Whether you're a seasoned lifter or looking to implement weight training into your lifestyle, knowing how to build your own workout routines is a great skill to have. I've always built my own routines and it often starts from the outline of well known plans and tweaking them to match my goals. When you design your own plan you're taking your own physique and goals into account rather than using one that's designed for a general group of people or that someone developed specifically for themselves. Speaking of goals - let's go over some common goals you may have and start aligning routine styles with them:
- Gain muscle
- Lose fat
- Increase strength for a specific sport or hobby
To gain muscle you need to signal to your body that it needs to grow and build muscle to adapt to your activity level. Keep in mind that this also must be done in a caloric surplus so that your body has energy to build more muscle mass. When losing fat you want to be in a caloric deficit while maintaining as much muscle as possible - this is done by maintaining your strength as best you can throughout your cut or "weight loss" period. My strength routines and don't differ too much from routines where I'm trying to cut fat.
What's your situation?
How many hours a week do you work? Do you have family commitments? How long have you been weight training for? All of these questions will move you towards the answer to the question how many days a week should you do weight training. Ideally throughout the week you want to work your entire body and also rest to recover before hitting the weights again. The less days you have for training, the more full-body and encompassing your workouts will need to be. Here are some examples schedules and guidelines:
- 1-2 days per week: You'll need to be designing extremely efficient workouts that are hitting all of your major muscle groups. Your workouts will be comprised of almost entirely compound exercises. Be prepared to spend a lot of time in the squat rack.
- 2-3 days per week: You can split the days to include different muscle groups, but compound exercises will still be essential to work your muscles frequently enough. Your workouts will be mainly compound exercises with some individual muscle work added.
- 4 days per week and beyond: With more days available to weight train you'll be able to focus on more individual muscle groups. You can hit all of your compound exercises throughout the week and also spend more time focusing on each individual muscle.
What exercises should you do?
There are a lot of different exercises out there, and to keep it simple I like to stick to the basics whenever possible. There's always time to add in more exercises later as you become more advanced and are able to handle more volume in your workouts. Let's do a fun theoretical situation, if you could only do one, two, or three different exercises for your entire life what would they be? Here are my answers:
- One exercise only: Deadlift
- Two exercises: Deadlift, and bench press
- Three exercises: Deadlift, bench press, and squat
For me, this lays the foundation of every workout routine. I know that it will include these three exercises at the bare minimum as they will develop every muscle in my body. From there with additional time at the gym you can add more focus to the smaller muscle groups that these lifts don't hit as hard including biceps, upper back, additional chest work, and more core exercises. Here are my go to exercises:
- Chest: Barbell benchpress, dumbell bench press, incline dumbell bench press, dips, chest flys
- Back: Deadlifts, strict rows, wide-grip pullups, dumbell rows, lat pulldown
- Legs: Squats, front-squats, weighted lunges, box squats, leg curls, hamstring curls, calf raise
- Shoulders: Overhead press, dumbell shoulder press, lateral raises, front raises
- Biceps: Seated dumbell curls, preacher curls, hammer curls
- Triceps: Tricep pull-down, dips, close-grip bench press
On reps, sets, and rest time
Here are some general guidelines for what you're accomplishing within different rep schemes:
1-5 rep range : In this range you're building strength and more dense muscle fibers (myofibril hypertrophy) (low rep zone)
6-12 rep range : Here you're building strength, inducing greater muscle growth (sarcoplasmic muscular hypterophy). This is well known as the muscle building zone. (medium rep zone)
12 reps and beyond: Here you'll see SOME muscle growth but mainly you'll be increasing your muscular endurance. If you can easily perform 12 repetitions of any exercise you should consider moving up the weight.
Of course there is a lot more toconsider including time under tension, and duration of the exercises that determines the effect but these rep schemes are a basic outline that can be used in the beginning.
Rest time will be determined by your reps and sets. For lower rep work (1-5 range) you'll want to be resting at least 2 minutes and up to 5 minutes between sets to let your body fully recover. For 6 reps and beyond you'll be able to rest for less amount of time (as little as 30 seconds) before performing your next set as your body recovers more quickly from this rep intensity as you'll mainly be in the anaerobic glycolsis zone.
