Workout Routines for Beginners: Strength Training Exercises | Not Your Average Fitness Tips

Workout Routines for Beginners: Strength Training Exercises

If you’re new to exercising, you might be looking for a good beginner workout routine.  However, you’re probably not sure whether you should be doing strength training exercises such as weightlifting routines or bodyweight routines, or whether you should just be doing cardio.  The truth of the matter is that workout routines for beginners are going to vary based on your starting level of physical fitness.

How Fit Are You?

Prior to undertaking any exercise program, you have to determine what type of shape you are in (and seek your doctor’s advice if needed).  Are you significantly overweight or just looking to lose fat on the margins?  If you’re significantly overweight, then I would recommend simply performing cardio until you can shed some pounds.  Excess cardio can lead to muscle loss, but at this point, I think developing a healthy cardiovascular base and losing some extra weight is more important.  If you’re really out of shape, something as simple as a regular walking routine can provide a good starting point.  You can elevate to a steady state cardio routine before getting to the best cardio for weight loss: a HIIT workout routine.

HIIT

If you’re just looking to shed some pounds and already have a good fitness level, you could jump right into high intensity interval training workouts (HIIT).  This type of interval training involves performing fast paced sprints for a designated time followed by a slow jog or even walking.  HIIT has been proven to be a more efficient way to burn fat than simple steady state cardio due to an effect known as EPOC in which your body continues to burn calories after completion of your workout.  Combing HIIT for fat loss and a strength training routine for muscle gain is an excellent combination.  Visual Impact Cardio lays out an 8 week plan to optimize fat loss with cardio.

Beginners Strength Training

Resistance training is a great way to burn some extra calories while creating a stronger, better looking body.  While a lot of people focus on weightlifting routines, you can certainly start with a bodyweight routine as well.  Either way, start slow until you develop proper form for your chosen strength training exercises.

As a starting point, I would recommend doing 3 sets of 4-6 reps.  The first set should be a warm up set where you use a minimum amount of weight.  What sometimes works well is pretending that minimum weight weighs a lot.  It helps prime your muscles for what’s to come.  You should try to lift relatively heavy weights for the next 2 sets of 4-6 reps.  As mentioned, focus on form first.  Proper form will best develop the muscles and prevent injury.  Additionally, avoid failure on any set and rest 1-2 minutes between sets.  You don’t want your muscles to get used to failing.  Doing 4-6 reps in this manner can help you get really strong and develop really tight muscles.

Strength Training Exercises

There are a wide variety of exercises to incorporate in a strength training routine.  I’d try to include compound exercises that work multiple muscles.  Start light and work your way up.  There are a few different ways to divide your exercises.  You could perform arms one day, legs/abs the next, or simply perform a full body workout in one day.  Just make sure to take at least 1 day of rest between exercising the same muscle group.  Before starting your workout, it’s good to do a light warm up to get your heart pumping a little.

Here are a few strength training exercises by muscle group:

Chest: Bench Press, Pushups
Back: Lat Pulldowns, Pullups, Inverted Row
Shoulders: Shoulder Press, Front/Side Raises
Biceps: Curls
Triceps: Triceps Kickback, Triceps Extension, Dips
Legs: Squats, Deadlifts, Lunges, Calf Raises
Abs: Planks, Leg Raises

Weightlifting Routine

If you’re doing a weightlifting routine, I would be sure to incorporate bench press and shoulder press for upper body and squats for lower body.  These are all great compound exercises that will really help you get stronger.  Generally I don’t advocate leg training because I find that HIIT provides enough of a workout.  However, for a beginner, it’s good to perform squats or other leg exercises to develop baseline strength.  Again, good form is paramount.  Many will recommend crunches for abs.  Crunches don’t work though.  You’ll see your abs when you lose enough fat.  In the meantime, do planks to increase your core strength and develop your abdominal muscles.  If you’re interested in a more advanced routine, I’d recommend checking out Rusty Moore’s Visual Impact Muscle Building or Visual Impact for Women.  Aside from providing great tips, he throws in an illustrated guide to just about ever strength training exercise you can think of.

