Designing a workout plan can be an intimidating challenge. But if you deconstruct the plan to fit your lifestyle, you can create a workout plan that fast tracks you to your personal goals.
Decide how many days you want to work out. It’s important to factor in all your obligations outside of the gym so you can be realistic with how many days per week you plan to commit to training. Anywhere from 3-6 days a week is standard for most people.
Usually if you’re only working out a few days a week, then your focus is on more compound movements like squats, deadlifts, and presses that utilize multiple muscle groups. Whereas if you’re able to go to the gym 5-6 times a week, you can dedicate entire days to working out one or two specific muscle groups.
When researchers have compared high frequency training to low frequency training, they’ve found that there’s not a significant difference between the two as long as volume was equated for strength or muscle building gains. [1,2]
In other words, high frequency or low frequency workout plans can work for your strength or muscle building goals if your weekly volume is enough. At least 10 sets per muscle group per week is a good starting point for most people trying to build muscle.
For beginners, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends a training frequency of 2-3 days per week to start.
Some practical tips for designing a workout plan that fits your schedule
- Start with a goal: Decide what you want to achieve with your workout routine, whether it's to add muscle, burn fat, get stronger, or improve all-around fitness. This will help you choose the right exercises, frequency, and duration of workouts.
- Make a schedule: Choose a time of day that works best for you, make sure it’s a time slot that you can consistently commit to doing for several weeks. Once you settle on your time slots, mark these time blocks on your calendars so that you’re mindful of them.
- Be realistic: One of the biggest mistakes beginners make is trying to do too much too soon. Start with small steps and gradually build up your workouts as your levels of fitness increase. This could mean scheduling several micro activities of 10-15 minutes and building up longer workouts. Or doing a few workouts a week to start and gradually increasing more workout days into your routine.
- Listen to your body: Pay attention to how your body feels, not just when you’re working out but during other times of the day. Not every workout has to be high intensity, if you’re feeling fatigued, you can adjust the intensity of your workout. And similarly, if you find that your endurance increases as you exercise more, you can push yourself a little harder.
- Be consistent: Ultimately, one workout isn’t going to make or break your routine. Consistently sticking to the workout program you’ve designed will have positive effects that compound over time. You’ll want to build habits and a routine into your life as you create your workout routine that’ll help you consistently stick with it.
Everyone's fitness journey is different, so what works for one person may not work for you. The important thing is to design a workout plan that you enjoy and want to do consistently.
Pick a goal which you’d like to prioritize, such as building muscle, losing weight, increasing strength, or improving athletic ability. Once that has been identified, you can focus a workout plan around achieving this goal. This means building your sets, reps per set, and rest intervals around this goal. In general, for strength focused goals, you’ll benefit more from using relatively higher loads and lower reps. For muscle building goals, you can benefit from both high load/low rep and moderate load/high rep training.
Weight loss focused goals will depend on your total energy expenditure, so the number of total calories you burn in a day will be most important. For weight loss focused goals, combining cardio and weightlifting into a workout plan can be effective in combination with a diet.
Tips for Choosing Your Workout Goals
- Set SMART Goals: These goals should be specific, measurable, actionable, and realistic. Instead of aiming for a vague goal like “being fit”, get more specific when creating your goals and listing things you can measure. They can be body composition focused like “losing 10 pounds in 5 months” or performance focused like “improve my running pace to sub 10 minutes by the end of the year”.
- Consider your current fitness level: Be mindful of where you’re currently at in terms of your physical fitness and commitment to exercising. This doesn’t mean you can’t set lofty long-term goals. Just your immediate goals should be something you can achieve at your current fitness levels. Focus on a balanced approach: Most people will benefit from taking a balanced approach to fitness. This means having goals that will have positive effects on your flexibility, strength, and cardiovascular fitness.
- Be realistic: Make sure the goals you choose are realistic and achievable within the time frame you pick. If your initial goals are too challenging, you’ll get discouraged and if they’re not challenging enough, you’ll quickly lose interest in your program.
- Make it personal: Make sure your goals reflect your personal interests. Whatever goals you choose should be aligned with something you feel passionate about enough to pursue consistently, even during times when your motivation may wane.
