Building the Perfect Workout

Did that click bait “Perfect Workout” title get your attention? Good, because I’m about to dish out the goods, that next level ish that’s going to make your workouts absolute (fire emoji). If you’re tired of heading into the gym without a plan, tired of working your ass off without seeing the results you should, or if you just want some guidance on what the hell to do when you get in the gym, keep reading because I got your back.

I used to struggle to build a quality workout, going into the gym day after day and week after week performing the same old workouts that I had cut out of a magazine or saw some bodybuilder doing. I got tired of not seeing the results, despite putting in the work and wanted to figure out why.

Was I doing too much? Not enough? Why, despite putting in 100% effort in the gym 5+ days a week, wasn’t I achieving the strength and physique goals I so badly desired?

These questions led me to analyze what I was doing, simplify it to the bare necessities, and build up from there. As a result of this process, over the course of the last decade I’ve become skilled at crafting workouts for myself, and those that I work with in person and online. I used to need to build workouts in advance, either as an entire training program or written out before I went into the gym but following the guidelines below, I’ve learned how to create a masterful workout, even on the fly. After reading this article, you too will be able to create amazing and effective workouts, either in advance or on the fly, and finally be able to reap the benefits of all the hard work you put in the gym.

Workout Basics

Creating a workout is relatively easy, it’s like baking a cake. Once you know the general outline for baking a cake, like how much flour, eggs and baking soda to throw together, you can get crazy with the mix-in ingredients to change up the flavors and taste to your liking. A workout is no different. Once you have the basic guidelines down, then you can go wild with the exercises, getting creative and making it specific to your goals.

Unfortunately, people tend to over complicate their workouts, making them more like a game of mouse trap, rather than a beautifully simple and highly effective game plan that gets the job done. Social media has played a large role in this, as people performing crazy exercises and workouts get far more attention than those who are performing the basics and achieving amazing results. While this workout guideline may not get you the views on Instagram, it will get you the results you’re looking for. Follow the guidelines below to build a stronger body, improve your health, and re-energize your life!

  1. Warmup, Mobility, Activation: 10-20 minutes of movement specific mobility and activation
  2. Main Exercises: 1-2 compound exercise, performed for 1-8 reps
  3. Accessory Exercises: 2-3 exercise per body part, or 5-8 exercises in total performed for 6-12 reps
  4. Finishers: hypertrophy/”pump” style work, conditioning/HIIT training, core work, or specific mobility needs
  5. Cool Down: 5-10 minutes to help you start the recovery process

Warmup, Mobility and Activation

The warmup is like the appetizer of a meal. It wets your palette and gets you ready for the main course. Like a good appetizer, a warmup shouldn’t be overly dominant or filling. It should pique your curiosity and get you into the right mental and physical space for the main course, without ruining your appetite.

Getting your mind and body prepped and ready for the workout is extremely important, but often overlooked and/or misunderstood. A good warmup should be tailored to your individual needs and be focused around the movements in the workout to come. What movements will you be performing and how you can you prepare for those movements properly? Answering this question will guide your warmup in the right direction.

Generally, I will have clients spend 5-10 minutes doing a low intensity form of cardio. This isn’t necessary, but can be beneficial in raising the core temperature, preparing your muscles, and lubricating your joints for the mobility and activation work that follows. If you have the time to do this, great, but if not, you can survive without it.

After getting the core temperature up and maybe even breaking a small sweat, it’s time to go into some mobility work. Notice that I use the word mobility here rather than flexibility, as mobility has a direct correlation and transference into movement and strength, whereas training flexibility (passive stretching) can reduce strength and increase the chances of injury. When it comes to mobility work the goal is two-fold: (1) work on mobility directly related to the movements to come, and (2) work on mobility directly related to your personal weaknesses and restrictions.

If you’re going to squat, your mobility should be based around movement requirements of the squat. This means mobilizing the hip flexors, internal and external rotation of the hip, ankle dorsiflexion, and even the thoracic spine in some cases. Focusing on these areas will have direct carryover to the squat and improve your ability to get into a quality squat position, reducing your chances of injury and improving your ability to produce strength.

In addition to focusing on the movements that you’ll be performing, it’s also important to pay attention to your personal muscular imbalances and mobility restrictions. These imbalances and restrictions can wreak havoc on your body if left unattended, especially if you simply push through them while lifting heavy weights or performing challenging movements. You may not need to focus on these restrictions every single day (although I would advise it for your physical health and wellbeing), but when you do give them attention make sure you are giving them 100% effort and extra attention in comparison to other areas.

If you know that you lack adequate dorsiflexion of the ankle and it restricts your squats, it would be smart to spend a few extra minutes on this area. Perform additional reps or exercises and spend more time on dorsiflexion before heading into your workout. Not only will your workout be more effective, but your mobility will improve much more quickly as well.

