There are tons of exercises, workout modalities and “magic” workout hacks out there. The internet is full of “secret” methods and there is always something better lurking around the corner. But how do you pick the right tools to build your perfect workout routine?
This is one of the dragons I’m struggling to slay myself. I can spend hours reading training books and I’m always eager to try out new stuff.
We call this program hopping. I know that I have the most success with my training when I actually stay the course long enough for a routine to reap its results. I struggled with this for a long time.
Lucky for everyone, I found a method that helps me stay consistent without getting bored. Follow these 5 rules and you’ll be forever able to come up with effective workout routines.
Rule #1: Be Reasonable
I assume you belong in the group of “just a bit stronger, a bit leaner and a bit more muscular”. That’s 90% of the training population (if you are a beginner, I recommend first choosing a pre-designed workout routine like this one).
I see myself in this target group. Generally, I train because it’s fun, lifts my mood, keeps me healthy and of course to polish the guns.
There are certain times of the year where you can put all your focus on one goal (put 10% on your deadlift fast or blast off fat before summer). These times should be limited. 80% of your training should be “reasonable”. This is the workout philosophy of park bench and bus bench workouts.
These reasonable workouts should focus on these elements (in that order):
Over the course of a week, you should be able to check off these movement categories:
- Upper Push
- Upper Pull
Therefore, some things need to happen daily/every workout. This includes working on your mobility and improving movement quality and coordination. Once you give mobility the spotlight it deserves, you’ll see that everything else magically improves.
Other things can be split up over several workouts during the week. I like to pair an upper push and a hinge on one day and hit pull and squat on another.
Rule #2: Pick a Fixed Time Span
A good rule of thumb is that after 4 weeks of consistent, reasonably intense training, good things start to happen. Reps and weights go up. You start to feel confident with the movements. Positive adaptation is kicking in.
I plan my workouts 4 weeks in advance. My routines are usually repeated weekly. Currently, I have my main workout days on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. If I cannot do the workout on the planned days, I make up for it that same week.
This kind of planning ahead makes me stick to the routine. I like to experiment. To prevent program hopping, I am committing myself to 4 weeks of strictly following the plan with no changes. After that, I’m free to make adjustments or start something new entirely.
When you find yourself enjoying one particular routine and are seeing great results, excellent! Commit yourself to another 4 weeks.
Rule #3: Have a Break-in Period
So you’ve committed yourself to 4 weeks of following one routine to a T. By week 2, you found some other magic exercise hack that’s supposed to work wonders. Or you find that you misjudged the program (you can’t do the exercises or picked too light/heavy weights), don’t like a particular part of it or it doesn’t fit into your schedule.
The solution is simple. Have a break-in period of 2 weeks.
Plan your workouts. Write down the routine in detail. The next 2 weeks serve several purposes:
- Learning new movements: If you start a routine that has a few movements you never tried or haven’t practiced in a long time, it’s a good idea to gently introduce them. Start light and find out what level of intensity/load is appropriate for you.
- Deload phase: By starting light and only feeling out the routine, you have a chance to give your joints and ligaments a break. Feel free to start with submaximal weights and easy variations of the exercises.
- Testing the routine: Do all the workouts and sets/reps you have planned for the workout. Evaluate if you can do this routine for 4 weeks straight. Are the workouts too long/short? Can you perform all the movements? Does it fit into your schedule? Do you get way too sore after the workouts? Would you add/subtract anything?
- Opportunity to experiment: These 2 weeks are your chance to play around. That one move you saw on Instagram? The workout routine you bookmarked in your browser? You can try all this in your break-in period. The only premise is that you need to have your next 4 weeks planned after the break-in.
During those 2 weeks, you should gain complete clarity about the routine you are about to start and whether you can follow through. Any customization to the routine should be set in stone at the end of week 2 and you should be able to just check off workouts during the next 4 weeks.
So, in total, you have 6 weeks of training dedicated to one routine. 2 easy weeks when you can experiment and 4 focused weeks that will produce the results.
