“How do I start working out” is one of my favorite questions to be asked. I love exercising, and I love seeing other people be interested in it.
But it’s the wrong question.
The question implies that there is some goal: “to start working out,” and the asker is confused about how to work towards that goal. If the only goal is the “start working out” you could go to the gym, do one dumbbell curl, and you’d have succeeded, but I think you’ll agree that’s most likely not what they really want.
Everyone understands that they should “work out,” but exercise has suffered the same fate as diet. It’s been over-complicated by an industry that profits from making it seem harder than it is. That sense of complication leads people to either spend ridiculous amounts of money, or get intimidated and never start.
Solving the problem starts with reframing the question. Instead of thinking “I want to work out” you should think about why you want to work out.
There are only four underlying goals for working out that people actually want when they say “I want to start working out”:
These have their own problems though.
“Being healthy” is a bad goal. How do you know when you arrive there? It’s not measurable, there’s no clear way to track your day to day progress.
“Losing weight” is also bad motivation. You can exercise in ways that will boost your metabolism, but 90% of weight loss will come from what you eat. If you only want to lose weight, look to your diet. Spending 60 minutes on the elliptical every other day and not consciously restricting your calories will do very little to help you lose weight, and whatever you lose will immediately come back when you stop exercising.
“Look good naked” has the same problem as “healthy,” but it’s getting closer. Look good naked can at least be quantified in measurable ways like a body recomposition goal: “I want to gain 10lbs of muscle and lose 10lbs of fat.” On the overly simplistic “1-10” scale that’d move any man or woman up at least 1 point and can be done in a month or two.
Body recomposition goals, or performance goals, are the only “good” goals to motivate starting exercising. They’re already the most common underlying ones, but unless you frame them in this way you’re much more likely to quit. I wouldn’t move on until you have one of these goals in mind. For reference, my current goal is to reach 190lbs without going above 12% bodyfat, and once that’s reached my goal will be to get below 6% bodyfat without the amount I can lift changing.
If you’re not sure how to check your bodyfat, just buy a pair of calipers. They’re less accurate than a professional measurement, but they’re consistently less accurate which means you can still use them for tracking your fat gain / loss.
Sidenote: If your goal is running / cardio based, I can’t help you. I hate running and would argue it’s bad for you unless your form is perfect and you don’t touch asphalt. If you went with a recomposition goal though, read on…
“Toned” is a useless word because it implies that you can work out to build more muscular and get thinner at the same time which is very hard to do. Toned as you’re thinking about it just means that you have low body fat and some muscular strength. There will be a give and take though, it’s a two step process.
For men it’s very hard to put on the muscle you want without putting on some fat as well. For women it’s less of a concern since you’re not trying to put on pounds and pounds of muscle, but you will still have to do a bit of conscious switching between “I’m getting stronger” and “I’m losing weight.” Instead of trying to “get toned” think about gaining X pounds of muscle and then losing an equal amount of weight in fat. You’ll look great, I promise.
The point of this post is to make it as easy as possible for you to get into the gym and see motivating results. Because of that, it’s important to outline the common mistakes people make that result in them quitting or giving up so you can avoid them.
1. Using a friend’s routine. This is especially common with men. They decide they want to start working out, so they text their biggest friend and ask him to give them a routine. Just because someone is big does not mean that they have any idea what they’re talking about, and they’ll most likely give you recommendations that are bad for beginners.
2. Going to the gym and doing “the machine circuit.” This is especially common with women. Out of a fear that picking up a barbell will make them “bulky and gross” they stick with the machines, and since they don’t have a routine to go with they just do all of them and assume that makes a good workout. It rarely does, especially without clear set and repetition prescriptions. Machines are fine, but they have to be used strategically and not randomly.
3. Hiring a personal trainer at 95% of gyms. Pro tip, you can become a personal trainer right now if you just go to ACSM.org, sign up for a test, cram the night before, and pass it. Boom, you’re a personal trainer, employable at many gyms. If that doesn’t convince you that most personal trainers are BS, think about their incentives. Since they bill hourly they make more money the more complicated and difficult they make exercise seem. They could give you a 30 minute routine to do 3x a week on your own, but then you wouldn’t need them. It’s more profitable to come up with a routine that’s always changing so you have to go back to them.
4. Using the same amount of weight each time. If the amount you’re lifting stays the same from one workout to the next, then you’ve gotten no stronger and have failed (unless you’re cutting weight). You’ll see people go and bench press the same amount week after week and seem confused as to why they’re not getting bigger. This mistake is even more common on the machines. If you’re trying to increase the weight but aren’t able to, you’re not eating enough.
5. Designing your own workout routine. We irrationally assume we know a lot about our body and how it works. Don’t be that man/woman doing the machine circuit, that person doing 100 crunches because that will definitely give them abs, or that guy who only does bicep curls and bench press because aesthetics.
Okay, now that that’s covered…
Think of a job. You’re told that if you work for 10 hours, you’re going to get paid for 10 hours of work. You do your 10 hours, you get paid, so you keep working. It’s fair.
Now imagine if you didn’t get paid. And then maybe next week you only get paid for one week of work. What do you do? Quit, naturally, and the same logic is why most people give up on working out.
If you’re going to the gym 3 days a week for a month and don’t look any different, why would you keep working out? You assume that “oh working out just doesn’t work for me” or “oh I’m a ‘hardgainer'” or “well I just wasn’t born to look like that” but in reality you just needed to fix up your routine and diet.
