Do advanced exercises like one-arm push-ups, pistol squats and dragon flags look impossible to you? Are you new to bodyweight training or strength training in general and need a starting point? Then this beginner bodyweight workout plan, Zero2Hero, is for you.
When you have zero experience with strength training, the most important thing to get in line is creating the habit of working out. Although bodyweight training is one of the simplest forms of exercise, there is some infrastructure that has to be established:
- Figuring out a workout routine
- Finding a way to keep track of your progress
- Blocking off time for workouts
- Finding a place to work out
Fortunately, number 1 is covered in this article. I already wrote extensively about building your own routine, but I’ll make it super easy for you newbies and give you all the tools you need.
Number 2 is also very easy: Get a cheap notebook or, maybe even better, get my minimalist workout log by subscribing to the Neat Newsletter. I also wrote extensively about keeping a workout journal here.
Number 3 and 4 are the things you have to figure out yourself. Here are some hints to get you on track:
Work out at the same place and time whenever possible. Make the time and place easy choices. What this means: Pick a place that is convenient for you, so it’s either very near your home or your workplace. Bodyweight training can be done at home if you have a pull-up bar (if you don’t, I have some alternatives for you). Though outdoor training is the superior choice, if you cannot muster up the willpower to go outside, do your workouts at home. No shame in that.
Time is muscle (get it?! 😉 ). Pick a time that is most convenient for you.
You only need 30 minutes, 3 times per week.
Can you wake up half an hour earlier to just get it done in the morning? And will you work out in the morning? Be honest with yourself. In our fantasies, we are all wonderful morning people who will conquer the world before the sun rises.
For me personally, doing anything more than a few mobility drills is not an option for me in the morning. Don’t make working out optional, though. You should never have to ask yourself the question “Should I exercise today?”. These are fixed appointments. Mark them in your calendar if that helps you.
As an exercise newbie, you can get away with the simplest routine and make significant gains in a reasonable amount of time. No need to do 20 isolation exercises, split routines or anything like that.
4 compound exercises is all you need.
This holds true even long after you’ve become an “intermediate” trainee. These 4 exercises will give you maximal bang for your beginner’s buck:
- Bodyweight rows
Basically, we have a set of movements that will train our pushing and pulling strength, work our legs and improve posterior chain stability.
What about abs and crunches and sit-ups and all that?
First of all, crunches and sit-ups are lame. There are far better exercises out there that specifically work your abs. Second, the exercises listed above all work your core muscles sufficiently if done with proper form.
I can’t even do one push-up!
Don’t panic if you cannot perform even a single rep of a certain exercise listed above. You will start with an easier variation. I addressed the principles of progressing with bodyweight exercises in an earlier article, but for now, we will use the straight-forward method of adjusting the leverage of your body.
Push-ups: If you can’t do a push-up, pick an elevated surface to put your hands on. Now perform a push-up. Push-ups are too easy? Elevate your feet. Always keep your body in a straight line from head to toe. Do the full range of motion (ROM), so all the way down and all the way up. When doing proper push-ups, elbows are not flaring out but are kept closer to your body.
Bodyweight rows: If you think bodyweight rows are too hard, find a higher bar. If you can bang them out with ease, elevate your feet. Again, body is a straight line from head to toe. You should be able to touch the bar with your chest and your arms are fully locked out at the end of the movement.
Squats: If you can’t do full bodyweight squats, try sitting back on a chair or a bench and immediately get up as described in my introduction to squats. When regular squats get easy, expand your ROM by doing ass-to-grass squats (hamstrings touch calves). Then do prisoner squats (ass-to-grass squats with your hands behind your head).
If that’s all a piece of cake, move on to cossack squats. These are sometimes confused with side lunges. A side lunge is an easier variation (demonstrated in the first picture in the slideshow above) because you don’t use the full ROM (you usually stop when your working leg is roughly parallel to the ground).
Stand with your legs spread widely and lower down to one side. For cossack squats, try to go down as far as you can (again, hamstring should touch the calf). Use your hands for balance if you have to. If you can’t go through the full ROM, just go down as far as possible. With consistent training, your mobility will improve. Do all repetitions consecutively on one leg, then on the other one. Progressing with the cossack squat is done by elevating the passive leg. These are also an excellent precursor when you want to dive into pistol squat progressions.
Supermans: If you can’t get into a superman position, spread your legs and arms as far to your sides as you can. Supermans should be performed isometrically, meaning you will get into the superman position for as long as you can. You don’t need a timer for this. Count your breaths. One breath is one rep (so when I say “do 5 reps”, I want you to hold the superman position and count 5 slow breaths). To progress with supermans, try to have an even breathing rhythm. When you get to 15 breaths per hold, do a slower rhythm and go back to 5 breaths per set.
