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.

Coaching Workouts

Note: However, I do have a solution if you’re somebody that just wants to be told what 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 your with a coach who can do the same.


Now, if you’re more of a “get my hands dirty and figure this stuff out on my own,” kind of person, – we’re going to dig into how to build your own workout plan today!

Sure, 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.

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

We’ve also created a free resource for folks who want to build their own workout but would love some more specific direction or want to make sure they’re not doing things incorrectly!

You can download our free guide, Strength Training 101: Everything You Need to Know, which will help you build a workout with bodyweight exercises all the way up through your first few weeks in a gym with weight training.

Grab the guide free when you sign up in the box below and join the Rebellion!

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:

Once you determine where you want to train, you can start to determine how much time you have to train, how to build your routine and more.

What Exercises Should I Do?

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, but most of all, modest.)

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 our flagship course, The Nerd Fitness Academy. Here’s an example from 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.

I realize all of this can be overwhelming, especially if you’re trying to learn Strength Training AND build your own workout too. So we created a free resource that gives you some starter workouts (both bodyweight and weight training) that gives you the confidence to start today.

You can grab our Strength Training 101: Everything You Need to Know when you join the Rebellion and sign up in the box below:

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? These are some ROUGHT guidelines, but definitely remember that how you eat will determine if you get bigger or stronger:

  • 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 size (this is called sarcoplasmic hypertrophy).
  • Reps in the 12+ range build muscular endurance.

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

How Long Should I Wait Between Sets?

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

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
  • 4-7 Reps (lifting for strength): Rest for 2 to 3 minutes
  • 8-12 Reps (lifting for size/strength): Rest for 1 to 2 minutes
  • 13 Reps+ (lifting for endurance): 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.

If you want more information on how much you should lift, 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:

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!


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.

Training in a gym, or afraid to even attempt one? I hear ya. Gyms are intimidating and oftentimes full of jerks. So we created a gym survival chapter in the Strength 101 Ebook. If you couldn’t tell already, I’m really proud of this thing (ha!), and I think it can help you get started with strength training and leveling up your “build a workout” skill too.

Grab it free when you sign up in the box below:

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!


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 two options for people:

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.

2) Good at following instructions and want a blueprint to follow? Check out our self-paced online course, 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.


photo: mdwombat

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  • Hamza Nadeem

    I found this useful and if anyone is interested reading useful article about “Workout
    Routine”, here is the link to it

  • Jordan


  • MāiợỖoŞh XĐ

    very great article !
    really helped me alot

  • Tom

    Your an amazingly, entertaining writer. I admire you. Excellent work! Thank you

  • Natalia Castaño Palacio

    Amazing information. Thank you for that ?? So should I only workout three times a week or could I mix it up with some cardio during the other days?

  • Ilete

    .I also want to start practicing at home. On the other hand I do not know whether regular bench crunches will be good and maybe better to buy something better?

  • Patricia Sepulveda

    I really like your article Steve! It really helped me! I know it’s been 5 years, but I hope you still check your comments! *Fingers crossed* Now I do have one question! I work at a gym and the trainers tell me to focus on one muscle group at a time, yet you say to choose one from each muscle group to get a full body workout. Wouldn’t doing a full body wear my body down more (i’m a beginner) during the soreness. Which would you say is better, my goal is to lose weight?

  • Helen abraham

    Hey i need a 6 wks plan based on a scenario : A 35 year old male has booked an appointment with you to get a session plan for the first 6 weeks of a new training regime. On questioning he states that he has a stressful office job, enjoys a good social life with friends and can dedicate 3 hours a week to planned gym exercise sessions. He has never been in a gym before and states it’s over 10 years since he did any exercise. His goals are to improve his fitness and tone up.
    A PAR-Q has been completed and shows he has no contra-indications to exercise training.

  • IB

    Great article! the issue is most people starting really need help with the form else its matter of time before they get injured. Check out it corrects your exercise form.

  • Suman Kumar

    Hi Steve,
    I am 21 years old and weighing 62 kg. My objective for going gym is to gain weight and tone my body. I am able to give 1hr every day for 6 days of a week. How can I schedule my exercises and resting so that I get the maximum benefits within a short span of time? Can you help me with the type of exercises and the amount of rest I should have?


  • clockzzz fab

    this sucks…hahahahahah

  • Amy

    Any tips for a 15 year old girl who has been working with machines 3 times a week for about a month now?

  • Chelsee Adams

    Since there are many types of squats do you recommend one over another? Is the type you do that important? I assume each has their benefits since there are so many.

  • Paul Brackenridge

    This is a a great article! I’m relatively new to weights and looking to mix my routine up, this has given me some great food for thought and demystified some of the technical bits. Cheers!

  • จรัญ จอมวงศ์

    thank for inspiration thank you very much

  • Jason

    That was an amazing explanation thanks, very helpful.

  • Noam David Weiner

    How does reps work with squats? i mean the range for strength and endurance and each individual

  • John

    This was very imformative. I copied it down and saved it. there are so many Do’s and Don’ts out there. But check out this routine it’s a way better way to muscle up

  • TJ

    I found a great directory of exercises that you may be interested in “copying” to this site. Here is the address:

  • Robin Hoke

    This was SO helpful!!!! Thank you!!!!!

  • Ingeborg Betuker

    Hi Steve,
    Should this work for women too? i mean we do more squats and lunges but i find your article great to build a training plan for me haha


  • Scotti

    Old but Gold.

  • India

    This was really helpful, thank you 🙂 ps you made me laugh

  • Sujeet

    Very useful..

