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How To Build a Workout Plan (That’s Effective): The Ultimate Guide

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As a gym owner I meet dozens of people who don’t have hours of spare time to train, but they still want a great workout.

Requests for fast workouts became so frequent that I put a board up in the gym where I program a workout. I call it the ‘Daily Dose’. It’s a workout that ticks a bunch of fitness boxes in around 45 minutes.

In this ultimate guide to fast, effective workouts I’m going to share with you the basis I use for writing the Daily Dose at MyGym. 

I’ve never shared this with anyone before, so you’re a lucky bunch!

What to expect from this Ultimate Guide to Build a Workout Plan

In this one article I’m going to break down the thought process behind how I build a workout plan. I’m going to guide you through…

  • Understanding the important elements of the workout – keeping the useful stuff in, and what you can get away with removing
  • How to approach multiple goals within a single session
  • Incorporating a functional warm up into a fast-paced session, without wasting time
  • Manipulating loads, sets, reps and exercises to get a cardio benefit
  • Training your abs without dozens of weird movements designed to ‘target’ certain areas
  • How to include stretching and range of movement improvements in weight training
  • Show you real examples of how the Daily Dose looks at MyGym

By the end of this guide on how to build a workout plan, you’ll be thinking like a professional personal trainer. 

You’ll be approaching your workout programming differently and understanding how to build workouts without the fluff.


How to Build a ‘Ticks all boxes’ Workout Plan that takes less than 45 minutes

Chapter 1 - Tick all the boxes

Because short workouts don’t have to lead to short on results.

I’ll let you into a secret. As a gym owner and personal trainer, a lot of what I see people doing in the gym is wasted effort or could be improved. 

Think about it…

All of that time spent on your phone between sets… time wasted. 

Those multiple isolation exercises… often time wasted. 

Generic cardio or conditioning work… time wasted.

I bet just by removing wasted time between sets you could reduce most workout lengths by 20%.

A person working out with a heavy barbell

Personal trainers and strength coaches live and die by their results, so there’s no room for fluff in their programming. Unless an exercise can be justified, it has to go.

That’s why personal trainer and strength and conditioning coach programming looks so vastly different to exercise class workouts for example.

We exist to get results, not to entertain. 

In this first part I’ll run you through the top line thinking that helps you to build a workout plan…

How to identify the workout goals

In this case we’re building a ticks all boxes workout. One that will help you to build strength, burn a lot of calories, improve your cardio fitness, add muscle to your frame and improve your flexibility. 

That means we have to use multiple tools combined in order to build a workout that will achieve those goals within a short period of time. 

Once you have identified your goals, whatever they may be, start to think about how the workout should look…

Remember the limitations you have in place – that could be time, space, equipment etc, and work around them.

You can design the best session in the world on paper, but if you don’t have the time, the space, the equipment or the ability to execute it properly, it’s time and effort wasted.

How to figure out the workout structure

For a workout to offer multiple benefits in a short period of time we need to figure out what is important…

  • A warm up can’t be an indulgence, so we have to design one that contributes as exercise – it can’t be a long, slow, dragged-out series of exercises and movements
  • We can’t build muscle and strength without a resistance training element, so that has to be the central element of the workout.
  • To maximize calorie burn and maintain a high heart rate for cardio improvements, we have to minimize rest periods and increase general muscle use
  • To improve range of movement and flexibility when lifting, we need to adapt exercises to allow for greater ranges and improved technique
  • The whole workout is time-pressured, so we have to structure the exercises to allow minimal disruption between movements

This is the thinking for a general fitness workout. You’d need to adapt it for other types, so a cardio workout plan would look different depending on the outcomes you’re after. The same with a pure strength workout.

Remember that these types of workout are for general fitness. They’re not specialist programming with a very narrow set of outcome measures.

It’s important to always refer back to your desired workout outcomes. Keep them front and center of your thinking when designing the workout structure. It’ll help you stop getting distracted and tweaking your workout plans. 

When this happens, you end up with a long workout that doesn’t hit all of the goals well.

Putting the workout on paper – how to get it right

Once you have considered the goals, the limitations and the structure, it’s time to get the workout down on paper. 

My suggestion is you start with your primary limit. In the case of a 45 minute workout, it’s time – I’ve got to make the workout fit in that window. Respecting these is key to building a workout plan…

  • The warm up will be a maximum of 5 minutes and has to contribute as exercise – it serves a purpose beyond merely warming up the body.
  • Rest is a factor – it’s ‘dead time’ in a workout, so we want to ensure there’s just enough. No more. If we rest too long, we eat into the available training time.
  • We need to make sure the whole body is trained, so we’re sticking only to compound exercises and considered supersets.
  • There’s no time to stretch, so we have to make sure a full range of movement is part of the workout.

