For athletes and other top-level performers, the world of creating workouts is vast, varied, and very in-depth. Every minute detail is charted out and tracked and built upon, and every outcome is analyzed and refined. It can be really complicated.
That’s not what we’re about here. Sure, there are countless methods and strategies and ideologies when it comes to workout programming, and a lot them are effective. But that doesn’t make a simple approach any less valid. We’ll save all the complicated stuff for later; today, I’d like to take the Decidedly Non-Hardcore approach and teach you how to simply put together your own safe, effective workout.
Planning out your workouts is essential. It keeps you focused, on task, and on a clear path toward your goals. It can be quite ineffective to go to the gym with no idea what you’re about to do. You spend a lot of time just sort of wandering around aimlessly, saying “Well...I guess I’ll use this machine?” It’s a huge time suck, and never a good workout. And a lack of planning can also have you spinning your wheels and delaying those hard-earned and much-deserved results!
[On the flipside, it’s also important to be flexible with your workout. It shouldn’t ruin your plan if someone is using the piece of equipment you need, or if the two machines you intended to use for your superset aren’t actually near each other. You need to be able to change the order of the exercises around, perhaps figure out a suitable alternative if there’s no available equipment, and just all-in-all go with the flow.]
And one caveat before we get into it: not everyone should be including every element in every (or sometimes any) workout. I don’t mean “those who want to lose fat should do this kind of workout while those looking to get bigger should do another kind.” What I mean is that you should take a good, hard look at your current level of fitness (and perhaps even ask a qualified professional) before deciding which elements to include for the time being. When you’re a beginner, it’s important to act like one.
For those who are very out of shape and metabolically unhealthy (again, this might take asking someone), it might only be appropriate to start with walking. Not huff-and-puff, exercise walking – just walking. Around the block. Down to the park. To the corner store and back. It is unhelpful and even potentially dangerous to jump into a workout program that’s too intense for your current fitness level. Remember, you need to think about who you currently are in order to guide you to who you want to be. Ok, moving on...
We’re going to base creating your workouts on a few basic principles, and then throw in some variation to take it even further. But it really doesn’t have to be all that hard. I’ve been lifting weights for years now, and I still stick mostly to the basics.
The Central Theme
The main theme of your workouts should be the concept of the Minimum Effective Dose. This means that you should be trying to get the most benefit from the smallest amount of work. Sounds pretty good, right? The point is not to go to the gym and slave away for hours; the point is to go, get a good workout, and then get on with your day!
With this theme in mind, your workout should be based on these four elements...
Element the First: The Warm-Up
When in a rush, this tends to get put on the backburner, but I urge you to not let that happen. There are two things that happen when we warm up: we increase blood-flow (and, thus, nutrient and oxygen delivery) to the working muscles; and we give the nervous system a heads up that we’re about to work. A large part of both strength and flexibility is neurological rather than strictly physical, so it’s important to get your brain in the same place as your body.
Warm-ups themselves can involve some whole body movements, some movements aimed at the particular areas of the body you’ll be using, and even a little bit of mobility work to focus on specific issues and limitations (for instance, stretching out the hip complex, with a goal of evening out each side, if you’re going to squat and have an imbalance). One easy way to think about it would be to go General to Specific.
Here’s an example Warm-Up for a leg day:
- Diaphragmatic Breathing [10 slow breaths]
- 3-Minute Jog
- Inchworms 
- Leg Swings [10 per leg front-to-back, 10 per leg side-to-side]
- Slow Goblet Pause Squats 
- Figure-4 Stretch [60-120 seconds each side]
This warm-up gets both your nervous system and your muscles working, and focuses special attention on the lower body.
This, of course, is just an example. There are numerous ways to put together a good warm-up, so be creative and keep it simple!
Element the Second: The Workout
Like the warm-up, a simple way to put together the main part of your workout would be to think General to Specific. If you are working your legs, for instance, you could start with large, compound movements (exercises that involve active movement through more than one joint, like a squat) and then work your way to more specific, isolation movements (exercises that involve active movement at one joint, like leg extensions).
It is good, also, to probably include a few warm-up sets of each movement, especially if you’re going to be lifting heavy weights that day. A warm-up set is just a set of the movement you’re going to be performing done with a very light weight.
