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How To Build Your Own Workout Routine: Plans, Schedules, and Exercises

I get multiple emails and messages per day asking:

“Steve, what should I do for a workout?”

Well, partner, today is your lucky day.

I’m gonna help build you a custom workout program, step-by-step!

After all, a workout should be developed around a person’s age, goals, nutritional strategy, free time, etc.

Not only that, but it’s easy to overcomplicate this process – there are an infinite number of exercises, sets, reps, and programs to choose from.

Now, if you’re somebody that wants to skip all of that, and JUST want to be told what exactly to do:

We build customized workouts for our Online Coaching Clients and would love to have you. We get to know your story and struggles, your goals, and your lifestyle, and develop a workout plan that fits your schedule.

Your coach can build a workout for you!

Want a customized workout plan you’ll ACTUALLY do? Learn more:

Now, if you’re more of a “figure this stuff out on my own” kind of person – we’re going to dig into how to build your own workout plan today!

We’ve also created a free resource for folks who want to build their own workout but would love some more specific direction and instruction.

You can download our free guide, Strength Training 101: Everything You Need to Know, which covers all of this stuff in a single guide:

Download our comprehensive guide
Everything you need to know about getting strong.
Workout routines for bodyweight AND weight training.
How to find the right gym and train properly in one.

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OKAY! Are you ready to start building your own routine and want to know how it’s done?

Great! Let’s do this:

Step #1: Determine your “Get in Shape” situation!
Step #2: “What exercises should I do to lose weight (or build muscle)?”
Step #3: “How many sets and reps should I do per exercise?”
Step #4: “How long should I wait between sets?”
Step #5: “How much weight should I lift?”
Step #6: “How long should I exercise for?“
Step #7: How to create supersets and circuit training workouts.
Step #8: “How many days per week should I train?”
Step #9: How to record your workouts and progress.
“Steve, just BUILD a workout for me!”

Step #1: Determine Your “Get in Shape” Situation

As Coach Staci lays out in the video above, we need to answer a few key questions when designing a workout:

QUESTION 1: What are your goals?

Are you trying to lose weight? Awesome.
Are you trying to bulk up or build muscle? Great.
Are you preparing for your first 5k? Swell.
Whatever your goals are, it’s good to write them down and be aware of what you’re trying to accomplish.

These goals will shape HOW you build your workout.

An effective way to create goals is by using the SMART method, which stands for specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely.[1]

Specific – Your goals must specifically state what is to be accomplished. They must be clear and easy to understand.
Measurable – Your goals must be measurable so you can tell if you’re making progress or not. For example, I want to gain 5 pounds of muscle. To track your progress you will need body composition equipment that is designed to assess your fat and muscle mass.
Attainable – Your goals should be realistically attainable. Remember, a realistic amount of muscle mass to gain per week is about 0.5 pounds. For example, gaining 5 pounds of muscle should realistically take about 10 weeks
Relevant – Your goals must be relevant to your particular interests, needs, likes/dislikes, and abilities. Another thing to remember is that your goals need to be generated by you and you alone!
Timely – Your goals must have a timeline for completion. If your goal is to gain 5 pounds of muscle then a reasonable end-point should be at minimum 10 weeks.
A SMART goal is a good goal.

QUESTION 2: How much time can you devote to exercise?

If you can do an hour a day, that’s fantastic.

But maybe you have a wife or husband, three kids, a dog, two jobs, and no robot butler…then maybe you only have thirty minutes, twice a week.

If you’re swamped like Sponge Bob here, a 30 minute workout here and there is a great way to start.
That’s fine too!

Also, break up your workout! According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), if you accumulate three 10-minute bouts of exercise throughout the day to total 30-minutes of exercise, then that is as effective as someone who does one 30-minute bout of exercise.[2]

Now, no matter how much time you have, developing the most efficient workout is crucial.

Why spend two hours in a gym when you can get just as much accomplished in 30 minutes, right?

