This is a complete guide on how to create an effective workout plan.
Specifically, you’ll learn:
- What exercises should you perform,
- How many sets and/or reps you should do,
- How much weight you should use,
- and more
If you’re ready- let’s dive right in!
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Okay, let’s get started.
How Do I Create A Workout Plan?
When creating a workout plan for yourself, there are a few things you need to ask yourself.
- What are your goals?
- How often can you realistically workout each week?
- What is your current fitness level?
Common goals include – build more muscle, gain strength, lose body fat, or improve aerobic endurance.
Once you have a general idea of what your goal is- you then need to determine your exercise schedule. Regardless of your goal, it is ideal to workout 3-4 times per week to maximize progress.
Lastly, where are you in terms of fitness?
To keep things simple, we will classify you into one of 4 stages
Let’s define each one.
Novice: You are a novice if have never actually worked out before.
Beginner: You have begun exercising regularly, but you haven’t made significant progress in terms of strength and muscle development. This can be anywhere from 0-12 months of training.
Intermediate: You have been training for at least 1 year and you have a general sense of what works and what doesn’t work. People can tell that you workout.
Advanced: Minimum of 3 years of dedicated training. You are much stronger than the average person.
Step #1 On How To Plan A Workout Routine For Beginners
As a beginner, there are four things you need to do when planning a workout routine: These include starting with the 6 fundamental basic exercises, starting slow, training for strength, and creating a balanced routine.
Let’s go over each one by one.
#1 Start with the Basics
Do not get distracted by the latest and greatest exercise machines and fancy workout equipment.
As a beginner, you should focus on the basics.
This means that you should stick to the 6 fundamental exercises. We will go over them in just a minute.
Don’t worry about random things such as muscle confusion.
As a beginner, your job is to understand the basic exercises, and learn how to do them correctly.
#2 Alway Start Slow
I cannot emphasize this enough.
You must take your time when you first start training. Do not go all in, 100% effort, right from day 1. You must let your body adapt to your training.
Going “all-out” will make you extremely sore, increase your risk of injury, and make you unmotivated really quickly.
Take your time. Start slow.
And progress your way up.
#3 Train For Strength
As a beginner, your workout plan should not focus on bicep curls and oblique side bends.
These kinds of exercises are meant to help tone and develop very specific muscles. Unless you have a solid base level of strength, these exercises are going to be a waste of your time.
You must first focus on developing strength in all of the major muscle groups first, before isolating small muscles.
The good news is, you only have to focus on strengthening 6 key movement patterns. This will give you a solid foundation of strength from which you can build on.
#4 Create A Balanced Routine
The fourth thing you need to do is to create a balanced routine.
This means that you must do an equal amount of pulling exercises and pressing exercises.
And an equal amount of flexion exercises and extension exercises.
Doing too much of any one of these movement patterns can lead to muscular imbalances, poor posture, and increased risk of pain and injury.
Step #2: Your Fitness Plan Must Include These 6 Exercises
In order to make your workouts efficient, you need to design a workout plan that maximize the amount of time you have at the gym.
It starts by choosing the best exercises.
Do not make the mistake of training the obvious muscles.
This includes biceps, triceps, and abs.
While there is nothing wrong with training these muscles, they should not be your primary focus. We discuss why in The 3 Basic Principles Of Training You Ought To Know Before Working Out.
So what should you do instead?
At least 80% of your training should be comprised of functional exercises. Of all the exercises available, there are 6 that produce the most benefit when it comes to training.
The 6 patterns are…
1) THE SQUAT PATTERN
I will try to keep this simple and straight to the point.
If you could only do one exercise, this is it.
Squatting is the best way to train almost all of the muscles in your lower body, at one time.
You don’t have to do the standard barbell squat either. There are numerous variations of this exercise that you could perform to reap its benefits.
Why is the Squat a Necessary Exercise?
The squat also trains a key functional movement pattern: your ability to rise from a seated or crouched position. So many individuals have lost the capability to perform this basic pattern through neglect.
Your workout plan must include some variation of the squat. Check out our squat tutorial here to learn the basic barbell squat.
2) THE HIP HINGE PATTERN
The next most important exercise to include in your workout plan is a hip-hinge exercise.
