Finding the best gym workout schedule ultimately comes down to choosing your fitness goals. Are you working out for health, trying to lose weight or building up your strength? Once you've identified a goal, you can tailor your workout schedule to match.
A Plan for Health
Even if you're at the perfect weight, your body needs a certain amount of physical activity to stay healthy. And the health benefits from taking the time to move are many: Improved mood, more energy, stronger bones and muscles, reduced risk of chronic diseases (including some cancers), lower blood pressure and better cognitive function — to name a few.
What kind of gym workout schedule does it take to unlock those benefits? First, you need to set a goal. The guidelines from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services are a good place to start: They say that to stay healthy, adults should get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity cardiovascular activity per week, or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity cardio. You should also strength-train all your major muscle groups at least twice a week.
1. Health-Oriented Gym Workout Schedule
OK — what does that look like in real-world terms? First, choose two nonconsecutive days for your full-body strength-training workouts. You shouldn't strength-train any of your major muscle groups on back-to-back days, because they actually get stronger during the rest and rebuilding period between your workouts, not during the workouts themselves. Let's say you pick Tuesday and Friday for strength training.
Next, decide how you're going to parcel out your cardiovascular activity through the week. It's up to you how you want to divide it up and what sort of activity you want to do, so go for what suits your schedule and personal preferences the best. You could spend half an hour pedaling at a moderate pace on the elliptical five days a week or do three hour-long group fitness classes that leave you sweating and out of breath, but not to the point where you can't talk at all. Those both count as your 150 minutes (or more) of moderate-intensity activity.
Or, crank up the intensity and do two vigorous, 40-minute group cycling classes, or spend 15 minutes running sprint intervals on the treadmill, with active recovery in between. Either would count toward the alternate requirement of 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity.
How does all of that fit together into a week-long workout plan? Here are a couple of examples:
Healthy Workout Plan 1:
- Monday: 30 minutes elliptical
- Tuesday: 30 minutes elliptical, full-body strength training
- Wednesday: 30 minutes elliptical
- Thursday: 30 minutes elliptical
- Friday: 30 minutes elliptical, full-body strength training
- Saturday: Enjoy the weekend!
- Sunday: Enjoy the weekend!
Healthy Workout Plan 2:
- Monday: Focus on work
- Tuesday: Full-body strength training
- Wednesday: Focus on work — it's hump day
- Thursday: Full-body strength training
- Friday: 40-minute vigorous group cycling class
- Saturday: Have fun with your family
- Sunday: 40-minute vigorous group cycling class
Did You Notice?
As you can see, you don't have to be in the gym every day to meet the recommendations for a healthy lifestyle — and there's room to interpret the "best" workout schedule in terms of what works for you. That said, the DHHS does point out that if you can double the amount of suggested cardio, going up to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity activity or 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity per week, you can look forward to even more health benefits.
You also don't have to do the exact same workout every week. In fact, it's a good idea to vary your workouts every six to eight weeks. This reduces your risk of overuse injuries and also exposes your body to new stressors, which means it continues adapting to all those new challenges. In other words, switching up your workouts is a good way to steer around the dreaded fitness plateau.
New to working out? Starting with too much, too soon may feel impressive while you're at it, but can also leave you feeling sore and discouraged afterward. It's always a good idea to start any new workout program slowly, gradually ramping up the duration or intensity as your body adapts.
2. A Weight-Loss Workout Plan
If you've been leading a sedentary lifestyle and start following a health-oriented workout schedule like the one just described, that increased activity might be enough to help you lose weight. That's because, in order to lose weight, you need to burn more calories than you take in — also known as a calorie deficit.
But if you're not eating a reasonably healthy diet already, that physical activity might not be enough to establish a calorie deficit. So, yes, you could be leading a perfectly healthy lifestyle in terms of diet and exercise and still gain weight.
The solution? Use a combination of exercise and healthy eating choices — as did the vast majority of entrants in the National Weight Control Registry, a long-term survey of people who've lost weight and kept it off.
If you're not into counting calories, try doubling the DHHS base recommendation for aerobic physical activity — basically, 300 minutes (or more) of moderate-intensity physical activity each week, or 150 minutes (or more) of vigorous activity. Also, add healthy eating patterns to focus your diet on nutrient-rich fruits, vegetables, whole grains and high-quality proteins. Limit your intake of added sugars, added sodium and unhealthy saturated fats.
If you're honest and diligent in this approach, there's a good chance it will help you lose weight — and if not, you can tweak the system until it does.
If you'd rather know exactly where your calorie/burn balance lies, whip out your favorite calorie-tracking apps and get ready to diligently track the amount of food you're eating (and drinking), along with all your physical activity. Although these apps aren't perfect, most of them do a good job of revealing the patterns in your movement (or lack thereof).
