After more than ten years of training my body and the bodies of hundreds others (yes literally hundreds now,) I've learned what works well and what doesn't. Some exercises will be perfect for you and others won't. The surest way to see results is to create a fitness plan customized for you. You are unique. Your body is unique. Your training needs are unique.
Whether you use exercise equipment, weights or not, it's fundamental to learn how to design your own fitness plans. Sure you can get a PT to help (I'm always here!) but all good PTs will want you to learn and store all the knowledge that you're learning so that you can one day perform well on your own. Even if you choose to use a PT and apps forever, knowing how to design a fitness plan will allow you to get the most out of your fitness experience. It's like having a translator versus actually knowing how to speak a foreign language.
Start practicing now! These 7 tips will help you start designing those amazing fitness plans now!
1. BUILD IN AT LEAST 10 MINUTES OF STRETCH TIME IN THE BEGINNING AND END OF YOUR WORKOUT
I know this sounds like a lot but TRUST that this is the MOST important element of your entire workout. If you spend an hour killing yourself with sweaty exercises but skimp on the stretching, you're finishing your workout in a worse condition than before you started. Exercising tears your muscles and builds up tension throughout your body, you need to release that in order to heal and become stronger. Getting fitter is about eating right, training, resting AND stretching. No one component of this is enough on it's own; you need all four to see sustainable results.
I recommend 8-10 minutes of dynamic stretches at the start of your workout.These should mimic the movements that you intend to do during your workout. For example, if I have a client squatting with weights, I make sure that we include bodyweight squats during stretch time.
Then include 8-10 minutes of static exercises at the end of your workout. During that time, focus on holding each stretch. You should be targeting the muscles you worked. In the case of squats, I would make sure sure to stretch glutes and hamstrings. At least 30 seconds of any stretch is a good rule of thumb to start with and you an customize from there.
2. DECIDE ON TIME INTERVALS OR REPS FOR YOUR FITNESS PLAN
As you get more proficient in designing your own workouts, you can mix these two but in the beginning it's simplest to just choose whether you're going to do your exercises for time or for reps. As a general rule cardio exercises are done in time intervals, whereas weighted exercises are done in reps. Resistance band exercises can be performed either way.
If you're working with time intervals, I recommend that you do at least 45 seconds but no more than 90. HIIT is big right now and everyone loves the 30 second burner but realistically you're not going to do movements effectively in 30 seconds; you should spend a good 10 seconds just getting your body into proper form.
Do 90 second intervals when you want some serious endurance training. The more athletic you are, the more likely that you'll be able to do a full 90 without stopping. I don't, however, recommend exceeding 90 seconds unless you've been training for years; your speed and accuracy won't measure up! It's more important to do exercises right than it is to do them for longer.
In terms of rest intervals, the rule of thumb is 15 to 30 seconds. For 45 second intervals, I don't even include rest because you will naturally have some down time as you get into position for the next exercise. For 90 second intervals, that 20 - 30 seconds is essential in order to recover. In general, avoid resting for more than a minute unless you're feeling super fatigued or dizzy.
The classic PT formula is to recommend 12-15 reps, x3 sets per exercise for lighter weight and 8-10 reps, x3 to x4 sets for heavier. On a machine you'll probably do lower reps, higher weights because the machine allows you to pick up more weight, with greater accuracy than you could with dumbbells. (Dumbbells can be either heavier weight with low reps or lighter weight with more, this depends on your fitness goals.)
Try also organizing your reps in a ladder style. It will give you variety plus goals to focus on as you train. Training ladder style means that you're either increasing weight/reps with each set or decreasing them. For example, I might do x8 reps in my first set with a heavy weight, x10 reps in my next one with a lighter weight and finish with x12 reps and the lightest of all my weights. If you're a beginner, this is usually the easiest way to go but you could also do the reverse.
Personally, I can't do any exercises for more than x2 sets because I get bored. I'll usually stick with a fitness plan that includes performing each exercise for x20 to x25 reps and using lighter weights for x2 sets total. (I don't usually do heavy weights because of previous injuries and I train quite hard with bodyweight anyway.)
3. USE ALL PLANES OF MOTION IN YOUR TRAINING
This is some PT 101 that's finally starting to reach the masses (yay!) You should always train with exercises that work your body in all three planes of motion. The planes are: transverse, sagittal and frontal. The sagittal plane exercises includes extension and flexion. Most weight lifting is done in this plane. Frontal plane exercises include abduction/adduction and lateral flexion (e.g. when your arms or legs are moving away and towards your core laterally.) Exercises in the transverse plane include rotational movements.
Most people only work in the sagittal and frontal planes and rarely do exercises in the transverse. That's a big mistake! If you skip exercises in the transverse plane, you're missing out on increasing core strength. A stronger core enables you to perform better in every other exercise that exists. (This isn't an exaggeration; your core is called the 'powerhouse' in Pilates for a reason!)