When you think about the variables and the potential problems you might come up against, it helps you to get the workout structure right from the start.

I’ll go into more detail as to how we fit these things in the workout later. 


How to Select the Most Effective Exercises for the Workout

Chapter 2 - Effective exercises

Not all exercises are created the same. 

So how do you go about picking the best ones to build a workout plan that’s fast-paced and has multiple outcomes?

Compound or Isolation exercises?

You can categorize exercises a whole bunch of different ways… cardio or resistance, dumbbell or barbell, bodyweight or resistance band etc, but in this case we’re looking at a distinct two groups…

Compound: An exercise that uses multiple muscles and involves movement at several joints. Examples being squats, deadlifts, presses, olympic lifts etc.

Isolation: An exercise that tries to isolate a single muscle and requires major movement at only one joint. Examples being calf raises, bicep curls, lat raises etc.

Isolation vs Compound Lifts

Compound movements are more efficient – they train more muscle in a single exercise. They raise the heart rate more, so they burn more calories. They also elicit a greater growth hormone response.

There is also some good research (1, 2, 3, 4) that suggests a trained lifter gets more gains by lifting shy of failure. Compound lifts are much harder to train one muscle to complete failure due to using more muscle groups. 

And once you’ve been working out for a few months, you’re effectively a trained lifter!

Muscle Gains for Trained Lifters

We’re exclusively using compound exercises in Daily Dose workouts. We’re training for efficiency, and the most efficient way of weight training uses compound exercises. When you build a workout plan, keep this in mind.

However, isolation lifts do have their place. Especially, for beginners as there is research that shows training to failure helps produce more muscle growth (1, 2, 3, 4)…

Muscle Gains for New Lifters

Think in terms of movements, not muscles

There are 7 human movements. 

That’s all. 

If you perform all 7 of the human movements, you’ll train every single muscle in the body. So, rather than think of muscles to train, think of movements to perform.

Here are the 7 human movements, with a couple of examples of each…

  • Push (bench press, shoulder press)
  • Pull (pull ups, rows)
  • Squat (front squat, back squat)
  • Hinge (deadlifts, kettlebell swings)
  • Lunge (lunges, split squats)
  • Rotation (Russian twists, woodchoppers)
  • Gait (running, farmers carry)
7 basic human movements

If your workout incorporates all of these movements, ideally from compound exercises, you’ve trained all of the body. That way you don’t need an exhaustive list of exercises, you just need a handful of very effective ones!

A woman working out using a barbell

How to pair exercises to maximize gains and minimize time

One of the most powerful and effective training tools we have available to us is supersetting – pairing two exercises back to back, without a rest period.

You can perform a superset with the same body part (push ups into bench press for example), but I prefer a different approach.

I like to pair two exercises using different body parts. I do this for two reasons…

  1. It’s a great way of maintaining a high heart rate throughout
  2. You improve workout quality – one body part rests whilst another one works

There’s no ‘rules’ around how you pair the exercises, but what I try to stick to are pairings that don’t interfere with each other too much. 

Take push ups and shoulder presses as a pairing for example – although they target different body parts, they use similar muscles. This means the residual fatigue from the first exercise will impair the performance of the second.

Instead, aim to pair opposites… kettlebell swings with push ups, or squats with pull ups type of thing. This means you maintain intensity, but you allow body parts to stay fresh etc. 

A simple way to think of this is use two different body movements i.e. push with a pull.

This high intensity approach reduces training time significantly, whilst maintaining a very high level of workout intensity throughout the training session.


Putting together a no-nonsense, effective warm up

Chapter 3 - Warming up

How to prepare your body properly for exercise, without eating into too much of your training time

Pick your cardio wisely

When possible, I like a warm up to include a gentle cardio element to it. In this case though, we need the cardio to be something that trains the whole body in one go, because we’re putting together a whole body workout.

An exercise bike is lower-body only, so that’s out. A ski erg is upper body only, so that too would be out. 

That means we have to stick to machines or methods that train the whole body – good examples include a rowing machine, cross trainer, jump rope, shadow boxing and running. 

A medium pace for 2-3 minutes will be a sufficiently good start to the warm up.

Making the warm up functional

One way to make a warm up more than just a prep phase for the body is to include exercises that have real fitness benefits. This is crucial to build an effective workout plan. 

What I mean here is don’t just perform mobility exercises, but instead use easier versions of traditional exercises. One way I like to do this for my personal training clients is to use a 3-2-1 bodyweight exercise protocol.

