Even as a certified personal trainer, designing workouts for beginners can be challenging.
- On the one hand, you want to avoid overwhelming your client with too complex exercises and training techniques.
- On the other, your goal is to provide fun and rewarding workouts that have them motivated and trusting that your guidance will help them reach their fitness goals.
It’s a fine line between too much and not enough.
Whether it’s your first time working with a new client or trying to refine your approach to creating beginner’s workouts, this guide is your best friend.
Understanding Your Client
Understanding your client is the first step in crafting an effective and engaging workout plan.
When working with a beginner client, you must approach them with sensitivity and awareness of their unique situation. The gym might be a second home to you, but it’s unknown territory for them. They often feel unsure, apprehensive, and afraid of failing.
It’s your job not only to design the workouts that will help them reach their goals but also to motivate them to stay on the road that leads to them.
After reading this article, you’ll be able to confidently craft an effective workout program that targets the entire body and ensures beginner clients feel accomplished and motivated.
Let’s break down how to fully understand your new client to make each gym session successful and rewarding for both parties.
Establish a Baseline Fitness Level
One of the most important things when designing a workout program for beginners is ascertaining their current fitness level.
Are they fit and healthy from a physically active lifestyle or other sports, or have they been sedentary for years? The current fitness level of your client dramatically influences how you plan their introduction to strength training.
Start by evaluating muscle mass, muscle endurance, general health, and any previous weight training or exercise experience. Establishing this baseline level provides the best place to begin crafting a challenging and appropriate workout for your client’s status.
The number one thing you don’t want to do is to overwhelm them with too many exercises or too complex exercises.
Understand the Specific Needs of Your Client
Each client may have particular needs or constraints you must consider when designing workouts.
- Some might aim for weight loss, while others want to build muscle. Or both!
- Busy clients may only have 20 minutes a day for a quick but effective workout.
- Others might have a medical condition that limits their movement and have come to you after successful physical therapy.
Understanding your client’s specific needs helps you design the best workout routine tailored to them.
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Setting Goals – Together
Fitness goals guide your clients toward a healthier lifestyle
Always work with your clients, setting meaningful and achievable goals.
Discuss your client’s big-picture goal with them and break it down into concrete milestones, then design their workout around those.
Sometimes a client might come to you without clear goals. Then you work with them to establish both a long-term plan and meaningful short-term goals.
Whether it’s building a muscular physique, losing a few inches around the waist, increasing muscle endurance, or even simple goals like working out for a specific number of days of the week, clear goals set the direction for your workout design.
Identify Preferences and Limitations
Don’t give your clients a generic exercise program. Don’t assume that the primary movements that work for 90% of your clients will work for this particular client.
Designing the perfect beginner workout is not just about stacking the “best exercises” for all muscle groups together in a spreadsheet.
It’s also about what your client wants to do and enjoys doing. And when your client is a complete beginner, you’ll have to work with them to find that out.
Understanding what exercises the client enjoys or dislikes and any physical limitations they may have is critical to ensuring a successful gym workout. Successful, as in giving your client the desired results, being fun, and motivating them to reach the next milestone you’ve set together.
- Do they prefer weight training with free weights, or are they more comfortable starting out with machines?
- Are they more inclined towards full-body workouts or a body part split?
These preferences guide your exercise plan, making it more enjoyable and sustainable for them. Use them as a starting point and build the workout around them.
Building Trust and Rapport
Last but not least, making your client feel comfortable and understood is vital.
The first week of training can be intimidating, especially for complete beginners. As a personal trainer, you must ensure your client feels supported and encouraged.
Open communication, empathy, and encouragement can turn the gym into a space of growth and empowerment rather than a place of uncertainty and fear of being judged.
By taking the time to truly understand the client’s needs, preferences, goals, and limitations, you build the foundation for an effective workout plan.
A personalized approach ensures that each gym or home gym session is more than just an exercise routine. It’s a step towards a healthier life where your clients look forward to the next workout.