Bodyweight Routine

If you’re doing a bodyweight routine, there are a variety of ways to perform pushups, pullups, inverted row, dips, and bodyweight squats.  Don’t be surprised if these bodyweight exercises are actually more challenging than some weightlifting counterparts.  You may have to get creative if you can’t perform enough reps of these.  For example, you might have to do wall pushups or pushups on your knees.  Conversely, once you get stronger, you might have to make these exercises more challenging as too many reps focuses on endurance rather than strength.  Whether you’re a beginner or more advanced, Convict Conditioning offers some of the best bodyweight routines around.

Beginner Workout Routine

Workout routines for beginners don’t need to be overly complicated.  Just start by performing some good strength training exercises combined with some fat burning cardio.  A total of 3-4 hours of exercise per week should be more than enough to help you lose fat.  Once you progress, then maybe you can tackle a more advanced weightlifting routine or bodyweight workout.

47 Responses to “Workout Routines for Beginners: Strength Training Exercises”

  • I think that’s an excellent point that I learnt recently too is to do the appropriate routines according to your current fitness, skill and fat levels and modify it as your “training age” and shape changes.
    I started a new body building program and it began from the basics e.g for 2 months start with Rack Deadlifts above the knee then below the knee and finally from the floor.
    Firstly I thought I’m too advanced for this but I did it and I found it helped amazingly well with my technique and I was able lift much more than previously.
    Raymond

  • I really wish I had read an article like this when I first started training. My routine was really wack. Getting people started off on the right foot can really help with keeping them motivated to stay in the gym and keep working!

    -Drew

  • I liked the way your blog post flowed. I also liked the fact that it took into consideration several approaches to beginning fitness. Some of us aren’t sure of which routine is going to work best for us and have to try a few before we settle on the best for us.

  • Dave,

    Very helpful post for beginners. When I first started lifting, I had no idea what I was doing and I was looking to others for guidance. If you have a lot of fat to lose, doing anything is better than nothing, but at the same time, you want to start out at an appropriate level and not overdo it.

    Alykhan

  • Raymond,
    I think everyone needs to adapt their own workout routine. There’s no pre-packaged routine for anyone. Try it out and see what happens is best.

    Drew,
    For the longest time, I relied on bodybuilding magazines for my workouts. Certainly not the best workout routines for beginners. I’m hoping this will set people down a better path.

    Bryan,
    I absolutely agree that you have to try out different routines to learn which is most effective and which suits your goals.

    Alykhan,
    It’s hard to know who to turn to for workout routines. Unfortunately, when I started exercising, dial-up AOL was the main way to access this amazing new thing called the internet. That left me with the magazine rack…not the best place to learn anything.

    Dave

  • Good post. I think that so many people start to train based on what they want to look like versus where they are actually at from a fitness point of view. Just because you want to be a certain size or strength level, you still need to start from where you are at. Everyone is different and if you start slow and stay injury free, you will see much better results than trying to lift too much and getting hurt.
    -Kelly

  • Thank you, thank you, thank you, for having the smarts to publish that crunches don’t work and to do planks!!!! I hope everyone who visits your blog reads your post. Not only do crunches not work, but according to the latest research, they are absolutely harmful. Dr. Stuart McGill, backfitpro.com, has published a fantastic book called Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance. If you are serious about building a strong core safely this is the book for you. He has posted actual video of spinal discs being herniated by the movements we all used to do to get that 6 pack – ouch! Your approach to adding body weight exercise is great too. After many years of pure strength training with a bit of cardio (30 mins/day) I recently cut back to a high intensity, multi-directional, strength routine using bodyweight and light dumbbells. I have more energy and after 2 ACL reconstructions, I’ve eliminated most pains in my joints by changing it up. For some great performance programs please visit http://www.100percentclubonline.com
    Thanks,
    Sam

  • Dave,

    Getting started is probably the hardest part for most people. I’d definitely recommend bodyweight exercises and some basic cardio (walking / jogging / sprinting) for absolute beginners. Then it’s time to start with the weights and compound movements to really start building muscle!

