You Have a Gym Membership, Now What? Try These Beginner Workouts

Make sure to get a good mix of cardio and strength training at the gym.
Credit: Alex Potemkin/E+/GettyImages

When it comes to meeting fitness goals, consistency is key. While you can get active just about anywhere, going to the gym can keep you accountable, since you'll be surrounded by like-minded people and your gym membership money is on the line. But one of the biggest hurdles as a gym newbie is creating a routine you'll stick with.

"The best way to succeed and instill a love of health and wellness in yourself is to stay consistent and forgive yourself when you're not, cheer on those you encounter on the journey (as positivity is critical)," says Jennifer Emge, a coach creating personalized exercise plans at Courage to Sweat.

If you're new to the gym, though, it's easy to feel intimidated — but push those fears aside! Everyone was a beginner at some point. "Never be afraid or uncomfortable to look silly at the gym, there is most definitely someone there to help." And of course, you can follow the advice outlined below to help you find your way.

Start With a Personal Training Assessment

So what should a beginner do at the gym? Many gym memberships come with at least one free session with a personal trainer, and even if you choose to go solo later and don't add on more sessions, they are a great initial resource to get to know your gym.

Rather than having them go from machine-to-machine with you, take the time to get measurements and go over any goals you may have. Getting professional insight and strategies for meeting those goals can help you know where to start.

"I'd use your first session with your trainer to set intent and to identify your strengths and weaknesses through a gait analysis and a breakdown of your movement," says Michael Moody, a personal trainer and host of the podcast The Elements of Being. "If you bypass this important step, you may be setting yourself up for failure, injury or wasted efforts."

Read more: Here's Your Guide to Getting Started at the Gym

How to Structure Your Gym Workouts

It can be tempting to focus solely on cardio to burn body fat or do the same ab workout over and over again in the hopes of building a six-pack. But balance is key.

Cardio + Strength Training: While aerobic exercise burns more calories and fat than resistance training in the short term, resistance training is important for increasing lean mass, according to a December 2012 study from the Journal of Applied Physiology. Increased muscle mass can help you look leaner, give your metabolism a boost and keep you healthy and agile as you get older.

Time Spent at the Gym: When it comes to how much time you should spend in the gym, it can vary slightly based on your schedule and preferences. But there are some basics. "It's recommended that we each get 150 to 300 minutes of moderate intensity activity per week," Emge says.

Weekly Gym Schedule: So what does a week of beginner workouts look like? Emge recommends doing light to moderate cardio every day (if it's vigorous you should rest the day after) and adding strength training a few days per week. "Two- to three-days a week, working the same muscles, will help you see weight changes quickly," she says, "and rest days in between are critical to ensure no injuries."

Cardio Workouts for Newbies

Cardio is crucial component of any exercise routine. So if you're at the gym, your best bets for beginner cardio options include:

  • Treadmill
  • Elliptical
  • Rowing machine
  • Stationary bike
  • Stair climber/step mill

"Running or walking on the treadmill is commonly seen at the gym," says Emge. "If you want to go that route, but find it boring — which I admit, it can be — here's a way to get the fat burning, while staying in the 30-minute time constraint most gyms have at popular times."

Try This Beginner Cardio Workout

  • Warm up with 5 minutes of slow- to medium-paced walking.
  • Jog for 3 minutes at a comfortable pace.
  • Increase your speed by 0.2 mph and go for 2 minutes.
  • Continue to increase by 0.2 every 2 minutes until you’re sprinting.
  • Maintain that sprint for 30 to 60 seconds
  • Go back down by 0.2 mph every 2 minutes until your back at your starting jog speed.
  • From here, continue to jog or walk until your heart rate as slowed to a comfortable cadence.
  • Repeat again, depending on the amount of time left.

Tip

“Depending on your capabilities, this can be tweaked,” Emge says. “Maybe you can only increase by 0.1 instead of 0.2 or you need to hold it for longer than two minutes. That is okay! The goal is simply to challenge your body to utilize fuel.”

Read more: Your Straightforward Guide to Getting Started With Cardio

6 Strength-Training Exercises to Start With

Next up: the weight room, where you can do a variety of strength-training exercises either on machines, with free weight or using your own body weight. To make the most of your time spent there, focus on full-body, compound movements.

"Moves that combine your upper and lower body are the most taxing on the system and require the most fuel," Moody says. That means you'll burn more calories and work more muscles in a shorter amount of time. The best gym exercises for beginners include:

Move 1: Squat

  1. Start with your feet a bit wider than shoulder-width apart. (Option to hold a dumbbell in each hand.)
  2. Lower down into a squat with your thighs at or below parallel to the floor.
  3. Press through your heels to return to standing.

Move 2: Push-Up

  1. Start in a high plank with shoulders over wrists.
  2. Keeping the elbows close to rib cage, lower your chest, body in straight line ,toward the floor.
  3. Push through palms back to start.

Move 3: Lunge

  1. Stand with your feet together, holding a dumbbell in each hand if you want. Step forward with your right foot and lower down into a lunge, keeping your torso upright. Both knees should be almost at a 90-degree angle.
  2. Press through your right heel to return to start; repeat on the opposite side.

Move 4: Triceps Dip

  1. Sit on the edge of a bench with your heels on the floor. Place your hands behind you so that your fingers face forward.
  2. Raise yourself up so that your arms are straight. This is the starting position.
  3. Lower yourself until your arms are at a 90-degree angle.
  4. Pause for two seconds, then press back up to start.

Move 5: Step-Up

  1. Stand with a bench or chair in front of you or in front of a flight of stairs.
  2. Hold the dumbbells at your sides, palms in.
  3. Place your right foot on the bench and press through your heel to bring your left foot up so you're standing on the bench.
  4. Return to the ground, and repeat with the other leg.

Move 6: Dumbbell Single-Arm Row

  1. Place your left knee on a weight bench, bend your torso forward and place your left hand on the bench to support your body.
  2. Reach down and grab the dumbbell with your right hand, returning to this position where your body is parallel to the floor.
  3. Pull your right arm up until your hand reaches the side of your chest.
  4. Lower the weight back down and repeat.
  5. Do all your reps on this side, switch sides and repeat.

Stick mostly to free weights — dumbbells, kettlebells and barbells — or body-weight exercises, as they'll recruit more core and stabilizing muscles than weight machines. This doesn't mean you need to stay away from machines completely, though.

"Although they most often only isolate specific muscles, they can still be valuable additions for muscle targeting or injury prevention within any fitness program depending on your strengths, weaknesses and goals," Moody says.

Read more: 8 Dumbbell Exercises That Are More Effective Than Weight Machines

Beginner-Friendly Workout Classes

Fitness classes can be a great way to vary your routine and burn some extra calories. For those who can't or don't want to run, Emge recommends indoor cycling class as an alternative.

Rowing and boxing classes are also popping up everywhere. When doing these cardio-based classes, however, make sure you you track your own data, as the calorie count on machines is often wrong, she says.

If you are looking for something other than cardio, Emge recommends BodyPump (by Les Mills and offered at various gyms such as Gold's Gym). "Nearly every muscle group is worked and participants choose their own weights. It's all about high reps, low-to-medium weights. It's challenging, but can also teach people some key weight-lifting moves if they're new to exercise."