Let’s be honest: trainers are expensive. The good ones who can let you achieve your fitness goals are worth their weight in gold, creating awesome changes in a short period, but a dedicated trainer is still beyond most people’s budget.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t benefit from an intelligent, well-designed program. In this article, I will teach you how to create your own. You’ll learn to think like a trainer and build a practical workout routine that gets you the results you want (without the need to spend thousands of dollars at the gym).
Below, you’ll find the five factors you’ll want to consider in building your plan, along with an example from the running world. So please read on, and get some insight into what it takes to develop your program like a pro.
How to decide on workdays and rest days
Fitness Goals Factor 1: Consistency
Consistency in training is the number one factor in getting results. You have to train often and across an extended period. Therefore, the first thing you need to consider: is creating a program that will keep you in the game. The best workout routine in the world is useless if you don’t do it. Whether for lack of progress, motivation, or a nagging injury, being Sidelined is a surefire way to miss your goals.
This means we need to build a doable program with the right mixture of activity and rest. There is some art to this, but the first step is simple: write a general schedule. What are you going to do each day, Monday through Sunday?
Get a piece of paper, write the days of the week along the side, then choose what you’ll do each day: workout or rest. To begin, plan to exercise five days per week and rest two days. For most people, this is more than adequate for getting good results. Remember that every workout day will not be a day of intense training or insane mileage. Some days will involve hard training, and others will affect only recovery or accessory work.
Want to Buy Workout Dumbbell Set, click here for NordicTrack 55 lb
Action Step: Regardless of whether you like my schedule or prefer another one, grab your paper and:
- Pick the five days per week you’ll do some kind of training.
- Then, find a time of day that you’ll do that training and put it in your calendar.
- Pledge yourself to do that training no matter what, knowing that consistency is the most crucial thing in creating a successful program.
Here’s what my program looks like after introducing Consistency:
How to add active recovery days to your workout plan
Fitness Goals Factor 2: Active Recovery
You’ve charted out five days for workouts and two days for rest.
Next, you’ll want to pick two days for active recovery: one “workout” day and one “rest” day. Active recovery is meant to help you recover from your more intense training.
My favorite active recovery day pursuits:
- A long walk
- Yoga (at light intensity)
- Foam rolling and myofascial release
- Swimming (casual)
The point of these days is simple: you want to keep moving, improve your range of motion, repair your muscles, and maintain a habit of activity. I’ll let you research each of the recovery activities listed above on your own (or better yet, try them all and see what you like), but here is my basic take:
A long walk burns energy, reduces stress and warms your muscles and joints. It relieves soreness from previous workouts and, if combined with light stretching, helps maintain your range of motion (your ability to move fully around any given joint). Swimming and yoga (of the correct, light intensity) accomplish much the same thing: you’ll improve your body’s dynamic abilities while staying active and having fun to boot.
Foam rolling and myofascial release are keystones to recovery and should be sprinkled liberally throughout your program. In addition, using external implements like rollers, lacrosse balls, and massage sticks will break down accumulated adhesions and scar tissue in your muscles, restoring their natural ability to lengthen and shorten without difficulty.
Action Step 2: Take your schedule, and choose one of your rest days and five workout days for active recovery. Ideally, place busy recovery days throughout the week, breaking up your more intense training days. Then, pick a few recovery activities that appeal to you and pencil them in for the selected active recovery days.
Here’s what my program looks like after introducing Active Recovery:
|Day||General Activity||Specific Activity|
|Monday||Active Recovery||Myofascial Release|
|Thursday||Active Recovery||Swimming or Yoga|
You’ve got a basic, seven-day schedule, and it’s time to choose activities for your workout days.
How to create workout routines that reduce injury and help you train consistently
Fitness Goals Factor 3: Variety
We want to avoid too many workouts that follow the same pattern. Therefore, regular repp schemes, times, miles, loads, and activities must be altered.
Doing the same thing every day is an excellent way to induce mental burnout and bodily injury. Going through the same movements repeatedly, you’ll batter the same muscles, beat the same joints, and eventually, you’ll break, the repetitive stress overcoming your ability to recover.
A classic example of the problem: is the unguided, novice distance runner. She starts running with one goal, going further. She does a mile every day for the first week, two miles every day the second week, and so on, repeating for months until joints hurt, range of motion is limited, and plantar fasciitis infects every step. Then, she does the same thing simultaneously, with predictable results: nagging injury.
She would be better off running three days a week, doing intense hill sprints and track work one day and a long, slow five-miler later in the week, and capping it off with a one-mile max effort, each intense running day preceded by an active recovery day or lighter work. She would build in some full-body strength training on her fourth training day to help make sure her muscles become strong enough to support the natural battering of frequent running.
Action Step 3: Put good variety in your workout days. Choose what specific activity you’ll do each day and the appropriate variation to help you avoid repetitive injury, reinforce your strengths, and build up your deficiencies.