Here’s the good news: weight training is the fat-burning prize fight victor, and efficiency rules all.

As Staci shows here, keep your arms vertical (as much as you can).
So whether you are building muscle or looking to lose weight, a strength training workout will get you the results you’re after (when combined with the right eating strategy!)

While we’re talking about time, let me quickly mention something important:

Proper expectations!

As we cover “How Fast Can I Get the Body I Want,” make sure you are thinking about your journey with a realistic timeline:

As we mention in that guide, here are some realistic timeframes for weight loss or muscle gain:[3]

If you are trying to lose weight it is recommended that you seek a calorie deficit by consuming 250-500 fewer calories per day below your typical calorie intake. This will result in a realistic weight loss goal of 1-2 pounds per week
If you’re trying to gain muscle mass, then it is recommended that you seek a calorie surplus by consuming 250-500 additional calories above your typical calorie intake. This will result in a realistic gain in lean muscle mass of about 0.5 pounds per week.
QUESTION 3: WHERE do you want to work out?

At a gym? Here’s a Beginner’s Gym Guide with 6 levels of workouts.
At home? Have you tried our Beginner Bodyweight Workout?
In a park? Try our park workout.
Where you work out will largely determine if you are going to train with your body’s weight, or if you can start doing gym strength training.

If you’re paying attention here, you may notice I’m setting you up to work out no matter what your current situation is.


Because according to ACSM, the #1 reason people don’t exercise is:[4]

They don’t have time for it.

The White Rabbit being late
All of us, all the time.

BUT, with the information I’m hitting you with, technically you should have no excuse for not exercising unless (you’re injured or sick).

After all, your workout:

Can be accumulated with just 10-minute bouts of exercise throughout the day.
Doesn’t need to be done with a gym membership.
Can be done with exercises in the comfort of your own home or while outside (weather permitting).


RECAP OF QUESTIONS – At this point, we should have:

Determined your “get in shape” goals.
Decided how much time you have to train.
Picked WHERE you want to work out.
We can now start to build your workout routine, your daily workout plan, and your monthly workout schedule!

Let’s do it.

Step #2: What Exercises Should I do to lose weight (or build muscle?)
A coach checking your form like so can help when designing and building a workout.
I like to follow the motto of “Keep it simple, stupid.”

(Note: I am not calling you stupid. You’re reading Nerd Fitness, which means you’re intelligent, good-looking, really funny, and most of all, modest.)

The best workout is the one that you actually stick with, and people make things FAR too complicated and try to target a bazillion different individual muscles with six types of exercises for each body part.

It’s exhausting, unnecessary, inefficient, and intimidating.

So keep it simple!

We’re going to pick 5 exercises, and get really strong with those movements.

This Muppet knows strength training will help him gain muscle and lose weight.
This is the ENTIRE philosophy behind our Strength 101 series.

Unless you’ve been strength training for years and know what you’re doing, we recommend that you pick a full-body routine that you can do 2-3 times a week.

You want a workout routine that has at least one exercise for your:

Quads (front of your legs).
Butt and hamstrings (back of your legs).
Chest, shoulders, and triceps: (“push” muscles).
Back, biceps, and grip ( “pull” muscles).
Core (abdominals and lower back).
I have a trick for you: by targeting compound movements that recruit multiple muscles at the same time, you can build a full-body routine that uses only four or five exercises.

How’s THAT for efficiency!

A compound exercise would be the yin to the yang of the isolation exercise.

Think a push-up (compound):

Here Rebel Leader Steve shows you the classic push-up.
Compared to bicep curls through a machine (isolation):

A man doing biceps curls on a machine
Compound exercises have been found to result in improvements in aerobic endurance, muscular fitness, and flexibility, since you’re recruiting all sorts of muscle groups at once.[5]

Where an isolation exercise would be a single-joint movement involving only one single muscle group, like the biceps, in our example above.

