Six Strength Training Exercises for Beginners
Updated: Feb 12, 2020
It can be intimidating to figure out where to start with strength training! Lifting weights doesn’t have to be complicated or difficult to learn. There are many different versions of most exercises. Your current fitness level will determine which type should be used. If you are brand new to weight lifting, a barbell squat or deadlift are not necessarily the first exercises you should try. Following are six strength training exercises well suited to new lifters.
Squats are an important full body exercise that not only work legs but also challenge the hips, glutes, core, and back muscles. To set up a squat, feet should be between hip and shoulder width apart and toes anywhere from pointed straight to turned out 45 degrees. (Try out a few different positions and use the most comfortable)! Balance weight evenly across the whole foot. Keep chest tall and think about sitting straight down between your legs, with controlled speed. At the bottom, push through feet and squeeze butt to fully stand. Knees should track in line with the middle of toes throughout descent and ascent. In the goblet squat variation, hold a dumbbell or kettlebell at chest height.
Ideally, hips should be at or below knee level when at the bottom of the squat. If it is too challenging to stay balanced or to reach that depth without knees caving in or heels coming off the floor, try squatting to a bench or box first. The body should feel rigid and controlled, not loose, while performing this exercise.
Inverted rows primarily work muscles in the back and biceps. Inverted rows are a good choice for new lifters because the bar height can easily be adjusted higher to make the exercise less challenging (or lower, for more of a challenge later!). To set up the exercise, set up a bar about belly button height, if rowing is a completely new movement. Hold onto the bar with an underhand grip, about shoulder width apart. (You can also use overhand, but I prefer beginners to practice using an underhand grip). Lean back, keeping shoulders down—think, “tuck shoulder blades into back pocket”. Pull body into the bar with elbows tucked close to ribs. Squeeze lats (the muscles around the back of your ribcage), keeping shoulders down. Bar should be in line with bottom of chest at the top of movement. With control, lower body back down to start position.
During the movement, keep shoulders down and your back tight, maintaining a strong plank position throughout entire body. If shoulders shrug toward ears during the movement, the body is at too steep of an angle. Readjust the bar to a higher height to lessen the weight and challenge of the exercise. To maintain a good position in the rest of the body, squeeze glutes and keep a straight body position from head to toe. Rings or a TRX may be used as substitutes if a barbell and rack are not accessible.
The deadlift is often challenging for beginners to grasp—it is easy to confuse squat and deadlift patterns for each other. Deadlifts are also a full body exercise; they target the legs, glutes, and back muscles. My favorite way to teach the deadlift is with a kettlebell. If kettlebells are unavailable, a dumbbell sitting up on its end can also be used.
Set up with feet between hip and shoulder width, with toes pointed straight or very slightly turned out. The kettlebell will be sitting between feet, in line with tops of shoelaces. To get into a start position, bend forward at the waist with a flat back, reaching hips toward the wall behind you while also lowering hips until the kettlebell handle can be reached. Keep shins as close as possible to vertical by pushing knees back slightly. Hips will be higher than in the bottom of a squat.
The body should feel rigid throughout back and legs. Push hard through feet and squeeze glutes, keeping chest tall, to stand. To return to start position, reverse the movement, again bending forward at the waist with a flat back while simultaneously reaching hips toward the wall behind you. Lower hips and shoulders together until back into start position. On the way down, think about having a nice, flat back and feel glutes and hamstrings (back of legs) as they take on the weight to lower body down.
Single leg movements are important for keeping the body balanced side to side. Everyone has strength differences from left to right and incorporating single sided movements helps to address these imbalances. Step ups work glutes, hips, and legs. They challenge balance and coordination. Step ups can be performed at varying heights. Generally I suggest a height that puts top thigh parallel to floor when foot is on step. A lower height may be appropriate for early beginners. The higher the step, the more demanding the exercise.
To perform, first firmly plant front foot on elevated surface. Transfer most of body weight to the lead leg and push through that leg’s heel to bring both legs up onto the bench. Avoid pushing off with back leg. Return to start by reaching back with following leg, then step down with original lead leg. Reps may be performed either entirely on one side and then switched or alternated between lead legs. Hold dumbbells at sides to make the movement more challenging, when the body weight version is mastered. When adding weight, keep chest tall with shoulders down and back, to keep weights from swinging.
Pushups primarily work chest, shoulders, and triceps. When done properly, they are actually a very challenging core exercise as well. Most people are familiar with pushups, but they are often performed very poorly. Two key pieces of the movement are to properly set up the body and maintain a good position throughout ENTIRE set. Set up with wrists directly underneath armpits. When at the bottom of the movement, hands should be outside of chest. Most people place hands too far in front of the body. Keep elbows at about a 45-degree angle or less. Elbows should NOT be at 90 degrees. Keep body in a strong plank position through all reps by pulling belly button in toward spine and squeezing glutes.
If positions are too difficult to maintain, I prefer clients use a bench, box, or bar set up on a rack to perform push-ups at an incline, which takes some weight off and makes the movement easier to complete. Knee push-ups change the mechanics of the movement more than desirable. If torso is sagging, chest does not almost touch ground at bottom, or shoulder pain exists, these signs indicate you should modify to an incline variation until proper body positioning is mastered. Performing pushups poorly will not help a person to be better at pushups. Building strength in the correct positions, at an incline, will translate faster into the ability to perform full pushups. No egos allowed here!
Carries are challenging for the entire body. They are great to reinforce good posture, especially challenging and strengthening the core and upper back muscles. They may look easy, but trust me, they’re tough! To perform the exercise, carry two dumbbells, kettlebells, or farmer’s carry handles at sides for 25-50 yards. Choose a weight that is challenging to hold onto for entire distance.
It is important to keep a proud, tall chest, with shoulders back and down. The weight should not be pulling shoulders forward. Keep weights from swinging by controlling the pace and squeezing lats (big muscles of the back, on top of ribcage). If the movement feels unchallenging or easy to maintain good positions, use heavier weights and/or carry for longer distances.
These six exercises can all be performed together for a great full body workout. Aim to perform three to four sets of 10 for each exercise. Perform 3-4 rounds of carries. Rest about 45 seconds to one minute between sets.
When writing programming for clients, I always include six types of movements. Each were included in this article. The movement patterns are: squat, hinge, pull, push, a unilateral leg movement and carry. Programs might be written to include two to three full body days, to contain a push/pull/leg split, or to focus on a specific body part each day (example: legs/ back & biceps/ chest & triceps). No matter which type of split used, it is important to incorporate a balance of the six types of movement patterns.