- Review and adjust: Regularly review and adjust your goals. By keeping track of your progress, you’re able to see how far you’ve come along, and you can adjust as you improve so that you’re always striving for improvement.
Remember, the most important thing is to find goals that align with your personal interests and enjoyment. This will help keep you engaged and dedicated to your workout plan.
Choosing the best workout split will depend on how many days you can train and your specific fitness goal. Most basic workout programs follow one of the three following splits: 1) Total Body 2) Upper/Lower 3) Single Muscle group.
Total Body programs focus training major muscle groups from the upper and lower body in the same workout. These types of programs are popular with field sport athletes and Olympic lifters because they predominately include compound movements like squats and power cleans which efficiently target multiple muscle groups.
Upper/Lower programs split workouts into upper body focused days and lower body focused days. These types of training programs are popular with strength athletes like powerlifters and some bodybuilders because it allows for a more targeted focus on specific muscle groups.
Single Muscle Group programs split workouts into dedicated days for specific muscle groups (ie leg days and chest days). This type of training is popular with many bodybuilders because workouts can be hyper focused on a singular muscle group.
In general, single muscle group programs require you to go to the gym more days so that each of the major muscle groups can have a dedicated workout day. While a reasonable total body program may be done with just 3 workouts in a week.
Make sure you rest enough between sets to support your goals. The National Strength & Conditioning Association’s general guidelines for rest are 30 seconds or less for muscular endurance training, 30-90 seconds for hypertrophy (muscle building) training, and 2-5 minutes for strength or power training.
These are general guidelines.
Both continuous endurance training and high intensity interval training can contribute to positive improvements in body composition and aerobic capacity. Aerobic exercises are associated with beneficial metabolic and cardiovascular effects.
So, if you’re interested in improving your overall fitness, you may benefit from adding cardio to your routine.
Research on concurrent training (combining strength and aerobic exercise in the same program) has found that strength, hypertrophy, and endurance focused athletes can do concurrent training programs without experiencing significant decrements, if the proper modalities are selected. So, if your main goal is increasing strength, make sure your cardio workouts aren’t too long or frequent to prevent them from interfering with your strength goals.
Good training programs are unified in their principle to cause a stimulus to the body that causes it to adapt. Having benchmark goals that you aim to achieve by the end of a week, month, or months can help you track and measure the success of your training program.
Some common measures you can include to track progress with your program include being able to increase the total weight you can lift for a 1 rep maximum on an exercise, increasing the number of reps you can do with a weight that is a certain % of your 1 rep maximum, increasing the rep speed you can lift a set weight % of your 1 rep maximum for, shortening your rest periods between sets, or increasing the total amount of volume you can do in a workout. Some common composition measures you can track include your body weight, BMI, body fat %, and waist circumference.
You can choose to track just one of these measures or multiple.
So now that you’ve identified your goal, and understand the factors to build your workout plan, it’s time to put it on the schedule! Here’s a few tried-and-true examples to get the ball moving.
Total Body Workout
Sunday – Workout 1 (Squat, Floor Press, Kettlebell Swing, Pull Ups)
Monday - Rest or Active Recovery
Tuesday - Workout 2 (Power Clean, Goblet Squat, Chest Flys, Dumbbell Rows)
Wednesday - Rest or Active Recovery
Thursday - Rest or Active Recovery
Friday – Workout 3 (Lunges, Leg Curl, Bench Press, T-Bar Rows)
Saturday - Rest or Active Recovery
Sample Upper/Lower Split Program
Sunday – Lower Body Day
Monday - Upper Body Day
Tuesday – Rest or Active Recovery
Wednesday – Lower Body Day
Thursday - Upper Body Day
Friday - Rest or Active Recovery
Saturday - Rest or Active Recovery
Sample Body Part Split Program
Sunday - Rest or Active Recovery
Monday - Chest
Tuesday - Back
Wednesday - Rest or Active Recovery
Thursday - Legs (Quads/Hamstrings)
Friday - Shoulders/Calves
Saturday - Arms/Abs
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