How to Make Your Own Workout Program
Understand the key components of a program and apply it to your goals.
How to Make Your Own Workout Program
Most people start on a very similar path in their fitness career. Some start in a strength and conditioning class due to playing a sport, others have a friend who finally talks them into going to the gym and helps them out, and some people find a random program to follow from the internet. The main thing they have in common is that, at some point, you will have to figure out what you need to do without anyone else’s help. It gets tricky if this is your first time doing that. Don’t worry. I am here to help you today.
Unless you are someone who will have a trainer forever, and if so, that’s perfectly fine if you can afford it, you will need to learn how to work out for your goals. To understand what that means, you must know the difference between working out and training.
Working out is showing up to the gym and doing what you like, what you see on Instagram, and whatever you feel like doing that day. There is undoubtedly more benefit than harm from doing it this way, and it’s always better than not working out, but if you want to reach a specific goal, this is essentially plowing the field but not planting the right stuff in it to make it grow.
On the other hand, training is showing up to the gym and following a program that makes sure you do what needs to be done, tells you how it needs to be done, and, when executed, gets you the results you are looking for. Let’s get this out of the way first. There is no perfect system. It simply doesn’t exist.
Once you understand the process of designing a workout, progressing it, and adjusting over time you’ll be like a super fitness computer constantly evolving, learning, and improving; and, that is training.
How do you make sure you are training and not just aimlessly working out doing random stuff? Principles!
These principles can apply to everyone, whether you are a pro athlete or a regular Joe who just got off the couch to lose a few pounds to play with his kids. So what are the principles?
Pick and stick to your goal
This is what it’s all about. What is your why? What are you chasing? No matter when you start your fitness journey, realizing this is a lifelong pursuit won't take long. So you need to make sure you have short-term and long-term goals.
Long-term goals can be looked at as a fitness bucket list. You could have a goal of running a marathon, doing 20 pull-ups, competing in a bodybuilding show, and the list goes on and on. Some common starting goals are benching your bodyweight, squatting 1.5 times your bodyweight, or deadlifting twice your bodyweight. This helps put things in perspective and lets you figure out your short-term goals.
Usually, people start their short-term goals by building muscle, getting stronger, losing fat, becoming more explosive for a sport, or just getting back in shape. These are relatively broad things, so narrowing them down is essential. We can agree that any goal will include an element of getting stronger since that’s the entire point of strength training.
The first thing you need to do is make this more specific and realistic. Let's say you want to lose some fat. For a quick example, you could change this to wanting to lose 10 pounds in the next 12 weeks. That’s more realistic and attainable than saying I want to drop 50 pounds in a month. It also has a timeline on it to hold you accountable.
The most important thing here is that you must stick to your goal. This means not getting frustrated after a few weeks and quitting or switching to a different goal. Doing this leads to hopping from program to program and never giving them an honest chance to work. With the tools you’ll learn today, you’ll know how to adjust if you aren’t progressing to get back on track and achieve that goal.
Now that you have picked your goal, you are ready for the following principle.
Picking your split
There are many split options, so figuring out what works best for you can be confusing. Your split will determine how many days a week you will work out and what you will do each day. Let’s go over a few common split options quickly so you can get the gist of it.
Bodybuilders are famous for their body part splits and focusing on hypertrophy. What this means is that they may train as many as 5 or 6 days a week focusing on 1-2 muscle groups each day. This might mean something like chest and triceps on Monday, back and hamstrings Tuesday, shoulders and biceps Wednesday, quads and abs Thursday, and glutes and back Friday. Bodybuilders use every tool and chisel they have to sculpt as much muscle as possible for that specific muscle group’s day.
Crossfitters on the other hand love Olympic lifts and conditioning workouts. Their programming is often split into full-body training 4-5 days a week. They usually begin with an Olympic lift or squat variation then finish with assistance exercises for that lift and conditioning to finish. Crossfit can be overwhelming for your body if you are inexperienced, but like anything, good programming and slow progression is the key to longevity.
Another common style for a 4-day training split is the upper-lower option. This means that you do all your upper body exercises on an upper day twice a week and do the same with your lower body. This can be a great option to simplify your programming and to let one half of your body rest while you are working the other half.
One other option that really simplifies things is the push/pull/legs split. This split is three consecutive days of training where you do all your upper body push exercises, all of your upper body pull exercises, and then everything for legs. This split is usually followed by 1-2 days rest and then simply repeat the program for 3 consecutive days again.
