How to create a workout plan: the ultimate guide to building a gym program.
By Coach Hunter Bennett
A quick google search will unearth thousands of free gym programs you could use.
But here’s the kicker.
None of these workout plans are designed for you as an individual. They don’t consider your goals, your needs, or your training schedule.
Which means that if you want a gym program that is designed for you, you should create it yourself.
And we are here to help.
Enter the ultimate guide showing you how to create a workout plan.
What are your goals?
Before anything else, it is important to identify your training goals – which, with respect to gym training, should fall into one of two categories.
- Get stronger
- Build muscle
Now you might be thinking “but my primary goal is to lose fat and look more defined.”
Which is fine.
However, note that looking more defined simply means increasing the size of your muscle, and then losing fat around that muscle.
This makes it more visible.
If your primary goal is to change the way you look, you should aim to build more muscle.
Set your volume targets
Once you have identified your primary training goal, it is time to set your weekly volume targets.
For strength related goals, performing 5-12 hard sets per week is optimal for increasing strength per movement.
Similarly, for muscle growth, performing 10-20 hard sets is optimal for increasing muscle size per muscle group.
For example, if you want to get stronger in the squat, bench press, and deadlift, you should perform between 5 and 12 sets for each of those movements per week.
If you also want to develop your quads and glutes, you will need to add a few sets of exercises that train those muscle groups to get to 10 -20 sets.
This might look like 8 sets of both squats and deadlifts per week. You may then also do 4 sets of lunges (quads and glutes), 4 sets of hip thrusts (glutes), and 4 sets of knee extensions (quads).
This would give you 16 total sets of quads and glutes, with 8 of those coming from the specific movements you want to get stronger at (squats and deadlifts).
Organise your weekly schedule
When you are creating a workout plan, it needs to fit within your schedule.
Once you have your weekly set targets established, it is time to plug them into the days you have available.
If you can only train three days per week, you are best served by performing a full body training program.
If you want to train 4 days per week, you could do two days of upper body, and two days of lower body.
If you want to train five days per week, you could do a lower body day, an upper body push day, an upper body pull day, another lower body day, and a full upper body day (both push and pull).
There is no perfect way to organise your training split. Although when you are creating a gym program, there are a few things you should adhere to.
- Not performing the same movement on back-to-back days
- Not training the same muscle group on back-to-back days
- Not doing more than 6 sets per movement per workout for strength goals
- Not performing more than 10 sets per muscle group per workout for hypertrophy goals
Once you tick those boxes, you can honestly organise training however you want.
With all this information in mind, lets work through an example:
- Primary goal is to improve strength in the squat, bench, and deadlift
- Want to increase size of the back, quads, triceps, biceps, hamstrings, and glutes
- Can only train three days per week
Given you can only train three days per week, a full body program is the best option. You also want to make sure that you perform 5-12 sets of squat, bench, and deadlift, while also performing 10-20 sets per muscle group listed above.
Initially, this may look something like this:
|Squat: 4 sets||Deadlift: 5 sets||Squat: 3 sets|
|Bench: 3 sets||Overhead press: 3 sets||Bench: 4 sets|
|Quads and glutes: 3 sets||Hamstrings: 3 sets||Hamstrings and glutes: 3 sets|
|Back: 4 sets||Back: 4 sets||Back: 4 sets|
|Triceps: 3 sets||Biceps: 3 sets||Quads: 3 sets|
In this example, you have 7 sets of squats, 5 sets of deadlifts, and 7 sets of the bench press.
You also have 13 sets of quads (including squats), 12 sets of back, 13 sets of triceps (including bench and overhead press), 15 sets of biceps (including our back exercises, which also train the biceps), 11 sets of hamstrings (including deadlift), and 18 sets of glutes (including squats and deadlifts).
With all this in mind, you are currently hitting your set target for all movements and muscle groups.
But you are not done yet…
Choose your exercises
In this example we have got your main strength exercises sorted because they are linked to your primary goals. And this is something that is going to be similar for most.
But when it comes to accessory exercises, there are some additional factors that need to be considered.
1. What equipment do you have available?
If you want to train your back, but only have access to a chin up bar and a seated row machine, then these are going to be your primary back exercises.
Similarly, if you want to train your quads and glutes but don’t have access to a leg press, then don’t pick that exercise.
2. Range of motion matters.
Irrespective of whether your goal is strength or hypertrophy, your accessory exercises should take you through a full range of motion. This means deeper squats or lunges for quads and glutes, stiff leg deadlift variations for hamstrings, and dumbbell presses for chest.
You should not be doing 90 degree squats for your accessory exercises.
3. Consider the total fatigue cost.
In general, exercises that use higher absolute loads create more systemic (i.e., whole body) fatigue than those that that use lighter loads. Don’t be afraid to use variations that use less load. This will improve recovery, and make sure that your strength work next session is optimised.
For example, rather than doing a front squat as an accessory exercise for your quads and glutes, you could do a split squat. Similarly, instead of doing a stiff leg deadlift for all your hamstring accessories, you could instead perform a hamstring curl for some.
