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Introduction to workout routines

Introduction to workout routines
This introduction to workout routines article will cover some of the best ones that are proven to give great results for most people whether you’re looking to gain muscle and/or strength or even lose body fat. I’ll cover exercise types and how to construct your own routines.

Firstly a quick lesson on exercise types:

The type of exercises you choose to do will largely be determined by your goals, fitness level and ability/suitability to do a particular exercise. There are no hard or fast rules, but there are recommendations and advantages and disadvantages to some.

When choosing your exercises it is important to choose exercises that hit all the major muscle groups, otherwise you can end up with an imbalance, where a muscle is too strong for its opposite (antagonist) muscle and lead to an injury. If you feel any discomfort doing a particular exercise, lower the weight and check your form or stop doing the exercise all together and find an alternative.

Types of weight training exercise

Compound exercises

These exercises are ones that employ more than one muscle/muscle group at a time and normally the use of both your left and right side of your body as a multi joint lift. They most often use barbells, but will also include some dumbbell exercises. They usually allow the use of heavier weights and are ideal for strength training, building mass and creating short but extremely effective workouts.

Isolation exercises

These exercises are more single muscle group specific using mostly single joints and often use lighter weights, such as dumbbells or single joint gym machines to isolate and target a muscle. These are good for creating a left and right balanced physique and working on weaknesses. They can also be used to either pre-exhaust a specific muscle or finish it off as your last exercise.

However in truth most exercises will hit more than one muscle at a time by shear nature of the way the human body is constructed and its mechanics. So don’t worry about the difference too much, just do the exercise that best suits your requirements or your training method.

I have marked the exercises in the selection list (part 4 of this series on the muscle development and strength gain page) with which ones are compound and which ones are isolation. For now I recommend continuing with reading this article and then take a look at the exercise list after.

About workout routines

Most routines are normally split into several workouts, some will have you split the body parts into training each of of your muscle groups on different days, while others will have you grouping several muscle groups into a single routine or even all muscles being trained in a single session.

There are so many workout splits designed over the years by those who are seriously looking to maximum gains, but also by those who just want to offer something different. Some have been proven to be very efficient while others not so. What split you do will come down to the days you can train, the time you can allocate to training, your goals and your ability to recover from them.

With so many routines out there, I’m only going to suggest the most popular ones and the ones I personally do and the ones that can actually work for the majority of us. There’s a reason for the following split routines being popular. You really don’t need to try to re-invent the wheel with your splits.

The following splits will have you working a muscle 2-3 times a week. yes I know many will say once a week is enough, but those splits are geared towards high volume training for the genetically gifted or steroid user. With most muscle growth occurring within the first 48 hours of being worked, these lower volume splits with more frequent hits on the muscle can give us mere mortals more growth potential.

These routines are also geared towards increasing your testosterone levels, ideal for us over 40. Creating a workout plan is very important to be able to focus on making progress. You also need to be able to change up when necessary, see my periodization article.

I realise that some readers will be completely new to working out with weights and possibly find creating your own routines daunting, therefore I have created an article with starter workout routines for the beginner to get you started. However please continue to read the rest of this article and then at the end there will be a link to that article.

Introducing the full body routine

A full body workout can be done 2 or 3 times a week. Usually you will train on a given day and then take a day or two off or do some active recovery activity before doing another full body workout again.

An example of a full body workout cycle:

Monday: Workout
Tuesday: Rest
Wednesday: Workout
Thursday: Rest
Friday: Workout
Saturday: Rest
Sunday: Rest

or for those with less time:

Monday: Workout
Tuesday: Rest
Wednesday: Rest
Thursday: Workout
Friday: Rest
Saturday: Rest
Sunday: Rest

Advantages of a full body workout

This is ideal for those with a limited number of days that they can workout or those who want an abbreviated short workout routine. It is also a great way to either stimulate human growth hormone and testosterone when lifting heavy weights and using compound exercises due to the large number of muscles being worked at one time, or for those looking to lose body fat when doing a circuit/HIIT style routine. Working a muscle more often also keeps the muscle in a raised protein synthesis state, making the uptake of protein to rebuild a muscle much more efficient. Another advantage, is that it allows you to either move or skip a workout without too much interruption to your progress. A full body workout also lets you do multi-joint exercises that hits several muscle groups at once, such as the clean and jerk or squat thrusts and also do more functional body weight style training. It also gives you at least one full day minimum of rest between workouts. By working out just 2-3 days a week you are also not placing as much stress on your central nervous system.

