If you’re just starting an exercise routine for the first time, you’re probably feeling a mix of emotions. It’s always exciting to try something new, but it can also be equal parts confusing and daunting. But the thing is, when it comes to working out, the best place to start really is at the beginning, with simple and effective exercises that’ll let you build a sturdy base you can build upon as you get stronger and stronger.
Trust me, I know it can be tempting to try and tackle a workout you found online that seems challenging, or a circuit your favorite trainer posted on Instagram. But if you’re new to this whole exercise thing (welcome!), it really is absolutely essential that you start with the basics. And by “the basics” I mean classic exercises that let you practice the foundational movements upon which hundreds of other exercises are created. Most of these movement patterns are also functional, meaning they’re movements you do in everyday life, not just in the gym.
For example, the hip hinge movement is one important movement pattern. It’s the motion of bending forward from your hips (not your back), and pushing your butt behind you. You do this movement in a squat (and almost every squat variation) and any type of deadlift. Learning how to properly do the basic versions of these exercises is key if you want to safely build on them as you get stronger. If you skip over mastering basic exercises that teach you to do foundational movements properly, you’ll be doing yourself (and your fitness goals) a disservice long term.
Below are eight basic exercises that are great for many beginners to start with. Of course, exercise is not one-size-fits-all, and you should absolutely speak with your doctor or another healthcare professional you trust before starting a new exercise regimen, especially if you’re unsure whether it’s safe for you. And, as you’re working on these exercises, if you’re having trouble maintaining proper form or feel any sort of pain (other than a little post-workout soreness a day or two after), stop and check in with a doctor or physical therapist. A base level of body control, stability, and mobility is needed for these exercises, so you may need to start by taking a closer look at those things.
When you’re first learning the following moves, use just your body weight. (There are two you’ll need resistance bands for—more on that below.) Adding resistance in the form of free weights, like dumbbells or kettlebells, will make them more challenging and it’s best to wait to do that until you’ve fully mastered each movement. You should be able to do 10-15 reps comfortably with great form before even thinking about adding weights, says Jacque Crockford, M.S., C.S.C.S., certified personal trainer and exercise physiology content manager at ACE.
A squat is a classic exercise that shows up in tons of workouts. Learning a basic bodyweight squat will help you master the hip hinge movement. It’s a compound exercise, meaning it works more than one muscle group at once, including the glutes, quads, and core.
- Stand with your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart, toes slightly turned out, arms at your sides, palms in.
- Engage your core and keep your chest lifted and back flat as you shift your weight into your heels, push your hips back, and bend your knees to lower into a squat. Bend your elbows and bring your palms together in front of your chest. (You can also just hold your hands in front of your chest the entire time.)
- Drive through your heels to stand and squeeze your glutes at the top for 1 rep.
2. Romainian Deadlift
The deadlift also trains the hip hinge motion, but targets your hamstrings more than a squat does. It also works the glutes and core. You probably have usually seen deadlifts done with weights, but they can absolutely be done without them, Crockford says.
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart, knees slightly bent, arms relaxed by the front of your quads. This is the starting position.
- Hinge forward at your hips and bend your knees slightly as you push your butt way back. Keep your back flat and shoulders engaged as you slowly lower your arms along your shins toward the floor until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings.
- Keeping your core tight, push through your heels to stand up straight and return to the starting position. Keep your arms close to your shins as you pull. Pause at the top and squeeze your butt. That’s 1 rep.
If you’re just starting to exercise, the Romanian deadlift (pictured here) is a great deadlift to start with. A traditional deadlift is done by fully bending the knees to lift the weight off the floor. The Romanian deadlift, which involves a slight bend in the knees but not a full knee bend, helps keep the focus on the hip hinge movement. (A stiff-leg deadlift, where you don’t bend your knees at all, requires a lot more flexibility to do properly so isn’t the best to start with.)
