I get multiple emails and messages per day asking:
“Steve, what should I do for a workout?”
Well, partner, today is your lucky day.
I’m gonna help build you a custom workout program, step-by-step!
After all, a workout should be developed around a person’s age, goals, nutritional strategy, free time, etc.
Not only that, but it’s easy to overcomplicate this process – there are an infinite number of exercises, sets, reps, and programs to choose from.
Now, if you’re somebody that wants to skip all of that, and JUST want to be told what exactly to do:
Now, if you’re more of a “figure this stuff out on my own” kind of person – we’re going to dig into how to build your own workout plan today!
We’ve also created a free resource for folks who want to build their own workout but would love some more specific direction and instruction.
You can download our free guide, Strength Training 101: Everything You Need to Know, which covers all of this stuff in a single guide:
OKAY! Are you ready to start building your own routine and want to know how it’s done?
Great! Let’s do this:
As Coach Staci lays out in the video above, we need to answer a few key questions when designing a workout:
QUESTION 1: What are your goals?
Whatever your goals are, it’s good to write them down and be aware of what you’re trying to accomplish.
These goals will shape HOW you build your workout.
An effective way to create goals is by using the SMART method, which stands for specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely.
A SMART goal is a good goal.
QUESTION 2: How much time can you devote to exercise?
If you can do an hour a day, that’s fantastic.
But maybe you have a wife or husband, three kids, a dog, two jobs, and no robot butler…
…then maybe you only have thirty minutes, twice a week.
That’s fine too!
Also, break up your workout! According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), if you accumulate three 10-minute bouts of exercise throughout the day to total 30-minutes of exercise, then that is as effective as someone who does one 30-minute bout of exercise.
Now, no matter how much time you have, developing the most efficient workout is crucial.
Why spend two hours in a gym when you can get just as much accomplished in 30 minutes, right?
Here’s the good news: weight training is the fat-burning prize fight victor, and efficiency rules all.
While we’re talking about time, let me quickly mention something important:
As we mention in that guide, here are some realistic timeframes for weight loss or muscle gain:
QUESTION 3: WHERE do you want to work out?
If you’re paying attention here, you may notice I’m setting you up to work out no matter what your current situation is.
Because according to ACSM, the #1 reason people don’t exercise is:
They don’t have time for it.
All of us, all the time.
BUT, with the information I’m hitting you with, technically you should have no excuse for not exercising unless (you’re injured or sick).
After all, your workout:
RECAP OF QUESTIONS – At this point, we should have:
We can now start to build your workout routine, your daily workout plan, and your monthly workout schedule!
Let’s do it.
I like to follow the motto of “Keep it simple, stupid.”
(Note: I am not calling you stupid. You’re reading Nerd Fitness, which means you’re intelligent, good-looking, really funny, and most of all, modest.)
It’s exhausting, unnecessary, inefficient, and intimidating.
So keep it simple!
We’re going to pick 5 exercises and get really strong with those movements.
Unless you’ve been strength training for years and know what you’re doing, we recommend that you pick a full-body routine that you can do 2-3 times a week.
You want a workout routine that has at least one exercise for your:
How’s THAT for efficiency!?!
A compound exercise would be the yin to the yang of the isolation exercise.
Think of a push-up (compound):
Compared to bicep curls through a machine (isolation):
Compound exercises have been found to result in improvements in aerobic endurance, muscular fitness, and flexibility, since you’re recruiting all sorts of muscle groups at once.
Where an isolation exercise would be a single-joint movement involving only one single muscle group, like the biceps, in our example above.
I will say, there is a time and place for implementing compound and isolation exercises.
Here is a quick breakdown of which compound exercises will work for each of those muscle groups:
Not sure how to do any of these movements? Want more examples?
Then check out:
Pick one exercise from each category above for your workout, and you’ll work almost every single muscle in your body.
You don’t need to make things more complicated than this!
(Not that we humans have a tendency to overcomplicate things to the point of paralysis and inaction…)
If you’re not sure how to do any of the movements above, click on their links for thorough write-ups and video demonstrations.
Pick one exercise from EACH category above, specifically ones that scare you the least, and that will be your workout every other day for the next week.