After mobilizing the joints that will be used during your workout, the next step is to activate the muscles that will be used. Muscular activation is used to prepare your muscles for the work to come by forcibly contracting them. These contractions are used to stimulate more muscle fibers to fire (more muscle fibers = more force produced = strength) and build stability around the joints in conjunction with the prior mobility work.

After activating the muscles, it’s time to now integrate those muscles and joints into actual movement that replicates the some of the movements and demands of the workout to come. Using the squat example, I would go through some goblet squats, lunges, or Bulgarian split squats. All 3 movements replicate the squat and help to instill proper bracing and movement patterns before adding heavier loads.

The warmup should take around 10-15 minutes depending on your needs for that day and how your body is feeling at the time. Some days you may head into the gym feeling mobile and strong, and in this case your warmup will likely be shorter and more efficient. Other days your body may feel tight, out of balance, or just “off” and on those days your warmup is going to be even more important and take just a bit longer. In either case, the important part is to tailor your warmup to your specific needs based of the workout that day and your body.

For my favorite way to warmup (at the moment, it changes as my body and needs do) before squats and/or leg day, check out the entire routine and give it a try before your next leg day!

Main Movements

After the appetizer comes the main course. This is what you’ve been waiting the whole night for. The main movement(s) in a workout are like the steak or lobster, it’s the reason you showed up and ordered the meal.

The main movements in a workout are your strength-based movements. These will typically be compound lifts (multiple joint/muscle lifts) that allow you to load up the weight and challenge yourself. The most common and popular compound movements are the bench press, squat, deadlift, overhead press, barbell row, pullup, pushup, dips, and lunges to name a few. There are plenty of others, but if you master these and focus on progressive overload (adding weight, sets, reps, etc.) they’re all that you need.

Strength training is performed at the beginning of the workout because these movements are the most technical lifts and require the most energy and focus to perform, so for the sake of safety perform them first.

For a workout the goal should be to perform 1-2 strength-focused movements in the 1-6 rep range. You can go higher than 6 reps for strength training, and I advise that on occasion you do, but the bulk of your work should be in the 6 reps or less range. This will make the primary outcome of the movement strength-based, with a secondary outcome being muscle building. Strength training and the process of building strength has numerous benefits including:

  • reduced sarcopenia (loss of muscle mass) [4]
  • increased resting metabolic rate (RMR) aka speed of metabolism [4]
  • decreased visceral fat (abdominal fat) and reducing the risk of Type 2 Diabetes, via increased glucose uptake and insulin sensitivity [4]
  • improved cardiovascular health via reduced blood pressure, LDL cholesterol and trigylcerides as well as increased HDL cholesterol (“good” cholesterol) [4]
  • improved bone mineral density and reduction of risk for osteoporosis [4]
  • reduction of pain symptoms related to arthritis and fibromyalgia [4]
  • increased cognition and reduce risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia [2]
  • improved quality and quantity of sleep [1]

The benefits of strength training are nearly limitless, which is a big reason why I prioritize in my own training, but also that of every client that I work with. Whether you’re someone looking to build strength or muscle, lose fat and improve body composition, or just improve your mental and physical wellbeing, strength training is a necessity. It is arguably the most important part of a fitness program, besides starting and staying consistent with the program itself and for that reason you should make it a priority.

Accessory Movements

The accessory movement portion of your workout acts as the side dish to your main course. They’re not the reason you came to dinner and ordered your entree, but they do add a nice kick of flavor and variety.

This is the time in the workout where you work on isolating and building specific muscles, improving your strength through assistance movements, and working to even out any muscular or movement imbalances you may have. If your workout is lower body focused, you may add in some additional movements that specifically target the quads, hamstrings, calves and/or glutes. These movements can be compound, like step ups, or isolation movements, like leg extensions and curls.

You can also use some exercises that assist in building upon your strength exercises. If you are bench pressing that day, you might perform some close grip bench presses or dips to help improve your pressing strength. Unilateral (single side) work is a great component here as well, not only for building muscle and strength, but also improving muscular balance and movement quality.

When performing accessory movements, the rep range will be a bit higher, as the goal is less about strength and more about stimulating a positive metabolic response in the form of muscular growth and development. Pick 2-3 movements per body part or 5-8 movements in total to add on to your workout. Each movement should be performed for approximately 2-4 sets of 6-12, sometimes stretching to 15-20, reps and be focused on improving your ability to produce strength, building muscle or working on muscular or movement imbalances. While muscle can be built in nearly any rep range, the 6-12 rep range has shown the most benefits for muscular growth, so that’s where most of the time should be spent.

