Updated: Jan 21, 2022
Heading into the gym and winging a workout is one of the best ways you can ensure you're leaving gains on the table. And if you're doing this, I can assure you that you're probably leaving a lot of gains on the table.
Going into the gym with a plan, and knowing exactly, or at least having a good idea of what you're going to be doing is essential to not wasting any time, and making the most out of your efforts both in and out of the gym.
Whether you get your plan from someone else, or you really take the time to sit down and create one is up to you.
If you've chosen to go with the latter, you've come to the right place. In this post we're going to be giving you a step-by-step, ultimate guide on how you can create your own workout routines, and make them as effective as possible for building strength and muscle.
NOTE: A workout routine is different from a workout program. A routine is the set of exercises that you do on a given day. So for example, your routine might tell you to start the session with squats, then go onto a deadlift, etc.
However a workout program is the entire schedule and plan that you have for your training. A program will plan out everything that you'll be doing for the week. A workout program will include all the routines for your specific training days, as well as often factor in your nutrition, recovery, and progress. A training routine is only part of a training program.
With that out of the way, let's get right into the guide! We'll break down each step for you, then finish off with a handy template that you can use to make your own workout.
The Steps to Creating Your Ideal Workout Routine
Please ensure you do a proper warmup routine before you do your actual workout. This will reduce injury and enhance your athletic performance.
Choosing Your Goals and Target Muscles
When you first come to design your workout from scratch, the first thing that you need to know is what your primary goal is. Are you looking to build strength? Are you looking to pack on as much muscle as possible? What muscles are you going to be hitting today?
If you're not already familiar with workout splits, they're basically the fundamental plans and schedules for your training week. For example, a popular workout split would be the Push, Pull, Legs program.
It generally has you training six days a week in the gym, hitting your upper body pushing muscles (chest, shoulders and triceps) on one day, your upper body pulling muscles (back, biceps and rear delts) on another day, and your entire lower body on the third day.
You then usually go on to repeat this cycle for a training frequency of 2 times a week for each muscle group. Other popular workout splits include the Upper/Lower split, and a full-body split.
Whatever your workout split is, you need to know how many days you're going to be training, and what you're going to be training on this specific day.
Click here to view our article breaking down the most popular workout splits!
We've provided you with a rough guide below on what training splits you could run based on the number of days you're able to train.
2-3 days a week: Full Body or Push, Pull, Legs (3x a week)
3-4 days a week: Full Body or Upper/Lower
4-5 Days a week: Upper/Lower or Full Body or Push, Pull, Legs, Upper/Lower
5-6 Days a week: Push, Pull, Legs, Upper/Lower or Push, Pull, Legs (6x a week)
Once you've determined your workout split, and decided on what you're going to train on your specific day, it's time to look at your goals, and pick what you want to do.
For example, if you're looking to get into powerlifting, it makes sense to include your primary compound lifts of the squat, bench press and deadlift, lifted in heavier rep ranges.
Likewise, if you're wanting to get started in Olympic weightlifting, you'll obviously want to look to incorporate exercises like your clean and press, and other more explosive exercises.
If you just want to build muscle and look better, you might want to prioritize machines over free weights, as they require less stabilization and make it easier for you to focus on your target muscles. Otherwise, you could really get away with doing anything.
So look at what your goals are, pick your primary lifts and write them down.
Factor in Your Equipment Available
Next up you'll want to carefully think about your gym's layout, and the equipment that you have access to.
For example, if your gym doesn't have a hack squat machine, it doesn't make sense to include the hack squat in your routine. Or if your gym doesn't have a pec deck machine, they likely won't be a part of your routine either.
You should also make sure that you're not wasting too much time walking around the gym. Especially if your gym is large in size. You don't want to be walking from one side to the other after every exercise.
That would use up too much time. If there are two exercises that can be swapped in order without hindering your workout performance too much, and it would save you time in the gym, it's probably a good idea to do so.
You may also want to avoid supersetting different machines or equipment together if your gym is busy. Not only is it inconvenient to the others around you waiting to use the equipment, the chances of you having to wait for a machine to be free are quite high. Plus, we wouldn't recommend supersetting your exercises too often anyways.
