How To Build Your Own Workout Routine

What should I do for a workout?

I get this email at least once a day, and I’m sorry to say that I don’t have the perfect answer for everybody.  Considering that a program should be developed around a person’s biology, age, goals, diet, free time, etc, there’s a lot of factors I can’t get in ten minutes through email.

I can certainly offer up suggestions, but there’s one person that knows what’s best for you: YOU.  Developing a workout routine for yourself can be scary, but it’s really not too difficult and kind of fun once you understand the basics.

First of all, what are you doing now. Is it working?  Are you safe and is it making you healthier?  If so, keep doing it!  However, if you’re JUST getting started, you want to mix things up, or you’re ready to start lifting weights (after reading that weight training is the fat-burning prize fight victor), it’s good to understand what goes into a program so you can build one for yourself.

Let’s do this.

Determine Your Situation

How much time can you devote to exercise?

If you can do an hour a day, that’s awesome.  If you have a wife, three kids, and two jobs, then maybe you can only do thirty minutes every other day.  That’s fine too.  Whatever your time commitment is, developing the most efficient workout is crucial.  Why spend two hours in a gym when you can get just as much accomplished in 30 minutes?

Where will you work out? At a gym? Using some weights at home? Just body weight exercises?

What Exercises Should I Do?

Keep it simple, stupid.

Unless you’ve been lifting weights for years, I recommend doing a full body routine that you can do two or three times a week.  You want a routine that has at least one exercise for your quads (front of your legs), butt and hamstrings (back of your legs), your push muscles, your pull muscles, and your core.  Yes, this means you can develop a full body routine that uses only four or five exercises.  Hows THAT for efficient?

  • Quads – squats, lunges, one legged squats, box jumps.
  • Butt and Hamstrings – hip raises, deadlifts, straight leg deadlifts, good mornings, step ups.
  • Push (chest, shoulders, and triceps) - overhead press, bench press, incline dumbbell press, push ups, dips.
  • Pull (back, biceps, and forearms) – chin ups, pull ups, inverse body weight rows, dumbbell rows.
  • Core (abs and lower back) – planks, side planks, exercise ball crunches, mountain climbers, jumping knee tucks, hanging leg raises.

Pick one exercise from each category above for a workout, and you’ll work almost every single muscle in your body. These are just a few examples for what you can do, but you really don’t need to make things more complicated than this.

Add some variety – If you do the same routine, three days a week, for months and months both you and your muscles will get bored.  If you do bench presses on Monday, go with shoulder presses on Wednesday and dips on Friday.  Squats on Monday? Try lunges on Wednesday and box jumps on Friday.  Pick a different exercise each time and your muscles will stay excited (and so will you).

Lastly, your muscles don’t get built in the gym, they get built when you’re resting. Give your muscles 48-72 hours to recover between workouts.  A Monday-Wednesday-Friday workout works well to ensure enough time to recover.

How Many Sets Should I Do?

Not including a warm-up set or two, I recommend doing between 3-5 sets per exercise.

Keep your total workout number of sets for all exercises is in the 15-25 set range (5 or 6 exercises of four sets is a good start).  More than twenty five sets in a workout can either be overkill (doing more harm than good) or you’re not working yourself hard enough (boo inefficiency).

How Many Repetitions Should I Do?

If you’re looking to burn fat while building some muscle, keep your number of repetitions per set in the 8-15 range.  If you can do more than 15 without much of a challenge, it’s not difficult enough for you.  Add weight or change the exercise so that it’s tougher.

If you’re looking to build size and strength, you should vary your rep ranges depending on the workout.  Although I’m currently following a variation of Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength (2nd edition) routine (heavy weight at five reps per set),  I’ll be switching to this type of routine in the next few weeks:

  • Low reps (5-8) and heavy weight on Mondays.
  • High reps (12-15) and lower weight on Wednesdays.
  • Medium reps (8-12) and medium weight on Fridays.

If you can keep your muscles guessing by constantly forcing them to adapt to different routines, they’re more likely to get harder, better, faster, stronger (thanks Daft Punk!).

What’s the significance of the different number of repetitions?

  • Reps in the 1-5 range build super dense muscle and strength (called myofibrillar hypertrophy).
  • Reps in the 6-12 range build a somewhat equal amounts of muscular strength and muscular endurance.
  • Reps in the 12+ range build muscular endurance and size (this is called sarcoplasmic hypertrophy).

By doing rep ranges at each of these different increments, you’re building well-rounded, balanced muscles – full of endurance, explosive power, and strength.

You can even mix up your amount of weight and reps within a single exercise.  Here’s an example of what I’d do for a dumbbell chest press on a Friday:

  • 12 reps at 65 pound dumbbells, rest 90 seconds.
  • 10 reps at 70 pound dumbbells, rest 90 seconds.
  • 8 reps at 75 pound dumbbells, rest 90 seconds.
  • 6 reps at 80 pound dumbbells, done!

Always try to keep your muscles guessing, and you’re less likely to plateau (get stuck lifting the same amount of weight).

How Long Should I Wait Between Sets?

I purchased The Men’s Health Big Book of Exercises, which is a great book LOADED with exercises, tons of pictures, and routines.  They have a very basic formula for how long to wait between your sets based on how many reps you’re doing for the exercise:

  • 1-3 Reps: Rest for 3 to 5 minutes
  • 4-7 Reps: Rest for 2 to 3 minutes
  • 8-12 Reps: Rest for 1 to 2 minutes
  • 13 Reps+: Rest for 1 minute or less

Now, pair this time between sets with how many reps you are doing.  If you mix up rep ranges on a daily basis, you need to mix up your rest time between sets too.  This is how you build well-rounded muscles, and a well-balanced body.  w00t.

How Much Should I Lift?

This one is easy: lift enough so that you can get through the set, but not too much that you have NO fuel left in the tank at the end.  How do you determine how much that is?  Trial and error.  When just starting out, or if you’re doing a new exercise for the first time, always err on the side of caution.

Now, if you’re doing exercises with just your body weight, you need to find a way to make each exercise more difficult as you get in shape – once you get past 20 reps for a particular exercise and you’re not gassed, it’s time to mix things up.

  • Can you do 20 push ups no problem? It’s time to start mixing them up to be more challenging.  Pick a variation from the Art of Manliness Push Up Article and make yourself work for it!
  • 20 bodyweight squats too easy? Hold some weights high above your head as you do the next set.  Try one-squats.  Always be challenging yourself.

How Long Should I Exercise?

45 minutes to an hour.

If you’re doing 15-25 sets of total exercise, you should be able to get everything done within that 45 minute block.  Now, factor in a five or ten minute warm-up, and then stretching afterwards, and the workout can go a little bit longer.  If you can go for over an hour and you’re not completely worn out, you’re simply not pushing yourself hard enough.

Less time, more intensity, better results.

What if you don’t have 45 minutes? Maybe you want to build some cardio into your weight training.  That’s where these next two sections come in.

Alternating Sets

Let’s say you’re doing four sets of squats and you plan on doing four sets of dumbbell bench presses after that.  If you wait two minutes between each set, this will take you around twenty minutes or so (factoring in the time to get set and actually do the set).

Try this instead: Do a set of squats, wait one minute, then do a set of dumbbell presses, wait one minute, then do your next set of squats, and so on.

Because you’re exercising two completely different muscle groups, you can exercise one while the other is “resting.”  You’re now getting the same workout done in half the time.  Also, because you’re resting less, your body has to work harder so your heart is getting a workout too.  Jackpot.

Let’s see how this would play out in a sample workout:

  • Lunges alternating with incline dumbbell presses, four sets each, one minute between sets.
  • Wait a few minutes to catch your breath and get set for your next two exercises.
  • Straight leg deadlifts alternating with wide-grip pull ups, four sets each, one minute between sets.
  • 3 Sets of planks, stretch, and get the hell out of there!


This is the most effective way to burn fat when exercising.

This is also the most effective way to make you involuntarily swear at inanimate objects.

