“When you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail.”
It may sound cheesy, but it’s true! If you show up to the gym day after day without a plan, you’re significantly less likely to achieve your fitness goals.
To see the best possible results, you have to exercise with INTENTION.
This requires having a plan in place specifically designed to continuously get you one step closer to the results that you want.
But how do you create a plan when you can’t afford to purchase a fancy workout program or hire a personal trainer?
Don’t worry girl, I gotchu! If you follow my step-by-step instructions, then by the end of this post you’ll have created a customized workout plan and be well on your way to crushing your fitness goals.
Let’s Get Started, Shall We?
What we’ll cover in this post:Who is this post for?
Step 1: Determine Your Goal
Step 2: Determine How Much Time You (Realistically) Have To Work Out
Step 3: Choose Your Workout Split and Get it On the Calendar
Step 4: Plan Your Workouts
Step 5: Evaluate Your Progress and Adapt Your Program
Who is this post for?
In this post we’ll be focusing on strength training. Strength training refers to the use of resistance to increase muscle endurance, size, and/or strength. This “resistance” can be achieved through the use of dumbbells, machines, barbells, kettlebells, resistance bands, etc.
There’s a lot that goes into creating a comprehensive weightlifting program and to cover EVERYTHING I’d need to write a textbook. In this post we’ll stick to covering the basics of creating a workout plan that you can put into action immediately.
Now – without further ado – it’s time to get planning!
Step 1: Clarify Your Goal
The first step in creating a workout plan is getting clear on the result you’re aiming for.
Do you want to be more visibly muscular? Do you want to build as much strength as possible? Do you just want to tone up a bit? Are you focused on certain aesthetic goals or simply maintaining your health? Are there certain areas of your body that you’re more focused on developing than others?
Take some time to figure out what exactly it is you want to achieve, as this will inform how you create your program.
A word of caution: Make sure that your goal is realistic for you and your lifestyle.
For example, striving to be bikini competitor lean year round is an unrealistic goal, dangerous to your health, and overall pretty dang miserable sounding – a life without donuts is no life for me!
Remember that exercise should be a habit that you can sustain over the long-term, so it’s okay for your goals to change as you do.
TAKE ACTION >>> Set aside some time to get clear on what you want. Writing down your goal and what it will mean to you to achieve it or creating a vision board (virtually or IRL) can be helpful!
Step 2: Determine how much time you (realistically) have to workout
Raise your hand if the following scenario sounds familiar:
With the burst of motivation that comes with the decision to start working out, you commit to make it to the gym 6 or 7 days a week and then feel crappy about yourself when it doesn’t happen. Not good.
I’ve sooooo been there 🙋🏻♀️
A lot of us make the mistake of planning a workout program based on how much time we can dedicate to the gym given the best case scenario.
Remember that life is messy – things have a tendency to not go as planned. Setting unrealistic expectations for yourself only sets you up for disappointment.
That being said, you’re never going to “have” time to workout, you’re going to need to MAKE it.
Taking all of your current commitments and priorities into consideration, it’s time to decide:
- How many days per week will you work out? If you can determine the specific day(s) of the week even better.
- What time will you work out? How long will you work out (i.e. do you have a hard stop at a certain time or can you leave the end time open?)
I recommend aiming for a minimum of 3 days of training per week, but 4 – 6 will be more effective if your goal is to become more muscular.
No matter what your schedule allows, any amount of exercise is better than none. Do what you can with the time that you have!
Take Action >>> Take a look at your schedule and determine what open blocks of time you could potentially use to workout. If you can find a consistently available time block, even better.
Step 3: Choose Your Workout Split and Get it On the Calendar
What is a workout split?
A workout “split” refers to breaking up your training sessions by body region.
Your split can go by days of the week (i.e. on Mondays I train legs, Tuesdays I train back, etc.) or be sequentially based, where you train in a specific cycle regardless of what day it is.
For example, in the past I’ve followed this 4-day sequence: Day 1 – shoulders/biceps/triceps, Day 2 – legs/glutes, Day 3 – back and core, Day 4 – active rest day (aka cardio). And then back to day 1 to start the cycle over again!
How to choose the best workout split for you
Finding the right workout split for you is a process of trial-and-error, and is something that will most likely change throughout your fitness journey.
Factors such as your current condition, training experience, goals, availability, and rest and recovery needs all play a vital role in determining your optimal training schedule.
Let’s discuss some common training splits and who they are good for:
1. Full-body split
When you first begin working out, you’ll most likely experience a pretty notable increase in strength right away.
A lot of this is due to neuromuscular adaptation – which is the fancy way of saying the process of your brain and body learning how to work together to perform a particular movement. As the movement itself becomes more familiar and habitual, you free up cognitive resources and tend to get stronger at the movement as well.
Because your muscles require less stimulus to see results initially, you won’t need to spend as much time per body part or lift as much weight as someone who has been at it for a while to see results.