Powerlifters build their programs around maximizing their strength in the big three lifts (bench, squat, deadlift). Their training is going to center almost entirely around their lift of the day. For example, on bench press day they may do something like 8 sets of 3 reps working off of percentages of their max that they increase from week to week with a long term plan. Everything else in that workout would be assistance exercises to help strengthen the muscles associated with bench press.
Those are some very common split options to get you thinking about what you want to do but there are tons of other options out there.
To figure out what you will do, you first need to take an honest look at your lifestyle. Be honest about how much time and how many days you have during the week to train. For most people with some training experience, a three-day-a-week full-body strength routine is a fantastic starting point. Remember, these principles can be applied to any split, so this isn’t the only way. I know life gets in the way, but to build a consistent habit, pick the days and times you will lift and stick to them religiously the best you can.
Ok, you’ve decided on your split and know how many days you will work out. Remember that short-term goal you picked? It’s going to come into play for the following principle.
This is probably the most challenging part of creating your program. There are so many exercises to choose from, and social media is excellent at showing you the coolest-looking ones that are popular now.
So how do you sift through the swamp to find what works? When it doubt, keep it simple. Every exercise in your program should have a purpose that relates to the goal you started with. If you want to build muscle, you shouldn’t only be doing high-rep circuits. You shouldn’t mainly focus on quad extensions to get stronger at squats. And as every college guy has to figure out, you don’t want to bench press and curl every day of the week.
The exercises are like the foundation of your house. It’s what you build on, so it needs to be sturdy. The pillars of this house are movement patterns.
The pillars include:
- push exercise
- pull exercise
- squat pattern
- hinge pattern
- single leg movement
- some form of core training
Training these movements will ensure you hit all the necessary muscles to reach your goal. These movements are compound exercises that work for multiple muscle groups at once. This gives you more bang for your buck than doing tons of isolation exercises.
Let’s break them down:
Push exercises include vertical and horizontal push movements. One goes straight up, and one goes in front of your body. For a vertical push exercise, this might mean a seated dumbbell shoulder press for a beginner and a standing barbell shoulder press for someone more advanced. A beginner may use a push-up for a horizontal press, and advanced people will likely use everyone's favorite exercise, the bench press.
Pulling follows the same concept with a vertical pull and horizontal pull exercise. A vertical pull may include a pull-up or pull-down; a horizontal pull could be a single-arm dumbbell row or bent-over barbell row.
The Squat pattern is pretty straightforward. You need to find a variation that works for you. A beginner may start with a bodyweight squat or a goblet squat to a bench, whereas an advanced lifter may use a zercher squat.
The Hinge pattern trains your posterior chain and might include a movement like a Romanian deadlift with dumbbells or a barbell single-leg deadlift for someone more advanced.
A Single leg exercise focuses on unilateral training to help with stability, athleticism, and fixing imbalances. This could include a bodyweight walking lunge, or a barbell split squat if you are more advanced.
Carries are simple but effective. This will give you tons of core strength, but truthfully, they work almost every muscle in your body. In short, you will carry something heavy for a pre-determined distance.
The Core variations have more freedom, including rotational movements, isometric holds, and weighted ab exercises to help grow the muscle.
Ok, I know that seemed like a lot, but if you just picked one exercise from each of those movements and did it three times a week with a slightly different variation each day, you’d have a great starting point for your program.
Let’s talk about how to put it together.
Sequence and ratio
After a short warmup to get some blood flowing, it can be overwhelming to decide what you want to do first. You want to focus on your compound exercises and strength movements first while you have the most energy. Doing a ton of bicep curls and shoulder work and then trying to do a heavy bench press will make you stalled and frustrated that you aren’t getting stronger. Hit the big lifts first.
Look back to your goals again. Whatever you are trying to chase must be near the top of your workout. Get the stuff you need to get done first, and then if you have some time and energy, you can throw in some vanity exercises to help fill out those sleeves. To help keep your body balanced, you will want to make sure you are doing twice as many pull exercises as you are doing push exercises. For the lower body, it's slightly different as the muscles on the front and back should be trained with a 1 to 1 ratio. You may be able to see the mirror muscles in the front more, but the muscles on the backside should get more attention.
Remember, this can all be adjusted if you have some serious lagging areas that need extra attention. Now that you’ve got your order let’s talk about how many of each to do.
