Thinking about starting a strength training routine, but not sure you want to join a gym? No problem! These bodyweight exercises for beginners can all be done in the comfort of your own home, no equipment necessary. Read up on each exercise to see form tips and ways to modify it to make it easier or harder. At the end of the post, you’ll find a circuit workout that uses these exercises to try out!
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Squats are a compound, functional movement. They work multiple muscles at once and are similar to movements we naturally complete in everyday life. When lifting something heavy, we should be squatting down to pick it up (rather than bending forward and straining the back). When sitting into a chair, we essentially perform a half squat to get there. It’s a body weight exercise for beginners that is useful in many aspects of our lives.
Muscles worked: quads, hamstrings, hip flexors, glutes, abdominals, calves
How to do a squat: To perform a squat, stand with your feet about shoulder width distance apart, toes pointing slightly outward. There exact stance will vary based on your anatomy, so don’t worry if your feet are slightly closer or wider.
Keep your chest up and look straight ahead. Put your arms out straight in front of you, or hold them up similar to a boxing stance but with your fists even.
Squat down, driving your hips backwards as your knees bend. Keep your knees in line with your feet as you continue to lower your body – avoid letting your knees lean inward while you’re squatting (i.e. leaning more towards your big toe than the center of your foot), as this puts undue pressure on them.
We used to hear a lot about trying to avoid the knees going past the toes in a squat. However, anatomical differences like bone length may affect whether your knees extend slightly further past your toes. It can put slightly more knee stress on you, but research has shown when this is corrected, that stress is often transferred to the hips and lower back (source).
Instead, don’t worry too much about this, and let your knees and ankles flex in a way that feels comfortable and supports the movement, so long as a) your knees aren’t considerably past your toes, and b) your knees are tracking evenly along the same direction of your foot.
Continue until your thighs are at least parallel to the floor (in the pic above, my photographer caught be just before the bottom of my squat, so I’d be going down just a bit lower than that displays). If you’re a more experienced exerciser without knee issues, you can go deeper then parallel (“a$$ to grass”, as my hubby calls it). Pause for a second at this point, then, making sure your feet stay planted on the ground (don’t come up on your toes), slowly drive your body back to standing.
Make it easier:
- If you can’t make it all the way to parallel, try coming down to just above that. If that is too difficult to start with, try squatting into a chair, pausing for a second in a seated position, then using those glute and leg muscles to drive the motion to stand back up.
- Use a suspension trainer (like TRX) to do a squat. Holding onto the suspension trainer offers an extra layer of support for those who are new to the exercise. If you’re interested in getting a suspension trainer, just click here to visit TRX and use code TRXAMB10V2AC7X for 10% off.
Make it harder:
- Make it a more dynamic exercise by doing squat jumps – slowly squat down, then explosively jump up. When you land, repeat the movement.
- If you want to invest in weights, holding a kettlebell can help add an extra challenge to the squat.
- Work towards pistol squats. These are advanced one-legged squats that are much more difficult than a standard squat. Try working towards this by first putting a chair behind you. Squat down with one leg extended forward until your butt taps the chair – then come back up. As this becomes more comfortable, get something lower – like a big box – and do the same again. Then progress to a small box, and finally progress to a full pistol squat where your butt is going all the way down to your heel with the other leg extended.
A plank is one of the simplest body weight exercises, yet offers a total body challenge. This isometric hold will help improve core strength, which translates to benefits in just about any sport (but especially for all my fellow runners out there) and in everyday life. It can help with posture and overall health.
Muscles worked: primarily the abdominals (including the deeper transversus abdominal muscles), hips, and glutes; also the shoulders, back, and chest
How to do a plank: Come down onto all fours with your arms directly underneath your shoulders and your knees on the ground. Tighten your core and extend each of your legs back. Your body should now be balancing on your toes and extended arms (or, for a forearm plank, on your forearms – as shown in the photo).
Keep your body straight and in alignment. Avoid letting your butt drift up into the air, a common mistake. Similarly, avoid letting your back or bottom sink down, as this can cause lower back pain later. It will feel harder (and work more muscles) when your butt is in line with your spine.
In my TRX training, the instructor taught us about the cue of “tearing the newspaper” and I love that. When you are in your plank, think about pressing your feet into the ground like you’re trying to tear a sheet of newspaper between then.
