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 who 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 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
If you want to focus on either strength gain or weight loss, using this women's beginner workout plan to guide your gym workouts and exercise schedule is a great way to stay on track toward your fitness goals.
Set on a week-long schedule, this workout plan includes three strength training days, one cardio day 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 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 New York-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 full-body strength-training days per week and about 150 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio (walking, light jogging and easy hiking), per the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.
Rules for Planning Your Gym Workout Routine
As a general guideline, avoid back-to-back strength training days over the first few weeks of training, Araujo says. Later on, avoid training the same muscle groups two days in a row. So instead of scheduling two full-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, 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.
Finish up your schedule 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), says Sam Becourtney, DPT, a physical therapist at Bespoke Treatments in New York City.
Beginner Gym Cardio Workouts
As part of a balanced gym workout routine, aim to meet the minimum cardio exercise requirement to maintain a healthy heart. 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) a week.
High-intensity interval training is a great for strength building and weight loss, while elevating your heart rate, Araujo says. However, HIIT can also be taxing on your nervous system and joints, which is why you should limit HIIT to one or two days a week, per the American Council on Exercise (ACE).
On Your Cardio Days, Plan Your Routine Around 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 ideal for anyone who wants to do cardio with minimal impact on their joints.
- Rowing Machine Workout: Although they may look complicated, rowers are pretty easy to use and are a great cardio machine for anyone who wants to work their entire body at once. This workout is a little challenging, so start with only the rowing portion and progress to incorporating dumbbells.
- Stepmill Workout: The stepmill is a great machine to try if you want a challenging workout. Because this machine can be tough on your lower body, avoid using it the day after a strength workout, Araujo says.
- Swimming Workout: While you should take swimming lessons 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 for Women
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 diminish 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 strength-training 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 says. Compound exercises work more than one muscle at once and tend to involve movement patterns that carry over to everyday life. (Think: squat, lunge, hinge, push, pull.)
By working muscles throughout your entire body, you'll also increase your heart rate more than doing isolation exercises that work a single muscle at once, according to the ACE. You can also combine upper-body and lower-body exercises in one workout to build full-body strength.
As you progress from a beginner to intermediate level, you can start using a barbell to increase the weight you're lifting. However, barbell exercises can be quite technical, and working with unfamiliar equipment can increase your risk of injury. It's best to have professional supervision when learning barbell exercises, according to the Mayo Clinic.
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, work your upper body with a resistance band.
- Resistance Band Lower-Body Workout: This workout sculpts your lower body in just 10 minutes.
- Resistance Band Full-Body Workout: These moves target your entire body with just a band.
- Dumbbell Upper-Body Workout: This workout is perfect for those who are starting to experiment with 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, 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 full-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.
- 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, especially if weight loss is your goal, Araujo says. Start with comfortably challenging weights, focusing on your form. You can do this workout 2 to 3 times a week, adding resistance as you grow more comfortable with the moves.
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 right for beginners, Araujo says. With body-weight squats, only lower as far as is comfortable while keeping your chest up and weight in your heels.
2. Dumbbell Chest Press
- Grab 2 dumbbells and lie flat on a bench or the floor.
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand with an overhand grip (palms facing your feet), at chest level.
- Exhale as you press the dumbbells up and slightly in until your arms are almost fully extended and the dumbbells nearly touch.
- Inhale as you slowly bend your elbows again, slowly lowering the weights back to the starting position.
You may be tempted to grab a heavy pair of weights, but that's not necessarily 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 and makes it a little easier.
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 back 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 across both feet, drive into the floor to stand up tall. Imagine you're trying to push the floor away.
- Reverse the motion to lower the weights with control and repeat.
Nailing deadlift form can be tricky but is crucial, Araujo says. To make this move a little easier, practice a hip hinge instead. Basically, you do the same motion with no weights so that you can focus on building strength and improving the movement.
4. Forearm Plank
- Lie face down with your forearms on the floor and your elbows 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 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.
5. Dumbbell Row
- Adjust an exercise bench to 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, bring 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 what 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 enough 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, don't spend all your time on the couch, per the ACE. Aim to do at least some kind of physical activity, regardless of your gym schedule, Araujo says. And tailor that movement to the day of the plan.
Fundamentals of Recovery Training for Females
On your full rest days, avoid intense activities and prioritize ones that promote recovery. That includes stretching, mobility training and foam rolling, Araujo says. At the start, you should 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 a hike, walk or bike ride, which can count toward your weekly cardio goals.
Bottom line: Your rest and active recovery days are yours to customize, 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, including food to eat to movement to do.
- Active Recovery Routine: Practicing mobility is a great way to improve your movement. Plus, it's a low-impact activity that will help you recover.
- Beginner Yoga Poses: Improve your full-body flexibility with these beginner-friendly yoga poses.
- Deep Stretching Routine: This deep stretch workout releases tight muscles in just 10 minutes.
- Total-Body Beginner Mobility Moves: These mobility exercises can help you build the range of motion in all your joints.
- 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 sore.
- ACE: "High-Intensity Interval Training"
- ACE: "6 Benefits of Using Weightlifting Machines"
- Mayo Clinic: "Strength Training: Get Stronger, Leaner, Healthier"
- ACE: "5 Benefits of Compound Exercises"
- ACE: "8 Reasons to Take a Rest Day"
- Department of Health and Human Services: "Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans"