How To Create Your Own Workout Program (Ultimate Guide)

 


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Building your own workout program can be a fun and challenging experience. It takes time to perfect, and constant tweaking, but when you see the results of something you created, it can be very rewarding.

When starting out in the workout program design journey, there are a plethora of variables to understand and have a firm grasp on, and in this guide we will walk you through everything you need to know to get started.

Furthermore, we will then do a full case study and sample workout program so you can see how simple (well, not super simple, but at least DOABLE) building a workout program can be for any level of fitness/goal.

If you want to fast-track your learning, check out the workouts on Fitbod. The app takes into account your individual goals, workout history, and previously tracked training data to design the most tailored workouts possible.

7 Questions to Ask Yourself When Creating Your Own Workout Program

 


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Below are seven questions (each with additional questions) you need to answer when determining how to create your own custom workout program.

WHAT IS YOUR GOAL?

You need to have a somewhat clear goal of what you are looking to achieve over the next 3-6 months. Most people are looking to do it all, which if this is you and you do not have any specific events or timelines, I recommend you train with weights 3-4 times a week, and have conditioning built in small doses.

Most body composition, strength, and muscle mass is done via resistance training and diet. Increasing cardio isn’t always that answer unless you are specifically training for endurance events, etc. 

For general health and fitness, integrating 60 minutes of moderate to hard cardiovascular training is sufficient for most people, even athletes (think quality over quantity).

WHAT’S WORKED IN THE PAST?

If something has worked in the past, and you can back it up with actual proof, odds are that is a good place to start. That said, if it’s something you did 20 years and 30lbs ago, you need to be realistic about where you are at right now.

Find the things that excited you about training, and what you were bad at. More often than not those should be integrated somewhere in your workout program.

Related Article: Low Impact Strength Training: 15 Exercises For Beginners

HOW OFTEN WILL YOU TRAIN?

When answering this question, you need to determine what level of commitment you can give to your goals and your training based on your lifestyle, work schedule, and other obligations (family, etc). 

For most individuals, 3 days is a bare minimum of training sessions to achieve most goals. 5-6 days a week is the highest I would suggest most individuals train unless they are more advanced, competitive athletes and lifters, in which case sacrifices will need to take place to be able to minimize stress from work, family, and lack of sleep.

Once you have determined the number of workouts you will do in a week period, you can then start to design a training split and look at training frequency (how often you will train a muscle).

Related Article: How To Mix Hypertrophy and Strength Training (Ultimate Guide)

Training Frequency

This refers to how often you will train a muscle. 

For most individuals, training a muscle 2-3 times a week is suggested, so that you can train 12-18 total work sets per week, which has been found to be the most optimal range (and remember, some people can have great results off of 12 sets, and others need 15, etc). 

Experiment with this for best results and track progress and recovery.

Related Article: Jeff Nippard’s Full Body Program Review

Workout Split

Using your schedule and the ranges above, you can design a workout program that works best to match your needs. 

For those who train 2-3 days a week, full-body splits offer a good way to address optimal training frequencies and training volumes. 

Training 3-6 days a week often means you will need to be savvy and creative in how you program to adhere to the training volume ranges and not under/overtrain movements and muscle groups.

WHAT EXERCISE AND MOVEMENTS SHOULD YOU DO?

There are a million and one exercises out there to choose from, and that can be an overwhelming responsibility to choose only a handful of them for your program. Depending on who you ask, the answers will be varied.

Assuming you are out for strength, muscle gain, and general fitness, it is important to build your program around key movements that set a strong foundation for long-term success.

Bodyweight Basics

Mastering bodyweight movements is key, and while you do not need to train them exclusively, a firm grasp in the movements can help other lifts like barbell bench press, squats, etc. Mastering bodyweight pillars like the push up, pull up, lunge, single leg squat, jumping are all necessary for growth. You can build these into warm ups, or use them as accessory exercises after main lifts.

Related Article: Take a look at the best Leg Day Workouts For Weight Loss, which includes 10 must-do exercises.

Sport Specific Movements

If you are an Olympic weightlifter, CrossFitter, or sports athletes, odds are there are movements that are KEY to your success. It would be advised to then include those (or some variations of them) into a training program for sport specific reasons.

If you want to create your own powerliting and/or olympic weightlifting program then read the 9-step process you should follow.

