You’ve made a momentous decision. You’ve decided you’re going to change to become healthier, stronger, and to look your best.
We’ve got the best bodyweight workouts that you can do at home without a gym—no matter if:
- you’re overweight and want to burn some fat.
- you’re skinny and want to bulk up by building muscle mass.
- you’re a man who wants to build a more masculine body by building muscle in the right places like the chest, back, and shoulders.
- you’re a woman who wants to get a toned, feminine physique by building up her glutes and narrowing her waist.
- you’re married and want to work out with your spouse, so you can both reap the benefits while doing something fun together.
The men’s and women’s workouts are designed to get you results in 30 days without buying any equipment by using your own bodyweight and a couple things you can find around your place.
Chapter 1: Why who you are matters when picking a workout program
Chapter 2: Picking a workout that matches your goals
Chapter 3: When to work out
Chapter 4: How often to work out
Chapter 5: Where to work out
Chapter 6: How to get started
Chapter 7: The best 30-day beginners bodyweight workout for men
Chapter 8: The best 30-day beginners bodyweight workout for women
Bonus chapter: The next steps
Who you are matters when it comes to picking a workout programs. Here’s why:
You’re a beginner
Imagine someone wants to get into working out. They want to get leaner, get more muscular, become healthier and feel their best. But they’re a total beginner.
Often we’ll see someone recommend incredibly advanced routines and for a beginner, that’s terribly dangerous.
Many “recommended” programs for beginners are actually designed for athletes
We’ve seen places like LifeHackers recommend Starting Strength, a program designed for those getting into barbell strength training. It’s designed by Mark Rippetoe, an accomplished Olympic weightlifting coach. Total beginners do not need to be practicing complex lifts like the power clean and power snatch. Those exercises are impressive, sure, but they’re also a great way to get injured. There are much safer exercises that will give beginners confidence as they learn all the main ways their body is designed to move. Plus, beginners would do better practicing the core movements more throughout the week, and don’t need to lift as heavy (research shows that doing a mix of lighter and heavy resistance is best.)
CrossFit has the same problems—it’s incredibly advanced and overkill
Every day there is a friend who’s into exercising that invites their friend out to the local box to “try it out.” Honestly, Crossfit has a lot of amazing things going for it. The community of people is amazing, being social while working out is killing two birds with one stone. It’s even fun to watch because it’s full of raw power and explosiveness. However, that’s exactly why it’s not for beginners. There’s a growing concern about the rising number of injuries from beginners getting into CrossFit and doing advanced exercises with a low benefit (for a beginners goals) and a high risk. The workout of the day cannot both be designed for beginners and Crossfitters going on 10 years of training, there’s no progression for optimal results, and there are way better ways to get leaner, more muscular, and become healthier without the risk of injury.
On the flipside, simpler bodyweight programs have their own downsides
So, a beginner decides to do something at home the DIY route. They don’t really want to spend $500 on equipment they might not use, and they figure the risks are low for a free workout they found on Pinterest.
The problem is that many at-home workouts are:
- Often designed to improve cardio and aren’t fitting for your goals. There’s nothing wrong with cardio, it’s great to work your heart out and improve your cardiovascular health. But most beginners are looking to either burn fat or build muscle to look better and become healthier—not only give their heart a workout.
- Even if the workouts are resistance-based (using gravity, weights, bands, etc.), they’re not progressive. As you do something, you get better at it (neurological gains), and if you’re eating well, you’ll be getting stronger and more muscular. So you make significant progress in the first week. But then your body adapts, and if you keep doing the same thing, you’ll stop changing. Your body already adapted after all. So you’ll need a periodized workout. Periodized training is a program that’s specifically designed to cover a period of time to help you perform your best. Sometimes it’s used to be in the top condition for athletic performance. But in the case of just becoming stronger, generally, most are designed change over time, so your body will continue to adapt optimally.
- Badly programmed and put you at risk for injury. Many programs prescribe exercises that don’t train the way the body actually moves, and so they don’t help to achieve the results you want while also putting you at risk of hurting yourself as a beginner. For example, crunches work the upper abs, but Dr. Stuart McGill (professor emeritus of Spine Biomechanics at the University of Waterloo) says that repeatedly flexing the spine damages the lining of the discs in your back. Now, you might be doing 50 to 100 crunches in some random workout on the internet and not feel pain. But as you continue to do them, the disc tissue could weaken and become unstable. Then something as simple as a sneeze could throw your back out. There are other ways to work your upper abs without risking your back.
- They don’t tell you what to do next to keep improving yourself. Your body weight will only take you so far. You will need to get close to failure to continue to adapt. Eventually, once you’re able to do 30 to 40 push-ups, it’ll be harder to get to close to true failure as the burning pain increase. Plus, as you start to burn fat and become more muscular, and you begin to crave the mood benefits and brain performance boosts that exercise brings, then you might not scoff at paying $500 to build a home gym. In fact, you may even be ready to go all out and invest a couple grand. We’ll outline when you should think about the next step of adding weights as progressive resistance.
We love total beginners. They don’t have a lot of incorrect things to unlearn. But the best way to help them is not to metaphorically throw them into the deep end of the pool and tell them to swim. The best way is to give them a step-by-step a scientifically-based workout that will help them reach their goals, that fits real life, and that doesn’t put them at risk for injury (especially since beginners tend to be both weaker and a bit uncoordinated at first.)
The exercises you do will change your body over time. If you only do squats, don’t be surprised when your chest doesn’t grow. To build a masculine looking physique, that will mean building a V-Shape. Broad, muscular shoulders, with a strong back and chest, and thicker arms. To look athletic (and move like an athlete) and to prevent back pain, some lower body work will be a part of a balanced program.
Many programs treat women like smaller men and prescribe a ton of chest and arm work. But most women aren’t trying to get massive pecs or vascular, thick biceps and huge triceps. (Obviously, many women want to have nice, toned arms, but that’s something different.)
Instead, many women are looking to build up their hips (in the same way men try and build up their shoulders), tone their stomach, and develop some of the upper body strength to make their daily life easier like throwing big travelling suitcases. The best way to build up a great butt is by working the glutes in all 4 jobs they do for the most. (We’ll show you how in the women’s workout but if you want to read an enormous guide on this topic, check out the building bigger hips guide on Bony to Bombshell.)
For new moms
New moms are short on time, energy, and should definitely get cleared by their medical professional before exercising. It’s common enough to have their abs separate a bit (diastasis recti) or some other post-partum issues to fix up first. Once they get cleared, they could learn how to exercise with their baby. (You can even try using your baby as a make-shift dumbbell. I’m half-joking but as a dad of two, when holding my kids, I can always drop into a solid Goblet Squat for extra reps throughout the day.)
For those over 50
If you’re over 50, you’ll definitely want to get cleared to exercise. That might include a stress test. Generally, it’s pretty difficult to go through life this long without getting some injuries. Someone over 50 might want to visit the sports physiotherapist and ask them what they think they’re capable of, and what they could do to rehab their body to get into good enough shape for a general program.
On a side note, those over 50 will have different nutritional concerns. It seems like getting even more protein might be important since as you age your ability to digest it worsens. Also, there’s some other research that supplementing with creatine or omega-3s (fish oil, for example) could be necessary to get the best results (study).
Lastly, older people generally have crankier joints. It might be a good idea to ask your medical doctor about taking type-ii collagen (Examine.com) alongside some vitamin C, like a glass of orange juice, to improve their joints. They may even want to look into neat-infrared or red-light therapy for improving joint pain. On the training side, staying away from low-rep like the 1-5 rep range (very heavy) work would be best. You’ll want to stay in the medium range, closer to 10-12 (and all the way up to 30) reps to take the heavy stress off the joints a bit.
Teenagers, such as a 15-year-old
If you’re done going through puberty, this could be a great time to start getting into some bodyweight and light training to get started. Many teenagers jump right into barbell and Olympic lifting (often to get stronger and for sport preparation). The problem is that teenagers are clumsier than adults, so they should probably avoid any high-skill moves like Olympic lifting until their coach gives them the go ahead. If they’re going the DIY route, they should instead stick to more straightforward, and lower risk exercises.
If you’re a teenager, you’ll also want to get approval from your mom, dad, doctor, coach, or guardian to start training. It’s just a good idea to have someone outside yourself keeping an eye on you. I remember the story of my business partner Shane when he was a teenager. He was starting to work out one summer while staying with his grandparents. He wasn’t aware that he wasn’t doing well on the nutrition front, and was rapidly losing weight. When his parents saw him a few weeks later, they were mortified to see he had been rapidly losing weight. It’s just a good idea to have someone else knowing what you’re doing so they can help be on your team as you change.
What are your goals?
I’m skinny, and I want to bulk up, get bigger and build muscle
If you’re skinny and want to bulk up, that new muscle still to be built will need to come from food outside your body. Nutrition will play a key role, and eating enough to gain weight will likely be harder than doing the workouts. (There’s a great guide on eating more over at Bony to Beastly.)
The basics on the nutrition front are:
- Eat 0.8–0.1g of protein per ideal bodyweight pound every single day. This is a ton of protein, but you’ll need to eat enough protein not just to live (like you usually do), but eat even more protein so your body has an abundance and will build muscle with it. This is our “boosted” recommendation, to learn more you can read all about reaching your protein goals in our protein powder article. If you’ve tried working out before and couldn’t get stronger, not getting enough protein likely played a part in this. Try eating protein with every meal, particularly before and after you work out.
