If your entire fitness routine takes place on a piece of cardio equipment — and you aren't seeing results — it may be time to add some weights to your workout.
A three-day weight-training plan is a great way to ease into a new routine, while still meeting the physical activity guidelines for cardio and strength training from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Holly Perkins, CSCS, personal trainer and author of Lift to Get Lean, and Meg Takacs, running coach and founder of Movement and Miles, crafted the perfect three-day weight-training routine for women.
Day 1: HIIT Treadmill Run + Upper-Body Workout
Programmed by Takacs, the high-intensity interval training (HIIT) portion of this workout will prime your body for the strength training to follow.
"HIIT runs are great for building speed and endurance, plus they make the time go by faster," she says. "Work on the prescribed effort with each interval, and try to land with a midfoot strike — not heel to toe — under your hips."
As for Perkins' strength-training exercises, she prioritizes hitting all the major upper-body muscles.
"I like focusing on opposing muscle groups for pushing and pulling in the same workout when I need to have only one upper-body strength day per week," Perkins says.
Perform each move for 10 to 12 repetitions, three to four rounds total.
20-Minute Treadmill Run
- Minutes 0-4: Jog at a light pace for 3 minutes, followed by walking for 1 minute.
- Minutes 4-13: Jog for one minute at 30 percent effort, followed by a 2-minute run at 50 percent effort. Repeat this step three times.
- Minutes 13-14: Walk at a steady pace for 1 minute.
- Minutes: 14-20: Walk for 1 minute and sprint for 1 minute at 90 percent effort. Repeat this three times.
1. Lat Pulldown
"This exercise is great for improving your pulling strength, which is important for upper-body health," Perkins says. "Not to mention, it makes your back look awesome."
- Adjust the thigh supports so they press gently on top of your legs when seated. Attach the handle you want to use to the pulley hook at the top of the machine.
- Grab onto the bar and sit down with your feet flat on the floor. Your arms should be fully extended overhead and you should feel a stretch in your upper and middle back.
- Initiate the movement by pulling your shoulder blades down away from your ears. Drive your elbows down toward your ribs in a controlled manner. Lean back slightly (keep a neutral spine) without excessively arching your back.
- Keep pulling until the bar touches your chest, or until your elbows are touching your sides.
- Finish the movement by raising your arms back overhead in a controlled manner until they are fully extended and you feel a stretch in your upper and middle back.
2. Dumbbell Chest Fly
Perkins says this move will sculpt your arms and improve your upper-body pressing strength.
- Lie on the floor (or on an exercise bench) on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand directly over your chest with your palms facing each other and the dumbbells lightly touching.
- Engage your abs to keep your lower back on the floor. This is the starting position.
- With your elbows slightly bent, lower your weights down and out to the sides of your chest. Your arms will form a wide U shape.
- Contract your chest muscles to bring the dumbbells to starting position over your chest.
3. Dumbbell Lateral Raise
- Start standing with a dumbbell in each hand, holding the weights at your sides. Keep your back flat, knees slightly bent.
- Keeping your body stable, core braced, raise the weights up at your sides until they reach shoulder height.
- Lower the weights slowly to the starting position.
Day 2: 10-Minute Incline Walk + Lower-Body Workout
Day two begins with an incline walk, followed by a lower-body strength workout. Lower-body workouts create the foundation that moves you around all day, powering your activities and sports, Perkins says.
Perform each move for 10 to 12 repetitions, three to four rounds total.
10-Minute Incline Walk
- Minutes 0-2: Increase incline to 4.0
- Minutes 2-4: Increase incline to 6.0
- Minutes 4-6: Increase incline to 8.0
- Minutes 6-8: Increase incline to 10.0
- Minutes 8-10: Increase incline to 12.0
"I love doing an incline walk before lower-body strength work," Takacs says. "It helps you to warm up the muscles in your legs and get your heart rate up."
1. Goblet Squat
Perkins prefers this squat variation to the traditional barbell back squat. "It's a much more natural movement pattern for women since we have wide, more turned open hips," she says.
- Hold a dumbbell or kettlebell against your chest with both hands. If using a dumbbell, place your palms under the weight at one end rather than holding the handle. If using a kettlebell, grip the handles near the base.
- Stand with feet hip-to-shoulder-width apart. Experiment to find the stance that’s most comfortable for you.
- Keeping your chest up and core engaged, sit the hips back and bend your knees to lower into a squat. Your knees should track over the toes.
- Aim to squat until your thighs are parallel or nearly parallel to the floor.
