounds. You’re ready to take the dive, but there’s just one problem…you don’t even know where to start. Getting into a fitness routine can feel overwhelming, especially when you don’t know anything about it. But don’t worry; I’ve got you covered with the basics.
Get the most bang for your buck with compound movements.
A compound movement uses multiple joints and muscle groups. Exercises like squats, lunges, and push-ups are compound movements, as opposed to something like a bicep curl, which is an isolation movement. You’ll want the bulk of your workout to made up of compound movements, as they stimulate your metabolism, strength, and muscle growth more so than isolation movements.
Aim for 3 full-body workouts a week.
Yes, there are different splits you can do like upper body, lower body, push, pull, etc. But full body workouts are underrated and especially beneficial for beginners, as they trigger growth hormones that result in significant body change. It’s disappointing to me when I see beginners doing isolation body part days–chest day, arm day, etc. You’ll get better, faster results with a full-body routine that’s packed with compound movements. You can eventually move on to a different split, but in the beginning start with three full-body days.
Use mostly free weights.
Machines have their place, but you’ll want to keep them to a minimum. Free weights are far superior for improving your functional fitness. When you use free weights (dumbbells, barbell, kettlebell), your body has to work harder to stabilize than it would if you were using a machine, which improves your balance, helps you get stronger, and engages your core.
A quick lesson in exercise selection.
To put this simply, think of your body in four hemispheres: Upper front (chest, shoulders, stomach), upper back (back, traps), lower front (quadriceps), and lower back (hamstrings, glutes). For a full-body workout, you’ll want to hit all or most of these quadrants.
Here’s a list of the most effective exercises for each muscle group. If you’re doing a full-body workout, aim to hit at least one exercise for each group.
- Chest: Push-ups, bench press, dumbbell chest press, incline chest press, chest fly
- Shoulders: Barbell or dumbbell overhead press, lateral raises, front raises, bent-over lateral raises, bench dips (also work triceps)
- Back: Bent-over dumbbell or barbell row, pull-downs, pull-ups, cable row
- Quadriceps: Back squats, front squats, stationary lunges, walking lunges, leg press
- Hamstrings: Deadlifts, walking lunges, good mornings, Romanian deadlifts, leg curl
- Glutes: Hip bridge, hip thrust, kettlebell swings
- Core: Planks, Paloff press. Please don’t waste your time with crunches or sit-ups.
Do your warm up.
Start by going for a brisk five minute walk. It’s not necessary to do static stretching (stretches where you hold the position for 30+ seconds) unless you already know which muscles are tight, which as a beginner, you probably don’t. As a basic warm-up, try the lunge elbow instep to open your hips, glute bridge to activate your glutes, and shoulder wall slides.
Rep it out.
Start off with 3 sets of 12 to 15 reps for each exercise. You can do your routine as a circuit, meaning one set of an exercise, then immediately move on to the next exercise and so on. Then when you get to the last exercise, repeat the whole circuit another 2 times. Or you can do exercises one at a time. Meaning three sets of squats, then move on to three sets of push-ups, and so on.
This is really trial and error, but for general guidelines: start with just the barbell. If it feels easy, add 2.5 lb to 5 lb plates to each side for upper body and 5 lb to 10 lb plates for lower body. For dumbbells, start with 5 to 10 lbs. If it feels too easy, move up to 12-15 lbs.
Form is key.
If you’re just starting out, it helps to hire a personal trainer to check your form.
Pre and post workout nutrition.
You’ll want just the right amount of food to fuel your workout and just the right amount to help you recover from it. For pre-workout, eat a light to medium meal with carbs and protein about an hour to an hour and a half before you workout. You don’t want it to be so heavy that it leaves you feeling sick, but you also want it to be hearty enough to energize your workout. A banana and a protein shake or a small sandwich with deli meat would be two good options. Your post-workout meal will also be carbs and protein, but a slightly larger amount. For carbs, things like rice and potatoes work well. Choose lean proteins like chicken, turkey, or egg whites.
As time goes on, you’ll want to progressively use heavier weights. This is especially important if you desire body change.
Keep cardio simple.
As a beginner, there’s no need for anything fancy. Just do moderate steady state cardio for 30 minutes 2-3 times a week to build up your endurance base. So biking, running, the elliptical or stairmaster where you’re working at a 6 or 7 out of 10 will do. Don’t overthink it, just try to continuously move for 30 minutes in a way that’s challenging but not so hard you want to give up in 5 minutes.
Those are the basics for a beginner. It might seem like a lot, but with practice it really does get easier.