Disadvantage of a full body workout

Of course there are some disadvantages which includes, not being able to hit a muscle with more volume, which can reduce the pumped up feeling of a muscle filling with blood due to the low work volume and not feeling the pump can leave you feeling like you haven’t hit the muscle hard enough. This then leads to many trying to add more volume to each muscle group and ending up with an overly long routine, which can actually be counter productive. It can then also become hard to recover with just 48 hours rest for each muscle group when doing a 3 day a week full body routine that gets extended.

Full body workouts for those looking to maximise muscle size and strength gain

Ideally you should alternate between heavy days and light days. Heavy days (5-8 reps) should consist mostly of compound exercises with 3-5 sets per exercise, leaving max 2 mins rest between sets. You do not need to annihilate your muscles, just stimulate them. Remember, you will be working them again in 48 hrs. Light days (10-15 reps) should focus on either working weak areas and balancing the physique with more isolation exercises. Try to keep the total number of sets to between 15-25 total per workout session.

An example of a full body muscle size and strength gain workout cycle:

Monday: Workout – Heavy

  • Warm up sets (advised)
  • Flat bench press 5-8 reps x 2-3 sets
  • Barbell rows 5-8 reps x 2-3 sets
  • Military press 5-8 reps x 2-3 sets
  • Barbell curls 6-8 reps x 2-3 sets
  • Skull crushers 6-8 reps x 2-3 sets
  • Squats 8-10 reps x 2-3 sets
  • Dead-lift 8-10 reps x 2-3 sets
  • Standing calf raises 12-15 reps x 2-3 sets

Tuesday: Rest

Wednesday: Workout – Light

  • Warm up sets (if desired)
  • Incline DB press 10-15 reps x 2 sets
  • Flat dumbbell flyes 10-15 reps x 2 sets
  • Lat pull downs 10-15 reps x 3 sets
  • DB press 10-15 reps x 2 sets
  • Side lateral raises 10-15 reps x 2 sets
  • DB curls 10-15 reps x 2 sets
  • DB extensions 10-15 reps x 2 sets
  • DB lunges 12-15 reps x 3 sets
  • Standing calf raises 12-15 reps x 2 sets
  • Frog Crunch with holds 6-10 reps x 2 sets

Thursday: Rest

Friday: Workout – Heavy

  • Repeat Mondays workout

Saturday: Rest
Sunday: Rest

Monday: Workout – Light

  • Repeat Wednesdays workout

Full body workouts for those looking to lean up or lose body fat

Ideally you should do a circuit/HIIT style routine with minimal rest between sets. You want to create a fat burning session that gets your lungs pumping more oxygen into your muscles and upping your metabolic rate, as well as also retaining or even building muscle at the same time. See my list of fitness and conditioning exercises: Alternatively why not check out the metabolic conditioning workout in the getting into fitness article or my combo training article.

An example of a full body circuit/HIIT style workout cycle:

Monday: Workout 

  • Flat or Incline DB press 10-15 reps with no rest DB rows 10-12 reps
  • Close grip press-ups 10-15  reps with no rest Close grip chin ups 10-15 reps
  • Dumbbell Squat Clean and Press 10-15 reps with no rest Leg curls or Dead-lift 10-15 reps
  • Any calf raises 15-25 reps with no rest V-ups 10-15 reps
  • Repeat circuit 2-3 times

Tuesday: Rest

Wednesday: Workout 

  • Press-ups 15-20 reps
  • Inverted rows 15-20 reps
  • DB clean and press 15-20 reps
  • Squats 15-20 reps
  • Walking lunges 15-20 reps
  • Repeat circuit for between 3-4 times

