The Ultimate Mix-and-Match Fitness Guide for Beginners
Workout research is hard. We did all the work for you. Here are dozens of workouts and stretches to get you closer to the body you deserve.
Raise your hand if you ever started a workout plan only to fall off of it a few weeks later. It’s cool—we’ve all been there! (In fact, over half the people who set fitness goals for events like the New Year fall off the bandwagon a few months later). But that also means you know how hard it is to actually hold yourself accountable to your own fitness plan. There are lots of reasons why this might be, and maybe you recognize some:
• You didn’t track your goals...
• Life got in the way…
• You didn’t have a plan...
• You DID have a plan, but it was too hard to keep up...
...the list goes on! But, most importantly: you’re here.
Which means you’re probably ready to get back on that horse. We’re happy to report that it IS possible to get fit when you have a family, an intense job, a crazy commute...you just have to find ways to make it work for you. Luckily, we did the research, and we’re here to help. In this guide, you can find:
• Workout Tips for Beginners
• Primary Exercises (And Their Benefits)
• Dozens of Moves To Integrate into Your Plan
Sound good? We think so, too. Let’s do this.
Workout Tips for Beginners
If you’re new to the gym scene, welcome. It’s not as scary as it sounds. To help you maximize your time in there, it’s important to remember these core workout tips:
Quality Over Quantity
When you’re starting at a new machine or with a new type of weight, remember: do NOT sacrifice reps for bad form. Why? Simple: you could get seriously injured. Don’t know how to do a certain move? Our gyms are friendly places—ask someone to help you out! Better yet: get on the personal training beat. Our trainers are trained to help you reach your goals the right way.
Whatever you need to do to make sure you’re going to the gym (or working out in general) at least three to four times a week, do it. That might mean you’re goal setting and tracking, you have a workout buddy to hold you accountable, you have a set plan to follow. It’s hard to build results without consistency, and that’s the hardest part, so make sure you’re creating a realistic plan.
Track Your Progress
Yes, you should have a notebook or an app that you can use to track your progress. The reason for this is so you can see not only the short term moves you’ve been making, but also so you can keep your goals front and center. If you’re tracking your weight, do a weekly (NOT daily—your body’s weight will naturally fluctuate from day to day) weigh in. If you’re tracking your strength, record the weight of the tools you’re using at the gym, and slowly push yourself to move up. If you’re training for a race, record your weekly distance.
Keep It Varied
This guide is meant to give you options that you can mix and match into your routine (for more, check out our fitness blog.) Why? Because when your body is performing the same moves day in and day out, it builds muscle memory—and it stops making progress. To build muscle (and to subsequently lose weight), you have to be doing moves that challenge your body, because that’s how muscles tear and regenerate (a simplified explanation for why they grow).
Take (Active) Rest Days
Most importantly: rest! Rest days are essential for recovery (which is essential for progress). But this doesn’t mean you need to sit on that couch. Maybe your active rest day is doing some yoga moves (see below). Or it involves stretching or foam rolling. Or it means you take a hike, head to one of New Jersey’s boardwalks for a stroll, kayak, or have an active day with family. Whatever active rest means to you, make sure you’re doing it multiple days a week.
Getting in the Gym
Here’s the deal: by the time you leave the gym, you need to be sweating, red in the face, and ready to flop into the seat of your car to head home for an awesome meal and a well-deserved shower. How you get to that point is up to you. Below, we’re giving you some of our favorite ways to work out to help you choose your adventure.
The Best Cardio Workouts for Beginners
No, you shouldn’t lean too heavily on cardio. Yes, it should be part of almost every workout session. Try for at least 15-30 minutes of cardio per every hour-long gym sesh.
Cardio is short for cardiovascular exercise, which means pretty much what it says: it’s a type of exercise that gets your cardiovascular system—your heart and your circulatory system—literally pumping. Practicing cardiovascular exercise boosts your endurance and your lung capacity, strengthens your heart muscles so it’s easier to pump blood to your limbs and brain, boosts endorphins, burns calories and a little bit of fat, and is an accessible exercise (If you’re not near the gym one day, go for a hilly run and voilà, you’ve engaged in cardio!).
