where do you start when choosing a new workout routine?
Whether you are a total beginner or you are Mark Wahlberg, there will be a time when you have to choose which workout routine to commit to. That is not always easy.
Especially as a beginner or when you want to focus on a new goal and you don’t know where to start.
Luckily, the solution can be found by taking a look at your own preferences and goals as well as any constraints that may factor in such as time, budget and your fitness level.
Even something such as how easily bored you get with workouts or how awkward you find gyms can play a huge role in whether or not you’ll enjoy and stick to your routine.
This is important because consistency is absolutely the magic sauce that will get you coveted results, no matter what your goal is.
(My advice: never go full Wahlberg. That man is ridiculous. Plus, who golfs for half an hour?)
what are your goals?
The very first thing you need to consider is what your goals are. I will be writing more on the specifics of goal setting in a future post, but the short version is, it is imperative to have an idea of what you are hoping to accomplish through your workout routine.
Your diet and exercise will be quite different depending on your goals.
Please keep in mind that no matter your goal, your health should come first. I absolutely do not condone beginning a fat loss plan if you are not already in good health or if you do not have fat to lose.
Let’s take a look at each goal in more detail.
Notice it is FAT loss and not weight loss. The two are vastly different beasts.
Yes, both often occur simultaneously, but what people typically want when they are trying to lose weight, is to lose fat. Losing muscle is undesirable for most.
During a weight loss program, a very important factor is preserving muscle (fat free mass).
This is because muscle helps to keep your metabolism high and prevents your metabolism from slowing down and causing a weight loss plateau — or even more discouraging — weight regain.
Did you know that 45% of people’s New Year’s resolutions are to lose weight or get in shape?
Weight loss programs are extremely popular and the market is huge. The problem is that most of them are based on psuedo-science, fads, or just plain taking advantage of people’s desperation and ripping them off.
Due to this, people are confused. 55% of Americans either aren’t sure or don’t believe that diets can work at all to help with weight loss. Despite this, 9.6 billion dollars is spent per year on medical weight loss programs. These are the last ditch type efforts such as bariatric surgery, monitored very low calorie diets, and anti-obesity drugs.
It doesn’t have to be this way. If you take your time, be consistent, and don’t overdo it and burn yourself out, you CAN lose weight and improve your health successfully.
Recently, I trained and coached a client who was a busy graduate student working 10 hour days, six days a week. He had always been overweight even though he was decently active with walking and weekly sports. After a change in diet combined with strength training, he lost 30lbs., built muscle, and has kept it off for over a year so far.
It is also important to know that you can lose fat without losing weight! This happens when you are able to add precious muscle at the same time as losing fat.
Okay, so now that we know there is a difference between weight loss and fat loss, what specific types of workouts will make your fat cry?
Workouts that burn the maximum amount of fat need to use the body’s systems to stoke metabolism for hours after you are done working out….
Enter High Intensity Interval Training
High intensity interval training is fantastic for burning fat in a shorter period of time, while preserving muscle.
Steady state cardio, such as long runs may burn more calories when done for a long period of time, but it can also eat away at your muscle tissue.
Your body adapts to become more efficient at running and part of that is to become lighter — and muscle is heavy. This is called muscle catabolism.
In turn, your metabolism slows and you have to eat less to maintain your weight. It’s not ideal.
An exaggerated example of how endurance training (steady state cardio) vs. high intensity anaerobic training (such as sprinting) creates vastly different physical changes is seen in long distance runners vs. sprinters.
want some examples of HIIT programming?
There are a variety of ways to program HIIT such as metabolic conditioning and Tabata training.
The best way I have found that has proved the greatest results is a simple formula that goes like this:
This formula allows you to create full body metabolic conditioning circuits that are fun and incredibly effective.
You can use your own body weight or add weighted exercises to create workouts tailored to your fitness level and specific exercise preferences.
Try not to pause at all until the rest period. Push as hard as you can during the work periods.
Above all — make sure that your form is good and that you are being safe!
Here is an example circuit that can be done anywhere with your own body weight.
High intensity workouts like this should not be done every day. Although HIIT training produces less stress hormone release (such as cortisol, which catabolizes muscle), it is still a stress on your body.
To prevent deleterious effects of stress symptoms/over-training, it is best to do these workouts every other day or three times a week.
