How To Start Exercising: 7 Steps For Starting Your First Fitness Program

How To Start Exercising: 7 Steps For Starting Your First Fitness Program

Getting serious about getting active is both exciting and daunting. Exciting because as a novice, you can make extraordinarily fast progress. After just a few sessions your muscles will feel stronger, you’ll move differently, and your outlook will be uplifted.

But it’s also daunting. If you’ve never exercised before, you probably don’t know exactly what do to. Maybe you’re afraid of injury. Or you’re reluctant to even walk into a public gym.

These are all realistic concerns. After all, most forms of exercise require some skill. You’re not born knowing how to lift weights, or do Pilates and yoga. Even a running or walking program requires you to figure out how far, how fast, and how often you should go.

This article will give you some general guidelines for getting started. These tips may be all you need to get active, but if you have additional questions or need one-on-one help, don’t hesitate to contact me here. I’m happy to answer your questions and help you start a program that improves strength, energy, flexibility, balance, cardiovascular function, and quality of life.

Step #1: Which Exercise Mode?

The first step is to determine which type of exercise you want to perform. The most important thing is to choose a form of exercise that makes you happy so that you enjoy it and stick with it. Conventional advice recommends performing aerobic exercise as a good place to start. Aerobic exercise, such as walking, cycling, or running, is important, but I like to prioritize strength training because it has a number of benefits you won’t get out of a strict aerobic program:

Strength training builds strength throughout the body so that you are able to move more economically.

Strength training increases the size of muscle and connective tissue, raising metabolic rate and improving joint function.

Strength training counters inflammation and improves hormone balance.

Strength training increases bone mineral density, lowering your risk of fracture. It also improves balance and flexibility, decreasing risk of falling.

People often report improved energy levels and more desire to be active in daily life after engaging in a strength training program for a few months.

Aerobic exercise directly strengthens your heart, lungs, and protects your blood vessels. The good news is you can experience some of these benefits from strength training, or include a few aerobic workouts a week to optimize adaptations.

Step #2: Which Exercises?

Workouts are typically designed around exercises that are multi-joint (such as squats or lunges that use the hip, knee, and ankle joint or overhead press that use the shoulder and elbow) because these motions have the greatest carryover to daily life and they target the greatest amount of muscle at a time. For the lower body examples are squats, lunges, leg press, and step-ups. There are modifications for these exercises that you can use to build up leg strength or if you want to exercise at home instead of at the gym. Multi-joint exercises for the upper body include chest press, push-ups (or modified push-ups), rows, pull-downs, and overhead press.

Single joint exercises are also important because they allow you to train weak links and perform “pre-habilitation” exercises that are geared at injury prevention. Examples include back extension, hamstring curls, leg raises, calf raises, biceps and triceps exercises, and internal and external rotation for the shoulders.

A useful way to save time is to use supersets, which alternate between two exercises using opposing muscle groups. For example, you could do chair squats followed by chest press on a bench with dumbbells, alternating between exercises until you reach 3 sets. Then switch to a superset of step-ups and bent-over rows. Finish with a back extension and external rotation. At the end, you can find a template for this workout.

Step #3: How Often?

When it comes to frequency, studies show that you’re going to get best results from training 2 to 4 times a week. Although not optimal, as little as one day a week of strength training can improve strength, muscle, and physical function. If you’re anxious about making the time commitment, start with 2 days a week to establish a habit and work up from there.

Step #4: How Long?

Training sessions should be about 45 minutes including warm-up and cool-down. Longer workouts lead to a drop in training intensity—basically, people aren’t able to perform quality work for longer than an hour and they end up wasting their time.

What about shorter workouts? Something is always better than nothing, however, you’re going to get the best results from doing a thorough warm-up, followed by 5 to 6 exercises, finishing with a cool-down. If this is an impossibility, starting with 2 or 3 exercises can help you gain confidence, establish an exercise habit, and realize that training can be fun and rejuvenating.

Step #5: How Intense?

Intensity refers to how heavy the weight you are lifting is. Intensity is always relative to the individual. This means that if you are training with weights in the 75% range, you are lifting weights that are 75% of the maximal amount you can lift. If you can squat 100 pounds one time, you should be lifting 75 pounds for 9 to 11 reps.

Of course, if you’re completely new to exercise, your max may be more like 20 pounds, in which case you’ll start with just your body weight, learning to lower and raise your body in and out of a squatting position with proper technique and without pain. As you gain strength, you can add weight and start using intensity to ensure you continue to progress by challenging your muscles.

Don’t be afraid of working up to lift heavy weights. One of the problems with many exercise protocols geared at older individuals is that are not intense enough to elicit the same level of benefits that a properly designed program can provide. Studies show that even nursing home patients can benefit from “heavy” lifting. A groundbreaking study from Tufts University found that frail elderly nursing home patients ranging in age from 86 to 96 years old increased leg strength by 175%, increased quadriceps muscle size by 9% and improved walking speed and balance by 48% after training at an intensity of 80% of maximal.

The key is to progress slowly. In the Tufts study, subjects only trained one exercise—the knee extension—and started at a load that was 50% of their maximal. During the second week, they started with the heavy 80% of max load and progressed from there, increasing the weight as strength increased over the course of the 8-week study.

Step #6: How May Sets & Reps?

Studies show that up to a point, more sets are better for getting results. Five sets seem to be the sweet spot for young athletes, whereas novices can probably get away with 2 to 3 sets in a workout that includes 5 or 6 exercises. Repetitions or reps refers to how many times you lift the weight or perform the exercise. For moderate weights in the 65 to 75% range, you should choose a weight that you can lift comfortably 8 to 12 times. For heavier weights, you should choose a weight that you can lift 6 to 8 times.

Initially, rest periods can be in the 2- to 3-minute range to allow for complete recovery. Once you get a base level of conditioning, shorter rest periods can be used to save time. Ideally, rest periods should be active—stretching or walking can improve recovery, while also having cardiovascular benefits compared to sitting or lying down.

Step #7: Don’t Forget Recovery

A common pitfall when starting a training program for the first time is to ignore the recovery process. We know from theories about how the body handles stress that the greatest adaptations occur when we overload the body’s systems, remove the stimulus, and provide rest and nutrition to allow the body to bounce back a little bit stronger each time. A good night’s rest, high-quality nutrition, and stress reduction strategies are all key elements to complete recovery so that you get the most out of your efforts for a long and joyous life.

Sample Beginner Workout Program

Exercise Load Reps Sets
Squat Bodyweight 10-12 3
Chest Press 5 lb dumbbells 10-12 3
Step Up Bodyweight 10-12 3
Bent-Over Row 5 lb dumbbells 10-12 3
Back Extension Bodyweight 10-12 3
External Rotation 2.5 lb weight plates 12-15 3

Once you can perform 12 reps for the first 5 exercises, increase your weight. For the upper body exercises, increase to 7.5 or 8 lbs if available. Otherwise, increase to 10 pounds. For the squat and step up exercise start by holding a 5 lb dumbbell in each hand. For the back extension, you can hold a 5 lb weight plate across the chest.

External rotation is a prehab exercise and will generally be performed with more reps and lower intensity. Once you can perform 15 reps with ease, increase to 5 lbs or use a resistance band that increases the intensity.

Got questions? Contact me! I want to hear from you!

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Fiatarone, M., et al. High-Intensity Strength Training for Nonagenarians. Journal of the American Medical Association. 1990. 263(22):3029-34.