Hold the position as long as you can keep proper form. Start about 15 seconds at a time, and work your way up as you get more adept at the move.
Make it easier:
- Come onto your knees, like you would for a modified push up.
- Experiment with forearm planks versus straight arm planks; some people find one feels easier on their body than the other.
Make it harder:
- Increase the amount of time you hold your plank, working your way up to 60 seconds (after 60 seconds, it’s probably better to add variations rather than just add more time).
- Increase your balance and core activation by doing shoulder taps while in a plank position. Keeping your body still, lift your right hand and tough your left shoulder, then return to the floor. Swap sides and repeat.
- Try “plank jacks”, where you jump your feet out to the sides then back to the center while the rest of the body maintains the plank.
3. Donkey Kicks
I’m a runner, so exercises that strengthen the glutes are key – since they’re involved in running form and stride. But even if you aren’t a fan of pounding the pavement, exercises that strengthen your glutes are also important for everyday movement, like lifting a heavy box. Donkey kicks specifically target those glute muscles, along with your core which is used to stabilize your body during the movement. It looks easy, but you might be surprised at how challenging this one is! It’s one of my favorite bodyweight exercises for beginners.
Muscles worked: glutes, core
How to do a donkey kick: Start on all fours with your arms directly underneath your shoulders and your knees on the ground under your hips, about hip width apart. Use your core to stabilize your body. Hinge at the hip and start to raise one of your legs, knee staying bent at a 90-degree angle. Use your glutes to drive the motion.
Continue until your foot is facing the ceiling and your hamstring is just about parallel to the rest of your body. Squeeze your glutes at the top of the movement for a second, then slowly lower the leg back down and repeat.
During the movement, make sure you are keeping your pelvis pointed towards the floor – avoid leaning it in the direction of the rising leg. Also avoid letting your back arch. These are common mistakes and are often the result of trying to compensate for weaker core muscles. Keeping your core steady and tight throughout the movement will keep your pelvis anchored properly and your spine neutral.
Make it easier:
- If you’re having trouble keeping your hips level throughout the movement, only raise the leg as high as you can until your form starts to break down (doing the exercise in front of a mirror should help you keep an eye on this). Keep working on it and over time you should be able to raise to the proper position.
Make it harder:
- Invest in a resistance band. Hold the band while in the starting position, and hook your foot through it so that it provides an extra challenge as you do a standard kick.
- Try a straight leg kick with a half circle: extend the leg out straight during the kick phase, driving your feet straight back as you raise the leg. Then rotate the leg outward, drawing a half circle with your toes. Bring you knee in towards your chest as you return the leg inward to the body, then drop it back to the floor in the starting position. This modification works the hips a lot more.
4. Modified or Regular Pushups
Ah, the pushup – by far one of the most classic calisthenics activities out there. However, for beginners a standard push up can be a bit challenging, which is often discouraging. Don’t let this bum you out though! A modified push up is a great starting point and helps you build strength until you can comfortably move on to a standard push up.
Muscles worked: chest, shoulders, triceps, abdominals
How to do a modified pushup: Start on all fours, with your knees and feet on the ground. Walk your body out a little bit until your torso is straight. Keeping your knees and toes on the ground and your core steady, slowly lower your body by bending your elbows, keeping them pointing slightly back. When your upper arms are in line with the rest of your body, raise yourself back up.
You’ll notice in the photo above, I have my ankles crossed and feet off the ground. That’s force of habit for me and feels comfortable. If it feels comfortable for you too, it’s fine to do them that way. That said, it puts less stress on the knees (and probably better mimics regular pushups) if you keep your feet uncrossed and keep your toes down on the ground.
How to do a regular pushup: Start in a plank position with your core tight. Your hands should be directly underneath your shoulders. Slowly lower your body by bending your elbows, keeping them pointing slightly back. When your chest or chin is about to graze the ground, raise yourself back up.
With either the modified or regular push up, avoid letting your back arch and avoid letting your neck flop around. Keep your core tight throughout the movement, and keep the motions slow and controlled.
Make it easier:
- If a modified pushup still feels too difficult, try doing pushups while leaning towards a wall to start.
- If that starts to feel comfortable, try doing them at an incline on a picnic bench or exercise bench. From there, you can move into a modified push up on the floor.
