There are thousands of different workouts you could do; how can you choose the right beginner weight training routine?
The first time I went to the gym, I nearly dropped a 45lb barbell on my face.
I had no idea how to warm-up, so I didn’t (I know better now, and a warm-up you can use is at the end of this guide).
I couldn’t even do one rep of bench press with the bar. I was terrified of the huge weights some other guys could move.
I’ve become a lot more comfortable in the gym since then, but at first I struggled with consistency. There are a lot of ways I’ve tackled the consistency problem, but the most important was this: I found an exercise program and stuck to it.
With a specific exercise program to follow, you’ll never be confused about what lifts you should do or what weight you should be using. You don’t have to worry as much about how you look in the gym or the exercises you’re doing. You can have confidence that what you’re doing will get results.
How do you know if a workout is effective?
This one-page cheat sheet will show you the most effective type of exercises, the principle that leads to workout success, and the six crucial parts of a beginner weight training routine.
I’ve helped a lot of people start lifting, and they raise a lot of the same questions:
- “I wish this program had a warm-up. I don’t know what to do.”
- “I just want to get toned. I don’t want to be a meathead bodybuilder.”
- “I’m not ripped, so it feels like I don’t belong in the gym.”
- “I would just hurt myself if I tried lifting.”
- “I have no idea where to start.”
First of all, weight training won’t turn you into Arnold Schwarzenegger or Ronnie Coleman – that kind of size doesn’t happen by accident. You don’t need to train to get huge if you don’t want to.
In truth, if your goal is to get “toned,” you must do some kind of strength training. Muscle is what gives you the attractive, fit, toned look that you’re after.
But there are million different ways to be overwhelmed when you’re choosing a beginner weight training program.
Should you lift 3 times a week, or 6? How often should you add weight, and how much? Are kettlebells really miracle workers? What on earth is a neutral-grip, half-kneeling dumbbell overhead press?
The truth is that most exercise programs, if you stick to them, will get you results – as long as they follow a few rules. The best fitness plan for you is the one that you can stick to while working towards your goals.
This guide helps you peel back the curtain and identify what makes a program effective. It does that by answering 3 questions:
- What are the 5 factors that can help me stick to an exercise program?
- What kinds of programs really get results?
- What exercises should I be doing?
At the end, I’ll break down another important part of training and give you a simple warm-up you can do before most intro workout routines.
Q1) What are the 5 factors that help me stick to beginner weight training program?
The most important part of any exercise program is sticking to it – what you do in the gym doesn’t matter if you only do it once. That’s why this question comes first and is more important than anything else.
The structure of an exercise program has a major effect on whether you’ll keep doing it. A program that takes 2 hours a day is exhausting if you work 50 hour weeks. A program that has 12 exercises a day is confusing and hard to understand. A program that leaves you struggling to climb stairs the next day isn’t one you’ll be eager to repeat.
There are 5 elements of a program that affect building an exercise habit:
- Time: How long does your program take?
- Complexity: How confusing is your program?
- Progression: Can you see yourself making progress?
- Punishment: How do you feel after a workout?
- Credibility: Do you believe that your program will get results?
This one is almost a no-brainer: if your exercise program takes a long time, you’re less likely to stick to it.
If you value your free time, consider a 3-day program instead of 6-day one. If you don’t have a lot of time each day, try a program with 45-minute workouts instead of one that takes two hours. The bottom line: tailor your program to your schedule.
The emphasis on time is part of what made high intensity interval training (HIIT) popular. These workouts are hard and take a lot out of you (see: punishment), but they are also fast – you can probably finish one in 20 minutes.
I’m not a huge fan of these programs, but the small time commitment makes them the choice of many time-crunched professionals.
Takeaway: If you want to stick to a program, pick one with a modest time commitment.
How many exercises does your program have? How many different pieces of equipment does it have you using? How many words are in the name of each exercise?