An excellent example of a fat loss program using HIIT training would be HIIT three days a week with yoga, swimming, or walking in between.
Walking is imperative to a fat loss plan or any plan. It helps tremendously to lower stress hormones and prevent burn out as well as to improve mental health. Not only that, but moderate physical activity has been shown to prevent hunger.
Walking also helps keep your activity levels higher to add to the awesome effects of HIIT training.
If you don’t get much walking in your day currently, try adding 2000 steps to your day for a week, then increase by 1000 until you reach at least 10,000 steps a day
Muscle growth (hypertrophy)
So, you wanna actually look like you workout? You want nice shape and curves to your body?
Maybe your goal is nice rounded shoulders (or butt!) or larger calves?
Hypertrophy is your game.
Building muscle size is different than building strength. It’s all in the rep ranges and the amount of sets you complete. More repetitions and sets = more time under tension.
The amount of time your muscles are under tension determines the stimulus and subsequent adapatation (after recovery).
Adaptation is a fancy term for GAINS! (or “gainz” if you are a gym nerd like me)
Without getting too in depth, the basic idea is that in order to build new muscle fibers, you need to tear and repair. Sounds awful and painful, but if you do it right, you will build size without always being sore.
The key is in recovery.
If you are one of those people who thinks rest days are for suckers and is proud when they are sore every day, you are doing yourself a great injustice.
In fact, soreness is a sign of doing more than you need to and it can work against you. Sorry brah.
All of your results come from properly resting and recovering from workouts.
Part of recovery is making sure to eat well, including enough carbs to fuel you (read about why carbs are important here).
Programming for Muscle Growth
So what do you do to optimize muscle growth?
A rep range of 8-12 with 3 or more sets per exercise, depending on your fitness level and experience (and time constraints! More on that later).
You can do the typical bodybuilder thing and split your body parts up throughout the week, or you can do full body workouts on training days.
I prefer full body training and this is why:
Body split routines are mainly beneficial if your body is always anabolic. What does that mean? Well, typically it means you are on steroids.
If you train your chest once per week, your chest muscles are not being stimulated frequently enough to produce adaptation (ie. muscle growth). Same applies for any other body part you are hitting once a week in a split style routine.
However, if you train full body 2-4 times per week, then you are able to hit every muscle group successfully and keep the stimulus peaked and your muscles continuously primed for those lovely GAINS!
Here is an example of a FULL BODY hypertrophy workout.
Note: use a tempo (time under tension) of 2-1-2-1 — for example, the squat would be performed for a lowering count of two, pause at the bottom for a count of one, raise back up for a count of two, pause for count of one before beginning another rep.
If unsure of how to complete any of these exercises, YouTube should give you an answer. As for the banded hip abduction, this video will show you how it’s done.
You can purchase bands for glute exercises and more here.
* A Note About Compound Exercises *
Another thing to note is that compound exercises, you know the ones that use multiple joints —
- overhead press
- bench press
- barbell rows
- pull ups
— should be the staple of any workout routine.
One to two compound exercises should be the focus of your full body workout. Any smaller isolation exercises can be done if you have time.
Being strong and functional is critical to a healthy and long life, especially if you have never been active with weight lifting before and need to build a strong foundation for every day life. Strength is increasingly important as we age as well if we want to remain independent.
Programming for Strength
As with muscle growth, building strength is all about the proper rep range and sets (stimulus) to cause specific adaptations in the body.
With strength, a rep range between 1-5, with 3-5 sets is ideal for the main lift you are working on that day. You can add accessory (isolation) lifts if you have the time or desire and use a higher rep range for these (8-12).
You will want to use weights that challenge you with every repetition. This is typically 80-90% of the maximum weight you can lift one time (one rep max).
Here is a basic workout routine for building strength. This would be an example of one day of a 3 -5 day per week routine. Incorporate the other major compound lifts (squats, overhead press, barbell row, push-up) into the other days of your routine.
Below is a 1 Rep Max Predictor calculator I designed based on the Epley formula. Just input a weight you have successfully lifted with for reps with the last couple of reps being quite challenging. Under that is a result for 80% of predicted 1RM.
Start with this weight and adjust according to your abilities and results.
