Ask a dozen different personal trainers what kind of workout routine is best and you'll probably...
The Ultimate Guide to Fitness for Absolute Beginners
Exercise and fitness are universally agreed upon as being beneficial. If you want to decrease your risk of stroke and heart disease, strengthen your muscles and bones, and boost your mood and energy levels, exercise is the most assured way to make all of that happen.
Unfortunately, most of us get fitness wrong. Constantly.
Many men, especially in the United States, have come to think of exercise in terms of short-term wins. You want to lose fifteen pounds for Summer, so you restrict your diet and do daily cardio in an effort to get trim for beach season.
As soon as the likelihood that you’ll be spotted in the sand in a speedo (or board shorts– I won’t judge) decreases, you go back to the diet and activity level you had before. The next summer, the process repeats.
This pattern of behavior and similar do you a disservice. When fitness is a part of your life in a long-term sustained way, the benefits you experience are far greater than any short-term gain you may experience when making exercise a part of short-term goals or vanity. Let’s break down why.
If You’re Looking Only for Weight-loss Advice, this Article is Not for You
If losing weight is your only goal when it comes to learning about fitness, this article probably isn’t the right one for you. But, we hope you’ll still give us a chance and read on to learn more about what we believe you’ll get out of exercise in the long-term.
We like to start by setting the expectation that our focus isn’t going to be purely on weight loss because in our experience, weight loss is one small outcome that may occur when you exercise regularly. The other benefits are often more impactful and outweigh weight loss.
Speaking as a personal trainer, weight and the quantity of one’s body fat is neither good nor bad. It’s just the body that you’ve got. Depending upon your body type, genetic factors, health concerns, or degrees of disability, losing weight may not even be an option for you. That doesn’t mean that you can’t improve your quality of life by developing a better sense of mobility, decreasing joint pain and chronic inflammation, sleeping better, or enhancing your mood.
How to Define Your Fitness Goals
A great starting point for dipping your toes into the pool (perhaps even literally) is to get clear with yourself about what your fitness goals are. Many of us come into the gym with lofty, ambiguous ambitions, and it does us a disservice.
If you pick up a dumbbell thinking that the ideal outcome is to look like you’ve been cast for a Marvel movie, you may just be setting yourself up for failure. (A) When we compare ourselves to actors, we neglect the fact that many actors have access to trainers, money, free time, and doctors willing to prescribe steroids that most of us never will. (B) Even more significantly, ambiguous goals lead us to wing it in the gym rather than crafting an intentional and targeted plan.
Before you invest in a gym membership or home workout equipment, ask yourself what problem you want to solve by exercising.
For example, I’ve historically had trouble sleeping and have a chronic anxiety disorder. My doctor prescribed increasing my activity levels (along with a potent SSRI) as a way of managing my symptoms. The problem I wanted to solve was that I felt like I didn’t have any good outlets for my stress. It got me into the gym, and then progressively challenging myself to get stronger got me addicted to it and started me on the path to earning my Certified Personal Trainer credentials with the ISSA.
Other common problems I’ve seen work well for sustaining motivation are:
- I sit too much at work and I’m always stiff or sore.
- I get tired easily when my friends want to hike or do something outdoors.
- I want to be able to take my dog on longer walks.
- I’m not confident; I don’t like my body.
- My family has a history of heart disease/ diabetes/ cancer and I want to reduce my risks of developing symptoms or complications.
- My friends are spending more time exercising, and I want to be able to enjoy more time with them doing what they enjoy.
- I’ve always wanted to be able to do pull-ups but can’t.
- I want to confront my childhood gym class trauma head-on.
Whatever the problem you want to address, knowing why you’re starting a routine is key. Once you know what problem you want to solve, you can work backward to creating a plan to address it. Feel free to drop a comment on this article if you have a specific question (e.g. “how do I train my way up to being able to do a pull-up?” “What are good exercises to start with if I’m trying to improve my posture?”).
As you clarify your goals, don’t dive into the deep end too quickly. One of the biggest mistakes you can make for yourself when getting started with a workout routine is to underestimate the time it takes to develop muscle control and stability and end up hurting yourself or just feeling defeated by attempting something you’re not yet ready for. Scaffolding your workouts so that you’re first learning how to perform compound movements safely and then isolating and increasing resistance is ideal.
What Type of Workout Routine is Best for Beginners?
The best type of workout to start with is going to depend upon your specific fitness goals.