  • Kelly,
    Starting slow and staying injury free is very important. I remember starting a workout routine after I had taken some time off and I was really stupid and did 3 sets of 3 different biceps exercises. Needless to say, I had a strain that didn’t go away for weeks.

    Sam,
    I try to spread the word about the ineffectiveness of crunches in most of my posts. It’s just so hard to fight all the abdominal workouts out there that endorse them. As you mentioned, one downfall of strength training can be potential joint pain. Generally bodyweight training risks less of this pain.

    Darrin,
    Getting started is very hard for most beginners. You really have to pace yourself and accept that you won’t do 100 pushups or lose 20lbs overnight.

    Dave

  • Dave, this is a great post for beginners. I especially like your tip for overweight people to start doing cardio first. I recommend this to my clients too especially if they haven’t exercised in awhile. The extra weight will help them more calories and shedding it first before moving to more advanced stuff will greatly help with any awkwardness or pain (joint pain, etc.) they might feel from the extra weight.

    Anna

  • Anna,
    Excellent point about joint pain or other injuries that come from starting a workout routine without having a basic fitness level. It’s hard to imagine trying to do pushups and pull ups if I was carrying around 50 extra lbs and that’s essentially what many overweight people are doing. Burn off some pounds and then start strength training seems like an easier and more logical approach.
    Dave

  • hey man, I find that sometimes its good to go back to basics, even the most advanced lifter could use a couple of weeks of strengthening the core exercises before getting back to being ‘fancy’ with specialized routines. I think the exercises you mentioned are good to throw in for a few weeks after doing a strenuous program.

  • Alejandro,
    I think you’re right. Sometimes as you get too advanced, your workout becomes needlessly complicated. Keep it simple with good compound exercises and mix in some more strenuous routines as well.
    Dave

  • Toni:

    I think you make some excellent points about easing into a regular exercise routine. It’s human nature to want to dive right in and go full-throttle but that unfortunately can lead to possible injury and further setbacks. You’ve got to give yourself time to work up to some of the things like: HIIT or running a mile. Plus, you don’t want to get discouraged and give up altogether. Patience goes a long way when starting an exercise program IMO.

  • Toni,
    Excellent point about patience…it’s hard to come by nowadays but it really is key to losing weight and getting in shape over the long term.
    Dave

  • Toni:

    Dave,

    Wanted to give you an update on my progress so far. It’s been a little more than a month and guess who’s a pound heavier? Me! (lol)

    Not only the scale has moved but I’m noticing my overall strength has greatly improved, specifically in my arms and shoulders. My legs are taking shape too; my worry about my jeans not fitting was unfounded b/c despite all the squats and lunges I’ve been doing, my quads look better than ever.

    And the best part? My abs are still very visible which was a big fear of mine. That proves to me that my gains have been in muscle and not in fat b/c my abs haven’t disappeared.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’ve still got a ways to go but for the first time in a long time, I’m really liking what I see in the mirror.

    I also like not doing steady-state cardio as much as I did (never thought I’d say that!). My energy level is much improved and I don’t feel as drained. The 15 minutes that you recommended at the end of the workout is really working.

    I’m doing the NROL4W and find that the book is very simple to follow and can be done at home and not just in a gym as I previously thought. It’s crazy how you can workout less and still get great results. I was definitely beginning to feel fried with the overzealous schedule I was keeping before.

    Just thought you’d like to know how it’s going. Thanks for all the good advice.

  • Toni,
    Great to hear things are going well. I knew you’d succeed. Sometimes less really is more when it comes to exercising.
    Dave

  • Toni:

    Dave,

    I read recently that the best way to determine your maximum genetic muscular potential was to look to at your calves. I forget the *exact* reasoning why the calf muscle was singled out. I was wondering if there was any truth to it.

