Beginner’s gym workout to build muscle

This beginner’s gym workout includes easy muscle-building exercises to build strength

Person working out in the gym
(Image credit: Getty)

Looking for a beginner’s gym workout to build muscle and overall strength? Whether you’re new to fitness or returning after a break or injury, we’ve created a simple 30-minute exercise circuit to help strengthen and tone the whole body.

We all know exercise is good for physical health – it has been proven to increase heart and lung health, as well as boost bone density. It can also improve body composition by burning calories and increasing your metabolic rate while building muscle.

What’s more, regular exercise means the body gets more of the feel-good hormones serotonin and dopamine, lifting mood and reducing depressive feelings. Studies have found it could improve brain function by up to 15 percent.

Ready to try our beginner’s gym workout? Don’t forget to check out our guide covering the best cross training shoes. 

Maddy Biddulph

Maddy Biddulph is a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Nutrition Advisor who specializes in helping women over 40 to stay fit, healthy and positive during peri menopause and menopause.

Beginner’s gym workout: how long should you train for?

Adults should aim for two days of muscle-strengthening activity a week, according to the current Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.

And while there’s no one-size-fits-all workout that’s perfectly suited for everyone, if you’re new or returning to exercise, then aim for a 30-minute workout twice a week, building up to three to four sessions as your fitness levels increase.

Leave at least one day in between training to allow the body enough recovery time. This is particularly important as it’s during this time that our muscles grow. When we do strength training exercises like these, our muscles are essentially damaged during the process. They sustain tiny tears, which need rest to restore them. Then they grow back bigger and stronger. 

Beginner’s gym workout

Warm-up (5 mins)

Getting your blood pumping before your first workout is essential. Get the muscles ready for exercise with five minutes at moderate intensity (can hold a conversation, but getting harder to talk) on a treadmill, Stairmaster, cross trainer, or rowing machine.

Main workout (20 mins)

This full-body workout involves eight exercises, and you’ll do each one for eight reps. Do the entire circuit three times, resting for two minutes between each set. 

  1. Bodyweight squats
  2. Seated leg press
  3. Bicep curls
  4. Tricep bench dips
  5. Chest fly
  6. Rear delts
  7. Bicycle crunch
  8. Low plank

A full explanation of how to do each move is below.

Bodyweight squats

Woman doing bodyweight squat.

(Image credit: Getty)
  1. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Bend at the knees and hips and sit back as if sitting down in a chair. Keep your chest to the sky to protect the spine from rounding.
  3. Lower your hips so the knees are stacked over your ankles. Keep your weight in your heels and use your butt muscles (glutes) to explode back to start position. Repeat for eight reps.

Seated leg press

Man doing seated leg press.

(Image credit: Getty)
  1. Sit on the machine with your back and tailbone flat against the backrest. Put your feet on the resistance plate, toes pointing forward, and adjust your seat and foot position so the bend in your knees is 90 degrees.
  2. Hold onto the handles and brace your core as you use your feet to push the plate away from your body. Keep heels flat against the plate.
  3. Extend until your legs are almost straight, being careful not to lock out the knees.
  4. Pause momentarily, then slowly and with control return to starting position by bending the hips and knees and allowing the resistance plate to move towards you. Repeat for eight reps.

Bicep curls

Woman doing a bicep curl using a free weight.

(Image credit: Getty)
  1. Stand with arms by your side (keep elbows glued to your sides throughout the set).
  2. Tense your right hand as you slowly lift your arm to your right shoulder and back down again. You should be flexing your bicep as you lift, but only your forearm should be moving.
  3. Swap arms and repeat the curl on each side for four reps.

Tricep bench dips

Woman doing tricep bench dips.

(Image credit: Getty)
  1. Sit on a bench with your hands next to your hips. Lift onto your hands and bring your hips slightly forward.
  2. Bend your elbows as you lower your hips down towards the floor, hovering above it as you keep your back and hips close to the bench.
  3. Push back up to the starting position and repeat eight times.

Chest fly 

Man doing chest fly exercise.

(Image credit: Getty)
  1. Adjust the seat height so your arms are parallel with the floor and even with your chest. Sit on the seat with your back against the backrest.
  2. Grip the vertical handles, keeping shoulders down and feet firmly planted on the floor with your back straight. 
  3. Exhale as you bring the handles together as if you are hugging a tree and inhale as you pull them back to starting position. Repeat for eight reps.

Rear delt (reverse) fly

Woman doing rear delt (reverse) fly.

(Image credit: Getty)
  1. Sit on the seat with your chest pressed into the pad and feet firmly planted on the floor.
  2. Grab the horizontal handles with palms down and elbows slightly bent.
  3. Squeeze your shoulder blades together as you bring the handles back until roughly in line with your shoulders.
  4. Slowly and with control return to the starting position and repeat eight times.

Bicycle crunch

Woman doing bicycle crunches.