3. Reverse Lunge
When you lunge, you’re training your body’s ability to do single-leg movements. Any lunge that has you transitioning from two feet to one foot and back again—like a forward lunge, reverse lunge, transverse lunge, or lateral lunge—fits the bill, says Crockford. By changing your base of support with each rep, you’ll train your balance and stability more than doing exercises where your base of support stays firmly on both feet. You’re also working your glutes, quads, and core.
I chose a reverse lunge here because they are typically easier on the knees and easier to control than forward lunges. But if you feel more comfortable lunging forward and don’t have any knee pain when you do, feel free to do that instead.
- Stand with your feet together with your arms by your sides (or pictured) or hands on your hips. This is the starting position.
- Step back (about 2 feet) with your right foot, landing on the ball of your foot and keeping your heel off the floor.
- Bend both knees until your left quad and right shin are parallel to the floor, your torso leaning slightly forward so your back is flat. Your left knee should be above your left foot and your butt and core should be engaged.
- Push through the heel of your left foot to return to the starting position. This is 1 rep.
- You can either alternate legs each time, or do all your reps on one side before switching to the other side.
4. Bent-over row
A row works the “pulling” movement pattern and specifically targets the muscles in the upper back. Unlike the other exercises here, you can’t really do a pull exercise without some sort of equipment, whether it’s dumbbells or a resistance band. Crockford recommends starting with a very light resistance band (you can simply stand on the other end) and thinking about keeping your shoulder blades back and down as you perform the rowing movement—your shoulders shouldn’t be rounded forward or hunched up tensely by your ears.
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart, holding a weight in each hand with your arms at your sides.
- With your core engaged, hinge forward at the hips, push your butt back, and bend your knees slightly, so that your back is no lower than parallel to the floor. (Depending on your hamstring flexibility, you may not be able to bend so far over.) Gaze at the ground a few inches in front of your feet to keep your neck in a comfortable position.
- Do a row by pulling the weights up toward your chest, keeping your elbows hugged close to your body, and squeezing your shoulder blades for two seconds at the top of the movement. Your elbows should go past your back as you bring the weight toward your chest
- Slowly lower the weights by extending your arms toward the floor. This is 1 rep.
Crockford says that the pull motion can be challenging to learn because it’s hard for many people to know what correctly stabilizing the scapula (shoulder blade) feels like. “What I always recommend for people to do first is lie on their backs and extend their arms above them like they’re reaching for the ceiling. Then, squeeze the shoulder blades together and actually feel the shoulder blades press into the ground.” Do a few reps of this, keeping your arms straight and only squeezing and releasing your shoulder blades. You can also do it with your back against the wall, Crockford says. The goal is to just get familiar with that motion of locking the shoulder blades in that position so that when you do the rowing movement, you will just bend your elbows and won’t be tempted to round forward and overextend your shoulders.
A plank is a great exercise for working on total-body stability as it engages your entire core—plus your shoulders and upper back. Crockford notes that it also helps you get in the right position for a push-up (more on that next). She recommends doing a high plank, with your arms straight and palms flat on the floor, as this will help you get used to engaging your upper back and pulling your shoulder blades back and in a stable position.
- Place your palms flat on the floor, hands shoulder-width apart, shoulders stacked directly above your wrists.
- Extend your legs behind you, feet hip-width apart.
- Tuck your tailbone and engage your core, butt, and quads.
- Hold here for a set amount of time. Try starting with 10 seconds and working your way up to 30 seconds as you get stronger.
The push-up is the simplest way to train the push or press movement. But just because it’s a simple bodyweight move doesn’t mean it’s easy. To be honest, I almost didn’t put push-ups on this list because they are really, really hard and can be totally discouraging for beginners. But they are the best way to work on the pressing movement, which targets your chest and arms, sans equipment. So what I want to scream from the rooftops is: Modify your push-ups! Do them from your knees, or do incline push-ups, where your arms are on an elevated surface compared to your feet. (Different trainers may prefer one modification over the other, but either is great—pick what works better for you.) I do push-ups on my knees almost every single time I do a push-up. It’s much better to modify instead of trying to do a full push-up and arching your back or hunching your shoulders up high and straining your neck. So please, I implore you, start by doing modified push-ups and keep your core and glutes very tight, back flat, and shoulders back and down, the same way you would in a plank. Bend your elbows and think about keeping your shoulders locked in the same position the whole time—nothing should be actively moving other than your elbows.
