How to Start Working Out When You Don’t Know What You’re Doing

What do you do when you’re trying to start a new workout routine?

Maybe you’ve been training your entire life and just want a new exercise to keep things fresh. Or maybe you’re getting started with exercise for the first time and don’t know how to start working out. Either way, starting a new training routine is something we all deal with from time to time.

For example, I recently added sprint training to my workout routine. There’s just one problem: I’ve never done sprint training before.

In this post, I’ll outline the strategies I used to get started with a new workout routine and how you can use them to kickstart your own training.

How to Start Working Out

Step one: decide what you want to be good at doing.

I’ve written previously about how important a sense of purpose can be, and that holds true for exercise and training as well.

The more specific you are about what you want to become good at doing, the easier it is for you to train for success. In my case, I want to become good at 400m sprints. That’s a clear goal and it helps provide direction to me in the process.

If you’re confused about how to start working out, then make a decision. It doesn’t even have to be the “best” decision. Just choose something that you want to become good at doing and start moving in that direction. There will be plenty of time for adjustments and optimization later.

Ask someone who has been there.

In the beginning, I had no idea what a typical sprint workout even looked like.

How did I find out? I asked people who did know. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask questions. Everybody is a beginner at some point. The people around you are your greatest asset.

I went to my strength and conditioning coach from college, my old teammates who had done sprint training, and a friend who ran track competitively. I asked each of them for suggestions and programs for 400m sprint training and for general sprinting tips.

My hope was that by asking five different people instead of just one, I would get a more well–rounded view. As expected, everyone pointed me towards different programs and routines.

While all of this different information might seem conflicting and confusing at first, it’s important for the next step.

Get the main idea, skip the details.

This is where most people give up and never get going with their new routine. (Don’t worry. It’s happened to me as well.)

Fitness is one of the worst industries if you’re looking for clear advice. It seems like everyone has a different way of doing things and they are all convinced that their way is the only way.

As a result, it’s easy to stress out over the details of a new workout routine. Should I do 5 sets or 6 sets? Program A says I should rest for 90 seconds, but Program B says I should rest for 60 seconds. This website says to workout on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, but my friend did it on Tuesday and Thursday. Which one is right?

Let’s all take a deep breath.

Here’s a little knowledge bomb for you: the details don’t matter in the beginning.

You’ll have plenty of time to figure out technique, rest periods, volume, training schedules, yada yada yada. When you’re starting a new workout routine, the only thing that matters is getting started. Get the main idea, stick to the schedule, and the details will begin to fall into place.

Here’s how I did it with my sprint training…

I read each of the resources and workout programs that my friends sent me. Then, I wrote down the common ideas from each program.

Here’s what they looked like…

  • run sprints that range from 200m to 500m
  • rest for 2 or 3 minutes between sets
  • run between 3 to 6 sprints per workout
  • do sprint workouts 2 or 3 times per week

Did I leave out a lot of details? Yes. But with the main ideas above, I could go to the track and get my first sprint workout done.

And in the beginning that’s the real goal: make it as simple as possible to get started.

Go slow.

Most of the time, when we decide to start a new workout routine it’s because we’re motivated to do it. It’s great to have motivation, but as I’ve mentioned before, it can be a double–edged sword.

Why? First, because motivation fluctuates. This means you can’t rely on it. That’s why you want to build good habits instead of getting motivated.

But secondly, motivation can fool you into biting off more than you can chew. (I wrote about why this is an issue, and how to avoid it, here.)

In the beginning, you want to start slow. Remember, the goal is to get in the habit of doing the workouts, not to do intense workouts.

Here’s how I started with my sprints…

The first workout, I did 3 sprints of 200m at 50% intensity. It was easy and slow. I was simply trying to get my body used to running again.

The second workout, I did 2 sprints of 400m with 3 minutes rest in between. Again, this wasn’t a particularly taxing workout.

