If you haven’t exercised in awhile or find yourself skipping planned workouts — it’s time to rethink your fitness routine. Figuring out a workout schedule can be daunting, especially since it’s not one-size-fits-all.
The most effective schedule for one person may not necessarily work for another. The types of workouts you do, time of day you exercise and days of the week you decide to work out are all personal choices.
But to get started, there are some guidelines to follow to help you prevent injury and see results.
In general, working out 4-5 days a week for about 30 minutes is a standard recommendation that I give to my private clients — whether they are trying to lose weight or not. Many people are surprised to hear that just because you want to lose weight doesn’t necessarily mean you need to exercise more than someone looking to maintain their weight and health.
The other 2-3 days a week are rest days. Keep in mind that “rest” doesn’t need to mean inactivity. These days can include walks, gentle stretching and even meditation.
Exercise days can be done consecutively or spread throughout the week. Follow these guidelines when scheduling your workouts:
- Do not strength train the same muscle group consecutively. Muscles need time to recover. So if you do lower body, like legs and glutes today, you’ll want to skip strength training those areas tomorrow.
- Exception to the rule: abdominals. The muscles that make up the abdominals are very small muscles and can be trained everyday. That means you don't need to worry about skipping days in between core exercises.
- Mix up your cardio activities. I encourage my clients to change it up so that they’re not doing the same type of cardio workout two days in a row. This doesn’t have so much to do with muscle repair as it does with getting your body to respond. When the body gets used to the same workout day in and day out, it slows down your progress. So if you do a HIIT workout on Monday, choose a jog or energetic yoga flow on Tuesday. Wednesday can you can schedule another HIIT — or try a different cardio activity altogether!
Design a fitness routine in 5 easy steps
With these general guidelines in mind, remember that the most effective workout routine is one you can commit to. Follow these steps to determine a workout schedule that works for you!
1. Create a list of workouts to choose from
First, spend time thinking about the types of workouts you like to do. It’s helpful to have a roster of workouts that you enjoy. In my first session with any client, I ask them about activities they’ve done in the past — even dance lessons as a kid or riding a bike when they were a teenager. If you currently work out, what are the activities that you enjoy doing? If it’s something from childhood, how can we replicate that as an adult? For example, if you liked dancing we can find free dance workouts on YouTube. If you enjoyed riding your bike, we can do spin classes at the gym or a recumbent bike in your home.
It’s also helpful to write out why you enjoy certain workouts. How do they make you feel? Connecting positive emotions to the physical movement will strengthen your desire to stay committed to the workout.
2. Decide what time of day is best for you
Now that you have your list of activities, it’s time to start scheduling them into your week. As a personal trainer, many people are shocked to find out that if the only time I could exercise was early morning, I would never do it! I am not a morning person, so I strategically plan my workouts for late morning or early afternoon. Some of my clients are the opposite, they are morning people and if they don’t fit it in before 8 a.m., it’s hanging over their head for the rest of the day.
So what time of day are you most likely to follow through with a workout? If you are not a morning person (like me!) then saying you’re going to wake up early to exercise is just setting yourself up for failure (or at best, a miserable experience). Instead of creating an aspirational fitness routine, I encourage my clients to be realistic and look at their schedule as it is and then plug in a workout at a time that works with their current lifestyle. That may mean using your lunch break to get a workout in or doing it right after work before you tend to other obligations.
3. Take note of your eating schedule
Timing your workout around meals or snacks is another helpful way to figure out what works best for your schedule. If you have a set lunch at noon, you’ll want to work out 1 to 3 hours after eating a normal-sized meal. If you tend to eat breakfast later in the morning, an earlier workout may make sense and you can refuel afterwards with your morning meal. Or, if you always have an afternoon snack, you’ll want to exercise about 1 hour after having your snack. You can use your meal or snack times to figure out when makes most sense to fit a workout into your schedule.
It’s not necessary to plan an additional meal or snack just because you worked out. Instead, use your existing eating schedule to inform your workouts and capitalize on the energy from the nutritious meals you're already eating.
4. Ask yourself: Are you a weekday or weekend warrior?
Are you more likely to exercise on the weekend or during the week? Do longer cardio or strength training sessions when you have more time, and be strategic about which workouts you do on which days. If you’ve only got enough time in your schedule for a quick 15-minute workout during the week, committing to doing longer workouts on Saturday and Sunday may work best for you. If you’re more likely to get your workout done during the structured workweek, then save your rest days for the weekend.
I enjoy weekend workouts because I have more time and can do more activities, like a strength-training workout earlier in the day and then getting outside for a walk or run on the treadmill later. I can go at a more leisurely pace and try new things because I have more free time. But if you’re someone who thrives off of the regimented schedule of the workweek and your weekend is more of a free for all, my system wouldn’t work for you. Take inventory of your time and your moods and then schedule your workouts accordingly.
5. Add workouts to your calendar
Now that you have all of the information you need to create a routine that works with your interests and lifestyle, it’s time to get it down on paper. Planning your workouts in your calendar helps for a number of reasons. You see your workout every single time you look at your calendar, so subconsciously it becomes a part of your everyday life. Plus, if you have to reschedule your workout, you physically have to adjust it in your calendar, meaning that mentally you’ll be taking a pause and really thinking about when you can get it done. If it’s not on your calendar, then technically it doesn’t exist on your schedule! So make it an appointment and think about it like a doctor’s appointment: Difficult to cancel, but if you do then you need to reschedule it.
If there’s a change in environment or schedule, like when you’re on vacation or have a lot going on during the holidays, revisit these steps and shift your workout schedule so that it fits with your day-to-day life, regardless what that looks like.