Whether it’s a long-time fitness enthusiast or someone new to the world of strength training, everyone benefits from this attentive, tailored approach. But it is particularly beneficial when designing workouts for beginners.
Crafting the Perfect Workouts for Beginners
When creating a workout plan tailored to beginner clients, you must carefully consider several factors, including their fitness level, specific needs, and goals, as discussed above.
Most beginners benefit the most and get the best results from a balanced approach that combines strength training, flexibility exercises as needed, and cardio workouts, all while keeping rest days and safety in mind.
Let’s take a detailed look at the essential components of workout design.
Strength training is the number one activity anyone can do to improve their health, fitness, and body composition. Properly programmed strength training can change lives, and the changes are most apparent in beginners.
These are some key points to consider when designing a beginner workout for your clients.
- For most clients without physical limitations, it’s a good idea to primarily incorporate multi-joint exercises as the primary movements of the workout. Your client will see the most progress in compound movements, keeping motivation levels high.
- Secondary exercises are not always necessary for the beginner, but when appropriately programmed, they can boost progress and add fun and variety to your workouts. Here’s where single-joint movements shine, as they don’t require as much energy and focus as multi-joint exercises.
- Remember that beginners can’t master too many exercises per workout. It’s better to focus on a few basic movements that give the most for the time and energy invested than to introduce too many complicated exercises early on.
Keep detailed track of that progress. Keep logs of your clients’ weights, sets, and reps, then use that information to plan the intensity of upcoming workouts and adjust as needed.
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Let’s dive deeper into the details of designing beginner workouts.
Most upper-body exercises can be categorized into one of these four major movement patterns.
- Vertical Push
- Vertical Pull
- Horizontal Push
- Horizontal Pull
Consider them when designing an upper body workout.
Including a primary exercise from each category (not necessarily in every workout) effectively targets the entire upper body.
They focus on the chest, shoulder, and back muscles while also targeting the biceps and triceps.
For the lower body, these three movement patterns cover all major muscle groups:
Excellent primary exercise suggestions for the lower body include regular back squats, goblet squats, lunges, and Romanian deadlifts. They cover all three movement patterns and are great ways to engage the quads, glutes, and hamstrings.
Again, more is not necessarily better. A beginner is often better off focusing on the basics, learning proper technique, and how to activate the muscles.
Training the entire body in one workout is often ideal for the beginner.
- You don’t want to overwhelm a beginner client with a multitude of different exercises in an advanced training split.
- Full-body workouts focusing on a few primary exercises simplify things and help create a structured routine which is easier to follow and track the progress.
- For someone new to fitness, one of the biggest challenges is building the habit of regular exercise. Working out 2–3 times a week with a full-body routine is more manageable and consistent for a beginner than more frequent, split-based workouts.
- Beginners recover quickly between workouts. Hitting the entire body several times a week is less taxing than it might be for an intermediate or advanced lifter. Instead, full body workouts allow them to target each muscle group multiple times weekly for greater gains.
- In addition, the first adaptations that occur when a beginner starts resistance training are neuromuscular: they get better at recruiting their muscles and performing the exercises. Training the whole body more frequently speeds up this adaptation.
Full-body circuit workouts can be a lifesaver for clients with less time. A circuit workout combining both upper and lower body exercises is highly effective. You can also incorporate bodyweight exercises like push-ups and planks alongside weight training to engage the whole body.
Tertiary exercises are prehab or rehab exercises you can program into active rest between sets or place at the end of a workout, after the secondary exercises, if time permits.
An example of a tertiary exercise is band internal shoulder rotations to strengthen the rotator cuff muscles.
For rehabilitation purposes, working with a physical therapist is ideal for optimal transition from physical therapy to personal training.
Free Weights, Machines, or Both?
Free weights are often considered superior for producing strength-training results, providing flexibility in movement, and targeting various muscles.
However, recent research shows that free weights and machines are equally effective for strength and muscle growth.1
Feel free to design workouts for beginners exclusively using free weights, machines, or a mix of both, depending on your client’s preferences and limitations.
For example, if your client is interested in the barbell squat and wants to get good at it, making the squat a primary exercise in their workouts is a no-brainer. However, there is no need to include it simply because it’s a revered exercise. There are no “must-do” exercises for most fitness goals.
Loading and Rep Ranges
Different rep ranges and training loads produce different adaptations, although significantly overlapping.
- Low reps (six or fewer) with heavy weights (>85% of 1RM) produce more strength gains.
- For muscle growth, loads between 60–85% of 1RM and a rep range of 6–15 are ideal for most clients. Higher and lower loads are just as effective for muscle hypertrophy but can increase the risk of injury or discomfort without any other benefits.
- Higher rep ranges promote muscle endurance.
- If your client wants maximum strength gains, they’ll mostly do low reps with heavy loads.
- For clients looking to maximize muscle growth, most of the training will be in the medium range.
Training for strength and muscle growth is the way to go for fat loss, as losing fat is the result of your client’s diet, with complementary cardio if needed.
Start Slowly and Build Up Gradually
However, before starting your beginner client on heavy 3-rep deadlifts to failure, gently introduce them to weight training.
Instruct them on proper technique and form. Once they are familiar and comfortable with the movement, gradually adjust the load to fit the rep range corresponding to their goals.
For a beginner, 6–8 reps is an excellent starting range, particularly when it comes to compound movements involving several muscle groups.
Firstly, it’s great for building muscle and strength. But it also offers other significant benefits:
- A set with many reps and light weights takes a long time. The longer the set, the easier it is for someone new to strength training to lose focus.
- High-rep training hurts. Experienced trainees often enjoy that burn and chase it. However, it makes it harder for a beginner to focus on form and technique.
- A low- to medium 6–8 rep range minimizes discomfort while allowing enough practice to learn the movement.
Once your client is comfortable with the key movements of your workouts, increase or decrease their rep range to align with their training goals.
Cardiovascular fitness is an integral part of overall health. However, cardio isn’t always part of a personal training workout.
For example, someone whose primary goals include maximizing muscle and strength gain shouldn’t do too much cardio simultaneously.
Typically, you’ll prescribe aerobic exercise based on a client’s needs, and they will then perform the cardio independently.
How much, if any, cardio your client needs depends on many factors: their fitness level, their goals, and how physically active they are in general.
Starting with a gentle elliptical workout or a short session on the stationary bike can be an excellent way for sedentary clients and complete beginners to implement cardio. If their fitness levels are low, low-intensity cardio as a warm-up for the strength-training session can be enough to begin with.
As your client progresses, you can introduce higher-intensity options, such as high-intensity interval training, providing more challenging cardio sessions.
If they are beginners when it comes to lifting weights but engage in aerobic training regularly, they’ll likely prefer to handle cardio entirely on their own. If an endurance athlete comes to you for strength training coaching, you’ll have to adapt your workouts around their primary form of training to allow for optimal recovery.
For clients with fat loss as a primary goal, you can program 2–3 weekly cardio sessions to boost progress. Stress that losing fat is mainly a result of a healthy diet with calorie control, not exercise. For most people, fat loss through exercise alone is an exercise in futility.
Flexibility training focuses on stretching and elongating the muscles, promoting posture and movement.
Regular stretching is often said to form a vital part of active or passive recovery, aiding in delayed onset muscle soreness relief. However, there is very little evidence to support such claims.2
It can complement strength training and cardio workouts by promot ing better functional performance, improving muscular balance, and possibly preventing injury.3
That being said, including stretching as part of your workouts might not be necessary unless your client has a specific mobility issue that needs to be addressed and isn’t related to a medical condition (in which case a physical therapist should review it).
Strength Training Is Often Enough
Strength training using a full range of motion effectively improves flexibility to the point where general stretching may not be necessary.4
In other words, ensure your clients perform all movements with a complete range of motion, as their mobility allows, and they will improve their flexibility and strength.
Suppose you do include specific flexibility training and strengthening in your workouts. In that case, simple routines targeting core muscles and whole-body stretches can be done on an exercise mat in the gym or as part of a home workout.
Rest and Recovery
Recovery and rest are fundamental elements in any workout plan, often overlooked but vital for the success of beginner clients.
Incorporating enough time for rest days is essential in any fitness program.
They allow the body to heal, muscle mass to grow, and help your client to adapt to your workouts by becoming stronger and fitter. Days off are not just about avoiding the gym workout but actively allowing the body to recuperate.
The best recovery from a workout isn’t passive recovery like laying on the couch doing nothing.
While complete rest can be an essential part of coming back from an injury or sickness, active rest and recovery helps the body recover from exercise and prepare for the next workout.
Active recovery is a great way to keep the body moving without putting it under stress. Getting the heart rate up and blood flowing aids in muscle recovery, helps with muscle soreness, and keeps muscles flexible.
Activities like gentle cardio workouts on the elliptical trainer, brisk walking, or bike riding can maintain momentum without hindering recovery. Light stretching can also feel good.
In short: encourage your clients to stay physically active between personal training sessions.
Mental Health Considerations
Rest isn’t only about physical recovery.
Mental health plays an essential role in overall wellness. Rest days provide a chance to recharge mentally. The result is a more positive approach to training goals and general health.
Exercise releases stress hormones, which is a good thing that aids in training adaptation. But you must balance it with appropriate rest and recovery, or your client can end up burnt out, either physically, mentally, or both – particularly important to track with beginner clients.
Combining rest days and active recovery creates a well-rounded approach that allows your client’s body to heal and grow. Understanding the importance of rest and integrating it into your workout plan enhances their physical development and overall well-being.
Over time, that translates into a sustainable and successful path to fitness.
Putting safety first is essential to designing workout programs for beginner clients. It ensures a strong foundation for their long-term success and well-being.
Strength training is a safe form of exercise compared to most other sports. However, injuries can happen, and avoiding them is in both your and your client’s best interest.
Proper form is the cornerstone of safety. While a beginner might not handle heavy weights that can cause serious injury, it’s always prudent to learn the correct form in all exercises.
Whether performing bench presses, kettlebell swings, or bodyweight exercises, maintaining a correct posture and alignment during the movements prevents unnecessary strains and injuries.
Teaching good form from the first session sets the stage for successful training sessions.
Proper Equipment Use
From the free weights to the latest advanced workout machine, understanding and using the gym equipment correctly is vital.
Educating your clients about the right way to use the equipment minimizes risk and maximizes effectiveness. For a beginner, everything in the gym is new, and what is self-explanatory to you might be a mystery to them.
Understanding Your Client’s Limits
Recognizing and respecting your client’s physical limitations is critical. Pushing too hard or lifting much weight too soon can lead to injuries.
On the other end of the spectrum, some clients want to go faster than their bodies are ready for. In those cases, your job is to explain the importance of gradually increasing training intensity and volume.
Starting with a light weight and gradually progressing ensures a safe and effective workout.
By prioritizing safety, you create an environment where your clients build strength and fitness without fear of injury, laying a solid foundation for continuous progress and results.
Including a proper warm-up before workouts makes for a smooth transition into intense activities like lifting weights.
Warming up raises overall body temperature and enhances blood circulation to the muscles, setting the stage for optimal performance. It also improves flexibility and sharpens concentration.
Though your client may be keen to dive into your strength training workout, encourage a few minutes to warm up properly. Don’t trust your client to warm up independently when they are a beginner. Instead, include a short but effective warm-up in your sessions.
- Devote five minutes to low to moderate-intensity cardio exercises to elevate your client’s heart rate and stimulate blood flow.
- Activities like walking or jogging on a treadmill, riding a stationary bike, or a few minutes on the elliptical are excellent options. Remember that the goal is to warm up and gear up for risk-free and effective strength training, not to build muscle endurance or aerobic capacity.
- After the cardio, doing one or two sets of various exercises targeting your main muscles, either without weights or using lighter ones, is helpful to prime them for the training ahead. Bodyweight squats or push-ups against a wall are just a few examples of practical warm-up exercises.
