(I’m just kidding………)
This article is titled the Perfect Workout Plan for Beginners, but you do not necessarily have to be a beginner to apply the rules discussed in this article into your own plans. You could be a person just looking for a new routine, or your routine is getting old, or you’ve been working out plenty long, but without any rhyme or reason, and you just want to tighten up the ship a bit.
And if you are reading this article as a true beginner or you fall into one of the categories above, I am so excited for you, because you are about to open a brand new world of gains and muscle is coming your way.
Also, this article is the write up companion to Episode 15 of the Made To Excel Fitness Podcast which you can find here. If you would rather listen to the tips versus read them, it is all there in the episode, along with how Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson sucks, and how former CrossFit CEO screwed up BIG time.
If that doesn’t tickle your fancy, carry on…
Now training (especially the weight lifting portion of it), can get very complicated, very nuanced, and very advanced if you wanted to go down that route. For people who are uber serious about their fitness and physique will more than likely eventually have to deploy more advanced strategies to have the best physique they possibly can. That’s why people like Bodybuilders and big name Actors & Actresses hire some of the best coaches in the Biz. They haven’t given me a call yet, but I think Disney and Marvel Studios may have lost my number. I digress…
But good news for you, you might not have to ever go there. Will your training get more complicated and advanced? Sure. You’re eventually going to outgrow your beginner program, and you’ll have to switch up the way you do things if you want to continue to make progress, but by that point, you’d have built up a solid base of knowledge and fitness so the transition to a more advanced program will be a smooth one.
Kind of like learning how to ride a bike is easier if you start with training wheels, versus skipping straight to full blown bike riding itself. Consider this your fitness training wheels.
Frequency simply refers to how many days a week you should workout (whether at home or at a gym). This is the one and only criteria of the four discussed in this article that should be set by you and you only. If you plan on doing this alone, you’re in reality setting all four of the criteria on your own, but if you choose to work with a Personal Trainer, frequency is the one thing that they should not set for you.
DO. THIS. ON. YOUR. OWN.
A Personal Trainer does not know your schedule, does not know your tendencies, and does not know your habits, especially if they just met you.
You have to be completely honest with yourself and come up with an amount of days per week that you can workout, and this number should be something you should do consistently. If you know you get out early two days during the week and can workout at least one day during the weekend, shoot for 3 workouts per week. And if you SOMETIMES get out early another day during the week and that makes you tempted to shoot for 4 days per week, this is the perfect situation to be conservative in. If for some reason you don’t get out early that 4th day, and don’t get to workout, now your plan is out of whack and can possibly throw off the whole balance of your fitness journey.
Take an honest look at your schedule and figure out what’s best for you.
There’s amazing Personal Trainers out there in the world, but there’s also scumbags, Trainers that don’t know any better, or they get pushed by their boss to do so, that will try and convince you to come to the gym 5, 6, 7 days per week simply for their monetary gain and not necessarily what’s best for you.
So if you’re chatting with a trainer and you tell them you can commit to 2 sessions per week, and they’re doing everything in their power to get more out of you, run. Run far, far away.
Whenever you do set your frequency, you can use the guidelines below to try and start building your programs.
1-3 Workouts per Week - Full Body Workouts
4 Workouts per Week - 2 Upper Body Days, 2 Lower Body Days
5-7 Workouts per Week - Consult a Trainer (or send me a DM on Instagram (@mtefit)
By general rule of thumb, in order to get the most bang for your buck when it comes to building muscle, you should really strive to hit most major body parts at least twice per week.
If you can only workout 1-3 per week, Full Body Workouts are really your best bet to meet that kind of volume. If you can only workout once per week, it's not necessarily ideal, but do what you can because something is always better than nothing.
4 Days per Week really lends itself well to 2 Upper Body days and 2 Lower Body days (alternating).
Anything more than 4 days per week, you should really consult with a trainer, or do a bit of research since there’s an excess of options with all those days working out. With those extra days you can spend time working on smaller muscles that fall to the wayside a bit with less days training. But by no means, do you NEED to be working out 5-7 days per week.
It’s all up to you, my friend.
Depending on your training discipline, the amount of sets you do will vary greatly. Lots of strength athletes will do a larger amount of sets, when they are doing low rep workouts to try and get stronger. If you’re only doing sets 1-3 of something like a heavy deadlift, you may need to do that more than a few times to get a really good workout.
Some Strongman athletes will do up to 8-10 sets of specific exercises to really nail down their form or mimic the day of competition as best as they can.
Bodybuilders or general fitness goers who will do higher reps (8-15+) will more than likely live in the 3-4 set range.
Lastly, if you’re a Crossfitter, you will likely run the gambit of all these different amounts of sets, depending on your workout for the day.
In general, the amount of sets you do will likely be dedicated by the number of reps you wish to perform in that set.
Going heavy and doing only 3-6 reps of something. Maybe you can do 4-5 sets to get the necessary volume into your workout.
Doing high amounts of reps? You don’t need as many sets to get the same volume.