As some general disclaimers: If you have a health condition that increases your risk of injury from working out, be sure to consult your physician regarding any routine you’re thinking about starting. Similarly, if you struggle with any form of disordered eating, communicate your intention to start a new exercise regimen and any concerns you may have with your healthcare provider.
With that in mind, where you should start your workout routine will depend upon how frequently you’re able to exercise and what types of goals you’ve set for yourself.
When you’re getting started, I recommend employing what’s called the SAID Principle. SAID is an acronym that stands for “Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands.” Speaking plainly, this means that you train in a way that is highly targeted and focused on developing specific skills.
For example, in my own fitness journey, there was a point in time where I could not do a full pull-up. That was my goal– I just wanted to be able to do a few pull-ups at a time. Taking a SAID Principle approach, I knew that in order to complete a pull-up, I really needed to strengthen my latissimus dorsi (lats) muscles since they’re the primary muscle group involved in pull-ups. I also knew that I needed to stabilize my rear delts and core for the pulling motion so that I wouldn’t be kipping and cheating the motion.
As a result, I focused on gradually increasing the amount of weight I could move during a cable lat pulldown, incorporated more rear delt flies into my routine, and started doing hanging leg raises. Getting stronger with these areas, I moved on to assisted pull-ups, progressively decreasing the amount of assistance. Eventually, this training led me to developing the strength and stability needed to successfully complete a set of free-hanging pull-ups.
You can take a similar approach to full-body strength training by starting with machine-based workouts before moving to free weights. Machines tend to be limited in their payoff in the sense that they create very isolated movements. When you do a machine biceps curl, for example, you’re probably only working your biceps, and not the smaller stabilizing muscles in your shoulder, back, wrist, and forearm that you would be working with free weights. In spite of this, if you’re brand new to lifting, it can be uncomfortable (and perhaps even unsafe) to immediately get under a loaded barbell without a trainer or spotter. Using machines to get familiar with movements and prime your major muscle groups is a great starting point and form of using the SAID Principle.
What about Weight and Reps and Sets?
Every fitness writer has their own preferences for the number of reps you should be doing per set, the number of sets you should be doing per workout, and what percentage of your ORM (one-rep maximum) you should be lifting each time.
As a beginner, frankly, you don’t need to worry about that too much. Instead, your focus should be on learning the movements and getting your muscles accustomed to the appropriate lifting movements.
As a beginner, it will be tempting to want to lift as much weight as quickly as possible, especially if you’re comparing yourself to people who are in the gym with you. As much as possible, get out of your head and avoid this mentality– that’s how you end up with a strained muscle or sore joint and end up having to stay out of the gym.
Start each new exercise doing less weight than you think you can handle. If it’s too easy, add 5-10lbs at a time until you feel resistance but can still easily control each movement. If you’re having to cheat the movement at all– such as swinging your back on curls or rocking back and forth aggressively on lat pulldowns– you’re not controlling the motion and need to decrease the weight you’re attempting.
Increased weight capacity will come with time. If you’re not doing exercises correctly, you’re not going to get the full-benefit and will slow down your progress and you’ll be at higher risks of injury.
If you’d like some hard numbers to reference as a starting point, these are some of the more common recommended reps and sets for beginners:
- 4 Sets of 8-10 Reps each
- 3 Sets of 10-12 Reps each
- Pyramid Sets: 1 Set of 10-12 reps at a lighter weight, followed by 1 set of 6-8 reps at a heavier weight, end with 1 set of 10-12 reps at your starting weight
What are Some Good Workout Routines to Start With?
We’re actively creating full guides for different workout routines, such as push-pull, upper-lower, and muscle-group specific routines, so I’ll refrain from breaking down every possible option available to you. Instead, I’ll outline a 5 Workout plan that would be great for familiarizing yourself with the gym, activating your major muscle groups, and getting you started. It could easily be repeated with varying intensity even as you go from beginner to gym rat and still be beneficial.
Beginner’s One Week Workout Plan
As a note, these set counts and reps are targets. If you need to modify them, by all means feel free to do so! Working out isn’t about meeting someone else’s expectations. It’s about challenging yourself to constantly be improving, so if you need to halve these rep counts this week, do it! You can always increase your reps as you get stronger and more comfortable with the movements. If you do choose to repeat this routine, I recommend taking a rest day between finishing Day 7 and restarting on Day 1.
Before each workout, do some light warm ups. Focus specifically on the joints and muscles that are primarily involved in your workout. Walking on a treadmill with an incline for ten minutes, doing some yoga, or some jump rope before your workouts can help prevent injury and ensure you’re getting the most out of each gym session.
