How to gym: Creating your gym training plan

I can’t stress enough how important creating a gym training plan is, for a variety of reasons. Firstly, if you have a specific goal, you are going to need to specifically train in a way that can help you to achieve the goal. Secondly, just turning up and deciding what to do when you’re there almost always spells failure. You’ll spend half the time wandering around and maybe just using whatever is free at the time. Your workout will have no structure and you’ll leave the gym feeling pretty unaccomplished. Going with purpose and strategy however, is a recipe for a successful session. You also need to make sure you don’t plateau, hitting a wall in your training where you stay in the same place for months, which many people fall victim to. To ensure you keep progressing, long term, means planning your training and consistently monitoring your progress.

So what’s the goal?

Different methods of training are going to produce different results. So, the first thing to consider when constructing a gym training plan for yourself is what the end goal is. This might be building strength, losing weight, building muscle, or getting fitter and building endurance. You might be thinking, hang on, I want more than one thing! And that’s ok too; you can have multiple goals and look to design a programme that aims to fulfill them all either now or in the future. If you do have quite a few different goals, it might be worth prioritising them. Start by focusing on your top level goal to start with.

What do you enjoy?

As mentioned in the first blog of the series How to Gym: Your First Session, it’s a good idea to figure out what your training likes and dislikes are. Your enjoyment during your gym training plan can have a big impact on its success due to your resulting commitment and consistency. So it’s an important element to consider. It’s all well and good making a plan that is aimed specifically towards achieving your goals, but if you hate the process you may not make it very far. So often there is a trade off between exercises that are designed with your goals in mind, and others that still work towards your goals in some ways but bring you more enjoyment This means that you continue to want to put in the work next week, next month and next year.

When can you train?

The next step in creating a gym training plan is deciding when you are realistically going to train. There is no point in jumping straight from zero gym sessions to four per week, as this is unlikely to continue past week two or three. By all means, work up to four sessions a week. But starting with two and working up to four next month is more likely to stick.

Once you’ve decided how often you are going to be able to train, you can then start to think about your training split. That is, what you are going to train each session. We’ll consider a happy medium of 3 sessions per week (which you may work up to after the first month of two sessions per week). You may decide to do two resistance training sessions and one cardio. Or three sessions with a mix of both or three sessions just one or the other (depending on your goals).

Once you have decided this, you can move onto the next section, to decide what exercises you will do. For general fitness, by which I mean building some muscle and strength and also improving your cardiovascular fitness, doing three sessions with some resistance-based exercises and some cardio at the end is a good place to start. The resistance exercises should cover your full body so targeting muscles across your upper and lower body. There isn’t much point doing the muscle-group split that has become a bit of a trend (where you do a leg day, chest day, back and bicep, or variations of these) unless you are training almost every day and are training for more of a bodybuilding goal.

Choosing specific exercises

For cardio you want to choose something that you enjoy or at least hate the least whether that is continuous cardio like running, cycling etc or more HIIT style exercise. A lot of people tend to have a strong preference which is why I encourage you to try a few different kinds of sessions/classes to see what you could see yourself sticking to. And of course just make sure you push yourself that little bit more each time. To increase your overall fitness, a mix of continuous steady-state cardio and HIIT is great. For fat loss, I would focus on HIIT during your sessions and then keep your steps UP during the day. Taking a few 5-10 minute walking breaks during the day can make a huge difference. As can parking further away from places and getting in a s much movement as possible, wherever you can.

With resistance training, you want to start with compound exercises. That’s exercises that use muscles across multiple joints like Deadlifts, Squats, Glute bridge/Hip thrust, Chest press, any Row variation, shoulder press. These are the exercises that use the most energy and require your focus on keeping good form the most, to avoid injury. You would then end your session with isolation exercises that target specific muscles, if you want definition in a particular area, or if you need to strengthen certain muscles/rectify any imbalances. Isolation exercises include tricep extension, bicep curls, calf raises, dumbbell flyes. We call these accessory lifts (you may have heard the term before).

Basically, we don’t want to fatigue the smaller muscles before we perform big lifts. This is so that a) we can perform better without small muscles holding us back and b) for safety! We need to be top of our game for the bigger lifts. To choose your exercises, ACE has a really good database of exercises. They all have videos and descriptions to show you how to perform each exercise, and the body parts they target. You want to make sure you choose exercises that cover your legs, front and back (glutes, quads and hamstrings) as well as your back, chest and shoulders. Some core exercises would be really good to include as well as a strong core is vital for all your other movements in the gym.

Sets and reps

Reps (short for repetitions) is how many times you do the exercise in a row. A set is the collection of those reps. So, if I did 15 repetitions and then stopped, that is one set of 15 reps. If I did the same again, that’s 2 sets of 15 reps.

But how many should you do? Again this is down to your goals. As a beginner, we don’t want to completely destroy our bodies and risk injury in the very first few weeks however, so we don’t want to go too heavy too quickly. So, for the first month, we would be looking at 2-3 sets of 15-20 reps, which will get the body used to lifting weights. You should still push yourself – you shouldnt be able to lift more than 20-25 reps on the weight so you should be very near failure at the end of each set. 

After this initial period of anatomical adaptation, you can refer to the general set/rep targets for a few standard goals below:

For most goals, 3 to 5 sets is going to be your range. The higher end for your main lifts and the lower end for your accessory lifts.

1-3 reps for powerlifting & maximum strength

4-6 reps for building functional strength

7-15 reps for muscle gain, toning, weight loss

15+ for endurance

The Gym Training Plan

So now we put it all together. With a goal (or goals) in mind. You have decided when you are going to train and how many times per week. You have decided what sort of training you will be doing each session. Then you went through what exercises you would do (this will take the longest amount of time and research so don’t worry, take your time and enjoy the process of creating your first plan!). After this you have allocated target sets and reps. And there is your plan!

Now it is important that you review your plan and make adjustments every 6-12 weeks, depending on how often you are training. For training 3-5 times per week, a 6 week programme might be the way to go, if you’re training 2-3 times per week 8-12 weeks is usually more appropriate. You need to make sure that each week you push yourself that little bit more or you will see very little progress. So find a way to keep track of your reps and sets, (a lot of people use notes on their phone or a spreadsheet). Then increase your reps slightly each session until you come to the top end of the target rep range, and then increase the weight you are lifting. 

The same goes for your cardio, you need to be making sure you push yourself further each time. This can be by increasing duration, speed, by adding more weight if using dumbbells/kettlebells etc for HIIT –  any of these options are possibilities and you only need to increase by one of these each time. Then after 6-12 weeks, redesign your programme to challenge your muscles/heart/lungs slightly differently. For example, change a deadlift to a sumo deadlift, a squat to a split squat, a bench press to a press up, an inverted row to a seated row. That sort of thing. That could take us into a wholllle other topic now so I’ll leave that there but hopefully I’ve covered all the basics for you to get started with confidence:)

As always, any questions, fire away!

Missed the first How to Gym blog? You can find it here – How to Gym: Your First Session

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Picture of Ray Hickford

Ray Hickford

Hi, I’m Ray, a health and wellbeing professional in Manchester working with clients through training and nutrition programmes to help them feel more confident, strong and happy both in and outside of the gym.
As a Qualified Personal Trainer and Level 4 RSPH Nutrition Advisor, I am constantly learning myself - from my clients, from other industry experts and sometimes myself! And sometimes I write some of this down for ya.

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