If you're just getting started in the gym, it's easy to assume that "more" and "harder" are always better. And to a certain point, it's true that effort equals results. But the best workout program combines a strategic blend of cardiovascular exercise and strength training, while also giving you some time to rest and recover between workouts.
If you're working out with health in mind, the best gym routine will blend a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate cardio exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous cardio per week, along with at least two full-body strength-training workouts per week.
Setting Goals for Fitness
Even short bouts of exercise are better than none at all. But if you're working out for better health or taking the first steps toward getting fit, there are some concrete goals you can aim for.
The gold standard is the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020, which lay out how much exercise you need to stay healthy: 150 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity cardio, plus at least two days of full-body strength training. If you double your cardio goals to 300 minutes of moderate cardio or 150 minutes of vigorous cardio per week, you'll see even more health benefits.
Did you notice that this fitness goal is spelled out week by week instead of day by day? That means you get some flexibility in how you space your cardio and strength training throughout the week, as long as you mind a few basic principles.
Aerobic exercise isn't only for weight loss. It provides a wide range of other health benefits, from strengthening your immune system to boosting your mood and reducing your risk of chronic diseases.
A Cardio Workout Program for Beginners
Cardiovascular exercise is, in essence, anything that gets your large muscle groups moving rhythmically, thereby raising your heart rate, for an extended period. Some great examples of cardio workouts you'll find in the gym include swimming, aerobics classes, dance classes, calisthenics (such as pushups and jumping jacks) and cardio equipment like treadmills, elliptical trainers and stair climbers.
It's up to you how you space out the recommended 150 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio throughout your week. But however you space out the workouts, make sure you include at least 5 to 10 minutes of gentle warmup before your workout; then give yourself the same amount of cool-down time at the end. The warmup gives your body a chance to adapt to the demands you're about to put on it, and the cool-down gives it a chance to adapt back to a state of rest.
Experts agree: Even a little bit of cardio is better than none at all. So if all you have time for is a five-minute walk, get out and take that walk.
Depending on which types of cardio you enjoy the most, you might choose to spend 30 minutes each day (not counting warmup and cool-down time) on a treadmill or exercise bike, or you might choose to take three Zumba classes a week. You get the idea. And if you opt for exercises that are vigorous in intensity instead of just moderate, you only need to do 75 minutes a week to meet the minimum quota.
Not sure if your workout qualifies as "moderate" or "intense"? Try rating it on a scale of 0 to 10, where 0 is lying in bed and 10 is the fastest sprint you can handle. Moderate exercise usually ranks around a 5 or 6, while vigorous exercise comes in as a 7 or 8.
A Beginner Workout With Weights
Resistance training is an important part of any workout, because it strengthens not just your muscles but your bones too. Resistance training also gives you the strength and endurance to carry out everyday chores like hefting groceries around or moving furniture, and as you age, those qualities help you continue living a healthy, independent lifestyle.
It may take a little experimentation to find the right weight to lift. A good goal for beginners is to use a weight that lets you complete 12 to 15 repetitions with good form. Once you can do more repetitions, it's time to either increase the weight or choose a more difficult exercise.
A good workout routine in the weight room targets every major muscle group, so choose at least one exercise from each list:
Exercises That Target Your Chest
- Chest press
- Bench press
- Chest flys
Exercises for Your Back
- Lat pulldowns
- Dumbbell or barbell rows
- Back extensions
- Leg presses
- Side lunges
- Leg extension machine
- Leg curl machine
- Calf raises
For most people living a typical sedentary lifestyle, the hamstrings are weaker than they should be. You can focus on them, if you like, with "bonus" exercises like hamstring curls and straight-leg deadlifts.
- Biceps curls
- Triceps pushdowns
- Overhead presses
- Hammer curls
- Triceps kickbacks
Work Out Your Core Too
- Bicycle crunches
- Glute bridges
Many of the exercises listed work more than one muscle at a time. For example, lunges work your glutes, quads, hamstrings and calves all together. The term for this is a "compound exercise." Compound exercises not only help you get through your workout faster, but they also help you train in a way that more closely mimics real-world movements than one-muscle-at-a-time isolation workouts.
Don't Forget Flexibility and Rest
Although it may be tempting to focus on the most sweat-inducing components of your workout — the cardio and the strength training — there are two more very important things for you to keep in mind. The first is stretching: In a perfect world, you would spend at least 30 minutes, three times a week, stretching to increase mobility and reduce your risk of injury.
A lot of people simply don't have that much time to focus exclusively on flexibility but, as with cardio, every little bit helps. You can also sneak more stretching into your lifestyle by doing workouts that emphasize flexibility, like yoga, dance, martial arts or Pilates.
The other important thing to remember is that no matter how you space your workouts, you should have at least one rest day per week. Go ahead and luxuriate: Your body gets stronger in the recovery time between workouts, not the workouts themselves, and making that rest day a habit helps you avoid overtraining, which can cause some unpleasant side effects.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020
- Mayo Clinic: How Much Should the Average Adult Exercise Every Day?
- Mayo Clinic: Aerobic Exercise: Top 10 Reasons to Get Physical
- American Council on Exercise: Benefits of Flexibility
- American Council on Exercise: 9 Signs of Overtraining
- Mayo Clinic: Strength Training: Get Stronger, Leaner, Healthier