- Eat enough calories to gain weight slowly and predictably. Your body will need extra calories to help build new muscle. Going slowly reduces needless fat gains. If you’re not getting bigger and gaining weight, it is 100% a calorie issue if you’re healthy. You’ll need to either increase the amount you’re eating every day, or look at how consistent you are at hitting your goals. Using an app like MyFitnessPal will help you reach your goals. Research shows that tracking using an app like MyFitnessPal is an easy way to hit your goals (study). Try and stack most of your calorie surplus before and after you work out for even leaner gains (better nutrient partitioning.)
Then, the workouts will be mainly be focused on size called hypertrophy training. Hypertrophy training is a type of resistance training. Instead of lifting weights as a resistance though, we can use gravity and a couple tricks (down below) for a little while.
However, many skinny guys are already quite strong for how much muscle they have. So they’ll need to find new ways to challenge themselves to grow by doing size training. So that means getting into the higher rep range like doing 8–20 reps per set.
And you’ll want to be doing full-body workouts, not splits. This is because you’ll need to bulk up everywhere, gain co-ordination, and won’t need a ton of volume to grow, and you don’t have a lot of muscle yet that needs 3 days to recover from ultra-heavy lifting.
NOTE: if you’re skinny, take this as an encouragement—but this will be the only time that you’ll be able to get steroid-like gains naturally. You can build a lot of muscle, very very quickly (called newbie gains.)
I’m overweight want to get leaner and burn fat
If you’re overweight and want to burn fat, you’ll need to get into a calorie deficit while eating a high-protein diet and doing resistance training. A calorie deficit is a fancy way of saying that you’ll need to eat less energy from food than you use up every day by living. When people eat less food, they inevitably eat less protein too, making their muscles and their organs shrink. The slowed metabolism and weight re-gain most dieters experience is the body protecting itself from chronically low levels of protein (2020 study.)
The best way to burn fat is not through cardio, but through resistance training (study, study). This is because resistance helps to burn fat while telling your body to keep your muscle, so you don’t just “lose weight” but rather burn fat while building muscle (often called body recomposition). Keeping your muscle will keep you feeling strong and look your best as well. So why does resistance training help burn fat?:
- Resistance training burns some calories as you’re doing it.
- Resistance training causes your body to continue to burn calories after you’ve worked out. This is because your body is burning energy trying to repair the muscles that got worked out. This is one of the main advantages over cardio training since cardio won’t have this same effect.
- Resistance training encourages muscle protein synthesis. This is a fancy way of saying that exercising tells your body to build muscle. Muscle is the kind of weight you’ll want to keep. It keeps you strong, it gives you an athletic look and having more muscle can increase your metabolism a little bit.
Then you’ll need to dial in your nutrition to burn fat:
- Eat less energy then you burn every day so your fat needs to be burnt to make up the gap. This is not easy, but there are a lot of paths to help accomplish this.
- Eat foods with more fibre and that are less processed (ie “clean”) foods.
- Whole, unprocessed foods have less calories in them compared to processed since they haven’t been pre-digested by industrial cooking.
- They fill you up more. The more fibre and the more water, the better. Think of something like eating an orange or apple.
- They help you feel better because they’re full of vitamins and minerals. When you feel good, you’ll move more without trying, which burns calories.
- Chew slower and ditch liquid calories. Chewing helps you feel fuller. Liquid calories, is one way people get a beer gut, since it’s pretty easy to knock back a couple hundred calories in beer without it making them feel full.
- Drink water with your meals. This plays on the same mechanism of water filling you up a little bit without adding any calories.
- Try intermittent fasting, like the 16:8 method. This means fasting for 16 hours and eating in an 8-hour window. The most popular method is to eat from 12:00 pm to 8:00 pm. That will allow you to eat to fullness for lunch and dinner and a snack before bed, but cuts out a whole meal worth of calories normally for breakfast. The only thing to be aware of is that it may make it harder to eat enough protein, so you may need a protein powder if you’re doing intermittent fasting.
- Use an app like MyFitnessPal (free) to track calories. Research shows that using an app helps to reach your calorie goals (study). It’s possible that the reminders from notifications or some of the other features help people stay focused on their goals.
- Eat foods with more fibre and that are less processed (ie “clean”) foods.
- Eat 0.8–0.1g of protein per ideal bodyweight pound every single day. This is a lot of protein, but you’ll need to eat enough protein not just to live (like you usually do), but eat even more protein, so your body doesn’t lose the muscle and proteins from its organs. You don’t want weight loss, which will make your weight rebound—you want fat loss. You want to keep the muscle and your organs healthy. Research shows that as you eat fewer calories, you’ll eat less protein (study). And that’s important because…
Eating lots of protein will:
- Help to control cravings since protein is extremely filling
- Help you feel more satisfied after eating
- Keep your strength, even as you get lighter, allowing you to feel better. (And not only does feeling better have its own perks, but you’ll be more likely to keep exercising, keeping the fat loss going strong.)
- Prevents yo-yo fat gain by ensuring your body has enough protein to be healthy even while cutting calories
You’ll likely want a good protein powder to help you reach your goals. This is so you can get all the benefits that protein brings without all the calories from extra carbs/fats. You can read more about protein powders in our protein powder super-guide here.