Rule #4: Think Templates, Not Exercise Lists
Once you’ve found a routine that works for you, why not stick with it most of the time? Results come from consistency over time and the fittest people are the ones comfortable with sticking to a simple routine for a long time.
Boring works. But boring is also boring.
Instead, don’t look at one routine like it’s set in stone forever. Look at it as a template. Extract the principle instead of copying the method.
Instead of throwing your routine completely over board after 4 weeks, change up the exercises but keep the movement categories.
Here are 3 simple examples for putting together a workout routine (bodyweight only, barbell and kettlebell):
A. Barbell Overhead Press
B. Heavy Barbell Curls
C. Barbell Front Squat
D. Barbell Deadlift
A. Kettlebell Military Press
B. Kettlebell Batwings
C. Goblet Squats
D. Kettlebell Swings
You can mix and match these, depending on what tools are available to you. If you have access to barbells and kettlebells, a good routine can consist of the following:
A. Handstand Push-ups
B. Front-Lever Progression
C. BB Front Squats
D. KB Swings
Just pick the one movement you fancy for each category. Practice/train these movements for 4 weeks. After 4 weeks, feel free to swap them out if you like.
This is the same-but-different-approach. You keep the general structure of your workout, but replace exercises with the ones that emphasize similar muscle groups or movement patterns.
“But I read that exercise X is totally important and should always be done because it’s magic.”
There is always the next best thing that you’re not doing. You cannot do them all.
The literal meaning of decision is to “cut off”. If you’ve decided to work on improving your pull-ups (significantly), you just “cut off” all other pulling movements.
You cannot do everything at once. Use this insight to your advantage and free yourself from having to “do it all”.
By rotating your exercises every 4 weeks, you can still include the “magic” exercises if you can put them into one of the 4 categories. This also keeps the risk of overuse injuries and nervous system burnout to a minimum.
If you particularly enjoyed one exercise, just keep it in the routine but change tiny things. Play with little changes to your grip (close, wide, supinated, pronated, neutral) or stance, e.g. during squats (a little closer, wider, one foot slightly behind the other, etc.).
Rule #5: Play with the Numbers
3 things need to happen to get results from any routine:
- Accumulate enough “work” to stimulate adaptation in the body (stronger, leaner, bigger, etc.).
- Allow for enough recovery so that the adaptation can happen.
- Over time, the “work” has to increase, i.e. more reps, sets, weight, harder exercise, etc. This is called Progressive Overload.
There is no one perfect way to do this. But there are a couple of ways that will work best for you.
In general, there are frequency responders and intensity responders. Meaning, some people make the best progress when training often with lower intensity, while others strive on 2 intense workouts per week. And then there is everything in between.
You need to experiment in order to find out what works best for you. More importantly, what is most compatible with your schedule? Is it easier for you to do shorter workouts more frequently? Or are you better off blocking 2 nights a week to really hit it hard?
You will always have to balance volume, intensity and frequency.
In the figure above, you are the little dot in the triangle. Let’s say you want to work on push-ups. You can practice them twice a day (upper corner: frequency). This means your practice sessions cannot be intense (e.g. going near failure in every set) and the volume needs to be low (more than 1 or 2 sets might be too much).
If you train them just once a week, you better make it count. Do lots of sets (5-8) while leaving a few reps in the tank in every set (volume). Or do only 2-3 sets, but go near failure in every set (intensity).
These are more radical examples. Probably, the routine that works best for you is somewhere in the middle.
With the volume/intensity/frequency triangle in mind, you can move the dot around a bit and change up your sets/reps in your routine. This is another version of same-but-different.
Let’s say that during your last 4 weeks of focused training, you fell in love with pistol squats. You used a 5×3 rep scheme, so the focus was on easy strength (higher frequency, low volume and mid intensity). You still want to get better at pistol squats, so you keep it in your regimen. To avoid boredom and overuse, just change up the rep scheme to 3×8, for example.
Keep these 5 rules in mind when you design your own routines and you will get stronger while keeping it fun.