Consider this: You control your routines and habits; they don't control you. When we start thinking about each moment as an active choice, rather than a passive inevitability, it unlocks the potential for us to build a workout routine that, well, works. Fitness operates precisely in this way. If we choose to give it space in our day on a regular basis, it becomes second nature. Soon after, we can’t imagine a day without a little (or a lot of) sweat.
That said, figuring out how to build a workout routine can be daunting, and obstacles can crop up that throw you off track. Maybe you're busy, tired, or feel unmotivated. (We've all been there.) But if you want to adhere to a regular training program, there are tricks that can help. Below, Peloton instructor and Army veteran Marcel Dinkins shares her advice on how to create a workout routine that truly sticks.
How to Build a Workout Routine
A large part of successfully sticking to an exercise regimen is taking the time to create a thoughtful workout plan. You're much less likely to feel dedicated to your routine if it's random or haphazard. Here, Marcel explains how to build a workout routine from scratch—with your personal needs and goals in mind.
1. Clarify Your Fitness Intentions and Goals
Kickstarting an exercise routine is tough if you don't have objectives. "Take the time to write down not only your routine but also the goal that makes you think, 'Holy crap, if I could achieve that!,'" Marcel says. "And it’s equally important to write down [why] you’re doing it. Are you doing it for your kids? Your siblings? Your spouse?"
On a weekly basis, set a small, manageable target that relates back to your "why" by using the SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound) acronym. Perhaps your overall "why" is to get healthier, and your "SMART goal" is to take 10,000 steps per day to actualize it. That’s a more measurable and tangible goal than simply saying "walk more." From there, you can find different ways to achieve your intention each day, such as strolling to get your morning coffee instead of driving or taking a work call while on a walk around your neighborhood. Experiment to find what works for you.
Then, schedule weekly checkpoints with yourself to stay on track. Whatever your target, reward yourself with something small, like a new book or a pastry from your favorite local shop. And after celebrating, set your next intention.
Bonus tip: Write your weekly targets down on sticky notes and post them in visible places, like on your bathroom mirror or computer screen. Reminders provide strong motivation so you can continue to stick to your workout routine—even on days when you don't want to exercise.
2. Establish Your Fitness Baseline
No matter where your fitness baseline stands, it's important to acknowledge your starting point so that you can track your progress—and remain injury free. Here's how to get a sense for your baseline as you start to build a fitness routine:
Cardio Vo2 Max Tests
If you’re already healthy and do moderate- or high-intensity aerobic activity a few times a week, you can test your fitness level with a 12-minute run, known as the Cooper Test. Developed by Dr. Ken Cooper in the 1960s, this assessment measures your VO2 max (how much oxygen you intake during exercise), which predicts your cardiovascular fitness and performance capacity.
Then, plug your achieved distance into Dr. Cooper's formula (VO2 max = (35.97 x miles) - 11.29) to estimate your VO2 max. This metric will help you avoid overextension early on in your workouts and progress at a sustainable pace.
After warming up, start a timer and walk as fast as you can for one mile on level terrain.
Push yourself, but avoid jogging.
Record your mile-walking time in decimals (i.e. 14 minutes and 30 seconds= 14.5 minutes).
Jot down your heart rate (find your pulse, count your heartbeats for 15 seconds, and multiply by four). Use the following formula to estimate your VO2 max: (VO2 max = 132.85 - (0.0769 x your weight in lbs) - (0.3877 x your age) + (6.315, if you are male, or 0, if you are female) - 3.2649 x your mile-walk time) - (0.1565 x your heart rate immediately after the mile).
To evaluate your total-body strength and stability, turn to a plank fitness test.
To perform this assessment, start in a forearm plank position and hold for 60 seconds.
Then, lift your right arm off the ground for 15 seconds. Set it back down and repeat with your left arm.
Next, lift your right leg for 15 seconds. Place it down and repeat with your left.