3 sets of 15 reps is the same exact volume as 5 sets of 3 reps
Of course the 15 rep set will be a lighter weight exercise, and the 3 rep set will likely be something much heavier.
At the end of the day if you’re reading this as a true blue beginner, it’s entirely possible you can make strength and muscular gains with just 1 set of a given exercise. But eventually you will likely even out at 3-4 sets of everything once you get into the swing of things. If you find yourself in a special situation, those circumstances could change, but that’s a problem down the road.
The most important thing is trying out various amounts of sets (you’ll likely feel most comfortable doing 3-4 sets) and adjust from there. Setting the amount of reps you want to do first will likely be the best order to do things in.
P.S. when counting sets of workouts, there’s a distinction between working sets and warmup sets. If you can deadlift a good amount of weight, when you work up to that weight, it likely won’t be your first set that you perform for the day. You should perform warmup sets, working up to the weight that you want to use for that workout. So if you deadlift 135 lbs for 10 reps, you will likely have a workout that can look like: 10 reps @45lbs, 10 reps @ 95 lb, 10 reps @ 135lbs, 10 reps @ 135lbs, 10 reps @ 135lbs. You technically did 5 sets total, but 2 of those sets were warmup sets and shouldn’t count towards your overall workout volume.
This section will mirror the one above very much so. Setting the amount of reps you do will likely dictate the amount of sets you perform. So you may be asking why I choose to write them in this order. I really don’t have a good answer. It might just be because when people speak, they usually mention sets first. Other than that, this section really should’ve gone first. It is what it is, you got here somehow.
Back in the bro bodybuilding.com days lower reps were strictly for building strength, and high reps were for building muscles. This, over the past few years has been more or less debunked. Lower reps is still superior for building strength, but you can also build considerable muscle in this rep range as well.
So why not just do low reps of everything if you can get strong AND build muscle? It’s because Low reps are super taxing. In order for a workout to be effective, you really need to be relatively close to mechanical failure to build muscle. So yeah you can do 3 sets of 3 reps of a Goblet Squat with 15lbs, but if your one rep max in that particular exercise is 100lbs, those sets are pretty meaningless. So imagine a world where you did nothing but low rep sets close to failure. It would suck. You would be super tired and drained nearly all the time. So this tactic is not effective.
What I prefer having clients do is run the gambit of rep ranges over the course of the workout. Start them off with a heavy compound movement for a lower amount of reps, eventually working towards higher rep exercises towards the end.
A little bit of strength building, and lots of muscle activation.
So don’t get stuck doing nothing but 15 reps of each exercise thinking that’s the one and only way to build muscle. Experiment with your weights and the different amount of reps you can do and have fun with it.
Congratulations! You’ve reached the most important part of the article! This should be the turning point in the show, when it all comes together and clicks, and like a proud papa, I will release you into the wild to flourish on your own.
Kind of like when Uncle Phil and Aunt Viv move back East with their son Nicky (remember him!?), and leave Will and the rest of his cousins to start the rest of their newfound lives as adults.
After you read this section, I will also move East, now that my young Padawan is ready to become a Jedi Master.
If nothing else in this article makes an impact on your training, this will be the one section that has the biggest takeaway.
If you set your frequency, sets, and reps and you don’t really get any stronger or build any muscle, that’s perfectly okay. Why is that okay? Because you can always add little by little until you find the right amount for you. Kind of like adding salt to food. You would never know if there’s enough unless you’re constantly trying the food as you eat it.
So if things don’t go to plan at the beginning (and by that I mean give it a few weeks at least), you can always keep adding until you’ve found your sweet spot. If you try to do too much, too quickly, you’ll know that too, because you’ll just feel super tired and burned out all the time. It’s all pretty much trial and error.
But the amazing thing about the human body is it adapts. So once you do find that stride and what works best for you, your body will eventually adapt to that (this is a good thing, stronger, more muscle, faster, etc.), which means...you must change eventually. This does not need to be a daunting task. This just means that you’ll eventually have to change the weight that you use, the reps and sets that you do, or your rest time between sets.
As I explained above, in order for your workouts to be effective, they have to be close to mechanical failure (the point at which you can’t do anymore reps). So once your body adapts to your original training plan, it’ll no longer be difficult for you. Hence the need for one of the progressive overload changes (weight, reps, sets, rest time). Try not to change all of these things at once, but whenever you do feel like you’re beginning to plateau, changing one of these things to make your workout just a little bit harder, will go a LONG way to making your journey successful.
Yes, this article and the podcast are both called “The Perfect Workout Plan”, but the word perfect will mean something different to everybody that reads it. Using the above guidelines, set what you think will work for you, and experiment with it. It might look radically different from your best friend, or your mom, or your peers in the gym, but that’s okay because we’re all different.
Your friend might workout 1 day per week and do 5 sets of 12 for every exercise.
You might workout 3 days per week, doing different exercises, do anywhere from 2-4 sets of every exercise and 6-12 reps per set.
Everyone’s plan will look a little bit different.
The most important thing is, if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.
Be well friend.