The most common hip-hinge is the deadlift exercise.
The deadlift trains the hips, hamstrings, glutes, spinal erectors, core and back muscles simultaneously.
No other exercise trains more muscles than this movement pattern. This is by and large the most efficient exercise you could do.
There are numerous deadlift variations you could perform that all serve the same hip-hinge purpose.
Why is the Hip-Hinge a Necessary Exercise?
The hip-hinge teaches you the correct way to pick up an item off the floor without throwing your back out.
Check out our deadlift tutorial here to learn the basic conventional barbell deadlift.
3) THE UNILATERAL LEG PATTERN
Next up is, single leg or unilateral leg training.
The unilateral leg pattern is a key functional exercise that allows the individual training of each half of your body.
Due to the nature of our lifestyle, we tend to have asymmetries between the left and right side of our bodies.
Why is Unilateral Leg Training Necessary?
Almost everything we do in the real world is unilateral.
- going up steps etc.
This style of training will allow you to identify and address any potential imbalances you may have while improving your body’s overall balance.
The best single leg exercises are lunges, split squats, step ups, and Romanian deadlifts.
4) THE UPPER BODY PUSH PATTERN
Now we move on to the upper body.
The large muscles of the anterior torso primarily function to push things away from you.
These muscles are the anterior shoulders, the medial shoulders, the pectoralis muscles, as well as the strong triceps muscles behind your arms.
Unfortunately, everyone trains this movement pattern far too often. Focusing only on your ‘mirror muscles’ can lead to imbalances, pain, and injury.
Why is The Upper Body Push A Necessary Exercises?
The push pattern is critical because it strengthens the shoulder joint in a stable position, helping to decrease shoulder dislocations and other shoulder injuries.
It is also important in helping brace a fall, or push you up off the floor if you have already fallen.
Upper body push patterns can be broken up into
horizontal pushing exercises; such as push-ups, dumbbell pressing, and all bench press variations,
and vertical pushing exercises such as overhead pressing and incline pressing variations.
5) THE UPPER BODY PULL PATTERN
The corollary of pushing is pulling. The back is comprised of many different muscles, all of which can be trained through a variety of pulling exercises.
Most people tend to ignore the pulling muscles as they cannot be readily seen in the mirror.
Unfortunately, almost everything we interact with is in front of our body, and therefore our anterior ‘pushing’ muscles get much more stimulation than the posterior pulling muscles.
This is why it is very important to train this pattern often, to iron out any muscular imbalance that exists between your anterior and posterior torso.
Pulling exercises also help restore the natural posture of your shoulders and upper spine.
Why is the Upper Body Pull a Necessary Exercise?
Pulling exercises train your ability to pull objects towards you.
In addition, if you ever find yourself on a cliff or hanging from some ledge, you should have the ability to pull yourself back up!
The best pulling exercises include all type of rowing exercises.
Like the upper body push, you can pull in a horizontal and a vertical plane.
6) THE CORE STABILIZATION PATTERN
The last functional movement pattern is core stabilization.
Most people go about core training the wrong way. We weren’t designed to be doing sit-ups. Back pain expert Stuart McGill advised that we shouldn’t do sit-ups at all!
So what should you do instead?
You should train stabilization.
In the post below, you will learn the 17 best core exercises you can do to improve this critical movement pattern.
Why is Core Stabilization a Necessary Exercise?
When we move throughout the day, our spine isn’t flopping around front to back, or side to side.
- We walk with an upright posture,
- we carry groceries with an upright posture,
- we carry our kids with an upright posture, and
- we sit with an upright posture.
Without realizing it, we rely heavily on our core muscles to keep our spine neutral and stable.
Our core training should mimic patterns that ingrain stability, NOT mobility.
Sit-ups and crunches promote spinal mobility while under tension. This is a big no-no!
Your fitness plan must include some variation of all 6 of these movement patterns.
I will call these the non-negotiable exercises.
In combination, these 6 exercises will train almost every single muscle group in your body while teaching important human functionality.
Now that we have the foundational exercises selected, let’s talk about how much of each you should perform.
Step 3: Your Workout Plan Must Include The Right Number of Sets & Reps
The next thing your fitness plan needs to do is to vary the number of repetitions you perform.
