Everything you need to start working out safely and effectively in 2021, according to personal trainers, nutritionists, and exercise scientists

Mallory Creveling
·20 min read

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How to Start a New Workout Plan 4
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  • A new workout routine can bring up a lot of questions about what exercises to do, what gear to use, and how to eat to best support your new efforts.

  • Just as important as your workout program is making time for recovery, including active rest days, mobility work, and using tools like foam rollers or massage guns.

  • Nutrition and sleep also play a vital role in helping you reach your exercise goals, as well as finding ways to stay motivated.

  • We spoke to a group of personal trainers, nutritionists, and exercise scientists who shared all the advice and gear you need to feel confident and comfortable in developing and maintaining a new workout plan.

  • See also: A guide to everything you need for a mental and physical health refresh in the new year

Table of Contents: Masthead Sticky

So you made a new year's intention to start moving more or to take your workouts to the next level - congrats! Whatever your fitness form of choice, adding more movement to your day and week means your body will function more efficiently, your muscles will get stronger, and your mind and mood will be happier.

Kicking off a new workout routine can lead to a lot of benefits - but also a whole lot of questions. If you're new to exercise, you've likely been constantly Googling what exact workout you should do, the foods you should eat, and whether it's okay to feel this sore. Don't worry, these are all questions even fitness pros had at some point.

Even if you're brand new to working out, it's important to have the right information from Day 1. At the very least, getting after the right kind of workout and refueling with the right foods helps you see results, quicker. But going too hard on high-intensity workouts out the gate increases your risk for serious injury because your body isn't used to the movements and load. And wrecking yourself to the point where your legs feel like lead most days of the week is an easy way to burn bright and fast but lose the motivation to turn this new hobby into a sustainable part of your life.

To make getting fit easier (and less confusing), we rounded up advice from exercise and nutrition pros to help those fresh to the fitness scene see results, stay on track, and remain injury-free on the journey.

Below, you'll find out exactly what happens to the body when you start moving more, plus the products that can help you maximize your gains - and let the experts' tips guide you to a consistent, effective exercise habit.

Part 1: What are the best workout programs for beginners?

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If you're wondering… where do I even start?

One of the easiest ways to begin a regular workout regimen is to have some kind of plan to follow. At-home exercise programs work really well for this, since your sweat session is pre-programmed for you whenever you have the motivation to log on or open an app. You definitely want a program catered for beginners so all the moves are explained and at a level safe for your body.

Here is a couple of our favorite workout apps for beginners:

If you're not into at-home workout routines, exercise basics like walking, jogging, cycling, and even playing on the playground with your kids all still apply. If you're having trouble figuring out where to start with getting fit, think about what you do now and then how you can add just a little more, Joni Boyd, PhD, CSCS, a NASM-certified trainer and associate professor of exercise science and coaching at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, SC told Insider.

If your current regimen is simply walking around your house, do more of that — but take it outside and add a goal of one mile. Then make it two miles or start jogging that one mile.

Here are some helpful resources if you're starting a new cardio routine:

Of course, you also want to consider your overall goals when looking for a workout to follow, Boyd added. Do you want to build strength to lift heavy weights? Gain muscle or increase muscle size? Improve your endurance or stamina so you can work for longer without getting fatigued?

Each of these objectives requires different methods of training, Boyd explains, and while they do overlap, it's still smart to choose a program that tailors directly to the goal.

Strength vs. cardio?

Every person new to fitness will at some point wonder if they should be doing more cardio, like running, dancing, or high-intensity interval training (aka HIIT), or more strength training, whether that's with bodyweight exercises or lifting dumbbells.

Really, it's best to do a combo of both, Boyd says. You can accomplish that by doing cardio one day and dumbbells the next. But you can also incorporate both into a workout: Intervals (which involve working hard for a set time like 30 seconds, then resting for a set time like another 30 seconds) will benefit your cardiovascular system, and if you incorporate weights, can help you build lean muscle and strength, too.

Phil Higgins, CSCS, clinical director at Bespoke Treatments physical therapy center in Seattle touts the benefits of strength training and how it translates from the gym to everyday life. For example, if you prefer outdoor activities, like hiking or running, weightlifting will help you get better at them.

Higgins told Insider it's especially helpful to team up with a fitness professional when starting a strength training program (or any fitness program).

