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Okay so you’ve decided to start working out. Yay! That’s a huge success in itself. But now comes the hard part…deciding exactly where to start?! There are thousands of different workout options out there, most of them claiming to be “the best”, so how in the world do you pick one? Let me help you! Exercise is one of my favorite hobbies, and I’m lucky enough that I get to help hundreds of people every year get started on (or change up) their exercise journey. So today I want to teach you guys how to choose the best workout routine for your goals.
DECIDE ON YOUR GOAL
Before you can even start to plan your workout routine, you first need to decide your fitness goals. You will most likely have several, so it’s important to prioritize them. You might want to lose weight, but maybe increasing stamina so you don’t get out of breath going up a flight of stairs is even more important. I usually recommend making a list of your goals and then numbering them from more important, to least important. Once you know your top goals, you’re ready to start planning your routine.
Weight Loss/Tone/Lose Body Fat
I’m lumping these goals together because they are all essentially the same thing. You want to lean out and lose some inches of fat. For this goal it’s going to be important to prioritize both strength training and cardio. The cardiovascular exercise will help you burn calories to help with the weight loss, but the strength training will help you build some lean muscle which helps you burn fat and increase your metabolism. So honestly it’s essential to have both. If you decide to skip out on the strength training and only do cardio you might see some weight loss, but it will most likely not be the right kind of weight loss. Meaning you’ll be losing more muscle than fat, which is not what you want! So trust me on this when I say that strength training is crucial. I promise you that you won’t look like a bodybuilder (unless you want to of course!).
From here you need to decide how many days a week you can realistically fit in exercise. I usually recommend a minimum of 3 days and no more than 6 days. If you’re just starting out, 4x a week is a perfect goal to shoot for. Once you know your frequency, then it’s time to decide what days you’ll do cardio and what days you’ll do strength. I recommend aiming for about 90-120 minutes of cardio each week. This can be broken down into a few 20-30 minute sessions, or done in longer chunks. Honestly it is whatever fits your schedule. Here is an example week for someone working out 4x a week:
- Monday – strength training + 20 minutes of cardio
- Wednesday – strength training + 20 minutes of cardio
- Friday – 30 minutes of cardio
- Saturday – strength training + 20 minutes of cardio
I purposefully spread out the strength training days to give your muscles a chance to recover. Then you can choose any form of cardio that you like (swimming, zumba, running, walking, etc).
If your goal is to gain muscle, then you’ll want to be prioritizing strength training! This doesn’t mean you should completely eliminate cardio (it’s important for overall heart health) but it shouldn’t be your main focus. In order to gain muscle you’ll have to make sure you’re working in the appropriate rep range of less than 12 reps (RELATED POST – HOW TO STRENGTH TRAIN FOR YOUR SPECIFIC GOALS).
Then you’ll want to split up your routine so that it’s not a full body workout everytime you lift. Here are a few examples of how you can plan your strength workouts:
- Alternate upper body and lower body days
- Separate by push and pull exercises
- Group certain muscle groups: chest/shoulders/triceps, legs/abs, back/biceps
- Train each muscle group separate: chest, back, shoulders, triceps, biceps, legs, abs
With so many options, a lot of it can come down to how many days a week you can fit in a lift. If you can only lift 4x a week, then you won’t want to train each muscle separately, since then it could be 2 weeks since you’ve trained a certain muscle group.
Just as important as it is to prioritize strength training if you want to gain muscle, it’s also important to make sure your diet is in line. In order to gain muscle you’ll need to be eating in a caloric surplus (aka eating more calories than your body burns in a day). If you need help with this, check out my one-on-one macro coaching programs where I can coach you through this!
NEED HELP PICKING A STRENGTH TRAINING ROUTINE? Check out my Lean Strength 8 Week Workout Guide!
Increasing stamina means you’ll want to focus on cardio. But this doesn’t mean just walking the dog around the neighborhood a few times each week. In order to increase your stamina you’ll need to challenge yourself cardiovascularly. I usually recommend doing this by incorporating interval training into your workouts. Interval training (or sometimes called HIIT for high intensity interval training) simply means training with periods of high intensity followed by periods of low intensity or rest.
Interval training can be done using pretty much any form of cardio that you like (walking, running, elliptical, bike, rower, jump rope, etc). You’ll want to plan to do work at a really challenging pace for a pre-determined length of time and then lower down the intensity for another pre-determined period of time. Here are some guidelines for choosing the length of your intervals:
- If you’re just starting out and at a lower fitness level – make your lower intensity/rest periods longer than your high intensity periods
- For example: sprint on the treadmill for 30 seconds and then walk for 2 minutes. Repeat
- If you consider yourself at an “intermediate” level – try to make your lower intensity and high intensity periods equal
- For example: sprint on the treadmill for 30 seconds and then walk for 30 seconds. Repeat
- If you want a more advanced workout – make your lower intensity periods shorter than your high intensity periods
- For example: sprint on the treadmill for 30 seconds and then walk for 15 seconds
These are all just examples. You don’t need to follow the exact durations I listed. You could also hop on a bike and pedal as fast as you can for a minute, and then take it easy for a minute. Feel free to mix it up and get creative!
Better mobility is usually a goal that gets put to the bottom of people’s priority list, when really it should be at the top. Having proper mobility not only helps us move our bodies efficiently, but it also helps us reduce our risk of injury. Improving your mobility can even help you decrease some of those aches and pains that pop up as we age.
If this is your main goal then you’ll want to focus on stretching and foam rolling several days each week. This can be accomplished at the gym in a yoga class, or even at home while you’re watching TV. If you’ve never done any foam rolling before check out my article on How to Foam Roll.
Also make sure focus on the body as a whole, instead of just zeroing in on just one muscle. You might have really tight hamstrings, but it will also be important to loosen up other areas of the body as well. So while you might do a few extra stretches for the hamstrings, you just want to make sure that’s not all you do.
If your goal is a little more general, like “age well”, “be healthy”, or “feel better” then you’ll want your routine to be a little more general as well. This means incorporating a little bit of everything! You’ll want to make sure you do some cardio, strength training, and stretching every single week. By having a routine with this type of variety, it will ensure that you are hitting on all of the major components of exercise. Here could be a sample routine of someone just looking for some overall exercise to feel better:
- Monday – swimming laps + 10 minutes of stretching & core exercises
- Wednesday – 15 minutes of cardio to warm-up + full body strength workout
- Friday – 30 minutes of cardio + yoga class
- Saturday – full body strength workout + 10 minutes of core exercises & foam rolling
WHEN TO SEEK HELP
Exercise can be extremely scary and overwhelming, especially if you are just starting out. While exercise is a great way to feel better, there is also the potential to get hurt if you are doing things incorrectly. I also highly recommend meeting with a personal training to learn proper form for all strength exercises, especially when using free weights. If you can’t afford a trainer, you can also look into taking some group exercise classes where you can watch the instructor and hopefully hear some cues for proper form. Never be afraid to ask for help!