- You can also practice just doing slow, controlled downward movements of the modified or regular push up. When you get to the floor, let your body drop down and relax for a second. Then position yourself back at the start and do it again.
Make it harder:
- If a standard pushup feels comfortable, try mixing it up with different variations. For example, you can do a wide armed push up, where your hands are further apart than a normal push up. This challenges your chest muscles more.
- Similarly, you can do a triangle push up, where your hands are underneath your body. Thumbs and pointer fingers can touch, effectively forming a triangle in the open shape between your hands. This puts additional emphasis on your triceps.
- Try a decline pushup, where you elevate your legs on a bench, box, or step. Perform a standard pushup the same as you normally would. Research has shown that elevating the legs puts additional force and pressure on your arms and chest, making it a more challenging move (source).
- If you’ve worked your way up to an advance level, do a clap pushup. Perform the same initial motion as a standard pushup going down, and then explosively push yourself back up. Clap your hands in the air before you bring them back to the shoulder width position to catch your body as it comes back down. This is a very difficult move and should only be attempted by those who have worked their way through multiple push up variations and feel sure of their upper body strength.
Lunges are another great option for body weight exercises for beginners. You’ll probably notice there are several lower body focused exercises in here, and that’s simply because the lower body and core (back/abdominals) are some of the most logical places to start with strength training work for beginners. These are muscles that are used regularly for everyday activities, and are easy to target with body weight training.
Plus, lunges also focus on balance, which is something that is important for us to retain as we get older. And the asymmetrical nature of the exercise can help you pinpoint weaknesses in one side of your body, which you can work to improve.
Muscles worked: glutes, quads, hamstrings, abdominals, back, calves
How to do a lunge: We’re going to focus on a forward lunge here, though reverse lunges (where you step back vs. forward) are also a beginner-friendly option. Start by standing tall, core engaged, head facing forward, and feet about hip width apart. Take a big step forward with one leg, lowering the knees on both legs.
Both legs should be bent at the knee at approximately a 90-degree angle. In other words, on your front leg, your quads should be about parallel to the ground, and on your back leg, your calves should be about parallel to the ground. Try to keep your front knee in line with your foot, and avoid extending it out past your toes.
Press into your heel to drive your front leg back to the starting position, raising both knees and coming back to standing. Throughout the movement, keep your chest proud and torso upright, avoiding any arching or leaning.
Make it easier:
- Place a chair in front of you to hold on to, and step backwards (instead of forwards) to put yourself into the lunge position. Complete the rest of the movement as usual, lowering your legs until your knees are around 90 degrees. This is called an assisted lunge and can help by adding extra balance and stability to the move, until you’re comfortable enough to do it without that.
- If going all the way to parallel is difficult in a standard forward lunge, try going just as far as you can where you maintain both your form and balance. Work to go a little lower day by day.
- During a standard lunge, try stepping your front foot onto a small box or step. This can make it a bit easier at first.
Make it harder:
- Try walking lunges, where you’re constantly progressing from one leg to the next. Adding this motion can make it more challenging, and requires that you also dial in on form constantly as you move throughout the number of reps.
- Add weights to your lunge, like dumbbells in each hand.
- Do a split squat, where you elevate the back leg on a box, step, or bench. Stand in front of what you’re using to elevate, and then raise your leg back and on top. Then, perform the lunge down. Similar to what we talked about for push-ups, elevating the back part when you’re coming down in front can make it more challenging.
Complete bodyweight workout for beginners
If you want to put this all together in a simple beginner at-home workout, try doing this circuit:
- 15 squats
- 15-30 second plank (or longer if you can hold it)
- 10 donkey kicks on each side
- 10 pushups (modified or regular)
- 10 lunges on each leg
Repeat the circuit 2-3 times!
I’m including an image for this at the bottom of the post so you can pin it to save it for later if you’d like. 🙂
Lastly, remember that this is just a sampling of some key essential body weight exercises. You can include other options like glute bridges, step ups, tricep dips off a chair, and more. You can also add in cardio moves like marching in place, jumping jacks, mountain climbers, or walking/jogging – or have dedicated cardio days (we’ve got some great beginner running training plans if that sounds interesting to you). Feel free to add variety as you become comfortable with these five and want to mix things up.
Share: What’s your favorite bodyweight exercise for beginners? If you tried the bodyweight workout, what did you think?
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