How To Build Your Own Workout Routine

I get this email at least once a day that says the following:

“What should I do for a workout?”

After all, many people are interested in getting started with strength training and want to know what workout routine to follow.

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 through email that would allow me to tailor a program specific to that person.

I can certainly offer up suggestions, but there’s one person that knows what’s best for you: YOU. And the best workout program is the one that you ACTUALLY follow!

Now, 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, let’s start with this question: what are you doing NOW for a workout?

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, it’s good to understand what goes into a program so you can build one for yourself.

Note: if you’re somebody that wants a workout routine tailored to your situation, especially if you’re scared to get started or afraid of making a mistake, join 40,000 supportive students in the Nerd Fitness Academy.

The NF Academy has an onboarding benchmark test that will tell you exactly which workout routine to follow, and then exactly when to level up your workout so you’ll always know what to do – we got you covered.

If you ARE ready to start building your own routine and want to know how its done, great, let’s do this!

Determine Your Situation

For starters, how much time can you devote to exercise?

If you can do an hour a day, that’s awesome.  If you have a wife or husband, three kids, a dog, two jobs, and no robot butler, then maybe you only have 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? Right?

After all, we know that weight training is the fat-burning prize fight victor, and efficiency rules all.

Next, you’ll want to determine WHERE you’ll work out:

What Exercises Should I Do?

I like to follow the motto of “Keep it simple, stupid.”

The best workout is the one that you do, and people make things FAR too complicated and try to target a bazillion different individual muscles with six types of exercises for each body part and it’s exhausting, unnecessary, inefficient, and intimidating.

Keep it simple! We’re going to pick 5 exercises, and get really strong with those movements.

Unless you’ve been strength training for years and know what you’re doing, we recommend that you pick 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), one exercise for your “push” muscles, one exercise for your “pull” muscles, and one exercise for your core.

Yes, this means you can develop a full body routine that uses only four or five exercises.

Hows THAT for efficiency!

Here is a quick breakdown on those movements:

  • Quadssquats, 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, bodyweight 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.

We do have high-definition multi-camera demonstrations of each exercise above (over 100 HD videos) in the Nerd Fitness Academy. Here’s an example from in the NF Academy, with Team NF’s Jim and Staci demonstrating a proper bodyweight push-up:

 

As stated above, when building your workout, don’t overthink things! Pick one exercise from EACH category above, specifically ones that scare you the least, and that will be your workout every other day for the next week.

Once you get confident in those movements, feel free to add some variety:

If you do the same routine, three days a week, for months and months you and your muscles might get bored. So feel free to stick with the above ‘formula,’ but change the ingredients:

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, you’ll stay excited, and you’ll actually DO the workout!

Lastly, your muscles don’t get built in the gym, they actually get broken down in the gym, and then get rebuilt stronger when you’re resting.

Give your muscles 48 hours to recover between workouts. A Monday-Wednesday-Friday workout works well to ensure enough time to recover, especially when you are just getting started. I stuck with a Monday-Wednesday-Friday full day routine for nearly 10 years and just focused on getting stronger with each movement

How Many Sets Should I Do?

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

A “set” is a series of repetitions that you complete without stopping. For example, if you drop down and do 10 push-ups right now, you just did 1 SET of 10 REPETITIONS (or REPS) of push-ups.

Got it? Cool.

Again, do not overthink this. Do not freak yourself out by worrying if you should do 4 sets or 5 sets. Pick one, record how you do with it, and get stronger the next time you do that movement.

So, try to keep your TOTAL (all exercises combined) workout number of sets for all exercises is in the 15-25 set range (5 exercises total, each with 4 “work sets” is a good start).

Remember, the most important part is to get started – you’ll learn how your body responds and you can adapt as you go.

What you DON’T need to do: multiple exercises for each body part with 10 sets. Unless you are a bodybuilder or an advanced athlete following a specific protocol prescribed to you by a coach, you can stick with 4-5 sets for each of the 5 exercises in your workout routine and get outta the gym (or finish your home workout) sooner.

How Many Repetitions Should I Do?

This is another thing that many people overthink.

