Everything You Need to Know to Build Your First Workout Program

Want to create your own workout program? Our guide walks you through every step of the process.

Whether you’re heading back to the gym after a long period away or you’re braving the weight room for the first time, figuring out what actually to do once you hit the gym can be daunting. That personal trainer you worked with a few years ago had you do awesome exercises, but now that you’re striking out on your own, you might have no idea how to build your first workout program without someone else telling you what to do.

The good news is, as long as you know what your goals are and some weight training basics, you’ll be good to get started in the gym — be it a commercial gym or your personal home gym. This guide will help you articulate your workout goals, choose your workout split, decide which exercises to do, figure out how many reps and sets to do, learn how to progress your gym training, and understand how to put it all together into a sustainable, effective workout program. Plus, you’ll get a four-week training program template that you can modify as desired to fit your own goals.

How to Build Your First Workout Program

Establish a Goal

When you’re starting your first training program — regardless of your experience level — it’s going to be most effective if you’re clear about your goals from the jump. Are you looking to build muscle? Get stronger overall? Change your body composition? Improve your conditioning or general health? You’re likely looking for some combination of the above, but it’s important to get as specific as possible when designing your own workout program.

If you’re an aspiring powerlifter, you’ll be looking to increase your raw strength — but you might also want to stimulate muscular hypertrophy to make sure you look stronger, too. Learning to Olympic lift? You’ll be wanting to enhance your power (ability to move heavy weight quickly) and probably boost your cardio fitness, as well. 

It’s okay if you’ve got more than one goal — people usually do — and it’s important to remember that any training program will give you health, strength, and aesthetic benefits across the board. However, to design workouts that will keep you most engaged in and happiest with your program, focus on your top priority goal.

Whatever goals you have, there are infinite options and training styles, techniques, exercises, and methods to get an athlete where they need to be. This leaves a lot of room for creativity, but that creativity must be accompanied by logic, which is where programming gets blurry. Once you’ve got a handle on your main goal(s), you’ll be able to take a deep dive into the nitty-gritty of creating a training program.

Select a Workout Split

A workout split is how you decide to break up your program day-by-day. Workout splits are a great way to emphasize certain aspects of your routine and manage your energy. Unless you’re following a specific training regimen, you don’t want to squat super heavy two days in a row (since your central nervous system and the muscles involved in squatting will be shot). Also, the way you go about your program day-to-day informs what goal you’re emphasizing — if you’re looking to gain muscle mass, you probably won’t design a program focused on steady-state running (though integrating running into your lifting program isn’t a bad idea if you know how to do it).

There are endless ways you can organize a workout split. That said, knowing how many days you’ll be training is a good start. 

Man smiling at gym
Flamingo Images/Shutterstock

Training frequency is an important variable when you’re designing your workout program. For frequency, you could look at how often you’re working out in a week or even approach it with how often you’re hitting a certain lift or muscle group a week. What’s most important is that you’re choosing a frequency that’s realistic for your energy and time allotments. Because your muscles need rest to recover, three, four, and five-day splits are the most common.

The next step is figuring out what you’ll be doing each day, and your goal will dictate your split’s focus.

If you’re looking to build muscle, you might consider focusing on particular muscle groups each workout — training your back and biceps on one day, your chest and triceps on another, and your legs and shoulders on the third and final day. You could also program an optional fourth cardio and core day. This is a popular approach for bodybuilders, who aim to put on as much muscle as possible. Focusing on just two body parts per workouts allows them to hit each muscle with more overall volume for optimal growth. It’s not necessarily the best option for new lifters of strength-focused athletes, however. 

When you’re trying to bolster strength, you might design a workout split that revolves around compound movements (more on those below). So, you’d have one day for the bench press, a squat variation, the deadlift, and the overhead press. All of your accessory work would be built around those exercises. A slight variation of this method is called the push-pull-leg split, which is when you do an upper-body push day, a lower-body day, and an upper-body pull day. So, you’d perform the bench press on the push day, the deadlift on the pull day, and the squat on the leg day. If you want to overhead press, you can also do that on the push day (though we don’t suggest doing both movements with heavy weight.) These options are common among powerlifters since each day naturally emphasizes the deadlift, back squat, and bench press. 

