Any goal requires a road map — and any fitness goal requires a training program. A good workout plan contains all the right elements to you set you up for success. Creating your own workout program from scratch can feel overwhelming, so we've broken it down into easy-to-follow steps.
The art and science of writing exercise programs is called program design. It's one of the most important skills coaches and trainers must master, because programs provide blueprints for helping clients and athletes get to where they want to go.
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There are many factors that go into writing a great program, and getting good at it takes practice. I've been training clients in person and online for nine years, and I continue to refine my program design systems all the time.
Below are eight steps you can use to create fun and effective 4-to-6-week workout programs for yourself. I provide insight and advice from two certified personal trainers, as well as insight from my own program design system.
This process might take you up to an hour the first time you try it, but in time you will become so efficient that you can write a program in 15 minutes or less.
If all of this sounds more in-depth than you want to go, there are apps that take the guesswork out of the process for you, including:
1. Get Clear On Your Goals
You need to identify your main training goal before you start writing your program. Different goals require you to manipulate different variables at the gym, and it's important to know what those are so you can direct your efforts in the right direction. Nobody wants to put in months of hard work only to find out they didn't end up where they wanted to go.
Leann Hatler, CPT, suggests taking a personal inventory before you set out to write a training program for yourself.
"Consider what you are looking to achieve, what your timeline is to get there, what skills you already have to move toward your goal as well as what you need to do differently to make progress possible," she says. All of this information can help you make better programming decisions.
We'll cover writing workout plans for these four common training goals:
- Get stronger
- Build muscle
- Improve your endurance
- Lose body fat
Some of these goals play well together. Others compete with each other, making it difficult to see big progress toward both during the same training program. (It's absolutely possible to get stronger and build muscle at the same time, but it's tough to both build serious strength and serious endurance concurrently.)
Don't stress if you want to improve multiple aspects of your fitness. There's an important training concept called periodization that says you can organize your training in such a way that you develop multiple physical qualities over the course of a year. This means that so long as you train consistently, you can ultimately achieve many different goals.
Start by picking one main training goal to target for a 3-to-4-month training block. Other qualities will be maintained while you focus on your main goal. You'll use multiple 4-to-6-week training programs that build upon each other over the course of a single block of training. Once you complete this block, you can choose a different goal for the next 3 to 4 months.
2. Determine Training Frequency and Split
Training frequency refers to how often you train each week. It's important to determine training frequency early in the program design process because it helps you organize your workouts. How often you train depends on how much free time you can devote to the gym as well as your prior training experience.
Decide how many workouts you're going to do each week and what you'll be targeting in each workout. Keep in mind that you will repeat each workout four to six times as you work through this training phase.
Why four to six times? This seems to be the sweet spot for most trainees to reap the full benefits of a workout program. "If you change things up too often, you won't get better or stronger, but if you stick to the same things the same way for too long you are no longer stressing the system as much and won't create further adaptation," says Wesley Showalter, CSCS.
Beginners need to lift weights twice per week at a bare minimum in order to see progress. More experienced trainees can maintain their results with just two lifting workouts, but three or more workouts may be necessary if they are actively trying to get stronger or build muscle.
Some intermediate and advanced trainees can lift weights as often as five to six times per week, so long as they are managing other life stressors and prioritizing recovery outside the gym. If you train with a high frequency, it's best not to train large muscle groups such as your legs, back and chest on consecutive days.
But more training is not necessarily better. You can't force progress in the gym, and trying to expedite your results can leave you feeling burnt out and frustrated.
"Be realistic with how often you are going to train," Showalter says. "I often see people who try to do too much too fast in the gym all the time. They beat themselves up for not hitting expectations, then quit." It's much better to set the bar a little bit lower and consistently hit all your planned workouts than to set the bar too high and constantly fall short.
Once you've decided how many days you want to lift weights each week, it's time to pick a training split. Training splits dictate which movements and/or muscles you plan to train during each individual workout.
Here are a few possible training splits you could select depending on how many days per week you plan to train.
How to Set Up Training Splits
Twice Per Week
Three Times Per Week
Four Times Per Week
Five Times Per Week
Body part split
Upper-body push, upper-body pull and lower body
Two upper-body workouts and two lower-body workouts
Two upper-body workouts, two lower-body workouts and one full-body workout
Upper body, lower body and full body
Upper-body push, upper-body pull, lower body and accessory day (eg. arm, shoulder, glute and calf isolation exercises)
Body part split (eg. chest/triceps, back/biceps, legs, core/shoulders)
Beginners and people who train less frequently should stick with full-body workouts to make the most of their workouts. I don't recommend using a body part split unless you are an experienced trainee whose main goal is building muscle.
