Beginner Body Weight Workout: Burn Fat, Build Muscle

So you want to get in shape, but you have no gym membership.

That’s fine, screw gyms!

They’re loaded with chumps, meatheads, pushy salesmen, and people who suck at working out.  (If you DO go to a gym, here’s how to make sure you DON’T suck at working out).  Luckily, you can burn fat, build muscle, and get a great workout using just your body weight.  Learn why cardio is one of the least efficient methods of burning calories, and how you can get a lot done in a little bit of time.  By doing body weight circuits, where you complete one exercise right after the other without stopping, you’re both building muscle and getting a cardiovascular workout.

Why Body Weight Circuits Kick Ass

What makes body weight circuits work so well? Every exercise involved utilizes multiple muscle groups, gets your heart rate pumping, and burns tons of calories.  Check out this interview from Jason Ferruggia and Alwyn Cosgrove, two fitness gurus whose opinions and research I highly respect.  Essentially, circuit weight training burns more calories than interval training, which burns WAY more calories than steady cardio.  Essentially, if you’re trying to lose weight, spending hours doing cardio on a treadmill is a really crappy use of your time.

I’m going to take you through a basic workout today that can be completed in your house, apartment, out at a park, in your parents’ basement, wherever.  As always, make sure you are cleared by your personal physician for physical activity before attempting these exercises.    Proceed at your own risk!

Beginner Body Weight Workout

This is a basic body weight circuit. In a circuit routine, you’ll do each exercise in succession without a break in between (if you’re able).  Once you’ve finished all exercises in the circuit, you do it again.  If you’re still able after the 2nd run through, go for a third.  Because all of these exercises come one after another, you’re bound to get tired.  It’s better to stop and take a break than to do an exercise incorrectly.  If you can’t do all three circuits without stopping, that gives you something to build towards.

Before you start, WARM UP - Never ever ever ever forget to warm up.  Make sure to get your heart rate pumping and get your muscles warm or you’re just asking for injury.  If you’re strapped for time, cut short your workout, not your warm up.  You can run in place, jump rope, do a few push ups, pedal on a stationary bike, jog up and down your stairs, etc.  Don’t wear yourself out completely, but get your heart rate elevated and little bit of sweat never hurt anybody.  After the warm up, here is exactly what you need to do:

Beginner Body Weight Circuit Video

And so you can write it down, here is the write up for the exercise routine.

  • 20 body weight squats
  • 10 push ups
  • 20 walking lunges
  • 10 dumbbell rows (using a gallon milk jug)
  • 15 second plank
  • 30 Jumping Jacks

After you’ve completed your workout, make sure you stretch. All of your muscles have been contracted from lifting and need to be stretched back out and rebuilt.

For either the body weight squats or lunges, if you can’t do them properly yet, it’s okay to put your hand on a support to keep your balance.

For the body weight squats, think of it like sitting back into a chair. If you can sit down onto a chair, and then stand immediately right back up without having to lean forward, you are in balance.

For the lunges, keep your eyes ahead and your upper body completely vertical. I had a slight bend at times in the video due to trying to exercise and explain at the same time.

I used a milk jug for my dumbbell, but you can use whatever is heavy enough for you. Find something that is challenging to lift 10 times in a row.

Do this routine 2-3 times a week, but never on consecutive days.  You don’t build muscle when you’re exercising, you build muscle when you’re resting.  Generally I follow a pattern of strength training on one day, then 20 minutes of interval training on the next, then strength training, then interval training, and so on.  You never want to do a strength routine two days straight (of the same muscle groups), as your muscles haven’t had time to recover.

Along with this routine, you need to make sure you’re eating properly! A good workout and crappy diet will not get you anywhere.  Lots of real foods (fruits, vegetables, lean meat, nuts, etc.).  Eat natural, whole foods whenever possible, and leave the soda, candy, and junk food out of your system.  Your diet is at least 80% of your success or failure.

Help Me Help You

Leave a comment and let me know how it was for you, and your fitness level (total n00b, beginner, some experience, etc.). If you can get through all three circuits, let me know how long it took you.

If you have a YouTube account, you can subscribe to the NerdFitness channel, which will alert you any time I put out a new video.

If this routine is too easy for you, I have an Advanced Body Weight Circuit too.  You’ve been warned :)

-Steve

PS: If you’re looking for a little more direction, high definition video demonstrations of each exercise, more than a dozen more workouts, and a full guide on how to eat properly, check out the Nerd Fitness Academy!  I’m really proud of what we’ve put together.