Day 1: Back and Biceps
- Assisted Pull-ups or Pull-ups: 5 sets of 5 reps each
- Smith Machine Bent Over Row: 4 sets of 8-10 reps each
- Back Extensions/ Hyperextensions: 4 sets of 10-12 reps each using only your body weight
- Close Grip EZ-bar Curl: 5 sets of 6-8 reps each
Day 2: Legs
- Seated Leg Press: 4 sets of 6-10 reps
- Dumbbell Lunge: 4 sets of 6-10 reps
- Calf Raise: 5 sets of 10-12 reps for bodyweight, 4 sets of 6-10 reps if weighted
- Kettlebell Swings: 3 sets of 15-20 swings
- Box Step Up: 3 sets of 10-14 reps, alternating legs
Day 3: Rest
Day 4: Chest & Core
- Standard Push-ups: if possible, do 4 sets of 10 reps. If that’s not yet attainable, try doing 5 sets of 3-5 reps. Kneeling on your knees or elevating your hands can help make pushups easier if a standard push up isn’t available to you at this point.
- Incline Dumbbell Press: 4 sets of 6-10 reps
- Incline Dumbbell Fly: 3 sets of 8-10 reps
- Scissor Kicks: 3 sets for 20-30 seconds per set
- Russian Twist: 3 sets for 20-30 seconds per set. If a full Russian Twist isn’t currently available to you, place your feet flat on the floor rather than keeping them raised
Day 5: Shoulders
- Resistance Band External Rotation: 4 sets of 10 reps on each side
- Machine Shoulder Press: 4 sets of 8-12 reps
- Dumbbell Lateral Raise: 3 sets of 6-10 reps each. As a note on Lateral Raises, you will likely need to do less weight than you anticipate. Be careful to follow the video tutorial for proper form to avoid damaging your shoulders.
- Smith Machine Shrug: 4 sets of 10-15 reps each
Day 6: Rest
Day 7: Cardio
Do cardio of your choice! It doesn’t have to be high impact, especially if you’re still sore from leg day. Take your dog for a walk. Get on a treadmill or elliptical machine while listening to your favorite podcast or audiobook. Go for a swim.
Just try to get in a minimum of 30 minutes of sustained activity.
What Type of Diet is Best for Beginners?
I’m not going to bury the lead: be very skeptical of any fad diets or diets that promise insanely quick results.
There is a lot of bad nutrition advice floating around on the internet. My personal opinion is that any of the “trendy” diets should be looked at critically as most are non-sustainable or have negative effects. If you struggle with any form of eating disorder, please do not jump into a diet plan that restricts your caloric intake and always discuss your food needs with your healthcare provider.
Before we dive into what I would recommend for someone who is looking to get started on a path of wellness, let’s clarify what a diet is and is not.
What is a Diet?
The term “diet” is simply used to describe the food that you consume in a day. That is it.
Culturally, “diet” is a term that has come to be synonymous with losing weight or limiting yourself to a specific subset of food. As much as possible, I think we should get away from that mental model. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to lose weight if that’s what is important to you, but there’s also nothing wrong with eating food simply because you enjoy it.
For all intents and purposes on Self-Himprovement, when we discuss a “diet,” we are simply referring to the food that you consume on an average day– we don’t want to imply any moral attributes to specific foods and suggest restrictive eating habits.
What Should be Included in My Diet?
Your food intake should match your body’s specific needs. If you’re getting started in the gym and want to support your strength and endurance-building efforts through the foods you eat, then there are a few key elements that you’ll want to consider.
Protein is the religion of gym rats. It provides your body with the amino acids needed to repair muscle damage (which is the main way we get stronger) and provide sustained energy for intense activity. The classic guideline around protein is to have a serving the size of your palm if you’re a woman and two palm-worths if you’re a man. This is a bit outdated and doesn’t count for individual differences. Plus, it makes a lot of assumptions about dietary needs operating on a binary– it’s not nearly so simple, especially when you consider that this recommendation is based upon animal proteins, which obviously won’t work for folks on a vegan diet.
Instead, try to consume 0.75 to 1 grams of protein per pound of body weight throughout the day. This will help with muscle recovery and growth.
Contrary to many fad diets, carbohydrates are not your enemy. Carbs are one of your body’s most efficient ways to produce energy. Their negative perception is often rooted in the specific kinds of carbohydrates many of us consume. Carbs in their base form tend to be delicious; when they’re fried and processed, they skyrocket in caloric density while plummeting in nutrient density, but they get even more delicious. However, there are plenty of forms of carbs that are delicious, provide your body with easy sources of energy, and still maintain nutrient density.