The expert can help you determine your more specific goals, how to get there, and what program will work best for you. Usually, that requires funds, but there are a handful of online AI and personal training apps that are cheap or free. Here are some of our favorites:

How hard should I go?

With new year energy on blast, your intentions might drive you to jump into a workout routine that includes going all-out in HIIT workouts or heavy lifting sessions for an hour a day.

To put it simply, don't do that. It's a recipe for burn-out and injury. Instead, ease into your workout routine so you enjoy it more and you stick with it longer, Boyd suggested.

One of the easiest ways to make sure you're escalating safely is to wear a heart rate monitor (either a chest strap or a smartwatch that detects your heart rate via your wrist) to determine your intensity during a workout.

If you're new to fitness, Boyd suggests staying in Zone 1 (55-75% max heart rate) or 2 (76-85% max heart rate) while your body adjusts to the new movements and ask. As you get fitter, move up to that all-out effort in zone 3 (86-100% max heart rate).

Here are the heart rate monitors and fitness trackers we recommend:

How often should I workout?

It's a good idea to move your body in some way every day, but you don't want to go for extreme intensities all the time (like that Zone 3 of your heart rate), especially if you're just starting out.

Instead, incorporate cross-training, which is when you do an activity that supports your main form of working out. This can look like mixing in days of light bike rides if you have access to an indoor spin bike or an outdoor bicycle and/or gentle yoga in your living room. "Think: Nurture your body and your workouts, don't beat yourself up," Boyd said.

One more reminder: No matter what program you choose, all experts say that in order to see results, you have to stay consistent. Heather Vellers, PhD, clinical exercise physiologist and assistant professor in exercise physiology at Texas Tech University told Insider it can take up to eight weeks to really see changes happen, including gaining strength, improving cardio fitness, or seeing a change in body composition. — so, stick with it.

And don't forget that nutrition and recovery are just as important as the workout itself. At least two days of active rest is a good place to start, Higgins says. This can look like a short walk, an easy bike ride, or a session of yoga. You can also take your rest day to do some active stretching or foam rolling.

Part 2: What should I do about feeling sore?

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If you're wondering… should I be this sore?

If you feel sore — even really sore — after your workout, that's totally normal. It's technically called delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and sets in 24 to 48 hours after your workout. How sore you feel depends on how hard you went as well as what kind of workouts you were doing.

"You may be able to do some workouts where the soreness level is lower, but even experienced exercisers will have soreness from time-to-time," Boyd said. "It's your body's natural way of telling you that you did something and it's part of the natural recovery process for damaged muscles."

Generally, it's okay to exercise when you're feeling sore, but avoid working those same muscles that are feeling it most and don't go at the same intensity that caused the soreness in the first place. For example, if your arms and back feel sore from a strength workout, you might go for a run instead.

Even more important: "A heightened level of soreness over a long period of time can lead to burnout, poor performance, and overtraining," Boyd said.

So, it's crucial to take recovery days to allow soreness to subside.

When is being sore a sign of something bad?

You should be sore in the areas you know you worked out, Higgins said. That means if you did heavy squats or deadlifts, expect soreness in the quads, glutes, or hamstrings.

"If you start to feel joint pain or bony pain, that may signal that something wasn't quite right," he explained. "Maybe that was poor form, too many reps, or too much weight."

DOMS should also subside about 72 hours after training. If it lasts longer than that, you might have overdone it.

It's key to choose a program that's appropriate for your fitness level to avoid that overly sore feeling, Higgins said. "We don't want an individual who's getting into strength and conditioning to push themselves so much that they can't get back to the gym."

Don't go too hard too quick and instead, stick with a workout you can maintain. Then have a plan to progress it.

And even though it's unlikely, if you're going hard and regularly sore, you need to know to avoid rhabdomyolysis, which is when your muscle breaks down to the point of being a medical emergency, Higgins said. With this, you'll also experience urination for a prolonged period of time or dark-colored urine. If that occurs, see a doctor immediately.

What will help my post-workout soreness hurt less?

When you inevitably get sore from your workouts, follow these strategies to help you deal (these are perfect choices for active rest days, too):

1. Do light cardio

A stationary bike offers a great way to get the body moving and the blood flowing. It offers a low-impact way to work the knees, hips, and ankles through their full range of motion, Higgins said.

The goal isn't really to get the heart rate up, but just to move the body and improve circulation. A 20- or 30-minute walk (at a pace you can chat with a friend) will do the trick, too.