3. Pick Your Set and Rep Ranges
Picking sets and reps is the most important step in designing a training program. That's because sets and reps dictate your volume and intensity, which are the two variables that ultimately have the most impact on your results at the gym.
Volume refers to the total amount of work you're performing. You need more volume if you want to build muscle or improve your endurance. Intensity refers to how heavy you are training. You need more intensity if you want to get stronger.
Volume and intensity are inversely related. This means that when you are training with more volume (ie. more sets and reps), you won't be able to use as much load and vice versa. It's important to keep this in mind when selecting sets and reps so you design a program that is in line with your goals.
Aim to perform at least 10 sets per muscle or movement pattern (eg. squat, hip hinge, upper body push, upper body pull) each week. Keep in mind that this will be divided up across multiple workouts and there will be some muscle overlap with different exercises.
For example, you don't need to do 10 sets of tricep isolation exercises if you also did several sets of bench press or overhead press. Depending on how many days you train per week, you will likely do 3 to 5 sets per exercise per workout.
Building serious strength requires you to lift heavy loads, so you'll need to do sets with fewer reps. "Keep the reps low (1 to 6) and the intensity (weight/load) high with long rest periods between heavy sets when training for strength," Showalter says.
Most of your strength training should occur in the 3 to 6 rep range. Every once in a while you can perform heavy sets of 1 or 2 reps, but don't do this every single week as it can be hard on your body.
Building muscle is different than building strength. You don't need to go quite as heavy so you can perform sets in a variety of rep ranges and still see results. Many coaches suggest performing primarily sets in the 6 to 12 rep range for hypertrophy. Just know that you can actually perform sets with many different rep ranges and still build muscle so long as you perform at least 10 sets per muscle group each week.
If your goal is to improve muscular endurance, you need to perform some longer sets. Showalter suggests performing lots of sets in the 12 to 15 rep range. Stick with 2 to 4 sets per exercise when you're using high reps.
Occasionally, you can push yourself with sets as high as 25 to 30 continuous reps. I don't recommend going any higher because the loads you'll need to use will be too light to elicit changes in your body.
How Reps and Sets Should You Do?
12 or more
67 percent or less
6 to 12
67 to 85 percent
6 reps or less
85 percent or more
1 to 2 reps (single-repetition event)3 to 5 reps (multiple-repetition event)
80 to 90 percent 75 to 85 percent
What About Fat Loss?
Despite what you might have heard, there is actually no specific training plan for fat loss. "Ultimately a big part of fat loss comes down to your nutrition," Showalter says. He says factors outside the gym such as creating a caloric deficit, increasing your step count, getting enough sleep and managing stress play the deciding role in whether or not you lose body fat.
I suggest building a training program around either strength or hypertrophy if your main goal is fat loss. These approaches help you hold onto muscle as you lose body fat, keeping your metabolism healthy and giving you the lean, athletic look that many people desire when they diet.
If you only have a little bit of time to exercise in service of your fat loss goal, prioritize lifting weights and try to increase your daily step count outside the gym. If you have more time, you can also add in one to two sessions of higher-intensity intervals and/or moderate-intensity, steady-state cardio.
Some extra cardio can help manage stress levels and boost your calorie burn. But it's important not to overdo it, as too much cardio causes many people to experience big increases in appetite, which make it harder to stick with a diet.
4. Make an Equipment Inventory
Before you insert specific exercises into your program, you need to know what tools you're working with. Access to equipment will vary widely depending on if you're training at home, at a big box commercial gym or at a small boutique gym with unconventional equipment.
Showalter suggests making a list of what equipment you have access to and where it's located. He also recommends making a note of the busiest times at your gym. Most gyms tend to be more crowded before and after work, and you may have more competition for different pieces of equipment during those times. If you're forced to train at busy times, you'll need to know what alternatives you can use when necessary.
Folks who train at home have less competition for equipment but might be limited in other ways. For example, you won't be able to go as heavy if you don't have a lot of weights at home. You'll need to drive intensity in other ways, such as doing harder exercises or changing your lifting tempo. Wherever you're training, it's important to get to know your equipment and how to use it effectively.
5. Select Exercises
Once you've decided on a goal, picked a training split, established your sets and reps and made an inventory of your equipment, it's finally time to plug in exercises. Many people make the mistake of starting here when creating programs, but it's much more efficient to get the other variables squared away first.
Picking exercises can be daunting, as there are seemingly endless options and many criteria to consider. Try not to get overwhelmed, and take solace in the fact that this isn't actually the most important part of the program design process. You can see results using many different exercises so long as you use the right amount of load and volume.
There are six important criteria you can use to help you select exercises.
- Train all the major movement patterns each week.
- Prioritize compound exercises over isolation exercises.
- Pick exercises that feel good on your joints and allow you to use a full range of motion.
- Pick exercises that match your skill levels.
- Pick exercises that align with your goals.
- Don't put too many exercises in one workout.
6. Address Any Mobility Challenges
Many people come to the weight room with aches and pains. While you don't need to let minor issues get in the way of exercise, it is important to make sure you're setting yourself up to move well both in and out of the gym.
"Mobility training is like flossing — people don't enjoy it, but you need to stay on top of it to reap the benefits," Showalter says.
Regularly performing dynamic stretches and drills can improve your mobility and connection with your body. "Adding in mobility to your warm-up as well as after sets of your exercises as active recovery is a great way to be efficient with your training," Showalter says. He suggests picking drills that target stiff or problematic areas; some common offenders include the shoulders, thoracic spine and hips.
You can sprinkle these exercises throughout your workouts to save time and make sure you don't skip them altogether. For example, if you are performing a superset of squats and chin-ups, you could add a third exercise to work on your hip or shoulder mobility.
7. Consider Cardio
Writing cardio or conditioning programs can be even more complex than writing strength-training programs, and is beyond the scope of this article. The goods news is that most people who just want to look and feel better don't need the same level of conditioning technicality as a professional athlete preparing for a race, game or fight.
Here are a few simple ways to build cardio into your workout program:
- Add additional cardio days. You can perform a cardio workout on a day when you're not lifting weights if you have extra time for the gym.
- Replace one or two lifting days with cardio days. If you are training three days or more, you could replace lifting days with cardio days. Make sure you're still lifting at least twice per week.
- Add high-intensity conditioning to the end of a lifting workout. Finishers are short bursts of intense cardio that you perform at the end of a workout. This is a great strategy to maintain or build your cardio fitness without adding tons of extra training time.
- Perform more cardio outside the gym. Look for ways to make your daily life more active or take up active hobbies. Could you walk, ruck or bike your commute instead of driving or taking the train? Can you play pickup sports with your friends or join a martial arts class? There are nearly endless possible opportunities to get moving.
8. Build In Progression Over 4 to 6 Weeks
The principle of progressive overload states that you need to take on greater challenges over time if you want to continue seeing progress at the gym.
A big reason why using a structured program is so much more effective than doing random workouts is that it gives you a framework from which to progress. You don't want to change your entire training program each week, but you do want to manipulate certain variables to increase the difficulty and push yourself.
"Over the course of the training phase you could do things such as lower the reps and increase the weight or vice versa, aim to shorten rest periods or aim to get more reps on an exercise with the same weight," Showlater says. "Stick with the same exercise but aim to add more stress on the system by doing it slightly faster, heavier, with more rep or with less rest."
Here is a list of possible ways to progress:
- Add more weight
- Add more reps
- Perform more sets
- Take less rest between sets
- Improve your form
- Perform an exercise more explosively
- Improve your mind-muscle connection (most relevant for hypertrophy)
If you're training with minimal equipment or limited weights, you may need to get a little more creative. Here are some options that might work if you've exhausted the list above:
- Slow an exercise down
- Add pauses to an exercise
- Perform 1.5 reps (Two examples: A 1.5 rep squat requires you to squat all the way down, stand up halfway, squat all the way down again before standing up all the way. A 1.5 rep seated row requires you to pull your elbows all the way back to your sides, extend your arms forward halfway, pull all the way back again before extending your arms fully.)
- Progress to a more challenging variation of the exercise
Regardless of how you choose to progress, it's a good idea to track what you're doing from week to week. Track your exercises, sets, reps, weight and any other relevant data electronically or using pen and paper. You'll need this information when it's time to write your next training program and it keeps you motivated to work hard from week to week.
Need More Info on Where to Start?
Once you've completed four to six weeks of training, it's time to write your next program. Look over your recent training data. Assess what went well and what was challenging. Consider whether you can still maintain the same training frequency over the next four to six weeks. Then, use the same process outlined in this article to create your next program. Soon, you'll have workout planning down to an art.