In the beginning, you want the workouts to be easy. This is true for the first 3 or 4 weeks. Your only goal is to stick to the schedule and build the capacity to do the workout. Performance doesn’t matter.

It seems like this is the exact opposite of what most people do. The typical approach is to go from sitting on your couch to doing P90X for six days every week. With a switch like that, it’s no wonder that most people give up after a week.

Don’t miss workouts.

If I could summarize everything I’ve learned in 10 years of strength training it would come down to these three words: don’t miss workouts.

If we’re being honest with ourselves, here’s what our workout calendar usually looks like:

  • Workout consistently for a month or two.
  • Get sick. Miss multiple workouts. Spend the next month getting back in shape.
  • Workout consistently for a month or two.
  • Schedule changes. Life gets crazy. Miss multiple workouts. Spend the next month getting back in shape.
  • Workout consistently for a month or two.
  • Travel. Vacation. Time off. Miss multiple workouts. Spend the next month getting back in shape.

And on and on.

Now there’s nothing wrong with your schedule changing or taking vacation, but you need to have a system to make it as easy as possible to get back on track. This is especially true when you’re just getting started with a new workout routine.

When I started my pushup routine, I managed to get 17 consecutive workouts in before I missed a day. And I got right back on track after that one day off. In total, I’ve done 93 pushup workouts over the last 8 months.

The individual impact of each workout has been very small, but the cumulative impact of sticking to that schedule has been huge. (I’ve doubled the amount of pushups that I can do.) And it all comes down to not missing workouts.

I’m planning on applying this same strategy to my sprint workouts and I suggest you do the same.

Pick an Exercise and Get Started

There are more exercises in the world than I care to count, but I think you can list the important ones on two hands.

  • Clean and Jerk
  • Snatch
  • Squat
  • Deadlift
  • Bench Press
  • Pushups
  • Pullups
  • Sprints

Pick one that you would like to be good at and get started.

Remember, you don’t need to worry about the details in the beginning. Just get the main idea, start slow, and don’t miss workouts.

And now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to hit the track.

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24 Comments

  1. Not doing these things make great excuses for total inaction. which is exactly where we were a few years back. Glad to be on the other side. Your ideas are solid and leave little room for excuses. Eventually, we must tell ourselves that we are not the type of person that misses workouts. Another marvy post, James!

  2. Thanks for the great advice. Looking at getting back on track with exercising since I’ve been so lazy about it. This came at the most opportune time!

    • Glad to hear it, Michelle. Good luck! And know that our community is always here to help and support if you need it.

  3. I love, love, love this article. No excuses is the right way to go about exercise. I always make sure I do at least 30mins a day. It might be gardening, walking the dog, push ups – whatever I just do it because it’s now a habit and would feel so odd not to do something physical! Thanks for sharing.

    I really want to try the sprints you mentioned and I know this will probably sound a really dumb question but how do you mark or measure the 200m or 400m you need to sprint? Do you use a running machine or run round a track? That’s the bit that confuses me.

    Great post!

  4. James –

    First off, I personally believe sprints are the best workout in the world; nice workout choice!

    Secondly and more importantly and interestingly, I think your advice from this article can be applied far beyond working out. Whether you want to start a business, blog, self-experiment, bike touring trip, or whatever else suits your interests, you can take the advice from this article and apply it in a different context to achieve success. So go out there and live it!

    Keep inspiring,
    moose

  5. This is great. I love “Get the main idea, skip the details.”

    I get too bogged down on “Ask someone who has been there.”

    There are an infinite number of people I could ask and they all give different opinions, so I just get overwhelmed and go eat breakfast.

    I should just pick one and do it!

    Thank you.

    • You got it! Good luck, John.

      And don’t be afraid to stop back and share. Our community is here to support you. I can’t wait to hear about your progress.

  6. Great article James!

    I have one question for running outdoors specifically:

    Do you use any specific thought process to not miss workouts on the rainy/bad weather days, or maybe reschedule workouts within the same day?

