Want to get more active? Try these basic exercises for beginners

From no-equipment home exercises to dumbbell or gym routines, we have the ultimate list of basic exercises for beginners.

As you will have probably read more than once here at Saga Exceptional, getting more active, whatever stage of life you’re at, can only be a good thing. Even so, if you’re preparing to enter the world of exercise, it can seem daunting – but the good news is that a few basic exercises for beginners are all you need to transform your fitness. What’s more, the simpler you make it, the more effective it will be. 

You don’t have to spend hours in the gym or master any tricky movement patterns, nor is it about investing in expensive equipment, apps or subscriptions. We have all the basic exercises you’ll need to get going.  

A good mix of cardio and strength workouts, spread across each week, will mean the benefits of exercise soon become apparent. 

Lady holding hand weightsCredit: Shutterstock / Seventy Four

How do I start?

If you’re a complete beginner to exercise, take a look at what you’re already doing. It’s probably more than you think. Do you walk the dog every day? Enjoy gardening? Love taking a bike ride on holiday? These are all ways to exercise without even thinking about it.  

If you have a physical activity you enjoy, such as cycling, swimming or walking, build on that and make it a regular habit two or three times a week. That’s already your cardio exercise covered. This will ensure your heart and lungs are kept in good shape, along with the other health benefits of cardio exercise 

The NHS recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week, spread across four or five days. It also recommends “strengthening activities that work all the major muscle groups on at least two days a week”. The benefits of strength training are well documented, from protecting against osteoporosis to preserving muscle mass as we age. To get started, you’ll need to master some basic exercises: 


Basic exercise patterns to master

All strength training is made up of basic movements. These might be altered to suit different workout styles or preferences, but the essence remains the same. Injury is far less likely to occur if you’ve got a good grasp of how to move correctly, and you can also progress effectively once you’ve learnt the following:

  • Squat – eg, goblet squat, sumo squat 
  • Hinge – eg, deadlift, kettlebell swing 
  • Push – eg, overhead press, chest press
  • Pull – eg, upright row, lat pulldown

 All these patterns will be present in the exercises listed below. Just pick your level and follow along with the workout. I’d suggest aiming to do two or three sessions a week, for four to six weeks. After that, you should be confident enough in the basics to progress to another workout of your choice.  

Have questions? Email me! If you’d like any further advice on any of the exercises below, or ideas on what to do next, feel free to drop me a line.

No-equipment home exercises

I love working out at home I can play my choice of music, wear whatever I want, and no one can see me. None of these exercises need any equipment, and they can be done at home, in the gym or anywhere else! 


Squat no weightCredit: Saga Exceptional
  1. Stand with feet slightly wider than hip-width apart. 
  2. Bend your knees, pushing your hips back, squatting down. 
  3. Push your feet into the ground as you stand up again. 
  4. Perform 10-12 squats, three times, resting 30 seconds between rounds. 

Make this easier: Squat down onto a chair.  

Make this harder: Add dumbbells (see below). 



Woman doing a single leg deadliftCredit: Saga Exceptional
  1. Stand with feet together, then carefully hinge at the hips, extending one leg behind you.  
  2. Keep a soft bend in the knee of the supporting leg, and hips facing the floor (don’t twist). 
  3. Once you’ve extended the leg as far as you can go, come back to the starting position.  
  4. Take this slowly – this move is designed to work on your balance and coordination.
  5. Perform between three and five aeroplanes on each side twice, resting 30 seconds between rounds.  

Make this easier: Hold on to the back of a chair or edge of a table for support.  

Make this harder: Hold a dumbbell in one hand.  

Glute bridge

Woman lying on floor pushing hips into the airCredit: Saga Exceptional
  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat.  
  2. Squeezing your glutes (bum muscles), push your hips towards the ceiling. 
  3. Hold for between two and three seconds, then come back to the starting position.  
  4. Perform 15 repetitions for three rounds, resting 30 seconds between rounds.  

Make this easier: Don’t push up as high in the bridge.  

Make this harder: Elevate the feet slightly or take one foot off the floor and do single-leg bridges.  