    ~Toni

  • Toni,
    I’ve never heard that about the calves. I’d say wrist size might be a better indicator because that gives you a sense of your overall frame. Since you can’t increase your bone size, there’s only a natural amount of muscle that you can add. That’s my thought at least.
    Dave

  • Toni:

    Dave,
    That’s what I thought too. Wrist size seems more feasible but seeing that mine’s only 5 inches in circumference, I’m not really expecting too much…
    ~Toni

  • Toni,
    Too much muscle mass generally doesn’t look great on women anyway…at least in my opinion. Adding a few pounds at the margin can make a decent difference in appearance though.
    Dave

  • Toni:

    Dave,
    Should I be reevaluting my daily calorie quota with my new BW of 120.5 lbs? I did increase it recently to 2300 for maintenance and 2800 for workout days because the gaining seemed to have slowed (a bit). Is this too much?

    Also, is it normal not to gain some weeks as opposed to other weeks? I’m noticing that with the holidays approaching and the stress that goes with it, sometimes I’m finding it hard to stay on track calorie-wise.

    I’m trying to take it in stride and remember that gaining is a slow process. I’ve gained almost five lbs. in two months, is that good or bad? I don’t know how fast the scale should be moving. I just don’t want to end up gaining unwanted fat.

    BTW, off-topic, I’ve been meaning to mention that I like the new site banner and buttons you’ve added. Very cool updates.

    ~Toni

  • Toni,
    Slowing adding calories is the way to go, especially if you want to avoid gaining fat. I think you’ll find it much easier to put on weight during the holidays so I wouldn’t necessarily change your diet yet. Just keep up your schedule and know that holiday parties will add to your weekly caloric intake.

    As for how much you can gain, I generally think people can add 1% per week of muscle with little to no fat gain. That puts you at 1-1.25lbs per week. So you may be gaining a little slower than necessary but certainly not fast enough to put on fat. Weight gain can fluctuate drastically from week to week even based on what you eat/drink the night before weighing in. Just make sure your trending in the right direction.

    Thanks for the compliments on the site. Have a Happy Thanksgiving! Don’t be afraid to have seconds with a side of dessert!

    Dave

  • Toni:

    Dave,
    I’ve gained a 1/2″ in my back since starting weight training (all other measurements have remained the same). Is this pretty typical considering that I was pretty lean and fairly new to lifting?

    While I’m happy about this, my concern is that I’ll continue to gain mass in my back. Granted, I’ve gained weight *on purpose* and don’t plan to continue indefinitely gaining. Am I right to be concerned or just being paranoid?
    ~Toni

  • Toni,
    I assume a lot of your training has focused on your upper body? When gaining muscle, it tends to accumulate where you train. Since you’re trying to gain weight, I’d ask where you think you need it most? Would you rather increase the size or your legs? Then start doing more leg training and less upper body training. That’s how you can customize your training based on your goals. That being said, since you’re new to lifting, you experience the biggest gains initially which means you probably won’t gain as much mass going forward.
    Dave

  • Toni:

    Dave,
    I wouldn’t necessarily say that my training is upper body-focused. It’s a full-body program but there’s lots of pulling and pressing exercises. However, I’m using weights that are 30% heavier than when I first started.

    I’d heard other women tell me the same thing happened to them when they initially started training with the weights.

    I’m not really surprised that my upper body showed a small gain since my legs are pretty developed due to: running, tennis, basketball and cycling. Good to know that I won’t probably continue to get any bigger in my upper body. Thanks.
    Toni

  • Toni,
    You’ll still gain some mass in your upper body but the largest gains always come in the beginning. Hopefully you’re getting some good definition as well.
    Dave

  • Toni:

    Dave,
    My father surprised me with an early Christmas present (a few days ago) of those adjustable weights that I asked you about a few months ago. I’m really loving them. I donated the old dumbbells to a friend of mine. They take up so little room in my hall closet too and I don’t have to worry about them accidnetally falling on my sons either. He also got me a heavier KB as I may start incorporating them back into my routine down the line.
    ~Toni

  • Toni,
    That’s a nice early Christmas present! Hopefully they allow you to keep lifting heavier and getting stronger. The heavier kettlebell will be a nice addition as well. Next up, a weighted vest and a dip/pullup station!
    Dave