Here’s how it works…

  • 3 Bodyweight squats
  • 2 Push ups
  • 1 Jumping pull up
The 3-2-1 Warm Up

I have them repeat this for 5-10 rounds, depending on what we’re doing and how long we’ve got. 

It is progressive (starts easy, but each round becomes progressively tougher), safe (injury risk with body weight exercises in such low numbers is basically zero), and it trains the whole body, so it’s a great way to progress the warm up beyond the cardio element at the start.

A woman doing push ups

Know when to stop

The warm up is just that – a warm up. You have to know when to progress onto the tougher work when your time is limited. Once you’re warm, anything extra is just an indulgence.

The way to tell if you’re ready to train is once you feel yourself moving freely without any issue, your heart rate is up and you’ve got a gentle sweat on. That’s when it’s time to crack on with the rest of the work.


The cardio conundrum…

Chapter 4 - Cardio conundrum

How to generate a cardiovascular fitness benefit from a weight training workout

How to include cardio in weight training

Maximize heart rate by minimizing rest periods

If you think you need to pound the treadmill in order to get a great cardio workout in, you’re wrong. High intensity weight training is a great cardio workout, as proven time and again by research. 

This is easy to understand when you think about what cardio really is – it’s maintaining an elevated heart rate for a given period of time through exercise.

There are no rules about what that exercise needs to be, so you can get a cardio workout through running, swimming, skipping, boxing, kettlebells etc.

The vehicle to raise your heart rate isn’t important… What’s important is that your heart rate is raised. 

By lifting weights with short (or no) rest periods between sets, you raise your heart rate and keep it up there throughout the session. It’s why we are using supersets, so we can ensure at least one part of the body is always working throughout the session.

A study from 2015 explores the different rates of calorie burn and cardiovascular output during a variety of different resistance training approaches.

The conclusions are clear – adjusting weight training protocols to include high intensity training significantly increases energy burn and the cardiovascular response

Adding a workout finisher to a session

One of my favorite additions to a workout is the inclusion of a high intensity workout finisher. It’s a time or rep target, performed at a much higher than normal intensity.

The benefit of the finisher is it’s a great way to increase the calorie burn in a short period of time. Set aside time for a finisher, and put together either a circuit, a superset or a single whole body exercise for a time or rep target. 

A simple but effective example of a finisher would be to perform the max number of burpees you can in 5 minutes. It requires no equipment, it’s one exercise and you just repeat it until you hit the time limit. 

Wear a heart rate monitor to check the intensity

I like to wear a heart rate monitor in my training because I think it keeps you honest. There’s no hiding place from the data when you’re training with a heart rate monitor on. If you set a heart rate target, you’ll know if you drop below it during a session.

Some heart rate monitors will alert you if your heart rate drops below a certain level. This is a great way to ensure you are working hard enough.

It also means you maintain the high calorie burn, maximize the cardiovascular output and enjoy a better, more effective workout.

Using these types of tools will help to keep you working hard. Even if it’s a small difference per workout, these differences add up. This compound effect will be dramatic over the course of a few months or years. 


How to train your abs quickly but effectively

Chapter 5 - Abs

Learn the exercises to select so you can train your core without taking up too much time

Getting the static exercises in

I wrote an abs program for the site a while back, and in it I explained the need for static and dynamic abs exercises.

Belt and braces static exercises

In 99% of exercise programs, there are plenty of dynamic exercises that will train the abs (squats, deadlifts, overhead presses all train the abdominals). It means we don’t need to factor these in – the workouts are already taking care of most abdominal training requirements. 

When you come to build a workout plan, add a couple of static ab exercises into your workouts (static means the back stays stiff, whereas in dynamic exercise the back can flex and extend), you will make sure the abdominals are trained thoroughly without having to add in half a dozen different exercises.

Making sure the ab exercises include ‘anti’ movements

The core is partly responsible for protecting the back, and one of the ways it does that is by resisting movements. Two of the best examples of resisting movement are anti extension and anti rotation.

Think of an ab roll out – the abs allow the body to extend, but only to a point. The anti-extension element kicks in and the abdominals act to prevent further extension. The same happens with rotation. With a Pallof press, the core engages to prevent rotation.

These are both excellent abdominal exercises and tick movement boxes for us. This kind of combination will see the abdominals sufficiently trained. 

Understand that less is more

The human body works as a single unit – it’s very difficult (actually, it’s near impossible) to isolate body parts. Think of a squat – it’s a ‘leg’ exercise, but it engages the core and back as well, so it’s not only a leg exercise.

With this in mind, remember that you can and will be training abs with other exercises, so you don’t need to focus too much of your time and attention on the abdominals – use other exercises to help out too.


