A Beginner’s Guide in How to Build Your Own Workout Routine

Sportsman using smartphone with time tracker in gym.

At a Glance

  • Building your own workout routine can make exercising more fun, more personal and more specific to your individual fitness goals.
  • What you decide to put into your own workout routine depends entirely on what you want to achieve.
  • Breaking down a workout plan into several different parts focused on achieving different goals is a great way to start to build your own workout routine.

If you’re anything like me, there are some types of exercise you love, and others that you, quite simply, just loathe. To be honest, I think it’ probably very similar for a lot of people.

When I look back at my high school and college days, I was involved in so many different sports—both team and individual sports, plus other activities for fun with my friends. Now, with so many other priorities in my life, getting involved in a team sports would be near on impossible for me.

So what to do to keep fit, active and healthy—and possibly carve out a little of that precious “me time” while doing so? My answer—and maybe yours too—was to build my own workout routine.

How do I do that? What needs to be included? Where do I start? There are lots of questions from most people when considering this idea.

But fear not! All the answers you need, in fact all the information you need to tell you how to build your own workout routine is right here!

What Is a Personal Workout Routine?

This can mean a range of different things according to the person and the situation. In the broadest sense, it’s some kind of workout routine that has been put together with your particular needs in mind.

This could be a program put together for you by a personal trainer after you join a gym, to make sure you get a good workout and you’re using the most appropriate equipment in the gym for you.

But for me, that’s a little narrow. It only focuses on what you do in the gym, not the other activities you might want to include. As a result, many people find their overall fitness and activity schedule is a bit disjointed.

Building your own workout routine is about making all of your activities complement each other so that everything you do is focused on achieving your fitness goals.

Who Needs to Build Their Own Workout Routine?

In short, anybody who wants to take a coordinated approach to attaining all of their health and fitness aspirations.

Anyone who has specific fitness goals, anyone who wants to make sure that, through their various activities, they get the workout that they need and want—including you—can benefit from learning how to build your own workout routine!

Let’s take some examples:

Imagine an average person who decides they want to get fit. They might want to join in with a particular team sport. The team they join trains twice a week, and has matches on a Saturday afternoon throughout the season.

This is a brilliant start. Regular, two to three times weekly exercise with a fun element and including some social interaction, which are both good for motivation…great!

But suppose that person hasn’t exercised for a long time, and they don’t think their fitness level is going to cut the mustard when it comes to playing their team sport. What now?

Another example might be a regular gym goer who can currently bench press say, 200 pounds, but wants to be able to bench 250 pounds. How can they achieve this?

These people both need a workout routine that’s going to improve the aspects of their fitness that they need to be able to participate in their chosen activity.

The person in the first scenario needs a workout that’s going to target their general fitness, stamina and endurance, as well as any particular motor skills needed for their chosen sport. They can make joining a team or participating in a sports club a longer term goal, and work on the aspects of fitness needed to reach that goal.

The second situation is much more specific. This person needs to focus their workout on building upper body strength, and specifically muscle mass and power.

The point is, it doesn’t matter what your health and fitness goals are—they can be anything! Learning how to build your own workout routine can help you achieve anything you want!

Where Do We Start?

Well, the most important basic questions are:

  • What are you doing now?
  • Are you happy with this?
  • Are you improving?

If a person already has a workout routine that they find fun and interesting to do, and are noticing improvement in the aspects of fitness they feel are important, then it’s absolutely fine to carry on with exactly what they’re doing.

If you find yourself giving negative answers to any or all of these questions, it means something needs to change!

So on to round two of the how to build your own workout routine quiz…

  • What are your fitness goals?
  • What aren’t you happy with in your current fitness routine?
  • How much time do you have for exercise?

Once you’ve identified the answers to these questions, it starts to form the basis of a plan. What you don’t want to do when building your own workout routine is to throw it all out of the window—keep the good stuff, and use it as a basis for change!

legs of a fitness woman with a kettlebell

What Should I Include?

Ok, now let’s think about what might need to be included in a good workout routine. There are lots of different components to fitness. According to the experts at the Mayo Clinic, a well-rounded workout routine will have the following components:

Aerobic Fitness

This is concerned with our heart, blood vessels and the lungs—otherwise known as the cardiovascular system—and how efficiently they work.

When we exercise, the heart has to work harder to pump blood at a faster rate to supply the nutrients and oxygen muscles need to be able to work.

Some people call this type of fitness, endurance. What they mean is that aerobic activity increases the efficiency of the cardiovascular system, so it can keep working well for a longer period of time.

Aerobic activity does help to train the muscles, but only to make them better at the activity you’re doing; it won’t, for example, build much bigger muscles.

Aerobic activity doesn’t mean you have to go to an aerobics class, if this doesn’t float your boat. Walking and jogging, swimming, cycling, dancing, gardening and cleaning can all be aerobic fitness activities, providing we do them vigorously enough to make us warm and a little out of breath.

How Much Do I Need?

