May 29, 2024

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A 4-Week Plan To Start Strength Training

17 min read
A 4-Week Plan To Start Strength Training

It’s no secret that exercising is great for the mind, body, and soul. But while everyone wants those ~gains~, starting can be the hardest part of working out consistently.

No matter your age or experience, there are so many benefits to starting an exercise routine—increasing your metabolic rate by building muscle, stronger bones, ligaments, and tendons, improving blood pressure, and supporting your immune system, says Kristen McParland, CPT, NASM-certified personal trainer and certified nutrition coach with more than 10 years of experience.

If you’re future-focused, working out can also reduce your risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s and improve your cognition, improve your sleep efficiency and quality, and reduce your chances of heart disease and stroke, according to the CDC.

Meet the experts: Kristen McParland, CPT, is a NASM-certified personal trainer and certified nutrition coach with more than 10 years of experience.

What’s more exercising has a positive psychological impact as well: People ages 15 to 25 with mood disorders worked out three times a week for 12 weeks, and their moods significantly improved when measured by the Beck Depression Inventory in a 2020 Journal of Psychiatric Practice study.

But doing random workouts you see on TikTok or Instagram isn’t the most efficient way to access all those perks. As a beginner or even a total pro, a comprehensive program helps you achieve your goals and take out the guesswork. Ahead, a complete beginner workout plan, including cardio and strength training, and expert answers to those burning exercise questions. Get ready to sweat smart.


Tips For Beginning A Workout Plan

  • Set reasonable goals. Specifically, a reasonable amount of days and time to work out. “It’s really difficult for a beginner to go from zero days to five,” McParland says. “Start small and build.” You can always add more days and time as you go.
  • Pick the time of day that’s best for you. Some people love working out in the morning, some love doing it at night. The so-called “best time to work out” is dependent on what’s best for you and your body, McParland says. Feel free to play with your schedule to see what works.
  • Then, stick to your schedule. Add your workouts to your calendar like a meeting because it “helps you get into a routine,” McParland says. “You wouldn’t just cancel last-minute with a client.”
  • Follow a program. It can be tough to know what exercises to do. McParland recommends choosing a guide, whether that’s the sample workout plan below, a program in a book or fitness app, or using a coach for even just a few weeks.
  • Listen to your body. If you need a rest day, take it. If your body is craving more movement (cardio or strength training), add another day each week when you’re ready.
  • Fuel properly. McParland recommends eating three meals a day and playing with your rations when you add on more gym days. Eating enough protein is important. “You’ll have that energy that will reduce fatigue and help you to push hard,” she adds.
  • Focus on yourself. “Don’t compare your journey or progress to anyone else, even beginners,” McParland says. “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Heard that!

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Best Cardio Workouts For Beginners

Perhaps your view of cardio is slogging away for hours on an elliptical or treadmill. Cardio actually includes a wide variety of aerobic exercise. “A lot of people have a bad relationship with cardio,” McParland explains. “But cardio is honestly a great supplement to strength training.”

A few of the benefits of cardio include better endurance in strength training, better blood pressure regulation, and higher VO2 max (the ability to take in more oxygen and deliver it to your muscles efficiently), she says.

You don’t have to go all-in and train for a marathon—simply start at your own pace and build. Pick any form of cardio you enjoy and sprinkle it in two to three days a week for 20 to 30 minutes, McParland recommends. Then, take rest days in-between your cardio days.

Running indoors or out, biking or cycling, rowing, or using the elliptical or stair master are great cardio options, McParland recommends. No matter which form of cardio you choose, start out with interval training—try jogging or working for 30 seconds, then walking for a minute or two, and alternate that pattern for 20 minutes.

Pick any form of cardio you enjoy and sprinkle it in two to three days a week for 20 to 30 minutes.

“Do something higher intensity, get your heart rate up, but then pull it back and recover,” she says. Eventually, you’ll be able to decrease the walk time and be able to keep up that higher intensity for 15 to 20 minutes without a break.