As you continue to lose weight, you’ll start to lose the love handles and tighten up everywhere.
Superficial belly fat is one of the last places to lean out and responds to more exercise and movement in general. So if you’re looking for a six-pack, you’ll need to be patient and diligent, cut calories, do ab workouts, and walk more. (And you’ll likely need to graduate to using weights to get there.)
I want to get abs and get ripped
If you want big abs (rectus abdominis) and obliques, you’ll need to get lean enough and work on making your abs bigger. So along with doing all the main movements (which we’ll cover below), you’ll want to add in 2-3 sets daily of some core work. We cover what the best exercises for your core are in this guide.
A simple progression for beginners to work the abs and obliques in a plank position could look like this:
- Push-Up Plank. This is an easier version of the plank since your body isn’t as horizontal. Set up like you’re going to do a push-up and and plank. Beginners should start here.
- Plank. Your body becomes horizontal, and the exercise becomes much more difficult. Be sure to breathe in and out (don’t hold your breath) to prevent headaches but also to work your obliques more.
- RKC Plank. Move your elbows up a tiny bit, then dig your elbows into the ground, and drag the elbows down towards your toes. Don’t forget to squeeze your glutes!
- Weighted RKC Plank. Increase the resistance. Since you’re at home, using a big, heavy book or a clean cast iron pan on your back would work in a pinch.
- Long-lever Plank. Move the elbows up to your eyes, instead of under your shoulders. This makes your body “longer” which makes the exercise even harder.
- Body Saw. This advanced move begins by putting face towels or paper plates under your feet, and moving the body back and forth while holding the plank position.
I want to improve my cardiovascular fitness
Maybe you’ve heard the word aerobics tossed around. Let’s first cover some ground, so we understand what’s going on.
Our body generates and then uses ATP (adenosine triphosphate) for energy. This energy is the direct currency that we spend that allows us to breathe, lift things, move, etc.
There are two ways our bodies generate this energy.
- One way is to make it without oxygen (anaerobic)
- The other way is to make it with oxygen (aerobic).
Our bodies usually make this ATP energy anaerobically. While anaerobic produces greater force, it can’t generate as much energy as aerobic, and after you use it, it turns into lactic acid (the burning feeling when you start doing higher-rep work.) (study). But if you’re doing a lot of exercises, sometimes we burn out of the stored (and slower generating) anaerobic energy in a few minutes, so our body starts to blend in more aerobic work.
Both anaerobic and aerobic exercise works out the cardiovascular system but in different ways. So if one of your goals is energy, health, and performance, it’d be good to eventually build up the ability to include both types in your life.
How do I know when something is anaerobic or aerobic exercise?
This study says that the anaerobic and aerobic are actually old and outdated (but well-known) terms, that there is middle-ground between them, and that they often all work together for energy production.
But in general, any exercise that is explosive in nature is anaerobic. This is because your most explosive action is 6x more powerful than the maximum amount of energy aerobics can provider. So, any exercise done with maxed out effort under 6 seconds is anaerobic. Then, exercises from 20 seconds–to 4 minutes with a high intensity is a mix of anaerobic and aerobic.
Then, endurance exercises that aren’t intense are generally aerobic. But the researchers said that any time you use intensity, that’d be the anaerobic system gradually stepping in. So if someone were running a track race, and jogged at a low intensity for 10 minutes, that’d be aerobic. And then as they came upon the final metres and started to run hard, it’d open up the anaerobic pathways for the boost of power.
So if we’re moving for a long time with a low enough intensity, our body needs more oxygen to keep moving, so we start breathing a little harder, and our heart starts to work harder to pump the blood with the oxygen to where it needs to be. This is how aerobic training plays its part in strengthening the heart.
For example, when you keep your heart rate up as you exercise, like swimming or walking briskly outside for 30 minutes, that will require lots of oxygen to generate continuous energy, meaning it’ll be an aerobic exercise and work out your heart.
The cool thing is that resistance training (lifting heavy things or using gravity with our body weight) can get our heart-rate up too. It doesn’t work quite as good as strengthening the heart as standard “cardio” exercises, but it can work out the heart well—you just need to keep your heart-rate up.
Start with resistance training as a beginner since it’s your biggest gap to fix right now
The reason why is because of doing resistance training, you can encourage your body to build muscle because it needs to get stronger, you can tell your bones to get denser to support the weight on them, you can burn more calories by repairing those muscles, and you can still strengthen your a bit heart by keeping your heart-rate up.
Also, in your day-to-day life, you’re probably missing the “intense” part of resistance training more than you are missing the low intensity movement, like walking. Many people already walk quite a bit, so they’ve got that covered and need to do some more intense training that challenges their muscles and power.
Even if you’re quite sedentary and sit at work, you’ll find more benefits by adding in resistance training first. Then you can gradually add in some brisk walking later.