  • rose:

    Hi Dave,
    I recently stumbled upon your site and it has been the best thing ever! I am not on facebook but i would love to have the beach body e-book. Please email it to me? I also have a question, will the HIIT workout completely cover my lower body( so i dont need to train glutes etc?)and can i only do upper body exercises and if so which are best on the machines at a gym?
    Thanks so much again for all this helpful info.
    Rose

  • Rose,
    I emailed the book to you. Let me know if you didn’t get it. In addition, you can download my Fitness in a Flash book here if you haven’t already:

    http://www.notyouraveragefitnesstips.com/fitness-in-a-flash/

    As for HIIT, it will help you get lean and toned legs. If that’s the look you’re going for, you don’t necessarily need to train legs additionally. However, if you’d like to add size to your legs, then you could do squats, lunges, etc. If strength matters, obviously it would be important to do those exercises as well.

    For upper body exercises, I like free weights better than machines. You’ll want to perform compound exercises if possible since they work more than one muscle. I like the shoulder press, bench press, and rows. You could do bodyweight training as well using pushups, pullups, dips, inverted rows.

    Dave

  • Toni:

    Dave,
    I’ve discovered that I’ve added 1/4″ to each calf while oddly enough my thigh measurement hasn’t changed. I always assumed that if you were doing total body exercises (which I am) and not isolation exercises (which I’m not) that the whole leg measurement would change and not just one part of it. Is that thinking not correct?
    ~Toni

  • Toni:

    Dave,
    I forgot to ask also, is strength relative to a person’s size? In other words, I would never be as strong as someone taller or heavier than I, right? And does a person ever get to a certain strength point and then “cap out” or stop gaining strength? Can you only take your strength so far? Hope that makes sense.
    ~Toni

  • Toni,
    A couple possibilities on the calf. The first is that your calves might be hit harder by certain exercises than the rest of your body. In addition, maybe you’re wearing heals more often and that creates a little extra cumulative fatigue after your workout which causes them to grow. The second alternative is that your measurement was off. It’s very hard to measure within 1/2″. You have to make sure the tape measure is stretched to the same tightness, is done in the same location, is done flexing of not flexing the muscle, etc. Heck it could be off due to a temporary pump if you just exercised your calves.

    As for strength, you could certainly be stronger than people bigger than you. I’m stronger than some people almost twice my size. Conversely, I’m weaker than some people who weigh 20-30lbs less than me. Strength gains certainly aren’t infinite but I’d expect it will take a while before you cap out. Any time you reach a plateau, you have to take some steps to bust through it. I assume you’re not at that point quite yet, but if you get there, let me know.

    Dave

  • Toni:

    Dave,
    I almost never wear heels anymore so I don’t think that’s it. I’m positive I measured properly, although it’s possible my calves maybe had a temporary pump. I’ll have to remeasure to see.

    I’m not at the point where I’m capping out…just yet. In fact, quite the opposite, I’m discovering I’m a little stronger almost every single workout. Although I expect the newbie gains to slow down eventually as I move along in this and other programs. Good to know, thanks.
    ~Toni

  • Toni,
    Don’t discount the possibility of measurement error. It happens to the best of us. I find that changes in measurements are best looked at over the long term anyway.

    Great to hear you’re gaining strength every workout. The gains will eventually slow but shouldn’t stop for a long time.

    Dave

  • Toni:

    Dave,
    The last stage of the program I’m doing (which I’m not on yet) has a focus on fat loss. The author has written a program of six workouts to be completed twice which has the lifter doing 4 sets of 15-20 reps. My question is: how do I figure out what weights to use? Obviously, I wouldn’t be using say 25 lb dumbbells otherwise I’d be unable to complete all four sets as I’d be fried by then. Do I take my maximum weight I’m lifting and then reduce that by 50%? I’m a little confused and I don’t want to spend half the workout trying to figure out if I’m using the correct weight for muscle endurance. I just want to be prepared and I didn’t know if there was a tried-and-true formula for figuring this out. Hoping you can help…
    ~Toni

