Is There a Correct Workout Schedule? How to Plan Your Exercises to Best Meet Your Fitness Goals
Call it the curse of exercise enthusiasm: You decide to begin a new fitness chapter and jump right into a strenuous workout schedule. You’re committed to your goals, and bring all the intensity you can muster. You’re exercising daily, pushing yourself to the limit in pursuit of serious gains.
Cut to a couple of days later: You’re unbelievably sore and possibly even injured. You can barely walk from the couch to the kitchen, let alone attempt another workout. Stymied by exhaustion, your tenacity fades completely. And just like that, your health kick comes to an untimely end.
Whether you’re new to exercise or simply a little rusty, you’re probably familiar with this unfortunate pattern. Beginning a new exercise routine demands patience and discipline, and going at it with too much gusto can lead to injury and burnout.
Plus, when it comes to planning exercise, many Americans are unsure of how to start from scratch. Currently, less than a quarter of U.S. adults get the recommended amount of physical activity each week. If you haven’t been active in a while, jumping into a full fitness program can seem daunting, particularly at a logistical level. How much should you really be working out, and what kinds of exercise should you include in that schedule?
Don’t sweat your exercise scheduling: We’ve got you covered. We’ll help you create a fitness schedule suited to your needs, incorporating expert advice and federal exercise guidelines. There’s no single, “correct” workout schedule because your individual fitness abilities and needs will continue to evolve over time. But with these recommendations under your belt, you’ll be able to adapt and adjust as needed moving forward.
Workout Schedule 101
Let’s begin with the basics: If you’re implementing a new fitness routine, it should probably meet the criteria for healthy physical activity established by leading scientists. True, these guidelines aren’t tailored to your particular goals or potential limitation, but they do provide a solid foundation for fitness planning.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services publishes broad physical activity recommendations for various age groups. Here, we’ll break down their recommendations for adults, which should help inform your ideal workout schedule.
- 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise each week
- 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise each week
- Muscle-strengthening activities of moderate or greater intensity that involve all muscle groups on two or more days each week
Additionally, these guidelines note that surpassing the aerobic exercise recommendations will produce additional health benefits.
Let’s define some of the terms above a bit more specifically. Moderate aerobic exercise (also known as cardio) would encompass more casual activities, such as a bike ride, walk, or even gardening. Vigorous activity would entail jogging, swimming, or taking a spin class. Most of the exercise you’d describe as “working out” falls into the vigorous category.
How about muscle-strengthening activities of moderate or greater intensity? Here, an enormous variety of exercises can help you meet your quota. Want to try weightlifting? There are lots of programs specifically designed for beginners that hit all major muscle groups. Prefer to use your own body weight? A calisthenics-heavy program will work wonders.
Now that you understand these guidelines and the types of activity that might meet them, how do you build them into a streamlined schedule? Moreover, how much rest should you incorporate to prevent injury and exhaustion? While your regimen will not necessarily reflect your own responsibilities and goals, here’s a general fitness schedule that experts recommend.
Cardio: two to three days per week
It’s hard to overstate the benefits of cardio: From weight loss to heart health and even improved moods, there’s a lot to gain from getting your blood pumping. And as the exercise guidelines indicate, you can take a flexible approach to aerobic activity. If you need to start slow, go for long leisurely walks. That’s a much better tactic than jumping straight into jogging and getting discouraged.
You’ll note, however, that this fitness schedule suggests between two and three days of cardio weekly. And while you could go for multiple extended walks each week, the more efficient way to meet your cardio quota is through some vigorous activity.
There are so many ways to get between 75 and 150 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity in just two or three sessions each week. If running or the elliptical machine don’t appeal to you, plenty of fitness classes feature more creative takes on cardio.
Strength training: two to three days per week
The challenge isn’t finding strength-training activities: There are endless ways to put your muscles to work, depending on which equipment you have handy. Rather, the most difficult part of comprehensive strength training is diversifying your workouts, hitting all your muscle groups consistently.