As those numbers go up, so does the complexity of your program. As complexity goes up, the chance that you complete the program goes down. It’s a lot easier to tell yourself to go to the gym and do 3 exercises than it is to make yourself do 12.
Having a complex program means that there’s more for you to learn. It adds a barrier to working out that can keep you from the results you’re chasing.
Don’t get me wrong – there are good reasons to use some complicated exercises. A half-kneeling neutral-grip dumbbell overhead press is a useful exercise to practice overhead pressing without arching your back (a common form mistake). However, it’s also intimidating and hard to remember. A simple “squat” is much more intuitive.
I recommend that beginners stay away from programs that involve a ton of different exercises, use a ton of equipment, or have fancy supersets. All of that stuff has its place – eventually. Once you have a strong exercise habit you can play with some fancier exercises.
Takeaway: Keep it simple! A program you understand and know how to do is the first step to success.
If you don’t see progress, you’ll get discouraged and be more likely to quit. A lot of people I’ve trained think that they are the exception to this rule – that they are in it for the long haul and will keep going no matter how long it takes. In my experience, those people usually give up after about 2 months.
Progress is a reward in itself, and rewards make you more likely to continue. It’s that simple.
However, there are a lot of ways to define progress, and that’s where most people get tripped up. After 1 month, even after 2 months, you might not see a ton of change in your body. Instead, focus on other parts of your program:
- Has your form improved on your exercises? A good program has you practice exercises as you go, so you should get noticeably better at them.
- Are you stronger than you used to be? A good program has you constantly progressing (more on this later), so you should lift more weight than before.
- Do you feel better? Getting stronger can improve your posture and make everyday activities easier. Have you noticed these small but noticeable life changes since starting your program?
Takeaway: A good program has built-in progression – it clearly defines progress and shows you how to advance.
A little after New Years, I was in the gym and overheard the two women next to me during their workout. They were doing some kind of circuit training, constantly moving and definitely working hard. Actually, I had seen them in the gym every day for the first two weeks of January.
One woman counted push-up reps for the other, barking “that doesn’t count” whenever a rep wasn’t low enough. The third week of January, I didn’t see these women once, and I haven’t seen them since.
For whatever reason, exercise has become associated with intensity, and even pain. But the perception that exercise must be totally exhausting for it to be effective is false.
A good program should leave you a little tired, of course, but it shouldn’t leave you totally defeated. Any time you start a new program you’ll be a bit sore the next day, but that soreness fades with time and doesn’t come back if you’re consistent.
If you start lifting really heavy weights, you’ll experience days where you notice that it takes a bit more effort to walk up stairs, or that carrying your groceries is just slightly harder on your arms than usual. But you shouldn’t feel extreme soreness or pain.
More than just not being true, the idea that exercise needs to be painful is harmful: it’s a lot harder to motivate yourself to do something that’s going to suck. Why would you willingly put yourself through pain?
I suspected that the two women I saw at the gym would give up because their routine was punishing. They collapsed after each circuit. One was literally punishing the other for every bad rep. That isn’t a recipe for success.
A good program starts slow but builds quickly. You need to build an exercise habit before you can do things that are punishing and expect to stick with them. Starting light lets you get into the groove, avoid new program soreness, and build an exercise habit.
Takeaway: Avoid programs that punish you for exercising! You should actually feel pretty good after a workout. A well-designed program will take some adjustment, but will avoid total exhaustion.
To take sage advice from ultimate frisbee coach Ben Wiggins: “the most important training regimen that you should do is the one that you are convinced works.”
If you don’t believe that your program will work, why even do it? Being convinced that your program gets results helps you stick with it.
So how can you convince yourself your program will work? First you need a program that actually gets results (more on how to find that later).
Then, look up the progress that other people have made using your program. Get specific with this – find progress pictures from people like you. If you are a 5’8” man that works 9-5 and has a little bit of a belly, find pictures of people in the same situation.
By convincing yourself that your program works, you prevent yourself from becoming discouraged. Even if you aren’t seeing results fast enough, you know that people just like you have had success. It’s a lot easier to keep going if you know you’ll eventually get somewhere.
