How to Design Your Own Workout Program: A Guide for Beginners

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  • October 26, 2015

Let’s be honest: trainers are expensive. The good ones are worth their weight in gold, creating awesome changes in a short period of time, but a dedicated trainer is still beyond most people’s budget.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get the benefit of an intelligent, well-designed program. In this article, I’m going to teach you how to create your own. You’ll learn to think like a trainer and build an effective workout program, one that gets you the results you want (without the need to spend thousands of dollars at the gym).

Below, the five factors you’ll want to consider in building your program, along with an example from the running world. Read on, and get some insight into what it takes to build your own program like a pro.

Factor 1: Consistency

Consistency in training is the number one factor in getting results. You have to train often, and across a long period of time. Therefore, the first thing you need to consider: creating a program that will keep you in the game. The best workout program in the world is useless if you don’t actually do it. Sidelined, whether for lack of progress, motivation, or a nagging injury, is a surefire way to miss your goals.

This means we need to build a program that is do-able, with the right mixture of activity and rest.  There is a bit of art to this, but the first step is simple: write a general schedule. What are you going to do each day, Monday through Sunday?  

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Get a piece of paper, and write the days of the week along the side, then choose what you’ll do each day: workout or rest. To begin, plan to workout five days per week and rest two days. For most people, this is more than adequate for getting good results. Keep in mind that every workout day will not be a day of intense training or insane mileage: some days will involve hard training, others will involve only recovery or accessory work.  

There are many factors involved in deciding what happens on each day (which we’ll tackle further on in the article), but for now, just decide which days you’ll train and which you’ll rest. I like to do some sort of activity Tuesday through Saturday, leaving Sunday free to spend time with my wife, and Monday free to tackle the work that inevitably piles up on my desk over the previous week.  

Action Step 1: Regardless of whether you like my schedule or prefer another one, grab your paper and:

  1. Pick the five days per week you’ll do some kind of training.
  2. Find a time of day that you’ll do that training and put it in your calendar.
  3. Make a pledge to yourself to do that training no matter what, knowing that consistency is the most important thing in creating a successful program.

Here’s what my program looks like after introducing Consistency:

Day General Activity
Sunday Rest
Monday Rest
Tuesday Workout
Wednesday Workout
Thursday Workout
Friday Workout
Saturday Workout

Factor 2: Active Recovery

You’ve charted out five days for workouts and two days for rest.  

Next, you’ll want to pick two days for active recovery: one “workout” day and one “rest” day. Active recovery is meant to help you recover from your more intense training.

My favorite active recovery day pursuits:

  1. A long walk
  2. Yoga (at light intensity)
  3. Foam rolling and myofascial release
  4. Swimming (casual)

The point of these days is simple:  you want to keep moving, improve your range-of-motion, repair your muscles, and maintain a habit of activity. I’ll let you research each of the recovery activities listed above on your own (or better yet, try them all and see what you like), but here is my basic take:

A long walk burns energy, reduces stress, and gets your muscles and joints warm. It relieves soreness from previous workouts, and if combined with a light stretching, helps maintain your range-of-motion (your ability to move fully around any given joint). Swimming and yoga (of the correct, light intensity) accomplish much the same thing: you’ll improve your body’s dynamic abilities while staying active, and you’ll have fun to boot.

Foam rolling and myofascial release are keystones to recovery, and should sprinkled liberally throughout your program. Using external implements like rollers, lacrosse balls, and massage sticks, you’ll break down accumulated adhesions and scar tissue in your muscles, restoring their natural ability to lengthen and shorten without difficulty.  

Myofascial release will help you avoid injury and maintain athletic ability. You can think of it like changing the oil in your car, making sure the tires are properly inflated, keeping the gas tank full: it’s the basic maintenance that keeps things running for a long, long time. While it will get its own day in my sample schedule, note that you should take ten to fifteen minutes before of after every workout to do some myofascial release. If this is your first exposure to the concept, go over to YouTube and search “foam rolling”. You’ll hit a trove of information on the topic.

Action Step 2: Take your schedule, and choose one of your rest days and one of your five workout days for active recovery. Ideally, place active recovery days throughout the week, breaking up your more intense training days. Then, pick a few of the recovery activities that appeal to you, and pencil them in for the selected active recovery days.