During the first weeks with an untrained beginner client, exercise-specific warm-ups are less necessary, as the working weight should be light enough in itself.
A cool down following a workout can be included if your client likes it, but it is not necessary for other reasons.5
Feedback and Progress
Monitoring feedback and tracking progress is essential in ensuring your fitness program aligns with your client’s fitness goals and specific needs.
Here’s how to effectively implement this aspect into your workout plan.
Regular meetings with your client to discuss how the workout program is feeling, what they’re enjoying, and what might be challenging is a great way to keep the lines of communication open.
It’s also the best place to assess if you need to adjust your exercise routine, weight training intensity, or even rest days to further your client’s progress.
Check-ins can be either in the gym or in an online setting.
Keeping a record of improvements in strength, weight loss, or muscular endurance allows you and your client to see how far they’ve come.
Whether it’s an increase in reps, lifting more weight, or simply feeling more energetic, tracking these changes provides motivation and insight into what’s working.
When something’s not working, having a training log to consult makes it much easier to adjust the necessary variables to kick-start progress again.
Personal training software like StrengthLog Coach can be a great option for tracking progress for in-person and online training programs. You can record your client’s performance, such as the rep range, rest periods, and weight used in a session, making it easy to plan the next workout.
Such functionality is especially beneficial for online personal training.
Based on feedback and progress, your workout plan should be adaptable.
Whether it’s modifying the number of exercises, introducing new challenges like higher intensity training techniques, adjusting rep schemes, or changing the workout day focus, flexibility ensures that your plan meets your client’s evolving needs.
Keeping your workouts fresh keeps motivation high.
However, don’t change your workouts for the sake of change alone.
Your workouts should be repetitive enough to promote specific training adaptations and make it easy to track progress.
Balance that repetitiveness with enough variety to keep things fun for your client. Preventing staleness is essential for motivation.
Utilize Technology and Social Media
Tools like fitness apps or a personal trainer’s social media channels can provide additional support and encouragement.
Sharing success stories, workouts, or engaging in an online community is a great way to foster a sense of achievement and belonging.
With StrengthLog Coach, built-in chat functionality makes it easy to communicate with your clients and assess how they’re doing beyond what numbers on a spreadsheet indicate.
Emphasizing Mental and Emotional Growth
Recognizing and celebrating not just physical but also mental and emotional growth is essential for a successful coach and personal trainer.
Acknowledging increased confidence, better mental health, or even the simple joy of committing to regular exercise adds a deeper dimension to the fitness journey.
Building a Long-Term Coach/Client Relationship
Building a lasting relationship with your client is one of the best things to sustain their fitness journey.
Ensuring that they feel supported and heard, and adapting the plan as their life changes, turns a short-term gym session into a mutually rewarding partnership in health.
Most clients will likely only work with you until they reach their fitness goals. But as a great personal trainer, you’ll leave them with the tools for a lifelong commitment to health and well-being.
This dynamic and responsive approach leads to a sense of partnership and trust, making the workout experience more rewarding and effective in the short and long run. It is not just about the number of sets or the type of exercises but about creating a meaningful and lasting impact on your client’s life.
Putting Theory into Practice: Example Workout Design
Let’s design a fun and effective workout for a hypothetical client to round things off.
Our client is a 50-year-old female who has never tried strength training before.
- Her goals are to lose 20 pounds over the next six months while becoming fitter and stronger.
- She used to be physically active, but too much work and stress over the last ten years have led to a sedentary lifestyle, and she’s now out of shape and overweight.
- She wants to improve her strength and aerobic fitness, so we’ll make sure to incorporate both weights and cardio into her workouts.
- The good thing is that she has no significant injuries or medical conditions to consider when designing the workouts. She does feel stiff and immobile from years without much physical activity, though.
We’ll focus on a well-rounded and progressive program that considers her goals and current fitness level.