Increased muscle mass has similar benefits to strength training, the most important being improved glucose disposal and insulin sensitivity [3]. This is important for everyone, but especially those with prediabetes, Type 2 Diabetes or those at risk of develop T2DM. Muscles act as a storage and shuttle system for glucose, pulling glucose from the blood and storing it in the muscles until it needs to be used for physical activity. More muscle = larger storage systems and a great ability to tolerate and use carbs for energy. And for purely vanity matters, increased muscle mass adds tone to the muscles and shape to the body, which can improve confidence in one’s appearance and self-image.

Finishers

Finishers are a fancy way of saying, “the final part of a workout”. It’s the dessert of the workout and doesn’t need to be included but can add a nice finalizing touch to a meal and workout. A finisher can be nearly anything from conditioning work (ropes, medballs, sprints, etc) to “pump” style drop and super sets, to intense mobility work. The idea is to make the finisher specific to your needs and to the workout that you’ve just performed.

If you just had an intense back and bicep bodybuilding style workout, your finisher may be a cable curl drop set. If your workout for the day was around building strength and athleticism, including some powerlifting or Olympic lifting movements, then some movement specific conditioning would be a great option. If you’ve absolutely killed your workout and don’t have energy left in the take for hypertrophy or conditioning work, this is a great time to work on your personal mobility restrictions. It could also be a great time to add in core or abdominal work to finish your workout. And if you’re just out of time and in a hurry, you can easily cut this portion of the workout off and move into the cool down portion.

My favorite finishers are:

  • Drop Sets: one exercise performed for a prescribed number of reps, or until failure, followed by a reduction in weight to allow continuance of the exercise
  • Super Sets: 2 exercises performed back to back without rest
  • Circuits/Complexes: 3+ exercises performed back to back without rest, usually in a flow or sequence
  • Metabolic Conditioning/HIIT: high intensity exercise performed for a short duration of time like sprints, sled pushes, etc.
  • Core Work: focusing on anti- rotation, extension/flexion, and lateral flexion

The possibilities for a quality finisher are endless and certainly not limited to those posted above, but if you’re ever struggling to figure out a finisher for your workout try out some of those, or a combination of several, or check out my Instagram where I post tons of tips and tricks, including my favorite finishers that are continuously being updated.

Cool Down

Often overlooked in a workout is the cool down portion. This is the mint or toothpick after a good meal, it ties everything together and lets you leave feeling satisfied and comfortable. Most people breeze right past this portion of the workout because they don’t understand the importance of it, thinking it has little value or use. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

A cool down is designed to take you from the highly stimulated, “fight or flight” sympathetic nervous system stress response of a workout into the calmer, “rest and digest” parasympathetic nervous system. It helps you transition from a state of performance to a state of recovery, which is paramount after a workout. If you’re looking to make the most of your workouts, and efficiently use the nutrients that you take in post workout, don’t skip the cool down portion.

Cool downs can be performed in a variety of ways including low level cardio, stretching/mobility work, and diaphragmatic breath work. The important thing is to find something that allows you to focus on your breathing, slow your heart rate, and release some of the tension that was built up during the workout. This will help you recover faster, making each of your workouts more effective than they otherwise would be.

After your next workout, try performing 5 minutes of diaphragmatic (belly) nasal breathing while lying on your back. Use a 1:2, inhale:exhale ratio. Breathe in deeply through your nose, and exhale twice as long, again using your nose. If you inhale for 5 seconds, your goals should be to exhale for 10 seconds. This will help to shift your nervous system state to a more relaxed position and will do more for your recovery than stretching and/foam rolling for any amount of time.

Though I’ve probably made it hard to believe with my long-winded explanation of building a workout, in reality workouts are simple and should remain as such until simple no longer works for you. If you’ve been performing the same workouts for weeks, months, or even years, or are just looking to make your workouts more effective and achieve better results, use the formula provided in this article to guide you. You would be surprised at how many combinations can be made simply from the information contained within this article, so follow the guidelines and get creative within those guidelines!

Citations

[1] Kovacevic, A., Mavros, Y., Heisz, J. J., & Singh, M. A. F. (2018). The effect of resistance exercise on sleep: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Sleep medicine reviews39, 52-68.

[2] Nagamatsu, L. S., Handy, T. C., Hsu, C. L., Voss, M., & Liu-Ambrose, T. (2012). Resistance training promotes cognitive and functional brain plasticity in seniors with probable mild cognitive impairment. Archives of internal medicine172(8), 666-668.

[3] Sinacore, D. R., & Gulve, E. A. (1993). The role of skeletal muscle in glucose transport, glucose homeostasis, and insulin resistance: implications for physical therapy. physical therapy73(12), 878-891.

[4] Westcott, W. L. (2012). Resistance training is medicine: effects of strength training on health. Current sports medicine reports11(4), 209-216.

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