For a more advanced version of this calculator and to learn more about choosing weights and finding your one rep max, click here:
Want muscle growth and strength at the same time?
If you want to eat your cake and have it too (yes, this is the proper way this phrase should be said!), then you can simply cycle your strength and hypertrophy routines.
For example, you can do a strength focused workout one lifting day, then a hypertrophy focused routine the next.
Similarly, you can cycle them over a period of a week or several weeks. In fact, I recommend cycling workout styles every 12 weeks at least. This will keep your body primed for, you guessed it, adaptation!
You can also pick a sesason where you cycle in fat loss routines. Or, as above, you can cycle in a fat burning workout into your strength or hypertrophy program. Just be careful not to over-extend yourself or to overtrain. If you don’t focus enough, you can end up getting nowhere fast.
It is crucial to mention as well that in order to build solid muscle and strength, you need to eat in a calorie surplus. So, if you want to gain muscle and strength, it is not the time to be on a calorie reduced diet. A future post will delve into this more thoroughly.
What if you don’t have any desire to hulk out or lift heavy sh*t? What if you just want to not feel like a frazzled mess every day or you just want to improve your health so that you can keep up with your kids or have a better intimate relationship (wink wink)?
Maybe you’ve watched a loved one’s health deteriorate and you want to prevent the same from happening to you.
I think we all know by now that being active is critical to accomplishing these ends since everywhere you turn, the media shoves statistics, articles and products down your throat.
But it doesn’t have to be complicated.
Seriously, who isn’t stressed out now a days? In a culture where being constantly busy is glorified and the economy dictates that we all need a “side hustle” just to pay rent (who the heck can afford a down payment anymore?) stress is a serious factor in our daily lives.
Getting active is the best way that I know of to help manage stress.
If you are under a lot of stress and show symptoms of this, then it is probably not a good idea to undergo any sort of extreme exercise routine or diet changes. Of course eating healthy will help, but losing weight at a fast pace or trying to do extreme workouts (even HIIT) is an added stressor to the body.
Don’t get me wrong — the body actually does better with some stress, especially physical. However, too much will absolutely derail your efforts and make your stress symptoms worse (ask me how I know).
High stress can mean added weight gain due to the hormone cortisol, which also stimulates your desire to eat more sugary and fatty foods. Not ideal.
Walking is the best form of activity for managing stress. Especially if it is done outside with some greenery.
Yoga, tai chi and quigong are also excellent choices with data to prove it.
Aerobic activity (such as walking) has even been shown to dramatically help those with PTSD, anxiety and depression!
No ultimate goal in mind?
Maybe you just want to be an active participant in your own life, to be able to climb stairs, run after your kids and travel.
If going to a gym or lifting heavy things and putting them back down is not your jam, then seriously, don’t stress about it. Maybe this time in your life requires your focus to be on other things, and that’s absolutely acceptable.
The good news is that any sort of activity where you are moving your body counts as “physical activity“, not just structured workout routines. This could be gardening, cleaning, shopping, playing with your kids on the playground instead of playing Candy Crush on your phone…
Of course options like yoga, the odd group exercise class, meeting with friends for a walk or making a commitment to walk with your partner or family after dinner are all great ideas.
You could even challenge yourself to try and walk places that are within close distance to your house in order to run short errands (like grabbing a bottle of wine!).
This is a harder one to use for motivation because it is human nature to push thoughts of mortality and old age out of our heads. But it is a key reason to keep active and maintain muscle strength.
Nobody wants to end up unable to care for their own basic needs. Especially when it is often within our power to prevent that.
Do a little something that future-you will be thankful for.
One of the most heartbreaking things l hear from older clients is that they wish they could do “one last hike”, or to be able to spend their golden years with their loved one travelling, or even just pain free.
We work our whole lives, usually for the benefit of someone else — don’t we want to be able to spend our last years with minimal discomfort, independent, and able to pursue hobbies and adventures that we always hoped we could?
What else is this all for?
The research shows that some vigorous activity is important for longevity.
Clear scientific evidence shows the benefit of regular physical activity on both the prevention of diabetes, hypertension, osteoporosis, cancer (breast and colon cancer in particular), depression, stress and anxiety, and dementia.
Regular physical activity is essential in achieving and maintaining weight control and we all know the many health risks associated with overweight and obesity (body positivity is great but celebrating major health risks is not).