Compound Exercises

 


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In an earlier guide we talked all about compound exercises and why they are important. Choosing compound movements not only increase muscle growth, strength, and can aid in athleticism, it can set the tone for successful strength and muscle gaining programs to come.

Be sure to integrate these 10 BEST COMPOUND EXERCISES in your training program!

Accessory Movements

Choosing accessory movements that add additional hypertrophy, balance, coordination, and unilateral strength are all important to support the main lifts and support your growth over time. These movements can come in all shapes and sizes and offer you a chance to add variety, creativity, and “fun” into workouts. 

Check out the sample program below for ideas on how to integrate accessory movements into your workout program.

Red Flag Movements

If it hurts, causes pain, or acute and chronic discomfort (excluding muscle soreness), it is advised to NOT do these. You should seek professional guidance and get to the bottom of those issues, but in the meantime, if something is aggravating, there is a strong chance you are (1) doing it wrong, or (2) have a red flag you need to address immediately.

SETS, REPS, AND LOADING INTENSITY PER WEEK?

Understanding how to program sets, reps, and loading is an art, and science, but doesnt NEED to be complicated. With the tips below, you can start to develop a program that will get you going, keep you progressing, and allow for recovery and muscle growth (because more is not always better).

Training Volume (Weekly)

When trying to build muscle, we must train hard. That said, training hard means we also need to allow our bodies to recover, as beating them to oblivion is not only wrong, it will actually make you LOSE muscle and get injured.

When looking at a training program, it’s best to train a muscle group with 12-18 direct total sets per week, with the program starting out towards the lower end of that range. 

This has been shown to be an optimal range for most individuals, and even more so for more advanced lifters who handle higher loading and stress.

Let’s take the chest for example. Performing a chest day with 5 movements, each 4 sets is 20 total sets in just one workout. That is an excessive amount of sets for the chest. For many, I recommend doing 75% of total volume (or less) on one day, and then a lighter volume day on another. 

For example, Day 1 you perform bench press (4 sets), dumbbell flye (3 sets), and dips (3 sets). That’s 10 sets. Later in the week, on Day 2, you perform incline barbell press (3 sets) and dumbbell flat bench press (3 sets). That takes your total weekly volume to 16 sets. 

You can always drop volume too, based on recovery (as some people can have significantly greater growth from actually doing LESS as opposed to more).

HOW SHOULD YOU PROGRESS WORKOUTS?

Below are two key concepts that you should be aware of when developing and progressing your workouts.

Periodization 

When looking at a program, it is best to think about training in 4 week increments, each 4-week block progressing and preparing you for the next. 

For many novices starting a program, it is recommended to train with moderate intensities, moderate loads, and work toward progressions in week 2-4. 

Then in the following program, make slight adjustments (swap out a strength movement, change a few exercises) to the program, however, do not completely change things as this will lose some transferability from the previous plan. 

Related Article: How To Workout Twice a Day For Weight Loss (Ultimate Guide)

Progressive Overload

Progressive overload happens when you add training volume, loading, or both over a period of time in a systematic manner that allows for physiological adaptation of the muscle tissues (and nervous systems) to increase strength, muscle mass, and cardiovascular performance. It is best to progress things slowly over time, with incremental delayed periods of recovery (usually one week, for every 3-4 weeks or progressive overloading).

This can be done on a weekly basis, in which week two may have the lifter add 5lbs of weight to back squats, or keep the same weight from week 1, just perform 1-2 more reps. Over time, this pyramiding off overload effect will result in great progress and can help minimize injury.

ANY OTHER SPECIAL CONSIDERATIONS (INJURIES, ETC)?

This is something you need to ask yourself, and continually reevaluate throughout your training process. Issues will come and go, however if you think the
y will go away on their own (without you addressing them), you could set yourself up for chronic injuries and issues.

Related Article: Can You Do HIIT And Weight Training On The Same Day?

Pre-Existing Injuries

 


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Pre-existing injuries are no joke. If you have had previous injuries, it is best to get clearance from a medical professional. Then, it would be helpful to do some research or ask a fitness professional about how you can modify movements or what to be aware of when training around an injured or previously injured area. 

“Hot Spots”

As you train, you will find that some areas will flare up from time to time, causing some pain, stiffness, and discomfort. While this happens, this is NOT something to ignore. Rather, be sure to take time to back off, modify workouts, and let the muscles heal. Often, injury can occur from poor form, too much weight, too many sets and reps, and not enough recovery in between workouts. Seek consultation from a fitness professional with additional questions.