Once you've lifted all limbs individually for 15 seconds each, hold the plank for an additional 30 seconds. Rest.
If you're able to make it through this progression without resting, you have a solid strength baseline. If not, no worries: You can add muscle-building exercises to your routine on a regular basis. Repeat the test over time to gauge your progress.
3. Pick Your Form(s) Of Exercise
When it comes to building a workout routine, you need to select your preferred style of exercise. According to the CDC, adults need 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity (like a brisk walk) and two days of muscle-strengthening activity per week. If you're already comfortable with regular exercise, you can aim for 75 minutes of high-intensity activity (like jogging or cycling) each week.
In general, cardio workouts, like cycling, running, and swimming, build aerobic fitness, endurance, and stamina. Strength training workouts, like bodyweight and free-weight circuits, foster strength and stability. A combination of the two (i.e. alternating cardio and strength-building days) allows you to create a well-rounded exercise routine. Most healthy people should opt for a mix—but always talk to your doctor about how to build a workout routine that's right for you.
4. Schedule Your Exercise Routine
Treat your workouts like doctor appointments. In other words, put them in your calendar and don't make excuses to skip them. Every Sunday, map out your exercise plan for the upcoming week. Reserve time for at least one hard or challenging workout (i.e. a long run or ride) and aim for a mix of weightlifting, moderate-intensity cardio workouts, and rest days. Even if you only have time for shorter workouts of 10 to 20 minutes, that's better than nothing.
It also helps to schedule a standing time each day for workouts in your calendar. This could be in the early morning, after work, or even during lunchtime—pick what feels best to you. If you're not sure whether you prefer morning or night workouts, take a few days to experiment with both and note how energized you feel before, during, and after, as well as how often you were able to complete your exercise session in full.
5. Ease Into Your Workout—Then, Amp It Up
The ideal number of training days per week varies by individual. As a general rule of thumb, aim to work out three days per week as you ease into a new fitness routine. Such a schedule gives your body downtime to recover and adjust—which is just as important as your exercise sessions.
As you become stronger, the volume and intensity of your workout routine can increase. For example, you might add cross-training and strength workouts on what were previously flagged as rest days to build on your current regimen. You might also split your strength training days into upper- and lower-body specific days; for example, working arms and abs on Monday and Wednesday and glutes and calves on Tuesday and Thursday. Each muscle group gets a chance to recover, and you'll prevent overtraining.
Within your strength workouts, it’s best to start your session with compound movements that target more than one major muscle group (think: squat to press, deadlifts, or cleans). That way, you have more energy to devote to these big, powerful moves. As you get tired, switch to isolation moves, like biceps curls, which focus on one specific muscle.
You can apply this same principle to intensity: At first, opt for gentle, sustained workouts (a run-walk mix and/or bodyweight movements, and low-impact high-intensity interval training) to find a groove. Begin to increase your distance, time, and weight over time. If your workouts feel easier on a consistent basis, amp up the intensity to continue progressing.
6. Optimize Your Strength Training Efforts
Even if you love aerobic workouts, lifting weights is a solid way to build strength and stability and support your cardio sessions. In fact, lifting heavy weights is one of the best things you can do for your long-term health.
You’ll need to incorporate a variety of exercises into your workout regimen to get the full benefits of strength training. Consider the following when deciding what moves to add to your workouts:
Muscle groups: Make sure you're not overloading chest and back day or *only* doing squats and deadlifts. A well-rounded strength training routine includes upper body, lower body, and core exercises.
Movements: Within each muscle group, plan to incorporate both "push" and "pull" motions. For example, an upper body "pull" set might include biceps curls, bent-over rows, and lateral pull-downs, while an upper body "push" set could feature chest presses, shoulder presses, and triceps dips.
As far as equipment goes, you can use kettlebells, dumbbells, free weights, gym equipment—or, even your own bodyweight. As you build your workout routine, start with whatever equipment you're comfortable with, as long as it creates resistance.