Type of Cardio Exercises
Best For: People who are distance training; a longer, majority cardio gym session
What It Is: It’s the most popular piece of equipment in the gym...but it’s also super easy to use wrong. A treadmill workout, like most workouts that don’t incorporate resistance, can do almost nothing for you if you’re not careful. But by ramping up the incline and getting ready to sweat, you can bust out miles and optimize your gym time.
Next Time You’re At the Gym: Try what it feels like to run for a solid thirty minutes. (Already know you can do that without taking breaks? Incorporate a HIIT workout, which you can learn more about below.) Pay attention to your body—if you’re feeling pain, stop or walk. Each week, record the time at which you need to take a break...and work on moving up to 30 minutes by slowly increasing your time as you revisit your training plan each week.
HIIT Cardio Workout
Best For: Intense, your-body-will-be-toast workouts; fast progress
What It Is: HIIT stands for High Intensity Interval Training, and it’s really, really good for you. So much so that a recent study found that a 10 minute HIIT workout could give you the same results as a 50 minute jog. WE KNOW. The best part? You can make essentially any workout or circuit of multiple workouts a HIIT workout. The key: making your intense intervals very intense.
Next Time You’re At the Gym: Since we’re talking about cardio here, go ahead and spice up the old treadmill routine: do 5 minutes of warm up, 2 minutes at a jog, 30 seconds at 100%, 2 minutes at a jog, 30 seconds at 100%, and repeat until you’ve been going for 15 minutes.
Best For: Glutes, thighs, and calves; pedaling away your frustrating work day.
What It Is: Stationary bikes are the equipment of NYC’s C-suite execs for a reason: because spinning can kick your ass. The machine can be adjusted for resistance (we recommend having at least a little bit at all times), take you on hilly rides, and pairs exceptionally well with upbeat music.
Next Time You’re At the Gym: Pop on the stationary bike for at least 30 minutes. Act as if this is a real ride, and every five minutes of riding adjust the resistance up and down, with the last half of your ride harder than the first.
The stationary bike was made for HIIT workouts, because you can ramp up the intensity without needing to press buttons to adjust the speed. To get yourself a great HIIT spin workout, try this:
5 minutes of warm up
2 minutes off the seat, high resistance
1 minute sprint on the seat, low resistance
2 minutes at 50%
Best For: Glute and thigh burn, low joint impact; being unable to walk up stairs the next day
What It Is: If you’re not familiar with the Stairmaster, you’ll know it when you see it: it’s like a self powered escalator. Rotating stairs will target your glutes and thighs hard, so be prepared for a shorter workout on this machine to start.
Next Time You’re At the Gym: Use the Stairmaster as part of a cardio circuit. Start with a 10 minute run on the treadmill. Move to a 10 minute, low resistance bike ride. Climb onto the Stairmaster and push through hard for 10 minutes, high resistance. Return to the treadmill. Repeat.
The Stairmaster 300x178
Put the stairs on low resistance, and hammer for 2 minutes. Ramp up the resistance and climb slowly for 5 minutes. Repeat until you’ve been doing this for 10-15 minutes (and with the Stairmaster, it’s okay to be on the lower end).
Best For: Engaging the whole body; nostalgia
What It Is: Your childhood pastime, co-opted by the fitness industry. Jumping rope can burn right through calories and up your full-body endurance to boot. A huge portion of the bodybuilding and heavy lifting community use jumping rope to get their cardio in without losing muscle mass. Try to use a jump rope with weighted handles for a little extra push.
Next Time You’re At the Gym: Jump to your heart’s content! Use the jump rope as a 10 minute warm up—and don’t give up if you’re finding yourself getting tripped up.
No Equipment Cardio
Best For: When you don’t have time for the gym
What It Is: This can be anything you want: burpees, wind sprints, a run around the neighborhood. Make sure by the end that you’re sweating and need a cool down.
Next Time You’re NOT At the Gym: Go for a run for 30 minutes. Not much of a runner? Make it more interesting by working in HIIT—sprint between telephone poles (or, if there are none, sprint for a minute with 90 seconds of recovery built in.)
The Best Weight Lifting Exercises for Beginners
Resistance training is an extremely important part of your everyday fitness routine—you will not see results if you don’t weight train alongside your cardio workouts. While cardio is great for burning off that unwanted weight in the moment, weight training actually kicks your metabolism into gear for hours (and sometimes days!). That means that after an intense lifting session, you can reap the benefits for long after you leave the gym.
Types of Weight Training
Don’t skip leg day! Write these into your fitness journal for the next time you’re at the gym.
Stand with your feet just over shoulder-width apart. Hold two dumbbells at a comfortable weight by your side. As you squat, keep your weight on your heels, bringing the dumbbells up to your chest as you sink down. Let them return to your side as you bring yourself back up. That’s one rep. (Want more squat variations? Find them here.)
Do one weighted squat. Place the weights on the floor. Come back up for one jump squat. Grab your weights when you land and do another weighted squat. Repeat for 30 reps.
This is considered by athletes and strength coaches to be the best leg workout you can do. Make sure you have a spotter. Start at a rack, positioning yourself under the bar topped off with a comfortable weight. Lift the bar off the rack and step back, giving yourself room to squat. Make sure you have a good base, feet shoulder’s width apart, and squat down to break parallel. Push back up. That’s one rep.
Grab a kettlebell in each hand. Step forward into a lunge, keeping your thighs parallel to the ground. Step up, bring your back foot to step next to your front. That’s one rep. Switch sides.
This one’s easy! Lay on the press machine and position your feet slightly above you and about shoulder’s width apart. Make sure you keep control as the weight sinks into you, and press up until just before your legs are fully extended. That’s one rep. (Want more leg press tips? Find them here.)
Arms are pesky, and hold unwanted fat in unfortunate places, like armpits and triceps. But rejoice! While arms can take a little bit longer to tone, arm exercises can be done anywhere, any time—but even better if those exercises are done with weights. Here are some of our favorites.
Cable Face Pulls:
Find and attach your v-shaped rope to a high cable pulley machine. Set it to a weight that works for you. The cable should be high enough to be even with your face. Hold each side of the rope with either hand, and pull towards your face, separating your hands so you can pull the rope to your ears. Keep your upper arms parallel to the ground, and return to the starting position for one rep.
Lying on a mat, raise your knees to a 90-degree angle, pressing lower back into the floor. With two dumbbells at a comfortable weight, keep your elbows slightly bent and raise your arms palms up until your dumbbells meet. Bring your arms back down to your sides, keeping about two inches from the floor. Repeat about 10 times for one set.
Lose that tricep jiggle with this one. Begin with a rope attachment to a high cable pulley. Stand in front and hold the rope with an overhand grip. Pull the rope down, moving ends slightly out to either side once in the lower position, only returning to elbow height for one rep. Perform 10 reps per set.
The Jab Cross:
Spice up your work out with this exercise made for total upper body toning. Stand with your feet wider than shoulder width apart and keep your knees slightly bent. Bring arms up and push your left arm out in a punching motion. Return to starting position and then push your right arm out. Keep switching arms for an interval of 60 seconds. Repeat 3 times with 30 second breaks in-between sets.
This one’s simple: speed it up a little! Continue “punching” across your body, but use a slightly lighter weight and do it double-time.
Tone That Booty
The booty seems to be the new fitness frontier, with more Instagram influencers showing off their glutes and celebrities attempting to get to JLo level. Aesthetics aside, strengthening your gluteus maximus has its benefits: a strong butt means a strong back and core and a strong hip system. This is obviously good for a host of reasons—a strong back means good posture and a healthy spine; a strong core means a healthy trunk; a strong hip system means healthy legs and range of motion. Plus, hey, when bathing suit season comes around, it’s a nice addition to the beach bod. You can learn more about booty moves here, but here are some of our select favorites.
Just like a real curtsy, stand with feet shoulder width apart. Then, cross one foot behind and a bit further away from the stationary foot. Squat low while keeping the weight in your stationary heel. Stand back up and come to the starting position. Then, switch sides. Hold a weight to make this exercise more effective.