As far as rep ranges and sets are concerned, that will really depend on your overall goals. Different rep ranges lend themselves to different goals (hypertrophy, endurance, strength, etc.), but at the beginning your main focus should be on gaining strength. Shoot for 3-4 sets of each exercise performing 8-12 repetitions (aka “reps”) per set.
Here’s an example Workout for a leg day:
- Barbell Back Squat [1 warm-up set plus 3 sets of 12 repetitions]
- Walking Dumbbell Lunges [4 sets of 10 repetitions per leg]
- Dumbbell Romanian Deadlifts [3 sets of 15 repetitions]
- Single-Leg Leg Extensions [3 sets of 10 repetitions per leg]
When it comes to selecting a weight, this will take some trial and error on your part (but it doesn’t have to be an exact science, per se). Say you are performing lunges for 3 sets of 10 repetitions: you would want to pick a weight that would have you approaching failure by the last couple of reps on each set.
Make sure, though, that you DO NOT sacrifice proper movement patterns in order to complete a set. Whether you need to drop the weight or cut the set short, either is preferable to making unhealthy movement compensations strictly for the sake of finishing. Likewise, altering your movement patterns for the sake of making movements easier is both natural and unhelpful; fight this urge.
Element the Third: Finishers and Sprints [Both Optional]
Finishers and sprints are good ways to get your heart rate up, burn through some muscle glycogen (long story, but ask if you’re interested…), and promote some extra fat loss. They’re like cardio, but they help maintain muscle mass, are less stressful overall, are decidedly less boring and bad for your joints, and are actually effective.
Finishers can be described at sets of exercises done quickly and explosively in an effort to “feel the burn.” I’ll work on that definition. Basically, though, you can do some of the same exercises you’ve already done but manipulate other variables. For instance, if you started with barbell back squats, you could do another set (or two) of them but with higher reps, a lower weight, at a higher speed, and a shorter rest period between sets.
Sprints are when you work with 100% effort for a short period of time. By this definition, your sprint doesn’t have to be relegated to simply running really fast. It could be short sprints on a stationary bike, or pushing a prowler (sled), or on a rower. Whatever the sprint and whatever your fitness level, just remember that it’s working at 100% effort. No two people’s sprinting will look the same.
Here's an example Finisher for a leg day:
- Light barbell back squat [15 quick reps] directly into...
- Row sprint [30 seconds]
- 90 seconds of rest, then repeat 2-3 times
BIG, FLASHY NOTE: The term “optional” above refers to both whether you want to do them and whether you should do them. Sprints, especially, are not necessary after every workout, and should only be done by those who have already built up a certain level of physical fitness. Adding sprints too early can do more harm than good.
Element the Fourth: The Cool-Down
Warm-ups ain’t got nothing on cool-downs as far as being skipped goes. Even those in the rushiest of rushes might make time for a warm-up, while those with ample time tend to skip the cool-down phase just because...because.
Cool-downs are essential to proper recovery, so don’t skip them! Cooling down helps shift the body from a sympathetic state (the part of the autonomic nervous system that controls the “fight-or-flight” and other such responses) to a parasympathetic state. Remember exercise is stress! Sure, it’s a good and necessary stress because the body adapts to it by getting stronger, but keeping ourselves in that elevated stress, sympathetic-dominant state too long after our workouts can be antithetical to the hard work we just did.
Here’s a simple, easy Cool-Down after a leg day:
- Diaphragmatic Breathing [10 slow breaths]
- Kneeling Hip-Flexor Stretch [60-90 seconds per side]
- Leisurely Walk [at least 5 minutes]
Your cool-down doesn’t have to be complicated, intricate, or difficult - it just has to be there. Remember, every positive thing you gain from exercising you gain in recovery. You do not build muscle or adapt to stresses in the gym; you do so after the gym. So make sure you get to that recovery state as quickly and as smoothly as possible in order to maximize the work you did rather than fight against it.
Give this sample workout a go, and then try to apply the principles to create other workouts, too. Are you due for a back day? Poke around the internet for some exercises and see what you can come up with! And if you have any questions about how to perform any of the exercises you find, please feel free to reach out! I’d rather answer a few extra emails than have anyone performing poor reps based on a crappy youtube video.