A circuit requires you to do one set for EVERY exercise, one after the other, without stopping.  After you’ve done one set of each exercise in succession, you then repeat the process two, or three, or four more times. I’ve written about two body weight circuits here on the site:

If you work out in a gym, here’s a previous article I wrote about weight circuit training. Circuits get very tricky when in a gym, so make sure you’re doing them when it’s not crowded.

Keep Track Of Everything

Keep a workout journal! You should be getting stronger, faster, or more fit with each day of exercise.  Maybe you can lift more weight, lift the same amount of weight more times than before, or you can finish the same routine faster than before.

Write everything down so that you can compare yourself against a previous workout.


Okay, so I realize that’s a ridiculous amount of info, but it’s all very important stuff.  Let’s break it down into easy chunks right here:

  • ALWAYS warm up – 5-10 minutes on a bike, rowing machine, jumping jacks, run up and down your stairs, etc.
  • Pick one exercise for each big muscle group – quads, butt and hamstrings, push, pull, and core.
  • Do 3-5 sets for each exercise.
  • Determine how many reps and how long you’ll wait between sets for each exercise.
  • Mix it up! Vary your reps, sets, and exercises.  Keep it interesting.
  • Increase your efficiency and work your heart by doing alternating sets or circuits.
  • Keep your workout to under and hour.
  • Stretch AFTER your workout.
  • Write everything down.

So how’d I do?  Good enough explanation?  Not enough detail?  Too Confusing? Way too long?

Let me know what you think in the comments.



photo: mdwombat

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  • fallind

    This might sound stupid, but on your rest days would it be ok to do a half hour or so of straight cardiovascular like on the treadmill???

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  • bluehenjen

    Yes! Men and women have the same muscles. The real difference is that we ladies won’t bulk up as fast (which is great, IMO) because we don’t have much testosterone. I’m a huge fan of dumbbell workouts. If you haven’t tried them before, pick a weight that allows you to do at least 8 but not more than 12 reps with good form. Depending on the exercise, I use anywhere from 15 lb dumbbells to 30 lb dumbbells for my sets of 8-12 reps.

  • Big Ben

    ….fixed Tony :) … Please give it a shot – Any feedback on how I can improve it is appreciated

  • Eugene Shin

    Great article! Thanks dude.

  • Dylan lee

    I am trying to find a good workout plan

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  • Karla

    Im a bit of a fitness junkie, (dancer, runner, sport etc) but have only just started going to the gym. Pretty shocked to find myself twiddling my thumbs and not knowing what to do. I knew having a routine would give me more purpose, but again I wasn’t sure where to start. Thanks for laying things out clearly: makes me heaps more confidnt to get started.

  • Dave Walsh

    Yes,I like this post,I have gathered many ideas.
    Thanks a lot.

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  • Dave Walsh

    This was very imformative. I copied it down and saved it.
    Keep it up!

  • Liam

    dude this is sucha great article . thanks for the tips and may god bless u !!

  • Dawn Iamnottelling

    Can women follow this routine? I pretty much know a lot of what your saying but its nice to see it all broken down like you did…I need to be more on a routine cause when I go I do full body more and want to just do like legs one day and chest the next etc…I think I am sore cause I work the same muscle to many times a week..your suppose to work that muscle once a week right?

  • Nate

    Now I know what to do to not be a skinny little freak. And improve my cardio. I have very poor cardio according to the charts and statistics. Than you.

  • Jay

    This was so helpful! I’ve been meaning to create a workout routine but everything I looked at was confusing and complicated, so I didn’t understand how to do it. But this was so easy to understand and thorough, so thank you! I will build a routine today. Awesome references by the way. Keep up the great work!

  • Diane

    Great information, ready to begin. Thank u,

  • Sarah Othman

    Thank you very much for the tips… I just started working out in the gym… This is just the right article for me…

  • Pino

    Excellent post. As a total newbie I now have things much more clear and know where to begin. Thanks!

