Whether you are just starting out on your fitness journey, you are training for a specific event or you are a seasoned athlete who wants to make improvements, a workout plan is essential. Your workout plan is your roadmap to success. It also helps you to track your progress, make changes where you need to, stay motivated, and even prevent injuries. But how do you get started? Let us show you how to make a workout plan step by step!
1. Set your goals
A workout plan is like any other plan - you need to be clear what you are trying to achieve. You might be trying to lose weight, improve your strength or general fitness, or train for a specific competition or event.
If your ultimate goal is really challenging - like you are going from being a non-runner to running a marathon, or you are trying to lose a lot of weight - think about breaking down your plan to achieve a smaller goal to start with and get you on the right track.
Once you reach that short-term goal, you can build another plan for the next step, and so on. This will help you adjust your plans as you get stronger, faster, or fitter, and will encourage a sense of accomplishment. Long plans trying to reach large goals can be demotivating - it’s a lot better to think of your long-range goal as a sequence of short-range successes.
You also need to make sure your goal is something you can measure. A goal like 'run faster' or 'get fitter' is very difficult to measure, and to know when you’ve arrived! However, 'run a mile in under 8 minutes', 'lose 20 pounds', or 'complete a sprint triathlon' are easy to measure. That doesn't mean your goal has to be complicated or daunting - you can always add fun goals like 'climb the rope I couldn’t climb in gym class' or 'finish a 5K race' are perfectly measurable and describe an attainable goal.
You can also have more than one goal, and in fact, that’s not a bad idea. Having two or three goals will help you add variety to your training. If your goals are very different, like increasing your running speed and lifting heavier weights, then you might need to adjust your goal, as the training for those two activities can be very different. In some cases, though, multiple goals complement each other and are a great way to help you think creatively about your workout routines.
2. Decide on the length of your plan
Once you have your short-range goal or goals, you now need to decide how long it will reasonably take you to achieve them. If you are training for a specific event or competition, that may determine the endpoint of your plan, and you then have to work backward from the target date.
For other goals, plans of 12 to 16 weeks are a good length. That’s long enough to enable you to work sensibly toward your goal and see some real gains, but short enough that you can stay on track and keep your goal in sight. Plans of three to four months also help to ensure that you progress at a pace that will help to protect you from injury.
3. Set your baseline
If you are going to get to the finish line, you need to know where to start! Before you begin to build you plan, look at each of your goals and assess where you are right now. It might mean standing on the scales, getting a body fat measurement done, running a mile, doing a one-rep max deadlift. Whatever you decide for your goals, assess your baseline today.
Once you have your baseline, you can take another look at your goals. Look at what it would take to get there if you made steady progress for your baseline to your goal over the twelve or sixteen weeks. Have you set your goal too high? Will you make unreasonable expectations of yourself to reach your goal over the course of your plan, and risk injury or disappointment? Or have you set your goals too low, and maybe now you want to rethink what you can achieve?
Your baseline needs to be recorded on your plan, including what exactly you did for your assessment. You need this information, because as you work through your plan, you will retake the same test, under the same conditions, to help you measure your progress, and see if you need to make changes along the way.
4. Assess your time
Now you are about ready to start building your plan. The next questions to ask are about the time and effort you need to reach your goal. For example, will you be able to workout every day, or only a few days per week? Will your sessions be an hour, or will you need more, but shorter sessions? Do you have a challenging work-life schedule already that means you may have trouble fitting exercise in?
Take all of these into account then start to map out the blocks of time you will set aside for your workouts. They don't have to always be the same; a few half hour strength training or high-intensity interval training (HIIT) sessions, and a longer session at the weekend are perfectly okay. And if you are mapping ahead for the next three or four months, also block out time when you will be away on work trips or vacations, or expecting other challenges. If you build these into your plan now, you won't be frustrated or pressured trying to fit your workouts into a busy schedule later.
5. Assess your resources
Now you need to think about what you need to reach your goal. Will you be working out in a gym, in which case does your current gym have the equipment or opening hours you need, or should you be looking for a new location? A well-equipped gym with extensive opening hours can be a real asset to completing your goals, as you'll have access to a wider range of equipment and facilities than you can reasonably set up at home. There may also be classes you can attend, which will help with motivation or trainers and coaches that can help you.
If you want to include swimming, spin classes, or extensive weight training in your plan, then a good gym may be necessary. However, some gyms can be crowded at peak times, and it can be hard to stick to a plan if the pool is closed for lessons when you want it, or you can’t get a turn on the equipment you need.
If you plan to train at home, you have the convenience of being able to train whenever you want. If you have a busy schedule and your plan requires you to try and fit in a lot of short workouts, then training at home may work better than having to drive to a gym. However, while setting up a basic home gym with the fundamentals for cardio and strength training doesn't have to be expensive, it does require some investment, and definitely some space. Of course, you can also build a plan that has a mix of home training and some workouts or classes at your gym - it doesn’t have to be all or nothing!