  • McKenzie

    Very helpful! I worked out for a while and am just getting back into it and this is a perfect refresher course! Loved everything you said and they are all things that have worked for me in the past or that I have read elsewhere (from reputable sources). Thanks for sharing! Very helpful!! Happy exercising!

  • จรัญ จอมวงศ์
  • จรัญ จอมวงศ์

    That’s my routine

    บาคาร่าออนไลน์ / คาสิโน / genting club

  • Jodie Suzanne Cooper

    Really helpful, thank you for this. I had been relying on my trainer at the gym. He got my started on a great beginner weight plan, and then we switched it up 6 weeks later. But I’ve been doing that for months and he told me to come back to him once I can do 5 sets of everything instead of 3. I’ve been wanting to switch it up instead though as my muscles are bored and I’m bored and now have a repetitive strain on a ligament in my foot thanks to my nemesis: burpees! So I feel like I need to control my own workouts now and go with how I feel. You need to have this article on your homepage at all times. lol. 🙂

  • Extimes

    Working all muscle groups at once will quickly produce results. Working a single muscle group (isolation exercises) can be bad for you and isn’t as effective. Make sure to rest a day in between. You’ll lose more weight when you’re exercising with more weight. Start easy and add a little weight each workout, or if you’re doing bodyweight, vary your reps from workout to workout and try to finish each workout faster than the last.

  • Extimes

    Keep adding weight. Add 5lbs each workout until you can’t compete your intended workout. Then keep the weight the same until you can do it. Next, add 5 more pounds.

  • Etienne Fredette Marsh

    You have an amazing way of just keeping it simple, super hyper readable and straight to the point. Thanks for the bold characters and all, the readability structure of your text is really what I needed. I got all my answers and my perfect training in mind within a few minutes. If everyone did like you ^^

  • Mauricio Quintero

    My English is kinda broken, but what should I do to achive something close to Bruce Lee; not big muscles but fit and definited?

  • Pingback: From Skinny Fat To Ripped: Jasper’s Journey to Real Life Superhero | Nerd Fitness()

  • Brooke

    I have recently become certified in Barre Basics. I am looking to make a workout plan for a 45 min class! I am 22. I’d like to be able to teach my age group or an older class.. Any suggestions would be awesome!!

  • Grax Earthgrinder

    My wife is working out with me, but she thinks she may weight too much to do squats at the moment due to knee pain. Are there any alternatives that would work for us?

  • Beverly Deepy

    Can i acheive with this my dream body like Lazar Angelov or i have to follow Lazar Angelov workout routine < Thanks for reply

  • Joelle

    I’m a beginner in the gym and I’ve been working out with my sister and following her plan. I can’t wait to start building my own. This really helped me understand the basics of a workout plan and the “why” of a few rhings.
    Great article, thank you!

  • Black&White Insider

    Such a fantastic post! I’ve come back to this numerous times 🙂 Thank you!! x

  • Kori Stanford

    This has been really very helpful for me! I work out at home and I do primarily body weight exercises, and lately I’ve been feeling stuck…like I’ve been undertraining or overtraining. I think I work each muscle group too hard, but getting in an exercise or two for each section of the body seems like I could get much more done in a shorter length of time! My current workout routine has been leaving me very unmotivated and it feels quite inefficient. I usually only write down what exercises I do and my sets and reps, but laying it out beforehand, and documenting everything seems like it’ll make it easier to see the results in comparison to the entries, considering I’m feeling burnt out and like I’m getting nowhere…

  • CharChika Rishi

    Hi…so I’m 15 yr old and i haven’t really ever done a regular workout routine. So if i follow type of routine mixed with right eating, it will help me lose weight, right…? And how should I do it at home without weights…?

  • BMcG

    I know this is an old article but thanks! I have been looking to mix things up and get better results, this really simplifies it. I have the skinny fat problem….

  • Qipeng Hu

    That’s super helpful and amazing! Thanks!

  • Elisabeth

    Extremely helpful! Words can’t describe how helpful this is! I know several workouts that I can do that will build muscle and burn fat but had no idea how to put them all together and add in the number of reps and sets! Thank you so much!

  • Great stuff. I’m bookmarking since I surely will be referring to this again and again as I tweak my workouts.

  • Liz

    This is really helpful – thanks!

  • smd2768

    Thank you! This is the most straight forward article I’ve read so far. There is so much out there about you should be working on and for how long, what you should eat and how many meals per day, etc. and it seems as if everyone has the “right way” of doing things. I have started and stopped weight training at the gym so many times over the years so I know the basics of how to lift and what weights do what for certain muscle groups, but it’s nice to know that the routine I have built for myself is ok as long as I’m getting the desired results. I wish more articles would be like this.

  • Elaine

    I’ve been looking for a long time on line for some simple but great information about working out and what works..I’m so gonna read this over and over and start working out..thanks Steve

  • Thanks for this article. Just found your site through a Google search of “How to Develop a Workout Plan.” These tips are very beneficial for me. Thanks so much for the help! I’ll be back to see what else you have to say!

  • Kira

    Is this good routine for women as well? 🙂 I’ve never done much for work outs and I am really wanting to get into it but I want to do it from home and I don’t know how to make a workout routine. Also, when you say sets, is that say…for example 3 sets of 20 squats? So doing 20 squats 3 times? Sorry for my ignorance I don’t know what I’m doing yet!

  • Valeria Moreno

    This is a really good beginners guide. When it comes to exercising I always feel lost and give up with the excuse that I’ll wait for a personal trainer to help me…news flash!! I wont ever do that, so i needed to get my ass moving before my sedentary life style kills me. This article felt like a self help class, haha. Honestly this has helped me with a starting point; 1)its easy to understand for us none-exercising-lingo-people 2)gives helpful suggestions. thank you!!