12 exercises to try if you're brand-new to fitness
Building up a workout routine is easier than you think.
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For many people, the start of 2021 is already a little different than most new years—but, like the ones before, the fresh year can be a great motivator to get started on some new fitness goals. And if the local gym is still closed, or you aren’t quite ready to enter one and sign up for a membership, you can get a great start on your fitness journey without leaving your house. (Unless you’re willing to get bundled up to work out in your backyard.)
Not sure how to get started? I’ve got you covered—I am a certified trainer, specializing in resistance training and building strong, healthy bodies, and I’ve rounded up a list of beginner-friendly exercises to do at home. The great thing about all of these exercises is that I use them frequently for both advanced lifters and fitness newbies alike. What’s more, as you get stronger, you don’t have to abandon them—each of these exercises can progress to become more advanced.
Start off by trying these exercises two or three times a week (and remember to stretch out when you're done). When you feel ready to up the challenge, try to do a few more repetitions or add more sets or go a little slower with each movement or focus a little more on your form. As long as you're getting a little better each time, you’ll solidify a fitness foundation that will be with you for years to come.
1. Strengthen your entire lower body with squats
If there were a king of lower-body exercises, it would be the squat. It’s a compound movement, meaning it uses many muscles at the same time, so you get more out of this one exercise than many other lower body-focused moves. Squats tone your legs, sculpt your butt, and help loosen up tight hips and ankles. They’re also a sneaky way to work your core and, when performed holding weights, work your upper body. The squat is also a functional exercise—that is, an exercise that helps you become more proficient in everyday movements—because it mimics the motion of sitting down and standing up.
Basic instructions: Stand with your feet a little wider than hip-width apart. Visualize that you are sitting down in a chair. Keep your chest lifted as you push your hips down and back. Stand back up, squeezing your butt as you come up. Repeat 10 times.
For more of a challenge: As you get stronger, you may want to add extra resistance. If you don’t have weights, you can squat with a backpack full of books either on your back or close to your chest. If you do have weights, you can also try a goblet squat, in which you hold a weight in front of your chest with both hands as you squat—a 10 to 15 pound weight should be a good starting point for most people.
Gear recommendation: If you’re not sure what the right weight for you is—or plan to build up strength as you go—try an adjustable kettlebell. One great option is Bowflex’s SelectTech kettlebell, which switches between 8, 12, 20, 25, 35 and 40 pounds by turning a dial on the top of the weight. The SelectTech kettlebell, and others like it, are convenient and compact, so they don’t take up a lot of space—but, because you’re getting many weights in the form of one, they can be a bit pricey. If you’re not keen on shelling out that much cash for now, a classic single kettlebell is the way to go.
- Get Bowflex SelectTech Adjustable Weight from Amazon for $179
- Get Yes4All Vinyl Coated Kettlebell Weights from Amazon starting at $13.04
2. Build powerful glutes with Romanian deadlifts
A Romanian deadlift is another great functional exercise because it mimics the movements we make when picking things up off the ground (or the ones we should be making—ever heard the advice to lift with your legs?). The Romanian deadlift works the hamstrings and glutes, while also strengthening your core and lower back. It’s known as a hip-hinging movement, which targets hip mobility and spine stability—in other words, it’s a great move to do if you want to prevent low back pain and strain.
Basic instructions: Hold a pair of dumbbells at your side with your feet about hip-width apart and your toes pointed forward. Leading with your hips, begin to push your butt out behind you, so your body hinges in half from your pelvis. As you hinge, you should feel a pull in your hamstrings. Your arms should remain straight in front of you with your shoulders pulled back, and your back should remain flat. Fold only as far as you can without rounding your back. When your hands are between knee and shin level, push your feet into the floor and stand up, squeezing your butt as you bring your hips forward until you’re standing tall. Perform a total of 10 times. 10 to 15 pounds should be a good starting weight for most people with this exercise.
For more of a challenge: Try on one leg with a single dumbbell. This will give you all the same benefits of a standard Romanian deadlift while also challenging your balance.
Gear recommendation: Any dumbbell you have will come in handy here. If you don’t have one, you can choose between an adjustable set—we like Core Home Fitness' set, which changes weights in five-pound increments between five and 50 pounds with a twist of the handle—or a standard old-school dumbbell.