You get the picture.
4. Consider enjoyment.
Lastly, if there are certain exercises you love doing, then use those.
Having them in your program is likely to improve motivation – which can only be a good thing.
With this knowledge we can start integrating some specific exercises into the program we started above:
|Squat: 4 sets||Deadlift: 5 sets||Squat: 3 sets|
|Bench: 3 sets||Overhead press: 3 sets||Bench: 4 sets|
|Reverse Lunges: 3 sets||Hamstring Curl: 3 sets||Romanian Deadlift: 3 sets|
|Seated Row: 4 sets||Chin Up: 4 sets||Lat Pull Down: 4 sets|
|Tricep Pressdown: 3 sets||Hammer Curl: 3 sets||Knee Extension Machine: 3 sets|
Looking at the program now, you should be able to see how you start with the exercises that require the most skill and use the most load (i.e., our heavy strength exercises). Then we transition towards those easier and lighter exercises at the end of the session.
Pick your rep ranges
Once you have your exercises established, it is time to pick your reps – which is the easy part.
If you are looking at strength specific outcomes, keeping your reps between 1 and 6 is a must. I personally think 3-5 reps is the sweet spot for strength development.
If you are looking at muscle growth, then hitting between 6-15 reps is going to be your best option.
Within this, you also want to look at the exercises themselves.
For multi-joint exercises that use heavier loads, sticking between 6 and 10 reps is ideal. For single-joint isolation exercises, aiming for between 10 and 15 reps is a good option.
This means that you are not performing large compound movements for high reps (which could result in technical breakdown), or isolation exercises with heavy loads (which could cause joint irritation).
Again, adding to the above example, we might be looking at something like this:
|Squat: 4 sets of 3 reps||Deadlift: 5 sets of 3 reps||Squat: 3 sets of 5 reps|
|Bench: 3 sets of 5 reps||Overhead press: 3 sets of 6 reps||Bench: 4 sets of 3 reps|
|Reverse Lunges: 3 sets of 8 reps||Hamstring Curl: 3 sets of 12 reps||Romanian Deadlift: 3 sets of 8 reps|
|Seated Row: 4 sets of 10 reps||Chin Up: 4 sets of 8 reps||Lat Pull Down: 4 sets of 12 reps|
|Tricep Pressdown: 3 sets of 12 reps||Hammer Curl: 3 sets of 15 reps||Knee Extension Machine: 3 sets of 12 reps|
You may have noticed that this program includes both strength and hypertrophy exercises. And honestly, I think this is important.
Even if your goals are strength related, including some work to maximise muscle growth is important to improve long term strength development.
Similar, if your goal revolves around muscle size, increasing strength is going to help you lift more load, which will increase growth in the long term.
This is something I have written about HERE – but I just wanted to state it again – your program should include strength and hypertrophy work, no matter your goal.
And there you have it – how to create a workout plan in four simple steps.
Well, kind of…
How to do you know your workout program is working?
You also need to be consider how your gym program evolves over time.
Ideally you would run the program you create for 3-5 weeks (with 4 being the most common), have a deload (i.e., a light week of training), and then make some changes.
These changes could include:
- Changes in reps
- Changes in sets
- Changes in exercises
But knowing what changes to make can be quite difficult – and there is no clear answer.
In short, you need to monitor progress over the program’s duration to identify what is working, and what is not.
Am I getting stronger?
With respect to strength, you should be able to see whether you are getting stronger or not. In short, if you have added weight to the bar, you have gotten stronger.
If you haven’t gotten stronger, things need to change. And this is something that needs to be done by feel.
If you feel like you have not been performing the movement often enough to get the desired response, then adding a couple of sets of strength work may be the way to go. Conversely, if you feel destroyed at the end of the week, then dropping your set count slightly may be the priority.
Similarly, if sets of 5 reps aren’t working, then maybe try sets of 3 reps next training plan.
The key is to make changes, see what happens over the next 4 weeks, and then make changes again. This program should be viewed as an ever-evolving organism that improves over time, rather than something rigid.
For more information on programming and guaging progress, read our ultimate guide on how to use RPE here
Am I getting bigger?
With respect to muscle growth, things often occur much slower.
As such, I would recommend changing accessory exercises every single block to avoid stagnation.
Additionally, at the end of each block, try and evaluate your recovery.
For example, if at the end of your week quads are fried, then doing fewer weekly sets of quads next program could be the way to go. On the other hand, you might feel as if your back was recovering too easily after every session. In which case adding a couple of sets might be warranted.
Again, gauge how you feel and make changes as needed.
How to create a workout plan: final thoughts
Using the steps outlined in this article, you should be able to design your training program from scratch.
Just keep in mind that this program will never be perfect. As you get bigger and stronger, you will adapt, and your needs will change. This means the optimal program for you will also change.
So, make sure at the end of every block your track your progress and adapt your workout plan as needed. This is the key to creating a good workout plan.
And of course, if you want to try one of our individualised programs to get an idea of what a good program can look like, feel free to click on THIS LINK.