- Keeping the weight in the heels, straighten the knees and drive through the hips to return to the starting position.
2. Pulse Lunge
- Stand tall with feet hip-width apart, a dumbbell in each hand.
- Step back several feet with your right leg, rooting your left heel to the ground.
- Bend your left knee to 90 degrees. At the same time, lower your right knee to hover just above the ground, bending to 90 degrees.
- Press through your left heel and straighten your knees halfway.
- Then return to the bottom of the lunge. That's one rep.
- After you finish all your reps on this leg, switch sides.
3. Dumbbell Deadlift
Perkins says to be mindful of your back: It should be slightly arched, not flat.
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand in front of your thighs, palms facing your body.
- Push your hips back behind you and soften your knees to lower the weights toward the middle of your shins.
- Check your posture: Your spine should be straight and long with your shoulders pinned back and down. The dip in your lower body should be very minimal. Brace your core to maintain this position.
- With your weight centered between your heels and balls of your feet, drive your feet into the floor to stand up as tall as possible. Imagine you are trying to push the floor away.
- Reverse the motion to lower the weights with control and repeat.
Day 3: Total-Body Workout + Cardio
High-intensity interval training is a great way to mix strength and cardio all at once. "This day is great for improving your overall fitness," Perkins says.
Repeat each move as many times as possible for 40 seconds, followed by rest for 20 to 30 seconds. Repeat the moves for two or three rounds.
1. Air Squat
- Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart and brace your core. Focus on keeping your feet rooted into the ground and your core tight the entire time.
- Hold your hands at your chest and slowly bend your knees as you push your hips back to lower toward the floor. Focus on lowering your body as if you were going to sit on a chair.
- Lower down as far as comfortable, or until your thighs are parallel with the floor.
- Pause for a moment at the bottom of your squat.
- On an exhale, reverse the motion by pressing through your heels to return to standing.
2. Forearm Plank
- Lie face down with your forearms on the floor and your elbows directly beneath your shoulders. Keep your feet flexed with the bottoms of your toes on the floor.
- Keep your forearms parallel to each other and don't clasp your hands in front of you. Doing so puts your shoulders in a potentially vulnerable position.
- Press into your forearms and rise up on your toes so that only your forearms and toes touch the floor. Your body should hover a few inches off the floor in a straight line from shoulders to feet.
- Draw your navel toward your spine and tighten your glutes.
- Look at the floor to keep your head in a neutral alignment, and breathe normally.
3. Side Lateral Jump
- Begin standing with a slight bend in the knees.
- Swing your arms back behind you and using the momentum from the swing, jump several feet to one side, keeping your legs together.
- Quickly rebound and repeat this motion jumping back. Jump back and forth with good form as quickly as possible.
4. Glute Bridge
- Lie on your back with your arms resting by your sides, knees bent and feet flat on the ground hip-width apart. Your feet should be close enough to your hips that if you reach one hand at a time toward each heel, you can just touch it with your fingertips.
- Relax your arms alongside your body. Think of your shoulders being "glued" to the floor to help keep your spine neutral.
- Squeeze your glutes and core, and press your heels into the ground to drive your hips up toward the ceiling until you form a diagonal line from knees to hips to chest. Resist the urge to arch your lower back as you raise your hips. Focus on keeping your spine in a neutral position throughout.
- Hold this position for a few seconds with your glutes engaged.
- Slowly lower your hips back down to the ground and reset in the starting position for a second before lifting back up.
Upper- and Lower-Body Split
When you want to focus on each muscle group but still want to work both your upper and lower body in one strength-training session, choose an upper- and lower-body split.
In this type of training, you'd work the main muscles in your upper body, then the main muscle groups in your lower body. Example: Perform a few sets of shoulder presses, biceps curls and triceps extensions for your upper body, then follow with squats and lunges for your lower body.
Alternate exercises so you aren't doing the same exercises three times a week.
Targeting Specific Muscle Groups
Another way to divide your strength training into three separate training days is to have each training day target different muscle groups. For example, one day would be shoulders and biceps, the second would be legs and back and the third chest and triceps.
Dividing your strength-training routine like this allows you to target each section of your body more specifically. You can perform more exercises in each session on the desired muscle, so you really build it up.
Sets and Repetitions
The number of sets and repetitions depends on where you are at in your training. If you're new to strength training, start slow and work your way up. Begin with 12 to 15 repetitions of each exercise for two to three sets. Choose a weight that allows you to complete the exercise with the proper form.
Once you become more familiar with strength training and the exercise, increase the amount of weight — that's how you get stronger.
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