Starting a gym routine for the first time is daunting. Not only is the gym full of seemingly complicated, high-tech equipment, but it's also often packed with people that look like they know exactly what they're doing.
But for women wanting to start exercising at the gym, walking in with a plan is the best way to combat any nervousness, have the most positive experience and enjoy a safe and effective gym workout.
So before you head to the gym, check out this expert-built beginner workout routine for women. It has everything you need to get started: a flexible weekly schedule, beginner gym workouts for your whole body and feel-good recovery routines.
The Beginner Gym Workout Plan for Women
Using this women's beginner workout plan to guide your gym workouts and exercise schedule is a great way to keep yourself on track toward your fitness goals.
Set on a week-long schedule, it includes three strength training, one cardio and three rest or active recovery days.
- Day 1: full-body strength training
- Day 2: cardio
- Day 3: rest or active recovery
- Day 4: full-body or upper-body strength training
- Day 5: rest or active recovery
- Day 6: full-body or lower-body strength training
- Day 7: rest or active recovery
You'll notice that no workout type is assigned to specific days of the week. It's not necessary to do a given workout on a specific day. To build consistent gym habits, it's important that your workout routine fit your needs, says California-based certified personal trainer and strength coach, Carolina Araujo, CPT. You can shift around your strength training, cardio and recovery days to fit your schedule and lifestyle.
If you need to move your workout routine around or miss a day, aim to get at least two to three total-body strength training days per week and about 150 minutes of the moderate-intensity cardio total (moderate is walking, light jogging and easy hiking), per the Centers for Disease Control's (CDC) 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.
As a general rule, try to avoid back-to-back strength training days over the first few weeks of training, Araujo says. Later, simply avoid training the same muscle groups two days in a row. So instead of scheduling two total-body strength training workouts in a row, you could do an upper-body workout one day and a lower-body workout the next.
Before your cardio and strength workouts, always set aside time to run through a dynamic warm-up to reduce the risk of injury and help you move and feel your best. Upper-body activation and lower-body activation exercises will warm up your muscles, ensuring your body is moving properly during your training session.
Top your week off with two to three days of rest or active recovery (which can count toward your cardio minutes for the week).
During your active recovery or rest days, include some sort of stretching or mobility work to keep your muscles healthy and injury-free (more on that below), according to Sam Becourtney, DPT, a physical therapist at Bespoke Treatments in New York City.
Beginner Gym Cardio Workouts
Each week, you'll want to meet the minimum cardio exercise requirement to keep your heart healthy, according to the CDC. Try to get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio like brisk walking or hiking, or 75 minutes of vigorous activity like jogging, running or high-intensity interval training (HIIT), per week.
High-intensity interval training is a great way to build strength, while throwing your heart rate up and down, according to Araujo. However, HIIT can also be taxing on your nervous system and joints, which is why you should cap HIIT at one or two days per week, per the American Council on Exercise (ACE).
On your cardio days, choose between one of the following beginner workouts:
- Treadmill Workout: This workout is perfect for anyone who's new to exercise, enjoys walking and wants to keep their cardio exercise on the moderate side.
- Elliptical Workout: Elliptical workouts, like this one, are perfect for anyone that wants to train cardio with minimal impact on their joints.
- Rowing Machine Workout: Although they may look complicated, rowers are pretty easy to use and make a great cardio machine for anyone who wants to work their entire body at once This workout is a little challenging, so you may want to start with only the rowing portion and progress to incorporating dumbbells.
- Stepmill Workout: The stepmill is a great machine to try if you really want to give yourself a challenging workout. Because this machine can be tough on the lower body, try to avoid using it the day after a strength workout, Araujo says.
- Swimming Workout: While you'll want to take an official swimming lesson before you jump into the pool, swimming is an excellent low-impact workout.
- Indoor Cycling: You don't need to break the bank with an expensive cycling class, you can do your own indoor cycling workout at the gym.
