Starter Strength Training Moves

[In response to the “You weigh 400lbs and you exercise???  How can I start??” emails, I seem to be doing a “how-to” series on exercise.  Skip it if it doesn’t interest you.]

Strength training is often seen as weight lifting, but you don’t have to use weights, so for this post I’m going to assume there aren’t any.  You don’t have to already be able to do pullups or pushups, either!   One of the best ones for me is a simple exercise I got from the physical therapist* that I call chair squats:

  1. Sit down.  (Lower seats are more challenging; higher ones are easier.)
  2. Stand up slowly, using both legs.
  3. Slowly lower yourself back down, again using both legs.
  4. Repeat.

How many times do you repeat?  Depends on where you’re at.  I was told to repeat it 10 times in a row, then try for another 10, and to work up to a third set of ten.   (In exercise-speak this is “2-3 sets of 10 repetitions“.)

BUT…what if you can’t do this ten times?  What if you’re having trouble doing this twice in a row? Then just do it twice. It’s a good idea to stop if you have to speed up — you want to keep your movements slow and controlled.**  Keep doing it twice every day or every other day** and soon you probably can do it three times in a row, then four. You can shake it up a bit, doing 2 sets of 3.***   You can also try a different chair.  Eventually you may not need to have a chair at all — which is a full squat, in bodyweight parlance.

That is strength training in a nutshell:

  1. Pick a movement that uses muscles you want to make stronger.
  2. Repeat it as needed (up to 8 – 12 times).
  3. Rest.
  4. Do this  2-3 times a week, or every other day.

What’s the benefit?  The chair squat is a compound exercise, meaning it’s strengthing multiple muscles — in this case, most of the muscles in your legs — to do a better job of supporting you.  You may improve your balance and joints.  It’s a functional movement, meaning it’s a movement you do in real life, and so it benefits your real life.  You don’t need any equipment other than a chair.

Ah, you wonder, what about the rest of the body?   Here’s where I started:

  • Abdominal crunches**** I’m a desk worker.  These really help my abdominal muscles stay strong enough to support my back when I’m working late.   I had decades of low back pain until I started doing these and back exercises—now I compare crunches to flossing.
  • Bridge Okay, I started with the modified Cobra from Yoga for Round Bodies, but the physical therapist recommended this, and it’s easier to describe without video.
    1. Lay on your back on the floor, with knees bent and feet flat on the floor.  You want to be fairly comfortable.
    2. Lift your bottom off the floor, so you are holding yourself on shoulders and feet.  Try 20 seconds at first.  You can vary the length or do repetitions.
  • Wall Push-Ups I’d known about these for years, but had never made the leap from wall-ups to full push-ups.  One day Noël pointed out that doing push-ups on the kitchen counter is harder than wall-ups, easier than full push-ups, and it’s still a compound exercise that uses arms, chest, and upper back.   If you’ve got a flight of stairs available, you’ve got even more options to adjust how much of your bodyweight you’re lifting with your arms.
  • Walking. If you haven’t been walking much, walking will be a strength training move for you. After my injury, 4 minutes on the treadmill was a challenge. I got stronger.  One woman began her exercise program by walking around her kitchen using her counters for support, 25 steps at a time, 100 a day. She got stronger.*****

Pushups, BTW, touches on something else.  I have a history of wrist injuries.  When doing upper body exercises I have to be careful to keep my wrists straight and to not overstrain them — which makes any variant of pushup more challenging for me than someone who hasn’t had wrist problems. In this case, I’m doing lots more of the easier exercises (wallups) and not moving onto the harder ones.  Everyone has different histories and limitations — the key is to know your own issues.  If something isn’t working, try a different exercise or an easier variation instead.

*No, I’m not a physical therapist myself, nor do I play on on the internet.  You know your abilities and limitations much better than I do.

**If you push harder, you will likely have sorer muscles the next day.  Keeping things slow and controlled is a good way to be sure you aren’t pushing, but to really avoid soreness do less than you think you can.  Some tips to alleviate sore muscles:  train every other day or every third day; warm bath or shower; stretching the sore muscles; going for a comfortable walk; ibuprofen or another favorite painkiller.

***More discussion of the terms and how you can vary things is here.   I’ll be posting more on that later, too.

****I remember doing this in high school and my mother complaining that she found it too hard to get up off the floor to do them.   I wish that exercise balls had been easier to find then!

*****Story is discussed on a page that also discusses weight loss here.  Please don’t follow the link if discussion of weight loss will make you uncomfortable.



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24 responses to “Starter Strength Training Moves”

  1. Laura P Avatar
    Laura P

    Excellent post!

