How To Build Your Own Workout Routine: Plans, Schedules, and Exercises

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

“Steve, 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.

In this guide we’re going to cover (click to go to that section):

Now, a program should be developed around a person’s biology, age, goals, diet, free time, etc. And you know yourself better than anybody (I hope!) so use this guide to create your own adventure!

We build custom workout programs (and provide expert guidance and worldwide accountability) for our 1-on-1 online Coaching Clients, but this strategy guide should help you get your hands dirty and start building your own workout program too.  

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Step #1: Determine Your “Get in Shape” Situation

What should this finger know about building a perfect workout? Maybe he needs to thumb wrestle soon.

As we lay out in our “How to get in Shape” guide, we need to answer a few key questions:

QUESTION 1: What are your goals?

Whatever your goals are, it’s good to write them down and be aware of what you’re trying to accomplish. These goals will shape HOW you build your workout.

QUESTION 2: 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, twice a week.

If you're swamped like Sponge Bob here, a 30 minute workout here and there is a great way to start.

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?

Here’s the good news: weight training is the fat-burning prize fight victor, and efficiency rules all. So whether you are building muscle or looking to lose weight, a strength training workout will get you the results you’re after (when combined with the right eating strategy!)

While we’re talking about time, let me quickly mention something important:

Proper expectations!

As we cover “how fast can I get the body I want,” make sure you are thinking about your journey with a realistic timeline:

QUESTION 3: WHERE do you want to work out?

Where you work out will largely determine if you are going to train with bodyweight, or if you can start doing gym strength training.

At this point, we should have:

  • Determined your “get in shape” goals.
  • Decided how much time you have to train.
  • Picked WHERE you want to work out.

We can now start to build your workout routine, your daily workout plan, and your monthly workout schedule!

Let’s do it.

While you’re here, I’d love to send you our free guide, Strength 101: Everything You Need to Know. It’s free when you join the Rebellion with your email in the box below:

Step #2: What Exercises Should I do to lose weight (or build muscle?)

A coach checking your form like so can help when designing and building a workout.

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

(Note: I am not calling you stupid. You’re reading Nerd Fitness, which means you’re intelligent, good looking, really funny, and most of all, modest.)

The best workout is the one that you actually stick with, 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.

It’s exhausting, unnecessary, inefficient, and intimidating.

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

This is the ENTIRE philosophy behind our Strength 101 series.

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 2-3 times a week.

You want a workout routine that has at least one exercise for your:

  • Quads (front of your legs).
  • Butt and hamstrings (back of your legs).
  • Chest, shoulders, and triceps: (“push” muscles).
  • Back, biceps, and grip ( “pull” muscles).
  • Core (abdominals and lower back).

By targeting compound movements that recruit multiple muscles at the same time, you can build a full body routine that uses only four or five exercises.

Hows THAT for efficiency!

Here is a quick breakdown on which exercises will work for each of those movements:

  • Quadssquats, lunges, one legged squats, box jumps.
  • Butt and Hamstringsdeadlifts, hip raises, 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. Get stronger with each movement each week, and you have yourself a recipe for a great physique.

Here is an example of a great, effective simple gym workout:

You don’t need to make things more complicated than this!

(Not that we humans have a tendency to overcomplicate things to the point of paralysis and inaction…)

Don't make building your own workout overly complicated like this man is doing.

Ahem.

If you’re not sure how to do any of the movements above, click on their links for thorough write-ups and video demonstrations.

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.

The great news: that above workout routine will work whether you’re looking to bulk up and build muscle OR if you’re trying to lose weight. You simply adjust your nutrition – which is 80% of the equation – and that’s how you’ll start to change your physique.

STEVE’S BIG PIECE OF ADVICE: GET STRONG.

Get really good at these basic movements and focus on getting stronger each week (I’ll cover how below). If you get really strong at squats, deadlifts, pull-ups, and push-ups, you will build an incredible physique to be proud of.

Then, once you get confident in those movements, feel free to add some variety.

Why? If you do the same exact routine, three days a week, for months and months, you might get bored, and start slacking, or you might hit a workout plateau.

So if you find yourself getting bored, feel free to stick with the above ‘formula,’ but change the ingredients:

  • If you do bench presses on Monday, go with overhead presses on Wednesday and dips on Friday.
  • Squats on Monday? Try lunges on Wednesday and box jumps on Friday.
  • Do deadlifts every Wednesday, but change up the sets and reps you pick!

If you hit a plateau or find yourself getting bored, pick a different exercise to improve so you’ll stay challenged, and you’ll actually DO the workout!