Oh, and you’ll also need to think about macronutrient breakdowns (carbs, fats, proteins), like in our Nerd Fitness Balanced Plate:
Get really good at these basic movements and focus on getting stronger each week (I’ll cover how below).
If you get really strong at squats, deadlifts, pull-ups, and push-ups, you will build an incredible physique to be proud of.
Plus, building strength with these exercises will also help in other areas such as improving your performance in sports, decreasing your risk of chronic diseases (e.g., CVD) and premature mortality (an early death).
**picks up mic**
Then, once you get confident in those movements, feel free to add some variety.
If you do the same exact routine, three days a week, for months and months, you might get bored, and start slacking…
So if you find yourself getting bored, feel free to stick with the above ‘formula,’ but change the ingredients:
If you hit a plateau or find yourself getting bored, pick a different exercise to improve so you’ll stay challenged, and you’ll actually DO the workout!
I know it’s really easy to overcomplicate this process as there’s an infinite number of exercises, sets, reps, and programs to choose from.
LONGER ANSWER – watch this video:
Got it? Cool.
Some general rules on repetitions you can follow as you’re starting to build your workout plan:
There are some other generally accepted ‘rules’ – as pointed out in Starting Strength – about how to determine how many reps you should target per set, based on your goals:
A 2015 study  called into question the best rep strategy for building muscle or size:
It appears that high-intensity resistance (sets of 3-5 reps) training stimulates greater improvements in some measures of strength and hypertrophy in resistance-trained men during a short-term training period [compared to sets of 8-10 reps].
What this means: Do not freak yourself out by worrying if you should do 4 sets or 5 sets of 8 reps or 10 reps.
Our advice would be to START with lighter weight and more reps as you learn the movement, and then decide if you want to stay at higher reps and lower weight or vice versa.
You do you, because either way will get you results!
The only thing you need to worry about: get stronger the next time you do that movement.
Either pick up a heavier weight, or do 1 more repetition than last time.
“JUST GIVE ME THE ANSWER!”
Keep your TOTAL (all exercises combined) workout number of sets for all exercises in the 15-25 set range, with 8-10 reps per set:
5 exercises total, each with 4 “work sets” is a good start.
Remember, the most important part is to get started – you’ll learn how your body responds and you can adapt as you go.
What you DON’T need to do: multiple exercises for each body part with 10 sets.
This will result in significant fatigue during your workout increasing your risk for sustaining an injury. It can also result in overtraining, in which you will experience a decrease in performance and plateauing (will not see muscular improvements).
So calm down you eager beaver.
Keep it simple, you “smart, good-looking, funny, modest person” you.
Below is a basic formula for you to determine how long you should wait between sets, but this can be adjusted based on your level of health.
The goal is to wait the least amount of time you need, but still rest enough that you can perform all reps of the next set safely and properly!
Here’s why that’s important:
Adequate rest in-between sets will allow your body to regenerate energy, so you can execute the next set of reps with good form and technique, therefore, decreasing your risk of injury.
I’ll provide some guidelines for how long to rest based on how heavy you’re lifting (not rules set in stone!):
If you need more or less rest than the above recommendations, that’s fine.
Do the best you can, record how long it takes you to rest between sets, and try to rest for shorter periods in the future.
Your body will adjust as you get stronger and healthier!
If you want more information on how much you should lift, how many reps, and when to scale certain movements or adjust your workout, check out our Strength 101: Everything You Need to Know.
It’s free when you join the Rebellion with your email in the box below:
The simple-to-learn but tough-to-implement answer:
Lift enough so that you can get through the set, but not too much that you have NO fuel left in the tank at the end.
How do you determine how much that is?
Trial and error.
ALWAYS err on the side of “too light” versus “too heavy” when starting out.
It’s better to say “I bet I could have done more!” instead of “that was too much, and now I need to go to the hospital!”
When is it time to move up in resistance?
The NSCA has a 2-for-2 rule that recommends:
If a person can do two reps (or more) over their set goal, then they should increase the load.
How much should you increase weight by?
I will say, if you’re doing exercises with just your body weight, you need to make each exercise more difficult as you get in shape – once you get past 20 reps for a particular exercise and you’re not gassed, it’s time to mix things up.
