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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  • 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!

  • elleica

    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

  • maintainfitnessblog

    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!!