What exercises to do in gym? Simple and effective guide.

In this post we are going to do exercise selection super easy for anyone who is starting out.

There’s at least one guy or gal waking up every morning and deciding to go to the gym for the first time and they don’t know anything about that lifestyle.

I know that as a beginner I had a hard time deciding what exercises to do and what machines to use inside the gym. In an average size gym there are usually a hundred different machines and gym equipment you can select.

That seems like a whole bunch at first and it might seem overwhelming. But don’t worry, you don’t need to do all of them and I am going to help you select the absolute best exercises to jump start your weight lifting journey and making some gains.

Let’s not waste any more time and get right to it.

My personal favorite exercises

Pecs / chest

  • Incline dumbbell/barbell press
  • Flat dumbbell/barbell press
  • Dips chest version
  • Dumbbell flies
  • Cable crossovers


  • Pull-ups
  • Deadlifts (if you don’t have lower back issues/pain)
  • One-arm bent over dumbbell rows
  • Seated cable rows
  • Weighted back extensions


  • Dumbbell / barbell bicep curls
  • Reverse grip chin-ups


  • Dips triceps version
  • Close grip bench press
  • V-bar push downs
  • EZ-bar skull-crushers


  • Seated & standing lateral raises
  • Overhead shoulder press
  • Rear delts dumbbell rows


  • Standing calf raises
  • Seated calf raises


  • Squats
  • Leg curls
  • Leg press
  • Leg extension
  • Weighted lunges

….and that’s pretty much all you really need to do in the gym in the first couple of years of your lifting.

It might look like a lot, but once you get used to it and learn the movements it will become your second nature, trust me.

Other than that, maybe you could experiment a bit with different techniques on each of the above exercise, or try out super setting, triple setting and drop sets to change up the routine a bit. Trying different splits is a good thing as well.

Compound vs. isolation movements

As you may have noticed already, there are a lot of compound exercises in the list above. That’s where you want the majority of time and effort to be at.

Compound movements allow you to build size faster by moving heavier weights.

Even though when performing a compound exercise the focus is mainly on a single body part, other muscle groups contribute to the movement as well (more joints also). This makes it possible for you to use heavier weights than you would do when performing isolation exercises.

More weight means more stress on the muscles, which is the key to growing bigger. That’s why compound movements are superior to isolation movements in this aspect.

Of course there are some muscle groups or body parts that you simply can’t train effectively unless you perform isolation movements. I am referring to delts or biceps to name just a couple.

So, even though compound movements are superior, isolation or accessory movements should also be included in your training regimen. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a workout routine that includes only compound movements.

Generally speaking, you should split the time you put into compound and isolation into 70 / 30 if you ask me, but that’s for guideline purposes. Get in the gym, experiment, listen to your body and design your own personal workout routine based on how you feeling the movements, the tension in the muscles and the effectiveness of the workout.

Free weight vs. machine

You also may have noticed that the vast majority of the exercises I recommend are free-weight exercises, meaning that you don’t have the assistance of a machine (gym equipment) to ‘guide’ your movement or stabilize the weight for you. The best example is the Smith machine.

This way you will develop your stabilization muscles and joints better. In the long run this will make your grip and joints stronger.

However, machines are not that bad and have their advantages:

  • Really easy to use (especially if you are a beginner)
  • Low risk of injury because you don’t need to stabilize the weight
  • Better isolation of the muscle
  • You can lift heavy without a spotter

And their disadvantages:

  • Don’t train the smaller, stabilizing muscles at all
  • Movement pattern is locked – which might not feel natural for your personal body type

Bottom line, you should include more free weight exercises in your workouts. Start with lighter weights at first and once you get used to the movement and start feeling confident in yourself up the weights bit by bit.

Range of motion

Another super important thing that determines the effectiveness of an exercise in terms of the amount of tension it puts on the muscles is the range of motion.

Maximum range of motion is superior to developing the muscles than shorter range of motion. This is one of the reasons why compound exercises are better than isolation exercises.

On the other hand the range of motion can be shortened by the way you decide to perform the actual exercise. I am sure you heard about half reps or cheat reps before.

This doesn’t have to do with exercise selection really, but more with technique. The take away point here is that you should use full range of motion every time.

Sometimes it will mean lower the weight a little bit and that is fine.

For example, on the bench press make sure the bar touches your chest when you go down and then go all the way up. Or when squatting, make sure you go all the way down; don’t do that half rep bullshit just because you can lift heavier.

Full range of motion is more effective than shorter range of motion.

Take away message

To wrap things up, here is what you need to do in the gym:

  1. Do both compound and isolation exercises, but focus on compound
  2. Lift heavy and progressively overload your muscles
  3. Do both free weight and machine exercises, but focus on free weight.

One last very important tip: don’t pick an exercise just because it is more comfortable. Don’t pick an exercise just because you can lift really heavy and impress the people around you.

Choose exercises that develop your muscles the most! It might be uncomfortable, you may have to use 20 pounds dumbbells which will make you look less impressive, but you will make progress towards your goals.

You will probably need to include in your regiment a few exercises that you don’t like doing (for whatever reason), but don’t let than get into the way of training optimally.

Let me know what your opinion on exercise selection is by using the comment form below.

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