So if you want to train effectively and for life (in which you move in ALL planes of motion) always include at least one of each type of exercise in every workout you do!
Sagittal: Bicep Curl
Transverse: Medicine Ball Lift and Diagonal Chop
Frontal: Lateral Shoulder Raise
Sagittal: Running (think leg extension and flexion)
Transverse: Three directional lunges
Frontal: Adductor/Abductor Machine (the thigh one!)
4. INCORPORATE MULTIPLE TYPES OF EXERCISES & GYM EQUIPMENT INTO EVERY WORKOUT
Results come to those who are constantly challenging and pushing their bodies in new ways. The more ways you can vary your workouts, the more likely you are to become stronger, fitter and perform better. Take the time to think about which type of exercise equipment you like the most and what type of fitness classes you most enjoy. Put all that into your fitness plan. Love barre? Great! Add some of those exercises into your plan. Get a high from throwing that medicine ball against the wall? Perfect. Put that into your fitness plan. Choose as many different exercises and gym toys as you can.
If you go to any great fitness class, you'll notice that the instructor does the same; they keep introducing new types of movements, variations and gym equipment to keep your body challenged. This also means you're less likely to get bored! One of my secrets is to pick one type of exercise or equipment and train with it for 10 minutes, then I move onto the next one. I'm constantly pushing my body and never doing anything long enough to get sick of it.
See what you can come up with on your own!
5. CREATE BACK-UP EXERCISES FOR A FOOL-PROOF FITNESS PLAN
This is especially important if you go to the gym to train. Gyms get crowed. Equipment gets overused. Even if you don't train in the gym, you might have pulled a muscle the night before. Maybe you're tired and can't stand the idea of your scheduled cardio workout.
There are so many things that can go wrong in the time before your workouts. When things don't go to plan, it's very easy to get frustrated and either give up or perform your workout half-heartedly. Avoid this by having some back-ups ready! What's your back up workout if you can't do that cardio? What's your backup exercise if you can't get to the leg press machine?
I like to write down my ideal plan and then in the margins write down one or two variations that I can do. For example, if I know I want to use the stability ball but it's taken, flat, or whatever, I'll then instead use a pilates ball or Bosu ball. I'll even have a bodyweight variation available for good measure. (Always have a bodyweight exercise on standby if you train in the gym because nobody can use that but you!)
6. Use a workout calendar with 2 to 3 different workouts that you repeat for at least 3 weeks
This draws on the point above about having a back up plan. Planning is what will get you through that workout when you're not feeling motivated, when life becomes too chaotic or when you need to switch around workouts because that massive man huffing on the bench press isn't getting out of your way (this has been my experience too many times to count!) A workout calendar also keeps you accountable. If you miss a workout, then it's staring you in the face. There's no hiding.
Beyond accountability and organisation, workout calendars with a variety of workouts are critical to your fitness plan because they help you to avoid injury and overtraining of the same muscles. You never want your body to get used to one movement . This isn't just because you'll see your results might plateau, it's also because repetitive movements to the same muscles and joints cause injuries, inflammation and imbalances.
Now why do I say have these workouts for three weeks? It takes time to master a fitness plan so it's good to give yourself a few sessions to really go through those exercises. Three weeks will usually allow for you to start that process. You might even choose to repeat your workouts for longer just be sure that you eventually mix it up for the health of your body and the sanity of your mind!
If you're looking to really isolate and develop certain muscles then I would design one workout for the lower body + core and one for the upper body. Your third workout can be a mix of total body and cardio. These are just examples though so find the balance that works best for you!
Remember that a good workout will usually have at least 6 different exercises with variations, although it's entirely possible to train with as few as three or four once you know what you're doing!
7. Choose workout styles that you actually like
Hate deadlifts? Don't do them! Not a fan of the treadmill? Don't do it! There is no golden workout that works for everybody. How can you stay motivated if you dread what you're about to do!? It isn't sustainable. For every exercise you hate, there's one that exists that you'll hate less. You CAN create fitness plans with exercises that you enjoy. Sure, you might not LOVE them all but you should never feel like your training is mental torture.
Do the research to find out what your favorite exercises are and don't be lazy. :) If you're really unsure how to find out what you like, pick 4 to 5 different fitness classes and try them out over a few weeks. Notice the movements and styles that you like. Take note of those that you don't. Be sure to ask the instructors for information on what muscles you're working and notes on form.
Of all the tips I've given here, this one is probably the most important for creating your own fitness plan. All the above points only work if you enjoy what you've designed. Take this one to heart for your training!
Want to really master how to design your own fitness plan? Join me for four weeks of online workouts, meal plans, workout calendars and more in the Rio Project.