Here’s what our distance runner’s schedule would look like after introducing Variety:
|Day||General Activity||Specific Activity||Variety|
|Monday||Active Recovery||Myofascial Release||–|
|Wednesday||Workout||Weight Lifting||Full Body|
|Thursday||Active Recovery||Swimming or Yoga||–|
|Saturday||Workout||Running||Max Effort/Medium Distance|
How to increase workout intensity over time
Fitness Goals Factor 4: Challenge
Your hard workouts need to get more challenging over time to make consistent progress. This means you have to increase load, speed of completion, and volume (or all three) as you progress, upping the relative intensity of your workouts. If you fail to do this, you’ll inevitably plateau.
Do not make things harder quickly. Rather, you should gradually build in challenges, making sure that you’re still recovering adequately from previous workouts. This balance is the number one hurdle to trainers everywhere: introducing challenges fast enough to create change without inducing injury or causing missed training days.
Typically, you’ll want to train for four to six weeks at any given difficulty level before trying to layer on more, and you’ll want to listen to your body. If you’re not recovering from your workouts well enough to tackle the next activity with intensity and focus, you’ve likely ramped up the challenge too soon.
Adding challenge is an art and takes a variety of forms. A linear program ramps up the challenge in a straight line and is typically most effective with beginners. A periodized program ramps challenge up in a more up-and-down fashion, building, then backing off, then building again, and using more advanced athletes.
Action Step 4: Create a linear program across three months, building challenges gradually across time.
Here’s what our distance runner’s schedule would look like after introducing Challenge:
|Day||Specific Activity||Variety||Month 1||Month 2||Month 3|
|Tuesday||Running||Sprints/Hill Sprints||3 x 200m||5 x 200m||6 x 200m|
|Wednesday||Weight Lifting||Full Body||Add 5 lbs.||Add 5 lbs.|
|Friday||Running||Long Distance||5 miles||6 miles||7 miles|
|Saturday||Running||Medium Distance||1 x 1 mile||2 x 1 mile||2 x 1 mile|
As you can see, I added volume to most of the running workouts across time (and load to the weight lifting workout).
Alternatively, our runner could keep the volume of the workouts the same across months and simply aim to run faster and complete her lifting sessions more quickly after each four-week training cycle, increasing the speed of completion.
Either is an acceptable way to increase the challenge. Which you choose is essentially a matter of preference for the novice and need for the advanced athlete—to select a method, simply ask yourself which would better serve to build your athletic deficiencies. For example, if you’re generally slow, you might consider going faster as your principal method of increasing challenge.
How to keep track and chart your progress
Fitness Goals Factor 5: Record Keeping
To program intelligently, you need to keep records. Your records should be objective (recording times, loads, mileage, etc.) and personal (recording how your body feels, mental state, recovery level).
Having these records at hand will allow you to see what’s working and what’s not, giving you clues as to how to alter the program for the next cycle. For instance, let’s take the schedule above.
Imagine that runner’s log shows that during Month 1, her mile time got faster each week, as did her 200m splits. During Month 2, her mile times slowed during week 6, as did her 200m splits:
|Month||Week||Best Mile Time||Mile Trend||Best 200m Time||200m Trend|
|1||1||9 min 32 sec||–||42.6 sec||–|
|2||9 min 20 sec||Faster||41.5 sec||Faster|
|3||9 min 16 sec||Faster||41.0 sec||Faster|
|4||9 min 6 sec||Faster||40.9 sec||Faster|
|2||5||9 min 5 sec||Faster||40.9 sec||Faster|
|6||9 min 20 sec||Slower||43.0 sec||Slower|
|7||9 min 22 sec||Slower||42.8 sec||Faster|
|8||9 min 25 sec||Slower||42.9 sec||Slower|
What happened? We likely increased the challenge too quickly, layering on too much volume too quickly. Remember, at the beginning of month 2, we added two extra 200m sprints, an additional mile to the long run, and a second medium-distance time trial. She handled it okay during week 5, but we saw decreased performance.
We’ll want to alter. We could revert to the Month 1 programming and see if we resume the streak of personal bests. Alternatively, we could back off a portion of the Month 2 volume, going back to the Month 1 five-mile distance runs and three 200m sprints, but keeping the additional 1-mile time trial. We could even add in an extra rest day for a few weeks.
This is the benefit of record keeping. It gives us clues. Should we keep going with the program or back off? Are we getting continued progress, or have we stalled out?
Action Step 5: Record your results and check them against your fitness goals. Are you getting the result you want from your program? If not, what is the likely culprit, and how will you alter the schedule going forward?
Making It Happen
Designing your fitness goals program is within your capacity. Of course, if you’ve never done it before, you’ll make some errors along the way, but know that this happens to even the most experienced coaches.
Don’t let your lack of experience stop you from trying. The only way to get better at programming is to give it a shot.
To help you avoid common mistakes, use these guidelines:
- Create consistency by keeping a regular weekly training schedule
- Include one full rest day and two active recovery days in your program each week.
3. Use variety in your workouts to build multiple physical qualities, helping you avoid injury, reinforce strengths, and build weaknesses.
4. Add challenge over time, adding volume, load, or speed gradually and sensibly to drive continued progress.
5. Keep a record of your training, including objective and subjective measures, to better inform your future programming decisions.
To prevent a quick and painful end to your fitness goals, remember: you have your whole life to train, and the most important thing you can do on any given day is preserved your ability to train tomorrow. If you keep this mindset, you’ll inevitably make progress.