Developing a workout plan as a beginner isn’t easy. Working out isn’t easy. Making exercise part of your daily routine? You guessed it: not easy.
But it’s so worth it.
Exercising regularly is key to:
- Elevating your mood.
- Building a sense of confidence and a healthier relationship with your body.
- Improving your sleep.
- Decreasing stiffness and pain associated with sitting for long periods of time.
- Helping you focus and think more creatively.
- Decreasing your risk of heart disease and stroke.
And so much more.
As a beginner, there are a few key challenges you should anticipate. Early on, you may run into situations where you get frustrated at the pace of your progress, feel intimidated or confused by specific exercises, or don’t know how to structure your workouts to make the most of them.
We’re here to help. This article covers the basics of setting fitness goals, getting comfortable in the gym, and designing an exercise routine that will help you build confidence in your body.
What Should a Beginner Prioritize in a Workout Routine?
When you’re getting started, do not fall into the trap of wanting to lift as much weight as possible right away. There’s a very real risk of seeing what others are doing in the gym and assuming that you need to be doing as much or more than they are for whatever reason. A lot of guys fall into this trap– men are taught to be competitive and to pride themselves on their strength, so seeing other folks, especially women, lifting more than us in the gym can prompt us to be irresponsible with how we approach our workouts.
Taking that approach is how you get injured, stall your progress, and leave the gym altogether.
Instead, your first few months of working out should spent:
- Learning the correct form for compound movements and attaining a full range of motion in each exercise.
- Identifying any current muscular imbalances you may have.
- Determining your starting baseline.
- Setting realistic goals for yourself that will spur you on to continually challenge yourself and elevate your baseline performance.
There are a variety of ways to test your baseline performance and figure out where you are at right now. My advice would be to pick a few key metrics to start with and recheck them every month (or every other month) and see how you’re progressing. The graphic below shows what this may look like.
As a beginner, I would recommend making aesthetic goals (such as weight loss or muscle definition) secondary to being able to meaningfully track your progress and notice where you’re making quick gains and where you’re finding it harder to progress. Additionally, the benchmarks you set for yourself should be specific to your fitness goals. The four benchmarks I’ve provided here can give you decent insights into your full body physical conditioning, but they don’t tell the whole story and may not be as applicable to your specific goals. When there is something specific that you want to be able to do, focusing your training on specific adaptations to make that happen is important.
Additionally, a final note of caution on integrating this type of benchmarking is that your workouts should consist of more than just your benchmark exercises. If you’re only jogging and doing push-ups, pull-ups, and planking each day, you’re going to neglect some of your key muscle groups and fail to create a workout routine that strengthens your entire body.
Consider following the sample workout here or adapting it if you’re looking for a full routine. The benchmarks are just to help you better visualize your progress. Most gyms will have machines set up that allow you to do full-body circuit training, which is a fantastic place to start, and you should always feel comfortable asking gym staff to show you how to use a particular machine if you get stuck.
How to Feel More Comfortable at the Gym/ Beat “Gymtimidation”
Figuring out the exercises you want to do is only part of the battle. For many of us– myself included– showing up at a new gym can be a daunting task. Not only do you have to get in a workout, but you have to also figure out the lay of the land and get a sense for what the gym’s culture is like.
If possible, see if you can workout with a friend. Having a gym buddy can make a huge difference in your fitness trajectory. A workout companion can make that first workout less lonely, and it also builds accountability and safety in your routine. If you’re on comparable fitness levels as each other, you have a mechanism for pushing yourself while still having a spotter who can assist. Additionally, if you start to falter on your commitment to exercise but your friend wants their workout partner present, that can keep you faithful to your routine and prevent you from dropping off when you hit a slump.
If working out with a partner is not an option, have no fear! You still have plenty of options. I’m writing this as a certified personal trainer who has had partnered workouts maybe two or three times in his entire life.