Regardless of how you split up your training, you want to ensure that your workout split is balanced, realistic, and conducive to your goals.

Choose Your Exercises

Once you have your split worked out, you need to pick which exercises you’ll do each day. The exercises you choose for your program are an important factor and should reflect what your primary goals are. If you’re a powerlifter or strength athlete, then it makes sense that your training is built around the big three and that all of your accessory work supports those lifts. Powerlifters literally compete using the big three, and strongmen and strongwomen perform events designed based on those movements (plus the overhead press).   

Athletes who want to build muscle will still benefit from performing those basic compound movements and need more exercise variety as each muscle gets more attention. A bodybuilder’s training isn’t meant to support a specific movement. It’s meant to elicit muscle growth, and often that requires high-volume sets of specific isolation exercises. 

At this point, we’ve already mentioned compound and accessory movements. So here’s a quick rundown of what each type of exercise is. 

Compound Exercises

These movements are multi-joint and require ample neural drive, mental focus, coordination, technique, and muscle recruitment. Think deadlifts, squats, clean & jerks, and overhead presses. For these reasons, you should program these movements at the beginning of the workout. Otherwise, you’ll be fatigued and perform them with lackluster form (which can possibly lead to injury).

Compound movements are what give you the most bang for your buck in training, so you must put most of your energy and focus into strengthening them. Not to mention, if you’re a competitive or prospective competitive strength athlete, then these movements need to be strong because they’re your competition movements.

Compound Exercise ChartAccessory Movements

Accessory lifts are less demanding movements that help create balance in the body and complement the compound exercises. These movements involve one joint, such as barbell curls, lateral raises, and triceps pushdown. Athletes use accessories to improve upon weaknesses, muscular imbalances, and add extra volume to targeted muscle areas. For bodybuilders, accessory exercises are as important as a compound lift. Below are examples of upper and lower body accessory movements.

Accessory Exercise Chart

Different athletes and strength sports will require different accessory lifts, but when you’re just starting out, it’s important to get a broad understanding of what moves are available to you. 

How to Program Your Exercises Into Your Workout Split

In short: You start with compound exercises to bolster strength and recruit the most muscles — yes, even if you’re a bodybuilder — and then follow up with accessory movements to support strength gain and isolate smaller muscles. The reason being that compound moves require more effort, so you want to ensure you’re fresh when you do them. A barbell bench press will (in most cases) always be a more challenging exercise than a biceps curl. The former is loaded with more weight, recruits more muscles, and requires more coordination.

Below are two examples of how you may structure a strength-focused and hypertrophy-focused workout (sets and reps not included).

Upper-Body Push Day Example

  • Barbell Bench Press
  • Barbell Overhead Press
  • Neutral-Grip Dumbbell Bench Press
  • Half-Kneeling Dumbbell Overhead Press
  • EZ-Bar Skull Crusher
  • Dummbell Rear Delt Flye
  • Side Plank

Leg Workout Example

[Related: The Dos and Don’ts of Assistance Training]

Choose Your Sets and Reps

Repetitions — or reps as they’re commonly called — are the number of times you perform a certain exercise. A set is how many times you do those repetitions. So, if a program tells you to do three sets of 10 reps for biceps curls, you’ll curl the weight 10 times, rest, and repeat two more times.

Certain goals require specific rep ranges. For strength, a lower rep range allows you to lift heavier weight. For muscle growth, working in the seven to 10 rep range yields enough time under tension to grow your muscles, and anything higher than that is pure endurance. Check out our rep chart below.

Set and Rep Chart

Rest In-Between Sets

It’s not all about how many reps you do, though. Rest is an important factor in a well-made workout program and can also be used as a training tool. Additionally, you can use rest as a tool to track progressive overload when working towards a goal. For example, if your goal is to progress your muscular endurance, then using a set rest time to hit a certain weight in a certain time frame could help you track gains in a calculated way.

There are multiple ways to assess how long you should rest, but the general rest times below are a good rule of thumb. These ranges will coincide with how the body’s energy systems will respond to various movements and intensities, along with giving them adequate time to recover.

  • Compound Movements: 2-4 minutes 
  • Accessory Movements: 45 seconds to 90 seconds 

It doesn’t make you cooler to rest for shorter amounts of time, and it doesn’t make you less fit to rest for longer amounts of time. If you’re using very heavy weights with compound movements, let your body recover accordingly between sets. If you’re using lighter weights with accessory movements, challenge yourself to stick to the quick rest periods if you can. Three to four sets are generally good to start with when you’re first beginning a program, and those rest periods will add up — so make sure you’re accounting for rest time when you’re planning out your gym time.

[Related: How Long Should You Rest Between Sets? What the Science Suggest]

Learn How To Progress

Ok, so you have a goal in mind, a workout split laid out, and your exercises are chosen along with set and rep schemes for each. That’s great, but now you need to ensure that you’re progressing workout to workout — otherwise, you’ll stay stagnant. Enter progression — the method of making your workouts slightly more challenging each session.  

There are multiple ways to progress, but the two most common are increasing the reps and/or weight you’re lifting. Here’s a simple example: Say, you’re curling a barbell for three sets of 10 reps with 60 pounds. During your next workout, do three sets of 11 reps. Then, do three sets of 12 reps and then 13 reps. After four weeks of upping the rep count, add five pounds to the barbell and then start all over at three sets of 10 reps. That method can be applied to every exercise. However, it’s a little rudimentary, and as you get more experienced, you’ll need to alter your rest periods, set and rep schemes, and general programming to eke out results. 

A Word on Intensity

Intensity refers to the amount of effort you put into a lift, measured by both the weight on the bar and the number of reps you perform. You’ll see this word tossed around a lot, and that’s because intensity determines a lot of factors in your workouts — namely your sets and reps, overall training volume, and rest times. 

There’s an inverse relationship between the weight on the bar and the number of reps you perform. The more weight you lift, typically measured using a percentage of your one-rep max, the fewer reps you’ll perform. (Otherwise, you risk hurting yourself.) Intensity also doesn’t just equate to more weight. A 20-rep squat can be just as intense as a heavy one-rep max squat, and both require ample amounts of rest between sets. So, remember: A heavy, heavy lift for few reps requires as much rest as a lighter lift done for many reps

You can reference the chart below to figure out how many reps to do based on the weight on the bar. But first, it’ll help to know your one-rep max, which you can get a rough idea of using our one-rep max calculator below.

One Rep Max Calculator

Weight Lifted
Reps Performed

 

Also, here are some general guidelines on how to progress intensity based on your in-gym experience.

  • Beginner: Let the reps dictate the weight. A beginner won’t have the best idea of their true one-rep max and most likely won’t know what 80% of their one-rep max will feel. As a lifter progresses in the sport, they’ll better understand this, but the focus should be hitting the prescribed reps and sets without missing reps for the beginner. True beginners can slowly add weight to each workout, as long as they can hit their written reps and sets.
  • Intermediate/Advanced: Try to program training intensities. Intermediate and advanced athletes can both benefit from using prescribed training intensities. This intensity will shadow the workout’s micro, meso, and macrocycle, which will correlate to the periodization scheme you’re using (more on this below). 
  • Advanced: Use a rating of perceived exertion (RPE) Scale. Here’s a quick primer on how this works: The scale is measured one through 10. A rating of one means the lifter feels that he or she could have done nine more reps. A rating of 10 means that he or she feels another rep was impossible. Programs will sometimes prescribe an RPE to a lift, so “do three sets of five reps on the back squat with an RPE of 8.” The RPE scale is useful and easy to implement, but it takes an experienced mind. A new litter will usually go too light or too heavy. Save this method for when you have a few years of training under your lifting belt.

