Whether it’s the person at your gym deadlifting twice their body weight (and possibly then some), a friend detailing their elation when they crossed a marathon finish line for the first time, or the person front row in your yoga class balancing their body entirely on their hands, chances are you’ve been inspired by someone in your life who executed some extraordinary feat of athleticism.
But here’s the thing: Everyone starts somewhere. You can’t just jump into a heavy deadlift or 26.2-mile run right away—you have to form a specific, action-oriented plan to get there.
In this article, we’ll teach you how to create a workout routine that you’ll stick to. We also have trainers share their advice for doing just that.
Step 1: Decide On Your Fitness Goal
Chris Travis, a NASM-certified personal trainer with Seattle Strength and Performance, says that landing on a fitness goal is, hands-down, the most crucial part of the process.
“[When it comes to setting fitness goals], I like to work backwards based on what you’d like to accomplish or what’s most interesting to you,” he shares. “I think the ‘interest’ part is important because if you don’t particularly like an activity, it’s going to be hard to work towards a goal and remain consistent, and in fitness, consistency is key.” If you don’t know what you like, Travis advises trying a few things and experimenting with what resonates most with you.
Something else to think about: Choosing an initial workout plan and goal that’s wildly out of reach can backfire. A 2021 study from Health Psychology observing sedentary adults found that those individuals who were instructed to walk more every day did so. But once they were given step count goals far beyond their normal efforts, they halted progress entirely. So start with an attainable and practical workout program.
Step 2: Note Your Starting Point
Holly Roser, an ACE-certified trainer based in New York City and San Francisco, says that understanding how close you are to reaching your goal from the get-go is important in establishing a plan. Although consulting with a fitness professional is the best way to determine that for any number of fitness goals, there are a few standard measurements, she says.
A one-rep max (1RM) test, for example, can help you determine the max weight you could lift in a certain exercise. Although there are several ways of doing this (again, a certified trainer can help you), you can estimate with this 1RM calculator from the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM).
“For cardio, you could do a VO2 max test,” Roser adds. This is the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use during exercise. That said, Cleveland Clinic notes that the best way to do this is with the help of a doctor because estimating that figure on your own can be difficult. A better bet might simply be timing yourself running a set distance, Roser says.
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Step 3: Choose the Right Equipment
Although the type of equipment you choose will be highly dependent on what your fitness goal is, Roser says that there are a few basic resistance training items that will apply to most goals:
- Two pairs of dumbbells. Choose a lighter pair for small muscles and/or upper-body exercises and a heavier pair for building larger muscles and/or lower-body exercises. You can also opt for kettlebells.
- A resistance band. This can double as a stretching tool and/or a tool to apply resistance to the muscle.
- A stability ball. Roser notes that stability is often a core component of any fitness goal, whether cardiovascular exercise-related or strength-focused. A larger stability ball can be used for a wide range of core movements, while wobble boards or balance pads force the body to maintain balance during strength movements.
Step 4: Curate a Training Regimen
So, how often should you work toward achieving your fitness goal?
“Everyone is different and it’s important to not only plan for what your body can handle physically, but also how you’re fueling it and how many other stressors may contribute to a need for recovery,” says Travis. He explains that these “stressors” might include your general level of stress, a lack of sleep, or any other outside factor that changes your energy levels.
That said, as a rule of thumb, Roser says the ideal gym workout schedule includes strength training three days per week and cardio two to three days per week. “Allow one to two days of rest for your body to repair itself,” she adds. But don’t be afraid to scale down if you’re feeling fatigued.
Travis also warns of overtraining. “If you encounter signs of overtraining, prioritize post-workout recovery first. Working out in an unrecovered state is essentially adding stress on top of stress, which can hinder progress.”
Step 5: Plan Progress Over Time
As you progress toward your goal, you’ll need to increase the intensity of your training volume. A great example is progressive overload. Basically, this could mean increasing your repetitions or sets, increasing the frequency of your workouts, or decreasing the rest you take between sets. But the most common way to amp up intensity is by adding more weight to the same prescribed exercise set and rep schemes. So, for example, whenever three sets of 12 reps of a certain exercise feels easy, you increase the load, or weight, by five to 10 percent, according to NASM. Roser says this will typically occur after two to five weeks of consistent training.
You can apply that same logic to cardiovascular activities, too. Once running a set distance at a certain pace feels too easy, you can increase your speed a bit.
Step 6: Celebrate Every Win Along the Way—And Be Flexible
In order to push past lulls in motivation, Roser says that it’s important to remember that any fitness goal will likely improve your health in a bunch of different (and perhaps unexpected) ways.
“Creating an efficient fitness program requires so much dedication and hard work,” she explains. “The action of simply working out is enough to celebrate. Celebrate the fact that you took the time to lower your cholesterol, lower your blood sugar, get your body stronger, and really celebrate what you can do with your body. Health is our most precious possession.”
However, if you’re really struggling to tackle that day’s training session, Roser says it’s perfectly fine to scale the intensity down or readjust the finish line. “It’s okay to make your fitness goal easier to achieve,” she explains. “Instead, maybe make a fitness goal that you know you can achieve in seven days.” She notes that a workout plan goal can be as simple as committing to walking every day for a week: “Meet yourself where you’re at.” And, not for nothing—even a brisk walk can help you hit your Streak and unlock rewards for working out.
How to Create a Workout Routine You’ll Actually Stick To is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended as financial advice.