Instead you’ll want to focus on nailing your form and building muscular endurance, which lends itself well to a full-body workout split.
This split may be a good fit for you if: you’re completely new to weightlifting, you have minimal days to dedicate to the gym, or your fitness goals are simply to remain healthy and able to perform activities of everyday living (without as much emphasis on muscle-building for aesthetics).
2. Upper-body / lower body split
This is a step-up from the full-body split and allows you to increase the volume and intensity of your workouts without having to take as many rest days (because your upper body is able to “rest” on your lower body day, and vice versa).
When I first began taking weightlifting seriously, this was the type of split that I used.
It’s still great for building muscular endurance, but allows you to make greater strength gains by increasing the total volume of work per body part, as opposed to trying to hit everything in a full-body workout.
This split might be good for you if: You have a little bit of experience in the gym and are ready to step up your game, you’re new to the gym but are involved in athletic activity outside of the gym, or if you only have 4 days to commit to the gym per week.
3. “Bodybuilder” split(s)
Don’t let the title intimidate you – a “Bodybuilder split” refers to a training program where each muscle group (or groups) has its own dedicated day in the gym.
This is the type of split used by most body builders and people training with aesthetic goals as a top priority.
As you begin lifting heavier weights, your muscles will likely need more time to recover both during your workout (between sets) and after your sessions (between workouts).
Using a bodybuilder split, you’re able to really focus on lifting heavy and burning out your muscle(s) because they will have ample time to recover during the following days in which you focus on other muscle groups, as well as your rest day(s).
This type of split also allows for the most specificity and customization towards your goals.
For example, if you really want to focus on building your lower body, you might have one day dedicated to quads & calves, another day focused on glutes & hamstrings and a third lower-body day that focuses on all of the above but at a lower intensity, whereas you only hit shoulders/bis/tris all in one session, once per week.
This split might be good for you if: You have 4-6 days to dedicate to the gym per week, you have some experience in the gym and are ready to move from endurance to hypertrophy training (more on that later), you have specific physique goals (i.e. defining your shoulders, adding X cm to your glutes), and/or your primary focus is increasing muscle size/definition.
Keep in mind, there are SO many training splits out there – this isn’t even the tip of the iceberg. I encourage you to google around for more examples and experiment until you find what works best for you, your goals, and your lifestyle.
How many rest days should I take?
It’s while you REST – not while you’re actually exercising – that your muscles are able to strengthen and rebuild, so it’s essential not to discredit the importance of recovery time or skip it altogether.
The amount of rest you need will largely come down to how you’re training and your level of fitness.
A general rule of thumb is that if a muscle is still sore from a previous workout, you shouldn’t train it intensely until it has recovered and is no longer sore.
For beginners on a full body split, you’ll generally want to allow 1 – 2 days between workouts for recovery.
If you’re training 1-2 specific muscle groups per day (using a “bodybuilder” split), then you’ll want to allow 48 – 72 hours before training the same muscle group(s) again, but can train other muscles in the meantime (one of the main advantages of this type of workout split).
Regardless of which split you choose, I recommend having 1 – 2 rest days built into your week.
Taking a rest day doesn’t mean that you have to lie in bed watching Netflix all day or else risk losing your gains from overtraining.
You can also take an “active” rest day, which involves doing an activity at a significantly reduced intensity from your normal workouts (i.e. going for a walk or doing yoga, rather than a heavy leg day).
TAKE ACTION >>> Decide on your training split and put in on the calendar. Keep in mind that you may have to experiment and tweak this as you progress, and that’s okay. Don’t stick to something just because it makes sense on paper or is what your favorite athlete does – listen to your body.
Step 4: Plan Your Individual Workouts
Now that you’ve clarified your goal, figured out how much time you have to dedicate to the gym, and chosen your workout split, it’s time to program your actual workouts.
What exercises should I do? Where can I find exercise ideas?
At the beginning of your fitness journey it’s most important to focus on learning proper form, increasing stabilization and building muscular endurance.
You may want to begin with bodyweight exercises and/or machines as you learn basic movements and build some base-level strength.
As you progress, you’ll likely want to shift your focus to free weight exercises which engage your core, challenge your balance and stabilization, and more closely mimic activities of everyday life.
Try to to find a few trainers, athletes, or fitness influencers with a similar body shape to you and look at their workout routines.
There are SO many free resources out there these days to find exercise ideas!
My go-to resources include:
- YouTube: Some of my favorite fitness gals are Stephanie Buttermore, Whitney Simmons, and Heidi Somers.
- Instagram: Katy Hearn, Cristina Capron, Hannah Oeberg, and Whitney Simmons (again 👑)
My favorite resource for workout planning at the moment is Katy Hearn’s AWESOME workout generator app (this would’ve been SO helpful when I was first starting out!).
For only $5 a month, you select if you’re working out at home or in the gym, as well as the muscle group you want to train and voilà!
The app generates a complete workout for you, including an instructional video to guide you through each exercise.