The Department of Health and Human Services recommends that for most adults in good general health, we need around 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity, or 75 minutes of vigorous activity, OR a combination of the two over the course of each week.

This can be broken up into as little as 10 minute sessions, which makes fitting exercise into a busy lifestyle more manageable. You can exercise at a moderate intensity for around 4 to 5 minutes interspersed with 30-second bursts of intense activity.

This is known as high-intensity interval training, and has been shown to be very effective for making exercise periods very time efficient, and produces similar results when compared to steady state continuous activity.

Strength Training

This type of training, also called resistance training, is much more about specific muscle groups, and how much load they’re able to handle. Strength training can also help to improve bone strength and the way in which muscles and bones work together.

When they work, muscles use energy, so this can be an important part of your overall workout routine whether you want to increase muscle strength, lose weight or both. However, muscles work in different ways according to the way they’re used:

Muscle Power

Increasing the size of muscles means your muscles can cope with more resistance, so you’re able to lift an increased load. This is done by placing a muscle group under maximal load for a relatively low number of reps.

Muscle Endurance

This is concerned with how long a muscle is able to keep working until fatigue sets in, and is often achieved by using a sub-maximal load for a relatively high number of repetitions. This can also help sculpt muscles into a more pleasing shape.

Core Stability Work

Experts are increasingly recognizing the value of core stability exercise as part of a workout program.

Core stability is concerned with the strength, endurance and efficiency of the muscles in your lower torso; the abdominal muscles—rectus abdominis, transversus abdominis, the obliques, the pelvic floor muscles, plus the multifidus and erector spinae muscles around the back.

All of these muscles help to stabilize us centrally and control movement when we use our arms and legs. Exercises that work the core muscles are any exercises that require the use of your torso without support. Examples include planks and bridging; there are lots of different core stability exercises that can be done using a gym ball too .

It’s All in the Balance…

Balance is the ability to control your center of gravity to maintain an upright posture. This is a straightforward definition, but the mechanics of balance are quite complex.

Many people are aware that there are structures in the inner ear that help to maintain balance—and this is correct. The three semicircular canals in each ear are an important part of the vestibular system, and contain special sensory cells which are activated if the position of the head changes.

But the majority of people aren’t aware that this is only a small part of the whole story. There are sensory organelles in all our weight-bearing joints. One of the functions of these organelles is to determine their location in relation to our surrounding and to the rest of the body, and provide the brain with what’s called proprioceptive feedback.

The brain uses the information from a combination of sources, including the vestibular system, the joints and visual feedback to work out whether or not we’re upright, and if we’re not, how far we’ve deviated away from our upright position.

If we’re moving too far away from our upright stance, the brain then kicks into gear, and stimulates us, for example, to reach out with the arm on the opposite side to the direction in which we’re deviating, to act as a counter weight to bring us back to our neutral position.

As well as reducing the likelihood of us falling over, which in itself is important, research indicates that working on the proprioceptive abilities of weight-bearing joints results in increased efficiency of proprioceptive feedback.

As information reaches the brain more quickly, the brain can react and send signals to readjust our position much faster. This has been shown to lead to improvements in sports performance.

Incorporating balance into your workout routine can be as simple as standing on one leg—if this is challenging for you to do—or as complicated as kneeling or standing on a gym ball while performing some kind of movement, which is challenging for even the fittest among us.

Flexibility

Flexibility is the range of movement in which your joints are able to move freely. This can be limited by a number of different factors. In particular, muscles that are too tight can limit flexibility, so it’s important to have a stretching component in your workout routine.

It’s incredibly important to remember that stretches affect many other structures as well as the muscle, including the nerves and tendons, and stretching in the right way and at the right time is essential.

Attempting to stretch muscles before they’ve been warmed up creates increased risk of injury, and research tells us that stretching muscles results in reduced muscle strength, so the best time to stretch is at the end of your workout before you cool down.

Putting It All Together

So we can see that we need to include some aerobic work, some muscle strength training, core stability activities, balance and flexibility. All of these components add up to a well-balanced, comprehensive training program.

I’ve deliberately avoided giving a detailed plan of what that could look like, because this is about you building your own bespoke workout routine which you create specifically for your own needs. Besides, there are so many different exercise options out there that I don’t want to limit your creativity when you build your own workout routine!

Doing things you enjoy as well as activities necessary to help you reach your goals is an essential part of fitness, so start with making a list of the activities you enjoy.

Consider which fitness components these activities cover, then make a list of the components not covered, and add in extra activities to meet these needs…and voila—you’ve created a well-rounded personalized workout routine!

woman checking her fitness tracker

Principles of Training

Any good workout routine will take into account that as we work out regularly, the activity we do starts to become easier. This is a great sign that your fitness is improving and you’re on your way to achieving your goals, which is fantastic!

Working at the same level, however, isn’t going to help with continued improvement, so now we need to make part of your planning about progression. When it comes to making your workout routine more challenging, there are a variety of factors that can be manipulated, but it’s important to know how to do so safely.

Overload

Overload describes what happens when we train to become stronger, faster or make improvements in balance, or flexibility, or sports specific skill.