How to improve range of movement with resistance training

Chapter 6 - Range of movement

Manipulating exercise equipment and positionings to improve joint range of movement

Dumbbells are your flexibility friend

There is strong evidence that strength training through a greater range of movement helps with muscle flexibility and joint mobility. One of the best ways to do this is with dumbbells.

They don’t suffer the same movement restriction as a barbell, allowing the range of movement on an exercise to increase.

Think of a bench press – the barbell version is limited when the bar reaches the chest. Dumbbells don’t reach the chest – they can pass on beyond the torso, increasing the functional range of movement.

Steve working out with a heavy pair of dumbbells

Increasing range of movement with additional supports

Weightlifting shoes are designed with a wedge to help with squatting stability and improved torso positioning. You can replicate some of these benefits with the creative addition of fractional weight plates or a squat wedge.

Placing fractional plates (the smallest plates – usually 1-5lbs) under your heels as you squat allows you to increase the depth of the movement you’re capable of. This helps to stretch the quads as you squat.

Performing split squats with the rear foot elevated helps to stretch the hip flexors. Performing stiff legged deadlifts whilst standing on a weight plate will help to increase range of movement and hamstring stretch.

Use these tactics to benefit your flexibility, as well as the other aspects of your fitness.

Pick your exercises to enhance mobility

If you have to squeeze out as many benefits as possible from the workout, make exercise selections that allow for that. Instead of opting for machine based exercises, stick with the free weight versions that you can manipulate to your advantage. 

These small adjustments may seem minor, but they add up to enable a lot of additional workout benefits.


How it looks in practice to build a workout plan

Chapter 7 - Case studies

Examples of short duration, high return workout programs

The Daily Dose workout at MyGym is updated every day. They won’t always follow every single rule I’ve added in this article, but they’ll hit the majority of them. 

The pictures below will give you a good idea of how I build a workout plan that is designed to train the whole body, with multiple benefits in 45 minutes or less. These are real-life examples of the kind of programming I do every day.

The programming to suit most people, most of the time…

The Daily Dose is the go-to programming at MyGym – it’s followed by scores of members every day. As a generalist program, written for people who need to complete a whole workout in 45 minutes or less, it works fantastically well. 

It’s generalist – you’re not going to add 100LBS to your squat in 12 weeks using it, but if you want to improve your general fitness it fits the bill perfectly. It’s short, it’s intense and you’ll benefit all aspects of your fitness in 45 minutes…

The Daily Dose workout routine written down on a whiteboard
Another example of The Daily Dose workout routine

OK, so they’re fast workouts, but do they work?

I get it – in a world where we’re told it’s all about hard work, time, dedication etc, if I come here telling you that you can achieve great results in 45 minute workouts, it sounds too good to be true.

The short answer is yes, they do work. Really, really well.

The longer answer is don’t confuse a short workout with an easy workout. These are TOUGH when they’re done properly. If you want great results in a short period of time, you’ve got to be willing to work so much harder per minute than you do in a ‘normal’ workout.

Take a look at these pictures for evidence – this is my heart rate data after, pictured next to the workout…

Third example of the Daily Dose workout
Steve's heart rate after a Daily Dose workout

The point is, don’t confuse short workouts with easy workouts. If you want these excellent results, you’ll have to work for them. Nothing in life comes easy.

Varied programming works for a variety of people…

We’ve got so many success stories from Daily Dose programming, so I’ll share just a few of them. They’re all impressive in their own right, and not just because of the physique changes.

Case study 3

In some cases it has re-educated people about exercise, giving them the inspiration to train. One woman, Kath (swinging the kettlebell) had always avoided exercise because she thought she didn’t have the time for it. Now she trains multiple times per week.

Case study 1

The others (Lewis and Lizzie) show what can be achieved in 45 minute sessions, performed at high intensity.

Case study 2

These are real people, performing real workouts and achieving real results. Like I said, this isn’t specialist programming, it’s generalist. It’s designed to help people improve all aspects of their fitness, and it works really well. 

How to Build a Fast, Effective Workout Plan: The bottom line

In this article I’ve explained to you how to program workouts that won’t take long to complete, but they’ll be very effective at helping you to improve your general level of fitness.

This kind of article gives you an insight into how I go about workout design. It’s not merely a list of exercises thrown together – a good workout considers purpose, challenge, variety, safety, functionality, and effectiveness.

Have a go at putting together a few of your own workouts given the tips in here. 
If you’re struggling, go take a look at the many workout programs on the Strong Home Gym website.

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Steve Hoyles is a certified personal trainer and gym owner. Since graduating with his Sports Science degree in 2004 he's worked in the fitness industry, helping thousands of people reach their health and fitness goals. His writing has been read by millions of people in over 200 countries as he inspires to help as many people as possible live a healthy lifestyle.

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