  • Toni:

    Dave,
    I forgot to add that there’s only 30 seconds of rest between each set as well. So each workout is very fast-paced.
    ~Toni

  • Toni,
    So it sounds like you’re going from strength training to mass training during this final stage. It’s tough to piece together how much to reduce the weight, especially if you’re doing multiple exercises for the same body part. For example, when I do this type of training, I use maybe 20-30% less for incline bench press (my first exercise). However, for flat bench press (my second exercise), I need to use almost 50% less because my muscles are so fatigued. Sorry that I can’t provide a better formula. If it’s any consolation, you should be able to get a very good handle after one workout and know exactly what to use after the second workout.
    Dave

  • Toni:

    Dave,
    So, then am I to understand, that I should maybe use more for the first few exercises and then decrease as I go through the workout so as to avoid total failure? I agree that the first workout will probably be trial and error. Should I try to execute just 15 reps or go for 20? That’s confusing to me too.
    ~Toni

  • Toni:

    Dave,
    I forgot to add that I’ve been doing IF for a couple of weeks now and I’m really liking it. My husband’s been after me for a few years to do it since that’s what he does to maintain his weight.

    Case in point, my little guy’s birthday was this past weekend and I could actually indulge in a piece of his birthday cake and not feel incredibly guilty doing so. I never realized how much all that eating made me feel sluggish and tired. Although I’ll admit, I had to eat multiple times a day to gain back some weight.

    And yes, I’m making sure that I’m hitting my daily caloric allotment. My weight is holding steady so that’s good. Anyway…
    ~Toni

  • Toni,
    It’s hard to say how much weight to use but I’d do as you said and decrease more for the later exercises since your arms will likely get fatigued a lot faster than you’d expect. I don’t know the workout recommendation, but many workouts provide a range and in the case of sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, you perform reps until your muscles almost fail. On the first set, that might be 20 reps. On the second, only 15.

    Glad to hear you’ve tried IF and that your husband is a fan as well. Also nice to hear that you indulged in a little guilt free junk food.

    Let me know how the new training goes.
    Dave

  • I agree, HIIT is best accomplished with a “base”, and even beginners can establish this base. Your article here has good information.

    One thing that I teach is that while watching the tube or at a desk reading, you could do resistance training – for the arms at least, and at the same time help evaporate the mid-day “tiredness”.

    Thanks for the info.

  • Michael:

    Dave,
    As a beginner, it sounds like Visual Impact should be something that I do once I get more comfortable and use to lifting weights. I’ve tried to follow Visual Impact phase 1, but because i’ve never lifted weights before, and don’t know how to decide what weight to use, and how to read(and determine) how much weight i’m using( along with the total of what that is with the bar) i just get frustrated and end up leaving.I feel like a deer in the headlight. So it sounds like I need to start with a basic training workout first, and then progress to Visual Impact….

  • Michael,
    I think you might be right…you should get used to doing exercises with proper form and determining the right amount of weight before fully jumping into Visual Impact. Don’t be afraid to ask people for help…find someone willing who can guide you through your first couple times. Once you get the system down, the rest is just tweaking things.
    Dave

  • Michael:

    Dave,
    So what would you suggest ? Should I seek out a personal trainer? Do Phase 2 of Visual Impact, indefinitely? (since i’m lean, with no need to lose fat, and could work on form) I’m not sure what I should do, because i know i need to get the basics down, but at the same time I want to focus on building an aesthetic good looking body

  • Michael,
    Personal trainers get expensive…if you need to go that route just to get knowledge to perform exercises, so be it. Honestly, I’d recommend using the reference guide that comes with VIMB along with Google searches / Youtube videos. That should teach you proper form. From there, it’s just taking 1-2 weeks to figure out the appropriate amount of weight for the number of reps you’re targeting. How are you able to do Phase 2 if you’ve never lifted weights? Frankly, Phase 1 is pretty good for a beginner because you’re using lighter weights resulting in less risk of injury. Probably a good idea to have a spotter on certain exercises if you’re training to failure though.
    Dave

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