It’s the principle that we gradually need to make the activities we do when we work out a little more challenging, and doing so leads to us making steady progress towards our fitness goals.

Let’s look at some examples.

When we learn to catch a ball, how do we start? It’s easier to catch a beach ball than a golf ball, so it’s sensible to start with a large ball. Other things that make catching a ball easy are having the person throwing it stand close to you, and throwing the ball softly.

If we simply continue practicing catching a ball in this situation, we will become skilled at this level, but it’s not going to help us catch a small ball thrown at speed from far away.

To work towards being able to do this, we need to make the task progressively harder. So we can have the thrower move further away, throw the ball harder and not directly into our hands, and use a smaller ball.

When we work our muscles against resistance, the stress on the muscles creates very small tears in the muscle fibers. As long as the muscle isn’t placed under too much strain, this microtrauma doesn’t result in injury, but stimulates the body to heal the tears in a way that makes the muscle slightly stronger than it was before. This allows us to manage an increased load in future.

So in our workout routine, we need to be able to make things more challenging. We can do this in a number of ways, which are often referred to with the acronym FITT:

Frequency

This is the number of workout sessions you do every week. So if you currently follow your workout routine twice a week, adding a third session can be one way of working towards your fitness objectives.

Intensity

You can also progress your training by making each workout session harder. As an example, if you’ve been running 2 miles in your training sessions, increase this to cover a slightly longer distance in the same amount of time, which means your body has to work harder.

Time

The longer your training sessions, the harder your body has to work, so increasing the length of time you spend on each workout is another way to progress your training.

Type

Changing the type of activities you do in your workout is another way to make your workout routine more challenging. So if you currently walk for a specific distance, jogging or running for some of your route increases the difficulty level and helps to progress your fitness.

While all four of these approaches are ways to make progress toward your training goals, it’s important to challenge yourself at an appropriate level, and make sure that any increases in the difficulty of your workout routine are manageable.

For this reason, be sure to only change one of these factors at a time. Let’s say, for example, you currently cycle twice a week for 30 minutes at a specific resistance level.

Changing your workout routine to cycling for 30 minutes four times a week at double the previous resistance level and doing half your workout as short burst sprint cycling, you would effectively increase the difficulty of your workout sessions by double. This is too much for the body to handle all at once, and could potentially result in injury—it’s overloading the system too much.

A much better and safer approach would be to:

  • Add in one extra 30-minute training session per week;

OR

  • Increase your cycling speed by roughly 10 percent;

OR

  • Increase the length of your training sessions to 45 minutes;

OR

  • Add in some sprint cycling as part—but not all—of your workout;


WHILE keeping all three other factors constant.

Specificity

This is the principle that what you do in your workout needs to be aimed at what you want to achieve. Doing lots of intense aerobic work isn’t the best way of training to bench press 300 pounds. Athletes who specialize in the 100-meter sprint don’t train by running marathons because this doesn’t help them to increase their sprinting performance.

Sprinters need short-burst, explosive power that doesn’t need to be maintained for a long time, whereas marathon runners need to be able to pace themselves over 26 miles.

So when designing your workout routine, think about what you want to achieve. It doesn’t matter what your goals are—everyone’s different, but make sure what you include in your workout is going to help you achieve them.

Usually, this means starting out by doing a low intensity version of the activity that’s your goal, and gradually making things more challenging until you smash your target!

Do I Have to Cover Everything in Every Training Session?

No! Not at all, in fact, it’s best not to try to work every muscle group in every way each time you exercise. Many people choose to include some aerobic work in each workout routine, then target the arms in one session, the legs in another, the chest in a third, then the back muscles, etc.

This gives each muscle group time to rest and recover after being slightly overloaded through training. Adequate rest and recovery time is an extremely important part of a training program—tired muscles don’t perform at their best, and this increases the risk of injury.

The Final Word…

So we’ve looked at how starting to build your own workout routine can help you to develop a much more specific plan to achieve your goals and help you target different types of fitness and skills needed to perform better in particular sports and activities.

When building your own workout routine, it’s important to consider your starting point and current level of fitness, and work out a plan to gradually work towards what you want to achieve, so it’s important to be detailed.

The exact activities you include in your workout routines depends on what you want to achieve and what you enjoy doing.

It’s advisable to incorporate all of the elements necessary to develop a well-balanced level of fitness. Unless there are particular reasons why not, it’s good to include some aerobic fitness work, strength training, core stability, balance and flexibility for good all-round fitness.

It’s also important to include details about how you plan to progress your training, and to make your workout challenging, but manageable. This can be done by making changes to the frequency, intensity, time and type of exercise you do, but slow and steady wins this race. Trying to progress too quickly, or in too many different ways at once can result in injury.

So take your time in planning; consider the activities you enjoy doing and how they relate to what you want to achieve. Consider whether or not you’ve incorporated all of the different elements of fitness that make up a well-balanced program. And above all, keep your workout routines varied, fun and interesting!

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