Thursday: Rest

Friday: Workout 

  • Repeat Mondays workout

Saturday: Rest
Sunday: Rest

Monday: Workout – Light

  • Repeat Wednesdays workout

Full body exercise selection

With full body workouts, you need to choose exercises that cover all areas of your body. Choose at least one exercise for each muscle group and if needed add an additional exercise for areas you feel are weak. Weak as in under developed, such as a rear deltoid exercise for example, or weak as in needing more strength. Try to create a workout that will build a balanced physique.

Introducing the upper/lower split

An upper/lower split workout can hit a muscle hard 1.5-2 times a week. Usually you will split your workout as follows:

An example of an upper/lower workout cycle:

Monday: Upper
Tuesday: Lower
Wednesday: Rest
Thursday: Upper
Friday: Lower
Saturday: Rest
Sunday: Rest

For those who want a little more rest between workout days you can split it as follows:

Monday: Upper
Tuesday: Rest
Wednesday: Lower
Thursday: Rest
Friday: Upper
Saturday: Rest
Sunday: Rest
Monday: Lower
Tuesday: Rest
Wednesday: Upper
Thursday: Rest
Friday: Lower
Saturday: Rest
Sunday: Rest
and back to Monday again for a total of 1.5 times per week

Advantages of a upper/lower workout split

This is a good all-round routine and can be great for strength and muscle building. It is also ideal for people with under developed legs, as you can train them with as much concentration and volume as your upper body and create a much better balanced physique. You also get a good amount of recovery time. You can super-set antagonistic exercises, hit a muscle with enough volume to stimulate muscle growth and actually feel like you have worked a muscle, leading to a workout that feels more satisfactory.

Disadvantage of a upper/lower workout split

For some it may still not feel like you are doing enough volume per body part.

Upper/lower workout splits for those looking to maximise muscle size and strength gain

As per full body workouts you should ideally alternate between heavy days and light days. Heavy days (5-8 reps) should consist mostly of 1-2 compound exercises per muscle group with 2-3 sets per exercise, with a maximum of 2 minutes rest between sets. Add to this 1-2 isolation exercises (depending on weaknesses/goals) for 2 sets per exercise. Light days (10-15 reps) should focus on either working weak areas and balancing the physique with more isolation exercises. The number of overall total sets for each workout session should be around 15-25 sets ideally. Maximum workout length 1 hour.

An example of an upper/lower workout cycle for those looking to maximise muscle size and strength gain:

Monday: Upper – Heavy

  • Warm up sets (advised)
  • Flat bench press 5-8 reps x 3 sets
  • Incline DB press 5-8 reps x 2 sets
  • Barbell rows 5-8 reps x 3 sets
  • Pull ups 5-8 reps x 2 sets
  • Military press 5-8 reps x 3 sets
  • Side lateral raise 8-12 reps x 2 sets
  • Barbell curls 6-9 reps x 3 sets
  • Skull crushers 6-9 reps x 3 sets

Tuesday: Lower – Light

  • Warm up sets (if desired)
  • DB squats 12-20 reps x 3 sets
  • Leg curls 12-15 reps x 2 sets
  • Lunges 12-20 reps x 2 sets
  • Seated calf raise 15-25 reps x 3 sets
  • Frog Crunch with holds 6-10 reps x 2 sets

Wednesday: Rest

Thursday: Upper – Light

  • Warm up sets (if desired)
  • DB shoulder press 10-15 reps x 2 sets
  • Bent-over flyes 10-15 reps x 2 sets
  • Some rotator cuff exercises
  • Single arm DB rows 10-15 reps x 2 sets
  • Lat pull downs 10-15 reps x 2 sets
  • Incline DB press 10-15 reps x 2 sets
  • Flat Flyes 10-15 reps x 2 sets
  • Standing DB curls 10-15 reps x 3 sets
  • DB triceps extensions 10-15 reps x 3 sets