Here’s what my program looks like after introducing Active Recovery:

Day General Activity Specific Activity
Sunday Rest None
Monday Active Recovery Myofascial Release
Tuesday Workout
Wednesday Workout
Thursday Active Recovery Swimming or Yoga
Friday Workout
Saturday Workout

Now, you’ve got a basic, seven-day schedule, and it’s time to choose activities for your workout days.

Factor 3: Variety

We want to avoid too many workouts that follow the same pattern. Rep schemes, times, miles, loads, and activities need to be altered regularly.  

Doing the same thing every day is an excellent way to induce mental burnout and bodily injury. Going through the same movements over and over, you’ll batter the same muscles, beat the same joints, and eventually you’ll break, the repetitive stress overcoming your ability to recover.

Therefore, we want to choose several different activities across workout days, choosing those that address our athletic deficiencies while building up our strengths.

A classic example of the problem: the unguided, novice distance runner. She starts running with one goal, going further. She does a mile every day for the first week, two miles every day the second week, and so on, repeating for months until joints hurt, range-of-motion is limited, and plantar fasciitis infects every step. She does the same thing at the same intensities, with predictable results: nagging injury.

She would be better off running three days a week, doing intense hill sprints and track work one day and a long, slow five-miler later in the week, and capping it off with a one-mile max effort, each intense running day preceded by an active recovery day or lighter work. She would build in some full-body strength training on her fourth training day to help make sure her muscles become strong enough to support the natural battering of frequent running.

This variety would build her speed (via the track day and the one-mile max effort), her endurance (via the long distance day), and her strength (via the lifting day), while the interspersed recovery days (swimming, yoga, and myofascial release) would keep her injury-free and able to train consistently. By contrast, running long and slow every day would build her endurance only while exposing her to injury.

Action Step 3: Put sufficient variety in your workout days. Choose what specific activity you’ll do each day, along with the appropriate variation to help you avoid repetitive injury, reinforce your strengths, and build up your deficiencies.  

Here’s what our distance runner’s schedule would look like after introducing Variety:

Day General Activity Specific Activity Variety
Sunday Rest None
Monday Active Recovery Myofascial Release
Tuesday Workout Running Sprints/Hill Sprints
Wednesday Workout Weight Lifting Full Body
Thursday Active Recovery Swimming or Yoga
Friday Workout Running Endurance/Long Distance
Saturday Workout Running Max Effort/Medium Distance

Factor 4: Challenge

To make consistent progress, your hard workouts need to get harder over time.  This means you have to increase load, speed of completion, volume (or all three) as you make progress, upping the relative intensity of your workouts. If you fail to do this, you’ll inevitably plateau.  

Do not make things harder quickly. Rather, you should build in challenge slowly and gradually, making sure that you’re still recovering adequately from previous workouts. This balance is the number one hurdle to trainers everywhere: introducing challenge fast enough to create change without inducing injury or causing missed training days.  

Typically, you’ll want to train for four to six weeks at any given level of difficulty before trying to layer on more, and you’ll want to listen to your body. If you’re not recovering from your workouts well enough to tackle the next workout with intensity and focus, you’ve likely ramped up challenge too soon.

Adding challenge is an art, and takes a variety of forms. A linear program ramps up challenge in a straight line, and is typically most effective with beginners. A periodized program ramps challenge up in a more up-and-down fashion, building, then backing off, then building again, and is used with more advanced athletes.  

For the sake of example, we’ll use a linear program that ramps on a monthly basis, but realize that this is where you’ll want to do your research and evaluate your progress. Do you need to keep increasing challenge, back off, or spend longer at any given level of challenge?

Action Step 4: Create a linear program across three months, building challenge in gradually across time.

Here’s what our distance runner’s schedule would look like after introducing Challenge:

Day Specific Activity Variety Month 1 Month 2 Month 3
Sunday None
Monday Myofascial Release
Tuesday Running Sprints/Hill Sprints 3 x 200m 5 x 200m 6 x 200m
Wednesday Weight Lifting Full Body add 5 lbs. add 5 lbs.
Thursday Swimming/Yoga
Friday Running Long Distance 5 miles 6 miles 7 miles
Saturday Running Medium Distance 1 x 1 mile 2 x 1 mile 2 x 1 mile

As you can see, I added volume to most of the running workouts across time (and load to the weight lifting workout).  

