If you're looking to get fit alongside like-minded people, the gym is your place. But memberships can be expensive, so each time you hit the weight room, you want to make sure you're making the most of your time — and money. While the specifics of a good gym workout plan may vary, two components are standard: cardio and strength training.
Your Gym Workout Strategy
Let's start with the basics. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, you need at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio or 75 minutes of vigorous cardio each week (or a combination of those two).
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That works out to about 30 minutes of moderate cardio if you hit the gym every weekday. If you're pressed for time or are of the "go hard or go home" mentality, you could also lump that into two grueling 40-minute sessions of intense cardio.
There's another significance of doing at least two gym sessions a week: That's how often the HHS says you should do full-body strength training. There's a catch, though: You shouldn't do strength-training workouts on back-to-back days, since your muscles get stronger in the recovery time between your workouts. Ideally, as Harvard Health Publishing recommends, give yourself at least 48 hours between strength workouts for any given muscle group.
These minimums recommended by the HHS are a great place to start, but you don't have to stop there. If you double those activity levels to 300 minutes of moderate intensity cardiovascular activity a week or 150 minutes of vigorous cardio, you'll get even greater health benefits.
Sample Gym Workout Plan for Men
As long as from you give your muscles adequate rest between strength-training sessions, you can spread your cardio time and weight training out during the week however you like.
The following workout plan represents just one way this might work out while still leaving your weekends free:
- Monday: 30 minutes of vigorous cardio (or 60 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio)
- Tuesday: full-body strength training
- Wednesday: 30 minutes of vigorous cardio (or 60 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio)
- Thursday: 30 minutes of vigorous cardio (or 60 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio)
- Friday: full-body strength training
- Saturday and Sunday: rest or active recovery
Try This Full-Body Gym Workout for Men
Which strength-training exercises should you do to develop your physique? There's a whole world of options, but the following exercises have been tested to be some of the most effective possible.
After a three- to five-minute warm-up of dynamic stretches and cardio drills, do three sets of 10 reps for each of the following exercises. Finish with a three- to five-minute cooldown of static stretches.
While this workout was designed with men in mind, there's no reason women can't also benefit from all of these exercises as well!
Move 1: Barbell Chest Press
A classic weight-lifting move, the barbell chest press is the most effective exercise for isolating your chest muscles, according to research sponsored and published by the American Council on Exercise (ACE).
- Lie face-up on a weight bench, eyes almost level with a racked barbell.
- Grasp the barbell in an overhand grip, hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Lift it off the rack and hold it over your chest.
- Bend your elbows, lowering the bar toward your chest.
- Stop at a comfortable angle or when your elbows break the plane of your body.
- Press the bar back up to complete the rep.
Move 2: Triangle Push-Ups
Time to hit the floor! Another study from ACE found that this variation on push-ups is the most effective exercise for your triceps.
- Assume the standard push-up position on the floor — high plank balanced on your hands and the balls of your feet, body straight from head to heels.
- Position your hands close together under your chest, fingers and thumbs touching to create a triangle (or diamond).
- Squeeze your core to stabilize your body as you bend your arms, lowering your chest down toward the floor.
- Press yourself back up to complete the rep.
Move 3: Bent-Over Barbell Row
For an exercise that targets your upper back, bent-over rows are one of the most effective options for working both your trapezius and your lats at the same time. Developing your lats, in particular, helps give your torso that V shape a lot of men are aiming for. The proof? Maybe you already guessed — another study from ACE.
- Hold a barbell in an overhand grip, hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Plant your feet hip-width apart or slightly wider and bend your knees slightly as you hinge forward from the hips, keeping your back flat. Aim to get your back as close to horizontal as possible without rounding it.
- Keep your chest up and out, but your torso stable (don't lift it), as you pull the barbell up toward your chest.
- Lower the barbell back to the starting place in a smooth, controlled motion.
Move 4: Concentration Curls
Going back to ACE, it identified concentration curls as the best exercise for your biceps.
- Sit on a weight bench with a dumbbell in your right hand.
- Hinge slightly forward from the hips, so you can tuck your right elbow against the inside of your right thigh. Use your left hand on your left thigh for support.
- Bend your right arm, curling the weight up toward your chest.
- Lower the weight to complete the rep.
- Repeat on the left side.
Resist the temptation to press in with your right leg; your right biceps should do all the work.
Move 5: SASL Romanian Deadlift
"SASL" stands for single-arm, single-leg — the variation of the Romanian deadlift that ACE found to be one of the best hamstring exercises.
- Stand with a slight bend in your knees, holding a dumbbell in your right hand.
- Keep your hips level — don't let one side sink or rise past the other — as you shift your weight to your left leg.
- Hinge slowly forward from the hips and lift your right leg off the floor, maintaining that slight bend in your knee. Keep your back flat and hips level as you continue hinging forward as your flexibility allows; the goal is to keep your back flat, chest up and out, as you lower the dumbbell down in front of your left leg.
- Reverse the motion, using your core muscles to stabilize your body as you hinge back upright and return your right leg to the floor.
- Make sure you repeat the same number of reps on the other side.
Customizing Your Gym Workout
If you find that this sort of workout plan fits well with your preferences and schedule, keep it up! All you need to do is gradually progress the intensity of your workouts (upping the reps, sets or weight) and introduce new exercises every six to eight weeks; both will help keep your body progressing in every aspect of fitness, instead of hitting the dreaded plateau.
However, if any element of this plan doesn't work for you, you can always substitute an equivalent type of exercise. Not a fan of the barbell bench press? Consider using the lever chest press machine instead or doing push-ups in a suspension trainer. Don't like any of the gym cardio machines? Go for a run before hitting the weight room or better yet, run to the gym (if your circumstances allow).
Want to build bigger, more noticeable muscles? Start lifting more like a bodybuilder. Or if you just can't bring yourself to work out inside on a pretty, sunny day, go ahead and take your workouts outdoors — running, biking, hiking, kayaking, canoeing, inline skating or cycling to get your cardio fix, and using your body weight and a few select pieces of equipment, like the monkey bars or pull-up bars in a playground, for strength training.
Ultimately, the best gym workouts for men don't have to actually happen inside the gym. The most important thing is that you keep moving and working toward your fitness goals, whatever they may be.
- American Council on Exercise: "ACE-Sponsored Research: What Is the Best Exercise for the Hamstrings?"
- Health.gov: "Physical Activity Guidelines for Americanas"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "7 Tips for a Safe and Successful Strength-Training Program"
- American Council on Exercise: "ACE-Sponsored Research: Top 3 Most Effective Chest Exercises"
- American Council on Exercise: "ACE-Sponsored Research: Best Triceps Exercises"
- American Council on Exercise: "ACE-Sponsored Research: What Is the Best Back Exercise?"
- American Council on Exercise: "ACE Study Reveals Best Biceps Exercises"