    I do your chair squats kind of squat at my weightlifting sessions, only with a bar on my back. They’re called “box squats” in that instance, as you’re squatting on & off a low box.

    Squats of ANY kind are so great for your legs & butt!

    1. living400lbs Avatar

      Yes, they are. They can be a “supported” way to work up to squats.

  2. Cassi Avatar

    I too have some wrist issues and find that fist pushups work best for me. Instead of putting my palms on the floor, I make a fist and do the pushup on my knuckles. Many people think these are for marines and other tough guys, but I like them because they keep my wrist aligned rather than bent. They’re a bit harder to do on a wall, but if you put a towel under your hands they work fine. Or you can just do the classic knee pushup (sometimes called a “girl pushup” Gah!)

    1. living400lbs Avatar

      I do the fist ones too :) I’m not up to a knee pushup yet.

  3. Fantine Avatar

    Wall pushups are also really good if you have trouble with tension in your upper back and shoulders. When I first started full-time at my current job, which is high stress and paperwork intensive, I got terrible pains between my shoulder blades. I was holding all my tension there. Stopping to stretch and do some wall push ups a couple of times a day has completely eliminated that problem for me.

  4. Godless Heathen Avatar

    Bookmarking this, thank you so much!

    1. living400lbs Avatar

      I’m glad you found it valuable.

  5. Piffle Avatar


  6. jennydecki Avatar

    I had no idea there were size-inclusive yoga videos out there. I’ve always shied away from yoga because, even though I love it, I don’t like always wondering how *I’m* supposed to look doing whateveritis the instructor is doing so gracefully :)

    Thanks for the links!

    1. living400lbs Avatar

      Glad you like them!

  7. Anna Avatar

    Good post! I just wanted to add that cold showers can be beneficial for reducing muscle soreness, as it helps control swelling.

    Chair squats sound like a pretty good idea, I’ll definitely have to do those next time I’m watching TV. And doing push ups on the stairs.

    And, argh crunches! What sort of lower back issues do you/did you have? I have a problem with my lower back too, and I tend to shy away from doing anything abdominal (Aside from cross weights plank [bridge?] and TA) in case I make it worse.

    Sorry for the massive comment, I’m just curious.

    1. living400lbs Avatar

      Not a problem Anna :) I put a crack in my tailbone when I was a teen, and ever since it’s been unhappy with me laying on my back, lots of bending, and so on.

      I do think a lot of the problems since college have been “desk job”, aka sitting too much without proper back support. Doing a certain amount of “core” exercises (crunches, Cobra, and so forth) keeps it at bay — but I’m careful NOT to push myself with them, either, because if the muscles are too fatigued that’ll cause problems too.

      1. Anna Avatar

        Cracked your tailbone?! Yikes, I’ve only managed to bruise the thing and that hurts like mad.

        I’ll have to keep in mind and start doing some crunches then.

        BTW, realised that was my first comment and should have added more. Love your blog, it’s the first thing I read when I come to work every morning (My work = not challenging). I find your writing very amusing and thoughtful and appreciate the frequent updates.

        Thankyou very much for writing it!

  8. Susa Avatar

    For the pushups, if doing them on the knuckles is uncomfortable (my nails, while not very long, sometimes cut into my palms), hold onto to dumbells. It will allow your wrists to stay straight without putting pressure on the knuckle.

  9. […] or to go around the block.  This gave me a starting distance.   For strength training, start with bodyweight exercises and focus on how you feel during and after the […]

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  12. Sarah Avatar

    Strength training is great exercise. When most people talk about aerobic exercises it usually because they are looking to lose weight and lose weight fast. However what ends up happening is that they only do cardio workouts. Cardio is great because it burns calories fast, enhances heart health, and overall body health. […] People who are in the fitness industry will tell you that a balanced workout includes all aspects of exercise. Normally switching days for cardio and srength training is the best option because you can focus on one over the other and it allows your body to rest the area that you worked on the day before. This not only helps to lose weight but it also builds muscle as well.

  13. […]  I had a low level of strength in my legs and walking was sometimes difficult, so I focused on strength training and small but consistent levels of […]

  14. […] regularly, my back doesn’t hurt.  I do stomach crunches.  I’ve also found that squats and leg lifts prevent knee pain for me, so I do them.  Those things matter to me.  I know people who do other special exercises and […]

  15. […] to “few or no visible muscles”.  Some women do fear gaining visible muscle and avoid weightlifting as a result.  Women bodybuilders are sometimes viewed as “masculine” or […]

  16. […] move involves leaning forward, which would sometimes irritate my back. Now that I do more abs/back exercises, I don’t have this […]

  17. […] training is the same stuff I’ve been writing about for years, and it’s key to keeping everything else working […]

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