Keep in mind, the app doesn’t know anything about you or your fitness levels. Be sure to assess if its recommendations are safe given your current condition.
How many reps/sets should I complete?
How many reps and sets you should complete largely comes down to your fitness goals.
If you’re focusing on muscular endurance, you’ll want to aim for 1-3 sets of 15 to 20 reps of each exercise. This is a good rep/set range for beginners.
If you’re focusing on increasing muscle size, you’ll want to stay in the 8 – 12 rep range and complete 3 – 5 sets of each exercise. This is a good rep/set range if you have some experience in the gym, can perform exercises with proper form, and are looking to become more muscular.
If you’re ultimate goal is to maximize strength, you’ll want to aim for 4 – 6 sets of 1 – 6 reps of each exercise. This rep/set range is best for experienced lifters who are looking to become as strong as possible (be sure not to confuse muscle strength with muscle size). Depending on your fitness goals, you may never train in this rep/set range, but if you do it’s crucial to make sure that your form is on point first.
You should feel free to mix it up! Just because you’re focused on hypertrophy training (increasing muscle size), doesn’t mean that you can’t throw in a few sets of higher reps to burn out your muscles at the end of a workout.
*However you will want to be careful about trying to lift too much weight for your current fitness level (i.e. going for your 1 rep max when you’ve just started endurance training and learning proper form), as this can lead to injury.*
How long should I rest between sets?
If training for endurance: 30 – 60 seconds
If training for size (hypertrophy): 1 – 2 minutes
If training for strength : 3 – 5 minutes
How do I know when to bump up the weight I’m using?
Humans are adaptive creatures – Our muscles need a reason to grow or else they won’t.
This means as you progress, you’ll need to continually increase the challenge placed on them.
Most often this is achieved by increasing the amount of weight you’re lifting.
How do you know when it’s time to up the weight?
When training, the last rep of each set – whether you’re aiming for 20 reps or 6 reps total – should be very difficult. You should be on the brink of muscle failure – the point at which you can’t complete another rep with proper form.
For example, if your goal is to increase muscle size, and you’re aiming for 10 reps of a given exercise – if after that 10th rep, you feel like you could’ve cranked out an 11th, then your weight is too light. Try increasing it by 5 – 10% the next time.
Similarly, if by the time you get to that 11th rep, your form is completely awful and you’re swinging weights, using momentum to get the job done, your weight is too heavy and should be reduced.
Does it matter what order I do my exercises in?
In short – Yes.
If you’re a beginner doing full-body, machine-based workouts 3 days per week, order is not going to be a huge concern for you.
However, if you’re training for hypertrophy or strength you’re going to want to begin with your heaviest lifts.
Do your most difficult, compound exercises (multi-joint movements that work several muscles at a time like barbell squats or deadlifts) at the beginning of your workout when you have the most energy and work your way to the least difficult, isolation exercises (single joint exercises working only one muscle group like quad extensions or laying hamstring curls) to burn out your muscles as you begin to fatigue.
TAKE ACTION >>> Now that you’ve chosen your split, plan one week of workouts. (*Psst… I recommend downloading my free workout planner printable to help you through this step!)
Step 5: Evaluate your progress and adapt your program
When it comes to getting “fit” the first metric most people turn to as a gauge of progress is their weight.
However, scale weight is not all that helpful for judging your progress in a resistance-based training program.
This is because it doesn’t take into account body composition.
Because muscle is more dense than fat, you could lose body fat and gain muscle but end up weighing more than you originally did.
You see the issue?
Here are some ideas of what to track instead:
- Keep an exercise log where you record the exercises you completed, how many sets/reps of each, and what weight you used so that you can see your progress over time. (Be sure to download my free workout planner!)
- Take progress photos. Try to keep the photos as consistent as possible (same pose(s), location, lighting, time of day, etc.)
- Record your measurements. Use a flexible tape measure to measure your chest, waist, hips, thighs, arms and/or any other body part of concern to track increases or decreases in size.
Reflect + Evaluate
Using the information you gathered in the last step, set aside some time every 4-8 weeks to reflect on your progress.
- What does the objective data show? (i.e. your exercise log + measurements)
- What have you been doing well?
- In what areas can you improve?
- Do you need to challenge yourself more? Do you need to make more time for recovery?
- Are there factors outside of your resistance training program that are hindering your results and need to be addressed (i.e. diet, stress, hormonal imbalances)?
- How do you feel? Don’t forget that not all progress is physical – making exercise a habit transforms other areas of your life as well. In what ways can you see it making an impact in your life?
Now that you can see how you’re progressing and you’ve taken some time to reflect on it, revisit your workout plan and adjust it accordingly.
Weight training is a continuous process of growth, so your workout plan will need to continually evolve as you do.
Now I Want to Hear From You!
Congrats 🎉 If you’ve followed these steps, you should now have your own customized workout program and are on your way to crushing your fitness goals 🙌🏻 You go girl!
What other questions do you have about creating your own workout plan? Let me know in the comments below.