Use circuits to save time and work your heart out a bit without sacrificing results
Plus, you can also try and do a bit of aerobic work while doing resistance training. You can do this without sacrificing too much strength by doing a circuit. A circuit is when you combine two or more exercises together instead of doing straight sets. Traditionally, someone doing push-ups will do one set, rest a few minutes, then do another set of push-ups. That rest is important, because without a long enough rest period, you won’t be able to do as many reps the next set, which will limit your muscle building.
But if you use circuits, you can pair complementary exercises to get more rest time while keeping your heart-rate up. For example, you can pair a chest and a leg exercise, like a push-up and a squat. In the first exercise, you tire out your pecs (chest) and your triceps (back of your arms). Then, without resting too much, then you do a set of squats. Then your quads (front of thighs) and your glutes (butt) and a bunch of stabilizer muscles get worked out. While your legs are getting worked out, your chest is recovering.
Meanwhile, this entire time you’ve been doing some endurance work by continually moving your body, while the explosive energy recovers in your chest. This shortens your workout and keeps the heart rate up. Win-win.
As you get into a lifestyle that resistance training feels easy, doable, and repeatable, that’s when you could experiment with adding in some straight up cardio work. It shouldn’t be intense. Go for a walk outside and try to see how far you can get in 15 minutes. To make sure it’s not too intense, make sure you’d still be able to hold a conversation—you shouldn’t be struggling to breathe. This is a simple way of getting your heart rate up along with getting some mental benefits of sunlight, brightness, and fresh air.
What about using HIIT (high-intensity interval training) for better fat-loss?
High-intensity interval training is when you briefly push yourself and then take a short rest. For example, you might be on a stationary bike and do 30 seconds of hard pedalling with high resistance. Then spend 2 minutes recovering. Do that 4–6 times and you’re done exercising in under 15 minutes. HIIT trains both the anaerobic and the aerobic systems.
But does it work better for fat-loss? In this 2017 meta-analysis looking at 28 studies comparing HIIT (high intensity) and LISS (low intensity like regular cardio), it found there really was no difference. So, some studies said HIIT was better for fat-loss, some studies said LISS was better, and some studies said they were both in the middle. (This is why we can’t just take one study and claim the answer is solved, we need a meta-analysis for more clarity).
Then in February 2019, a new meta-analysis came out looking at 41 studies comparing HIIT and moderately intense continuous cardio. The researchers said that the results were similar, but that people lost a bit more fat with HIIT (meta-analysis). So a lot of people do HIIT because it’s more time efficient and also because it may be better at improving VO2 max, your maximum oxygen uptake (study).
But high intensity is high stress. That means that even though it takes less time to do, it’s still really tough and so you’ll need to recover from that. We find people do better when they build a good cardio base first. How long and how far can you walk at a brisk pace? Focus on being able to walk for a long period and a fast pace before moving onto HIIT training.
Once you’ve got a good cardio base, when it comes down to it—both LISS and HIIT are excellent ways to get leaner. So personal preference starts to matter more. For example, my business partner Shane likes to do low-intensity cardio for an hour while listening to a podcast. He prefers to do something more leisurely and enjoyable and doesn’t mind spending the time since he can also be learning at the same time. But for me, I’d rather do the intense but quick HIIT sessions to save time. The fact that HIIT could be better at improving VO2 max, and could be a little bit better at burning fat is a nice bonus.
What about calisthenics?
Calisthenics is gymnastic style exercises, and the goal usually is for better and more athletic movement. While they might push your body to build muscle and moving burns calories so it could help with fat-loss, there are much better options.
When people are starting off with calisthenics, their first step is learning coordination, developing stabilizer strength, etc. Not exactly the best type of training for building muscle, for burning calories, or for even heart health. It’s more like practicing for a sport or dancing (which is awesome in it’s own way.)
Usually, many people transition to calisthenics after reaching their body goals in terms of size and leanness. It’s a super fun way to continue to progress by learning impressive exercises like the planche, muscle-up’s, and flag poles. But it’s not really suitable for a beginner who’s trying to build muscle or get leaner. But if you’re looking for more training like this, we’re big fans of GymnasticBodies.com.
Should I work out in the morning, afternoon, or night?
James Krieger is a scientist with a masters degree in both Nutrition and Exercise Science, says that after reviewing all the research, for beginners it doesn’t really matter when you work out. (There may be a slight edge to afternoon training for advanced lifters, pay-wall review.)
What really matters is that you’re exercising and your consistency. Do what best fits your lifestyle and your preferences.
So does a morning workout fit better for you? Great. Just spend a few more minutes warming up, and eat something light with protein (we like having a banana and a protein shake.)
If the afternoon works best for you, you’re probably already warmed up and have eaten some good, solid food. You’re pretty set.
If the evening works best, just be sure to keep the end of your exercise at least one hour away from when you sleep. So if you go to bed at 11 pm, don’t start working out at 10 pm.