- Get Core Home Fitness Adjustable Dumbbells for $349.99
- Get BalanceFrom Rubber Encased 10-Pound Hex Dumbbells from Walmart for $38
3. Build a sturdy core with planks
The plank is the best exercise for training core stability, which is essential for anything that includes bending, lifting, and twisting motions—as well as anything that involves standing up straight. It also strengthens your spine and some back muscles, which helps to keep your posture aligned. Planks are important because they help you find your center of gravity and challenge it by holding that position for a fixed amount of time.
Instructions: Start down on all fours, with your hands placed under your shoulders. Step one foot back with toes curled and placed on the floor, then send the second foot back to come into your plank. Press through your hands into the floor and out through your heels toward the back wall, while squeezing your glutes, tucking your belly button into your ribs, and keeping your spine neutral. Make sure your head and neck are also neutral. Aim to hold for 30 seconds.
For more of a challenge: Lift one leg at a time as you hold the plank. As you get stronger, add on time in 10-second increments.
Gear recommendation: A good exercise mat is essential when you’re holding a plank, especially if you have a hard floor (as opposed to carpet). We love the Amazon Basics Exercise mat—it’s cushy, but not overly soft, so it gives you just the right amount of protection and support during any exercise.
4. Work your chest and arms with pushups
Pushups are one of the best at-home upper-body exercises. They can help tone your chest and shoulders, strengthen the core, and help you gain stability that stems from the shoulders. Strengthening these parts of the body can help you in most parts of your daily life—and the act of pushing up itself can help you get up off the floor if you fall.
Instructions: Start with your hands and feet on the ground and your body in a plank position with your arms a little wider than shoulder-width apart. Bend your arms, elbows angled back rather than flared to the sides, to bring your chest closer to the ground, taking care to keep your core engaged and spine neutral. Before your chest touches the ground, press through your arms to straighten them back to the plank position. Perform 10 total.
For less of a challenge: You may find that a full pushup is pretty tough at first. To make it more accessible, perform pushups at an incline with your hands either on a wall, countertop, sturdy table, or bench, so you can maintain a full plank position while taking some of your body weight off your arms. (The higher your hands, the easier the move will be.)
Gear recommendations: If pushups hurt your wrists, you can use these slip-resistant pushup bars for support. Grab onto them and put them in the same place you would put your hands during a pushup.
5. Boost back strength with banded rows
Banded rows are the perfect complement to the pushup—the pushup works the front of your upper body and the row works the back. This is also important when you consider how many hours most of us spend daily in a forward rounded position, either sitting at a desk or looking at our phones, as staying in this hunched position for long periods of time will weaken your back muscles. The banded row will not only strengthen your back muscles, it will help you sit tall and proud.
Instructions: Sit on the floor with your legs straight out in front of you and place a resistance band around your feet. Hold the end of the band in each hand so there’s a slight bit of tension with arms straight. Keep your torso upright and pull the band straight back with both hands, grazing your sides with your elbows. At this point, squeeze your shoulder blades together while keeping your elbows tucked in, so your elbows break the plane of your back. Slowly release the band back toward your feet, without allowing your shoulders or chest to collapse forward. Repeat a total of 10 times.
For more of a challenge: Try playing around with your cadence. Slow down your pull to a count of three, five, or even 10, or slow down your release in the same way, or both.
Gear recommendation: I use Intey Pull-up Assist resistance bands, which are large continuous rubber loops. These are great because they come in a set of four, each with a different resistance level, so you can switch them up depending on the exercise or progress to a band with more resistance as you get stronger.
6. Define your shoulders with overhead presses
The overhead press is a great compound exercise because it works your shoulders from multiple angles. And, because the movement stabilizes weight over your head, it also works the back and core muscles. It’s also really “functional”—remember when we used to travel and you had to put your suitcase in the overhead compartment? That action is an overhead press.
Instructions: Stand on top of the center of a handled resistance band (or on a large looped one) with your feet hip-width apart. Grab onto the handles (or the other side of the loop) with both hands and align your hands with the front of your shoulders. From there, press your arms straight up over your head, locking out your elbows. Slowly bring your hands back to your shoulders.