Assuming it’s financially viable, asking your local gym about personal training services can be a great starting point. You’ll generally find that the bulky folks who seem to be scowling and live at the gym are actually quite friendly, and when they’re the ones showing you the ropes, you’re going to learn form correctly, get acquainted with the gym’s equipment, and make new connections quickly.
In lieu of working with a trainer, solo workouts are still super beneficial. Grab some headphones and put together a playlist of your favorite music ahead of time– if you do feel awkward, allowing yourself to just jam to your favorite music can be healing. Take a few minutes when you first get to the gym to walk around and figure out where everything is at. Once you’re ready to start working out, remember that there is no shame in pulling up a YouTube video on your phone to figure out how to do an exercise correctly. If you get stuck or feel awkward attempting something, use it as a learning exercise to do some reading and watching around the Internet and then come back to the exercise to give it another try.
As a gym veteran, I want to let you in on a little secret about the gym and people who workout all the time: If you’re not bothering folks and interrupting their workouts, nobody cares that you’re at the gym.
While that may sound dismissive on the surface, it’s a brilliant reality. If you show up to workout, people aren’t going to be watching you and judging you. Nobody is going to remember if you have to decrease the amount of weight you’re lifting, lift less than someone else, or are drenched in sweat. Nobody cares. Once you embrace that, it’s liberating and helps you stay focused on yourself and personal wellness rather than being intimidated by your surroundings.
Stay focused on FITT, Not Looking Fit
As I love to reiterate, workout beginners should not worry about aesthetics at first. Rather than wanting to look fit, your initial priority should be embracing the FITT (pronounced “fit”) principle.
FITT is an acronym that stands for Frequency, Intensity, Time, and Type.
Frequency is about how often you are getting exercise. Once a week? Three times per week? Five times? Most medical advice recommends getting moderate exercise three to five times per week.
When you’re a fitness beginner, going to the gym 3-5 times a week can be a challenge. If your body isn’t yet adapted to exertion, you’re likely going to have some notable muscle soreness after your first couple of workouts. Taking an NSAID, stretching, and epsom salt baths can all help reduce this inflammation and allow you to continue showing up while your body adapts.
I like to think of Intensity as being a gauge of how hard you push yourself while you’re at the gym.
For example, when you sit down at a machine to lift, are you lifting an amount of weight that allows you to do your full rep count easily and without breaking a sweat? Or, does it require significant effort and elevate your heart rate to complete?
Ask yourself the same question when doing cardio. Are you jogging comfortably? Or are you pushing yourself through periods where your heart is pounding, your lungs are aching, and your legs are burning?
Increasing the intensity of your workouts, even if only in short bursts, is a great way to improve muscle and cardiovascular endurance, greatly benefiting your long-term wellness. When you’re working out, don’t go easy on yourself. You have to find the balance between maintaining full control of your movements and putting yourself at risk. Each rep should have a sense of resistance and exertion, but not sharp pain and erratic movements.
As you could probably guess, Time is the component of the FITT principle that describes the length of time you spend engaged in an activity. Ideally, the overall amount of time you spend doing physical activity each day should be at least 30-60 minutes.
In any given workout, time factors in in several ways. First and foremost, the total amount of time you spend exerting yourself compared to the time you spend resting between activities is an indicator of your endurance and cardiovascular strength. Second, you want to be able to move in slow controlled motions while lifting, increasing the time in which your muscles are actively working (also known as, “time under tension”). Finally, you can think of increasing repetitions or sustaining cardiovascular bursts longer as another element of time in your workouts if you’re wanting to increase your endurance and engage in hypertrophy.
Like mentioned above, you don’t want to do the same few exercises each and every time you workout. That’s where Type comes into play.
Type describes the nature of the exercise that you’re doing in any given workout, and ideally your fitness routine should include multiple types of movements. Incorporating stretching, compound movements, isolated movements, isometric exercises, callisthenics, and cardiovascular training into your workouts ensures that you are getting in a variety of types of exercises and are more likely to be nurturing your body holistically.