If you have total control over your schedule, try and do your workouts outside in the sunshine. For example, do your cardio workouts outside by walking or jogging outside. Some people bring their kettlebells out into the back yard, etc.
How often should I work out?
This is a complicated question, and the definitive answer is still being clarified by research. There have been a few notable analyses’ of the research so far with some small differences (Dr. Schoenfeld study, Stronger by Science, James Krieger Review)
When it comes to building muscle, it seems like you can build just as much muscle with as little as 2 workout sessions a week, as long as how much total work (volume) you do is the same.
However, splitting up the work over more days might help with building muscle, especially if you have bad work capacity. On top of that, it’d make your workouts more enjoyable, bearable, and spreads out the physical stress of working out over the week. You’ll probably feel better since you wouldn’t take such a beating on one day.
So, a general recommendation is to start with 3 days a week while trying to work towards doing a small workout every day. That would let you have a solid workout every couple of days, with one day of rest in between.
But if you’re up for trying it, you might even want to try working out 5 or 6 days a week (this is what I do). The reason why is because your actual workouts could be shorter (since the amount of work would be spread out over the week), it’d be easier to do more total work since it’s spread out, and it might help you glue down your new exercise habit since you’re making a space for it every day.
Each person will have their own preferences when it comes to how many times they want to work out. Some people like the daily mental clarity and better memory that comes with working out.
For total beginners, we like to keep the workouts short and fun and like to help them carve out a specific time in their day to start a habit. So we recommend that they find a time where they fit 15-20 minutes into their day and do it 5 days a week (and rest on the weekends).
Where should you work out?
For a total beginner with no equipment, you can work out in your living room or back yard.
But if you have the choice, and you live in an area with clean air, and it’s warm enough out, it’d be great to get outside and in the sun to work out. That way you’ll also get these benefits:
- You’ll move more, and it’ll feel more natural. For example, in this study people walked faster and said it was less hard when they walked outside compared to those inside. (study)
- It’ll be better for your health (mentally and generally). Being outside in a green space helps you feel better. Researchers think it could be stress reducing. (study)
- You’ll feel more awake, you’ll be calmer and then sleep better at night. Bright light helps to produce melatonin, which enables you to fall asleep at night. Bright light also helps to produce serotonin, which results in a positive and calm mood. (article)
- Your body will get the benefits of sunlight. Infrared rays from the sun are in their highest ratio-to-UV early in the morning and later in the day helps our body get ready for the day and to recover at the end of the day. The harsher mid-day sun gives us vitamin D but some care should be taken not to burn. Sunlight has been unfairly demonized for its link to skin cancer. But as long as you don’t burn (getting more infrared early in the day helps), sunlight is more protective in fighting off numerous diseases that are much more common. (article, article)
Later on, many people choose to build a small but functional gym in their garage (just might need a space heater in the winter.)
How to get started
Pick a day to start (not today), commit, and set consequences
We overestimate how much time and energy we have in the future. Plus, we see the future version of our self more like a stranger, and less like us. And we can use this to our advantage.
We can give them, the future self, the burden of doing the actual work of the first workout.
Your job today is to pick a day you’ll start, like this upcoming Monday, and then set consequences for your future self.
Why you need short-term consequences
The problem with not working out is that there are no real consequences—at least not today. The downsides of not exercising are way off in the future.
Plus, when you work out, it takes time, energy, and you might get sore for a couple days after until your body adapts to it. So there are a lot of short-term downsides. So you’ll need to make short-term consequences to match.
All those amazing benefits?
Getting stronger, leaner, more energetic, mentally sharper, looking better, reducing pain, living better… all of that comes once you break past the initial short-term downsides.
So, let’s say you want to start in a few days, on Monday. You want to make it as real and defined as possible. So you say you’ll do the exercises immediately once you get home at 4:00 pm.
And the consequences? If you don’t work out on Monday, you’ll owe your best buddy $20.
Ideally, you’d even set up 30 days of accountability (called the Ulysses contract). Tell your buddy you want to work out 3x a week for 4 weeks, so twelve sessions. Say you’ll allow one slip-up. So in 4 weeks, you’ll do 11 workouts. Give them $50 (or however much would hurt to lose) and have them give it back to you if you succeed.
If you’re more of a carrot person (instead of a stick motivated), then you can add in a reward. We’d still recommend setting negative consequences to ensure you hit your goal since they’re more powerful than positive reinforcement, but you could do both.
Every workout you do, you get to do something you absolutely love, like watch a movie afterward. Or maybe you allow yourself to have that third coffee as you’re working out. Think about it: what is a small thing that you love that you could link to each successful workout?
Pick a workout program and stick with it for 30 days
When you’re looking for a routine, here’s what to look for:
- It’s designed for beginners. That means it uses beginner exercises that are simpler to do and harder to screw up, and it’s not an overkill amount of work (that’ll make you way sorer than you need to be).
- It has proper progression for a beginner (periodization). that will continue to challenge your body because your body will adapt to what you throw at it. For example, this means that week 2 could have more sets, reps, or make the exercise heavier somehow.
