I get lots of mail about what routines I recommend for people. It’s always a challenging question to answer, because there are as many possible routines as there are screaming prepubescent children outside a boy band concert.
Nevertheless I thought it might be helpful to compile some ideas for you.
These routines are meant to be suggestions based on generally accepted principles of training. They aren’t the only routines out there. Through experimentation and careful record-keeping, you’ll find what’s right for you. Please don’t write me to tell me I missed things in routine X. These routines are for you to use and adapt to your needs, so they shouldn’t be considered to be the final word on the “right” routine. Pick one and use it as is, or modify it as you see fit. The usual disclaimers apply here about checking with your doctor before starting a fitness program, and making sure you’re doing the exercises with correct form, blah blah blah.
There is one constant in the routines on this page: there is no high-rep training with low weight, no “toning and sculpting” workouts. You’ll never find those useless heresies on this page. Basic, compound movements with significant weight resistance is the only way to go regardless of your goals and abilities, and don’t let anyone tell you differently (obviously while you are learning, you are not expected to do huge quantities of weight, but the weight should be a challenge for you). You can do a trillion leg lifts with a pink ankle weight, or you can do one set of heavy squats. It’s your choice; make it a good one.
how did you build these routines?
The first thing to remember is that the body knows movements, not muscles. Don’t build a workout around isolated body parts, but rather around integrated movements. Think about how your body moves around in “real life” and then think about which exercises best emulate that. You’ll notice that few of the movements you do in real life involve sitting or lying down and moving a single joint. Rather, real life movements are multi-joint movements such as squatting down to pick something off the floor (i.e. a deadlift) or putting something on a high shelf (i.e. a standing overhead press).
Thus, many workouts follow what I call the “squat, push, pull” format. What that means is that each workout is composed of the following “recipe”:
- A squatting type movement such as squats, deadlifts, or lunges. This typically involves some combination of all the muscles in the lower body.
- A pushing type movement, which can be done in three planes: pushing up/overhead (like an overhead press); pushing horizontally (like a bench press or pushup); and pushing down (like a dip). Of course you can also push somewhere in between, as in an incline press that presses both forward and up. Usually these types of movements involve some combination of shoulders, chest, and triceps.
- A pulling type movement, which can be done in three planes: pulling down from overhead (like a pulldown or a pullup); pulling horizontally (like a row); and pulling up (like a shrug). Usually these types of movements involve some combination of the back and biceps muscle groups.
- Midsection work for torso strength and stability: this includes low back, abdominal, and/or oblique work and can be anything from isometric holds to spinal flexion/extension
I usually throw in some calf work as well since ankle flexion/extension doesn’t tend to get worked with the above types of movements unless you’re doing something like squat jumps or Olympic lifting. Most movements can be done with one limb or two. For example you can squat with both legs or one at a time (i.e. a split squat, pistol, or lunge).
For the average trainee, a basic squat/push/pull arrangement is usually quite sufficient. Once you understand this concept of “movements not muscles”, feel free to experiment with it.
which routine is right for me?
To figure out what routine you should be following, some specifics are in order.
How long have you been training?
I tried writing down numerical representations of workout time with regard to beginner vs. intermediate vs. advanced trainer status, but it’s hard to pin down exactly who is a beginner and who isn’t.
A beginner can be someone who’s been training for a while, but hasn’t been doing it seriously or with any real plan or knowledge, or someone who’s coming back to training after a long layoff. The intermediate workouts are intended for trainees who have been training for at least 6 months, and who have at least some familiarity with all of the exercises given.
If you’re a really brave beginner who knows her stuff, you’re welcome to try them, but don’t write me a hate letter if you hurt yourself. Generally, for beginner workouts, the reps are relatively high and the intensity/weight relatively low. A typical recommendation is to use a weight that’s manageable for 12 to 15 reps per set.
However, for a few complex exercises such as squats or deadlifts, you can do more, shorter sets while using the same lighter weight, so instead of 3 x 12 perhaps try 6 x 6 with shorter rests (the total rep count is the same, but your ability to keep good technique will be better). This is to give your connective tissue time to adapt to the loading. After 8-12 months, you can go a little heavier. But don’t rush it. Connective tissue, such as cartilage, ligaments, and tendons, takes a little longer to adapt than muscle does, so a wise beginner takes it easy for the first while to avoid overuse injuries. There is always time to go heavier later.
What are your goals?
Beginners can both gain muscle and lose fat at the same time, but after about 6-12 months of training, this freebie runs out, and you will have to be more specific in your objectives. If body recomposition, i.e. gaining muscle or losing fat, is your goal as an intermediate or experienced trainer, it’s best to pick one or the other. Trying to do both at once is like trying to build a house while someone keeps taking the bricks away.
How many days a week do you want to work out?
I’ve given everything here from full-body workouts that can be done twice weekly, to 4-day a week splits.
Are you training for a particular sport, activity, or rehab?
I’ve included some routines aimed at specific sports or developing specific qualities like explosiveness. Also, check my Sport Specific Training page for more ideas.
What kind of equipment do you have access to?
I’ve included a routine for minimal equipment as well as one for dumbbells only.
I’ve tried to group the routines according to skill level as well as goals. Most are good all-purpose routines, and a few are more specific. If you stop making progress in your routine, or worse, if you backslide, see my troubleshooting page. All of these routines are appropriate for gaining strength or losing bodyfat. Just remember that when you’re trying to lose bodyfat, you’ll need a bit more activity and attention to reduced caloric intake, and you likely won’t make strength or muscle mass gains as substantially or quickly as when you’re focusing on strength/mass gain alone.
I’ve tried as best I can to find pics of the recommended exercises. Click on each exercise to see the exercise illustrated, or check the Dork to Diva or ExRx. Do the exercises in the order given.
Don’t forget to warm up with a few minutes of light cardio and active stretching (in other words, taking the joints gently through a full range of motion), and save the more intensive stretching or cardio for after your weights workout. If you want to add more substantial cardio to your program, either do it on days you don’t use weights, or do it after you do weights.