One carb-based food per meal is a pretty solid approach to integrating them. Just be aware the because carbohydrates are generally fairly caloric, if you are trying to lose weight, be conscious of your portion sizes.
For carbohydrates, I particularly love beans, sweet potatoes, rice, polenta, fruit, and whole wheat pasta.
Fats are another food type that diet culture has given an unnecessarily bad reputation. Your body needs some fat! It is not inherently bad. Like carbs, its reputation has been unfairly criminalized because fatty foods tend to be highly caloric.
Despite this, getting in a few ounces of fats each day can help with energy regulation and provide your body with necessary fatty acids for heart health.
Nuts and nut butters, avocados, and seeds are all amazing sources of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which have been shown to benefit the heart, lower LDL cholesterol, improve insulin levels, and improve blood glucose levels.
Regardless of your wellness goals, chances are you can eat more vegetables. Vegetables can be your new best friend. Most vegetables are loaded with vital nutrients, vitamins, water, and minerals. Plus, they tend to be fairly low in calories, so if caloric intake is something that is a part of your fitness goals, vegetables are not likely to cause you to miss any targets.
The biggest challenge with vegetables is learning to prepare them in a way that makes them as appealing and delicious as any other food while still maintaining their nutritional value. As a Southerner, I grew up with deep fried vegetables or veggies dripping with cheese and sauces. When I tried to switch to plain vegetables, I struggled with finding them satisfying.
As an adult, though, learning to prepare spinach, cabbage, peas, squash, broccoli, and carrots in ways that I enjoy has been a game changer for getting the nutrients and fiber I need to feel my best.
What I Have Found Works Well For Me to Eat in A Day
I cannot stress enough that food intake should be specific to your bodily needs. Still, if you want to see what I have found to be a positive daily diet for helping me meet my fitness goals, feel full, and enjoy what I eat, here is what my usual daily food intake looks like. I should note that when I say daily, I do mean daily. I often repeat meals for subsequent days because it helps me maintain a well-rounded diet, and I have found it to be more cost effective to buy groceries this way.
I should also note that I’m not particularly trying to lose weight or bulk up. My dietary goal is to get a well-rounded diet, recover from my workouts easily, and feel full and focused throughout my day.
- Black coffee
- One English muffin
- Two eggs over easy with salt and pepper
- Fruit, usually an apple or an orange
- High protein smoothie with carrots, Greek yogurt, almond milk, a frozen banana, vanilla protein powder, and a dash of cinnamon, cardamom, and ginger.
- Creamy polenta with spinach and asparagus
- Baked lean protein meatballs with 90-10 ground beef, mushrooms, onions, parsley, one egg, spices and seasonings depending upon my mood, and a tablespoon or two of almond flour as a binder.
- High protein crisped rice treats (made from almond butter, honey, rice cereal, protein powder, and a dash of cinnamon)
- Baked chicken breast
- Roasted Hasselback sweet potato with a smoky crema sauce made from Greek yogurt, enchilada sauce, and lime juice.
- Half a cup of rice
While this daily diet has been really satisfying for me and helps me feel good, I should also note that I still make room a few times per week to eat out and have drinks with friends. Any dietary plan that is so restrictive you start to resent it is going to be hard to maintain. Giving yourself wiggle room and understanding that food is just a way to meet your bodily needs is best when you’re just getting started and looking to better meet your nutritional needs. It’s a bit different when you’re training for a bodybuilding or physique competition, but we’re not quite there yet as beginners.
If you’re just getting started with fitness and wellness, use this time as an opportunity to learn what works best for you and figure out what goals and values are most important to you.
Don’t beat yourself up if your progress is slower than you’d like. Spoiler, it almost always is. Articles and influencers who convince you you can look ripped in a week are always being hyperbolic so that they can get clicks and shares. As long as you’re challenging yourself incrementally week after week, you’re making progress and that’s what counts.
Adaptations and modifications to exercises are always acceptable. If your body simply isn’t ready for a specific workout or you don’t have the range of motion necessary to complete it, it’s okay to take a step back and think about how you can work your way up to it.
For diets, I recommend taking a similar approach. Trends, fads, and crash diets tend to do more harm with good, and can damage the relationship you have with food. Instead, focus on thinking about food as a way to fuel your body and meet its needs.
Fitness and wellness are long-term journeys. When you make them a part of your life, the benefits will quickly accumulate, so as much as possible, find a way to enjoy the journey and don’t torture yourself if your progress doesn’t look like someone else’s.