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picture: Joe Shlabotnik

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  • Threenorns

    i have to quibble with the lunges as shown – that’s how i ended up on crutches with my knee strapped up for six weeks:  i lost my balance and my butt ended up on the floor up *ahead* of my toes.  my second daughter, then 16, also suffered damage doing this exercise – she was doing it exactly properly with no weight at all and she tore a quad.

    best is to do the dip form of lunge – step forward, lower, raise, but instead of standing up and stepping back, continue to lower and raise until one set is done for that leg at which point you return to the starting position and repeat for the other leg.

    also, *please* explain that the knee must never advance ahead of the toe – you want your shin to be perpendicular to the floor at all times.  also, you don’t want your butt planted on the floor ahead of your toes.  that’s bad.

  • Threenorns

    oh – to intensify the exercise, instead of stepping forward into the lunge, bring one foot back and rest it on a stool, coffee table, bench, whatever and then do the dips.  you’ll really feel that one in the ol’ maximus.

  • Daniel Aiken

    Hi Steve. 3 circuits takes me about 20 minutes. I have some experience, but I am in no way ready to move on to the advanced. You have any advice on making my routine a little harder?

    Dan

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  • Autumn

    I happened across this site while doing research on the Paleo diet. I have an autoimmune disorder that is still active, despite being pumped full of all kinds of medication. I decided that I need to take some responsibility for my health. It may not be within my control to prevent my illness entirely, but it is within my control to eat healthy and get a good balance of exercise, which I’m sure would improve how I feel. Of course, it’s confusing when there are tons of people telling you to eat this way or that way, to exercise this way or that way. Out of all of the diets I’ve read about, the Paleo diet actually makes sense. That lead me to further investigate the contents of this site, and I found this article. I think that the information is presented in a straight-forward way, no bull, no gimmicks. And what I really like is that you don’t look down on people if their abilities are limited and you encourage people to just do what they can and build on it. Now, I do have a membership at a gym, but I’m apparently one of those people that have no idea what they’re doing. I usually spend about 45 minutes on cardio (intervals) and then do a circuit of weight exercises, all on machines, with the exception of some free weights when I do arm curls and such. I do stretch afterwards (at least I was doing something right!). This was what I was encouraged to do. I’m also one of those people that probably have bad form because I’m an average sized female surrounded by quite a few larger men (and some women) that are lifting more weight than me, running faster than me, etc, and I feel like a dumb-a** when I’m doing less than they are. And because my disease effects my energy and how I feel in general, the time I put into going to the gym is, in fact, very valuable. Because afterwards, I might be not feeling well, in pain, etc, and it might have done me in for the day. After some research and really getting into the content of this site, I kind of feel like that time was wasted. So, I decided that I am going to do a Paleo diet 30 day challenge. In addition to the diet change, I’ll be doing the body weight training in this article and then moving up the intensity/difficulty as needed. And I can safely say that this site helped inspire me to give it a try. I’ve also started my own blog regarding my 30 day challenge to help me keep track of my ups and downs. Props to Steve for putting together information that I feel is actually useful and inspiring. You may even hear from me at the end of my 30 days.

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  • Decade453145

    Hey i have a question, what happens if i manage to do the first 10 push ups all right, with no problem, but on 2nd set i can barely make 8? what should i do? stick that way, or cut up a little bit like 8-8-? and next time 9-9-? 

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  • Mike

    I just did this exercise (1 circuit, will do another later in the evening) and with that along with a cold shower, I feel great. this is definitely gonna be my routine (every other day) starting with two reps a day going onto four, then six. Nerd Fitness is amazing

  • http://www.charlayna.wordpress.com/ Charlayna

    Did this routine through 2x this morning, mostly because I woke up late and had a water taxi to catch!  Did a nice ~10 min warm up/stretch, then completed 2 rounds in ~10 min, then did a nice cool down for ~6 min before I finished up my morning.  I also did some hiking around town today and a ton of shaking (I made homemade butter); tomorrow I might go kayaking?

  • Laurie Volkman

    I’m a total fitness N00b and am having a lot of problems with lunges. The squats I actually kind of enjoy, but I know I’m doing the lunges wrong. I can’t get very low at all and have trouble keeping my upper body straight, even putting an arm on the wall. Any advice? Everything else in the circuit is working pretty awesomely for me. I’ve lost 25lbs in the past 2 months.