I will say, there is a time and place for implementing compound and isolation exercises.

We cover all this in our The 12 Best Compound Exercises For Beginners (How To Train Efficiently) guide.

Here is a quick breakdown of which compound exercises will work for each of those muscle groups:

Quads – squats, lunges, one-legged squats, box jumps.
Butt and Hamstrings – deadlifts, hip raises, straight leg deadlifts, good mornings, step-ups.
Push (chest, shoulders, and triceps) – overhead press, bench press, incline dumbbell press, push-ups, dips.
Pull (back, biceps, and forearms) – chin-ups, pull-ups, bodyweight rows, bent-over rows.
Core (abs and lower back) – planks, side planks, exercise ball crunches, mountain climbers, jumping knee tucks, hanging leg raises.
Not sure how to do any of these movements? Want more examples?

Check out:

The 42 Best Bodyweight Exercises You Can Do Anywhere!

Pick one exercise from each category above for your workout, and you’ll work almost every single muscle in your body.

Doing a plank on your side is a great way to progressive this bodyweight movement.
Get stronger with each movement each week, and you have yourself a recipe for a great physique.

Here is an example of a great, effective simple gym workout:

Barbell squats: 5 sets of 5 reps.
Barbell Deadlifts: 3 sets of 3 reps.
Push-ups (or dips): 3 sets of 15 reps.
Pull-ups (or Inverted Rows): 3 sets of 8 reps.
Planks: 3 sets, 1 minute hold each.
You don’t need to make things more complicated than this!

(Not that we humans have a tendency to overcomplicate things to the point of paralysis and inaction…)

Don’t make building your own workout overly complicated like this man is doing.

If you’re not sure how to do any of the movements above, click on their links for thorough write-ups and video demonstrations.

Pick one exercise from EACH category above, specifically ones that scare you the least, and that will be your workout every other day for the next week.

The great news: the above workout routine will work whether you’re looking to bulk up and build muscle OR if you’re trying to lose weight.

You simply adjust your calories consumed – which is 80% of the equation – and that’s how you’ll start to change your physique.[5]

Oh, and you’ll also need to think about macronutrient breakdowns (carbs, fats, proteins), like in our Nerd Fitness Healthy Plate:

If your meal plate looks like this, you’re doing great!
But you can check out our Guide to Healthy Eating for more info on that.


Get really good at these basic movements and focus on getting stronger each week (I’ll cover how below).

If you get really strong at squats, deadlifts, pull-ups, and push-ups, you will build an incredible physique to be proud of.

Plus, building strength with these exercises will also help in other areas such as improving your performance in sports, decreasing your risk of chronic diseases (e.g., CVD) and premature mortality (an early death).[6]

*mic drop*

**picks up mic**

Then, once you get confident in those movements, feel free to add some variety.


If you do the same exact routine, three days a week, for months and months, you might get bored, and start slacking…

Someone on their phone at gym
Or you might hit a workout plateau.[7]

So if you find yourself getting bored, feel free to stick with the above ‘formula,’ but change the ingredients:

If you do bench presses on Monday, go with overhead presses on Wednesday and dips on Friday.
Squats on Monday? Try lunges on Wednesday and front squats on Friday.
Do deadlifts every Wednesday, but change up the sets and reps you pick!
If you hit a plateau or find yourself getting bored, pick a different exercise to improve so you’ll stay challenged, and you’ll actually DO the workout!

Then, focus on getting stronger![8] (You are writing down your workouts, right?).

I know it’s really easy to overcomplicate this process as there’s an infinite number of exercises, sets, reps, and programs to choose from.

And yes, we have a solution for people that JUST want to be told what exactly to do: our uber-popular 1-on-1 coaching program pairs you with your own Nerd Fitness Coach who will get to know you, your goals, and your lifestyle, and develop a workout plan that’s specific to not only your body, but also to your schedule and life: