Being a personal trainer myself, I am more than aware that working out with a trainer is a luxury. Having someone tell you what to do, show you how to do it, and then coach you through it is undeniably valuable, but sometimes, it’s just not possible. Whether the reasons are financial, schedule-related, or you quite literally can’t go see a trainer because the gym is closed and you’re stuck at home (a fate many people are facing right now), we all need to have some idea of how to work out on our own. Regardless of your circumstances, you can make progress towards your goals without having a trainer by your side for every morning workout. Here, I’ll give you the tools on how to create a workout plan.
How To Create A Workout Plan: The Basics
I typically structure my workouts and those of my clients using the following movement patterns:
I choose one exercise that correlates with each movement pattern, string them together, and then suss out the number of reps and sets based on their goals and how much time we have. To build your own workout, I suggest you do the same. These movement patterns recruit nearly every muscle in your body, including your core musculature (aka your abs and their friends).
Now, every human on this planet maintains a different level of fitness, and you should take that into consideration when choosing exercises from this list. For example, pull-ups are challenging and require serious upper body strength — a strength that the average person likely doesn’t have, especially if they aren’t an athlete or regularly seeing a trainer. To minimize your risk of injury, stick to exercises that fall within your current capabilities or that you’ve done before, and work on unfamiliar ones with a professional.
A Quick Note On Reps And Sets
How many reps of each exercise and sets you should do depends on your goals. Generally, if you want to build muscular endurance or improve your cardiovascular health — looking at you, runners and cyclists — you’ll want to do 12 or more reps of each exercise per set (with lighter weights) for three to five sets, with 30 to 60 seconds rest between sets. To build muscle size, aim for six to 12 reps per set (with medium weights) for three to five sets, with a 1-minute rest in between sets. For increased strength and power, you’ll want to do one to five reps in each set, meaning you should opt for much heavier weights. To lose weight, it matters less how many reps and sets you’re doing. The important factor is being in a calorie deficit, and that’s best done by focusing on nutrition.
So, let’s create a workout plan!
How To Create A Workout Plan: Step By Step
1. Push or Press
Pushing and pressing motions can occur in various planes of motions and through many mediums. Most of these exercises can be done with your bodyweight or dumbbells, but if you have access to a cable machine, you can use those, too.
Choose one of the following exercises to satisfy your push/press requirement:
- Bench press (with dumbbells or a barbell)
- Overhead press (with dumbbells or kettlebells)
- Seated press (with dumbbells)
- Arnold press (with dumbbells)
- Chest flies (with dumbbells)
- Triceps extensions (with dumbbells)
- Sled push (using a weighted sled)
- Dumbbell front or lateral raises
- Leg press (on a leg press machine)
A good rule of thumb for strength workouts is if there's a push, there should be a pull. We spend so much time sitting slumped over with our heads jutting out, and our posterior chain gets very little action unless we work it. To achieve muscular balance — and better posture and alignment — we have to push and pull.
You can pick any of the exercises below:
- Bent over rows (with a barbell)
- Dumbbell rows (with dumbbells)
- Shoulder shrugs
- Cable rows (with a machine)
- Pull-ups or chin-ups
- Wide grip pull-downs (with a machine)
- Bicep curls (with dumbbells or a barbell)
Hip hinge exercises activate our glutes, hamstrings, quads, lower back and core. When doing these, focus on keeping your back flat and sending your hips backward. You also want to keep your chest up, your spine neutral, and squeeze your glutes at the top — but be mindful not to overextend your hips or lower back.
Any of these exercises will do the trick:
- Squats (with or without dumbbells or a barbell)
- Glute bridges (bodyweight, with a weighted plate, or with a medicine ball)
- Dumbbell snatch (with one dumbbell)
- Deadlifts (regular, single-arm, or single leg)
- Good mornings (with a barbell or kettlebell)
- Kettlebell row (with a kettlebell)
- Kettlebell swing (with a kettlebell)
- Cable pull-throughs (with a cable machine)
If you chose squats as your hip hinge exercise, make sure to choose a different type of squat for this portion. A squat is considered a compound exercise, meaning it works for more than one muscle group at a time. Aside from targeting your glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, hip flexors, adductors, and calves, squats also engage your core. All of these exercises can be done with or without weights — weights will, of course, make them harder.
Choose one of the below:
- Regular squats
- Goblet squats
- Split squats
- Sumo/plié squats
- Jump squats
- Pulse squats
- Single leg/pistol squats (note: these are very advanced)
- Step out squats (with a resistance band)
While there aren’t a ton of lunge variations out there, there are ways to level up this exercise if it strikes you as boring, too easy, or uncomfortable. For instance, I prefer reverse lunges to forward lunges because I find it easier to keep my form in check. (You could say that’s a strong argument for why I should do forward lunges, but we all have to start where we are and progress from there.)
All of these can be done using your body weight or dumbbells:
- Forward lunges
- Reverse lunges
- Split squats
- Back foot elevated split squats (using a step or bench)
- Front foot elevated split squats (using a step or bench)
Cardiovascular exercise, or “cardio,” might be one of the most misunderstood and under-appreciated tools in our fitness arsenal. Some people love it, others hate it — both for the wrong reasons. Cardio’s gotten a bad rap for years, mostly because it was the only type of exercise people were told to do for weight loss. It was marketed as a calorie torcher, so people ditched strength training in favor of hours on the elliptical.
How To Create A Workout Plan: Final Notes
Even if you’re not the biggest fan of cardio, there’s value in integrating it into your workouts. Besides getting your heart rate up, it increases your lung capacity, strengthens your heart, improves your mood, and when paired with strength training, keeps your body guessing (which keeps your metabolism firing). Yes, cardio tends to burn more calories than strength training during the activity, but strength training increases your lean muscle mass, and the more lean muscle mass you have, the more calories you burn at rest (whereas with steady-state cardio, the majority of your calorie-torching ends when your workout does).
Exercises like running and walking also give you an opportunity to work on your posture and gait. Make sure you’re standing up tall, your shoulders aren’t slumped or raised to your ears, and your hips maintain a neutral tilt (not too forward or backward).
And just like that, you’ve built your own killer workout. My last bits of advice are:
- You should always be switching it up. If you chose mostly upper body movements last time, opt for lower body ones this time. If you ran yesterday, try jumping rope today. Doing the same workout every day can get old very fast, and you want to make sure you’re working every part of your body on a regular basis.
- Take rest days. You don’t have to work out like a maniac to make progress—and doing so will actually sabotage your efforts. Take your recovery as seriously as your workout.
- Work with what you’ve got. Having access to a gym is great, but you can do most of these movements at home using just your body weight and they’ll still be effective.
Happy sweating, friends!