I’ve received a few questions on how to design your own workouts and how to make sure you don’t miss anything in your workouts.
I’ll tackle that latter part first. You’re always going to miss something. There’s a great saying that circulates the fitness community – “the best exercise is the one you’re not doing”. We’re perpetually filling voids as new ones get created. That’s inevitable. On a macro level, we can think of this as different attributes such as strength, power, muscle size, speed, cardio endurance, muscular endurance, etc. There’s simply no way to address every single thing and making meaningful progress.
Likewise on a more “micro” level, different exercises of course emphasize different types of movements and muscles. Your glutes may be your “weak link” this month, but 6 months from now it may be your low back or shoulder blades keeping you from something you want to do. Our bodies are constantly changing as a result of our training, which then means our training needs to change to match our changing body.
Of course the emphasis of this article is how to do take care of things yourself, so things need to be simple. Even if you have an advanced understanding of exercise, we’re all our worst clients (which is why many people say “even coaches need coaches” – something I fully agree with). So when you’re on your own, you may not be able to make super precise assessments of what you need to work on in some areas – I’ve never met anyone that has assessed themselves as only having 40 degrees of scapular upward rotation for example.
So what are the takeaway for the average person training on their own?
1) There will never be a single perfect workout. We’re constantly changing. And every time you make 2 steps forward with one attribute or exercise, you can be taking 1 step back with other attributes or exercises. Pick your battles and realize that there’s always this give-and-take.
2) Try to make sure you have variety. You shouldn’t be trying to cram every exercise you can into a single one month training program. Rather, most of your variety will come over the course of months. Just slight changes off of movements you were already doing can change what kind of benefit you get. For example, you don’t need to do lunges, reverse lunges, and walking lunges all in the same month. Each has slightly different benefits though even though they are similar, so they can be great to implement within a multi-month window of time.
3) Focus on the big blocks and create structure. You and I may benefit from different shoulder prehab or glute activation exercises and those can be important, but we’ll probably have benefit from just lifting some heavy stuff. The basics of a workout program are relatively straightforward.
As a baseline I like to think about the following categories: hip dominant movements (think anything that looks like a deadlift or glute bridge), upper body presses (push ups, overhead presses, bench presses, etc.), Upper body pulls (rows, pulldowns, chin us, etc), and knee dominant or movements that more-or-less split the load evenly over the hip and knee joints (squats, step ups, lunge variations, etc). That last one is probably a bit nuanced as generally “hip dominant” and “knee dominant” movements are thought of as two separate categories, but I try to be aware of the overlap. If you want to use the more black-and-white distinction, I won’t send you hate mail, I promise.
That’s your foundation stuff right there, from there you fill in the little areas that are specific to your needs. Make some finetuning stuff to keep you feeling your best like core stabilization, precise shoulder work like lower trap activation, etc. Or if you’re concerned more with developing specific muscles, maybe you’ll do more bodybuilder style accessory work like bicep curls, extra glute work, etc.
In terms of structure, you can think about the biggest movements being earlier on. So movements that work more muscles and/or you can lift more weight go earlier. For simplicity’s sake, I like pairing exercises together such as A1) Hip Dominant with A2) Upper Body Press, B1) Knee dominant with B2) Upper Body Pull. There are of course plenty of ways to approach this if you want to put more thought into it. On the fly, it makes things really easy to do it the way I outlined.
For someone who is brand new to training and carrying around so much weight that it severely limits their workout capacity and for whom just warming up is currently a workout in itself, I’d be inclined to stick to a very minimalist approach such as 2-3 sets of the 4 categories I listed and then doing cardio in whatever way is enjoyable. Of course this depends on the person, the context, and blah blah blah – I’m just trying to illustrate a basic example that can apply to many people. Keep it simple, give yourself some success, get in more movement time, and learn the art of consistency.
I generally like a basic fully body training split which makes exercise selection really simple: 1-2 exercises from each category. More advanced trainees can benefit from different splits (like upper/lower), but then it gets trickier to plan for. But again, whether you’re training 3 times per week whole body or 4-6 times per week via splits, you are always going to be turning weaknesses into strengths (and then relatively speaking, allowing for the development of new “weaknesses”).
Hopefully that helps. A few different ideas in there. In summary, there is no such thing as the perfect workout. But some workouts are certainly more productive than others.
If you follow the main points I mentioned and use precise technique with exercises that are safe for you, you’ll be in a pretty good spot.
Oh, and I’d be an idiot if I didn’t do a soft sell right now ;-). I’m actually working on a really simple and effective workout program that you’ll be able to do from home and with very little equipment. Keep an eye out for that.