As mentioned previously, there is a clear correlation between physical activity and all-cause mortality.
Knowing this, it is clear that being physically active is fundamental to living a longer life, free of pain, chronic illness and disease.
If you are already an older adult who is out of shape and sedentary, I highly recommend hiring a personal trainer to develop a routine with you if you can. This can save you money in medical costs in the long run and improve your quality of life immensely.
Okay, this is an area that most people simply do not consider when they are trying to figure out what workout routine to choose.
There are definitely people who repeat patterns that get themselves nowhere and never really seem to figure out what it is that is getting in their way of finally getting motivated and sticking to a routine.
We know that willpower is finite. It is not reliable or something we can fully control.
Finding motivation has to come from within, you have to want this for yourself.
Now, something people often do not realize is that they are simply choosing the absolutely wrong workout routine and structure for their personality. Finding the time and energy to focus on your health is already hard enough without having to try and beat yourself into submission to go do the thing.
You should WANT to do the thing!
STRUCTURED vs. EASILY BORED
We could also call this “Type A vs. Type B” personalities.
Knowing yourself and what type of person you are is pretty important to choosing a workout routine. A lot of people quit very early on in their efforts because of boredom. You may blame yourself for being lazy and unmotivated but the issue is usually with your routine and not with yourself.
If you are easily bored or if you have never even started a workout routine because just the word “routine” makes you cringe, then the solution is to have an open plan that has a backbone, but no real concrete or rigid structure.
So how do you do that?
Well, based on your over-all goal(s), you can decide on the number of days you want to workout and plan to incorporate new workouts that fit into those goals.
For example, the HIIT routine formula set out earlier is perfect for easily bored folk who need something new and different often in their workouts.
You can have a day or two (or three) that you incorporate HIIT and come up with the movements you would like to do on the fly. This ensures a unique and fun workout based on how you are feeling and the movements you enjoy that day.
You can even come up with your own formula for HIIT or Tabata training if you like. If you are invested in the creation, you are more likely to stick to it.
You can also cycle your focus more frequently if you get bored of training for hypertrophy, switch to strength training and vice versa. You can even mix and match these modalities within a single workout to prevent boredom.
There are endless possibilities.
The Type A structured folk are likely more inclined to stick to a program.
However, some people will give up because they aren’t seeing results or there is too much of a learning curve.
For these people, it is best to develop a workout routine that is initially simple, streamlined, straightforward, and goal orientated.
It is also an excellent idea to keep track of metrics and monitor progress (you should be doing this regardless of your personality type and goals but I think Type A’s especially appreciate having this data).
Create both short term and long term goals using the S.M.A.R.T acronym and plan to cycle routines every 12 weeks (or 8, or whatever suits you) to keep your body adapting.
Write this all down in your bullet journal or app, or whatever you organized folk use to keep track of your life
Two of the biggest barriers to beginning or maintaining a workout routine are time and money.
Exercising with little funds
Whole dissertations have been written on “Paying Not to Go to the Gym”. Gym business design is built on the knowledge that most of their members won’t even step into the building on any sort of a long-term or consistent basis. If you aren’t the gym-going type, than gyms are a huge con.
This is a real issue and it makes very poor financial sense.
In fact, 40% of gym goers who quit their membership do so because they cannot afford it, or perceive it as being too expensive. Similarly, 54% of people say they cannot join a gym at all because they feel they do not have the money to.
The good news is that it really does not have to cost you much to begin a workout routine.
There is so much you can do with your own body weight for starters.
There is also some very affordable equipment, and even ways to DIY your fitness gear.
One of my top picks for starting out with a home gym on a budget would be a set of resistance bands that you can use like a cable machine. You can use these in place of cables as well as free weights if you lack the funds or space. I use these all the time in my training.
Another fantastic tool is a suspension trainer. It does not have to be an expensive brand name one. The one I have is off-brand and works perfectly well. This tool allows you to up the ante when it comes to body weight training. You can challenge your whole core in all-new ways with this thing.
Exercising with little time
Time is another huge barrier.
That is a huge disconnect.
An average of fourteen days of work are missed among Canadian employees due to depression, stress or anxiety.
The good news is that exercise can help.
