How to Make Any Exercise Easier If You’re a Beginner

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woman struggling to do a pushup

Photo: fizkes (Shutterstock)

A workout habit has a way of building momentum: Once you’re doing something, anything, it’s easy to add something else. But if you’re a total beginner, sometimes the things you see other people doing may not even seem possible for you. That’s not true, though: Everybody has to start somewhere.

Believe it or not, experienced exercisers have a similar problem as beginners: Everybody wants to be further along than they are right now. Even people who run ridiculously fast are often bummed they can’t run even faster. When you’re starting out all you need to do is train however you can—maybe you can’t run at all, but you can walk—and build from there. So here are a few suggestions to get you started.

If you can’t squat

Lots of “easy” bodyweight programs ask you to perform a squatting motion without any added weight. But if that’s already more than you can do, try one of these:

  • Sit in a chair, and stand back up.
  • Lean your back against a wall and slide down until you’re in a sitting position (this is called a wall squat).
  • Hold onto a countertop or the back of a chair while you do a squat.

For any of these, it’s okay to squat as low as you can, even if that’s not all the way to parallel. You can work on going lower over time.

If you can’t do pushups

Pushups are another move you’ll find in simple beginner workouts, but not everyone can do a pushup on their first day.

Pushups get easier the higher your hands are, and harder the higher your feet are. So for the easiest beginner version, put your hands on a wall around shoulder height. Lean into the wall, then push yourself back to a standing position.

Once those become easy, choose a lower surface, like a table or countertop. Then move to a chair, and so on. This progression is arguably better than doing pushups on your knees, because no matter which level you’re on, you are practicing holding your entire body straight in a plank position.

If you aren’t ready to pick up weights

Dumbbells come in all sizes—and fortunately for beginners, the smallest ones are also the cheapest. If your gym doesn’t have dumbbells small enough, any store with a sporting goods section will likely have some one- and two-pound dumbbells you can pick up and add to your gym bag.

But if you’re not even ready for dumbbells, that’s okay. A half-liter water bottle weighs about a pound. Same with a can of soup. Larger water bottles, wine bottles, and milk jugs can take you up a bit further in weight; we did the math for you here. You can also hold books, roller skates, or tote bags full of literally anything. (Two water bottles in a grocery bag? That’s a two-pound weight.)

Need to start even lighter? It’s okay to do weight workouts using literally nothing. Make your hands into fists and go through the motions. If you’re following a video that does a million reps of bicep curls or tricep extensions, your arms will get tired even if they’re empty. Just move up to the water bottles as soon as you’re ready.

If you aren’t ready to follow a video

With these substitutions, you may feel ready to start following along with beginner level workout videos. But what if you can’t handle exactly what’s on the screen?

Remember, your goal should be to do a workout at your current level of fitness, not to complete a certain number of reps that you theoretically could do if you were in better shape. So if the video asks for 30 seconds of pushups and you just can’t do that many, do as many as you can and rest for the remainder of the time.

It’s fine to bounce from video to video until you find something at your level, but keep an eye out for one that seems like fun but is just out of your reach. Do it anyway, modifying it or resting as needed, and then bookmark it and come back to it next week. Chances are good you’ll be able to keep up a little bit better—and if you keep coming back to that same workout week after week, you’ll eventually master it. Consistency breeds momentum.

If you aren’t ready to do a cycling workout

Let’s say you want to do a workout from a Peloton-like cycling instructor. You’ve got your bike, you can pedal, but pretty quickly you’re out of breath and feel like you can’t keep going.

These workouts are easy to adjust: All you have to do is pay attention to the instructor’s voice and facial expressions and ignore any specific numbers. It doesn’t matter if she’s asking you for a “20” or a “50.” If the instructor looks and talks like she’s on an easy bike ride, adjust your resistance so you are on an easy bike ride. If she looks like she’s working hard but not dying, adjust your resistance so you are working hard but not dying.

If you aren’t ready to run

Walk. That’s it, that’s the strategy. Walk across the room, walk down the block, walk a mile. Walk slowly. Eventually you’ll find yourself walking further or faster. Maybe you’ll reach a point where you want to start running; maybe you’ll just enjoy your walks.

If you can’t decide where to start

Start literally anywhere. There isn’t a wrong answer. Maybe you start walking, but it turns out you hate walking. Well, you’re already moving your body a couple times a week, so you can swap out the walking for something else.

Or maybe you start doing pushups every day, but after a while your wrists are aching. You can choose to address that problem and continue your pushups, or you can look back on how far you’ve come, congratulate yourself, and pick a different thing to try for the next chapter of your fitness journey. After all, you’ve already started, so why not keep going?

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