Friday: Lower – Heavy

  • Warm up sets (advised)
  • Squats 8-10 reps x 3 sets
  • Dead-lift 8-10 reps x 3 sets
  • Standing calf raise 15-20 reps x 3 sets
  • Frog Crunch with holds 6-10 reps x 3 sets

Saturday: Rest
Sunday: Rest

Upper/lower workout splits for those looking to build a beach body or just get into shape

Go for any of the various exercises listed in the exercise section of the muscle development and strength gain page and try to use exercises that hit a muscle from various angles. Again you should still have days of heavier and lighter days, but if strength and mass isn’t your goal then maybe do one heavy compound exercise and add in more isolation exercises, but which are different from the ones on your lighter days. Your body thrives on change and altering the stimulation you give it. Number of overall total sets for each workout session should be around 15-25 total sets ideally. Maximum workout length 1 hour. Alternatively why not check out my combo training article.

Upper/lower workout splits for those looking to lean up/lose body fat

There are several ways I’d like to suggest for those looking to get leaner doing an upper/lower split. A good way to burn those fat calories is to follow a 20-30 minute weight session with either a 10 minute HIIT cardio session and/or a 15-30 minute steady state cardio session. You need to burn up as much as possible of your glycogen stores with high intensity work. To maximise fat lose, high intensity workouts sets your body up for a period of fat burning that can last more than 24 hours. However high intensity workouts are hard to sustain for long periods of time, so for some people, adding steady state cardio after can help further burn more calories after the initial glycogen depletion and attack fat cells for energy, maximising fat lose. Alternatively why not check out the metabolic conditioning workout in the getting into fitness article or my combo training article.

Upper/lower split exercises selection

Do one compound exercise for each major muscle group on your heavy and light days, plus maybe one or two isolation exercises per body part to work an under developed area. You can do the first workout heavy and the second one lighter, varying the exercises to create a balanced physique. Or you can organise your exercises to work a weak area first to hit it hardest when you are fresh and may be with more volume, then work your stronger area towards the end, until you balance your strength or physique out.

Body part split routines and why I don’t like them

I have to say straight off, that I’m not saying you can’t makes gains on a once a week split, where you split your body into 5-6 workouts and work one or two muscle groups in a session and leave it a complete week before working it again. The main issues I have with it however, is that the regular average natural trainer with a life outside of training and working out, can often become tired of visiting the gym 5/6 times a week and when you miss a workout, it then becomes a habit. Also most can’t recover from workout to workout, working out most days one after another and working your central nervous system 5/6 days a week can have negative effects on you both physically and mentally. Another problem I have with it, is that we know that each successive set of a muscle being worked returns less benefit, therefore working a muscle with high volume wastes energy. Plus if that isn’t enough, it also doesn’t work well for keeping a muscle in its protein synthesis period of 36-48hrs. This type of training is more beneficial to those genetically gifted, those with every aspect of their life (measured nutrition, sleep, rest and recovery) in place and/or those using various performance enhancing substances, allowing them to really attack a muscle beyond most peoples recovery capabilities.

However it’s important to say that no one way fits all and once you get experienced at working out for you, then creating your own workout routines to suit you, would be best. There is nothing stopping you training a body part once every 5 days for instance and not be tied down to a 7 days a week cycle.

Which workout routine should I do?

Both the full body workout and upper/lower split will provide you with enough stimulus and recovery for any goal you have, whether that be muscle development, strength gains or fat loss. It may well come down to how much time you have to workout or which you simply prefer to do. Full body workout are quite taxing, as you are using a lot of muscles in one session and for some this can be too much, while others may find that working 2-3 times a week doing full body workouts suits them best. With lots of things in life there is more than than one way to skin a cat. So why not try one and see how it goes or do both by taking a look at the combo training article.

What to do on your rest days?

This is a hotly debated subject. What to do on your rest days?. For the majority of us, simply working out on a regular basis will be enough and certainly better than nothing. For others who want to max out their workout happiness, doing some form of active rest, such as going for a walk, bike riding, swimming, various steady state cardio or even having a massage between lifting weights can have positive effects, that include improved mood, further fat burning and increased recovery from an increase in blood flow from those activities.