Know Your Limits
When it comes to exercise, safety always comes first. And if you're looking to perform an exercise, you should always know whether it's within your capacity. For example, the barbell front squat is an exercise that requires large amounts of shoulder and lat flexibility, which many people do not have.
Instead of pushing through the pain and attempting to do the exercise, you should stretch and improve your flexibility for a while before attempting it later.
If you've had shoulder injuries in the past, you may want to consult and seek medical advice before bench pressing heavy weights.
The same goes for past back injuries. Whether they were from work or heavy lifting, a past back injury means you need to be careful when picking the exercises that you're going to do. Maybe that means skipping the deadlift. Maybe that means swapping it out for the sumo deadlift. Whatever the case is though, if you've had past injuries, you should seek professional advice before attempting to lift on your own.
You also need to be responsible in the weights that you attempt to lift if you're just starting out. Many people think they are stronger than they actually are when they firsts start out, and quickly injure themselves.
You need to know your limits, and start out with preferably the lightest weight possible. Whether that means the empty barbell, the lightest stack on the machine, or the smallest dumbbells in the gym. Safety always comes first.
Deciding on the Best Exercises
When you do come to picking the best exercises for your routine, you should look to do the following:
Focus more on compound lifts
Pick ones that are within your capabilities
Pick exercises that align with your goals
Compound exercises hit several muscle groups at once, and give you a better bang for your buck. Examples of compound exercises include: squats, bench press, deadlifts, rows, pull ups, overhead presses, etc.
You should generally look to perform around 60-80% of your workout with compound exercises, and the rest with isolation exercises.
We've included three lists of the best pushing, pulling and lower body exercises below, which you can choose from to create your own routine.
Best Push Exercises
Barbell Bench Press
Incline Dumbbell Bench Press
Cable Lateral Raises
Best Pull Exercises
Bent Over Barbell Rows
EZ Bar Curls
Single Arm Dumbbell Rows
Rear Delt Rows
Best Lower Body Exercises
Bulgarian Split Squats
Generally, in most of you workouts, you should look to pick 3-4 compound exercises, and 1-3 isolation exercises to compliment them. So know your workout, whether it's a 'push' workout, a total-body workout, a lower body workout, or anything in between. Pick 5-6 exercises, ideally 3-4 of them being compound lifts.
Structuring Your Routine
So you've picked your exercises. But what comes next? Well, the order that you do your chosen in exercises in matters as well. Towards the beginning of the session, you'll have the most energy, and be the strongest and most focused. This is where you should do your primary lifts, in other words the exercises that most align with your goals.
For example if you're an Olympic weightlifter, you should obviously do you Olympic lifting first, as you'll be able to move the most weight at the start, and progress as quickly as possible.
Otherwise, if you're not training for a specific sport, but instead just training to build overall strength and muscle, you should still look to do the exercises that allow you to place the most overload onto your muscles and progress the quickest, which would be your compound exercises.
Once you're done with your primary compound lifting, you should look to move onto some other compound lifts, and then onto your isolation exercises.
Also, as a general rule of thumb, free weight and bodyweight exercises should be done first, before you do your machine work. This is because the free weight and bodyweight exercises engage the stabilizing muscles more, working and building more overall muscle mass on the body. Essentially, they're more engaging exercises.
Generally, your primary compound lifts will be your squat, your bench press, deadlift, overhead press, pull up and barbell row. If you're performing any of these exercise in your routine, they should be done first. Other compounds like your cable row, lat pulldown, machine chest press and leg press should be done afterwards, but still before your isolation movements.
Picking Your Sets and Reps
The second to last step is to choose the sets and reps that you'll be doing. Now we can't make exact sets and reps for everybody as we all have different goals, but there are some rough guidelines.
Generally, according to studies like this one by Brad Schoenfeld, doing 10+ weekly working sets close to failure per muscle group will result in optimal muscle growth. It's also been found in other studies that the higher end of this seems to be somewhere around 20 sets per muscle per week. This suggests that for the average lifter, doing 10-20 hard working sets per muscle per week will result in the most muscle growth.