Training Intensity Chart

[Related: How to Use the RPE Scale For Strength Training]

Put It All Together

Once you understand different movements and variables that construct a sound program, it’s time to begin building, aka the fun part. Full disclosure, this article is intended to help an athlete build a basic workout template and will most likely not be the best bet for those heavily involved in a specific sport like powerlifting, weightlifting, CrossFit, and strongman. Still, the skills you learn here can be scaled and translated into more sports-specific training regimens.

Choosing a Timeline & Periodization Scheme

In periodization, there are three cycles (also called blocks) to breakdown training timelines: A microcycle (smallest), a mesocycle (middle), and a macrocycle (overview). Coaches will use these timelines, cycles, or blocks to help dictate their workouts per an athlete’s needs, goals, and sport. That said, it’s good to have a solid understanding of what all this means and how to use it for yourself. Check out the visual example below.

There are multiple types of periodization programs, but beginners are often served best by a linear model. This model will support consistent calculated growth over a gradual period of time.

The example program outlined below will be a month-long mesocycle with a program that corresponds to the linear periodization model. Basically, it’s four weeks of workouts, with each workout containing a slight progressive overload on movements.

Training Cycles Explained

Selecting Frequency

Now that you’ve selected a timeline and periodization model, which will serve as a means to progressively overload, you have to figure out how often we should work out. It’ll be most helpful for the recreational lifter to go off of broader recommendations for training frequency. A jumping-off point could be the recommendations below from the National Strength and Conditioning Association:

  • Novice: 2-3 times per week
  • Intermediate: 3 times per week for total body training, 4 times per week for split-routines
  • Advanced: 4-6 times per week

Sample Program Template

The above ranges will work for a majority of casual lifters. Still, specific training adaptations accompany different workout frequencies when you’re advancing further along in your training.

For the example below, the training program template will have you training three times a week. You can add a day if you’d like, and if you choose to do so, you might want to look into working with an upper/lower split.

Directions: All exercises should be performed one at a time. However, exercises marked with the same letter (“C1” and “C2”) should be performed back-to-back as a superset. Your goal is to hit the sets and reps as listed, adjusting your weights as needed if you’re finding this way too easy or way too hard. Also, be sure to rest one day between training days. 

Note: You’ll notice that there are no exercises listed below. That’s by design. It’s up to you to choose the best exercises based on your training goals. We let you know where to plug in compound and accessory movements and give you set and reps, but that’s it. Consider this homework — but homework that’ll get you jacked. 

Week One

Day One — Leg Focus 

  • A1. Lower Compound: 4 sets of 6 reps / 70% 1-RM
  • B1. Lower Accessory (unilateral focus): 3 sets of 8-10 reps
  • C1. Lower Accessory: 3 sets of 12-15 reps
  • C2. Core Accessory: 3 sets of 15-20 reps
  • D1. Weighted Core Accessory: 2 sets of 10-12 reps 

Day Two — Upper Body Focus 

  • A1. Upper Compound: 5 sets of 5 reps / 70% 1-RM
  • B1. Upper Accessory: 4 sets of 8-10 reps
  • C1. Upper Accessory: 3 sets of 6-8 reps
  • C2. Upper Accessory (optional: arm focus): 3 sets of 10-12 reps
  • D1. Upper Accessory (arm focus): 3 sets of 6-8 reps
  • D2. Core Accessory: 4 sets of 10-15 reps

Day Three — Lower Body Focus 

  • A1. Lower Compound: 3 sets of 5 reps / 75% 1-RM
  • B1. Lower + Back Accessory: 3 sets of 6-8 reps
  • C1. Lower + Back Accessory: 3 sets of 10-15 reps
  • C2. Upper Accessory: 3 sets of 6-8 reps
  • D1. Weighted Core Accessory: 4 sets of 8-10 reps

Week Two

Day Four — Leg Focus 

  • A1. Lower Compound: 4 sets of 6 reps / 72.5% 1-RM
  • B1. Lower Accessory (unilateral focus): 3 sets of 8-10 reps
  • C1. Lower Accessory: 3 sets of 12-15 reps
  • C2. Core Accessory: 3 sets of 15-20 reps
  • D1. Weighted Core Accessory: 2 sets of 10-12 reps 

