Where to Begin?
Getting started on an exercise plan on your own can be overwhelming. Selecting which exercises to do and making sure that they’re being done properly can be daunting, especially with the vast amount of conflicting advice out there. It can be easy to overdo a training program and end up in pain or injured. There are several main points that you should keep in mind when beginning an exercise program.
Are you healthy enough for exercise?
If you are unsure, check with a physician, especially if you have heart, lung, or metabolic disease. Be sure to take any personal physical limitations into account when exercising such as joint pain; and coordination, balance, or flexibility issues.
Be sure to start slow
Going all out in the beginning is counterproductive. You’ll be too sore to have another effective workout anytime soon, and you may actually be breaking your muscle down from overtraining. Being slightly sore the next day is fine, but you should not be in pain.
Make sure that the exercise plan meets your goals
Think about what you want to accomplish, and why you want to accomplish that. For example, increasing strength is a good starting point, but figure out the reason behind it. Do you want to make daily activities easier? Do you want to compete in a powerlifting event? Getting to the why of an exercise will greatly help you narrow down or better design a proper program.
Perfect your form!
Poor form can quickly lead to injury so be sure you are doing the exercise properly. Look up videos on YouTube from reputable sources for examples. My personal go-to website for form instruction is ExRx.net. The site is very basic in its design, but very useful and full of great information. If you are having trouble navigating that site, simply Google your exercise plus the word “exrx.” I will also have videos of basic exercises uploaded on this site in the near future (I will update this article with links when that happens). If you still don’t feel confident, then work with a professional, or email me about doing a video form-check.
A Good Starting Point
Here’s what I would recommend for someone with little to no experience and a sedentary lifestyle.
Muscular strength and endurance
Two to three days per week, start with the major muscle groups/movements: legs, abs, push, and pull. Start with light weight and high reps (14-20), then switch to higher weight and lower reps (8-12) as you progress. If you’re working out solely at home, elastic exercise bands or a few weights are all you should need for a while.
For legs, bodyweight squats and lunges are great to start with. In the gym, back squats, goblet squats, and deadlifts are all useful. Calf raises are also important, and can be progressed to single-leg, weighted, or any calf machine at the gym.
For abs, planks are safe and effective. Time yourself to get a starting point, then gradually increase the time. If you have the equipment, hanging leg raise, and crunches on a Bosu Ball are great options as well.
Push and pull exercises are exactly what they sound like. The goal is to get four different directions of resistance from the shoulder joint: forward, back, up, and down.
The universal forward push exercise is the push-up. Do it against a wall or on your knees to make it easier. In the gym bench presses are the standard. For your back, bent-over rows work great, or use the underside of a sturdy table for an inverted row at home. In the gym, any row will work your back. For up, you can do any overhead press. Be sure to not arch your back excessively. And the downward motion would be a pulldown, straight-arm pulldown, pull-ups, or pull-overs. Feel free to mix them up as you see fit, but try to get two pushes and two pulls.
You’ll want to keep a detailed record of the date, weight lifted, sets/reps, and any notes that pertain to your workout (any soreness, feeling tired or hungry, or any pain during exercising).
After each exercise session, spend some time stretching out the muscle groups you just worked. The best flexibility activity is Yoga, and I highly recommend attending any free classes if you belong to a gym, or become a member of a local Yoga studio.
The current ACSM recommendation is 150 minutes per week at a moderate intensity, or about 30 minutes five times per week. Start small and go slow. A brisk walk for one mile a few days a week may be all you can do at first. Gradually increase the distance first, then the frequency, then the speed. Activity trackers on your phone, such as Strava and MapMyRun will help you monitor your progress.
The secret to beginning an exercise program is to simply start. Don’t spend too much time overanalyzing each detail, and just get active; you can tailor the program to your needs as you go. You’ll also want to pick exercises that you enjoy doing. If you don’t like running, then ride a bicycle or use some of the various cardio equipment at the gym. The important thing is that you’re taking control of your health and well-being.