How to design a workout program

Brandon Hahn June 11, 2013 Training Articles

Magazines make their money with two simple features; advertising and workout programs. The front cover always draws people in based on Joe Schmo’s big workout plan. The 4-page spread usually covers one workout day of the week. The interesting part is these rarely cover the exact workout and mainly cover exercises that look great in pictures. So, you don’t get the real workout, and you wasted a few bucks. No big deal right? You will still give it a shot. Unfortunately, this is the one-size-fits-all approach to exercise. It may work for a few, but most likely won’t work for you. It’s time to learn about workouts in, AXtreme Exercise Design 101.


The first step to designing a program is to determine the number of days you can exercise. A program needs to fit in the number of days you can dedicate to exercise. It’s great to WANT to workout 7 days a week, but determine what is reasonable for you. Remember that rest days are important to aid in recovery and recuperation. The number of rest days depends on the layout of your routine. A minimum of one full day of rest per week is necessary. This total number will be determined by the number of days you can workout and your bodypart layout. If you can exercise five days per week, you’ll obviously have two days of rest to fit into your program.

If you are incorporating cardio, that will also be an important factor. Every workout, weights and cardio, will be draining your body of energy. Without the proper rest and layout, you will be “beating a dead horse”. Your body will slowly become overtrained. This leads to weaker muscles and a weakened immune system that leads to injury. When adding cardio to the mix, start slowly and build from there. Again, aim for one full day of rest. That means no weights or cardio that day.

Bodypart Layout

The second step is the most tricky. How do you want your program to look? What bodyparts should be placed on which days? Can you work arms two days in a row? All of these things need to be determined in your layout.

You do not want to work the same bodypart two days in a row. You want at least 24 hours of solid rest, and up to 72 hours, depending on the total volume of your workout. It is also important to determine your weak points. People always point to lagging arms, but this is rarely the case. Most people simply want big arms to make those shirts fit even tighter. The truth is most people are lacking in overall leg size, shoulder and back width, and/or small calves. Not everyone can be lumped into that group, but most people fall into one of those three weak areas. So, when designing your program, try to emphasize this weak area early in the week, so you could possibly train your weak areas twice. One workout early in the week and one at the end.

The other major factor when laying out a program is muscle crossover. Hitting chest on Monday and a few sets of triceps on Tuesday would lead to quite a bit of work on your triceps. This is not an ideal setup, especially for a beginner. When designing your program, be sure to keep muscle crossover in mind. Working chest and triceps on one day is fine, but be sure that your shoulder day is a few days away. This will allow time for your triceps to recover, prior to working them again during your shoulder workout.

Sets, Reps, Rest

You have your frequency and layout all figured out. Now, it’s time to determine the volume of your workout. The key to workout volume is to make sure you do not overtrain each muscle group. Your volume is determined by the number of exercises, sets, and reps in a given workout. This helps determine how much work each muscle group is getting each week. If you are performing a lot of sets and higher reps, your volume will be quite high. The key is to start on the lower end, and build from there. You do not want to overwork yourself and end up injured and/or overtrained.

The volume of your workout will be determined by your workout focus. Powerlifters tend to have a lower volume per workout as they utilize fewer sets and reps than a traditional bodybuilding scheme. If you are looking for muscle size, you will be in the moderate range of workout volume. Endurance athletes would be on the high end, as their focus is mainly on muscle endurance.

Volume Chart

Strength: 1-6 Reps, 3-5 Sets per exercise
Size: 6-15 Reps, 2-5 Sets per exercise
Endurance: 15+ Reps, 1-3 Sets per exercise
*The number of sets per exercise may vary, especially for sub-max strength programs like GVT (German Volume Training)

Rest is always vital dependent on the exercise goal. People looking to maximize strength would be looking for longer rest periods. Those looking for endurance would be limiting rest as much as possible.

Rest Chart
Strength: 2-5 Minutes per set
Size: 2 Minutes or less per set
Endurance: Less than 1 Minute per set

Be sure to pick exercises that fit your body. Do not try to force exercises that are “perfect” exercises for some, yet do not work for you. The best route is trial and error to see what works best for you. This is your journey and you are the guide. Whether you are already on the journey, or just beginning, it’s time to take charge! Stop dreaming about the perfect body, and start working towards it!

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About The Author

Brandon has been in the fitness industry for over seven years and has trained over 1,000 clients. He has competed in several bodybuilding competitions and continues to improve his physique with hardwork and dedication. With a Bachelor’s Degree in Exercise Science, Brandon has the knowledge and skills to get you on the fast track to fitness.