Best Strength Workouts For Beginners

First things first: Master the foundational movement patterns of strength training. These are the patterns you’ll want to hit every week:

  • Push: any movement where you push something away from your body. Examples: pushups, bench presses, shoulder presses, and overhead presses.
  • Pull: any movement where you pull something towards your body. Examples: chin-ups and bent-over rows.
  • Squat: when you lower your hips and then stand back up. Examples: pulse squats, sumo squats, kettlebell squats.
  • Lunge: when you stand with your legs apart (either one in front of the other or laterally) and bend both legs so there’s weight on one at a time, then stand back up. Examples: split squats and lateral lunges.
  • Hinge: any movement where you have to hinge from your hips. Examples: deadlifts, single-leg deadlifts, sumo deadlifts, and kettlebell swings.
  • Carry: when you carry a heavy weight around, like a dumbbell or kettlebell. Examples: farmer’s carry, single arm carry, and overhead carry.

Start strength training with full-body workouts two days a week at a minimum, she says. During both of those days, you should hit at least one exercise from each category of the foundational movement patterns, which will usually take around 40 to 60 minutes.

Start strength training with full-body workouts two days a week at a minimum.

This way, “you get enough challenge and work to stimulate muscle growth,” she says. Try that for four to six weeks, and see how your body feels—if your body is craving a third day of full-body training, feel free to add that in.

Once you’re working out for four days or more, McParland recommends splitting up your training into specific body parts. For example, you can schedule two upper-body days and two lower-body days, or a glute day, an upper-body workout day, a lower-body burn day, and a core workout day.


A Comprehensive Beginner Workout Plan: Strength And Cardio

Wherever your starting point, this beginner-friendly program, designed by McParland, will help you master those movement patterns and work your whole body for four weeks.

Week One

Complete the five programmed workouts (detailed ahead!) when it’s convenient for you. Focus on your form and take two solid rest days for recover.

  • Day 1: Full-Body Strength I
  • Day 2: Optional Cardio/Steps
  • Day 3: Full-Body Strength II
  • Day 4: Optional Cardio/Steps
  • Day 5: Active Rest Day

Active rest days: Your activity on this day is up to you with the goal of some kind of motion on rest days. You could go for a long walk or hike lasting 40 minutes or more, or roll out your mat for a yoga class.

Week Two

If you hit all the workouts you wanted to during week one, repeat them during week two and increase one variable (reps or sets, weight, range of motion, slow down, reduce your rest periods) in each workout, McParland says. If you didn’t hit your step goal, cardio, or missed a strength workout, don’t stress. Refocus on completing all of the week one workouts before upping any of the above.

  • Day 1: Full-Body Strength I
  • Day 2: Optional Cardio/Steps
  • Day 3: Full-Body Strength II
  • Day 4: Optional Cardio/Steps
  • Day 5: Active Rest Day

Week Three

Repeat the workouts from week two exactly the same or increase one variable again. Option to add a third strength workout to level up.

  • Day 1: Full-Body Strength I
  • Day 2: Optional Cardio/Steps
  • Day 3: Full-Body Strength II
  • Day 4: Optional Cardio/Steps
  • Day 5: Active Rest Day
  • Day 6: Full-Body Strength III

Week Four

Still going strong? Hit all six workouts and increase one variable during each one for extra challenge. Option to ramp up your cardio to 30 to 40 minutes or increase that step goal.

  • Day 1: Full-Body Strength I
  • Day 2: Optional Cardio/Steps
  • Day 3: Full-Body Strength II
  • Day 4: Optional Cardio/Steps
  • Day 5: Active Rest Day
  • Day 6: Full-Body Strength III

Full-Body Strength I

Warmup with 5 minutes of cardio of your choice, like walking, jogging, rowing, biking, elliptical, or jumping rope. Your rate of perceived exertion or RPE should be at a 5 or 6, and you should be able to speak in a full sentence throughout.

Warmup (2-3 Rounds)

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Bottoms-Up Squat

How to:

  1. Start standing with feet wider than hips-width apart, arms raised toward ceiling and toes slightly pointed out.
  2. Fold forward at the hips and touch toes with hands.
  3. Maintaining a straight spine, sink butt back and down into a deep squat.
  4. Raise arms up toward ceiling as you push through heels to return to standing. That’s 1 rep. Continue for 30-45 seconds.
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TYW

  1. Start standing with feet hip-width apart, then hinge at the hips to bring your torso slightly forward. Maintain a straight back.
  2. Extend arms out to sides to form a T shape.
  3. Maintaining your body position, swing the arms up so the upper arms align with the ears, forming a Y shape.
  4. Core engaged the entire time, bend elbows to waist and retract the shoulder blades to form a W shape.
  5. Continue repeating the sequence for 30-45 seconds.
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Inchworm

How to:

  1. Start standing with feet hips-width apart. Hinge at your hips and lower down (imagine yourself doing a deadlift) until your hands reach the ground.
  2. Crawl forward lifting one hand at a time with legs straight and hips lifted until you’re in a high plank.
  3. Walk your hands one by one back to your feet.
  4. Reverse the deadlift motion to return to standing. Continue for 30-45 seconds.

