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The 7 Best Workouts for Absolute Beginners

If you're new to fitness, add these key exercises to your routine.

woman doing home workout with dumbbells on mat
These are the top exercises you should be doing if you're new to exercise.
Getty Images/Thomas Barwick

Getting into a workout routine can be intimidating if you've never done so before. If you're a novice to fitness, you might have heard so many mixed messages about what you should or shouldn't do that it's confusing even knowing where to begin. We're all beginners at some point, which is why it's helpful to have some guidance if you're new to all the different types of exercises the fitness world has to offer. 

With the help of some experts, we've narrowed down the top exercises you should be doing if you're trying to get a workout routine going. Follow these tips to get the most out of your new workout.

What to know before you start

One common mistake many people make upon starting a new workout routine or regimen is doing too much, too soon. Director of education for fitness program and equipment hub, Living.Fit, Aaron Guyett says it's best to start slower, lighter and do less than you think because too much at once can lead to burnout, which is why people often quit when things feel too hard. 

"Think about being able to perform exercises each day and the exponential growth and performance that comes from consistency over intensity," Guyett explains. He suggests adding intensity gradually each week until you find your sweet spot. 

You also have to be realistic about how often you'll exercise during the week: "Someone with two to three days of workout time in their schedule might be able to do full body workout days, while those with three to five days available for working out might be able to do upper and lower body splits." 

Most importantly, Guyett says it's key to find workouts that you have fun doing and that you'll want to revisit. He recommends starting with full body workouts and then working toward developing a workout that divides exercises for your upper and lower body.

Young midsize woman does squats on a yoga mat in living room.
Antonio_Diaz/Getty Images

A good rule of thumb is that any good workout program will include some form of a squat, hinge, push, pull and carry, throughout the course of the week. To put it simply, most of these exercises mimic everyday functions such as helping you pick things off the floor or sitting down and getting back up – which is why it's important to maintain and improve these strengths. Don't worry if you're not familiar with all the terms yet -- all of these types of exercises are included in our recommendations below. As you get more comfortable with the basic movements, you can move on to more advanced exercises. 

Another thing to keep in mind is that you should take a rest day or two to help your body recover from your workouts. Remember it's about being consistent, not about doing the most, or more than you can realistically handle. 

If you're uncertain whether or not you're in good health to perform these activities, discuss with your doctor before starting a new workout program. 

Do you need any equipment?

You will need dumbbells for these exercises, as they are part of a strength training regimen. As a beginner it's important to start with a variety of light to moderate weights that you're comfortable lifting with good form for 10 to 15 repetitions. Once you complete one round of the reps, this counts as a set. Aim to do two to three sets of an exercise with a minute to three minutes of rest in between sets. 

A pair of bright blue dumbbells on top of a purple yoga mat with a silver exercise ball.
Bill Oxford/Getty Images

The weight you use will vary depending on the type of exercise you're doing and your fitness level. "I would start with two dumbbells that you can easily press overhead, and then two dumbbells that you can squat, and lastly two dumbbells that you can carry," Guyett says. Generally, he says to start very light with 5-pound and 10-pound dumbbells, but to keep in mind that you're going to quickly improve after starting to work out. For women, he suggests having a set of 5-, 10-, 15-, 20- and 25-pound dumbbells, while men should have sets of 10-, 15-, 20-, 25-, 30-, 35- and 40-pound dumbbells.

Be honest with yourself about the weight you're comfortable lifting because if it's too light, you're not going to get all the benefits from that specific exercise, and if it's too heavy, you can put yourself at risk of an injury. Once you feel you've mastered an exercise with good form using your starting weight, you can increase it slowly by 5 to 10 percent every four to six weeks. For example, if you are able to squat a 25-pound dumbbell with ease, you should aim to squat 30 to 35 pounds next. One way to hold yourself accountable is by keeping a workout journal where you log the weights you're using for each exercise.

Best beginner exercises

Now that you understand that less is more when it comes to starting a new workout program, you need to know what specific exercises you should be doing. Below are some exercises that are helpful to start out with as you begin your workout journey. 

Squats

There are several variations of the squat that can help get you familiar with the movement. Guyett recommends the dumbbell front squat: hold light- to medium-weight dumbbells on your shoulder with your elbows pointing forward in line with your chest. Keep your feet shoulder width apart and push your hips back as you bend your knees and come down to at least a parallel squat position (when the knees make a 90-degree angle). Going too far past parallel can cause you to arch your lower back, which can lead to back pain.