Day Five — Upper Body Focus 

  • A1. Upper Compound: 5 sets of 5 reps / 72.5% 1-RM
  • B1. Upper Accessory: 4 sets of 8-10 reps
  • C1. Upper Accessory: 3 sets of 6-8 reps
  • C2. Upper Accessory (optional: arm focus): 3 sets of 10-12 reps
  • D1. Upper Accessory (arm focus): 3 sets of 6-8 reps
  • D2. Core Accessory: 4 sets of 10-15 reps

Day Six — Lower Body Focus 

  • A1. Lower Compound: 3 sets of 5 reps / 77.5% 1-RM
  • B1. Lower + Back Accessory (ideally back focus): 3 sets of 6-8 reps
  • C1. Lower + Back Accessory: 3 sets of 10-15 reps
  • C2. Upper Accessory: 3 sets of 6-8 reps
  • D1. Weighted Core Accessory: 4 sets of 8-10 reps

Week Three

Day Seven — Leg Focus 

  • A1. Lower Compound: 4 sets of 6 reps / 75% 1-RM
  • B1. Lower Accessory (unilateral focus): 3 sets x 8-10 reps
  • C1. Lower Accessory: 3 sets of 12-15 reps
  • C2. Core Accessory: 3 sets of 15-20 reps
  • D1. Weighted Core Accessory: 2 sets of 10-12 reps 

Day Eight — Upper Body Focus 

  • A1. Upper Compound: 5 sets of 5 reps / 75% 1-RM
  • B1. Upper Accessory: 4 sets of 8-10 reps
  • C1. Upper Accessory: 3 sets of 6-8 reps
  • C2. Upper Accessory: 3 sets of 10-12 reps
  • D1. Upper Accessory (arm focus): 3 sets of 6-8 reps
  • D2. Core Accessory: 4 sets of 10-15 reps

Day Nine — Lower Body Focus 

  • A1. Lower Compound: 3 sets of 5 reps / 80% 1-RM
  • B1. Lower + Back Accessory (ideally back focus): 3 sets of 6-8 reps
  • C1. Lower + Back Accessory: 3 sets of 10-15 reps
  • C2. Upper Accessory: 3 sets of 6-8 reps
  • D1. Weighted Core Accessory: 4 sets of 8-10 reps 

Week Four

Day 10 — Leg Focus 

  • A1. Lower Compound: 4 sets x 6 reps / 77.5% 1-RM
  • B1. Lower Accessory (unilateral focus): 3 sets x 8-10 reps
  • C1. Lower Accessory: 3 sets x 12-15 reps
  • C2. Core Accessory: 3 sets x 15-20 reps
  • D1. Weighted Core Accessory: 2 sets x 10-12 reps 

Day 11 — Upper Body Focus 

  • A1. Upper Compound: 5 sets of 5 reps / 77.5% 1-RM
  • B1. Upper Accessory: 4 sets of 8-10 reps
  • C1. Upper Accessory: 3 sets of 6-8 reps
  • C2. Upper Accessory (optional: arm focus): 3 sets of 10-12 reps
  • D1. Upper Accessory (arm focus): 3 sets of 6-8 reps
  • D2. Core Accessory: 4 sets of 10-15 reps

Day 12 — Lower Body Focus 

  • A1. Lower Compound: 3 sets of 5 reps / 82.5% 1-RM
  • B1. Lower + Back Accessory (ideally back focus): 3 sets of 6-8 reps
  • C1. Lower + Back Accessory: 3 sets x 10-15 reps
  • C2. Upper Accessory: 3 sets of 6-8 reps
  • D1. Weighted Core Accessory: 4 sets of 8-10 reps

The Big Picture of Workout Programming

There are a million ways to get from point A to point B in the world of strength training. There’s never a one-size-fits-all methodology, so you may find this program template doesn’t match your goals or needs, which is okay. What’s most important is understanding the “why” when you’re in the gym. Why are you doing what you’re doing, and is there a sound reason behind it? To learn more about the nitty-gritty of creating your own training programs, check out these articles to build out your expertise.

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