It’s important to note here however, that the body needs to recover from all previous workouts in order to repair itself and maximise growth. To fully benefit from your workouts it is the rest days and quality sleep that you get that will allow you to continue to make progress with your workouts.

Is it OK to take time off?

At some point you will need a break. You will want to let the body rest completely. I’m a firm believer that a planned rest can benefit most. A week off will allow you to just completely switch off from training, reset the clock as it were. The important thing here is you only do this once every 2-3 months and you maintain a good nutritional plan.

What about missed workouts?

Not to be confused with time off. Many of us have busy lives and unexpected commitments, therefore it is inevitable that you will be unable to do a workout on occasion. You shouldn’t feel guilty if this happens, just get back into it when your next workout is planned for. However problems in progress can arise when you start to make a habit of this, especially when you take several workouts in a row off. However, just try to get your mind back on the reason you want to get into shape, don’t lose sleep over missing a few workouts. Once you restart your next workout you generally can just continue where you left off. If you follow a scheduled workout that had specific body parts on specific days, just follow your normal routine and don’t try to catch up on the missing body parts. If you plan on going on holiday, then this is a good time to plan on getting into shape and workout hard before hand and use the holiday as a planned rest/active rest period.

What about exercise order?

The order in which you do your exercises can be important to maximise your development. As far as maximising muscle size and strength you should usually start with your compound exercises first, followed by isolation exercises to finish the muscle off. Moving onto body part order, you should ideally focus on your weaker areas first. For instance my shoulders are my weak area and require more development and attention and therefore I always work these muscles first in my upper body workout and then finish with my chest (but before triceps), as the chest is the easiest muscle for me to develop and the strongest of my upper body muscles. Also always look to work the larger muscles first and finish with the smaller ones last, such as biceps after back, triceps after chest. If you are doing a full body workout, then you should start with your upper body first (unless you have severely weak development in your legs). The reason you should do your upper body first, is you need your legs to balance and stabilise your upper body exercises.

How much rest between muscle groups in a training session should there be?

If you are doing an upper/lower split, the rest between working your back and then chest is generally no different than the rest you have between sets, at most may be another 30-60 seconds extra before moving onto the next body part. If you are doing a full body workout, I’d take a little longer rest period between working your upper and lower body, approximately 3-5 minutes.

How long should my workout session last?

How long you need to workout will depend on your goals, the exercises you intend to do and the method of training you employ. However there are some basic rules that I think you should follow:

If you are obese/overweight and looking to burn lots of calories, then you need to start slow and work your way up to a maximum workout time of between 1- 1.5 hrs at a STEADY rate. This is for a general fitness calorie burning workout, not a hard pushed, high intensity workout. It is important that you work your fitness levels up slowly, diet is also key here. But most importantly seek medical advice before attempting any fitness regime.

Those who are at a fitter level and looking to maximize fat lose only, you should look to do a HIIT style routine for between 15-30 mins.

Those again at a fitter level and looking to build muscle and/or strength, should lift weights for between 30 minutes and an 1 hour in each session. Although if you are under weight and looking to pack on muscle/mass, limit your energy expenditure to 30-45 mins per session.


Why am I not too specific with this article? Well the simple answer is that we all have different goals, body shapes and in the real world you need to be able to create a workout routine that works best for you. Too many articles and internet experts tell you to do a specific workout, yet they are talking to so many different readers, it’s impossible to have one workout that fits all. I also personally feel people should get to know their own bodies and try different approaches to gauge what works for them, don’t be a sheep follower. Choose a split that suits your needs, choose the exercises that you want to/can do, design your workout given the information in this series and get going!

Beginners –  as promised – If all the above is a lot to take in and you are new to lifting, I have created a beginner routine to get you started here.

More useful articles here:

How to stretch, warm up and cool down
Keeping a journal
Please also see the article about blood pressure