In this effort, compound exercises will be highly useful. These exercises employ more than one muscle group, so you’re building strength across your body with a single move. Squats, lunges and deadlift lunges are classics in this category, and calisthenics such as pushups and dips also qualify.
To prevent a plateau in your results and avoid overuse injuries, don’t repeat the same moves in each of your workouts. Rather, try different variations in each of your two or three weekly strength sessions. This variety will also help ward off boredom as you stick with your program.
Rest and active recovery: one to two days per week
While it may seem counterintuitive, your days off from exercise are a crucial component of your overall fitness. Rest and recovery allow your body to repair key tissues (or even grow them, in the case of muscle development). Simultaneously, rest days help your body replenish lost fluids and energy stores.
If you refuse to rest, you deny your body the time it needs to rebound fully, which can cause or exacerbate injuries. Over-exercising is a real risk, both to your long-term health and current fitness regimen. Plus, you’ll see the quality and intensity of your workouts decline if you don’t take the time to recover.
Rest days need not be sedentary, however: They’re a great opportunity to enjoy “active recovery” pastimes. These activities get you up off the couch but won’t tax your body intensely. Try a slow swim, leisurely yoga class, or even just use a foam roller on your recovering muscles. If you’re really energetic, you can also do some moderate-intensity aerobics, such as taking a walk in the park.
Alternation and combination
For many people, it’s simplest to tackle cardio and strength training on separate days of the week, emphasizing one priority per day. If that’s your preferred approach, just make sure you’re alternating your focus on active days. If you’re doing cardio on Monday and Tuesday and strength training from Wednesday to Friday, you’ll experience fatigue more quickly.
It’s worth noting, however, that it’s possible to combine cardio and strength training into a single session. For example, you could spend half an hour on the treadmill, then another half-hour doing upper-body exercises. The next day, you could spend another 30 minutes on the treadmill, then half an hour focused on your legs.
Additionally, cardio and strength training aren’t mutually exclusive in practice. Circuit training programs, for example, often combine weights and movements that will send your heart rate soaring. If you’re willing to think past the cardio-strength dichotomy, you can discover new and challenging combinations.
Workout schedule adjustments: losing weight
If your main fitness priority is losing weight, a combination of cardio and strength training will still serve you well. However, you may want to alter your workout ratio a bit to facilitate greater weight loss.
To burn through fat effectively, it’s a good idea to build in cardio on most days of the week, taking your weekly session to four or more. Additionally, varying the kinds of cardio you do can expedite results and keep things interesting. Keep your body guessing with a mix of running and cycling, or go for a swim instead.
Furthermore, weight loss cardio will be most effective when you up the intensity. High-intensity interval training will help you shed pounds far more quickly than steady-state cardio will.
Workout schedule adjustments: building muscle
If “getting swole” is your goal, you’ll need to balance cardio and strength training carefully. If you burn too many calories through cardio, putting on bulk will be difficult. Clearly, however, you’ll need to keep some aerobic exercise in the mix to stay healthy.
To gain muscle mass, limit cardio to high-intensity interval training twice weekly. Then ramp up to three to four strength sessions a week, slowly increasing your weights and rep counts. Once again, it’s helpful to diversify your exercises; keep the same lifts in rotation and you’ll get diminishing returns over time.
Consistency Is Crucial
We hope these tips will give you a strong basis to begin a new workout program or adjust your current routine. No two individuals have identical fitness needs, so our recommendations are merely a foundation for future experimentation. Still, as you adopt your new exercise schedule, it’s hard to go wrong with these routines.
Clearly, however, the best workout schedule is the one you stick with. If you start ambitiously and fade quickly, you’re no better off than when you first began. Accordingly, be gentle with yourself, ramping up to implement incremental change. It’s better to commit for the long haul, even if that means a modest schedule at first.
We’d love to be a part of your fitness journey, helping you train at your own pace and on your own time. Our reviews have helped thousands of customers make smarter decisions about home fitness equipment. With a quality machine available at home, you’ll have no trouble keeping up with your new fitness schedule.