When you’re a fitness newbie, it’s tempting to look around at other gym-goers to figure out what you should be doing. Those box jumps look cool, right?
But before you try to crank out your first power clean or achieve some tricked-out lift for your Instagram feed, you’ve got to nail a few choice moves.
“These exercises will literally be your foundation for every exercise moving forward,” explains California-based trainer Mike Donavanik, C.S.C.S., C.P.T. Just like a house will eventually crumble if it’s built on a shaky foundation, your body will pay the price down the line if you don’t establish a solid fitness base.
Hence why many people who fire up their gym membership in the New Year get injured, burnt out, or simply give up after they don’t see the results they want—they don’t give their bodies the foundational training they need.
So rather than sweat it out in vain or risk a sidelining injury, set yourself up for success with these five foundational moves every gym newbie should master. (Hey, self-proclaimed gym vets, you may want to make sure you’re solid on these, too…)
1. Reverse-Grip Lat Pulldown
This beginner-friendly move hits your back, deltoids, biceps, triceps, and core muscles while promoting proper shoulder alignment, which is critical to avoiding the super-common neck and shoulder injuries that occur in both exercisers and gym-phobes alike, says Holly Perkins, C.S.C.S., founder of Women’s Strength Nation. This exercise is your base for chin-ups and pull-ups, and can help promote proper movement patterns when performing row variations and even isolation exercises like bicep curls.
Instructions: Sit down at a pull-down machine and grab the wide pull-down bar with your hands shoulder-width apart, palms facing you. Lean your torso back just slightly and maintain a flat back, with your core engaged. From here, pull the bar down until it just touches your upper chest, keeping your elbows tucked in close to your sides and your torso stationary. Pause, then slowly reverse the movement to return the bar back to starting position.
“The plank is perfect for people new to the gym because it teaches you how to properly brace your core—a must during every single strength-training exercise out there,” Donavanik says. “On top of that, it will help you develop your mind-muscle connection. You’ll become more aware of what’s happening in your body—where your shoulders are, if your hips are aligned, and how your core, quads, and glutes are engaged.” Once you’ve mastered that skill, you’re ready to safely perform more advanced exercises—whether they involve a plank as their base, or if, like deadlifts and cleans, they just require awesome total-body awareness to be performed safely and effectively.
Instructions: Get on the floor on your hands and knees and then extend your legs straight behind you, lowering your torso onto your forearms so that your elbows are directly under your shoulders and your body forms a straight line from head to heels. To make sure that you don’t just “hang” in the plank (a common mistake), brace your core like you’re about to be punched in the stomach, pull your shoulders down and squeeze them back as if you are trying to pull your elbows to your knees, and squeeze your glutes and quads as tightly as possible. Your entire body should feel tight.
3. Leg Press
“I love the leg press for newbies because it puts you in a controlled environment where you can dedicate all of your mental and physical energy to strengthening your legs in one movement,” Perkins says. “You don’t have to worry about balance or leaning because the machine keeps you in place, you can focus 100 percent of your attention on feeling and learning how to properly activate your glutes, quads, and hamstrings.” As you learn to better engage these muscles, you’ll be better equipped to perform both isolation moves like single-leg deadlifts and compound ones such as step-ups and split-squats.
Instructions: Sit down at a leg press machine and place your feet on the platform between hip- and shoulder-width apart, with your toes turned out just slightly. Move the safety bars holding the platform in place and, while keeping your body firmly pressed against the seat, bend at the knees and hips to lower the platform until your legs form a 90-degree angle. (If your knees extend far past your toes in this bottom position, you need to adjust your feet placement so they are closer to the top of the platform.) Pause, then push through your heels and reverse the movement to return the platform to starting position.
The pushup builds total upper-body strength, while teaching your chest, deltoids, rotator cuff muscles, triceps, and biceps how to work together as one cohesive unit, Donavanik says. That way, when you progress to using more weight in exercises like the bench press or incline bench press, or take on plyo pushups and burpees, you know you will get the most out of every single rep.
Instructions: Get on the floor on your hands and knees, and then extend your legs straight behind you so that your body forms a straight line from head to heels. Your shoulders should be stacked directly above your elbows and wrists. Look straight between your hands and slowly pull your elbows back so they flare out diagonally from your body as you lower your chest toward the floor. Make sure to keep your shoulders pulled down and back, away from your ears. Once your chest comes within a few inches of the floor, push through your chest, triceps, and shoulders to straighten your elbows and return to the starting position. If you cannot keep your body in a straight line throughout the entire movement, try spreading your feet slightly wider apart or performing an incline pushup with your hands on a low bench.
5. Bodyweight Squat
The all-powerful squat hones in on your lower-body’s fundamental movement patterns, developing strength through all of your major leg muscles as well as smaller stabilizers, while teaching your body to transfer power between the core and lower body. Hence why the squat forms the basis of pretty much every big lower- and total-body movement out there, from dumbbell and barbell squats, to cleans, snatches, and jerks, Donavanik says.
Instructions: Stand tall with your feet between hip- and shoulder-width apart, and toes turned out just slightly. From here, start the movement by hinging at the hips, or pushing your butt back, and then bending at the knees to lower your torso as far as you can without pain or your heels lifting up off of the floor (as if you’re sitting down in an invisible chair.) Make sure to keep your back flat and chest up as you descend into the squat. At the bottom of the movement, pause, and then push through your heels to extend the hips and knees and return to the starting standing position.