How to start your fitness program: a beginner’s guide

Rachel Flanagan Uncategorized 2 Comments

PictureOne of the few photos of me as a cheerleader that exists. Interestingly, me and the guy holding me up here both went on to play rugby. Cheerleading –> rugby. Not a standard path.

When I was a senior in high school, I joined a gym for the first time. It was a rough but transcendent year for me. My long term boyfriend and I broke up early in the school year, and I sort of lost myself. To cope, I threw myself into exercise and a restrictive 1,000 calorie per day diet, which included a lot of grapefruits and green apples. It was the only way my 17 year old self knew how to move on in 1990. By the end of the year, I had gotten over my grief and abandoned the crazy diet, but I never stopped exercising, in one way or another.

Up to that point, I had always done some sort of exercise — running with my dad, Jane Fonda videos (seriously — leotard and all), and even mini trampoline class. In the fall, I was cheerleading, and the practices were not exactly physically taxing. Difficult in terms of coordination and remembering the cheers (I was actually a pretty crappy cheerleader) but my muscles didn’t really feel spent. I remember going home after practice and then going for a 3 mile run in the neighborhood.

I don’t remember how I got the idea to join a gym, but I did. I remember feeling like a fish out of water, and thinking how weird it was to be working out inside around a bunch of strangers. I had no idea how to use any of the machines (and nobody offered to help), let alone the free weights. But I fumbled my way through it, and felt good when I left.

It’s so different today. If a 17 year old girl walks into a commercial gym, I would hope that she’d be shown the ropes, either by a trainer there or by her accompanying parent. My mom was never really into fitness (save the occasional aerobics class with a friend) and my dad is a lifelong runner who only works out inside (in a gym or otherwise) under duress.

So if you’re ready to start working out but have no idea where to start, let me give you a few thoughts on how to get going. For this post, I’m going to focus on working out at home, but I will do a follow up post on starting out at the gym.

Working out at home
Working out at home is a new thing for me this year, and I’ve really come to like it. I do miss the energy and camaraderie of the gym, but at home I have all the weights to myself, can workout any time of day, and can listen to any music I please.

Here are the pieces of equipment I recommend investing in for beginner home-based workouts:

1. A yoga mat: not a deal breaker if you have carpet, but definitely needed if you have hard floors. Be aware that they come in many different thicknesses and styles, but don’t feel you need to buy an $80 mat. Generally the cheaper they are, the thinner and less durable they’ll be.

2. Dumbbells: I recommend starting with 5s, 8s, and 10s. I know there have been articles out this year saying that those light weights like the 1s and 3s will give you a good workout with high reps, but if you’re looking for real body composition changes–especially if you say you want “toned arms”–I recommend heavier weights. It’s pretty rare that I bust out anything lower than 8s for my clients, unless there are special circumstances.

3. Resistance bands: If you follow me on social media, you know about my deep love for the Slingshot hip circle. It’s amazingly effective at building hip and glute strength. I also have a few mini bands (this is the pack I have) that I use for warming up, either wrapped around my hands for shoulder warm ups or around my legs for glute warm ups. I also have several long and sturdy bands, which I use for assisted chin ups or for face pulls. I bought a great set from the “Band Man,” who runs a site called Resistance Band Training. If you follow him on social media (his YouTube channel is fantastic) you will get a lot of good instruction on how to use the bands.

​4. A good plan: If you don’t want to work directly with a trainer, you can certainly find resources online, but be picky. There are a bazillion online resources out there, ranging from BeachBody, to P90X, to Jillian Michaels, to DailyBurn, to name a few among the thousands. The one I recommend the most is Girls Gone Strong’s Guide to Strength Training. It’s a great place to start, especially if you watch the intructional videos. If you don’t want to invest in a plan like that and really just want to start with the basics, here are the exercises I recommend:

  • Squats: A good basic lower body exercise. Molly Galbraith from Girls Gone Strong did a great 2-part video series of mastering the art of the squat.
  • Lunges (of all variations – Bulgarian Split Squats, front lunge, rear lunge, walking lunge, lateral lunge, etc): Again, Girls Gone Strong has a good tutorial on how to do good lunges, as does Jordan Syatt on static lunges and Bulgarian Split Squats, which is my favorite exercise to program.
  • Planks, of all variations: I always end my morning boot camp classes with planks. The Greatist does a nice job with this round up on planks.
  • Shoulder presses: this is a good basic shoulder exercise, and one that will build good shoulder strength. This video does a good job of explaining it.
  • Push ups: you knew this was coming, right? Girls Gone Strong does an excellent job of listing the ways to perfect your push up. If you’re new to push ups, start with incline push ups, either on a bench, a counter top, or a step. You can also start with building up your high plank (a push up is just a moving plank!) first, and then move on to push ups.
  • Glute brige/hip thrust: lunges will work your glutes a bit, but the king of all glute exercises is the dumbbell weighted glute bridge or barbell hip thrust. And of course, for all things glutes, check out Bret Contreras (aka The Glute Guy) on YouTube.

Putting it together
​If you’re starting out, here’s a basic way to structure your workout: pick a squat variation, a lunge variation, a shoulder exercise, and a core exercise, and perform them circuit style, doing sets of 6-8, for at least three rounds.
Like this:
1. Goblet squats
2. Bulgarian split squats
3. Shoulder press
4. High plank (20 second hold)

Hopefully this will give you a good place to start on your journey to strength. As always, if you have questions or want more guidance, please ask away! I love getting emails from readers!


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