2. Move through a mobility routine

Higgins defines mobility as how well an individual moves freely and efficiently. This includes having a good range of motion in your joints, control of that motion, and strength and endurance.

Almost every workout program offers mobility workouts, many of which feature active stretching. Like a light cardio session, a mobility workout helps get the blood flowing, Higgins said, which, in turn, helps ease soreness.

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3. Learn to love your foam roller

Before your workout, foam rolling, stretching, and doing an active warm-up reduces DOMS from the subsequent sweat session, reports a 2020 systematic review out of South Africa. You can also foam roll after your workout and on rest days to help blood flow through your muscles and shuttle fresh nutrients to repair them.

Note: Rolling on sore muscles can definitely feel a little uncomfortable but it shouldn't be above a 4 out of 10, Higgins said. If it's too painful, look for a softer roller. "You want a positive experience because that leads to consistency," Higgins adds.

4. Try a percussion massage gun

Massage guns give you the same effect as foam rolling (namely, getting more blood to your muscles) and can take away some of the sting of a deep massage thanks to their high vibrations. Massage guns also tend to be easier to use since you don't have to get on the floor.

They feature different levels of intensity and various attachments, which allows for a customizable experience, Higgins says.

5. Wear compression boots

If you're willing to splurge a little, Higgins suggests NormaTec Compression Boots, which are basically air massagers for your legs. These boots zip up and provide compression that increases and decreases throughout however long you choose to wear them.

They do an excellent job of promoting blood flow and oxygen for your muscles and can help with lymphatic drainage, Higgins say. Plus, they just feel good. Many physical therapy centers and some fitness studios have access to these boots in which you pay per session.

Part 3: What should I eat before, during, and after my workouts?

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If you're wondering… do I need to change what I'm eating?

It's tough to overhaul your diet and your fitness at one time, Boyd says. So, if you're focusing on your workouts, only make small changes to your diet.

A few simple food principles will help ensure your food isn't getting in the way of your fitness goals. For example, avoid super sugary drinks (some sports drinks can have more than 30 grams of sugar) and stick with water instead, Boyd says. Also, go for complex carbs (like whole grains), eat lots of leafy green veggies, and stick to foods in their most natural state.

Heidi Skolnik, CDN, a sports nutritionist in the Women's Sports Medicine Center at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, told Insider you don't need to make any drastic diet changes if you're simply getting into a consistent exercise schedule. It's when you do intense training that you want to pay close attention to your plate. Plus, research suggests that simply working out might actually influence your food choices for the better.

How do I better fuel my workouts?

Determining how to fuel your workouts comes down to the intensity, duration, and the number of times a week you work out, plus the time of day and your hunger levels, Skolnik added.

"Some people get much hungrier from working out [than others], which can be modulated by eating regularly and consistently," she said.

If you're working out first thing in the morning, consider a snack before. Skolnik says that some people perform better after getting about 15 to 25 grams of carbs, which is equivalent to a half of a banana or a handful of crackers. It allows them to go harder and then breakfast serves as a recovery meal, she explains.

Other people don't need that pre-workout snack. For those focusing on strength training, it's probably a good idea to eat something with 11 to 15 grams of protein, like a yogurt, she says.

As for what to eat after your workouts, think about a carb-protein combo, heavy on the protein post-weightlifting. Your muscles are more open to repairing and rebuilding right after exercise. However, as long as you get enough protein in 24 hours, you'll still gain the benefits, Skolnik said. If you did a short run or a brisk walk, you probably don't need to replenish in any additional way, other than your regular meals.

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Speaking of protein, it's often a hot topic and a much-used supplement among avid exercisers. But if you have some of the macronutrient every meal — about 20 grams or 3 to 4 ounces — you're likely getting enough, Skolnik advised. She does mention that protein powders provide a convenient way to reach your daily quota, though. For reference, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends 1.2 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram bodyweight.

Here are a few other nutritional details to keep in mind:

1. Look for a quality protein powder

If you do decide to have a protein powder, look for one with a third-party stamp of approval, like the NSF. You also want one that has leucine in it, an amino acid that helps stimulate protein synthesis, Skolnik says. Whey, egg, and soy proteins all have this, but other plant-based protein powders may add it in, too.

2. Consider drinking more tart cherry juice

Research suggests that tart cherry juice can assist in muscle recovery. Skolnik says the polyphenols may help fight off muscle soreness as they reduce inflammation and provide antioxidants.

