Exercise Prescription For Beginners


I want to be clear, when I talk about beginners I’m referring to “real people”, not athletes. People who are completely new to controlled exercise. I like to refer to these people as “raw beginners“. This article is also relevant for people that have exercised sporadically in the past and are returning from an extended layoff. Basically anyone who is unaccustomed to resistance and/or endurance training will relate.

I have to admit that as a personal  trainer, it’s been a long  journey of acceptance and understanding for me to realize that not everyone loves exercise. Most people don’t require it emotionally, nor do they crave the exertion of physical labor. It has been my experience that most people hate exercise and even those who do participate tend to view the effort as an inconvenient means to an end. This is the sad reality of today’s world. As a result, there are far too many people who are obese and suffering unimaginably. Everyone knows that they need to exercise, but for many us the disconnect occurs with where to start.

With the proliferation of transformation reality shows, fitness magazines, internet gurus and fitness clubs, there are more options than ever for people to pick their starting point. The problem is that most of these influences are misguided, misinterpreted and/or rarely have the beginner’s best interests in mind. This usually results in the person doing too much, too soon and typically performing the wrong type of exercise. Even government recommendations are so off the mark you have to wonder who can you trust? (We all trust the government right?). It all boils down to a little professional direction and a dash of common sense.

If you’re not an athlete, don’t train like one.

Beginners are typically de-conditioned individuals  with low levels of strength/endurance, compromised joint integrity and poor tolerance to activity. Does it really make sense for them to perform harsh workouts right out of the gate? The Biggest Loser would have you believe so. If this isn’t bad enough, these same influences conjure up unrealistic expectations in the mind of  the beginner. Many abandon their programs prematurely when their results fail to meet these lofty expectations. This why you need to establish a baseline and starting point if you want to adhere to the program in the long term.

Let’s look at how a beginner SHOULD set up a program that will be safe, personal and effective:


How Much Is Enough?

The least amount of unaccustomed activity. For example, if you currently exercise zero times per week, 1 day of exercise can be enough initially to start generating results. From there you’d implement a strategic series of small steps (micro-progressions) that take you from what you’re accustomed to up to something you’re not. These steps can occur from workout to workout, week to week and over long periods of time.

The key is that you have to be able to recover from them in time to perform the same workout again on another day. It’s actually amazing how little it takes to stimulate the body’s adaptation, when you do something new. Without a doubt, the catalyst for change is variation from the norm, whether it be more or less.


What Are Some Ways To Progress?

There are dozens of ways to challenge the body and include, but are not limited to, the following variables:

    • Level of exertion
    • Position
    • Base of support
    • Time (reps, sets, rest, duration, frequency)
    • Joint range of motion
    • Resistance ( load and type)

Without going into detail on how to manipulate these variables (maybe in a future article), it’s important to not change more than one of these variables at a time.  Sometimes changing one variable can inadvertently affect another. For example, increasing the resistance of an exercise can also reduce the joint range of motion. This can cause problems if the individual isn’t aware that this is occurring. You can also progress too fast within a particular variable, missing many progressive steps in between. For example, performing a squat on the floor and then  progressing to an unstable surface (altering your base of support) will result in too large a challenge and the exercise integrity will surely be compromised. First learning to stand on the thing (ie: the bosu) would’ve been a more correct approach in this instance.

At the beginner level, never change an element of an exercise that will compromise another. It is possible to progress one variable and temporarily regress another in order to maintain control of the movement. Either way beginners have to EARN the right to do more or go faster and control is the key.

The current state of the individual must also be taken into consideration. Most people aren’t exactly living healthy lifestyles  Most experience illness brought on by lack of sleep, poor nutrition and inactivity  It’s very likely that these people will have some “bad days” or periods when progression isn’t warranted. In fact, strategic regression may be needed instead. This is where an exercise is temporarily scaled back in difficulty from what they are accustomed until the they are able to tolerate the demands of the regular workload. You don’t hear about that on T.V do you? It is critical for the beginner to know when to apply force to the body and when to put on the brakes.

What Are The Best Exercises?

I wish I could give specifics but we all have different needs and limitations. As a general guide, overweight individuals do well with machine based exercises. Machines minimize the joint forces that are compounded because of the extra body weight. Less overweight people do well with body weight exercises such as squats, lunges, step-ups, push-ups, planks, etc while slowly adding resistance over time. In both cases, a focus on stability and mobility are prudent at this stage. Beginners need to forget about boot camps and exercise classes for now and spend 4-6 weeks building a strong foundation.

What About Program Design?

In the beginners mind there are many possibilities. In the masters mind there are only few.

– Chinese saying

I’ve been personal training beginners for over 10 years and I can say that the overwhelming majority do best with the following exercise prescription:

Resistance Training

    • Frequency – 2x/week
    • # exercises – 6-8
    • sets  – 1-2
    • reps – 15 – 20

Aerobic Training

    • Frequency – 2-4 x/week
    • exercises – walking/hiking
    • time  – 10-30 minutes
    • effort – low-moderate


Of course, this is a generalization but it will work for most beginners, especially those who have been inactive for some time. Don’t forget to progress, but not too quickly.

It is my view that beginners are fortunate that they get to start exercise right the first time around. I wish I had articles like this when I started. I began with highly advanced exercises and techniques that my body was not prepared for. Sure, I got some results but at a price – one that I’m still paying for 23 years later in the form of aches and pains. Beginners need to ditch the idea that exercise should be painful and difficult. This couldn’t be further from the truth – unless they buy into what the magazines and television are selling. You don’t have to shock the body to get results. Slow, steady micro-progressions is the only way to turn any beginner into a seasoned pro. So to all you beginners, I say quit making excuses not to exercise, take what you’ve learned here and get started today!

If you enjoyed this article, please quickly do me a favor and share with others and comment below.


Craig Simms

Craig Simms

Craig Simms is a personal trainer and weight loss coach in Vancouver, B.C. Craig has been a fitness leader for over 21 years and has amassed over 25,000 hours of personal training experience in that span. He specializes in personalized weight management programs.
Craig Simms
Craig Simms

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