Determine Your Situation
If you can do an hour a day, thats 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. Thats 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, youll want to determine WHERE youll work out:
At a gym? Heres how to behave in a commercial gym
At home? Have you tried our beginner bodyweight workout?
What Exercises Should I Do?
I like to follow the motto of Keep it simple, stupid.
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 its exhausting, unnecessary, inefficient, and intimidating.
Keep it simple! Were going to pick 5 exercises, and get really strong with those movements.
Unless youve been strength training for years and know what youre 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:
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, 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 youll work almost every single muscle in your body. These are just a few examples for what you can do, but you really dont need to make things more complicated than this.
As stated above, when building your workout, dont 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, youll stay excited, and youll actually DO the workout!
Lastly, your muscles dont get built in the gym, they actually get broken down in the gym, and then get rebuilt stronger when youre 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.
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 youll learn how your body responds and you can adapt as you go.
What you DONT 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, youll want to aim for higher reps per set with lighter weights as youre learning the movements (if youre 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 youre 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.
Whats 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).
If youre looking for a simple answer: do 4 sets of 8-10 reps for each movement youve chosen, and see how your body responds.
How Long Should I Wait Between Sets?
Keep it simple.
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: 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
If you need more or less rest than the above recommendations, thats 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. Its 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 youre 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 youre not gassed, its time to mix things up.
Can you do 20 push ups no problem? Its 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.
How Long Should I Exercise?
Easy answer: 45 minutes to an hour.
If youre 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 youre not completely worn out, youre simply not pushing yourself hard enough.
Less time, more intensity, better results.
What if you dont have 45 minutes? Maybe you want to build some cardio into your weight training. Thats where these next two sections come in.
Lets say youre 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 youre exercising two completely different muscle groups, you can exercise one while the other is resting. Youre now getting the same workout done in half the time. Also, because youre resting less, your body has to work harder so your heart is getting a workout too. Jackpot.
Lets 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 youve done one set of each exercise in succession, you then repeat the process two, or three, or four more times.
Ive written about two bodyweight circuits here on the site:
Beginner Body Weight Circuit
Advanced Body Weight Circuit
Note: If you work out in a gym, Circuits get very tricky when in a gym, so make sure youre doing them when its 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. Heres how to properly track your progress and set a new personal best every time you train.
Recap: Building a Workout Routine
Lets 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 youll 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, cant you just TELL me what to do? Im 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!