- Boxing: You don't need any equipment at all to complete this beginner 15-minute boxing workout.
Beginner Strength-Training Workouts
Female novice and veteran lifters alike will agree that the weight room can be a male-dominated area. But try your best not to let that kill your confidence in the gym — after all, you deserve to be there just as much as anyone else.
Familiarizing yourself with the equipment will help you feel more prepared in the gym. As a beginner, some of the most important pieces of fitness equipment to know are free weights like dumbbells, kettlebells and medicine balls as well as cable machines and resistance bands.
In your first few months of a beginner workout routine, prioritize full-body or compound exercises over isolation exercises, Araujo recommends. Compound exercises work several muscle groups at once, and tend to involve movement patterns that have a lot of carryover to everyday life. (Think: squat, lunge, hinge, push, pull.)
By working muscles throughout your entire body, they also increase heart rate more than isolation exercises that challenge a single muscle at once, according to the ACE.
You can also combine upper-body exercises and lower-body exercises in one workout to get a full-body strengthening effect.
As you progress from a beginner to intermediate level, you might want to start using a barbell to increase the resistance you're lifting. However, barbell exercises can be very technical and working with unfamiliar equipment can increase your risk of injury. The Mayo Clinic recommends professional supervision when learning barbell exercises.
To get started with strength training, choose from one of these workouts for beginner women:
- Resistance Band Upper-Body Workout: Before you start using weights, you can work your upper body with a resistance band.
- Resistance Band Lower-Body Workout: This workout will sculpt your lower body in just 10 minutes.
- Resistance Band Full-Body Workout: These moves will target your entire body with just a resistance band.
- Dumbbell Upper-Body Workout: This workout is perfect for those that are starting to dabble in free weights and want to train their upper body.
- Dumbbell Lower-Body Workout: These dumbbell exercises are all you need to build lower-body strength.
- Dumbbell Full-Body Workout: Strengthen your whole body with this beginner dumbbell workout.
- Kettlebell Upper-Body Workout: Once you can get through your dumbbell workouts comfortably with good form, you can try training your upper body with kettlebells.
- Kettlebell Lower-Body Workout: Thanks to the top handle, kettlebells are less stable than dumbbells and will help strengthen your deeper stabilizer muscles, Araujo says.
- Kettlebell Full-Body Workout: All you need is four kettlebell exercises to strengthen your entire body.
- Cable Machine Total-Body Workout: The cable machine is another tool you can use to build total-body strength, challenging your muscles against constant tension.
- Medicine Ball Abs Workout: On days you want to give your core a little extra attention, grab a medicine ball and try this workout.
- Free-Weight Full-Body Workout: You can do this beginner workout with whatever free weight you want. That comes in handy when someone else is using your favorite dumbbells.
- TRX Workout: These seven beginner TRX moves make the perfect workout for gym newbies.
Try This Full-Body Beginner's Workout for Women
Full of compound exercises, this dumbbell workout is a good place to begin, according to Araujo. Start with comfortably challenging weights, focusing on your form. You can do this workout two to three times per week, adding resistance as you grow more comfortable with the moves.
Move 1: Body-Weight Squat
- Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart and brace your core. Focus on keeping your feet rooted into the ground and your core tight the entire time.
- Extend your arms out in front of you and slowly bend your knees as you push your hips back to lower toward the floor. Focus on lowering your body as if you were going to sit on a chair.
- Lower down as far as comfortable, or until your thighs are parallel with the floor.
- Pause for a moment at the bottom of your squat.
- 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.
Although you may see people squatting pretty low at the gym, it's not necessary at the beginner level, Araujo says. With body-weight squats, prioritize lowering only as far as is comfortable, while keeping your chest up and weight in your heels.
Move 2: Dumbbell Chest Press
- Grab two dumbbells and lie flat on a bench or the floor.
- Hold a pair of dumbbells in each hand in an overhand grip, at about chest level.