Takeaway: Pick a credible program, and find examples of people like you who have had success with it.
Q1 Summary: What Makes a Workout Stick
A program you can stick to will have a modest time commitment, be easy to understand, clearly show when you make progress, not be totally exhausting, and have a lot of buy-in.
Put another way, time commitment and complexity are barriers to your workouts. Progress and punishment are kinds of reinforcement. Credibility is your belief that the program works.
Once you believe in your program (credibility), reduce barriers (time commitment/complexity), increase rewards (progress), and decrease punishment (punishment).
You can also use these ideas to generally be more consistent once you’ve picked a program.
How do you know if a workout is good? You don’t want to waste time on bad workouts.
This one-page cheat sheet will show you the most effective type of exercises, the principle that leads to workout success, and the six crucial parts of a balanced exercise routine.
Q2) What Kinds of Programs Really Get Results?
There are many, many effective programs out there. The most important thing is showing up consistently.
However, there are 2 aspects of a program that are indispensable if you want results. After showing up, these are far and away the most important things to worry about – it is hard, if not impossible, to make progress without these 2 things.
- A focus on compound exercises
- Built-in progressive overload
A Focus on Compound Exercises
A compound exercise, also called a multi-joint exercise, is an exercise that activates multiple muscle groups and involves moving two joints at once.
A barbell curl, for example, is an isolation exercise that works the biceps by bending at the elbow. A chin-up, on the other hand, involves movement at both the elbow and the shoulder and activates a much wider range of muscles.
An effective program focuses on compound exercises. Compound exercises:
- Activate more muscles at once
- Put more load on those muscles (so that they adapt to get stronger) and
- Replicate movements that translate into functional strength in your everyday life
That doesn’t mean that isolation exercises are useless. But they should be used along with big lifts to correct weaknesses or focus on the aesthetics of a particular body part.
Put another way, in order to work your hamstrings, glutes, back, core, grip/forearms, and traps using isolation exercises, you’d have to do a ridiculous number of different exercises. You might do 3 sets each of hamstring curls, glute kickbacks, planks, grip trainers, and shrugs.
Or you could just deadlift. Which one seems more time effective?
Compound exercises can be intimidating to new gym-goers, but there is no better way to get the results you’re looking for.
Takeaway: Whatever beginner weight training routine you choose, spend about 80% of your time on compound exercises.
Progressive overload is an idea that shows up in every useful fitness blog on the internet. You cannot progress if you are not somehow increasing the difficulty or load of your workout routine. A weight training program for beginners needs progressive overload.
Going to the gym and doing the same exercises at the same weight week-in and week-out will do absolutely nothing.
If you are already strong, you may keep your strength. But you will not get stronger, you will not add muscle, and you will not become more toned. Your muscles respond to being challenged, and you have to give them new challenges if you want them to keep responding.
Technically, there are a lot of ways to introduce progressive overload into your routine. You could:
- Do each rep faster
- Increase the range of motion
- Switch to a more difficult exercise
- Decrease rest between sets
However, most methods of progressive overload are tricky to actually do. Increasing rep speed is great, but there’s a limit to how quickly a weight can move. Most of the methods are better when you’re stronger and more experienced in a variety of exercises.
The best method of overload is simple: add weight.
Adding weight is the best method for beginners because it is incredibly easy to track progress. This week you used 5lbs more than last week. Easy.
Plus, seeing a clear increase in your strength is incredibly rewarding. Like I said earlier, seeing yourself progress makes it more likely that you’ll stick to your program.
As a beginner, you’ll follow linear progression. Basically you’ll consistently add small amounts of weight. Eventually, of course, you’ll have to slow down or use other methods of overload. But when you start out there is no more effective method.
Takeaway: Make sure that your chosen program includes progressive overload by adding weight.
Q2 Summary: The Elements of a Good Weight Training Program
A focus on compound exercises and a clearly defined way to progress are absolutely critical to getting results.
