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 possible and enjoy a safe and effective gym workout.
So before you head to the gym, check out this expert-built beginner workout guide. It contains everything you need to get started: a flexible weekly schedule, beginner gym workouts to fit your needs and feel-good exercise recovery strategies.
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 Mondays, Fridays or any other days. It's not necessary to perform a given workout on a specific day of the week. And to build a healthy gym habit, it's important that your workout routine fit your needs, says New York-based certified personal trainer, 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.
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.
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.
Beginner Recovery Workouts
The time you spend recovering is just as important as the time you spend training in the gym. Giving yourself ample time to recover 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 the entire day on the couch, according to the ACE. Each day, you should 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 women's beginner 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.
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.
- Flexibility Yoga Workout: Improve your total-body flexibility with this quick yoga flow workout.
- Deep Stretching Routine: This deep stretch workout will release tight muscles in just 10 minutes.
- Total-Body Mobility Workout: This workout is low intensity and will help improve your mobility for your other training sessions.
- 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.