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.

Recap: Building a Workout Routine

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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  • Louben Repke, RN, BSN, CPT

    As a
    registered nurse and a full time personal trainer & personal training
    studio owner (Repke Fitness Personal Training located in Severna Park 21146). I
    love this blog because it is VERY thorough. You touch on every point that I use
    to create people custom workouts or tell them how to go about doing it for
    themselves. Great stuff! I’ll be teaching a credited fitness class at the local
    community college this fall – I’ll definitely be sending some students this

    Louben Repke, RN, BSN, CPT
    Personal Trainer & Registered Nurse
    Repke Fitness Personal Training – 21146

  • Stef Scott

    Thanks for this article! It’s so hard to come by an affordable trainer these days which is what I’ve come to realize after reading Consumer Health Digest. I guess taking charge of your own fitness routine has its perks.

  • belal

    thank you that’s great

  • Pingback: How a 330 lb High School Dropout Lost 140 and Turned His Life Around | Nerd Fitness()

  • Hailey

    this helps so much! I’ve been doing everything all wrong

  • Gabriella

    This was just so well done (i just had to comment)!! Amzing thanks for the tips

  • DaMan

    Can I do cardio on rest days?

  • disqus_MfI8MhIymo

    This was awsone i am new to the whole working out world but your article was definitely helpful to me thanjdw steve

  • รัติ พฤษกุล
  • sazidkhan

    very much helpful

  • Kerry

    Great Article, I have been out of the gym for years.. but after reading this I feel equipped with the right information, thanks:).

  • Nancy Miau

    Awesome, I’ve been going to the gym for…4 years now? And this is the first time I am daring to do my own stuff, like, I am tired and sick of the 20+ reps ,so I wrote down some exercises , putting together muscle groups and with this arranging sets, reps and resting time. Sounds promising!!!

  • Jocelyne

    Great article, thank you!

  • Marc Camp

    Hey a good way to create your own workout is to use I started using it and it works really well!

  • The Observer


    The guy with the wife, 3 kids and 2 jobs…

    Well yeah that’s me…

    Thanks for the post

  • Sagarika Singh

    I have cervical Spondilytis problems. Are there any donts for me in this routine?

  • Marc Camp

    Hey what about creating all of them with ? it’s really hard for me to know the exercises by name…

  • Andrew Olivera

    Hey Steve, my names Steve.. I’m thinking about starting at a gym, I’ve slowly been losing weight and I’m trying to get myself healthy maybe even toned.. I went from 123 to 116 in a few months, I’m 5’5 27yrs old.. I’m not sure how to put weight back on without excessive protein. My goal is to get to 130-135.. any tips or advice?

  • Nick

    Heya Steve. I’m 25yo from Indonesia. And I’m a nerd. Have always been one. And all of my life I never liked or done any sport or intense physical activities. I remember that every week, me and my friends would skip gym class and went hiding in cafeteria, lol. That was the only class I would get an E (and minus) from. Wait, I’m just realizing that I kinda broke rules there :D. Parents would give me “buddy you’re smart and handsome but why an E in gym class” speech every semester. Hah! Memories.

    But lately I’m into fitness, nutrition, and wellness. It is addicting that everyday I’d find a way to compete, with myself. Both physical and intellectual side of it. I’ve finally found some ways to educate people even from just my littlest circle. Progress = Happiness. And I’m cryin’ that I found your site, it helped my journey to feel even more fun. Seriously, tears falling and I don’t know why, Gosh I’m such a nerd! Reading your articles is like talking to a friend and I need to take a moment to say thanks. Keep up Steve. (Still cryin).

  • Klar

    I appreciate this! I’ve been doing my research in building a routine and so far this is best article that gives you all the ingredients. Now I just need to create my own personal recipe.

  • Martin Thomas

    I’m inconsistent with workouts what can I do to help that ????

  • Mubashir Akhtar

    So much good stuff here Steve! A great guide for beginners and people wanting to

    change-up an old routine.

  • Job

    Thanks bro….. from Dubai the article gonna help me. But I think I can’t train 3 times a week , at least 5 times …. is it ok ..?

  • KaaYaa Fitness

    Thanks for presenting your ideas through this article. Really Nice. I also must suggest that the way you set your goals is crucial in attaining any results. Term called S.M.A.R.T. goals are now been optimised by many organisations. You Can also read: if you are interested to know more about the fitness gaols setup.

  • Jewel

    This article has been very helpful! I was thinking though, what about switching between an upper body day and a legs day every other day, and maybe working my abs everyday to break up the other leg and arm exercises? Also, what are your thoughts on using resistance bands or incorporating barre or Pilates moves on the light or resting active days? I love Pilates and barre, but I don’t want to “overwork” any muscles and risk not building strength.

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  • Denny_Lilly1

    Yeah true.

    I think for most people, the goal is to lose fat and get in shape. I love the simplicity of this article and that is key in my opinion. You want to keep your workout short and intense. Contrary to popular belief you don’t have to run on a treadmill for an hour to get good results.

    There’s a great program called Bodyweight Burn by Adam Steer which involves a 21 minute workout and it’s super effective for fat loss. No gym, no equipment, 100% bodyweight exercises you can do at home. I prefer keeping everything simple (not just working out but life in general.)

    Hope this helps.

  • Shuchi

    Super late to the discussion, but i only recently stumbled onto nerd fitness (and i am super glad i did). I am currently doing the bodyweight circuit and keep a 48 hour gap between workouts. I will start rowing (on a boat on the river) 3 times a week. This means i wont have a 48 hour gap between rowing and the bodyweight circuit. That seems like it should be ok, right?

  • Sales Dex

    Hi Steve,

    What i have learned mainly in this article is REST !!

    i just worked out every day continuously without giving rest. But hereafter i’ll follow your guidelines.

    Thank you very much.

  • Marissa Wolf Pandiscio

    Currently wanting to get into lifting but form is what makes me go straight to a machine. Is there a good reference that has pictures on the exercises listed above? Thanks

  • eddyAguielra

    eat more

  • Patricia Torres Ortiz

    Steve, I am a mother of 4, 40 years of age and I weight 158, My goal is to lose weight but also gain muscle, i don’t want to be skinny I want to be fit. I workout in the morning at 5:30 A.M and I do about 15 minutes of weight lifting, then I do HIIT on the treadmill for about 20 minutes, I do this 5 times a week, am I going on the right direction?

  • Amber White

    Anyone recommend a great workout journal?

  • AerisPhantomhive

    Anyone else notice the American Dad reference?

  • Alex

    Thanks Steve! This was incredibly helpful!

  • Renee Luise

    Great points, I never divided exercices into push pull… I used to just do 5 chest/back exercises, and do each muscle group a day. which was too discouraging if I skipped any day of wk. This is easier to manage

  • Anoop

    Really interesting article. Getting the book that you recommended. I am extremely gym shy and I think that is why I have never been able to continue working out without being mentally bogged down. I have made a few changes in my mindset and currently making a workout regimen for me. Your article is going to be my beacon as i feel personal trainers haven’t really worked for me and i am going to be the master of my ship. Thank you! – Anoop