“These improvements in mood are proposed to be caused by exercise-induced increase in blood circulation to the brain and by an influence on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and, thus, on the physiologic reactivity to stress.” (source).
Exercise is proven to improve depressive symptoms and could prevent missed work days, not to mention, help those with depression and anxiety feel better and live happier lives.
Note: Exercise alone is not always the only treatment necessary for these mental health concerns. Sometimes medication is needed, often therapy is a good idea. Talk to your mental health care provider.
Time saving workout routines
There are a few smart ways to save time in the gym or at home with your workouts.
- Supersets & compound sets
- Circuit training
Supersets. Not only a super way to prevent boredom during your workout but also a fantastic way to save time.
How? By all but eliminating rest times and doubling up to get sh*t done faster.
This is accomplished by simply pairing two different muscle groups and performing sets back to back without rest.
Here is an example:
Compound sets are similar except you group the same muscle groups together instead of different muscle groups.
So in the example above you would simply restructure it like this:
A1: Goblet Squat
A2: Walking Lunges
B1: One Arm Row
B2: Lat Pull Down
C: Bench Step Ups
D: Push Ups
(Alternatively, create tri-sets by moving C to A3 and D to B3)
Compound sets may be best for more advanced lifters since you are really fatiguing the muscle group. This is also an excellent method for busting out of strength training plateaus!
Another way to restructure the same workout would be to create a circuit! This works best if you have access to an empty gym or a home gym, or you just don’t care if you piss off everyone by being an equipment hog!
In this scenario, you would perform one set of each exercise in order before going back to the top and repeating the circuit again. You would take no rests (unless necessary) until the end of the circuit rounds.
This is also a incredibly effective way to keep your heart rate up and burn fat during your workout.
If you are a cardio-hater like me, then lifting weights faster is a great way to still have a cardiovascular element to your workouts while doing the lifting of the things and putting them back down.
Here’s how the same workout completed as a circuit would look:
A: Goblet Squat x 8 -10
B: Walking Lunges x 8 -10
C: One Arm Row x 8 -10
D: Lat Pull Down x 8 -10
E: Bench Step Ups x 8 -10
F: Push Ups x 8 -10
Rest 2-3 minutes and repeat
HIIT, as mentioned previously, is an excellent time saver as well. Utilize any of these methods whenever you want to save time during workouts.
For more on creating ways to fit exercise into your busy schedule, read this article from Corrie at The Fit Careerist (7 Tips for Working a Fitness Routine Into Your Busy Week).
Experience and Fitness Level
Your previous experience and current fitness level will definitely have an impact on the success or failure of any workout routine you choose.
In order to prevent disappointment, burnout, injury, or over-training, you need to be honest with yourself about where you are at physically.
If you have tried workout programs in the past and failed or quit (like most of us have), then take that into consideration when choosing a new routine.
What was it about the failed attempt that caused you to stop? If you hated the exercises, do not pick or design a routine that includes them.
The single most important factor to success is consistency.
There is no one magic exercise or routine that will give you results if you simply aren’t being consistent in performing them. If you know you don’t like something, don’t do it. If you want to be better at it so you can include it into your program, hire a trainer.
If you are brand new to lifting, it is important to make sure you don’t have any muscle imbalances or strange movement patterns that could turn into a worse dysfunction or pain in the future. As a trainer, I recommend that you have someone qualified help you figure this out.
If you cannot do this, then study online videos and other resources to get a good idea of the movement patterns.
Consider starting with a bodyweight program and go from there.
If you are experienced and at a more advanced level and are wanting to up your game, include any of the workout variations above into your program. It is also important to cycle your routines to focus on strength or hypertrophy as well as other elements such as explosive power and athleticism if those are important to you.
Take care of yourself!
Hopefully some light has been shed on not only WHY it is so important to fit exercise in to your life but also HOW to do so.
We all have so many things going on to distract and preoccupy us from taking care of our health.
Just try to keep in mind that caring about your health is not a selfish act, it is an act of self-respect.
Properly taking care of ourselves helps us take care of others. It can improve our moods and health in order to create more positive interactions with those in our lives.
Self-investment is the smartest investment you will ever make!
Still confused? Indecisive?
Bad at making decisions?
Have some advice to add?
Leave a comment or question below!