And if you’re not sure how to scale bodyweight movements, or you are interested in mixing things up and want guidance…
Easy answer: 45 minutes to an hour.
Longer answer: If you’re doing 15-25 sets of total exercise (3-5 sets for your 5 exercises), you should be able to get everything done within that 45-minute block.
If you can go for over an hour and you’re not completely worn out, try increasing the intensity.
Less time, more intensity, better results.
What if you don’t have 45 minutes?
Do the best you can!
What’s that? You want to build some cardio into your weight training.
That’s where this next section comes in.
This is also the most effective way to make you involuntarily swear at inanimate objects because you’re so tired and beat up.
We’re going to cover TWO things here:
The NSCA defines it as:
A superset is performing two exercises in a row on two different muscle groups.
For example, a superset could look like:
And so on.
Because you’re exercising two completely different muscle groups, you can exercise one while the other is “resting.”
You’re now getting the same workout done in half the time.
Also, because you’re resting less, your body has to work harder so your heart is getting a workout too. Jackpot.
Let’s see how this would play out in a sample workout:
#2) CIRCUIT TRAINING
A circuit requires you to do one set for EVERY exercise, one after the other, without stopping.
Our very own Coach Lauren explains it here:
After you’ve done one set of each exercise in succession, you then repeat the process two, or three, or four more times.
I’ve written about multiple bodyweight circuits here on the site:
You can download our Beginner Bodyweight Worksheet too to help you get started:
And lastly, we love building circuit training routines for our Coaching Clients – and we’d love to build them for you too:
We get this question quite a bit, usually from overeager beavers who decide they are going to go from “sitting on the couch watching The Office on repeat” to “exercising 7 days per week.”
I would advise something different.
I mean you can still watch The Office…
…but you don’t need to be training 7 days a week!
For starters, your muscles don’t get built in the gym.
They actually get broken down in the gym, and then get rebuilt stronger while you’re resting…watching The Office.
By giving your muscles 48 hours to recover between workouts, especially when training heavy, you’ll stay injury-free and get stronger.
A Monday-Wednesday-Friday workout routine works well to ensure enough time to recover, especially when you are just getting started.
If you want to do Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday, or Sunday-Tuesday-Thursday, great.
Personally, I stuck with a Monday-Wednesday-Friday full day routine for nearly 10 years and just focused on getting stronger with each movement.
Also, here’s a lifehack: Program your workouts INTO your Google calendar (or Outlook).
You’re much more likely to do a workout that has been planned for in your work week!
Last but not least, keep a workout journal!
As they say, that which gets measured gets improved.
You should be getting stronger, faster, or more fit with each day of exercise.
Around these parts, we say “Level up your life, every single day.”
If you see your numbers improving (more weight, faster times, etc.), then you’re getting stronger and gaining more lean muscle mass!
Personally, I track all of my workouts in Evernote.
I note the sets, reps, weight, and date.
I have over 1,000 workouts in my folder, which makes it super simple to see what I did last month, or even last year, and to make sure I’m improving!
You can use an actual notebook, a bullet journal, an Excel spreadsheet, a workout app, or a Word document.
Don’t overcomplicate it:
Do this with a workout you’ve built, and you WILL get results. I promise.
If you want to build from scratch, great! Let’s break it down into easy chunks with this recap:
More often than not, when I email people back and tell them how to build their own workout, they generally respond with:
“Steve, can’t you just TELL me what to do? I’m afraid of building a crappy workout.”
Why we built THREE options for people like that:
You’ll work with our certified NF instructors who will get to know you better than you know yourself and program your workouts and nutrition for you.
2) Exercising at home and need a plan to follow? Check out Nerd Fitness Journey!
Our fun habit-building app helps you exercise more frequently, eat healthier, and level up your life (literally). Plus, NF Journey will build a workout for you!
Try your free trial right here:
3) Join the Rebellion (our free community) and I’ll send you free guides, workouts, and worksheets that you can read at your leisure.
We need good people like you!
I certainly encourage you to try and build your own workout routine.
It can really help you develop a sense of excitement and pride when you start to get in shape based on your workout!
If you have more questions, or have a workout program you’re really proud of, share it in the comments below!
PS: Check out the rest of our beginner content. I promise, it kicks ass 🙂