- Start in a high plank, shoulders directly above your wrists, hands shoulder-width apart, palms flat, legs extended behind you, core and glutes engaged.
- Bend your elbows and lower your body to the floor. Drop to your knees if needed (keep your core engaged even in the modified position).
- Push through the palms of your hands to straighten your arms. This is 1 rep.
Also, it’s fine if you can’t get all the way to the floor in the beginning. “Maybe your push-up is just a microbend [in the elbows] to begin with, as you learn [the movement] and your body learns to keep the shoulders and hips and trunk in the right position,” says Crockford. The correct body positioning is the most important thing to focus on first; building strength can definitely come later.
7. Glute Bridge
Crockford says she also likes the glute bridge because it “can really help to not only mobilize the hip joint, but also strengthen the glutes, which for a lot of people maybe aren’t as active as they should be,” she says. They’re also a great exercise to do during a warm-up before a strength workout or a run because they get your hips and glutes moving and ready for any harder hip-dominant moves to come.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor, hip-width apart. Extend your arms on the floor beside you. This is the starting position.
- Squeeze your glutes and abs and push through your heels to lift your hips a few inches off the floor until your body forms a straight line from your shoulders to your knees.
- Hold for a second and then slowly lower your hips to return to the starting position. This is 1 rep.
Last but not least, it’s important get comfortable with rotational movements that have you twisting your spine in a safe way. Crockford suggests trying a woodchop-like exercise but with just your body weight. (You can hold a hand towel or another small object in your hands to help keep your arms straight.) This will help give you a sense of what rotating your torso should feel like, Crockford says. And, it may even be a feel-good stretch.
- Stand with your feet wider than hip-width apart, core engaged, hands clasped together or holding a small towel by your right leg.
- Raise your arms diagonally in front of your body to the upper left of your reach, allowing your torso and toes to naturally rotate to the left as you twist.
- Now “chop” the weight down to the right, bringing it across the front of your body and aiming for your right ankle, allowing your torso and toes to naturally rotate in that direction. Focus on keeping your lower body stable and rotating from your core. This is 1 rep.
- Do a few reps on one side, and then switch sides and repeat.
Moves 2 and 5: Model Teresa Hui is wearing a Nancy Rose Performance Tank; Gap GFast Mid Rise Capris in Eclipse, $ 50-$ 60, gap.com; and Brooks Adrenaline GTS 18 sneakers, $ 78 (normally $ 120), brooksrunning.com.
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Move 4: Model Rachel Denis is wearing an Outdoor Voice Athena Crop Top, $ 45, outdoorvoices.com; GapFit leggings, similar styles at gap.com; and APL Techloom Pro sneakers, $ 140, athleticpropulsionlabs.com.
Move 6: Model Rachel Denis is wearing a GapFit Low Impact Mix-Stripe Sports Bra, $ 22-$ 26, gap.com; Gap leggings, similar styles at gap.com; and Nike Nike Air Zoom Pegasus 35 sneakers, $ 130, footlocker.com.
Move 7: Model Cookie Janee is wearing a Vaara Cloe Sports Bra, approximately $ 113 (£90), vaara.com; Tory Sport Chevron Leggings, $ 125, nordstrom.com; and Nike Metcon 4 Champagne sneakers, $ 130, nike.com.
Move 8: Athlete Mirinda Carfrae wears Outdoor Voices Zip Bra, $ 75, outdoorvoices.com; Champion Women’s Fashion, $ 33, champion.com; 7/8 Fashion Tights; Hoka One One Elevon shoes, $ 160, hokaoneone.com. (gifs) Outdoor Voices Doing Things Bra, $ 65, outdoorvoices.com; 7/8 Flex Leggings, $ 75, outdoorvoices.com, Hoka One One Gaviota Leather, $ 160, hokaoneone.com.
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