The juice also has natural melatonin, which can help you sleep and that aids in recovery, too, she says.

3. Eat more Vitamin C-rich foods

Skolnik suggests foods like oranges, bell peppers, and broccoli, as they all contain vitamin C, a nutrient that can help with tissue repair.

4. Stay hydrated

Water should be your best friend, considering every cell in the body needs it to function, Skolnik says. You also need water for temperature regulation and hydration contributes to blood volume, transporting nutrients to and waste away from tissues and cells, and it allows for blood pressure regulation.

Without water, the heart has to work harder to pump enough blood to allow for oxygen to get to the working muscles. In other words, dehydration makes you feel more tired even when doing the same amount of work. So, grab another sip of that H2O.

And if you ever do cardio for more than 90 minutes, be sure you replenish your electrolytes. Vellers has a 64-ounce water bottle that she aims to finish every day to keep up her hydration.

Part 4: What equipment should I buy?

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If you're wondering… do I need to buy equipment to get fit?

You don't need a lot of gear to work out — or truly any, for that matter, especially if you're just starting out and learning what your body can do. But if you want to build muscle and strength, adding resistance to your exercises will help. Higgins said a good and inexpensive go-to is mini resistance bands. Of course, dumbbells and kettlebells will also do the trick. Here's the best gear to add to your home gym:

Resistance bands

Higgins said they always use mini or looped resistance bands at his office. You can incorporate them into almost any move, including squats, deadlifts, glute bridges, rows, bicep curls, and triceps extensions.

Some say resistance bands are better than owning a pair of dumbbells, too. Not only are they easier to store but they tend to be far cheaper (and they're in stock more often).


Dumbbells are a staple in most home gyms, as they add weight to any exercise and can easily store in the corner.

For those new to strength, a set of 5-pound and/or 10-pound weights might be a good place to start, depending on your fitness level, Higgins says — even better if you can score a set of adjustable dumbbells.


If you're looking to turn up your workout intensity, kettlebells will definitely do so, not only by adding weight, but also offering options to elevate your heart rate with low-impact exercises, a la the kettlebell swing.

Start with a 20-lb kettlebell if you haven't used one before or don't use one regularly.

Other equipment to consider

Resistance bands, dumbbells, and kettlebells only scratch the surface in terms of useful home gym equipment — there are an endless number of options depending on your fitness level, desired workout, amount of space you have available, and budget. Here are a few other pieces of equipment to consider, from jump ropes to pull-up bars:

How do I stay motivated?

While you want to move your body in some way every day, you definitely don't want to go at an all-out or high-intensity effort every day, Vellers said. You'll get mentally and physically exhausted, which can easily kill your motivation. Consider starting with one hard day, then two easy days (like going for a walk), and repeating that sequence, she advised. Or just start with one hard day a week and the rest easier movement days, allowing for walks, light jogs, or yoga.

Also, to keep your enthusiasm for exercise, think about what drives you in everyday life, Higgins said. Maybe you're self-motivated, maybe you need a group to work out with and keep you accountable, maybe competition drives you — whatever it is, look for it in your workout choices. Use this advice for inspiration:

1. Find workouts that mimic an in-person experience

Sign up for a trainer's Zoom workout with a friend, do something like obé's virtual "workout parties" where you can have seven friends join you for a fitness class, or sign up for a dance app and have a dance party with 10 of your friends. You could also convince your roommate or friend to get on the same workout plan. Any of these tactics will bring you an accountability buddy — someone you're motivated to show up for — and a way to connect with fit pals, even if not in person.

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2. Create competition

Companies like Peloton and iFit have competition built into their workouts, courtesy of the leaderboard you'll see during your rides or runs, which shows your ranking and the top performers in class.

Higgins, a former athlete who's driven by others, said he takes this a step further by creating distance competitions with friends. They set a mileage goal on their bikes (you can use any equipment or even outdoor runs and walks), and whoever reaches it last has to buy dinner.

3. Don't forget to focus on sleep

"It's not just about quantity, but quality," Boyd says. You need those zzz's to let your body recover from the work you put it through — and this benefits the mind, too, by keeping you energized and inspired to keep moving.

Vellers said if your resting heart rate is 10 to 15 beats above normal in the morning, that probably denotes you're not getting enough rest. For those having trouble getting quality shut-eye, check out these products that help you sleep better.

Read the original article on Insider