It's more important to get form down first with this exercise, because it does require proper mobility in the wrist to hold the dumbbells, and shoulders and ankles to keep you upright while going down into the squat.

If you're looking for extra support when doing this exercise, you can place a bench or box behind you for reference. As you come down into the squat, control your body until your glutes touch the box or bench and come back up to standing.

Glute bridge

If you'd like to target your glutes but don't feel quite comfortable with the squat, a glute bridge is a good alternative. Jake Dickson, a certified personal trainer and contributing editor at BarBend says, "The glute bridge is a great technique for novices because it stimulates your glute muscles, which are the large muscles in your backside."

To perform the glute bridge, lie on your back with bent knees and flat feet on the ground. Constrain your glutes and lift your hips so that your body creates a straight line from your knees to your shoulders. Pause briefly and squeeze the glutes again, then return to the starting position. To make this exercise harder, you can add a dumbbell or barbell across the hips (add a mat for cushioning) as you master the movement.

Push-ups

The great thing about push-ups is that you can do them anywhere, equipment-free. There are also different variations that can make the exercise harder or easier depending on your fitness level. For example, if you are an absolute beginner, the push-up can be done against a wall. 

Once you get stronger, you can do it with your hands elevated on an incline and gradually decrease the height of the incline to make it more challenging. Once you can do push-ups from the ground, you can play around with hand positioning and the tempo to increase the difficulty.

Deadlifts

Deadlifts are considered one of the few exercises that closely translates to the movements you use in everyday life, such as carrying heavy grocery bags and setting them down. There are variations to this exercise as well, and it can be done using dumbbells, barbells and kettlebells. 

As a beginner, doing deadlifts with a pair of dumbbells in hand is a good place to start. This exercise helps you practice hinging from your hips, as well as targets your core, back, glutes and hamstrings. 

To do a dumbbell deadlift you'll want to stand with your feet shoulder width apart with a soft bend in your knees, as you hold the dumbbells in front of you. Keep your shoulders back (avoid rounding your back) as you bend at the hips and push your hips back as you slowly lower your torso, keeping the dumbbells close to your shins. Stop once your body is parallel to the floor. You should feel a stretch in the hamstrings at the bottom of the movement. Slowly come back up to the starting position while maintaining your form. As you improve your form on this exercise, you can increase the dumbbell weight or progress to barbells and kettlebells. 

Dumbbell rows

Pulling exercises such as the dumbbell rows target the muscles on your back and can even help improve your posture. To do this exercise you'll need a weight bench and a pair of dumbbells. If you don't have a weight bench, you can find one at most gyms, or use any similar bench you have at home (just make sure it's sturdy).

Since this exercise is done one arm at a time, you will need to take turns on each side. 

To start, bend over and position your left knee on the bench along with your left hand directly in front, aligned with your shoulder, supporting your body weight. In this position your back should be flat. Meanwhile, with your right hand, hold a dumbbell extended toward the floor. To perform the row, roll your shoulders back, pull the dumbbell in as you draw the elbow towards your hip. 

As you improve on the form for the dumbbell row, you'll be able to progress to other variations such as the barbell or kettlebell row. 

Farmer's carry

This exercise can be done using dumbbells or kettlebells and will challenge your upper body, shoulder and core stabilization as well as help strengthen your grip. The point of the farmer's carry is to prepare you to have the ability to carry heavy objects in hand. For example, if you want to carry in all your heavy groceries in one trip instead of making multiple trips. 

I personally like to do this exercise with kettlebells, but you can get the same effect using dumbbells. 

To perform a farmer's carry, hold a heavy dumbbell that feels challenging enough for your grip, but still feasible to hold in each hand. Pull your shoulders back and brace your core, standing with your back upright as you walk across the room for time or distance. Focus on form while you do this exercise and take breaks as needed. 

Cardio

Cardio has its own health benefits, and balancing it out with strength training (including the other exercises in this list) will help you reap the benefits from exercising even more. Cardio can include anything that gets your heart rate up, such as walking, bike riding, hiking, swimming, running or even taking a dance class. Typically Guyett advises that novices aim to strength train one to three days a week with some form of cardio one to three times a week. Doing cardio regularly is also a good way to keep your endurance up and your heart healthy

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.