6. Building your workout plan
Now you are ready to start mapping out your plan. Typically, the best plans work in four-week cycles. That is, three weeks of hard workouts followed by a week of easier, recovery workouts to give your body a chance to adapt. Those ‘easy’ weeks aren't necessarily easy at all, just different and a bit lighter - you should aim to reduce your overall effort about twenty to thirty percent for the recovery week.
So, you might swap a run session for a swim workout to let your body enjoy what is called ‘active recovery.’ That’s when you keep up some effort but you use different muscles and a change in activity to let your body have a chance to make the fitness or strength adaptations you've been working toward.
There is a lot of science to designing workout plans to maximize gains. Most work on a variation of a ‘periodization.’ Typically, your first cycle (or two, if you are very new to exercise) will be building a base of general fitness, including strength, flexibility, and endurance. This is important to help your body prepare for more strenuous efforts, ensure you have the agility to maintain good form in your workouts and prevent injury or fatigue.
After your base cycles, you can start to add more intense efforts. Depending on whether you’re focusing on speed, endurance or strength, or training for a specific event or sport, how you design these intense sessions can vary. There are a lot of resources out there to help you, and you don't need to start entirely from scratch.
7. What type of workouts should you do?
What type of individual workouts you do will depend on your goals. There are plenty of resources online to help you design specific workouts for running, weight loss, weightlifting - pretty much anything you want to do. There are also lots of apps you can use to design your plan that let you enter in all kinds of different workouts.
The best programs have a mix of strength, cardio, and flexibility. Even if your goal is to improve your powerlifting, your form and technique will benefit from some plyometrics and flexibility training. Runners can improve efficiency by strengthening their core. Not only does a variety of workouts help to improve your progress toward your goal, it helps to keep your interest and your motivation, and prevent fatigue and injury.
8. How fast to increase effort?
For running, a good rule of thumb is not to increase mileage more than 10% per week. That same rule applies to most workouts - a 10% increase in effort during the three ‘hard’ weeks of each cycle is a good maximum. You may be in a hurry to reach your goals, but push things too fast and you’ll have problems. You can risk injury if you don’t give your body enough time to adapt to the stresses of workouts and build strength, stability, and endurance to cope with heavier lifts, longer runs, faster sprints.
Remember too that fitness comes from overloading your body, then giving it time to rest, recover and adapt. If you progress too fast or skip important rest periods, then you can get hurt, feel tired and sore, lose motivation, or simply stop progressing.
9. Be prepared to change
It’s a good idea to set another baseline assessment about halfway through your program. When you evaluate your results, look back at your plan and see if you want to make any adjustments. If you’ve been progressing well and are on target for reaching your goals, then you don't need to change anything.
However, if you’ve been having trouble completing your workouts, or have progressed much faster than you expected, then you might want to adjust the effort or intensity of your workouts up or down. If your workouts have been too difficult, take a step back and repeat a week, and look at reducing the increases in upcoming weeks. If they've felt easy or about right but you’ve progressed really quickly, then you might want to ramp them up a bit.
You might also experience a workout ‘plateau,’ where you feel like you just aren’t making progress anymore. This is perfectly normal and occurs frequently no matter how carefully you design your plan. Plateaus usually mean your body has worked hard to adapt to your new workout program, and just can’t get any further. Usually, slotting in an extra recovery week will do the trick, and give your body a chance to catch up and start improving again.
Sometimes you can crack a plateau by changing your workouts around a bit. If you aren’t able to add more weight to your lifts, for example, you can try a switch to lower weights and higher reps for a while to get your foundation back.
10. Publish your plan
Now you have your plan, and you are ready to get started, but there’s one last step. Now it’s time to share your plan. Telling others about your plan is a great way to help maintain your motivation. Not only will it help you with a sense of intention to stick to the plan, but also you’ll find friends and family can provide you with the affirmations and support you need to keep your motivation high.
Better still, maybe you can find a friend who can join you on your plan and workout with you? There’s nothing like knowing someone else is counting on you to help you stick to your plan!
If you have work, social, or family obligations, sharing your plan also helps others understand, respect, and support your goals. You might need your family to help you make time for your longer workouts, or help with meals so you can get an evening workout in. If they feel like they are a part of your plan, and share in your successes, then they’ll be better able to help you with staying motivated, and making time for your workouts.
There are a lot of ways to share your plan. You can post it on Facebook for your friends to cheer you on, or simply print it out and post in your fridge for your family to see. If you are using a fitness app, many of those have features that let you share on social media.
How to Make a Workout Plan: Conclusion
This step by step guide on how to make a workout plan is really just the first step to you reaching your goals, but it’s an important one. A good plan is the foundation to ensuring you have a roadmap that will guide you to success whatever your fitness or training goals. Your plan is personal to you, and not only does it show you where you need to go, it’s also a great record of how far you’ve come.
Remember where we said to share your plans? We’d love to see the plans you’ve designed, find out what worked for you, and best of all hear about your successes. Leave your comments below!