Begin with straight leg deadlifts with dumbbells or a barbell as you progress to heavier weights. Start with the weights on the floor and reach down. Grab the weights and bend your knees into a squat position. Lift up on the weights, making sure your back is in a neutral position with your spine straight. Straighten up all the way, weights down by your sides, legs straight, back up. Repeat.
Weighted Step Ups:
With a dumbbell in each hand, step up on a box, meeting both your feet together, following your hips forward and engaging your glutes so you are standing straight up. Instead of hopping down, step down with the same leg you used as your first step up.
Begin by lying on your back with your knees bent and arms at your side. Raise your hips to create a straight line with your knees, squeezing the glutes to engage your muscles and releasing as you lower your hips just above the ground. Kick it up a notch and challenge your balance and stability by outstretching one leg to perform one set, then alternate to perform with other leg. Feel more burn by setting a dumbbell or kettlebell across your hips for added weight.
Workouts for Shoulder & Back
What do you do for work? Do you stare at a computer screen all day? Do you bend your neck to look down for work when you get home? A strong pair of shoulders and upper back can help keep your neck strong, help you avoid the dreaded 30-plus-years-in-a-desk-chair hunchback, and get you feeling good sore the next day.
Get a pair of dumbbells. Standing with your feet slightly wider than your shoulders, bend forward at the waist slightly and bend your knees into a high squat. Start with the dumbbells by your knees, and pull them up, squeezing your shoulder blades and keeping your elbows at right angles. Drop your arms down again. That’s one rep.
Kneeling One Arm Row:
Find a bench and a dumbbell. With one knee and one hand on the bench (like half of your body is in all fours), like the arm holding the dumbbell hang down. Keeping your back straight, pull the dumbbell up and your elbow back. Pause shortly, and bring it back down again. That’s one rep.
Barbell Overhead Press:
Grab a bar. With your feet at shoulder width, rest the bar on your chest, and then push up, fully extending your arms and pushing your head slightly forward. Bring the bar back to your chest. That’s one rep.
Lying chest first on a bench set at a low incline, let your arms hang off the sides, each holding a dumbbell. Keeping your arms straight during the entire motion, bring them forward and up, so that when you reach the top of the rotation, your spine and arms make a line. Bring them down. That’s one rep.
Where there are shoulder and back workouts, there must be chest workouts. A large part of working out is making sure you’re working your body evenly so that no muscle group is outplaying another (especially where the spine is involved). Here are some chest workouts to get your pump on.
Barbell Bench Press:
Make sure you have a spotter. Lay with your back on a bench, feet planted firmly on either side of it. Grab the bar off the rack and bring to your chest (no need to impress anyone here, just use a weight that works well for you). Push up, using your feet if you need them, and fully extend your arms. Bring it back to your chest, controlled. That’s one rep.
Band Chest Fly:
Attach two resistance bands to a base, like a rack. Stand staggered with the rack behind you and your front knee slightly bent. Keeping your arms wide and slightly bent, grab the bands and pull them to meet in front of your body, and then back out. That’s one rep.
Incline Dumbbell Bench Press:
Lay on an incline bench with two dumbbells, one in each hand. Go a little heavier than you would usually go. Start with your elbows hanging off the bench, dumbbells to either side of your chest. Push them up, fully extending your arms, then bring them back down to your chest. That’s one rep.
Yes, kayaking! Paddling is perfect for an upper body pump on your active rest day (or if you feel like playing gym hookie and want to be in the sun instead. Jersey residents should check out the Hoboken Cove Boathouse.
Abs are tough, and it’s likely they’re more developed than you think. When you’re building abdominal muscles, don’t expect to see them right away, as your diet actually has more to do with them showing than your workout routine. Still, nothing wrong with getting a little head start!.
This one will tire you out in no time. Take a roller or a barbell and kneel in front of it. With your arms straight and your weight on your knees, roll your body forward slowly until it is fully extended. Engage your abs (careful not to use your legs) to roll yourself back up. That’s one rep. Don't have a roller or barbell handy? Plank position is a go-to favorite for many of our personal trainers.