Compound exercises activate more muscles and train functional movements. Progressive overload ensures that you keep advancing and pushing yourself to improve.
Q3) What Exercises Should I Be Doing?
I get so many question asking about specific exercises. How effective is a squat jump? Should I do front squats or back squats? Can I just do weighted push-ups if I don’t like benching? What about Zercher squats and Jefferson deadlifts? Which kind of bicep curl should I do?
All these questions miss the point. Your focus doesn’t need to be on individual exercises unless you’re training to be an Olympic lifter or powerlifter.
In a weight training program for beginners, focusing on a balanced set of compound exercises and progressing linearly is more important than some random exercise you might find.
How can you tell if your program has a balanced set of exercises? Check to see if it has exercises for each fundamental movement.
The 4 (Maybe 5) Fundamental Movements of a Good Workout Program
There are 4, maybe 5, fundamental movements that need to be included in a balanced beginner weight training routine.
- Hinge: Movements that involve bending the hip without much bending of the knees
- Squat: Movements that involve bending the hip and the knees
- Push: Movements that push things away from you or push you away from things
- Pull: Movements that pull things towards you or pull you towards things
- Core: Not really movements (hence the maybe), but exercises that train your abs and overall core
A beginner weight training routine with these categories in roughly equal amounts will be balanced. Some routines tweak those amounts (by having more pull than push, for example), but generally a good routine includes all 5.
By using these movements, you train all your major muscles:
- Hinge: Glutes, hamstrings, and back
- Squat: Quads, glutes, and back
- Push: Chest, triceps, and shoulders
- Pull: Back, biceps, and shoulders
- Core: Abs
There’s a range of exercises that fit these movements. Some are more effective or challenging than others, but a good weight training program for beginners will include at least one of each.
Here are some examples of common exercises in the 4 major movement categories (core examples come later):
- Hinge: Deadlifts, Romanian Deadlifts, Pull Throughs, Glute Bridges, Waiter’s Bows
- Squat: Front Squat, Back Squat, Goblet Squat, Lunge, Split Squat, Bulgarian Split Squat
- Push: Bench Press, Push-up, Overhead Press, Dips
- Pull: Pull-up, Barbell Row, One-arm Row, Inverted Row
Takeaway: A good program includes exercises in each category so that you don’t wind up with imbalances.
How do I get a six pack?
Core training is frequently misunderstood or misapplied. At one extreme, you have people whose training consists of nothing but core circuits – endless sit-ups, crunches, reverse crunches, side bends, Russian twists, and other bodyweight exercises. At the other, there are people that claim “all you need for your core is squats and deadlifts.” As with most subjects, the answer is between the extremes.
Ultimately, if you want to have a six pack you need to focus on your diet. The common adage “abs are made in the kitchen” is accurate.
However, core training is still important. If you don’t have any muscle, there won’t be much six pack to show once weight comes off. Naturally skinny guys know this problem well – even though they have low body fat, many don’t have abs to speak of.
Core training helps build your abs, but it also has other benefits. A strong core improves your posture and back health. It also makes you stronger on your lifts and prevents you from hurting yourself.
You’ll notice that I’m saying “core” instead of “abs.” Your abdominal muscles are one part of your core, but true core training addresses your entire midsection, including your back. That’s why I prefer the term “core” over “abs.”
The Best Ab Training
By now a lot of people know that sit-ups are a pretty useless exercise. They have minimal core activation, stress your hip flexors, and have the potential to damage your back from repeated bending of your spine.
The problem with sit-ups, and a lot of common exercises, is that they don’t train the core for its main purpose – stability. Your core is designed to keep your body upright and in good position, even under load. There is a place for exercises like hanging leg raises or reverse crunches.
Most trainers divide core exercises into four categories:
- Anti-Extension: Exercises that train your front (six pack) to prevent arching your back
- Anti-Flexion: Exercises that train your back to prevent it from rounding
- Anti-Lateral Flexion: Exercises that train obliques to prevent you bending sideways
- Anti-Rotation: Exercises that train your core to resist rotation of your spine
If you train these four categories, you will have a strong core and likely improve your posture. You will also have something to show in the 6-pack department.