The beauty of exercise is that you can perform different amounts of repetitions to obtain different desired effects.
If you were to ask most personal trainers, or the average gym goer how many reps you should do- they would recommend 3 sets of 10 repetitions.
While this is an excellent starting point, you will miss out on the benefits of using all of the other rep ranges.
Here are the general guidelines you should follow when creating a workout plan…
If you are a beginner, the majority of your training should be in the Hypertrophy range.
If you have been training for a couple of months or if you are more of an intermediate athlete, dipping into the Combination Rep Range from time to time will be extremely useful.
It should go without saying that the more weight you are using, the fewer reps you will be able to perform.
Therefore, you should ensure that your technique is on par before hitting weights in the 4-6 repetition range.
Lastly, the Maximum Strength range is generally restricted to advanced athletes.
However, once a good technique has been established, learning the maximum weight your body can handle can be both fun and self-motivating.
Do not practice in this range until you have been training consistently for at least 8-12 months.
For busy professionals, I recommend sticking to the Hypertrophy range for most of your training (at least 75%) to accomplish a lot of work in as little time as possible.
I go over this in a lot more detail in How Many Sets & Reps You Should Do For The Best Results.
What About Sets?
Now that we have a basic understanding of the number of repetitions you should do, let’s talk about the optimal number of sets you need to do in your program.
Every fitness program needs to perform the right number of sets per exercise.
As with any training related endeavor, the number of sets you need to perform varies depending on your goals.
There is a lot of wiggle room here.
For the most part, you should aim to accomplish anywhere between 20-40 total repetitions per exercise, in approximately 3-6 sets.
For example, If you are performing 8 repetitions, you can do anywhere from 3-5 sets to be in the 20-40 rep range.
Here are the general guidelines
- 40+ Reps- Very High Volume: Burns the most calories. Works best with the Endurance and Hypertrophy rep ranges
- 30+ Reps– High Volume: Burns fewer calories but induces muscular growth and toning. Works best with the Hypertrophy rep range
- 20+ Reps- Moderate Volume: Burns even fewer calories but induces strength and muscle development. Works best with Combination Rep Range
- <20 Reps- Low Volume: Suitable mainly for strength development. Works best with the Combination and Maximal Strength rep ranges
Generally, sets and repetitions are inversely related. But keep in mind that these are simply guidelines.
You can mix and match the number of sets and reps to accomplish any desired amount of volume.
For example, you can get 24-25 repetitions by doing 3 sets of 8, or 5 sets of 5 reps.
More weight can be handled with the second option but it will take longer and it will induce more strength production whereas the first option will have more of a hypertrophy focus.
For doctors and other busy professionals, I recommend sticking to 3 sets for efficiency.
Other Related Questions
What body parts should I work on what days?
Now that you know what exercises to do, and how many sets and reps to include, you need to structure your workout.
As a beginner, you can divide your workout up into one of three splits:
- The Full Body Split
- The Upper/Lower Split
- The Push/Pull Split
In the full body split, you mix and match upper body and lower body exercises into the same workout.
In the upper/lower split you train several muscles in the upper body in one workout session (i.e. horizontal push, vertical pull, vertical push etc), followed by several muscles in the lower body (i.e. squat pattern, single leg pattern, core stabilization etc) in another.
Lastly, in the push/pull split, you mix and match exercises that all involve pushing exercises in one day (horizontal push, squat pattern, vertical push etc) and pulling exercises in another (hip hinge, horizontal pull, vertical pull, etc).
What is the best workout split (for beginners?)
As a beginner, I recommend that you use a full-body split. That’s because this training split will allow you to practice the fundamental exercises multiple times per week.
At this stage, repeated exposures to the same exercises are necessary to build a solid foundation of strength.
What is a good workout routine?
A good workout routine is one that trains 3-4x per week, following a full-body workout split, and focuses on strengthening the 6 major movement patterns.
And you’re in luck.
I have created a simple gym workout plan template just for you.
Check it out at The Best Full Body Workout Template For Busy People.
Should beginners workout everyday?
Beginners should not workout every day. Believe it or not, you can see great results training just three or four times per week provided you train each of the major muscle groups 1-2 times per week.
How long should you workout a day?
