What are the best bodyweight exercises for guys who are total beginners? Inside, we’ll show you the best beginner exercises to train the body in it’s six main movement patterns. Then we’ll cover what beginners could do next.
Beginners aren’t as coordinated, strong, and haven’t developed the work capacity of someone who’s been training steadily for a few years. This puts beginners in the crosshairs for an injury.
But there’s good news—beginners can make rapid gains and progress that us seasoned folk can only dream of because training stimulus is new to their body, and they’re further away from the ceiling of their genetic potential, so it’s easier to make progress.
Just double-checking: you’re a young guy who’s relatively healthy?
Before we dive in, this list is designed for men who are young, healthy, and are new to working out.
For example, this list is not ideal for someone who’s obese, someone with an injury or back pain, or for the elderly. Those people would need specific exercises to meet them with where they are. (If that describes you, book an appointment with your doctor or sports physiotherapist for next steps.)
Are you a woman? Check out our best beginner bodyweight exercises for women.
What makes an exercise right for beginners?
Simpler form to execute
There are many ways to regress and progress a movement. Let’s look at the squat for a minute. The squat pattern, which is bringing your butt down and back and bending at the knees, on opposite ends of simple and complex, you’d have the air squat and the pistol squat.
The air squat is what you’d probably think of when trying to do a squat without a weight. The truth is an air squat will likely be challenging enough (but doable) for a beginner, especially when they’re trying to learn how to keep their back straight.
Pistol squats? Beginners don’t need to be doing one-legged ass-to-grass pistol squats. If the idea of doing that today seems absurd, then we’re on the same page. Let’s start simple, reap the rewards, and move forward from there.
High payoff with low risk of injury
Some exercises look cool, or they’re really fun to do, but they won’t actually help you get a good workout in. Here’s an over-the-top example: the human flag pole. That’s an exercise where you grab a bar and hold yourself horizontal. Working on doing that will toughen up your stabilizer muscles, tendons, and ligaments to support your weight. But it won’t challenge your shoulder or arms to get bigger, and it won’t play a role in you getting leaner. And it won’t make your heart rate get pumping. It’s just a (very) cool trick that’s really difficult that could put an uncoordinated beginner at risk of injury. You can always learn this stuff later once you’ve become familiar with working out.
Exercises that match your current level of strength
Skinny guys may need to do an even more regressed form of exercises they aren’t strong enough for (many average guys have no problems with push-ups and chin-ups).
For example, let’s say there’s a skinny guy and he can only do a couple of push-ups. That doesn’t mean he should stop there. After he does his three reps, then he should keep going with kitchen counter push-ups until he can get into the 8-15 rep range.
Can’t get the form to look and feel right? It’s better to do a simpler, more regressed version of an exercise than to do the exercise incorrectly.
So let’s say there’s a guy who can’t do the front plank because his abs and core are too weak right now. That’s okay—he’d do the push-up plank, a plank using your hands like at the top of the push-up position. Once he gets good at that, then you can graduate to the full front plank where he’d get down to his elbows.
The Best Exercises for Men Who are Beginners
Next, we’re going to cover the best exercises for the six main movements. This is adapted a bit from the revered strength coach Dan John:
- The push. This mainly works your chest (pecs), shoulders (deltoids), and the back of your arms (triceps).
- The pull. This mainly works your back (like your lats), the front of your arms (biceps), and the back of your shoulders (rear deltoids)
- The squat. This mainly works the front of your legs (quads) and your butt (glutes).
- The hinge. This mainly works the back of your legs (hamstrings), your lower back (spinal erectors), and your butt (glutes.)
- The carry. This mainly helps with posture and overall athleticism by working stabilizer muscles, and also develop your work capacity.
- The front core. This mainly helps to work your abs and obliques while teaching core rigidness for injury prevention.
There’s a lot more that we’re capable of such as twisting movements like throwing, but for now, we’ll focus on these.
Level 1 exercises are the simplest beginner movements, and once they become easy, you can progress to some more challenging variations.
All the links below go out to Youtube. (As you might guess, we’re big fans of Mike Robertson and Eric Cressey (Marco, who programs the Outlive workouts, interned with both of them), Nick Tumminello, Bret Conteras, and we find Scott Herman pretty likeable, too.)