Then, focus on getting stronger! (You are writing down your workouts, right?).

I know it’s really easy to overcomplicate this process as there are an infinite number of exercises, sets, reps, and programs to choose from.

And yes, we have a solution for people that JUST want to be told what exactly to do: Our uber popular 1-on-1 coaching program pairs you with your own Nerd Fitness Coach who will get to know you, your goals, and your lifestyle, and develop a workout plan that’s specific to not only your body, but also to your schedule and life.

We take the guesswork and uncertainty out of this process for hundreds of people – and we’d love to be able to pair you with a coach who can do the same: click the image below and speak with our team to learn more:

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Step #3: How Many Sets Should I Do Per Exercise?

How did Batman get so ripped? How do you build a workout to get those abs?

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

LONGER ANSWER: As we cover in our “How many sets and reps?” guide, 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, write down how you do with it, and then try to 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 for years.

Just make sure you are progressively increasing the challenge by lifting more weights (or doing harder bodyweight exercises!).

Step #4: How Many Repetitions Should I Do Per Set?

Free weights like these can help when building a workout.

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 you can follow as you’re starting to build your workout plan:

  1. If you’re looking to burn fat while building muscle, keep your number of repetitions per set in the 8-15 range per set.
  2. 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 other generally accepted ‘rules’ about how to determine how many reps you should target per set, based on your goals:

  • Reps in the 1-5 range build super dense muscle and strength[1]
  • Reps in the 6-12 range build a somewhat equal amounts of muscular strength and muscular size[2]
  • Reps in the 12+ range build muscular endurance.

A BIG CAVEAT: How you eat will determine if you get bigger or strongerNutrition is 80-90% of the equation. So pick a range that feels good, and then focus on nutrition.

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. Just don’t neglect your diet! That’s 90% of the battle!

And if you don’t want to figure any of this out and just want to be told exactly how what exercises, sets, and reps to do, our coaches can take care of that for you.

Step #5: How Long Should I Wait Between Sets?

A stopwatch like this can help when timing and building your workout.

Keep it simple, you “smart, good looking, funny, modest person” you.

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 (lifting heavy for strength/power): Rest for 3 to 5 minutes between sets.
  • 4-7 Reps (lifting for strength): Rest for 2 to 3 minutes between sets.
  • 8-12 Reps (lifting for size/strength): Rest for 1 to 2 minutes between sets.
  • 13 Reps+ (lifting for endurance): Rest long enough to recover to allow you to do the next long-ass set!

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!

If you want more information on how much you should lift, how many reps, and when to scale certain movements or adjust your workout, check out our Strength 101: Everything You Need to Know. It’s free when you join the Rebellion with your email in the box below:

Step #6: How Much Weight Should I Lift?

When Rebels get together like at Camp, we build workouts that include deadlifts.

We have a FULL resource on how to determine your starting weight for lifting, but I’ll give you the gist here.

The simple to learn but tough to implement answer: 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.

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!”

Don't act like Homer and do a workout that you can't handle.

If you’re doing exercises with just your body weight, you need 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. Eventually, you can scale up to do exercises like the pistol squat:

 

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And if you’re not sure how to scale bodyweight movements, or you are interested in mixing things up and want guidance…

Step #7: How Long Should I Exercise For? How Long Should My Workout Be?

What workout does this LEGO do? Does he have a coach build him his workout routine?

Easy answer: 45 minutes to an hour.

If you’re doing 15-25 sets of total exercise (3-5 sets for your 5 exercises), 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, try increasing the intensity.

Less time, more intensity, better results.

What if you don’t have 45 minutes?

Do the best you can!

Maybe you want to build some cardio into your weight training.

That’s where these next section comes in.

Step #8: How to Create Supersets and Circuit Training Workout

Kettlebells can be used in circuits to help build a perfect workout.

Strength training in a circuit fashion is the most efficient way to burn fat when exercising:

  • You’re getting a cardio vascular workout by consistently moving from exercise to exercise.
  • You’re exercising different muscles back to back, giving each muscle group a chance to recover, but in a condensed amount of time. Efficiency for the win!

If you’re familiar with CrossFit, many of the workouts are built on circuit principles.

This is also the most effective way to make you involuntarily swear at inanimate objects because you’re so tired and beat up.

We’re going to cover TWO things here:

  • Super sets (or alternating sets)
  • Circuits

SUPERSETS: Let’s say you’re doing four sets of squats followed by 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!