Your workout should be as long as you can realistically sustain over a long period of time. For beginners, I recommend starting with just 30 minutes of exercise.
If you train 4 times per week, that is only 2 hours a week!
I go over how to workout in 30 minutes in How Long Should A Workout Be [Why 30 Min is All You Need].
I go over a lot more questions on creating a strength training workout plan such as
- How long you should rest between sets,
- How much weight you should lift,
- How to warm-up properly before working out,
- If and when you should incorporate cardio in your workout
in my resource page: How To Workout Effectively & Efficiently.
How To Make A Workout Plan For A Woman
So what if you’re a woman and you want to exercise, but you don’t want to get bulky?
Well, I have good news for you.
Unless you are specifically training for size, eating a big calorie surplus, and have a decently high level of testosterone, you will not get bulky.
Getting bulky is very difficult. How many ‘bulky’ women, do you actually see at the gym?
Brittany can squat >200 lbs and deadlift >300 lbs and she is not “bulky”
Think about it, if all you had to do was lift weights to get bulky, everyone at the gym would be huge. Especially all of the guys.
Woman generally don’t have high enough levels of testosterone to pack on large amounts of muscle.
Saying I don’t want to lift weights because I don’t want to get bulky is like saying, I don’t want to bike too much because if I am not careful I might be doing the Tour de France soon.
So with that said, what should a workout plan for women entail?
Women Generally Need More Volume
- Women can generally handle more work volume than men. This is because on average, women are generally shorter and a lot lighter than men. As such, the weights lifted will be less, AND the range of motion will be less. Therefore, the weights won’t induce as much fatigue. This is why more reps and/or more sets are useful.
- Similarly, women can recover faster from an exercise, so they don’t need as much rest time in between sets.
So if we were to look at the rep range recommendations from above, women should go into the Endurance Rep Range and stay on the higher side of the Hypertrophy Rep Range for the majority of their training.
What Is The Best Home Workout Routine?
Everything that I said above still applies to your home workout.
The best home workout routine should have you train 3-4x per week, following a full-body (or upper lower) workout split, and focuses on strengthening the 6 major movement patterns.
In other words:
- You should still focus on the the 6 functional movement patterns
- Stick to sets in the 7-12 rep range
- Do 3-4 exercises per workout
- Track your Progress
The only thing that is different is the actual exercises you will be performing. Instead of using external weights, all of the exercises you perform will be done with your body weight.
The best part?
I have an entire post going over exactly that- Calisthenics For Beginners: How To Get Started.
How To Create a Fitness Plan For Weight Loss
Losing weight is a process that requires you to speed up your metabolism.
In the simplest sense, metabolism is how much energy your body uses up just to stay alive. So even while you sit here and read this, or when you go to sleep later, your body is using up calories.
So how do we speed up your metabolism with exercise?
1. You Need to Increase Your Muscle Mass
- Everyone loves to quote “muscle is more dense than fat,” but who cares? The better quote is “muscle is more expensive than fat.” Your body has to use up more energy to maintain its muscle mass. Muscle is your body’s secret weapon to burning fat.
Using the principles laid out in this post, you can design a training program to help you increase your muscle mass and speed up your metabolism.
We have written in more detail about exercise for weight loss at The 3 Best Exercises To Lose Weight Fast [And Build Muscle Too].
2. You Need to Supplement Your Workout Plan With The Right Kind of Cardio
- Steady state cardio is a horrible way to lose weight. You will never be able to outrun your diet. Instead, you should focus on increasing your muscle mass and performing High Intensity Interval Training 1-2x per week.
- We have written an entire post on this topic at A Superior Form Of Cardio For Weight Loss [The 15 Minute Workout].
Final Words On Creating A Perfect Workout Plan For Beginners
Take home messages:
- All workout plans should incorporate some variation of the 6 non-negotiable movement patterns.
- The number of sets and reps can be altered to suit your training goals.
- Higher reps will build endurance and hypertrophy, while lower reps will lead to strength development.
- Stick to 3 sets of 7-12 reps for the vast majority of your training to maximize efficiency in your workout routine.
- Women can train similarly to men, just with higher volumes.
Now we turn it over to you.
What was your favorite part of this guide?
Which exercises are you going to choose for your workout plan?
Comment below and let us know!