Reverse lunge no weightCredit: Saga Exceptional
  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.  
  2. Step back on one leg, bending the back knee towards the floor.  
  3. The front leg should bend at a 90-degree angle.  
  4. Push into the front foot to come back up to standing.  
  5. Perform eight lunges on one leg, then the other, for three rounds, resting 45 seconds between rounds.  
  6. Don’t take too large a step back, as it becomes hard to balance.  

Make this easier: Hold on to the back of a chair for support, or don’t lunge too deep (your knee doesn’t need to touch the floor).  

Make this harder: As you stand, lift the knee up above the waist, then lunge back down again. 

Push up

Woman doing a pushupCredit: Saga Exceptional
  1. Start in a strong plank position with your hands slightly wider than your shoulders.  
  2. Your body needs to be in one straight line from head to toe – make sure your bottom isn’t high in the air and that your back doesn’t sag.   
  3. From the starting position, take a breath in and lower your body in one straight line, letting the elbows bend at a 45-degree angle to the body – don’t let them flare out.   
  4. Stop about 3in (7.5cm) from the floor – don’t leave your bum in the air!  
  5. Explode back up to the starting position.   
  6. Perform between five and eight repetitions, for three rounds. Rest for 90 seconds between rounds. 

Make this easier: Follow our detailed guide on how to do a push up for a range of modifications including wall push ups.  

Make this harder: Add a three-second pause at the bottom of each push up.  

Superman pull

Woman lying face down on floor, raising head and armsCredit: Saga Exceptional
  1. Lie on your front, legs extended behind you, forehead resting on your hands.  
  2. Squeeze your glute muscles tightly and lift your chest and legs as high as you can, letting your hands rise with you.  
  3. While lifted, pull your elbows down towards your hips, squeezing the shoulder blades, then return to starting position.  
  4. Perform six supermans for three rounds, resting 30 seconds between rounds.  

Make this easier: Just concentrate on lifting and lowering the body, adding the pull when you’re ready.  

Make this harder: Add a side twist in after each pull – lift one elbow towards the ceiling and turn your head.  

Heel reaches

Woman lying on back, reaching alternate hands towards heelsCredit: Saga Exceptional
  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent, arms by your side. 
  2. Lift the head, neck and shoulders off the floor.  
  3. Lean to one side, as if you were trying to touch your fingers to your heel, or little toe if flexible enough.  
  4. Come back to the middle, then repeat on the other side.  
  5. Aim for 10-12 repetitions (reps) per side, for two rounds. Rest 30 seconds between rounds.  

Make this easier: Put a rolled towel under your head for extra support and reach towards the mid-calf or ankle.  

Make this harder: Perform all the reps on one side, then the other. 

Basic dumbbell exercises for beginners

Youll need different weights for different body parts for this reason, a set of three dumbbells is a good idea, like the ones detailed below. All these exercises can be done at home with dumbbells or in a gym.  

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Woman doing a squat with dumbbellsCredit: Saga Exceptional
  1. Follow all the points for the squat above but hold one dumbbell at the centre of your chest, or two at (but not on) your shoulders. 
  2. Don’t let the weights rest against you – by holding them throughout you’re also working on your grip strength.  
  3. Perform 10-12 squats, three times, resting 30 seconds between rounds.   

Make this easier: Hold one weight instead of two or use no weight.  

Make this harder: Hold the weights at (but not on) the shoulders.  

Romanian deadlift

Woman doing a deadlift with dumbbellsCredit: Saga Exceptional
  1. Standing straight, hold two dumbbells against the tops of your thighs.   
  2. Push your hips backwards so you fold at your hips, taking care not to round or arch your back.   
  3. As you do this, let the dumbbells slide down your legs, no further than mid-shin. 
  4. Once your hips are back all the way, bend your knees slightly so you push back even further.   
  5. You should feel a strong pull in your hamstrings at the back of your legs. If you don’t, push back more.    
  6. Perform eight repetitions for three rounds, resting 45 seconds between rounds.  

Make this easier: Practise getting the hinge movement correct first before adding the weights.  