Putting it all together
At this point you might be saying "great I have all this information, but how do I put it together in a cohesive plan?" My aim with this article is to provide you with some starting information to start weight training and adapt your own programming as you find what works for you. Here are a few more pieces of the puzzle we haven't put together yet:
- How long should you be weight training for in a session? Some more experienced lifters may spend longer in the gym, but just starting out with your own routines I would recommend working out for 45 to 75 minutes.
- How many exercises should I do, and how many sets? This question comes back to your goals and gym time availability. Just starting out you'll want to stick to 3-5 exercises per workout, and for each of those exercises perform 3-5 sets.
- How many reps? Referencing the previous information on goals and how the body responds to rep ranges, if you want to lose bodyfat I would recommend sticking to mainly low reps with some medium rep sets mixed in. This will allow you to maintain as much strength as possible while optimizing fat loss. If you're looking to build muscle I would stick in the medium rep zone, with some low rep sets once per week. To build strength for specific sport movements I would stick with lower rep ranges and a lot of power movements that will transfer well to your sport. The great thing is that you don't have to stick to one specific rep scheme, and you can even mix it up in the same workout or set!
Here are some templates to work off of when designing your workout routine that I have used in the past to get started. I'll assign them general goals that you would align well with the program.
- Stronglifts 5x5: This is a great beginner routine that will focus on building functional strength. This program would work well for either goal of looking to gain muscle or lose fat. Eventually I would switch away from this program if your main goal is to build muscle as the accessory and hypertrophy work is minimal. This program works almost exclusively in the 5 rep routine and has you working out 3 times a week.
- Classic 3-day split: This is a 3 day a week plan that I would highly recommend anyone wanting to build muscle and gain weight. It hits all of my favorite compound exercises and a lot of accessory work in the medium rep range.
- Push/Pull/Legs split: This is another split routine that would be a useful starting point for an individual looking to lose weight. It is a moderate intensity program that has a good frequency for maintaining muscle.
What if you have less or more days to workout than the programs listed?
That's why we've been outlining all of this information! So you can take a program and adjust it to your liking and days available to workout. You can simply take one of these templates and either spread it out across more days, or pack extra days in with more exercises to meet your requirements.
Summarizing everything here
Giving a quick summary before the article comes to a close, there is no "one size fits all" workout routine. You'll often find yourself taking routines and adding or removing certain exercises that will make it the most functional for you (this is how all of my routines are formed). Here's a basic summary of all the information here:
- Start by doing 3-5 exercises per workout and 3-5 sets per exercise - this puts you at 15-25 sets per workout
- Determine your rep range based on your goals: 1-5 for strength and dense muscle building, 6-12 for building muscle mass. Try to maintain as much strength as possible when cutting (losing fat)
- Focus on compound exercises and add focus on smaller muscle groups with your additional time
- Rest an appropriate amount of time for your rep and set scheme (2-5 minutes for low rep, 30 seconds to 2 minutes for med rep)
- Find what works for you and use consistency to reach your goals
Overall, compound exercises really are king for the development of your body so make sure that you design your entire routines around the squat, deadlift, benchpress, and overhead press. If you have difficulty gripping the bar for your deadlift sets you could consider using a pair of weightlifting straps to power through while you build more grip strength. From there, you really can't go wrong if you're hitting those each week. If you have two days to workout do squat and bench one day, and deadlift and overhead press the next. If you have three days to workout, spread the compounds across them and squat twice a week. If you have four days and beyond per week then you can do one compound on each day and spend more time focusing on the supporting muscle groups with accessory work. One last note is that while you can design a routine that will work well with your goals, you MUST make sure that you have your nutrition dialed in. You can be doing a "fat loss" or "muscle building" routine but without the proper caloric deficit or surplus you're not going in any specific direction.
Thanks for reading and I really hope this article was helpful for you - if you have any feedback feel free to post in the comments and we'll get back to you!