    Superset 1 (2 Rounds)

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    Goblet Squat

    How to:

    1. Start standing with feet hip-width apart holding a kettlebell or dumbbell in front of chest with elbows pointing toward the floor.
    2. Push hips back and bend knees to lower into a squat.
    3. Press through heels to return to start.
    4. That’s 1 rep. Repeat for 10-12 reps.
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    Single Arm Bent-Over Row

    How to:

    1. Start standing with feet hips-width apart and holding one dumbbell in your right hand.
    2. Hinge at the hip and place left hand straight in front or resting on a bench for support.
    3. Bend right elbow and row dumbbell up and back until wrist is near hip bone.
    4. Reverse the motion to lower back to start. That’s 1 rep.
    5. Complete 10-12 reps, then switch sides and repeat.

    Superset 2 (2 Rounds)

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    Step-Up

    How to:

    1. Start standing in front of an elevated surface (like a box or stair). Hold a dumbbell in each hand.
    2. Step your right foot on top of the box.
    3. Drive through the right leg until it’s straight to bring the left foot to join on the box. (Option to add a knee drive at the top, as shown.)
    4. Step left foot down to the floor, bending right leg.
    5. Step right foot back to the floor. That’s 1 rep.
    6. Complete 6-8 reps, then switch sides and repeat.
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    Single-Arm Shoulder Press

    How to:

    1. Start standing with feet hips-width apart and holding a dumbbell one dumbbell in your right hand at shoulder height.
    2. Engage your glutes, and press your arm with the weight overhead until elbow is straight and your bicep is next to your ear.
    3. Lower your arm with control. That’s 1 rep.
    4. Switch sides and repeat.

    Triset 1 (2-3 Rounds)

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    Incline Pushup

    How to:

    1. Start in a high plank position, with hands on an elevated surface and your feet to a bit wider than hip-width apart for more stability. Think about wrapping your shoulders back, keeping your ribcage knit together, and engaging your core. (Option to start on knees or full plank on a flat surface depending on your current strength.)
    2. With control, bend elbows and lower chest as low as you can.
    3. Push into your entire hand and press yourself back up. That’s 1 rep. Complete 5-10 reps.
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    Marching Glute Bridge

    How to:

    1. Lie on the mat on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
    2. Press into your heels to raise your hips up toward the ceiling until you form a straight line from knees to hips to head.
    3. Maintaining the hip position, raise your right foot a few inches off of the floor.
    4. Lower it back to the floor.
    5. Repeat on the left. That’s 1 rep. Complete 8-10 reps.
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    Farmer’s Carry

    How to:

    1. Pick up one weight and hold in your right hand, standing with feet hips-width apart.
    2. Tighten your armpits and make sure your shoulders are pulled back to activate the muscles in the rotator cuff area.
    3. Take small steps forward to walk around your space.
    4. Continue walking for 30 seconds.
    5. Switch sides and repeat.

    Full-Body Strength II

    Warmup with 5 minutes of your choice of cardio, whether walking, jogging, rowing, biking, elliptical, or jumping rope. (Your RPE should be at a 5 or 6, meaning you could maintain that level of effort for longer time period if needed and you should be able to speak in a full sentence.)

    Warmup (2-3 Rounds)

    This is an image

    T Spine Rotation

    How to:

    1. Start on all fours, with your knees under hips and hands under shoulders.
    2. Twist your torso and left hand until it is pointing straight up to the ceiling, and shift gaze upward.
    3. Reverse the motion to return to start. That’s 1 rep.
    4. Continue for 30 seconds, then switch sides and repeat.
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    Downward Dog

    How to:

    1. Begin on your hands and knees, shoulders over wrists and hips over knees directly under your hips.
    2. Walk hands a few inches forward, spread fingers wide, and press firmly through palms with straight arms.
    3. Exhale as you tuck your toes and lift knees off the floor, reaching your pelvis up toward the ceiling and straighten your legs as much as you can until you create an inverted V shape.
    4. Peddle through feet, lifting one heel at a time.
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    Deadbug

    How to:

    1. Lay on back with arms and legs in the air, elbows straight and knees bent to 90 degrees.
    2. Press lower back into floor and brace your core.
    3. Slowly and simultaneously lower your right leg until your heel nearly touches floor and your left arm until your hand nearly touches floor overhead and pause.
    4. With control, bring right leg and left arm back to start.
    5. Repeat with left leg and right arm. That’s 1 rep.
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    Good Morning

    How to:

    1. Stand with your feet at about shoulder distance and place your hands behind your head.
    2. Hinge at your hips with soft knees and bring your chest towards the floor while your back remains relatively flat/in a fixed position. You should feel stretch in hamstrings.
    3. Keep going until you feel like your back may start to round and right before that, stand up returning to start position. That’s 1 rep.

    Superset 1 (2 Rounds)

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    Dumbbell Deadlift

    How to:

    1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand.
    2. Hinge at your hips and lower down, with a slight bend in your knees, until dumbbells reach mid-calf. Keep your spine neutral by looking forward, not up.
    3. Keep your shoulders back, then squeeze your glutes and your core as you stand up straight, tuck your pelvis, and lift the dumbbells back to stand.
    4. Pause for a moment at the top. That’s 1 rep. Repeat for 10-12 reps.
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    Floor Press

    How to:

    1. Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on floor.
    2. Hold a pair of dumbbells above your shoulders with straight arms.
    3. Lower arms down with control, bending elbows until upper arms touch the floor. (Forearms should remain perpendicular to the floor throughout the movement.)
    4. Press dumbbells upwards back to start. That’s 1 rep. Repeat for 10-12 reps.

      Superset 2 (2 Rounds)

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      Bodyweight Split Squat

      How to:

      1. Start standing, and step one foot forward as wide as you can while keeping both heels planted on the ground with toes pointed forward.
      2. Place your hands on your hips and maintain an upright torso as you bend both your knees, allowing your back heel to come off the ground as you shift your weight down into the heel of the front leg.
      3. Lower until your back shin and front thigh are parallel with the ground, and pause.
      4. Drive through your front heel to stand back up to the start position. That’s 1 rep. Repeat for 6-8 reps, then switch sides.
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      Bent-Over Reverse Fly

      How to:

      1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart and your knees slightly bent, holding a dumbbell in each hand.
      2. Hinge forward at the hips and let your arms hang straight down from your shoulders, palms facing each other.
      3. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and raise bring your arms out to the sides like a bird flapping its wings. (Nothing should move except your arms and shoulders.)
      4. Lower your arms back down with control. That’s 1 rep. Repeat for 6-8 reps.

      Triset 1 (2-3 Rounds)

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      Side Plank

      How to:

      1. Lay on your side with your right forearm flat on the floor, bottom elbow lined up directly under your shoulder and both legs extended out in a long line. Feet can either be staggered for more stability, or stacked for more of a challenge.
      2. Engage your core and lift your hips off the floor, forming a straight line from your head to your feet. Your top hand can be on side of hip (easier) or reaching up to the ceiling (harder).
      3. Hold for 20 seconds, then switch sides.

      Kettlebell Halo

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      How to:

      1. Start standing holding a kettlebell in both hands and your feet hip-width apart.
      2. Raise the kettlebell so that it’s in front of your chest with your elbows bent.
      3. Keeping both elbows bent, slowly circle the kettlebell around your head to your right. That’s 1 rep.
      4. Complete 4 reps, then reverse directions and repeat.
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      Overhead Slam

      How to:

      1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, a soft bend in knees, and core engaged, while holding a slam ball at your chest with both hands. (Option to use a pillow.)
      2. Rise up tall on your toes and extend your arms overhead holding the slam ball.
      3. Bend at your hips (hinging forward slightly) and slam the ball on the ground directly in front of you. Exhale as you throw the ball down towards the ground with force. Be careful not to arch your back.
      4. Catch the ball on the bounce while lowering back into the squat position. That’s 1 rep. Repeat for 20 seconds.

      Full-Body Strength III

      Warmup with 5 min cardio of your choice, whether walking, jogging, rowing, biking, elliptical, or jumping rope. (Your RPE should be at a 5 or 6, meaning you could maintain that level of effort for longer time period if needed and you should be able to speak in a full sentence.)