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  • Teddy

    Hey, it sounds like we have a lot of the same issues but I stay out of the gym anymore because I get too competitive and then feel bad when I can’t perform like a 20 year old boy. (I’m an early 50s woman.) Was diagnosed with MS fout.rr months ago and wow, took me totally by surprise. Am dealing with fatigue and all but handling my disease with nutrition and exercise (and the daily MS shot). LIke you said, it’s what I can control. Paleo-type diet is great for my autoimmune disease… There are a bunch of “MS diets” out there and they are all kind of Paleo. You might want to take a look at Terry Wahl’s book.. I know you didn’t say MS, but maybe our diseases are simliar. Anyway, more power to you! Take care.

    Teddy

  • JessicaM

    Getting ready to start this combined with interval training tomorrow! (On alternating days of course!) This seems like a very simple yet effective plan…a lot more simplier than anything else I’ve tried lately. Thanks!!
    Jessica :)

  • http://www.megantaylor.org Megan Taylor

    Steve,
    I just started this routine yesterday, and was able to do 2 full circuits without stopping! I have a question though: I log my calories to make sure I eat enough, and I’m having a hard time coming up with even a general number for this workout. Do you have any ideas for calculating this? 

  • http://twitter.com/yolandeloves Yolande

    Hi I’m new to Nerd fitness and have to say its a great website! I’m a “fat skinny girl” essentially, a healthy weight but no strength or tone. I really want to get fit and put my body at its peak. 

    I did this for the first time today and found it not to be too gruelling. I’m wondering if I was taking it to easy? I did three circuits with 1 min breaks between circuits. Should I be trying to do these quickly?

    thanks

  • Eildydar

    Got through 1.5 of these and could hardly breath or move. I thought it was going to be easy, I was very wrong! Working my towards able to do all 3!

  • Roskos

    Hey Steve,

    I came across this today. I’ll be starting these circuits tomorrow along with my quitting smoking.

    I’m very unhappy with my weight, people say I look fine but to be honest I am tall at 6ft4ish and wear clothes that help me conceal my fat. I hope that I can get fit using this while it takes my mind off smoking too.

    I will post when I can to give you an update.

    Thsnks!

    Steve

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  • Hubblebub123

    amazing workout!
     

  • Ashton

    Great article and video!
    Im starting a 3 day(Mon,Wed,Sat) bodyweight/compound movement routine but was thinking if on alternate days i.e. Tues & Thurs doing weight training. Possibly training my chest and back on Tues and Shoulders, and arms on Thurs.
    Your thoughts?

  • Joshua Biggley

    I guess being a nerd I finally thought that “Heck, if other nerds can do this workout, I can do it!”  I made it through two complete circuits, but not without rivers of sweat running off me by the end.

    Climbing the stairs from the basement was brutal — as was walking for the next couple of hours.  Who would have thought that body weight squats and lunges would be so tough on my body!?

    Love it — keep it up!  Once I master the beginner I will move on the advanced.  Now if I can only kick the carbs, I’ll be laughing!

  • Nick

    Hey Steve,

    just wanted to point out that dumbbell rows don’t count as body weight exercises.

    -Nick

  • Guest

    Did 2.5 sets after a 5.5 mile bike ride. Kicked my ass. Do you know of any way to incorporate HIIT into a real world bike ride? Everything I’ve found online is for stationary bikes, which just isn’t the same.

  • http://twitter.com/lemirandilla Leanne Mirandilla

    Sorry if these are silly questions, but would you recommend doing cardio daily or 5x per week (swimming, running, whatever), and weight training every 2 days, or 2-3x per week, on top of that? 

    Also, any more weight options besides gallons of milk? I’m having a hard time trying to think of heavy things to lift in my flat except bottles of water and cartons of milk, neither of which are very heavy… (I can lift around 5-6kg with each arm). 

    Thanks! 

  • http://sanctamariaadnives.blogspot.com/ Jane

    I did one repetition and one partial repetition (couldn’t complete the second round of pushups or plank) of this workout this morning, and I feel awesome! I’m definitely looking forward to trying again in a couple of days.

    I do have one question.  I have an old wrist injury that makes pushups difficult for me.  I can do quite a few reps of various exercises with my 8-lb dumbbells without a problem, but even modified pushups often result in lingering soreness in one wrist.  Is there an exercise with dumbbells that works the same muscles?