- Exhale as you press the dumbbells upward and inward until your arms are almost fully extended and the dumbbells nearly touch.
- Inhale as you slowly bend your elbows again, lowering your arms gently back to the starting position.
You may be tempted to grab a heavy pair of weights but that's not the best choice, Araujo says. Start with a pair of 5- or 10-pound dumbbells. To modify this exercise, she recommends doing it on the floor. This shortens the range of motion, making the chest press a little easier.
Move 3: Dumbbell Deadlift
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand in front of your thighs, palms facing your body.
- Push your hips back behind you and soften your knees to lower the weights toward the middle of your shins.
- 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.
- 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.
- Reverse the motion to lower the weights with control and repeat.
Mastering deadlift form can be tricky but is crucial, Araujo says. To make this move a little easier, practice a hip hinge instead. Basically, you repeat the same motion with no weights at all so that you can focus on building foundational strength and improving your movement pattern.
Move 4: Forearm Plank
- Lie face down with your forearms on the floor and your elbows directly beneath your shoulders. Keep your feet flexed with the bottoms of your toes on the floor.
- Press into your forearms and rise up on your toes so that only your forearms and toes touch the floor. Your body should hover a few inches off the floor in a straight line from shoulders to feet.
- Look at the floor to keep your neck comfortably aligned.
If holding a plank for 30 seconds feels too long, start with just 10 or 15. Then add on more time week after week. You can also bring your knees down to the ground, focusing on keeping your upper body in proper low-plank position.
Move 5: Dumbbell Row
- Adjust an exercise bench to about a 45-degree angle.
- 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.
- Extend your arms straight down toward the ground along the sides of the bench.
- On an exhale, row the weights up toward your chest.
- Pause and squeeze your shoulder blades together.
- Lower the weights with control toward the ground.
"I like the chest-supported row for beginners because it takes the pressure off the lower back, allowing you to focus on the upper back, which is the muscles you're trying to work," Araujo says. She recommends beginners start with lighter weights (about 5 to 10 pounds).
Beginner Recovery Workouts
The time you spend recovering is just as important as the time you spend training. Giving yourself ample time to rest between gym workouts will help you stay free of injury and energized for the training sessions to come, Araujo says.
But even on your rest days, you don't want to spend all your time on the couch, according to the ACE. Aim to get at least some kind of movement, regardless of your gym schedule, she explains. But you want to tailor that daily movement to the day of the plan.
For instance, on your full rest days, you'll want to avoid any intense movement and prioritize activities that promote recovery. That includes stretching, mobility training or foam rolling, Araujo says. At the start, you'll want to have more full rest than active recovery days throughout the week.
As you adapt to your beginner gym workout plan, though, you can start to include active recovery days in your weekly schedule, Becourtney says. These days may involve an intentional hike, walk or bike ride, which can count toward your weekly cardio goals.
Bottom line: Your rest and active recovery days are yours to amend, depending on how your body is feeling. If Thursday's strength session leaves your lower body feeling sore, make Friday a rest day with a 20-minute foam rolling or stretching session with some mobility exercises for beginners.
On your next rest or active recovery day, give one of these gentle routines a try:
- Rest Day Routine: This guide will walk you through an ideal rest day, from the food you eat to the movement you do.
- Active Recovery Routine: Practicing mobility is a great way to improve your body's movement patterns for your workouts. Plus, it's a low-impact form of movement that will help your body recover.
- Beginner Yoga Poses: Improve your total-body flexibility with these beginner-friendly yoga poses.
- Deep Stretching Routine: This deep stretch workout will release tight muscles in just 10 minutes.
- Total-Body Beginner Mobility Moves: These mobility exercises can help beginners build their total-body range of motion.
- Foam Rolling Routine: Release tight muscles with a foam rolling session.
- In-Bed Stretch Routine: This gentle sequence is perfect for mornings you wake up feeling sore.