Looking to take the guesswork out of programming altogether, then try using the Fitbod app, which will design your strength training program based on your logged training data and goals.  The workouts will adapt to your levels of recovery and rate of progress and help you maintain strength and muscle while cutting. With over 600 movements and exercises videos, you can be sure to perform the movements correctly for optimal results.

Sample Workout – Case Study 

Jimmy is a 32-year old male who is relatively fit, however he struggles to lose some of the weight he gained during the holidays, working long hours, and attending too many work socials and late night bar scenes. He trains with weights 2, sometimes 3 days a week, and does some cardio (like running a few miles) every week on the weekends.

He really wants to lose body fat, see some abs, and gain more definition and strength across his entire body (however really is sick and tired of his chicken legs and noodle arms).

He has trained hard in the past, where he did do some high-intensity workouts at the local gym, that consisted of some barbell movements, bodyweight WODs, and other “intense” things, but just felt beat up and tired as he couldn’t balance recovery and his hectic work life.

He is ready to commit to 4 days of working out per week, and has access to a gym that has free weights, squat racks, machines, and a slew of cardio equipment. He also has a track nearby that he runs on the weekends, and enjoys his Saturday morning (not too early of course) running sessions (3-5 miles runs, usually at a 9-10 minute pace).

Jimmy has a pretty flexible schedule, however he has poker night with the guys every Thursday evening, so cannot train then. He also likes having Sundays open, as he sometimes visits his family or goes for walks in the nearby park.

  • Sessions Per Week: Jimmy will workout 4 times a week, with 3 of those times being done at the gym, and the fourth day will be a running workout that will end in some stretching and light bodyweight resistance training. If the weather is bad, he can do the 4th day (running) at the gym.

  • Workout Split: Jimmy will go to the gym Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. He will do his track workout on Saturday.

  • Workout Durations: Each workout will be roughly 60-75 minutes with warm ups built into that time.

  • Exercise Selection: Jimmy is decently versed in the compound lifts, therefore most workouts will include 1-2 compound movements followed by unilateral exercise and some machine-based exercises to further increase muscle growth. Each workout will consist of 4-6 total exercises/movements.

  • Training Volume: To achieve optimal training volumes within the week, most muscles will need to be trained 2-3 times a week. This means that Monday, Wednesday, and Friday workouts will be full-body.

  • Sets, Reps, and Loading Intensity: Every muscle will be trained 2-3 times a week. Once a week, a muscle will be loaded more heavily and geared for strength and hypertrophy using the compound lift. On the other days, a variety of rep ranges will be performed, mostly within the 8-15 rep range, which has been shown for most individuals to be the most advantageous rep range for muscle growth. That said, some muscles do respond to higher repetition ranges, so Jimmy will experiment with that to see how he feels and what soreness ensues following some higher rep work (leg press for example).

  • Week-to-Week Progressions: In the below program, progressions are made in two ways, with the first being the most important. As the weeks progress, we leave one less good rep in the tank, ramping up the subjective intensity of a main set. For example, in the first week of the back squat, you are doing 4 sets of 5 reps, making sure you leave 2 good reps in the tank every set. In the second week, leave one good rep in the tank, and in the third week, push yourself so that you complete all the reps, but are near failure (do not actually fail). Then, the fourth week, you can deload and drop the intensity to let your body recover from the three previous weeks by repeating your week 1 loads.

If letting Fitbod structure your workouts, the app will give you opportunity to test your rep maxes across different lifts, and also provide recovery workouts that allow you to offset fatigue.

Jimmy’s Workout Program

Below is Jimmy’s four-day workout program.

Monday

  • Warm Up (2-3 Rounds)

  • Strength

    • Barbell Back Squat: 4 sets of 5 reps, make sure you keep 1-2 reps in the tank on most sets. 

  • Strength

    • Barbell Standing Overhead Press: One hard set of 10 reps, then 2-3 sets to failure with that same weight (5-10 reps per set)

  • Accessory (20 Minutes Total): Perform these three exercises separately, resting 1-2 minutes between sets. You should feel like you are mostly recovered before you go into the next set. Do not treat this like a “cardio” circuit. 