Sets, reps, and rest
Once again, you must look back to step one and remember your goal. This will help determine how many reps you do and how long you rest between sets.
Sets are pretty simple. You will be between 15-25 working sets in one workout. This will depend on your training experience and fitness level. If you are newer, split your 15 sets between the exercises I discussed in the pillars and give an extra set or two to the exercise that best fits your goal.
Reps are a little more complicated, I’ve got your back. Here are the general guidelines for choosing how many reps to do.
- Power and maximal strength 1-3
- Functional strength 4-6
- Hypertrophy and general strength 7-10
- Muscular endurance 11+
If your goal is building your endurance, you shouldn’t focus every exercise on power and maximal strength. Remember your goal!
The critical thing about reps is they are a guideline. You can use percentages of a one rep max or the simple trial and error method. If the set calls for 10 reps, pick a weight you think will be challenging for 10. If you only got 5, it’s probably too heavy. If you felt you could do 15, it's probably too light.
Regarding resting between sets, you should aim for 2-3 minutes for big strength exercises like a bench press, deadlift, or squat. For everything else, you can shoot for 1-2 minutes.
On to the next principle.
This is quite possibly the most important principle of the entire system. This is what separates getting results from just getting frustrated. You need to be challenging yourself to get better from week to week. So what does that mean?
Progressing can mean adding weight weekly, adding reps, decreasing rest time, or getting through more sets. It’s important to note that reps are not graded on a pass-or-fail basis. If you were supposed to get 10 reps on your pull downs for week 1 and you only got 8 on your last set, next week, even if you get 9 on that last set, you have improved. It’s also important to note that you won’t be able to add 5 pounds a week forever. If you could, everyone would be squatting 1000 pounds, which isn’t how it works. Even something like feeling a better mind-muscle connection or improving your lift technique is a way you can progress each week if the weight isn’t going up. A good rule of thumb is to reassess every 4 weeks.
If there are lifts you have made zero progress in, chances are it may not be the lift for you right now, whether it’s too advanced or maybe just doesn’t work well with your body type and current fitness level.
Let’s talk about the final principle that will help you progress week after week.
This seems too easy to be helpful, but it’s the glue that holds everything else I have discussed today in place. Whether you keep a notebook or use the notes app on your phone, you need to track everything you are doing.
This helps you know what you need to do for your workout that day and lets you see exactly how you performed that day or week. It also makes sure you are progressing and helps you see which areas you may need to adjust if you aren’t. You can’t reassess in 4 weeks if you didn’t write anything down and have no data to go off of.
Putting it all together
I just want to reiterate that there isn’t a one size fits all program out there. But if you follow these principles, guidelines, and pillars of fitness, you can formulate a plan, execute it, and adjust the machine to ensure it’s running smoothly and getting you to where you want to go.
You should now understand the importance of having a goal and how the compass guides your programming.
Once you have decided how many days you will train, you should understand how to pick your exercises and order your training split.
Based on your goal, you now know how many sets and reps to do and how long to wait between sets (don’t be the person staring at their phone forever).
Most importantly, you have the tools to get stronger and improve and can check your notes to analyze them. These principles can be applied no matter where your programming and fitness journey takes you. If you accomplish your goal, you get to pick a new one and start again. If you take time off and must regress, you can do that too. This stuff works forever. It literally is Strength for Life!
If you have questions, please leave a comment below, or email us: contactus at ironmaster dot com
About the Author
Travis Halena is a personal trainer with 14 years of experience that includes training professional athletes, teaching group fitness classes, designing programming and choreography for gyms, and one-on-one sessions with every type of client you can imagine. He is constantly learning and evolving to see what works and what doesn’t so he can help clients sift through the never-ending fitness content that’s available today. Travis aims to help everyone move pain-free, feel like an athlete, and look good doing it while fighting father time. After playing baseball and basketball at a high level, he now trains in Jiu-Jitsu when he isn’t with his family and dogs.
Ironmaster has been specializing in producing the best home gym equipment since 1978. Check out Ironmaster.com to learn more about our equipment, like our legendary Super Bench Adjustable Weight Bench, the unrivaled Quick-Lock Adjustable Dumbbells, the customer favorite IM2000 Self Spotting Machine (Smith Machine style half rack!), and of course learn how to build a custom package to take advantage of our everyday discount program.