Some common exercises fit nicely into these categories: planks and side planks are anti-extension and anti-lateral flexion respectively. Other exercises don’t fit in as neatly, and you should consider replacing them. The Pallof Press, an anti-rotation exercise, is a good replacement.
Deadlifts and squats definitely work your core – they are intense anti-flexion exercises. If you are doing heavy compound exercises (like deadlifts and squats) you probably don’t need to add more anti-flexion exercises.
Compound exercises can also train your core in other categories. For example:
- One-arm rows trains your anti-rotational core as you resist turning with the weight
- Overhead press trains anti-extension as you resist arching your back
- One-arm farmer’s walks train anti-lateral flexion
- Deadlifts and squats train anti-flexion (as already mentioned)
- Push-ups train anti-extension – they are basically moving planks!
Takeaway: A lot of weight training programs for beginners don’t include any specific core work. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do them, but adding a core exercise to the end of your workout – and thinking about these categories – can have major benefits.
Q3 Summary: Exercises in a Good Beginner Weight Training Routine
An effective program should have exercises that address all of the major movement patterns. Hinge, squat, push, pull, and core are the movements that will get you results.
A lot of core training is iffy at best: if you want to train your core well, think about the different categories of core training.
Bonus 1: My (Slightly Controversial) Thoughts on Weight Training Programs
The information I’ve shared thus far is not incredibly controversial, but I want to share two more aspects of a program that I think are important.
These aren’t make or break in a weight training program for beginners – many effective programs don’t include them – but I believe they set you up for long term success.
- Progressing up to squats and deadlifts (without jumping in right away)
- Using single-arm and single-leg exercises
Easing Into Squats and Deadlifts
Because of the heavy influence of powerlifting on general fitness, a lot of people argue that you should jump right into doing squats/deadlifts and start adding weight.
I disagree. Many people can’t squat and deadlift properly when they begin lifting, and you risk injury by rushing in.
Movements like squats and deadlifts require balance, mobility, and coordination to perform safely.
To deadlift safely, you need the hamstring flexibility to bend down to the bar without compromising your lower back position. You also need to be able to brace your core to prevent your back from rounding (anti-flexion!).
Frankly, most first-time gym-goers don’t have the hamstring flexibility to set up a safe deadlift.
Instead, I prefer a progression that lets you practice hip hinging without risking your back.
In my opinion, a better hinging progression is:
This allows hip hinging practice (without risk of back injury) on pull-throughs, deadlifting from the floor with a reduced mobility requirement on sumo deadlifts, and progression to regular deadlifts. Eventually I also like adding Romanian Deadlifts (RDLs) to keep working on hamstring flexibility and back strength.
Squats have a similar problem. To back squat, you need balance and a good amount of ankle mobility and knee stability.
Beginners often struggle to get low enough into their squat. They come up onto their toes to stop from falling over backwards or actually stumble to catch themselves as they do fall over.
I’ve seen lots of guys “squatting” 225lbs with their knees flying all over the place (despite not even getting low enough!) because they started adding weight before actually mastering the squat pattern.
I prefer this squatting progression:
- Goblet squats
- Front squats
- Back squats
Having the weight in front of you in goblet and front squats lets you squat lower, building hip and ankle mobility while you build strength and learn to brace your core.
Once you master the squat movement pattern and have some strength, back squatting will be much safer.
Takeaway: Before you leap into major lifts, practice more basic versions of them.
Taking 4 weeks to work through basic exercises before you move to advanced ones will pay off in the long run. You can even use the basic exercises as part of your warm-up to keep practicing.