If you want to do the exercise with dumbbells, take the same hip-width stance and start by holding the dumbbells next to your shoulders with your palms facing out and your hands stacked on your wrists. From this position, press your arms above your head. Make sure you straighten your arms all the way, and don’t let your back arch or your pelvis just forward. Repeat a total of 10 times.
For more of a challenge: Grab a heavier set of weights than you usually use, and add in a small knee bounce to make it a power move called a "push press." Start with the weights on your shoulders, sink down by bending your knees slightly, then use the power of quickly straightening your knees to pop the weights up. Be sure to soften your knees on the way down to cushion the return.
Gear recommendation: Intey’s handled resistance bands work well with this exercise. They come in a set of five, each the equivalent of 10, 20, 30, 40, or 50 pounds, and have comfy, easy-grip handles that work for a variety of exercises.
7. Target your glutes with bridges
Bridges are a great way to fire up your glutes while strengthening the entire posterior chain, which includes all the muscles on the back side of your body. Strengthening the posterior chain will help prevent injury in everyday movements, like picking something up off the ground, sitting down and standing back up, or jumping.
Instructions: Lie on your back with your knees parallel and bent in the air, your feet flat on the ground with heels close to your butt, and your arms out by your side. Press your feet into the ground and lift your hips all the way up, so your body forms a plane from chin to knees, squeezing your butt at the top of the bridge. Slowly release back down to the ground, maintaining tension in your core to protect your back. Repeat until you get to 10 total.
For more of a challenge: Perform the bridges on one side at a time by extending one leg in the air (keeping your thighs parallel). You can also slide a resistance band to just above your knees and push out slightly on the band as you perform the bridge, which keeps your hips more engaged as you lift them up.
Gear recommendation: If you’re using a resistance band to level up this exercise, I recommend using one made of cloth, not latex. They’re more durable and less prone to pulling at your skin and come in five different levels of resistance to suit your exercise needs.
8. Improve your lifting power with lateral raises
A lateral raise may not look like much, but this exercise works the shoulders and upper back. In addition to giving your arms a defined look, it allows your back and chest to get stronger. These stronger upper body muscles can help with lifting and lowering motions, whether you’re picking up boxes to move or grabbing something from a high shelf.
Instructions: Stand on a large looped low-resistance band with one foot. Grab the other side of the resistance band with the opposite arm and start with the band at your side. With the band in your hand, bring your arm straight out to the side. Stop when your arm is parallel to the ground. Slowly bring your arm back to your side. This exercise is also great done with light dumbbells—to maintain proper form, start with lighter weights between 2 and 5 pounds. Perform 10 total on each side.
For more of a challenge: Raise both arms at the same time, taking care not to allow your core to bow or your lowerback to take the brunt of the action.
Gear recommendation: The handled Intey bands from the overhead press work well here. Other than that, anything that fits within your weight and budget limit will work for this. If you're looking for dumbbells the brand Cap makes colorful dumbbells with an easy-grip neoprene cover in 2-, 3-, or 5-pound weights.
9. Target your waistline with Russian twists
The Russian twist is a total core exercise. It challenges your balance and abdominal muscles while working your obliques, or the muscles on the outer edge of your core. This provides an extra stabilization effect to your midsection, keeping the spine stable while you do twisting motions and making it easier to carry heavy objects.
Instructions: Sit on the floor with your knees slightly bent and your heels lightly resting on the ground about a foot away from your butt. Lean back until you feel your core muscles engage to hold up your spine—your torso will feel tight and even a little uncomfortable, but it shouldn’t be painful. Hold a weight in both hands and alternate tapping the weight on the ground on either side near your butt. Pull your shoulders back and down to ensure that your back is straight and not curved or collapsing forward. If you don’t have a weight, you can use a bottle (something on the heavier side like wine or olive oil could work) or even just hold something that doesn’t weigh much (like a shoe or a throw cushion) to give yourself a prop to get the movement right.
For more of a challenge: Pick your feet up off the floor entirely and tap the weight down on either side while balancing your feet in front of you.
Gear recommendation: Dumbbells or kettlebells can be used for this exercise, but I like to use the 8-pound Amazon Basics medicine ball. It’s textured, so it’s easy to hold onto as you move, and it feels solid and weighty during whatever you choose to do.
10. Challenge your balance with reverse lunges
Lunges are a great exercise for your quads, hamstrings, and glutes—the major muscles of the lower body. Because they are done one leg at a time, they can help correct muscle imbalances and strengthen the muscles we use for walking and running. They also challenge your balance and help improve posture by strengthening your core.