Here’s a 4-week plan to get her started:
Weeks 1–2: Foundation and Adaptation
- Frequency: 3 days per week (e.g., Monday, Wednesday, Friday, or any other convenient days)
- Duration: 45–60 minutes per session
Warm-Up (5–10 minutes)
- 5 minutes of light cardio (e.g., brisk walking, cycling)
- Dynamic stretches: arm circles, leg swings, hip circles
She’ll start with 2–3 sets of 6–8 repetitions for each exercise. Make sure she starts with lighter weights and focuses on proper form. There is no need to go anywhere near failue on any set.
- Goblet Squats: Hold a dumbbell or kettlebell close to your chest, and squat down while keeping your chest up and knees tracking over your toes. Goblet squats are often easy for a beginner without the required mobility for regular squats.
- Kneeling Push-Ups: Use a stable surface and perform modified push-ups on your knees. Focus on keeping your body in a straight line.
- Dumbbell Rows: Place one hand and knee on a bench, hold a dumbbell in the opposite hand, and row it towards your hip while squeezing your shoulder blade.
- Dumbbell Shoulder Press: Sit or stand and press the dumbbells overhead, keeping your core engaged and maintaining good posture.
- Plank: Hold a plank position on your elbows and toes (or knees if needed) for 20–30 seconds, focusing on a strong core.
- Bodyweight Lunges: Step forward into lunges, alternating legs.
Cardio (10–20 minutes)
Choose a cardio option she enjoys, like brisk walking or cycling, and aim for steady-state cardio. Gradually increase the duration as she gets comfortable.
Weeks 3–4: Progressive Intensity
- Frequency: 3 days per week
- Duration: 45–60 minutes per session
Same as weeks 1–2.
Increase her weights slightly and aim for 2-3 sets of 8-10 repetitions for each exercise. The last rep should be a bit of a struggle, still focusing on controlled movements and proper form.
- Goblet Squats
- Push-Ups (or Kneeling Push-Ups)
- Dumbbell Rows
- Dumbbell Shoulder Press
- Bodyweight Lunges
There is still no need for secondary, single-joint exercises. At this point, we’re activating her body after a 10-year slumber and focusing on multi-joint movements for the major muscle groups to wake her body.
Increase the intensity of her cardio sessions, incorporating intervals (e.g., alternate between 2 minutes of moderate pace and 1 minute of faster pace).
The faster-paced minute should not be exhausting, but she should be breathing hard at the end of them.
After the First Month
Progression is key. After the initial four weeks, you can increase the weight gradually, adjust repetitions, and introduce new exercises to keep her program challenging and effective.
Also, nutrition plays a crucial role in achieving her weight loss goals, so provide guidance on a balanced and calorie-controlled diet that supports her training efforts.
Always encourage her to listen to her body and get adequate rest between sessions.
Of course, this is just an example of workout programming for a beginner client and one without any significant hurdles to work around, but it should give you a foundation to build on.
Designing personal training programs for beginners requires a multi-faceted approach.
Every detail matters, from understanding your client’s fitness level and specific needs to creating an effective workout plan.
By keeping the steps outlined in this article, you ensure that your clients receive the best workout routine, whether it’s in a gym environment or online. You’re set to create a tailored fitness program that will become a long-time asset for your clients, leading them to success.
By understanding the specific needs of beginner clients and implementing them in your workout programming, you ensure their physical and mental health.
Fitness is a long journey, and every workout day is a step closer to optimal results.
StrengthLog Coach: Online Coaching Simplified
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- Front. Physiol., 05 May 2021. The Effectiveness of Post-exercise Stretching in Short-Term and Delayed Recovery of Strength, Range of Motion and Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials.
- Youth 2023, 3(1), 146-156. Why Flexibility Deserves to Be Further Considered as a Standard Component of Physical Fitness: A Narrative Review of Existing Insights from Static Stretching Study Interventions.
- Sports Medicine Vol 53, 707–722 (2023). Resistance Training Induces Improvements in Range of Motion: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.
- Sports Med. 2018; 48(7): 1575–1595. Do We Need a Cool-Down After Exercise? A Narrative Review of the Psychophysiological Effects and the Effects on Performance, Injuries and the Long-Term Adaptive Response.