      Warmup (2-3 Rounds)

      This is an image

      Lateral Lunge

      How to:

      1. Start with your feet shoulder-width apart, toes pointed straight forward.
      2. Step out with your right foot as wide as possible. Engage through the right heel as you drop your hips down and back while keeping the left leg straight, stretching the groin on the left leg and keeping both soles of the feet on the ground and toes pointed straight forward. Make sure your right knee is tracking over your right foot the whole motion.
      3. Powerfully “punch” your right heel into the floor to push yourself back to the full standing start position. That’s 1 rep. Continue on same side for 30 seconds, then switch sides and repeat.
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      Banded Glute Bridge

      How to:

      1. Place a miniband around your thighs and lie on your back with feet flat against the floor and knees bent.
      2. Squeeze your glutes and lift your hips off of the floor until your body forms a straight line from your knees to your shoulders.
      3. Pause at the top, then lower back down to the starting position. That’s 1 rep.
      This is an image

      Overhead Press

      How to:

      1. Start standing with feet hips-width apart and holding a light kettlebell in right hand at shoulder height and left arm on hip.
      2. Press the kettlebell straight up until your bicep is next to your ear and your elbow is extended.
      3. Lower the kettlebell with control back to shoulder height. That’s 1 rep.

      Superset 1 (2 Rounds)

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      Weighted Lateral Lunge

      How to:

      1. Hold kettlebell by your chest in a goblet position or with both hands in front of your body with arms extended.
      2. With both feet facing forward under your hips, step one foot out laterally until you’re in a very wide stance, bending that knee until the kettlebell touches the floor or your butt is parallel to your knee.
      3. Drive through your knees to get up until both legs are back at starting position. That’s 1 rep.
      4. Complete 10-12 reps, then switch sides and repeat.
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      Shoulder Press

      How to:

      1. Start standing with feet hips-width apart and holding a dumbbell in each hand.
      2. Place the weights on your shoulders with your palms facing each other and elbows facing the floor.
      3. Press both of the weights overhead until elbows are fully extended and biceps are near your ears. (Option to alternate pressing one dumbbell at a time.)
      4. Lower with control to return to the starting position. That’s 1 rep. Repeat for 10-12 reps.

      Superset 2 (2 Rounds)

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      Weighted Hip Thrust

      How to:

      1. Sit on your knees and hold one dumbbell on hips.
      2. Lower hips to your feet, keeping chest tall.
      3. Drive through your feet and glutes until hips are extended and you’re back at the starting position. That’s 1 rep. Repeat for 10-12 reps.
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      Upright Row

      How to:

      1. Start with feet under hips, legs straight, holding a dumbbell in each hand, palms facing toward body and weights touching quads.
      2. Pull elbows up and out wide to lift the dumbbells to chest.
      3. Reverse movement to return to start. That’s 1 rep. Repeat for 10-12 reps.

      Triset 1 (2 Rounds)

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      Lateral Raise

      How to:

      1. Stand with feet hips-width apart and holding a dumbbell in each hand with arms down at sides. (Option to begin kneeling.)
      2. Keeping shoulders back and down, raise arms out wide until parallel to the floor.
      3. Lower arms slowly to return to start. That’s 1 rep. Repeat for 10-12 reps.
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      Kneeling Cross-Body Biceps Curl

      How to:

      1. Start kneeling with your knees shoulder-width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand. Your palms should be resting against the front of your thighs.
      2. Keeping your elbow glued to your side, raise the right dumbbell toward your opposite shoulder.
      3. Lower back to start with control.
      4. Repeat on the left side. That’s 1 rep. Repeat for 10-12 reps.
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      Bicycle Crunch

      How to:

      1. Lie flat on the floor with your lower back pressed into your mat.
      2. Interlace your fingers to create a cradle and place it behind your head. Elbows should be out of your peripheral vision.
      3. Float your legs up to a tabletop position, ankles in line with knees.
      4. Engage abdominals, and lift your head, so your shoulder blades are hovering off of the ground.
      5. Straighten the right leg long while turning the upper body left and simultaneously bring your right elbow towards your left knee. Twist at the ribs and lead with your shoulder rather than your elbow.
      6. Switch and repeat on the other side. That’s 1 rep. Continue alternating for 10-12 reps.
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      Addison Aloian (she/her) is an editorial assistant at Women’s Health. When she’s not writing about all things pop culture, health, beauty, and fashion, she loves hitting leg day at the gym, shopping at Trader Joe’s, and watching whichever hockey game is on TV. Her work has also appeared in Allure, StyleCaster, L’Officiel USA, V Magazine, and Modern Luxury Media.