Keeping this is mind, you need to choose your rep ranges carefully. For the most hypertrophy conducive set and rep schemes, you can use the 15-30 rep guideline by Coach Eugene Teo.
Basically, this guideline means that for the most muscle growth, your set and rep schemes should fall somewhere between 15 and 30 total reps for a given exercise. For example, the 5 x 5 set and rep scheme is popular for strength and size gain. 5 multiplied by 5 is 25, so that satisfies this guideline.
If you also want to build strength, you need to lift heavy. Sometimes, this might mean going below the 15 total reps. For example, 3 x 3 is a very effective set and rep scheme for building strength.
However it equates to only 9 total reps, and is therefore not the most optimal for hypertrophy. But if you're serious about gaining strength, it's probably a good idea to do some of your main compound lifting (squat, bench, deadlift) with these heavier reps. You'll still build muscle, just at a slightly lesser rate for more strength gain.
All in all, if you can safely do so, do your heavy lifting regardless of whether or not you're training for a specific sport. Getting stronger (by lifting heavy) will allow you to apply more mechanical tension (the load you apple onto your muscles) over time, and allow for increased growth.
So do some heavy lifting, and most of your work in the moderate rep ranges within the 15-30 total rep guidelines from Eugene Teo. Then you need to look over your routine, and ensure you're not doing too much or too little volume throughout the week. You'll likely need to look at your other workout routines to confirm this. Remember, the ideal weekly volume for most people falls between 10 and 20 had working sets per muscle per week.
Choosing Your Rest Periods
The last step to creating your ideal workout routine would be to know approximately how long you'll be resting between your sets.
Many people think that resting less will keep the intensity of your workouts high, and that therefore all rest periods should be within 30 and 90 seconds. However, this is not always the case.
While short rest periods like these do have their time and place in training routines, most of your work should be done with 2-5 minute rest periods. The longer you rest, the more energized you will be for your sets, and the more total workout volume you'll be able to o.
This doesn't just mean more sets. Resting longer will mean you're able to lift more weight, meaning you're applying more mechanical tension onto your muscles, and ultimately giving yourself the best chance possible to challenge your muscles to grow.
Rest periods will be individual from person to person, and likely differ from session to session as well. Sometimes we're just not feeling that great, and taking the extra 30 or 60 seconds to rest can mean the difference between improving from last session, or staying the same.
Generally, unless you're training for a specific sport, you should look to rest 30-60 seconds between your endurance lifting (30+ reps per set), 2-4 minutes between your hypertrophy-focused lifting, and 3-5 minutes between sets on your heavy strength focused lifting (1-5 reps per set).
But if you're not feeling great and need to go a little over, that is fine too. Just make sure you're not wasting time on your phone! And if you're feeling great or tight on time, you can definitely shorten those rest periods as well.
Just make sure you've written rough guidelines for all of your exercises as to how long you'll be resting.
General Workout Routine Template
If you're still a little confused about creating your program, we've created a general template below for overall strength and muscle gain that we think will be useful for you.
Compound exercise #1 - 3-5 sets of 3-8 reps
Compound exercise #2 - 3-4 sets of 6-10 reps
Compound exercise #3 - 2-3 sets of 10-12 reps
Compound exercise #4 (if applicable) - 2-3 sets of 8-15 reps
Isolation exercise #1 - 3 sets of 6-10 reps
Isolation exercise #2 (if applicable) - 2-3 sets of 8-10 reps
Recovery (stretch, foam rolling, etc.)
This template can definitely be played around with, but we thought it might be useful to some readers who were still confused as to when they should be performing their compound exercises, and when they should be lifting heavy. (Lower reps = heavier weight, higher reps = lighter weight).
Wrapping It Up
All in all, creating your first workout routine can be pretty confusing at time. But even if you just followed these 7 steps roughly, you'd be well on your way to having a decent workout routine at least.
This is the strategy that many of us here at Gympulsive personally use to make our own workouts, and we've seen great progress following it.
We hope you've been able to learn something from this post, and appreciate you taking the time to read our work!
For unlimited access to our blog posts, upgrade your account to Gympulsive Pro and truly become the best athlete that you can be!