    • Leg Press: 4 sets of 10-15 reps, each with a 2 second pause at the bottom of the movement

    • Assisted Pull Up: 3 sets of 8-15 reps

    • Dip: 3 sets of 8-15 reps

  • Conditioning (10 Minutes)

    • Rowing: 2000m Row for Time, try to beat time every week. DO NOT GO ALL OUT IN WEEK 1 (RPE 8)

Wednesday

  • Warm Up (2-3 Rounds)

  • Strength

    • Incline Bench Press:4 sets of 5 reps, make sure you keep 1-2 reps in the tank on most sets. 

  • Strength

    • Chin Up: One hard set of 10 reps, then 2-3 sets to failure with that same weight (5-10 reps per set)

  • Accessory (20 Minutes Total): Perform these three exercises separately, resting 1-2 minutes between sets. You should feel like you are mostly recovered before you go into the next set. Do not treat this like a “cardio” circuit.

    • Dumbbell Flat Bench Press: 4 sets of 8-12 reps, each with a 2 second pause at the bottom of the movement

    • Dumbbell Farmers Carry: 3 sets of 90 second carries

    • Bulgarian Split Squat: 3 sets of 8-10 reps per leg

  • Conditioning (10 Minutes)

    • Bike Intervals: 30 seconds hard effort, 30 seconds light effort x 10 minutes

Friday

  • Warm Up (2-3 Rounds)

    • Dead Bug x 30 Seconds

    • Glute Bridge x 30 Seconds

    • Bodyweight Jump Squat x 8

  • Strength

    • Sumo Deadlift: 4 sets of 5 reps, make sure you keep 1-2 reps in the tank on most sets. 

  • Strength

    • Push Press: One hard set of 10 reps, then 2-3 sets to failure with that same weight (5-10 reps per set)

  • Accessory (20 Minutes Total): Perform these three exercises separately, resting 1-2 minutes between sets. You should feel like you are mostly recovered before you go into the next set. Do not treat this like a “cardio” circuit.

    • Seated Dumbbell Arnold Press: 4 sets of 8-12 reps 

    • Seated Machine Row: 3 sets of 12-15 reps, 2 sec pause in row

    • Lying Hamstring Machine Curl: 3-4 sets of 10-20 reps, full range of motion (full stretch at bottom)

  • Conditioning (10 Minutes)

    • NONE – Light Stretching!

Saturday 

  • Warm Up 

    • Light Jog/Walk x 5 Minutes

    • Dynamic Warm Up x 5 Minutes

    • 2-3 Light Runs at 70-80% Effort of 100-200m, complete rest 2 minutes between sets.

  • 400 Meter Sprint: Run 400 meters (one lap around a standard track) at a 9-10 out of 10 intensity. However long that took you to run (let’s say it took Jimmy 2 minutes), you will perform 8, 300 meters (¾ of a lap) at the same pace you did the initial 400m run (2 minutes). You will walk slowly the 100m remainder of each lap. Be sure that you feel mostly recovered before starting the next interval. If you cannot complete the 300 meter run in time allowance, rest slightly more.

  • Track the total time it took you to perform the entire workout (excluding the warm up segment).

  • Each week, try to run the 400m run faster than previous week, and try to decrease total workout time. This not only means you are faster at the 400m run, but you are also increasing work capacity.

  • This workout is 2-3 miles of running in total (including warm ups)

Related Article: How to Eat More Calories And Lose Weight: Is It Possible?

Final Thoughts

Kudos to you for wanting to design your own workout program. It’s a fun, and rewarding process, one that you can refine over time. If you are a complete beginner (or anyone for that matter), it is strongly recommended to consult with someone who can offer constructive feedback about your training program to make sure you aren’t selling yourself short (or worse, going to destroy yourself). Often, many people have glaring deficiencies, and don’t address them in their own programs, so getting feedback from a qualified individual (or learning from them and how they program is always helpful).


About The Author

 


Mike Dewar

Mike Dewar

 

Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), USA Weightlifting Advanced Coach, and has over 10+ years of experience working with collegiate athletes, national level lifters, and beginners alike. Mike is Founder of J2FIT Strength and Conditioning, a growing global training company with gyms in New York City, Cincinnati, and online offering personal training, online custom coaching programs.


Mike has published over 500+ articles on premiere online media outlets like BarBend, BreakingMuscle, Men’s Health, and FitBob, covering his expertise of strength and conditioning, Olympic weightlifting, strength development, fitness, and sports nutrition.  In Mike’s spare time, he enjoys the outdoors, traveling the world, coaching, whiskey and craft beer, and spending time with his family and friends.