It’s pretty daunting when you’re a beginner, and you want to get into working out. Maybe you saw something that inspired you, and you’re ready to take action—but you don’t know what you need to do.
If you’re a beginner, the very first thing you should do is become crystal clear on where you want to go. For example:
- Do you want to build muscle and get bigger?
- Do you want to burn fat?
- Do you want to get better cardiovascular health and endurance?
- Is there something you want to be able to “do”?
- Run a marathon
- Bench 225 pounds (2 plates)
- Do gymnastic-style moves like a planche, pistol squat, or a muscle-up?
- Add 10 inches to your vert so you can dunk a basketball?
- Is there a look you want to achieve?
Even if you don’t know that answer, and it’s more of a vague feeling like “get healthy” or “get strong,” it’ll help know what specific pain you’re trying to solve right now.
For example, let’s say that you’re tired of your back pain, and that’s why you want to start working out. Then your gameplan should take that into account. For back pain, you might include some of Dr Stuart McGill’s Big 3 exercises for stabilizing and bringing strength to the back. (We cover them in our bulletproof core article.) And your lifting program of choice may work you through some simplified and regressed versions of “hinging” to build up your spinal erector strength to protect your spine. You might start with hinging practice with a dowel or broom handle, then move onto dumbbell sumo deadlifts, dumbbell Romanian deadlifts raised deadlifts, and then finally conventional deadlifts once you feel comfortable with the movement.
Pick one goal to focus on right now
You can always change your goals later, but it helps to limit down the choices to help you find the right option for today.
Once you know your end result, you can begin searching out the appropriate training, nutrition, and lifestyle changes you’ll need to do.
Here are a couple of ideas to aid your search:
- Resistance training, like lifting weights or resisting gravity with bodyweight training, is the best way to build muscle. To build muscle, you must push yourself to near failure enough times to cause an adaptation to grow bigger. Most people aren’t able to push themselves enough with higher reps since it’s so painful, so it can be easier to get to true failure when using weights. For example, it is harder to get to true failure doing bodyweight push-ups compared to loading up a barbell bench press with enough weights for a 5-rep set. (If you’d still like to try bodyweight exercises, no equipment needed, we have a free beginners workout program here.)
- Look into recovery for muscle-building. The more “volume,” which means sets per week, you can do, the bigger you’ll be able to get. A big part of this is recovering properly. That’s handled by eating enough food and protein, and also by lifestyle factors. Look into sleep, non-exercise physical activity (NEPA), sunshine, and reducing artificial lighting at night for proper melatonin levels (or wearing blue-blockers).
- Losing weight comes down to eating at a calorie deficit. However, recent research is finding that weight-loss will eventually stall and eventually climb back up when you only change your diet (study). The key is switching the mindset to fat-loss and not “weight-loss.” Your goal is to maintain as much muscle as possible, which should eliminate any weight re-gain in the future. To do this, you must exercise. Exercise will help you lock in your fat-loss and help you reach a new “normal,” and you’ll also get all the other health benefits of exercise.
- Look into high-protein foods. Eating more protein will naturally limit the amount of carbs/fats you eat, lowering your energy intake. It’ll also help you to maintain the muscle and strength you have, preventing the rebounding weight gain normally seen in diets.
- Eat more satiating foods. Satiety is how full you feel, and there are studies on how different foods affect your fullness. For example, eating a steak will fill you up a lot more than a croissant when it comes to the total energy they contain. The most satiating foods typically are higher fibre foods like vegetables and some fruits, high protein foods, and high-water content foods.
- Look into what foods have fat-storing properties. Some industrially processed foods like trans-fat and soybean oil are more easily stored as stubborn fat and harder to use as energy.
- Aerobic exercise can help to burn fat—particularly stubborn fat by bringing blood flow to the entire body. It is the most researched when it comes to exercise, helping depression, anxiety, etc.
- Resistance training, like lifting weights and bodyweight exercises, can also help to burn fat while also keeping more muscle—preventing the yo-yo dieting effect. Resistance training also makes you look better, improves your bone density, fights to age, and many other benefits.
- Look into nutrient timing. This is the idea of timing your meals around your exercise. When you’re sedentary and sitting all day, you eat less—minimizing fat gain. And when you’re about to exercise, or you’ve just finished, then you eat more food, helping to give your body the energy it needs to excel or to your body to recover while minimizing fat gain.
- Look into time-restricted feeding (TRF), such as eating while the sun is out. That might mean eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and then not eating anymore once the sun begins to set. An example of this is 16/8 intermittent fasting. Time-restricted feeding helps you naturally restrict calories by limiting when you can eat, and if you time it with the daylight, it’ll match your natural activity levels. For example, eating a big bowl of chips and some pop with a movie at night isn’t the best idea because you won’t be moving for the next few hours.
Cardiovascular Health & Endurance
- Look into brisk walking outside to start. Start with walking briskly for a short period of time and slowly increase the time you walk daily. Once you’re able to walk for a long time with no problems, then you can step it up a bit and begin to ease into light jogging. The sun will provide other cardiovascular benefits on top of just walking. (Don’t shoot yourself in the foot by doing cardio inside on a treadmill.)