  • Cob Khuraibet

    I started this workout last monday (MWF routine) and from the beginning I could do all three circuits.  It left me tired and sweaty but didn’t give me the sore, jelly-like limbs I expect from a workout.  What do you think about adding some 10 lb arm weights and performing the same workout with the additional 20 lbs. Any other advice to intensify it? 

  • legoman_au_ca

    Does anyone have an idea on how to calculate calories burned by doing this workout?

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  • http://whatcomlocavore.com/ Nancy

    Pushups were hard, but jumping jacks nearly killed me. 20 was the most I could do, and I had to break that up into sets of 10, 5, 5. I’m fairly strong, but overweight (F, 61 years, 234 lbs, 5’6″) and not good at getting all the weight off the ground. 

    Not complaining, just giving the feedback you asked for. I actually really like the workout!

  • http://whatcomlocavore.com/ Nancy

    Also, could only complete one set. I’ve started enough exercise programs over the years to know that more than one would have left me so sore in two days that I would have had trouble making myself do it again.

  • Meredith Brown

    I guess you could say I have some experience in that I *used* to work out all the time, but I haven’t for about 3 months. So, doing this? Was pretty hard for me. ^.^ But, I did it all 3x and was able to do a good warm up and cool down without being too tired, so that’s good. ^.^

  • Alex

    Hey guys. I wondered if this workout builds muscle too. Judging from the comments it feels like its only to lose weight. If not which workout from nerd fitness builds muscle the most other than the 300 thing. Thanks

  • Manobolic92

    hey man great workout but if ur trying to build muscle only shud u still do interval training on days ur not working out or is that counterproductive also how often shud i workout if im a beginner 5 days a week

  • Lzepponi

    Ok today is the first day of…. I could only get through 2 circuits/sets but I think I did all of the reps/workouts very well, although I can’t do a real push up to save my life! Thanks for the video and inspiration! First 3 weeks the hardest huh? Took about 35 min to do. Felt like puking afterwards! And still ringing ha ha!

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  • brandon

    does this make you gain muscle too, if not could you throw in some things to get bigger?

  • mike

    Hey Steve,
    Im looking to increase strength and speed of striking for karate, what kind of exercises would you advise?
    I have a weight bench and dumbells and weights totlaing 40 KG, im already relatively strong apart from pectorials, I struggle to do 5 decent pressups.

  • Chris

    Will this work/help if I “fat”? Belly fat and … Man boobs.

  • patience

    Thanks for this, it’s great for rainy days or I’m pressed for time.

  • BoswellSister

    Are you thinking should I do this? Could I do this? If so, I’m talking to you.
    The death of my sister followed shortly thereafter by the death of my mother precipitated a collapse in my health. After about 3 years my thyroid medication seemed to finally be at the right level, and I was able to start working out again. Walking – weight machines – good diet. I was supposed to be feeling better, wasn’t I? Well, I wasn’t, so I decided it was time to take my fate into my own hands. I started looking for a better workout, and stumbled upon NerdFitness & this workout. This workout looked like what I really needed to shake things up. I started this, some interval training, and went partially-mostly Paleo.

    That was 6 weeks ago. I feel, literally, better than I have in years. I finish my workouts feeling like I could take on the world. My balance is better, my energy is better, my attitude is incredible. Oh, did I say I was 55? If I can do this so can you.

    I haven’t done things quite “right” (sorry Steve) – I didn’t take my week off yet. I was scared I’d jinx it or something. The plan: Next week – Yoga in place of the circuits. Then on to Rookie workout A, Rookie workout B, Circuits in rotation the following week. And maybe resistance bands…

    Get (and read) the guides. Watch the videos. Get started!

  • Katie

    Wow I just did this and true, I was dripping with sweat. I have been looking for something that didn’t involve straight up running (boring) or group fitness (ugh), and I think I found it!

  • Caitlin

    I started walked everyday 8/5/12 and was planning on doing that for at least a month before starting some strength training but I got excited watching the Olympics! I used to be an athlete ad realized how much I miss it and how far I’ve let myself go. I had a day off and got bored and decided to go ahead and start strength training 8/13. I was sore the next 3 days but have not been sore since. I started with knee push ups and started leavin out the lunges. I’ve always loathed lunges but they gave me an uncomfortable sharp pain in my left thigh so I decided to skip them until I get a little stronger.

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