Make this harder: Use heavier dumbbells, or you can even use a barbell and plates.  

Walking lunge

Woman lunging forwards with a pair of dumbbellsCredit: Saga Exceptional
  1. Stand with your feet together, holding dumbbells on either side.  
  2. Take a step forward on one leg, bending the knee at a 90-degree angle. 
  3. Bring the back leg to meet it, then step forward again on that leg (left, right, and so on).  
  4. If you don’t have much space, just turn around and repeat! 
  5. Perform 16 repetitions in total (eight per leg) three times. Rest for 45 seconds between rounds.  

Make this easier: Perfect this move without weights first, and don’t bend the knee as low.  

Make this harder: Don’t bring the feet together between moves, bring the back leg straight through and into the next lunge.   

Overhead press

Woman pressing two dumbbells overheadCredit: Saga Exceptional
  1. Stand tall, with your tummy tight. Hold a light pair of dumbbells at the shoulders, palms facing in.  
  2. Press the weights overhead until your arms are fully extended, then bring back to the starting position.  
  3. Keep your core engaged by squeezing your glutes and keeping the tummy tight.  
  4. Perform eight repetitions for three rounds, resting for 30 seconds between rounds.  

Make this easier: You can remain seated for this exercise, on a straight-backed chair or gym bench.  

Make this harder: Work alternate arms rather than both together to give your core a bigger challenge.  

Bicep curl

Woman doing a dumbbell bicep curlCredit: Saga Exceptional
  1. Standing tall, hold a pair of dumbbells in front of you with the elbows bent, palms facing the ceiling.  
  2. Keeping the elbows tight to the sides, curl the weights up towards your shoulders, then slowly return to the starting position. 
  3. Perform 10 repetitions for three rounds, resting 30 seconds between rounds.  

Make this easier: Curl one weight at a time. 

Make this harder: Add an overhead press each time. 

Overhead triceps extension

Woman holding weight behind head and lifting it up and downCredit: Saga Exceptional
  1. Standing tall, hold a light weight above your head.  
  2. Keeping the elbows as close to the head as possible, lower the weight down behind your head and back up again.  
  3. Repeat for eight repetitions and three rounds. Rest 45 seconds between rounds.  

Make this easier: Do one arm at a time, and use your free hand to support the elbow joint.

Make this harder: Use two weights (one in each hand).

Basic gym exercises for beginners

If you’re joining a gym and are looking to get started, then try the following routine, designed by Phil Carpenter, a personal trainer from PureGym Portsmouth. He says: I generally encourage more focus on upper body with seniors as it is the area they tend to use less in comparison to lower body. Having a strong core is fundamental, so the following should help.”

All these exercises on gym machines can be made easier or harder by increasing or decreasing the weight.  

Upper body

Perform five sets with the following number of repetitions: 12-10-8-6-6. As the reps decrease, try and increase the weight you use: 

  • Seated back row 
  • Lat pulldown 
  • Seated shoulder press 

Lower body

Perform four sets of 12-16 repetitions: 

  • Leg curl machine 
  • Leg extension machine 
  • Leg press 


Perform four sets of 14 repetitions: 

  • Crunches (you can use a Swiss ball for these if you want) 
  • Bicycles (you can also use a Swiss ball for these)  
Becky Fuller

Written by Becky Fuller she/her


Becky Fuller is a fully qualified Personal Trainer, specialising in strength and conditioning for over 50s. Becky is passionate about Kettlebell training, and runs a regular kettlebell club in the local community. Prior to this, she worked as a Fitness manager in a local gym. Becky’s focus is helping people to become stronger both in body and mind, and to move well without pain.

Becky also has many years’ experience working as a freelance journalist, writing for a wide variety of publications such as Screen Rant, Geek Feed, and Daily Actor. She also regularly reviews theatre productions for UKTW.

Away from work, Becky unsurprisingly enjoys exercise, with a focus on lifting weights, kettlebells, and Olympic rings. She loves watching theatre, swimming, and reading a good book. She has three teenage children and enjoys spending time with them, preferably on a Cornish beach.

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