Alternatively, our runner could keep the volume of the workouts the same across months and simply aim to run faster and complete her lifting sessions more quickly after each four-week training cycle, increasing speed of completion.   

Either is an acceptable way to increase challenge. Which you choose is largely a matter of preference for the novice, and need for the advance athlete—to choose a method, simply ask yourself which would better serve to build your athletic deficiencies. If you’re generally slow, you might consider going faster as your principal method of increasing challenge. If you’re already quick, but have a hard time maintaining speed, you’d choose to increase challenge by building volume.

Factor 5: Record Keeping

To program intelligently, you need to keep records. Your records should be both objective (recording times, loads, mileage, etc.) and subjective (recording how your body feels, mental state, recovery level).

Having these records at hand will allow you to see what’s working and what’s not, giving you clues as to how to alter the program for the next cycle. For instance, let’s take the program above.  

Imagine that runner’s log shows that during Month 1, her mile time got faster each week, as did her 200m splits.  During Month 2, her mile times slowed during week 6, as did her 200m splits:

Month Week Best Mile Time Mile Trend Best 200m Time 200m Trend
1 1 9 min 32 sec 42.6 sec
2 9 min 20 sec Faster 41.5 sec Faster
3 9 min 16 sec Faster 41.0 sec Faster
4 9 min 6 sec Faster 40.9 sec Faster
2 5 9 min 5 sec Faster 40.9 sec Faster
6 9 min 20 sec Slower 43.0 sec Slower
7 9 min 22 sec Slower 42.8 sec Faster
8 9 min 25 sec Slower 42.9 sec Slower

What happened? It’s likely that we increased challenge too quickly, layering on too much volume too quickly. Remember, at the beginning of month 2, we added two extra 200m sprints, an additional mile to the long run, and a second medium-distance time trial.  She handled it okay during week 5, but then we saw decreased performance.  

We’ll want to make an alteration. We could revert to the Month 1 programming and see if we resume the streak of personal bests.  Alternatively, we could back off a portion of the Month 2 volume, going back to the Month 1 five-mile distance runs and three 200m sprints, but keeping the additional 1-mile time trial. We could even add in an additional rest day for a few weeks.

How would we know which course to take? Herein lies the art of training. We’d rely on experience and our subjective records for each day to pick the most likely solution, running a one-person experiment.  

We’d begin by examining our recorded thoughts and feelings for clues. For instance, if our runner reports feeling sluggish all week during Week 6, she may be suffering from accumulated fatigue, and she may decide to rest two or three days and then resume the Month 2 program.  If the poor performance continues, she would choose to decrease the volume back to Month 1 levels. If she sets new personal bests, she would carry on with the Month 2 program.

This is the benefit of record keeping. It gives us clues. Should we keep going with the program or back off? Are we getting continued progress, or have we stalled out?  

Action Step 5: Record your results and check them against your goal(s). Are you getting the result you want from your program? If not, what is the likely culprit, and how will you alter the program going forward?

Making it Happen

Designing your own program is within your capacity. Keep in mind that if you’ve never done it before, you’ll make some errors along the way, but know that this happens to even the most experienced coaches.  

Don’t let your lack of experience stop you from trying. The only way to get better at programming is to give it a shot.  

To help you avoid common mistakes, use these guidelines:

  1. Create consistency by keeping a regular weekly training schedule
  2. Include one full rest day and two active recovery days in your program each week.
  3. Use variety in your workouts to build multiple physical qualities, helping you avoid injury, reinforce strengths, and build weaknesses.
  4. Add challenge over time, adding volume, load, or speed gradually and sensibly to drive continued progress.
  5. Keep a record of your training, including objective and subjective measures, to better inform your future programming decisions.

When you begin programming, be cautious. The curse of the novice is to try for too much gain too quickly, training too often, layering on too much challenge, forgetting prudence in favor of excitement.  

To prevent a quick and painful end to your programming career, remember: you have your whole life to train, and the most important thing you can do on any given day is preserve your ability to train tomorrow. If you keep this mindset, you’ll inevitably make progress.

If you found this article helpful (and would like some accountability for your training), consider joining us for the next Challenge. You’ll score your exercise, mobility, sleep, nutrition, hydration and more on a daily basis, joining friends and family in an effort to improve your daily life. Click below to learn more (and to register).