The secret that all strong people share: They got to that level by progressively doing harder and harder exercises. Nobody started with handstand push-ups. The key is to get better at one tiny thing each workout (1 more rep, a slightly harder variation, shorter breaks, etc.). Over time, this will accumulate to massive improvements.
Where do I start?
For each of the 4 exercises, pick one variation and try to get 15 reps. If you got 15 good reps, that variation was too easy. Pick something that’s slightly more difficult and test again. If you can do no more than 10 reps with a certain variation, that’s the one you will start this program with.
How often should I work out? How many sets/reps/seconds of rest should I do?
This routine consists of 3 workouts per week. You will do 3 sets of each exercise. Every session will be a full body workout, meaning you will perform all 4 exercises in each workout.
I’m a big fan of circuit workouts. This means you’ll do all exercises one after another. So one set of push-ups, followed by bodyweight rows, then one set of squats and one superman hold. That was one round. Now repeat for 2 more rounds.
Rest for roughly 60 to 90 seconds between rounds.
Pro tip: Rest for a fixed number of breaths. Breath slowly and deeply, 10 times. If you use a 3-count breathing pattern (in your head say “one, one thousand, two, two thousand, three, three thousand” while breathing in and the same while breathing out), you’ll end up with a resting time of about roughly 60 seconds.
What about warm-ups? Don’t I have to do all kinds of stretches before a workout?
Complete beginners don’t need a warm-up. This will just lengthen your workout and raise the probability of you missing the workout due to procrastination. Besides, beginners don’t benefit that much from a warm-up. You don’t have the strength, yet, to put yourself under the kind of resistance that could lead to injury (of course, there is never a guarantee for that). You also need a bit of experience with working out in order to push yourself to your limits.
When you’ve followed this routine for a while (about 3 months), a warm-up is advisable and will be simply this: Some light aerobic activity to slightly elevate your heart rate (jumping jacks, rope skipping, running in place, jogging to your workout location, etc.). Then, prior to the first set, do one set of an easier variation of the exercises you are going to do. For example, if you are currently training regular push-ups, do a set incline push-ups (hands elevated). Don’t go anywhere near failure. This is just to prime the muscles. Supermans don’t need a warm-up (especially if you’re Superman … oh I’m so funny today).
How do I progress?
If you can do 15 reps of a particular exercise for all 3 sets with good form, progress to the next level. For the next variation you’re going to tackle, you should be able to do at least 5 reps. For push-ups and bodyweight rows, “harder” means elevating your feet relative to your hands (or lower the hands relative to your feet). For supermans, simply lengthen the time you hold it.
How long should I do this routine and when will I see results?
If you follow this routine by heart, I promise you that you will see results after just one month. It might not be the 30 pounds in 30 days kind of success you see advertised by snake-oil salesmen. It will be subtle things like increased confidence, improved posture and better sleeping quality. Being strong makes every physical activity easier, whether it’s carrying the groceries, climbing the stairs or playing with your kids. If you change your eating habits, this routine will accelerate your fat loss or will help you build muscle.
Depending on your level of fitness when you start this routine, you could easily stick to it for at least 6 months to a year. Exercising shouldn’t be a means to an end but rather become a part of your life that you enjoy. So the question should not be how long you have to do this but rather how long you can do only this routine while still making progress. When you get to the point where you just can’t find higher surfaces for your feet, try an exercise from the Neat Progressions and see where that gets you.
As long as that’s not the case, keep at it.
Sample Workout Routine
Meet Bob. Bob was never really into formal exercise but after turning 30 last year, he thought it was time for a change. Bob read this article and did his first initial test. The results:
- Push-ups (hands elevated knee high): 8
- Bodyweight rows (bar hip high): 9
- Cossack Squats: 10
- Supermans: about 10 hasty breaths
A look inside his workout journal reveals his first week of training:
Bob already made quite some progress in just a week. He has been adding reps to his sets every workout and if he continues this way, he’s gonna get really strong in a matter of months. I’m proud of Bob.
As a last point, I want you to try another small exercise. Imagine this:
You can do push-ups and bodyweight rows with your feet elevated by a hip high surface, can hold a superman for over a minute and cossack squats with the passive leg resting on a knee high surface. Who else can do this inside your social circle? 10%? 5%? You will be one of the fittest people you know, isn’t that neat?
Really visualize yourself performing this kind of workout. The tensed up muscles that are generating this kind of force. The mix of power and grace you will show by doing these. The mental toughness you will have developed by diligently doing this workout 3 times a week, every week. This is you in about a year.
Just as Neo in The Matrix had to choose between the red and the blue pill, you can start transforming yourself by choosing to work out. I just showed you the door. Now step through it.
If you found this helpful and know somebody who may be sedentary, struggling to start exercising or simply needs a kick in the butt, be a darling and share this article with him or her. Use the share buttons below.
Photo credits: Sabine A and Sabrina Frank