Weighted Sit Ups with Twist:
A new take on the old favorite. Grab a plate or a dumbbell at a comfortable weight and get into a sit up position (or have a partner hold down your feet). Holding the weight in front of your chest, do a sit up, and when you're sitting up, dip the weight on either side of your body. Release. That’s one rep.
Press Sit Up:
Lie on an inclined bench, feet secure under the extension of the bench. You should be lying a little bit upside down. Have a barbell resting on your chest. From here, curl up into a sit up position, and as you do so, press the barbell over your head. Bring everything back down. That’s one rep.
Weighted Hanging Leg Raises:
Do this once you’re feeling more comfortable in your ab routine. Attach weights to your ankles. At a chin up bar, jump up and hang, letting your arms stay straight. From the hips, lift your legs to be parallel with the floor. Controlled release back down. That’s one rep.
Recovery: Flexibility & Balance
Of course, it’s not all about building strength. Recovery (and preparation) is incredibly important to maintaining fitness, not only because it prevents injury, but actually makes you better at accomplishing athletic feats. When you stretch, you expand your range of motion, which helps you take longer strides and lift better and more fully. And no, it’s not “new age” or woo woo to work yoga into your strength routine. It’s just smart! Here, we’ve broken recovery down into two parts: Flexibility and Balance, and Recovery Stretches—because fitness isn’t just about sweating.
Yoga Poses for Beginners
Down Dog Split Knee to Nose Crunch:
Get into down dog. Inhale your right leg up towards the sky. As you exhale, bring your right knee toward your nose, rounding your spine and drawing your bellybutton in and up. Inhale your leg back down. Do this 10 more times, and then do it on your left side.
Plank with Arm Leg Lift:
Get into plank position, hands beneath your shoulders, spine straight, thighs lifted. As quickly or slowly as feels comfortable, lift your right arm up, reaching forward, and lift your left leg up, extending backwards. Take three deep, intentional breaths here. Lower and repeat. Do 10 reps and then move on to the next side.
Dolphin Push Up:
From plank, lower yourself onto your forearms. Tuck your toes and lift your hips so that your body forms a triangle. You may have to shift your toes forward. From there on, inhale, start bringing your chin towards your hands, shifting your shoulders over your elbows, so that your body is almost in plank. Then shift back up. Do this for 20 reps
Start standing with your feet hip-width apart. Raise your arms up to reach over your head. Then, from the hips, begin to fold forward, keeping your spine straight, and bring your right leg up with it until it’s parallel to the floor. Hold and breathe.
Most importantly comes injury prevention, and a stretch will do just that. Use these stretches to take your recovery to the next level. We’ve broken it down by body part, to make sure you’re targeting all your problem areas.
Best for: Back, hamstrings
Standing (or sitting with legs fully extended and together) let your body fold forward, letting your arms hang limp. Breathe here, sinking deeper with each breath. Try to stay for a minute.
Best for: Back, hamstrings
Sit on the floor with your legs apart. Reach forward with your hands on the floor, and use your fingers to crawl forward. Tuck your head and breathe, sinking further as you do. For those who are inflexible, this stretch can be a little intense -- if it helps to pulse, do that instead. Also try doing this stretch with your legs together or wider apart, to target different parts of the lower body.
Figure Four Stretch:
Best for: Hips
Lay on your back and bring your knees up to a bend, with your feet on the ground. Take one leg and place the ankle on the opposite knee. Then take your hands and clasp them beneath the thigh that your other leg is resting on. Pull that leg towards you. You should feel a deep stretch in your hip.
Arm Cross and Twist:
Best for: Shoulders, upper back
The classic cross and twist. Place one arm, straight, in the crook of the opposite arm. Use your bent arm to pull the straight one further across. Feel free to twist a little as you do this. (Try also hugging yourself for a similar stretch to separate your shoulder blades.)
Floor Fold and Crawl:
Best for: Obliques, back, hamstrings, core
In the same position as the floor fold, reach with your fingers on the floor to the left, crawl to the middle, then crawl to the right. Bring your body up, reach high extending that core, and then sink to the left again. After a few times, start your stretch on the right side.