If you are new to exercising or strength training, you’ll want to aim for higher reps per set with lighter weights as you’re learning the movements (if you’re training with weight). As you get stronger and start to learn about how you like to train, you might switch to a lower rep range, even up to a single rep of maximum effort (on a movement like a Squat or Deadlift).

Some general rules:

If you’re looking to burn fat while building muscle, keep your number of repetitions per set in the 8-15 range per set. If you can do more than 15 reps without much of a challenge, increase the weight or the difficulty of the movement. This is true for things like lunges, bodyweight squats, push-ups, pull-ups, etc.

There are some generally accepted ‘rules’ about how to determine how many reps you should target per set, based on your goals.

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).

If you’re looking for a simple answer: do 4 sets of 8-10 reps for each movement you’ve chosen, and see how your body responds.

How Long Should I Wait Between Sets?

Keep it simple.

Below is a basic formula for you to determine how long you should wait between sets, but this can be adjusted based on your level of health. The goal is to wait the least amount of time you need, but still rest enough that you can perform all reps of the next set safely and properly!

Here are some guidelines (not rules set in stone!):

  • 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

If you need more or less rest than the above recommendations, that’s more than okay. Do the best you can, record how long it takes you to rest between sets, and try to rest for shorter periods in the future. Your body will adjust as you get stronger and healthier!

Do NOT overthink this!

How Much Weight 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. But ALWAYS err on the side of “too light” versus “too heavy” when starting out. It’s better to say “I bet I could have done more!” instead of “that was too much, and now I need to go to the hospital!”

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 this 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?

Easy answer: 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!

Circuits

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 bodyweight circuits here on the site:

Note: If you work out in a gym,  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. Here’s how to properly track your progress and set a new personal best every time you train.

Recap: Building a Workout Routine

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. Get the blood flowing and your muscles warm.
  • 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!
  • Give yourself permission to mess up, keep learning and improving it as you train more regularly!

Now, more often than not, when I email people back and tell them how to build their own workout, they generally respond with: “Steve, can’t you just TELL me what to do? I’m afraid of not building a great workout.” If that sounds like you, check the PS below.

I certainly encourage you to try and build your own workout routine though, it can really help you develop a sense of excitement and pride when you start to get in shape based on your workout!

-Steve

PS: If you’re somebody that wants an expert to guide them through the training process, I hear ya (I have a fitness coach myself who programs my workouts!).

That’s why we built the Nerd Fitness Academy:

The Academy has 20+ workouts for both bodyweight or weight training, a benchmark test to determine your starting workout, HD demonstrations of every movement, boss battles so you know when you to level up your routine, meal plans, a questing system, and supportive community.

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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
    link.

    Louben Repke, RN, BSN, CPT
    Personal Trainer & Registered Nurse
    Repke Fitness Personal Training – 21146
    http://www.repkefitness.com/

  • 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 createworkouts.com I started using it and it works really well!

  • The Observer

    lol..

    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 createworkouts.com ? 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 ..?

  • http://kaa-yaa.com/ 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: http://kaa-yaa.com/smart-way-to-set-fitness-goals-and-get-results/ 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

  • Erika Hernandez

    Any stretching tips you can give.. i hate doing it, always skip it but regret it the next morning.

  • PNT

    Thanks everyone for the workout advice. I’m pretty confident I can build a routine around all the advice given.

    My only question is, what about the diet side of things? I’ve been doing a lot of reading and it’s clear that your diet plays a huge part in progress. But I find there’s more conflicting advice when it comes to what you eat. I read an article that said low carb, high fat is the way to go. Then literally minutes after I read an article that said avoid low carb diets mess up your metabolism in the long term. What gives?

  • Ree

    Try carb cycling because you’re getting the best of both worlds. It’s basically eating more carbohydrates on some days and less on others. Many bodybuilders use this method because the high carb days promote muscle growth, while the low carb days encourage fat loss.

    You also keep your sanity because on the high carb days you have the freedom to eat what you want and still lose fat. Shaun Hadsall has a whole guide based on this eating strategy and it’s definitely worth a read. You can find it at: > CarbMethod.COM

    Hope this helps.