Part 1 -- Goal Setting
Part 2 -- Resistance Training Focus
Part 3 -- Cardiovascular Training Focus
Part 4 -- Selecting Starting Loads
Part 5 -- Selecting Starting Exercises
Part 6 -- Warming Up
Part 7 -- Stretching
Selecting Starting Exercises
If you've been reading my blog for long enough, then you know there are a few central compound exercises that I prefer for people to have in their programs: squats, deadlifts, bench press, overhead press, pull ups and rows. Does that mean I think everyone should start with those exact exercises? No.
The exercises you start with will be determined by a few factors:
Available Resources What equipment do you have access to? Do you have a commercial gym with all its machines at your finger tips? Do you just have a power rack and barbell set? Do you have odd equipment, such as fat bars, logs, kettlebells etc? Do you not have any equipment at all? These things matter, for what should be self-explanatory reasons: You can't do something unless you have the resources for it; you might be able to do something if you do have the resources for it.
Skill/Proficiency How good is your body awareness? Do you have a history of sports, physical labour or other physical hobbies? Do you have a trainer available (plug plug plug) to coach you through the exercises you'll be doing, or are you working everything out on your own? These things make a difference. Someone who has a history of dancing is going to have good body awareness. Someone who does hard physical labour is going to have a certain work capacity, and will hopefully have learned how to do some loaded movements safely (if not, I expect you're living with a lot more pain than you'd like). Someone who doesn't have any physical hobbies, history of sports or a physical job probably has low body awareness. The lower your body awareness, the simpler the exercises you start with need to be. The greater your body awareness, the more complex the exercises you start with can be.
Physical Ability A certain amount of flexibility/ROM and strength is needed for various exercises. The squat is a great example: you need the hip and ankle ROM to be able to get into position at the bottom, and you need the strength to stand back up from that position. If you lack the physical ability to do an exercise (but are able to gain that ability -- if you have no arms, then obviously you're not going to gain the ability to bench press no matter how strong or flexible you are), then it's generally going to be wise to go to a less demanding exercise and build up your abilities with that exercise. If you aren't strong enough or flexible enough to squat, then leg presses and stretches that address your flexibility issues are a good starting point.
So, what should your starting exercises be? The ones you can do. Your immediate goals are to increase your abilities and proficiency within the context of what's available. If you've read any of my technique articles (I haven't posted many of them here, but I did give what was honestly a brief rundown of the squat and deadlift earlier this year, and even that took three articles), you'll know that there's a lot to think about when learning even the exercises that I treat as staples. There are much more complicated exercises than the six compounds I opened with, too. So maybe the ideal is to squat and deadlift, but the reality is to do leg presses and hyperextensions. Maybe the ideal is to do bench and overhead press with free weights, but the reality is a chest and shoulder press machine. Maybe the ideal is pull ups and barbell rows (actually, I don't think barbell rows are all that ideal, but they are more complicated), but the reality is lat pull downs and seated rows.