(Image credit: Getty)
  1. Lie with your back on the floor, with knees bent and feet flat.
  2. With your hands loosely behind your head (but not interlinked) bring one knee up towards the opposite elbow as you twist your torso and back to start position.
  3. Swap legs and repeat this move, as if you are riding a bicycle.
  4. Imagine you have an apple between your chest and chin to avoid straining the neck and repeat four times on each leg.

Low plank

Woman and man doing low plank.

(Image credit: Getty)
  1. Lie on your stomach then bring yourself up onto your elbows with feet about shoulder-width apart. Keep your back straight like a plank.
  2. Keep hands stacked under your shoulders and your neck in line with the rest of the spine. Don’t let your stomach hang down and keep your core braced (imagine you are zipping your belly button up towards your spine).
  3. Hold this position for 20 seconds. Remember to breathe!

Cool down (5 mins)

The cool down and stretch is equally as important as warming up - it gradually brings the heart rate down and the body back to a normal or ‘steady’ state (or homeostasis), returning muscles to their normal length. Plus, it’s nice and relaxing! 

Cool down with a five-minute walk on the treadmill followed by this easy and relaxing stretch sequence.

Woman stretching

(Image credit: Getty)

Stretch (5 mins)

Quad stretch

  1. From standing, bend one knee and grasp the right foot as you pull the heel into your butt so that you feel the stretch in the front of your thighs (quadriceps).
  2. Slightly bend the supporting leg so the knees are together, but not touching.
  3. Hold the stretch for 20-30 seconds then swap legs.

Hip flexor stretch

  1. Kneel on a mat with both knees and then put one foot forward, so you have a 90-degree angle at the hip and knee.
  2. Keeping the torso upright, lean forward until you feel a stretch through the groin and top of the thigh.
  3. Hold for 20-30 seconds then move back to the start position and swap legs. Hold the stretch on the other leg for 20-30 seconds.

Seated shoulder stretch

  1. With legs crossed on the floor, raise one arm to shoulder height and reach it across your chest.
  2. Pull the arm slightly toward you with the other arm.
  3. Hold for 20-30 seconds then swap arms.

Seated tricep stretch

  1. Still seated, extend one arm vertically and bend your elbow taking the hand down the back of your head, placing your arm along the line of your spine.
  2. Keeping your back straight, take the other hand across the front of your face and place it on the back of your elbow/arm.
  3. Gradually apply pressure to increase the stretch on your triceps.
  4. Hold for 20-30 seconds then swap arms.

Lying glute stretch

  1. Now lie down on your back with your feet on the floor and knees up.
  2. Bring one leg up and put your ankle on the opposite knee.
  3. Reach through the triangle-shaped hole between your legs and pull your thigh towards your chest. The stretch will be felt strongly in the butt area. If the leg starts shaking, release or ease off the stretch slightly.
  4. Hold for 20-30 seconds.

Lying lower back stretch

  1. Still lying on your back with knees bent, lift them towards the chest and hug them, feeling the stretch in the lower back.
  2. Hold for 20-30 seconds.

Child’s pose

  1. Roll over and sit back on your knees. Lean forward and walk your hands out in front of you. 
  2. Take a big breath then as you breathe out, walk your fingers a little further ahead of you on the floor. You should feel this stretch in your back (lats).
  3. Hold for 20-30 seconds then slowly return to standing.

Beginner’s gym workout: tips for a good workout

Getting started on a new exercise program can be daunting but there are a few things you can do to make sure you have a good workout every time.

  • Don’t skip the warm-up or cool-down – these are just as important as the main session, and help prepare the muscles for exercise, as well as reduce the risk of injury by properly stretching them out afterward.
  • Drink lots of water – you can lose a lot of fluid when you exercise (as much as a liter or two an hour) mainly through sweating and breathing. If you don’t top this fluid back up, you can get dehydrated. Water helps fuel your muscles, so drinking before, during, and after exercise will boost your energy levels, and may help to prevent cramps.
  • Eat protein post-workout – protein is essential for muscle growth and also helps reduce  (DOMS), the aches and pains we often feel after doing a new workout. 
  • Take rest days – as we’ve heard, these are not only essential to allow the body to recover but also for muscle growth.
  • Be consistent – while we’d all love to see changes immediately, it takes time and consistency to get fitter and stronger, so be patient.
Maddy Biddulph

Maddy Biddulph is a freelance journalist specializing in fitness, health and wellbeing content. With 26 years in consumer media, she has worked as a writer and editor for some of the bestselling newspapers, magazines and websites in the US and UK. 

She is also a qualified L3 personal trainer and weight loss advisor, and helps women over 40 navigate menopause by improving their physical and mental strength. At Maddy Biddulph Personal Training, she runs one-to-one and small group training for menopausal women who want to get fit to ease symptoms and feel like themselves again.