Nothing affects your plan for working out at the gym as much as your choice of fitness goals. The gym routine for someone trying to lose weight would look very different from that of a bodybuilder or someone training for a first 5k. If you're new to exercise, begin by meeting expert guidelines for fitness and health, then adjust the gym schedule to suit your individual goals.
If you're just starting out, hit the gym enough to get at least 150 minutes of moderate cardio or 75 minutes of vigorous cardio every week, along with at least two weight-training sessions with a full day of rest in between.
Your First Fitness Goal
Your first gym routine should deliver enough exercise to improve your health. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, that means at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity cardiovascular exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity cardio every week, plus at least two sessions of resistance training, with at least one full day of rest in between.
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It's up to you how to distribute those workouts through the week, so you can tweak the schedule to suit your lifestyle. The following two examples of basic gym routines meet these requirements. If you're just starting out, you might need to start with a little less and then gradually increase the duration of your exercise until you meet these goals.
Gym Routine #1
- Monday: 50 minutes on the treadmill
- Tuesday: full-body resistance training
- Wednesday: 50 minutes on the treadmill
- Thursday: full-body resistance training
- Friday: Zumba class (about 50 minutes of cardio, plus warmup time)
- Saturday and Sunday: rest
Gym Routine #2
- Monday: 30 minutes of stair climber + full-body resistance training
- Tuesday: 30 minutes of exercise bike
- Wednesday: 30 minutes of swimming
- Thursday: 30 minutes of elliptical trainer + full-body resistance training
- Friday: rest
- Saturday: 30 minutes of treadmill
- Sunday: rest
You'll enjoy even more health benefits if you double your cardio time to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio or 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity cardio per week.
Should I Exercise Every Day?
Did you notice that each example gym routine includes two rest days? Not only do you not need to exercise every day, but also you really shouldn't, especially when you're first starting out.
First of all, your body actually gets stronger during the rest periods between your workouts. Think of it as giving your body time to build a new, improved you.
The rest periods also help you avoid overtraining, which can come with unpleasant symptoms, including sleep disturbances, moodiness, loss of appetite and chronic injuries.
You Can Choose Your Cardio
You may also have noticed that you can do a variety of activities to meet your quota for cardiovascular workouts. Of course, that includes all the cardio machines you may find in a gym, such as treadmills, elliptical trainers, stepmills or other stair-climbing machines, exercise bikes and more.
But working out at the gym doesn't necessarily mean spending all your time on a treadmill or exercise bike. Anything that gets large muscle groups moving rhythmically for an extended period is considered "cardio." Other gym-friendly options include swimming or aqua aerobics, Zumba and other dance fitness classes, basketball or soccer and so on. If the weather is good, you can take your cardio outside to bike, run, rollerblade or walk.
Your Strength-Training Plan
When you set up your strength-training routine, start by targeting major muscle groups. A good full-body workout should engage your chest, back, shoulders and arms plus your abs and the big muscles of your lower body: your glutes, hamstrings, quads and calves.
You can accomplish any of those things on gym weight training machines or with free weights, but keep in mind that maintaining proper form is more important than lifting huge amounts of weight. If you use proper form, you'll actually do more work — and so, make more gains — than somebody who's flinging heavier weights around but doing it improperly. If you want some extra guidance, it's well worth investing in a session or two with a personal trainer.
With that in mind, the best way to work out is by starting with an amount of weight you know you can manage, then gradually increasing the load until you find an amount you can lift with good form for eight to 12 repetitions. Do one to three sets and, as your body adapts, increase the weight over time so that getting to 12 reps with good form is still a challenge.
Not every muscle group packs the same amount of power, so you'll find yourself lifting different amounts of weight for different exercises. As a general rule, the bigger the muscle group you're working, the more weight it can lift.
You Have More Resistance Options
Just as your gym cardio routine doesn't have to be confined to cardio machines, you have other options for strength training too. Consider looking into group strength-training classes, which may include everything from weight circuits to Olympic powerlifting.
You can also strength train with calisthenics exercises, such as push-ups, pull-ups and lunges. That's a great way to keep fit even if you can't make it to the gym. Another option is to join a boot camp-style class, which usually mixes calisthenics with a variety of other challenging cardio and strength exercises like medicine ball slams and tire flips.
Whatever path you take toward strength training, remember that your body needs at least one full day of rest between workouts.
Plan for Fitness That Lasts
However you choose to divide up your cardio and strength-training sessions at the gym, aim for a routine that's sustainable over the long term. Any exercise is good for you, but to really enjoy its long-term benefits, physical activity needs to be a long-term part of your routine.
Your choice of fitness facility can play into that sustainability. For example, if you feel best when you get your exercise out of the way early in the morning, look for a gym that has early morning hours. You're also more likely to stick with it if you choose activities you enjoy.
If you love kickboxing, join a gym that offers kickboxing classes. If you love swimming but the only gym with a pool is far away, it might be worth joining. Try making your swim sessions longer and do your strength training on the same day so you don't have to commute as often.
Fitness on a Budget
Are you on a budget? Don't worry, you're not alone. You can sometimes get very inexpensive access to exercise equipment by joining a local YMCA, recreation center, or even checking for after-hours access at university weight rooms and swimming pools.
But even if you don't have access to any of those facilities, you can still do bodyweight exercises or create your own home gym for strength training. Get your cardio in by walking, running, cycling and playing Frisbee as well as other activities that don't require special gym equipment.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020
- American Council on Exercise: 9 Signs of Overtraining
- Prescription to Get Active: Resistance Training for Health and Fitness
- MedlinePlus: Exercising on a Budget
- Mayo Clinic: Exercise Intensity: How to Measure It