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Jon Gilson
Jon Gilson heads up marketing for the Whole Life Challenge. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife. Follow Jon on Instagram.
  • KL

    Great information. I’ve been trying to design my own, but I’m just not doing it right. This really helps a lot. I want this type of schedule to include a variety of workouts, and some focus on Osteoporosis prevention related exercises. Thank you very much.

    • Jon Gilson

      I’m glad to hear it helps, KL! Good luck, and post if you have any questions!

  • Annie

    Thank you for this! For years I’ve run off and on, usually with goals set to complete a half or 10k here and there. After accomplishing my goal, I lose steam and end up starting from scratch some time after the race. This WLC is my first, and I’ve been suffering from heinous lower back pain (since before the challenge). My pain has been such a source of frustration because I’ve been so limited in my running. I was building endurance gradually up until last week and then boom, aggravated pain and now have been out of running all this week.

    I really look forward to exploring the myofascial stuff, something I didn’t really know or understand before. And through all my running, I’ve never REALLY created a plan. This is so manageable, I love how you super simply outlined the steps. Thank you, thank you.

  • Laura Wright

    Thanks for providing the structure of a good training plan! I’m guilty of repetition and overtraining (in the past). I’m still recovering from an ankle issue, can’t put too much weight on it. Can switching modes (interval, cross training, gluteal) on the elliptical provide enough variety? One day I crank up the resistance, another day I focus on speed? Ankle will limit me for a while longer but I don’t want to lose my cardio endurance in the meantime.

    • Jon Gilson

      Laura, odds are that doing different modes on the elliptical won’t give you sufficient variation, because the basic movement pattern is always the same. I’d consider adding some upper body strength training while your ankle heals. Pushups (regular or from the knees) or some bench pressing as well as a pulling movement (bent over rows, pullups, etc.) would help your overall fitness a lot. That said, you’re doing the right thing to switch up your elliptical training method!

      • Laura Wright

        Appreciate the reply! I’m trying to incorporate more strength training into my routine but quite frankly I hate it. Never get that rush of endorphins, just a rush of relief when it’s finally over LOL I’ll keep pinning workouts with weights until something sticks :) And I never thought twice about the rowing machine at my gym, think I’ll give that a try too! Thanks!

        • Jon Gilson

          Keep doing it! Whenever you’re not used to a stimulus, it’s uncomfortable. Keep lifting for a few weeks, and you’ll begin to feel the joy of getting stronger!

  • Grif Frost

    Aloha! Excellent information. Thank you. We have been experimenting with different models of instructor led, small class programming at the Hilo Health Cooperative to try and find the best model for our members. It appears the 3 times per week of 50 minute systematic 10 minute warm-up activities/15 minutes high intensity strength building activities; 15 minutes endurance building activities/10 minute cool-down coupled with an optional 25 minute yoga/mobility session, works best for the majority of our members to achieve/maintain Optimum Health. We encourage rest days/recovery days with outdoor physical activity (Hilo Hawaii is a GREAT place for outdoor activities). The key benefits to joining the Health Co-op for our members: 1) Systematic programming; 2) Expert instructional support; 3) Working out with classmates of similar capacity (physical and mental). This combination leads to improved results compared to only working out solo. We all go through ups and downs when working out solo, so having a support system, like we do at the Health Co-op, REALLY helps people achieve and maintain Optimum Health. We are still working to perfect the model so it can be easily duplicated in other communities. Really appreciate your informative post! First consumer cooperative fitness center in the U.S.. Optimum Health focused. Partnered with the local medical community. Here to help.

  • Roy Wallack

    There’s a great book called “Fire Your Gym” that touches on these themes — and it was co-written by the modest Andy himself!

  • Jim Bertler

    I have a question but first of all Thank You!! This is an awesome article. My question is that my schedule changes dramatically from week to week. I assume I can design the schedule and change the days of rest and workouts each week? Any tips you would have for doing this? Thanks!

  • Sravanthi Reddy

    Perfect guide for beginners to workout, can I include some yoga poses for beginners in it? as I feel yoga would calm my mind because I have lot of anxiety and suffer from it in few situations and thought yoga will help especially breathing exercises.

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