How to Design Your Ideal Workout Plan

By , SparkPeople Blogger
You know that exercise improves your health and helps with weight loss, but if you're an average Jane or Joe (aka not a certified fitness coach or trained exercise physiologist), your best intentions may not be enough. What exactly should you be doing anyway? How do you know what exercises to do? How long should you exercise? How often? What types of exercises are best? Before you even set foot in a gym, you are feeling like a fish out of water. For many people, not knowing what to do is a big barrier to doing anything at all.
You don't have to hire a trainer to think like one—or to get started with exercise or even create your own ideal workout plan. Here are a few tips to help you get started.
First, doing anything at all—even if it's not ideal or perfect or the best possible form of exercise—trumps doing nothing. So while we will give you a few tips to get started on the right track, don't get too bogged down in the details. If you are moving in any possible way and as often as you can, you are doing a good job. So when it comes to finessing your fitness plan, here's how much, how often, and WHAT you should be doing each week for optimal health and weight-loss results.


Cardio Exercise

Cardio strengthens your heart and lungs, helps you maintain a healthy weight, lowers your risk of sickness and disease, and makes you feel good. Cardio exercise includes any type of continuous movement that uses the body is a "rhythmic" way to elevate the heart rate for at least 10 continuous minutes. Pick a variety and choose activities that you enjoy.
  • How hard to work: Each cardio workout should increase your heart rate to a "somewhat challenging" level for you. Monitoring your heart rate is a good way to measure exactly how hard you're working, but you can also use the "talk test" or the rate of perceived exertion (where you just estimate how hard you're working on a scale of 1-10). When you're new, aim for lower-intensity cardio. But as you get fitter, try to increase the intensity every few weeks.
  • How often: Aim for three to six cardio sessions each week, starting with the lower end of that range for beginners and gradually doing more over the course of several weeks or months as you get accustomed to it. Take at least one day off from training as you get more advanced.
  • How long: Each cardio session should range from 10-60 total minutes, but be sure to start at a length you can handle and gradually progress. These sessions can be broken up into multiple, shorter sessions, too. A beginner should aim for 10-20 minutes per session, while the 30-45 minute range is intermediate and the 45+ minute range is for people who have been exercising for a while.

Strength Exercise

Whether you call it resistance training, weight lifting, toning or body sculpting, we're all talking about strengthening your muscles by performing exercises against resistance. Strength training also strengthens your bones, tendons and ligaments, which improves your fitness, appearance and metabolism so you can better maintain a healthy weight. Each strength training workout should include at least one exercise for each of your major muscle groups (think: arms, chest, back, core and legs).
  • How hard to work: Aim for one to three sets of eight to 15 repetitions (i.e., three sets of 10 pushups) of each exercise. How many reps you do will probably be dictated by the amount of resistance you're using.
  • How often: Target every major muscle group at least two times per week, making sure to rest from resistance training for at least one to two days between strength-training sessions. You can do cardio on your "off" days from strength training if you'd like.
  • What exercises should you do? You could do an online video or take a class at your gym or fitness center for some varied workout ideas.

Flexibility Exercise

Stretching is another name for flexibility exercise, which can help lengthen your muscles and develop an appropriate range of motion for specific sports and daily activities. Flexibility exercises increase joint mobility, may help reduce injuries, improve coordination and enhance your posture. People often think of stretching as non-essential or gloss over it, but it should demand attention and priority in any sound workout plan.
  • What to do: You should stretch all of your major muscle groups (your arms, chest, back, core and legs) at least three to seven times per week. The best and probably easiest way to do this is in conjunction with your workouts above; stretch after you do strength and cardio exercises.
  • How much: Hold each stretch in a slow and controlled manner for 15-30 seconds. Don't bob or bounce.
  • How far to stretch: On a scale of 1-10 where 10 is "ouch," stretch to a 5 or 7. Over time, you will become more flexible and should be able to stretch further while still maintaining a stretching intensity of 5-7 on that scale. But even if you swear you're not and will never be flexible, you should still stretch to the best of your ability on that scale—and never to the point of pain.
This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to creating a sound and effective workout plan, but hopefully it gives you some ideas to get started and progress on your fitness journey.

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AGEJEW 10/23/2020
I have an idea for my workout plan in my head - now to get it on paper. Report
RYCGIRL 8/27/2020
thx Report
XUCAEN 7/13/2020
now all I need is a plan of stretches and exercises that Target each major muscle group and a schedule of specific cardio exercises. for example I've been using a Bowflex TreadClimber for cardio, which is okay I guess but I've found recently that it is actually considered an elliptical device and part of strength training I don't even know. so now I'm wondering if I'm doing that wrong and maybe the reason I feel so burnt out is because I'm not simply walking but I'm doing something way more intensive. Report
KOALA_BEAR 6/28/2020
I'm good w/ my cardio having increased my nearly daily walking, & do some back & leg exercises. Recently added qi gong, a type of tai chi but need more strength training. I have a few I'm doing for arms & upper body but need a set schedule. That will be my next goal once I get relocated & settled. Report
74KGSTU 5/17/2020
Thanks Report
Very helpful information Report
BOB5148 4/28/2020
Thanks Report
RAPUNZEL53 11/15/2019
Great Report
SHOAPIE 11/12/2019
Great. Report
LIDDY09 11/12/2019
Thanks Report
CD25297236 11/11/2019
Practical information, thanks. Report
thanks Report
nice article Report
Good article. Flexibility training is very important. Report
This was so helpful! Thank you! Report
Thank You...…...….. Report
Thanks! Report
Great info! Report
Nicole has moved on. Report
Thanks, Nichole. Are you still with SparkPeople?? Report
Great tips! Thanks! Report
Great info! I especially like the part about stretching because I love to stretch. Report
Excellent information Report
Thanks for sharing. Report
Great tips! Thanks, Coach Nicole! Report
Great information! Report
This answers so many of my questions. Thank you! Report
This answers so many of my questions. Thank you! Report
Good advice. Thank you. Report
Good info Report
Awesome information. Thank you! Report
I am in a wheelchair but I can still use a recumbant bike. Report
Just beginning, but here's my workout plan - I walk M-W-F while my hubby runs; strength & cardio on T-TH-Sat; bike on Sun. I stretch everyday and mixing it up has helped me start again without pain or injuries (I'm 68). I workout 55-70 min. and am on my 31st day in a row. Report
I walk each day for at least an hour. It feels good! I would never take a day off, because I think walking is a really safe, gentle workout that your body easily recovers from. I try to do it early in the morning each day, and that gives the body a full 24 hours to recover, while also revving up the metabolism first thing in the morning. It's a win win! I like what you said about stretching. I think I could be doing some yoga. That would be a great thing to add to my routine. Also, I'm going to start doing planks to strenghen my core. Report
The stories are inspiring from the members. Who actual completed their set goal in this fitness program? Report
great article It gave some great ideas Report
My current plan,
Day 1 - cardio
Day 2 - rest
Day 3 - strength
Day 4 - rest
Day 5 - cardio
Day 6 - rest
Day 7 - strength

Strength and cardio workouts incorporate flexibility Report
Another awesome article from Coach Nicole. Woo HOO!!! Report
Just a day ago I posted a blog in which I was questioning how hard to work out. I've done a bootcamp at the local fitness studio a few times and its a killer every time! This blog really helps me answer the question of how hard I need to be working out after I've been working out for a year. Thanks! Report
I book marked this right away. Great info! I try to do a different muscle group every day and do stretching daily after the workout. Report
Hello Coach Nicole, will try to remember to tune in on Thursday evening, thanks for all your advice! Mary Report
GREAT blog post - thanks for always making it so simple and clear. Report
My whole life I've exercised, but with a BAD knee I feel cheated. The doctor is not into replacing it as I'm too young. I have no cartilage in the exterior right knee. Walking has become difficult without pain. So, where does one go from here when you've been active ALL your life? It's depressing. Report
I follow Sparkpeople and do a variety of DVDs. Report
My workout plan in 2011 (with no gym membership) was daily walking - minimum of 1-1.5 miles (15-25 minutes) and up to 3+ miles or pushing speed 2-3 days of the week. I made sure I was getting my heart-rate up during most of those walks. I also did a few of the no equipment ST exercises from demos on SparkPeople, picking ones I could do in good form without joint pain.

Now that I've joined a gym and run into a foot problem that curtailed my walking, I typically do recumbent bike or stationary bike, usually on their Fat Burn program, daily. I'm building up to their Cardio program, but right now it works my legs far more than my heart. Three days a week I do a strength training program using a whole series of weight machines, trying to make sure I'm doing all push-pull groups (biceps and triceps, abs and back, etc). On days I do ST, I do 30 min of cardio, then the machines, then 10-30 min cardio, crunches and obliques with a balance ball and stretching.

I had a gym membership 20ish years ago, so I'm not entirely new to the concept of how a workout routine goes. Report
I try to make a Zumba class 5 nights a week, depending on my work schedule. 2 nights she incorporates toning, so I get both cardio and toning those nights. And every night ends with stretching.

Not only have I noticed my endurance is getting better, but my flexibility is improving. Stretching after a good cardio session is great! Report
I am learning about how to workout my body to get what I want. I had been running for 18 to 22 miles a week and trying to build serious muscles. I was told by 3 weight lifters that I do too much cardio to build the muscles I want. So I am changing up my workouts so I can get the muscles I want. I toned down my workouts to 5 days a week for 45 minutes each time. I am also taking a Group Power weight lifting class that I love. Thanks for the nice article it is loaded with good ideas. Report
Because I get bored easily I vary my workouts while meeting the goals of strength training and cardio. I've been in and out of exercise regimens but only joined SP Dec. 30. These last 3 weeks I've been more purposeful than before and it's been great! Report