In terms of workout schedule, your week looks very much like the healthy program just described — there's just a little more of it. For example:
Weight-Loss Workout Plan 1:
- Monday: 1-hour kickboxing class, because it's Monday
- Tuesday: Full-body strength training, 30 minutes on the treadmill
- Wednesday: 1 hour on the elliptical
- Thursday: Full-body strength training, 30 minutes on the exercise bike
- Friday: Go swimming with friends
- Saturday: Go for a long hike
- Sunday: Rest
Weight-Loss Workout Plan 2:
- Monday: 1-hour kickboxing class, because it's Monday again
- Tuesday: Full-body strength training, 30 minutes on the treadmill
- Wednesday: 1-hour kickboxing class, because Monday was only two days ago
- Thursday: Rest
- Friday: Full-body strength training and 1-hour kickboxing — it'll be Monday again soon
- Saturday: Go play Frisbee with your friends
- Sunday: Grab your Harry Potter glasses and participate in a pick-up Quidditch game
Scientists are still unraveling the complex science behind weight loss. If you're convinced that you're working out and eating appropriately and should be losing weight but aren't, talk to your doctor. Take a week-long food/drink and exercise diary with you so they can better help you puzzle out what might be causing your weight gain or weight retention. Possible causes include hormonal imbalances, medication side effects and illness.
Read more: 10 of the Most Common Weight Loss Mistakes
Did you notice that there's always at least one rest day in each workout plan? That's because incorporating rest days into your workouts is one of the best ways to avoid overtraining. The American Council on Exercise lays out a series of symptoms that might indicate you're overdoing it: They include disturbed sleep, nagging injuries, persistent fatigue, loss of appetite and a decrease in overall athletic performance.
3. Work Out Those Muscles
So, what if your primary goal is to build some serious muscle? If spending time in the weight room is your favorite part of going to the gym, it's time to explore the idea of weightlifting splits. Remember, you shouldn't train the same muscle group on two days in a row. So the idea of a split is to break up your workouts into different muscle groups, allowing you to work one set of muscles while the other is recovering.
It's easiest to illustrate with a couple of examples:
Weightlifting Workout 1:
- Monday: 20 minutes vigorous biking, then work chest, shoulders and triceps
- Tuesday: 20 minutes vigorous treadmill, then work back, biceps and core
- Wednesday: It's leg day! Work your quads, hamstrings, glutes and calves
- Thursday: 20 minutes vigorous biking, then work chest, shoulders and triceps
- Friday: 20 minutes vigorous treadmill, then work back, biceps and core
- Saturday: Sorry, it's leg day again
- Sunday: Rest
Did you notice how you get to lift weights almost every day — but because you're rotating through different muscle groups, no given group is working on two consecutive days?
Weightlifting Workout 2:
- Monday: 20 minutes vigorous rowing, then work your upper body muscles
- Tuesday: 20 minutes vigorous treadmill, then work your legs and core
- Wednesday: Rest
- Thursday: Zumba class, then work your upper body muscles
- Friday: 20 minutes vigorous rowing, then work your legs and core
- Saturday: Hit another Zumba class
- Sunday: Rest
Yes, it's OK to have more than one rest day if you meet your fitness goals — or if your body is sore, or otherwise telling you that you need a break. This example of a five-day workout schedule shows one way of having multiple rest days while still maintaining an impressive level of physical activity.
Tips for a Safe Workout
No matter what sort of workout schedule you put together, there are a few key principles you should always follow to get a safe, effective workout.
- Always take five to 10 minutes to warm up before a workout, then another five to 10 minutes to cool down afterward. This increases your performance and decreases your risk of injury.
- As already mentioned, start new activities slowly, then gradually ramp up the duration, frequency or difficulty of your workouts.
- Stick to a pain-free range of motion. If something hurts, stop and eliminate the cause if you can. If you're not sure what's causing the pain or discomfort, ask a fitness or medical professional for a consult.
- Keep control of your weights — there's nothing like flying weights to injure you or something else.
- Training for a specific athletic event? Choose exercises that mimic the sport, activity or movement you're training for. Or, better yet, see a trainer for a sport-specific exercise plan.
And finally, the best exercises are the ones you actually like well enough to do on a regular basis. Much like the fable of the tortoise and the hare, consistency is what ultimately wins the race to your health and fitness goals. So if there's a type of healthy physical activity you enjoy, go for it — even if it hasn't been officially labeled as "the best" by somebody else.
- Health.gov: "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020: Appendix 1. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans"
- National Weight Control Registry: "NWCR Facts"
- American Council on Exercise: "9 Signs of Overtraining to Look Out For"
- Health.gov: "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020: Chapter 1: Key Elements of Healthy Eating Patterns"
- Mayo Clinic: "Exercise: 7 Benefits of Regular Physical Activity"