CIRCUIT TRAINING:

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 multiple bodyweight circuits here on the site:

We have 15 other FREE circuits you can follow to get your feet wet with building your own routine.

You can get them over on our big Circuit Training roundup guide!

We love building circuit training routines for our Coaching Clients – and we’d love to build them for you too:

Step #9: How Many Days per Week Should I Train?

Deadlifts make a great addition when you build your own workout.

We get this question quite a bit, usually from overeager beavers who decide they are going to go from “sitting on couch watching The Office on repeat” to “exercising 7 days per week.”

I would advise something different.

I mean you can still watch The Office, but you don’t need to be training 7 days a week! Not only that, but you’re going to burn out quickly and fall back to square one.

Instead, set a goal of 2-3 full body workouts per week.

For starters, your muscles don’t get built in the gym. They actually get broken down in the gym, and then get rebuilt stronger while you’re resting…watching The Office.

You can build muscle while watching the office!

By giving your muscles 48 hours to recover between workouts, especially when training heavy, you’ll stay injury free and get stronger.

A Monday-Wednesday-Friday workout routine works well to ensure enough time to recover, especially when you are just getting started.

If you want to do Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday, or Sunday-Tuesday-Thursday, great.

Personally, I stuck with a Monday-Wednesday-Friday full day routine for nearly 10 years and just focused on getting stronger with each movement.

These days, I train on Monday-Wednesday-Thursday-Saturday (my workouts on Wednesday and Thursday don’t work the same muscles!)

“But Steve, what if I WANT to exercise on my off days?” That’s fine! Pick “exercise” that’s fun for you, that won’t exhaust your muscles.

Lifehack: Program your workouts INTO your Google calendar (or Outlook). You’re much more likely to do a workout that has been planned for in your work-week!

Alternatively, you can hire a coach to program your workouts for you, so every day you know exactly what you need to do!

Learn how our NF Coaching Program can help you reach your goals

Step #10 Keep Track Of Everything!

Make sure you use notes like these to track the workout you build.

Last but not least, keep a workout journal!

As they say, that which gets measured gets improved.

You should be getting stronger, faster, or more fit with each day of exercise.

Around these parts, we say “Level up your life, every single day.”

So track and measure your progress!

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.

I track all of my workouts in Evernote: I note the sets, reps, weight, and date. I have over 1,000 workouts in my folder, which makes it super simple to see what I did last month, last year, and to make sure I’m improving!

Evernote can be great to track the workout you build.

You can use an actual notebook, a bullet journal, an excel spreadsheet, a workout app, or a word document.

Don’t overcomplicate it:

  1. Write down the date and your sets, reps, and weight for each exercise.
  2. Compare yourself to your previous workout with those exercises.
  3. Focus on getting stronger (more reps, heavier weight, an additional set, etc.)
  4. Repeat.

Do this with a workout you’ve built, and you WILL get results. I promise.

Here’s how to properly track your progress and set a new personal best every time you train.

How to Build Your Workout PLan

Inverted rows, like shown here, can make a great addition to a workout. If you build your own workout, make sure to include a pull exercise like this.

If you’re looking for sample workouts to build off of, I’d probably take the basic workouts in our “Gym 101” article.

If you want to build from scratch, great! Let’s break it down into easy chunks with this recap:

  • 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.
  • Do 5-10 reps per set for each exercise.
  • Determine how many reps and how long you’ll wait between sets for each exercise. Keep it simple. 60 seconds.
  • Increase your efficiency and work your heart by doing supersets or circuits.
  • Keep your workout to under an hour.
  • Stretch AFTER your workout.
  • Write everything down!
  • Give yourself permission to mess up, keep learning and improving it as you train more regularly!

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 building a crappy workout.”

Why we built THREE options for people like that:

1) If you are somebody that wants to know they are following a program that is tailor made for their life and situation and goals, check out our popular 1-on-1 coaching program.

You’ll work with our certified NF instructors who will get to know you better than you know yourself and program your workouts and nutrition for you.Nerd Fitness Coaching Banner

2) Good at following instructions and want a blueprint to follow?

Check out our self-paced online course, the Nerd Fitness Academy.

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, meal plans, a questing system, and supportive community.

3) Join the Rebellion (our free community) and I’ll send you a bunch of free guides that you can read at your leisure. We need good people like you!

I certainly encourage you to try and build your own workout routine.

It can really help you develop a sense of excitement and pride when you start to get in shape based on your workout!

If you have more questions, or have a workout program you’re really proud of, share it in the comments below!

-Steve

PS: Go do some push-ups!

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