- It trains the body in the 6 main movements:
- There’s a push. Like a push-up, dumbbell bench, overhead shoulder press, etc. This would mainly work your chest (pecs), the back of your arms (triceps) and your shoulders (deltoids).
- There’s a pull. This could be something like a weighted row or a chin-up. This would mainly work your back (like your lats), the front of your arms (biceps), and the back of your shoulders (deltoids)
- There’s squat. This is when your knees do most the moving, and you drop into a squat between your legs like a goblet squat. This would mainly work your butt (glutes), and the front of your legs (quads).
- There’s a hip hinge. This is when the hips do most the moving (less knee), and your hips shoot back. An example is the weighted Romanian deadlift. This would mainly work the back of your legs (hamstrings), your butt (glutes), and your lower back stabilizer muscles (spinal erectors, helps with posture and fix back pain.)
- There’s a carry. A carry will solve many core and postural problems. They help people get back ownership in their life, making them stronger at nearly everything. It’s hard to do a proper farmer carry without heavy weights, so we have a couple of solutions in our free download.
- There’s a front core exercise. Something that either prevents movement (isometric) will protect your back by teaching core stability and rigidness. An example of that would be a front plank. You could choose to add in an exercise where the core is moving for more ab size, like the McGill Curl-Up which is like a crunch that won’t destroy your back (we have a link to the videos in the download.) These core exercises would mainly work the front of your core like the abs (rectus abdominis), the obliques, since the back of your core would get worked a lot with a hinge and other movements.
Here’s what to avoid:
- High-risk moves with little payoff. For example, you don’t need to do two-minute long planks, crunches or sit-ups. They aren’t necessary for core strength, and won’t help with burning ab fat. (The main way to lose belly fat and love handles is through aerobic work like brisk walking and overall body fat loss, mainly accomplished through nutrition.)
- Exercises that are too advanced for your strength or your coordination—this puts you at risk for injury. For example, many women don’t have the strength yet to do push-ups. They still try to do them, but with a form that will hurt their lower back. They should start with a push-up plank to get their core study first. The push-up is really a moving plank, and if you can’t hold the core tight, then the push-up isn’t going to go too well. If they want to practice the push movement, they could do kitchen counter push-ups or wall-push ups at first. Here’s a good article for women trying to get started with the push-up.
- Anything that prescribes more than 30–40 reps or extremely long holds. First reason: you’re in endurance/cardio territory. 50 squats are just hellish and won’t help you reach your goals, as it’s mainly working your heart. That’s fine, but if you want to get stronger, more muscular, and even leaner, you’ll want to do something that challenges your muscles—not only your heart. That means it’ll need to be heavy enough. The second reason, injury’s often happen from endurance failure. You’re more apt to hurt yourself when doing 50 bodyweight squats to complete exhaustation compared to picking up a potato bag and doing 10 reps with it. (Don’t worry—you can still work your heart by doing correctly paired circuits.)
Here’s why you’ll need to give yourself some grace when it comes to form
Dan John, a revered strength coach, says he doesn’t worry about butt-wink until someone’s done their 10,000th squat (if you don’t know what butt wink is, that’s okay, let’s worry about after a few months!). Sometimes we don’t need to think harder about our form with our conscious minds. We just need to physically practice the movement, sleep, and let our brains rewire the movement.
Go watch a video on how to do the proper form, then give it your best shot. As long as nothing hurts, you’re in a good spot. Go to sleep, and you’ll get a bit better at it. Keep repeating this, and your form will get better with time.
The best total beginners 30-day workout for men:
Click on the image below to get all 4 weeks for free. You can also get a 60-day workout with two phases as a free bonus for signing up for our newsletter.
The best total beginner 30-day workout for women
Free bonus: extended 60-day workout as a Google Doc with our favourite videos
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- a 60 day two-phased workout plan—an extra 4 weeks of free programming.
- A spreadsheet that is easier to use, you can record your reps in, and mark off sets as you complete them.
- Includes links to many of our favourite videos teaching every exercise with the correct form.
Check it out for yourself. You can sign up and get access immediately right here:
- Each exercise must be hard enough to get close to failure. That means you may want to try going to failure on an exercise to test yourself to see how many reps you can do. Then once you know that, try and stay a rep or two away from failure. You don’t want to go to true failure for every single exercise and every single set. Staying one or two reps away from failure will prevent extreme soreness, and reduce the chances of injury while still being heavy enough to get results.
- To make exercises heavier without buying gym equipment, try using a cotton tote bag and load it up with the heaviest things in your house. I took a small tote bag and placed 7 hardcover books inside and it weighed about 3kg / 6 pounds. I’ve successfully loaded up a cotton totebag with 80 pounds of iron plates and it still didn’t break. Another option would be to buy two 4L jugs of water. Each jug weighs around 4kg / 8lbs, which is perfect for getting started with some curls, shoulder raises, and more. With a tote bag, you should be able to stack two water jugs in there to get it up to 16 pounds. You may need to tie the handles to make the bag shorter so it doesn’t hit the ground when doing rows.