    I remember my own rationalizing “Oh, it’s wet and cold outside, if I don’t miss this workout I will probably get sick and miss way more workouts”. This thought process has some sense, but all in all, it’s just an excuse.

    On a different note, one thing I found extremely useful when starting with new body-weight exercises is to video record myself doing them several times. Simply to avoid bad practices that stick and, of course, not injuring myself.

    I think it’s Tim Ferris who said “Practice makes permanent” and indeed making sure I do exercises in correct form is almost as important as doing them in the first place.

    Cheers

    • I totally understand your thought about missing workouts when the weather is not so good. Not sure where you live but in S. Florida it rains all the time and as a past long distance runner I found that running in various conditions was very helpful in my training. It taught me how to gauge my endurance and really puts you in tuned to your capabilities based on the weather. It makes you a better athlete and the best athletes, especially professional athletes are well prepared to perform in all weathers. If you are worried about being cold, you will warm up once you are moving.

      Get GOOD GEAR, shop and try different fabrics, FEEL THEM so you can recognize good fabric in cheaper stores without having to always spend a lot. Having good gear will help in that you will be more comfortable and your clothes wont stink or expand once you start to sweat.

  7. I think perhaps the most helpful thing is to work out with a friend who 1) knows what they are doing and 2) is stronger/more fit than you! Very motivating, if a little disheartening at first.

  8. I have lower back problem (disc hernia) but I do work out. Although I removed some due to back issue.

    My question is that, how can I do some workouts like, clean & jerk, snatch, deadlift, and squat without hurting my back?

    Thanks.

  9. Any tips for a woman who’d like to start lifting? I’ve done a little in free weights, but I’m clueless about those exercises you’ve listed (clean and jerk, deadlift…)

    Thanks!

  10. James, I just discovered your site today thanks to a friend sharing an article of yours on Facebook. Great stuff, well written, logical, no-nonsense. I like it. Here’s my dilemma, wondering if you have any thoughts…

    I’m 6’4″ and I’ve dropped 48 pounds in the past 7 months. Down to 250 lbs now. I did so through an overhauled diet and I’ve been running about 2.7 miles three mornings per week. Before March of this year, I haven’t run or exercised AT ALL since high school P.E. class. I’ve logged every run and it definitely helps to keep track and look at the progress over time. No plans to stop running, as it’s slowly getting easier and I’m getting faster.

    My question… My (admittedly silly) goal, to start, is to do one Pullup. Trouble is, even with the reduced weight, I’m still in no shape to even do the one. So I’m looking to start building upper-body strength. Obviously I need to keep working at reducing the weight, but I think the lack of strength is what’s keeping me from doing a pull-up. Any suggestions on where to start? Which exercises to focus on, how many and how often? I don’t exactly live near a gym, so anything home-based/D.I.Y. would be great, but that’s not a deal-breaker.

    Thanks for the great articles. I plan to read more…

  11. I have a big problem with motivation.. thank you so, so, so, much for this articles, it made me very motivated to work on my body.

  12. Thank you, starting to fast is what I always did, after a couple weeks it becomes too much. Now I think learning the routine and following it for three day a week for about a month is a good way to start.

  13. I just got a membership to a gym and have no clue what to do. I would like to built up my chest and tone up. Please help.

  14. Great article. Thank you! I’ve always wanted to be good at pull-ups but at this point, I can barely do one. Can you recommend how to get started?

    • Found myself nodding in agreement through the entire article. I started off too fast on the sprints (though I use time not distance). It got to the point after a couple sessions that I dreaded the thought of doing them again. And fell off the wagon. Now I push enough to feel like I’m doing work but not that I’m going to die. At least on most of the workouts. But I will go completely all out every few workouts. But I’m mentally and physically prepared to do it after getting my body/mind ready.

      Also a key is to start a workout even if you’re not “motivated” to workout. Just start it and you will more than likely get motivated and do it. And never do a workout half heartedly. Do it like you mean it.

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