Before you squat and deadlift, do this for 4 weeks, 3 times per week:
|Goblet Squat 2×10
|Goblet Squat 3×10
|Sumo Deadlift 1×5
|Front Squat 2×6
|Sumo Deadlift 2×5
|Front Squat 3×6
Note: You may have heard that deadlifting this much is bad for you. Once you start lifting heavier, that’s true. For right now, weight should be very low on the Sumo Deadlift – you are practicing the movement, so there’s no need to worry about the central nervous system (CNS) fatigue that you hear about with normal deadlifts.
Including Single-Arm and Single-Leg Exercises
Unless you are a competitive powerlifter training for the squat, bench, and deadlift, I think it’s worth your time to do some single-arm and -leg work.
Some would argue that even powerlifters should do unilateral exercises.
Single-leg and single-arm work helps you fix some of the imbalances you develop just through everyday life. Chances are one of your arms is stronger than the other, and it’s possible that the same is true of your legs.
There are a lot of physiological reasons to include these exercises (target specific muscles more easily, train your smaller “stabilizer” muscles, improve balance, etc.). Think about what happens in everyday life – you don’t usually have to drop into a squat and come out of it with something heavy on your back. But:
- You might have to carry a heavy suitcase up a flight of stairs
- You might have to balance on a chair to reach something on a high shelf
- You might slip on some ice and try to catch yourself before you fall
You can improve those things by using single-leg work to supplement other lifts. Plus, single-leg and single-arm work helps you add muscle, get stronger, and get closer to the body you want.
Takeaways: Look for a program that has some single-arm and single-leg work. A lot of weight training programs for beginners don’t focus on these, but down the line it’s something to keep an eye out for.
Bonus 2: A Warm-up for Your Beginner Weight Training Routine
One of the most common complaints I hear about beginner programs is that they don’t have warm-ups.
A lot of programs tell you to warm up by using lighter weights on the exercises you’ll be doing. That’s a good idea, but you can do more.
A general warm-up before lifting has benefits:
- Increases your body temperature (duh)
- Improves your mobility
- Prepares and activates relevant muscle groups
- Strengthens small, weak areas of your body
- Helps you practice major movement patterns
Because most beginner weight training routines don’t give you a specific warm-up, I wrote a very fast, very short warm-up for you to use before your workouts. It gets you moving, doesn’t take long, and hits the major areas of your body that probably need work.
Here you go! It’s all yours (I also dug up videos of each exercise from around the internet):
|2 Circuits of:
|Side Lying Clam 10/side
|Supine Bridge with Reach 6/side
|Walking Spiderman 6/side
|Back to Wall Shoulder Flexion 6
Running through this circuit twice gets your heart rate up and preps you for your main workout.
I know a lot of people like to understand why they are doing things, so here are shorts descriptions of each exercise:
- Side Lying Clam: This exercise strengthens the gluteus medius, a muscle that is weak in almost everyone (even dedicated gym-goers and athletes). The muscle controls your hip, can improve your movement and posture, and can help you squat safely. Note: you don’t need to use a band at first.
- Supine Bridge with Reach: This is a hinge exercise that focuses on your glutes. Glutes are also weak in a lot of people, and strengthening them helps your lower back and posture. The reach helps your upper back mobility.
- Walking Spiderman: A great catch-all exercise. You get an adductor stretch (inside of your thigh), a hip stretch (tight hips contribute to back pain and poor posture), a hamstring stretch, thoracic mobility (upper back, can improve shoulder strength), and open up your chest.
- Back to Wall Shoulder Flexion: This gently gets your arms over your head, letting you practice being in that position while keeping your back in a safe, neutral position (improves shoulder health and posture).
Putting Together Your Beginner Weight Training Routine
The million programs out there can make weight training intimidating.
I hope this guide can help you sift through the noise and find the program that works for you (for examples of programs to choose from, check out my breakdown of 5 of the most popular beginner programs).
How do you know if a workout is good? You don’t want to waste time on bad workouts.
This one-page cheat sheet will show you the most effective type of exercises, the principle that leads to workout success, and the six crucial parts of a balanced exercise routine.
Remember, the best exercise program is the one you can stick to.