- Do the lifting part of the exercise as fast and explosively as possible. This generates power and stimulates your central nervous system.
- Control the exercise on the way down. A big part of stressing your body to adapt is being able to control weight, so don’t drop quickly, but control the lowering over 2-3 seconds.
- Try this if you’re serious about results: Drink 1-2 scoops of a protein powder mixed with water right before your workout. Even without tweaking much of your diet elsewhere, this will help prevent soreness by having more protein to recover properly, and may help you get leaner and more muscular at the same time as a beginner. Whey is the cheapest, most-tested, and more efficient protein powder. I personally use whey isolate powder. But if you need help deciding, look at our protein powder article here.
This routine will help encourage your body to get stronger and build muscle. Then you’ll control your nutrition to either get leaner (if you’re overweight and want to burn fat) or if you want to get bigger (if you’re skinny and want to build more muscle).
Curious what the next steps are?
Here’s the reality… as long as you’re consistent with these workouts, and you’re eating enough protein, you’re going to get stronger and make pretty rapid progress. (If you’re getting weaker and insanely sore, you’re not eating enough protein and/or you might not be recovering properly. Try buying some protein powder, getting 7–9 hours of sleep every single night, and add one day of rest in between each day.)
In fact, you may be shocked by how strong you’ll get in such a small amount of time. It won’t be long until using gravity with your bodyweight for resistance won’t be enough anymore.
Once you start getting beyond 20–30 reps in one set, you’ll find it harder to reach true failure as the high-rep sets become very painful. You’ll likely want to get real weights to help the weight get heavier again.
You’ll need to make things heavier and do more total work (volume) to keep challenging your body.
If you aren’t being challenged, you won’t be adapting anymore.
Doing 30 body weight push-ups? Buy some weight plates, like a 10-pound plate, and add that on top of your back. You’ll likely only be able to do 10 reps. When you can do 20 reps with that, add a 25-pound plate, and repeat the process again.
Instead of doing 30 bodyweight squats, hold a 15-pound kettlebell and do Goblet Squats close to failure. (Perhaps you get 8 reps, and slowly start building from there.)
This is how people slowly start to build a home gym.
Your first home gym purchases
If you’re a man, one of the first things you’ll want to buy is:
- A chin-up/pull-up bar that you properly secure into your garage wall. The chin-up is one of the best exercises for building up a masculine and broad back. Plus, it’ll also help you work on your core with the chin-up (done correctly, it could be the best core exercise, see here.) and you can do hanging leg raises.
- A 5-pound, 10-pound, and 25-pound Olympic weight plate for weighted push-ups. Start with the 5 pounds on your back, then when you’re ready, graduate to 10 pounds. Then you can use a backpack, load the 5 and 10 in it, and put it on your back and do 15. Then use the 25-pound plate, and then use the backpack trick again to increase the weight, all the way up to 40 pounds!
If you’re a woman, you’ll probably want to get:
- A handful of mini-band loops in different resistance levels. These are extremely handy for glute isolation exercises like mini-band walks and clamshells, and they’re pretty cheap.
- A medium kettlebell (30–40 pounds) for goblet squats. This will keep you progressing in your lower body like your thighs (quads and hamstrings), core, and your butt.
- A heavy kettlebell (50–75 pounds) for kettlebell sumo deadlifts and weighted glute bridges. Your lower-body is incredibly strong, so you may even outgrow a 75 pound kettlebell pretty quickly. In the case of the weighted glute bridge, you can then switch to a single leg weighted glute bridge to start the progression over again.
Your second home-gym purchase:
If you’re a man, the next purchase could be:
- An adjustable bench. With this you could bench, incline bench, pec fly, you could do rows, ab work, etc.
- Two adjustable dumbbells that go up to 80 pounds per hand. This will save time and money and allow you to get heavy enough to grow for a while.
If you’re a woman, the next purchases could be:
- A light kettlebell (15-30 pounds). This could be used for upper body work like single-arm shoulder presses to help develop the top of the hourglass figure and to make holding kids and handling big heavy suitcases easier.
- An Olympic barbell with two 45 pound plates and a barbell pad like this Airex one for heavy glute work. This will allow you to glute bridge 135 pounds. Once that becomes easier, you could even try one legged glute bridges. You could consider buying an adjustable bench. At this time, it’d be most helpful for doing hip thrusts (larger range of motion but lighter than the glute bridge).
Building a home gym beyond this?
Well, you’d be doing pretty well off now! You’d already be quite strong, look fit and athletic, and love training. You’d be quite experienced and would likely know what you’d like to do next. Many people in this phase of training, should they have the means and space, would be looking at getting a half rack, a barbell, and a bunch of weights.
Take a look at our article on the costs of five different home gym set-ups.