Best Exercises For Beginner Lifters

These are the greatest moves for gym newbies, plus an expert-approved routine to jump-start your gains.

Whether you’re brand new to working out or are returning from a long hiatus, mastering the fundamentals is key to successful progression in the gym. So put down that barbell and slowly back away.

“A beginner should always focus on technique first before even touching heavy weights,” says Jim Smith, C.P.P.S., owner of Diesel Strength and Conditioning. “Adding weight before you’re ready has a cascade effect that results in poor range of motion and technique. It makes the movement fall apart.”

But that doesn’t mean you can’t still get in a great workout. Smith notes that improving your technique, body positioning, and range of motion across a variety of basic movement patterns— including horizontal and vertical presses and pulls, hinge movements, squats, and core work— should be your priority. When you’re just starting out, they’re better indicators of progress than how many steel plates you can lift.

Once you’ve mastered the fundamentals—using newbie-friendly equipment like dumbbells, trap bars, and your own body weight—you’ll be ready to move on to heavier, more complex moves. “You’ve got to earn the right to put a barbell in your hands,” Smith says.

Here, Smith outlines the best moves for all the seven movement patterns mentioned at left, plus an extra squat variation, because everyone needs solid wheels:

  • Perform all eight moves in order (for each week), completing all the prescribed sets and reps for one before moving on to the next.
  • Do this three times per week, resting a day in between each session, for four weeks.
  • If you’re feeling up to it, pick a couple of accessory moves (see last slide), depending on what you want to work on, to do after your workout.

 

Half-Kneeling Dumbbell Press (Vertical Push)

WHY DO IT: More shoulder strength, muscle mass, stability, and core stability.

DO IT: From a half-kneeling position, drive a dumbbell, held in the hand opposite of the front leg, overhead.

SMITH SAYS: “The half-kneeling setup builds core stability, glute activation, and shoulder strength, while also promoting hip mobility by stretching the hip flexor on the trail leg.”

SETS x REPS:
Week 1: 4 x 4 (per leg)
Week 2: 4 x 5 (per leg)
Week 3: 4 x 6 (per leg)
Week 4: 4 x 8 (per leg)

 

Trap-Bar Deadlift (Hip Hinge)

WHY DO IT: This exercise safely teaches the “hinge” movement pattern that is essential for jumping, landing, picking things up, deadlifting, and kettlebell swings.

DO IT: Stand with feet hip-width apart. Grab the trap-bar handles. Drive through your heels to stand up straight and extend your hips and knees.

SMITH SAYS: “Keep your knees slightly bent when sliding back into the hinge. This is key to allowing the lifter to hinge farther because it doesn’t prestretch the hamstrings and force a lot of pressure onto the lower back and the backs of the knees.”

SETS x REPS:
Week 1: 3 x 5-8
Week 2: 3 x 8-10
Week 3: 4 x 5-8
Week 4: 4 x 8-10

 

Goblet Squat With Dumbbell (Squat)

WHY DO IT: This move teaches the three most important squat cues—hips back, chest up, and knees out—and the dumbbell counterbalance allows you to stay upright and squat deeper.

DO IT: Grab the head of a dumbbell with both hands and hold it like a goblet at chin level. Squat down until your elbows are against your knees, on the inside if possible.

SMITH SAYS: “Once in your lowest position, drive your elbows out into your knees to create a powerful isometric hold. Relax and sink into a deeper bottom position. This is called ‘prying.’ It increases mobility in your hips.”

SETS x REPS:
Week 1: 3 x 6-8
Week 2: 3 x 8-10
Week 3: 4 x 8-10
Week 4: 4 x 10-12

 

Chinup (Vertical Pull)

WHY DO IT: It’s the best mass builder for your upper back, says Smith. And it’s a great indicator lift for testing relative strength.

DO IT: Grab a pullup bar and hang so that your arms are straight and your feet are off the ground. Pull your chest up to the bar, then slowly lower yourself back down to the starting position.

SMITH SAYS: “To build up to a greater number of pullups, simply attack them from every angle. Hit sets with extra weight; do explosive and powerful sets with fewer reps; work sets with slow eccentrics; hit sets with isometric holds at the top; hit three-to-five-rep sets many times throughout the day; hit sets with iso-holds halfway down.”

SETS x REPS:
Week 1: 3 x 3-5
Week 2: 3 x 5-8
Week 3: 4 x 3-5
Week 4: 4 x 5-8

 

Prone Dumbbell Row (Horizontal Pull)

WHY DO IT: Performing prone dumbbell rows is a great way to develop upper-back strength and posterior shoulder stability.

DO IT: Lie facedown on an incline bench, with a dumbbell in each hand and toes planted firmly on the ground. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and row both dumbbells to your sides, holding at the top for five to eight seconds.

SMITH SAYS: “Instead of rowing straight up to your chest, try rowing the dumbbells toward your pockets. This will ensure cleaner technique and put the focus on the lats.”

SETS x REPS:
Week 1: 3 x 6-8
Week 2: 3 x 8-10
Week 3: 4 x 8-10
Week 4: 4 x 10-12

 

Bear Crawl (Core)

WHY DO IT: The bear crawl creates full-body and scapular strength and stability, which facilitates heavier lifts and optimal shoulder health for benching and military pressing movements. Even further, it “reconnects” the shoulders and the hips after the “disconnect” of sitting at a computer with poor posture all day, Smith says.

DO IT: Bend down and plant your hands on the floor. Keep your knees lifted and your back flat as you walk quickly on all fours.

SMITH SAYS: “When performing any bridge, plank, or crawl variation, ensure that your spine and torso remain in a straight line. This will keep your form good and not stress your lower back.”

SETS x REPS:
Week 1: 2 x 20 sec.
Week 2: 2 x 30 sec.
Week 3: 2 x 35 sec.
Week 4: 2 x 40 sec.

 

Split Squat (Squat)

WHY DO IT: The split squat benefits ankle, knee, hip, and core stability, while also improving coordination and balance.

DO IT: Stagger your feet about a foot or so apart. Keeping your torso upright, lower your body until your rear knee nearly touches the floor and your front thigh is parallel to the floor.

SMITH SAYS: “Perform this move barefoot to help restore the arch in your foot, which is critical to your gait and ‘anchoring’ for heavier lifts.”

SETS x REPS:
Week 1: 3 x 6
Week 2: 3 x 8
Week 3: 4 x 8
Week 4: 4 x 10

 

Pushup (Horizontal Push)

WHY DO IT: “The pushup develops shoulder and shoulder blade stability and builds a big chest,” Smith says. “A hidden benefit most lifters don’t realize is that the pushup is really a moving plank, so core stability is improved as well.”

DO IT: Get into a standard pushup position and lower chest until almost at floor, then push yourself back up.

SMITH SAYS: “If you’re too weak to get the reps, use an incline pushup to get the volume with good form.”

SETS x REPS:
Week 1: 3 x 10
Week 2: 3 x 15
Week 3: 4 x 15
Week 4: 4 x 20

 

f you’re feeling like you have some gas left in the tank after doing the full-body workout, then feel free to try these Accessory Work

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