- Look into swimming. Swimming is an excellent sport for cardio building, especially if you’re older and have cranky joints. Swim outside if you can.
- Look into cardiovascular protective foods such as omega-3s (fish) and garlic.
- Look into getting daily sunshine, which dilates blood vessels and contains life-giving infrared and UV rays that will help with magnesium and vitamin D levels. Proper vitamin D levels have been linked to good heart health. If you are scared of burning, you can limit your UV exposure while still getting lots of good infrared light in the morning and in the evening (generally 6 am–9 am and 4 pm–6 pm). Those infrared rays will also protect you from the stronger UV rays in the midday sun.
- Want to get into gymnastics and calisthenics? Take a look at Gymnastic Bodies.
- Want to get your natural movement and mobility back? Take a look at MovNat.
- Want to get into powerlifting? Take a look at Juggernaut Training Systems.
- Want to bulk rapidly as a skinny guy or skinny gal? Take a look at my other projects, Bony to Beastly (men) and Bony to Bombshell (women.)
If you’re a man who wants to get bigger, leaner, look better, and be healthier all at the same time—you may want to check out our True Gains program.
Pick the right skill level and stage for a beginner:
You might be tempted to go for an “intermediate” or even “advanced” program if you want results so fast that you wanted them yesterday. This is a mistake, though. Most intelligent programs for beginners will do a more thorough walkthrough, explain everything and why you’re doing it, and give you the appropriate work for a beginner.
It’s like wanting to be able to ski. You don’t learn how to ski by getting dropped out of a helicopter onto the wild terrain of a steep mountain. You start on the beginner’s bunny hill and learn the fundamentals while giving your body time to internalize what you’re doing. It’s not a mental thing—it’s a physical body thing. It’s one thing to know everything in your head, and it’s another to practice it out in the physical world.
Personality styles and showing up:
I have Nick Tuminello, a coach to the coaches, for this tip. He says that based on behavioural and psychology studies, some types of people do best with coaching and others do better with more of a DIY approach.
Autonomy-oriented fitness personality type
- Are more motivated by interests and results rather than by constraints and deadlines.
- Everything is a lesson that makes me stronger, smarter, or more competent
- They like control and making decisions
- They need to understand the thought process behind things, to understand “why” they’re doing something
- Does better with DIY programs that teach them how to take control and allows them to demonstrate their capability and self-determination
Impersonal-oriented fitness personality type
- I tried everything, but “nothing works.”
- They see new situations as causing anxiety and feels like they won’t be able to master them
- Does better with programs that start slowly and builds gradually with lots of personal touch and coaching
I’m going to make a guess that if you found this article, you may lean towards the autonomy-oriented type. This is because you’re actively seeking out information on what to do next. But if I’m wrong, and you find yourself leaning towards impersonal-oriented, you may do better with a personal coach who will show up with you every session and meet with you.
Either way, it seems like online communities are extremely helpful for many people. Not only can they be a great way to learn (autonomy-oriented), but you can get anonymous feedback and encouragement (impersonal-oriented). They’re also usually pretty cheap or even free.
Set the stakes and start with a bang:
Many people half-hazard start working out as they’re able. I’m going to recommend that, and instead recommend that you prepare, set a starting date, and make a bet.
- Find the program you’ll be doing. Print it out or load it up on your phone, and get familiar with it.
- Get prepared. That might mean buying a protein powder tub for the month, throwing out junk food, or buying more food if you’re trying to gain. It might mean signing up for a gym (first time at the gym tips) or purchasing some home-gym equipment.
- Set a date and time you’ll begin. Pick a date in the future that you’ll start and a specific time. It’s good to have the time follow-up directly after something else, so you gear right into it. For example, on Monday, right after work, I will work out.
- Set an “end date.” Many people slowly drift out of the habit, don’t let yourself off the hook. Set an end date where you have to get to first. For example, commit to 30 days. At the end of the 30 days, you can stop working out then. How do you make yourself keep working out? You make a bet with a friend (called the Ulysses contract.) Say to your friend, “I will work out 3x a week for the next 30 days, or else you can spend $100.” Give your friend the $100 in cash up front. Any time you’re tired or feeling busy, you’ll be put in the situation of wanting to save your $100 or to be lazy. You will always pick the $100. This is extremely powerful.
- Know what end result you want and begin searching out information specific to achieving that.
- Pick a plan that is appropriate for a beginner
- If you’re more of an autonomous DIY type of person, you will do better by learning and experimenting. Get a program that teaches you and isn’t just a template to follow.
- If you feel like nothing ever works, you might do better with personal coaching to help you gradually work up the intensity and to hear your concerns and make adjustments to you.
- Online communities should benefit most people by providing knowledge, community, and anonymous support and encouragement.
- Prepare, set a date, set the stakes, and have an end date. Get everything you need before you begin, try doing a 30-day challenge, and make a bet on your success.
What questions do you have? Drop me a line in the comments, and I’ll get back to you.