Instructions: Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Shift your weight to one foot and step the other foot back behind you to balance on your toe, keeping your weight in the front foot and bending the front knee, aiming for a 90-degree angle. Your back foot should act only like a kickstand to help you maintain balance. Then, press firmly into the front foot to slowly bring yourself back to a standing position. Switch legs and repeat on the other side. Make sure you keep your chest lifted and that you can still see your front toes past your knee, so you don’t put pressure on your knees. Continue while alternating which leg goes back. This will really test your balance at first, so you may prefer to set yourself up near a countertop, railing, or a wall that you can hold onto can help. Do 10 on each leg.
For more of a challenge: Perform the lunge with a backpack either on your back or in front of you. You can also hold dumbbells in both hands on either side of your thighs. Don’t go too heavy—5- to 10-pound weights should be a good place for most people to start—and make sure the extra pounds don’t make you put unnecessary pressure on your knees.
Gear recommendation: If you got dumbbells for your deadlifts, squats, or lateral raise, you can use them here, too.
11. Increase flexibility and work your obliques with windmills
The windmill is a great total-body movement. It tests your shoulder stability, range of motion, and works your obliques (sides of your core) as well as your glutes and hamstrings. It also helps improve hip mobility. Like the deadlift, this is another hip-hinging movement that will strengthen the muscles around your lower back and assist with your posture.
Instructions: Start standing with your feet more than hip-width apart and your toes facing forward. Stretch your right arm above your head keeping your left arm at your side. Rotate your torso and drive your weight into your right heel and begin shifting your right hip outward to the right, like you’re trying to bump a door shut with your hip. (If you’re familiar with yoga’s triangle pose, this is similar, although it has more of a hinging motion than the triangle—this video tutorial shows what it should look like in motion.) Turn your head and keep your eyes on your right hand above you, which should remain straight up toward the ceiling throughout the entire movement (you will feel some rotation in the top shoulder as you work to maintain this). Continue pushing your hips back with a slight bend in your left knee. Let your left hand graze along your left leg as far down as you can go while keeping your back in a neutral position. Pause briefly and then return your torso to an upright position, leading with your pelvis to unhinge your body. Keep your right arm extended above your head. Perform 10 on each side.
For more of a challenge: Hold a one-, two-, or three-pound weight in the top hand as you do the movement. (If you don’t have a weight, you can use a can of food or a bottle of water.) You don’t need to go too heavy here. Keep your eyes on the weight over your head throughout the entire movement.
Gear recommendation: If you got a set of light weights for the lateral raises, you can use them here. If you want something with a bit more grip as you rotate, try Stott Pilates’ mini hand weights. They’re encased in foam material that provides something extra to hold onto and also have a strap you can loop around your hand to make sure you don’t drop it as you move.
12. Get your blood moving with a walk
Exercising doesn’t always mean you have to get sweaty or move heavy weights. Making a habit of regular walks is huge for your overall fitness, both physically and mentally.
Instructions: Put on your sneakers, grab a friend or put on a good podcast, and head on out. If you’re feeling sluggish, try to commit to just a 5- or 10-minute jaunt—once you get going, you may not want to stop! (And if you do, hey—that’s still a few more minutes of movement than you would have had otherwise.)
For more of a challenge: Up your pace and work your way into a jog. If that idea sounds intimidating, some fitness apps—like Aaptiv and Peloton—have outdoor walking and running workouts in which instructors guide you through your pace and effort you should be exerting based on your fitness level. These guided workouts are a great way to ease into a new kind of exercise, whether your ultimate goal is a mile, a 5K, or just maintaining a running pace for longer than you're used to.
Gear recommendation: The best part about walking? You don’t need anything to do it, other than a good pair of shoes (and maybe a jacket, depending on the weather). But if you want something to make it a little more enjoyable, a good pair of earbuds can help, whether you’re listening to music or catching up on your phone calls. One great option are bluetooth earbuds from the brand Mpow flame—they’re about $20, totally waterproof, and stay in the ears during vigorous activity. So, whether you’re taking a leisurely stroll or working your way up to a run, you can count on these earbuds to stick with you the whole time you’re doing it.
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.