  • Tayla

    This is a great guide for beginners or people who have lost their ways :)

  • Kristina Lazic

    Hi! So ive been reading all types of articles and I’ve tried to set myself up with a schedule but it just isn’t working. Can I e-mail you?

  • charlie

    Brilliant webpage all that I needed to start my course

  • Jess

    Under an hour of lifting? Because my cardio alone is an hour.

  • Dex

    What other “pull” exercises are there? The dumbbells I own are too small and I don’t think there is a bar I can do pull ups or chin ups on.

  • Kirby

    Great Job! You’ve helped me a lot.

  • Nitika

    I like evrything you just said…wrote…I like everything I read, but i have one question:
    How should i organize my journal or whatever i’m writing in?

  • Dex

    Kirby? I guess he had to work out too

  • Brian

    Hi Steve, thanks for writing such a creative blog on fitness. I’ve been using your general rules above as a guide for the past couple of weeks. I’m not new to working out I’m just trying to create a consistent routine without hurting myself. I lift weights three days per week for about an hour which is about how long it takes to do 4 sets (12, 10, 8, 6 reps) of 5 exercises. My question is, how do I work in more biceps, press, etc.? After a few days I wasn’t feeling sore anymore and though there are push/pull routines I’m not noticing any stress on the biceps, triceps, or shoulders. How do I know if this is the right routine for me?

  • Tyler

    Very nice information here! I very much agree with the idea of keeping the muscles guessing. I always recommending switching it up for a more balanced build. There’s nothing wrong with doing heavy 4-6 reps as strong as you can go for a couple weeks on end. Then switch it up! Do a few days worth of circuit style sessions like this article suggest. Very beneficial, your body will be forced to adapt to this. Only to be switched again.

    And keeping a journal is a must. It’s important to know where you currently stand. It lets you know whether you are going in the right direction. Or if you need to alter your plan or diet a bit. Here are some basic workout sheets that can be printed out to keep track of your daily progress

    Free Gym Sheet:

  • Bailey

    This was great! Thank you so much for sharing all of this, and the recap at the end was a huge bonus!

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  • Jillian

    Wondering the frequency of workouts you should complete a week vs. rest days. Is working out every other day optimal?

  • Jillian

    You 100% answered that question. That’s what happens when you’re reading at work! Thanks so much for this article, I learned a lot!

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  • Samantha

    Love this!!!!! Thank you

  • Britt

    Very useful :) ive always done bodyweight work and cardio, im only just moving into the gym and was looking for a simple guide so i have a bit of a plan when i go, rather than making it up on the spot. VERY USEFUL thanks :)

  • Hollie Turner

    Awesome thanks for sharing!

  • Adara

    Nice comprehensive look at working out for beginners/intermediates! I’m a PT and the workout programs I develop follow pretty closely to what you have outlined. It’s getting people to stick to the program where the real challenge lies. Thanks for the info. I’ll pass this onto some of my clients.

  • Hope

    This is great, and definitely what I was looking for! Thanks for reminding me to keep it simple.

  • e

    Thank you. Ha now I need the motivation

  • Gram91

    So wait, do you mean pick an exercise from each category for a day’s workout and basically do full body strength training each day?

  • Gram91

    Hey Steve,

    Been following Nerd Fitness for a while now, experimenting with my lifestyle and trying to figure out a routine that might actually work for me. So I was wondering if what you think of the following schedule:

    Sunday: Legs and back work out

    Tuesday: Full body circuit using one exercise from each category on this page

    Thursday: Full body heavy (probably around 8 reps each) using one exercise from each category on this page doing all sets for an exercise consecutively with rest in between each

  • What Supp Fitness

    This is awesome Steve, probably the most in depth guide to building your own routine I have seen. It’s not as easy as many people think. I wish I would have had something like this when I started. I do guides for protein supplements, something that starters definitely need a little help with as well.

  • Brittany Etienne

    Great explanation steve! You’ve simplified it so that a female beginner can design her own routine and still understand what she’s doing!

  • Jose

    I fucking love you Steve. You just saved me like a hundred bucks in personal trainers.

  • Melissa

    Best article I’ve read so far! Thanks for the great information!