- Level 1: Kitchen Counter Push-Up
- Level 2: Push-up
- Level 3: Push-up with diamond hand (bit more tri’s and upper chest)
- Level 4: Offset push-ups
- Level 5: Plyo push-ups (could start on the kitchen counter and go from there)
More advanced push variations to try later
- Level 1: Push-up to downward dog
- Level 2: Feet elevated push-up (bit more upper chest and shoulders)
- Level 3: Couch Edge Tricep Dip
The pull is one of the more difficult moves to do with your bodyweight. So if you have access to a chin-up bar, use it. Otherwise, you can load up a tote bag (cotton bag) with heavy things like water jugs, etc.
Access to a chin-up bar?
- Level 1: Lowered Chin-up Under Control (use chair to get up)
- Level 2: Chin-up Hold
- Level 3: Chin-up
- Level 4: Chin-up with heavy textbook between feet
No bar—just a tote bag or backpack
- Level 1: Goblet Squat with heavy book or water jug
- Level 2: Split Squat
- Level 3: Jumping air squats
- Level 4: Couch Back Foot Elevated Split Squats
- Level 1: Bodyweight Romanian deadlift hinge
- Level 2: Loaded Tote Bag Romanian Deadlift
- Level 3: Single leg hinge
- Level 4: Long jump / Broad Jump
Doing carries are difficult to do properly without traditional heavy weights like dumbbells, or farmer walk handles. But that doesn’t mean it’d be wise to skip them just because we don’t have any equipment. This is because carries are a critical tool in helping to deal with wonky posture, weak work capacity, and fixing all sorts of imbalances.
Do you have a large bucket you could fill with water? That could work in a pinch. Even a tote bag (cotton bag) loaded up with water jugs or heavy books could help (just try a harder variation like the waiter carry.)
Otherwise, try and push yourself in your daily life when you can. Going grocery shopping? If you walk to the store, see if you can buy a bit more food than you usually do. If you took the car, try and carry more bags at once.
The front core
There are a few ways we can train the abs and obliques, so we’ll cover a couple of different ways:
- Level 1: Push-Up Plank
- Level 2: Front Plank
- Level 3: Front Plank One Foot Lifted
- Level 4: RKC Plank
- Level 5: Long-lever plank
Leg raise progression
- Level 1: Floor L-Sit Supported Bent Knee Hanging Leg Raise Hold (video has all 3 progressions)
- Level 2: Floor L-Sit Bent Knee Hold
- Level 3: Floor L-Sit Hold
Some fun variations to work the abs and obliques
- Level 1: Deadbug
- Level 2: Hand walkout from knees
- Level 3: Ab wheel rollout (Buy one for at home, they’re $20, and one of the best scoring ab exercises)
Bonus: Bulletproof Core
These exercises aren’t designed to get you bigger or leaner. They’re designed to make your core as stable as a solid oak table. Having a robust core will protect your spine to avoid back pain today and in the future so you can train consistently enough to get the results you want. These are from Dr Stuart McGill, a professor emeritus of spinal biomechanics at the University of Waterloo. Should you want to, you can read more about bulletproofing your core and protecting your back.
- Guys just getting started should choose exercises that:
- are simple to do
- have a high payoff for the risk of injury involved
- are doable with their current level of strength
- Guys should focus on doing all six movements:
- the push to hit the chest, shoulders, and triceps
- the pull to hit their back, biceps, and rear shoulder
- the squat to work their quads and butt
- the hinge to work their hamstrings, butt, and spinal erectors
- the carry to help them stand taller, fix imbalances, and improve the amount of weight they can handle (work capacity)
- Front core since it doesn’t get worked out a lot in the other main movements and most guys want bigger abs/obliques anyways
- Bonus: the bulletproof core. While these exercises won’t help you get bigger and leaner, they will help keep you pain-free so you can do the other lifts to get you big and lean.
- the cat-camel
- bird dog
- McGill Curl-up
- Side plank
- Don’t forget eat enough protein and get enough sleep every night—two other key parts of getting the body you want.
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