The 5 Best Exercises if You Haven’t Worked Out in a While

Woman performing plank exercise in her kitchen.
The plank is an exercise that's great after a hiatus — plus, you can do it anywhere!
Image Credit: LaylaBird/E+/GettyImages

Everyone takes a break from the gym every now and again — and often, it's exactly what your body needs! But getting back into exercise after a long hiatus can feel particularly daunting.

Advertisement

You're definitely not alone and there are a few moves that can make your re-introduction a little simpler. The last thing you want to do is go full throttle at the gym on your first day back. At best, you end up super sore and at worst, you can end up injured. Instead, start with these safe, easy-to-progress exercises if you haven't worked out in a while.

Advertisement

Related Reading

Move 1: Air Squat

Air squats are a widely-recommended exercise for strengthening the glutes, quads and hamstrings, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE). But alongside the muscle-boosting benefits, squats can help improve your day-to-day movement patterns, whether you're getting up from a chair or picking something up off the ground.

Advertisement

With no added weight, this move also puts less pressure on the muscles and joints, making it a solid go-to exercise if you haven't worked out in a while, according to Samuel Chan, DPT, a New York-based physical therapist.

JW Player placeholder image
Skill Level Beginner
Type Strength
Region Lower Body
  1. Start standing, feet hip-width apart.
  2. Extend your arms out in front of you and slowly bend your knees as you push your hips back to squat down. Focus on lowering your body as if you were going to sit on a chair.
  3. Squat down until your thighs are parallel with the floor, or as low as you can go while maintaining good form. Your knees should be over your toes and your gaze should be straight ahead.
  4. Pause for a moment at the bottom of your squat.
  5. On an exhale, reverse the motion by pressing through your heels to return to standing. As you stand, lower your arms back to your sides.

Modifications and Variations

If you need to modify this move, you can swap body-weight squats with box squats. This variation involves placing a box or bench behind you and squatting down just low enough to tap it with your butt, Chan says.

Or, if regular squats feel too simple, go with a goblet squat and hold a weight in front of your body.

Move 2: Forearm Plank

Your core encompasses all the muscles that stabilize and support your back, including your abdominals, according to the ACE. So, developing a strong core is crucial for your daily movement, proper posture and injury-free exercise as you get back into a workout routine.

Advertisement

"Planks are a great way to train both core and shoulder stability," Chan says. "By placing your upper body in a loaded, weight-bearing position, we are also training shoulder stability, which will help decrease the risk of injury during upper-body exercises."

JW Player placeholder image
Skill Level All Levels
Type Strength
Region Full Body
  1. Lie face down on the floor, with your forearms on the ground, elbows directly beneath your shoulders.
  2. Extend your legs straight behind you, toes tucked.
  3. With your core braced, press into your toes and forearms and raise your body up off the ground.
  4. Keep your back flat and your body in a straight line from head to hips to heels.

Modifications and Variations

If holding a 30-second plank is too challenging, hold for 10- or 15-second intervals instead, Chan says. And when you feel ready to take this exercise to the next level, try a plank variation. Add alternating leg lifts while you hold the pose or try a side plank.

3. Dumbbell Deadlift

You don't want to start with too much weight on your first few days back at the gym. But a dumbbell deadlift is another move Chan recommends you try after an exercise hiatus. Another daily movement pattern, the deadlift can improve your strength and mobility, helping keep you injury-free in and out of the gym.

Most of your daily activities (like cooking or typing on a computer) focus on the front of your body, leaving your back side (aka posterior chain) neglected. Over time, this can cause muscle imbalances and back pain. But as a posterior chain-focused exercise, deadlifts can help address some of the imbalances you may have developed during your time off from exercise.

JW Player placeholder image
Skill Level All Levels
Type Strength
Region Full Body
  1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand in front of your thighs, palms facing your body.
  2. Push your hips back behind you and soften your knees to lower the weights toward the middle of your shins.
  3. Check your posture: Your spine should be straight and long with your shoulders pinned back and down. The dip in your lower body should be very minimal. Brace your core to maintain this position.
  4. With your weight centered between your heels and balls of your feet, drive your feet into the floor to stand up as tall as possible. Imagine you are trying to push the floor away.
  5. Reverse the motion to lower the weights with control and repeat.

Modifications and Variations

Start with either a lighter pair of dumbbells or a light kettlebell (about 10 to 15 pounds) as you get back into working out. Then, week to week, you can gradually add more weight to the exercise.

A good rule of thumb? If you feel like you still have 5 to 7 reps left in the tank after a set, you can probably increase the resistance you're using.

If a deadlift feels too challenging, you can try a body-weight hip hinge. Basically, you do the same motion as described above without any added weight.

Move 4: Chest-Supported Dumbbell Row

A strong, stable back will help you stay injury-free during both upper- and lower-body workouts, Chan says. Plus, this part of your body goes largely unaddressed in your day-to-day, which can cause weakness over time, particularly if you're not exercising.

Unlike a bent-over row, this variation supports your chest. Not only does the extra leverage help protect your lower back, but it allows you to focus solely on your upper- and middle-back muscles as you perform the exercise.

JW Player placeholder image
Skill Level Beginner
Type Strength
Region Upper Body
  1. Begin by adjusting an exercise bench to about a 45-degree angle.
  2. Lean against the bench, facing the back with a dumbbell in each hand. With legs extended, root your heels into the ground and put your weight into your torso against the bench.
  3. Extend your arms straight down toward the ground along the sides of the bench.
  4. On an exhale, row the weights up toward your chest.
  5. Pause and squeeze your shoulder blades together.
  6. Lower the weights with control toward the ground.

Modifications and Variations

Start with a lighter pair of dumbbells (like 10 pounds) and focus on squeezing your shoulder blades with every rep. If this feels too challenging, modify by rowing one dumbbell at a time.

You can also try an externally supported single-arm row, standing and using your free hand for support. This gives you a little extra space in the front of your body. Plus, focusing on one arm can help increase your muscle activation, Chan says, and will feel easier than rowing both weights simultaneously.

Move 5: Side Plank

Although best known as a core-strengthening exercise, side planks are also one way to strengthen your hip abductors (your glute medius) using your own body weight, Chan says. Holding a plank on your side technically places your weight over the sides of your glute, forcing that muscle to really work to stabilize you.

"Glute medius strength is important for hip stability during any exercise in standing, including squats, lunges and running," Chan says. If you're looking to get back into regular strength training or running, side planks are an important accessory move to build up a strong foundation and avoid injury."

Skill Level All Levels
Type Strength
Region Core, Upper Body and Lower Body
  1. Start lying on your side, propped up on your bottom forearm. Your elbow should be directly under your shoulder to avoid putting too much pressure on the joint. Your legs should be extended straight out with your feet stacked one on top of the other.
  2. Lift your hips off the ground. Make sure that your hips are squared forward. Keep your body as straight as possible from heels to hips to head.
  3. Hold this position for as long as you can with good form.

Modifications and Variations

If the full side plank feels too challenging, you can bring your bottom knee down to the ground for extra stability.

Advertisement

references