The best way to actually get to that point of looking good naked and being stronger is to always be motivated. You have to make sure that you’re always seeing improvements. The only way that happens is with a solid routine and diet.
Most fitness discussion sites (i.e. reddit.com/fitness) will recommend a routine like “Starting Strength” for people who want to start working out and get stronger (look good naked).
This routine is based on five compound lifts, performed in two different routines, switching off each time three days a week. The first routine is a combination of Squat, Bench Press, and Deadlift, and the second routine is a combination of Squat, Overhead Press, and Power Clean.
Workout AWorkout B
Squat, 3 sets of 5 repetitionsSquat, 3 sets of 5 repetitionsBench Press, 3 sets of 5Overhead Press, 3 sets of 5Deadlift, 1 set of 5Power Clean, 5 sets of 3
The logic is straightforward. It’s a very simple routine that works your entire body and that will result in muscular growth if followed with a good diet. But I strongly recommend you don’t start with it.
Despite being a great routine, it’s intimidating as hell to people starting out. Picking up a barbell on your back and squatting to the floor, or properly lifting one off the ground is not common knowledge and scares people away. Also, some men will be embarrassed to do these if they can’t lift a certain weight, and many women will avoid it from an (unjustified) fear of getting “bulky.”
Even if it’s not intimidating, many people will just jump right in without learning the proper form and put themselves at serious risk of injury. Picking 100+ pounds off the ground and throwing it above your head isn’t something to just YOLO. It’s safe when done properly, but doing it properly requires training or very careful research.
Seriously. Don’t assume you know how to do this properly.
What should you do instead? Machines. The goal of your first month or two of working out isn’t to have perfect form, or do the biggest lifts, or impress the other people in the gym. The goal is to start getting stronger and get addicted to the great feeling you have from working out regularly.
You can (and should) transition off of the machines later, but for starting they’re key. You can even do a piece-wise transition and switch off of them one at a time until you’re confident you can do the more complicated lifts. Bench press, for example, is much less intimidating than power cleans.
Just take the Starting Strength routine and turn it into a machine routine. Squats become Leg Press
Bench Press becomes Hammer Press
Overhead Press becomes Shoulder Press
and Rows and Deadlifts become the Row Machine / Seated Rows.
You just take the Starting Strength schedule, sub in these exercises, and this is what your machine routine looks like:
Workout AWorkout BLeg Press, 3 sets of 5Leg Press, 3 sets of 5Hammer Press, 3 sets of 5Shoulder Press, 3 sets of 5Row Machine, 3 sets of 5Row Machine, 3 sets of 5
So for example if you were going to workout on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, you would do A on Monday, B on Wednesday, and A on Friday. Then next week you would do B on Monday, and so on.
You could workout every other day, so some weeks you have four workouts, but this makes your schedule erratic so I don’t recommend it. Having a routine makes it easier to stick to.
For your first time you’ll have to guess at what weight to start with. You’ll want to use enough weight that you’d have a very hard time doing a 6th rep on the third set. If you do the first set and it’s easy, up the weight for the next two. If you make it through all three sets of five, increase the weight by 10lbs or 10% next time, whichever is larger. If you don’t make all three sets of 5, keep your weight the same next time.
Finally, don’t add anything else. You don’t need additional exercises. This is a sufficient full-body workout for someone starting out.
The implication so far is that people’s routines are the cause of them failing to see success with working out. That’s only half of it. Maybe even less than half. The other half is that they don’t realize that their whole lifestyle has to change.
If your goal is to build more than a few pounds of muscle you’re going to have to eat a lot more.
To make things easy, take your goal bodyweight, multiply that by 20, and that’s your minimum number of calories in a day. In addition, you should shoot for getting at least 1 gram of protein per pound of your goal weight.
As an example, I weigh 180 right now but my goal is 190. I need to be eating at least 190 x 20 = 3800 calories in a day, and at least 190g of protein. I tend to go higher and usually have 4500-5000 calories and 300g of protein.
If you’ve never eaten that much before it can be intimidating. The first few days will be hard because you’ll be trying to eat twice as much food as your body thinks it needs, but around day 3 or 4 you’re metabolism will shift and you’ll become an eating machine. Also your sex hormones will go way up.
This is commonly referred to as “dirty bulking.” Eating 3,000 calories of meat is tough, but 3,000 calories of oreos and goldfish is easy. The simplest way to hit that 5,000+ calorie range is to eat foods that don’t make you feel full, like junk food.
The problem with this though is that while you’ll have an easier time getting your calories in, they’ll also come with a lot of fat. Since fat cells never go away and make it easier to get fatter later, I don’t recommend this method.
Probably not. I’ve experimented and messed around with tons of supplements, and the only ones that are any use are protein powder for extra protein / calories, creatine for more visible muscular growth, and glutamine for less muscle soreness. I wouldn’t bother with the rest.
In terms of pre-workout, you could use it if you like the coked-up hulk-mode feeling, but again, it’s not necessary. And considering how frequently pre-workouts get banned or forced to change their formula I can’t argue for their healthiness.
You’ll eventually reach the point where this routine is no longer sufficient, but by then you’ll be hooked enough to go find the best one to transition to. You could also just ask in the comments, and I’d be happy to share the other ones I’ve tried for after you already have a solid foundation.
In the meantime just set a goal, buy more food, and hit the gym.
Then consider joining the 30,000 other people getting the Monday Medley newsletter. It's a collection of fascinating finds from my week, usually about psychology, technology, health, philosophy, and whatever else catches my interest. I also include new articles and book notes.