It’s easy to be overwhelmed when you start strength training—there are so many moves and different ways of training. But if you have a few reliable exercises to fall back on whenever you have time to train, the building blocks will be in place for an effective exercise regime.
You can use these exercises to put together workouts that will help you get fitter and stronger, and learn some of the foundational movements every exercise plan needs.
Two of our coaches picked the squat as their number one move for beginners: Rory Knight, director of fitness at WithU, and Carrie Baxter, PT at WithU. Here’s why they rate the squat so highly.
Why it’s great “The squat is effective because it utilizes multiple major muscle groups,” says Knight, “plus, it’s a movement that you perform daily, often without realizing, meaning it has added functional benefits.
“Squats are also easily adaptable depending on your experience. For example, using a chair for support as you gain confidence with the movement, before moving on to an unsupported squat.”
Baxter has another reason why the squat is great for beginners. “With two feet firmly on the floor you don’t have to test your balance, so you can work on building confidence with the move while feeling stable,” says Baxter.
Watch how to do an unweighted squat
How to do it Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart with feet pointing out to the sides slightly if comfortable. Brace your core and push your hips back and bend your knees to lower until your thighs are parallel to the floor, then push through your heels to come back up to standing.
Top tips “If you’ve never performed a hinge movement like a squat before, it’s a really good idea to start with a box or chair to sit back on to help guide your body back and down,” says Baxter. “Start by working to half range, then build up to full range of motion as you master the technique.
“When learning to squat, it’s also important to push your knees out to protect them. Try to feel the movement in your glutes [the muscles in your backside] rather than the quads [the front of your thighs]. The best way to maintain correct knee alignment is to practice bringing awareness to your feet and ensure you’re pushing weight evenly through the entire foot—the big toe, little toe and heel—throughout the exercise.”
“My game-changing tip is to remove your footwear and perform the exercise barefoot,” says Knight. “We have thousands of nerve endings in our feet that enhance the recruitment of our muscle fibers. To create more engagement, think of each foot as a tripod and look to grip the floor with your big toes, little toes and heels. By doing this you should feel stronger, more balanced and connected when you squat.”
See more tips in our explanation of how to squat.
2. Glute Bridge
The bridge was picked by Jo-Leigh Morris, Pilates instructor at Mvmnt.
Why it’s great “The glute bridge is my go-to bodyweight exercise because it engages the glutes, hamstrings and hip flexors—the stabilizers of the posterior chain [the muscles which run along the back of your body],” says Morris. “The glute bridge is great for beginners because you’re in a stable position with both feet on the floor, so there’s no need to worry about balance.
“Once you’ve mastered a glute bridge, it’s also a great warm-up exercise before a lower-body workout.”
Watch how to do a glute bridge
How to do it Lie on the floor with your knees bent so your feet are flat on the floor close to your buttocks. Lift your hips so that your knees, hips and shoulders form a straight line. Hold this position for a moment then lower your hips to the floor.
Top tip “The most important thing when performing a glute bridge is that the movement is powered by your glutes via hip extension, and not your lower back,” says Morris. “My top tip to ensure this happens is to slightly tuck your tailbone under, thinking about pulling your belly button towards your spine. This will help you create a neutral spine. Engage your core throughout the exercise as you drive your hips up to maintain the correct posture, target the right muscles and protect your lower back.” Find more top tips with our glute bridge form guide.
3. Dead Bug
The dead bug was picked out as one of the best beginner exercises by Omar Mansour, coach at WithU.
Why it's great “The dead bug is a great entry-level exercise for strengthening the deep muscles in your core,” says Mansour. “It’s accessible for beginners because you’re in a stable position on your back and you can perform the exercise slowly as you learn the technique.
“The dead bug is also a great way to learn how to brace your core, which is a foundation for strength training which requires core control.”
Watch how to do a dead bug
How to do it Lie on your back with your arms extended and pointing up, and your legs lifted and knees bent at a 90° angle. Squeeze your core and lower one arm behind your head and lower and extend the opposite leg until both limbs are just above the floor. Return to the start then repeat on the other side.
Top tip “The most important thing is to brace your core to ensure you’re working your abs and not your lower-back muscles,” says Mansour. “You can do this by keeping your whole back pressed into the floor throughout. Think about driving your belly button down and checking throughout the move that your back isn’t arching. Breathe out as you extend your arm and leg, and breathe in as you bring them back to help maintain core stability.” Get more tips with our dead bug form guide.
One of the best bodyweight exercises that people love to hate is the burpee, which is the choice of Faisal Abdalla, PT at Mvmnt.
Why it’s great “While it may not be everyone’s favorite exercise, the reason the burpee is my number one exercise for beginners is that they’re very, very effective!” says Abdalla. “A burpee is a compound full-body movement, meaning you work many of your main muscle groups across your whole body in one go.
“The burpee is particularly effective for beginners because it’ll build muscle and increase your cardiovascular fitness. Plus, if you want one move that makes you feel like you’ve done a great workout, burpees are it!”
Watch how to do a burpee
How to do it From standing, place your hands on the floor in front of you and jump or step your feet back so you’re in a high plank position. Your hands should be under your shoulders, your arms extended and your body should form a straight line between your neck and heels. Then jump or step your feet back up to your hands, stand up and jump into the air lifting your arms above your head.
Top tip “A burpee is a challenging movement because it’s a full-body exercise that requires coordination, speed and power,” says Abdalla. “To start with, don’t focus on the speed element of the exercise, that will come once you’ve mastered the technique. Start slow, and adopt a rhythm that works for you while you familiarize yourself with the correct hand and foot placement. Once you’ve got this in the bag, you can make the exercise more dynamic by increasing speed and power. This is when you’ll start to feel the benefit!” For help mastering the finer points of the movement, read our burpee form guide.
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Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.