In general, aim for strength workouts that hit on at least one of these three categories below.
To Build Muscle
With weights: Three or more sets of six to eight reps to fatigue. Since you'll be doing higher sets of reps, start with a lower weight and gradually increase over time. If you use the Peloton App, look for strength classes like Glutes & Legs, Upper Body, and Arms & Shoulders. (Not sure how much weight you should be lifting? Here's your guide to choosing the right weights for you.)
Bodyweight: Think moves like lunges, squats, hollow body holds, and hip bridges.
With weights: One to three sets of 12 to 16 reps using enough weight that you can only complete the rep cycle. For an introduction to this style of strength training, try classes like Arms & Light Weights on the Peloton App.
Bodyweight: Movements that challenge your smaller muscle groups can help build muscular endurance, especially if you incorporate isometric exercises. You can try in-studio classes like yoga, barre, and Pilates, or complete them at home via the Peloton App.
For Fat Loss
With weights: One to three sets of 10 to 12 reps, using just enough weight that you can only complete the desired reps. If you could do more reps or sets upon completion of the circuit, increase your weight.
Bodyweight: Turn to exercises like burpees, pushups, planks, lunges, and squat jumps.
How to Stick to Your Workout Routine
1. Track Your Workouts
When you're sticking to a workout plan, successes and struggles are normal. But tracking your exercise performance (the good, bad—and the ugly) helps give you insight into your mental and physical performance.
"If you keep track of your exercise via the Peloton App, write down the workouts you plan on doing for the week and post them up on the fridge, right next to your 'why' and your 'holy crap goal,'" Marcel says. "Every time you complete a session, perform the physical act of crossing it out. I know this seems like such a small thing to do, but I challenge you to never underestimate the importance of the small things."
Additionally, wearable fitness trackers, like smartwatches and heart rate monitors, deliver useful metrics on your sleep, hydration, performance, and more. If you don’t have a fitness tracker, jot down a few post-workout notes.
"It helps to pay attention to your own habits and routines, so start keeping a training log—and not just for weights and reps," Marcel says. "Describe how you feel before or after certain workouts. Before you know it, you’ll start to notice certain patterns." Then, you can make adjustments to your routine from an informed, data-driven perspective.
2. Embrace Short Workouts
If you’re not used to exercising, it can be overwhelming to start with 30- to 45-minute workouts. Luckily, research shows that a workout doesn’t need to be hours long in order to be effective. One study published in the Journal of American Medical Association found no notable differences in sedentary participants who exercised for 30 minutes per day, compared to those who completed 60 minutes of physical activity.
Start with five- or 10-minute sessions, either once or several times a day. A study published in Exercise and Sports Science Reviews found that "exercise snacks" that were as short as one minute long could boost cardio health and decrease the risks of being sedentary.
It doesn't have to be complicated. Walk up and down the stairs, turn on some tunes and dance, or take your dog for a walk. You may feel so good that you want to keep moving, and over time, you can progress to longer workouts. Remember: Five minutes of movement is better than nothing.
3. Make Exercise Convenient
Whether you're trying to eat healthier or get into an exercise habit, setting up your environment for success is critical. One strategy? Place fitness equipment where you can see it. Store your yoga mat in your family room or stick a foam roller next to your desk. These subtle—but regular—reminders will help you move throughout the day.
For morning workouts, set out your workout clothes before you go to bed. If you're a night owl when it comes to exercising, pack your bag in advance. Join a gym or attend classes that are easy for you to get to—or take commuting out of the equation altogether with virtual classes (like on the Peloton App) or by investing in your own home gym.
4. Plan for Off Days
It's true: Your rest days are just as important as your high-intensity workouts. If you're feeling sore, fatigued, or burnt out, your body is likely telling you to dial it back. Schedule active rest days into your exercise routine (especially after hard workouts) to focus on stretching, foam rolling, and other recovery techniques.
If you're feeling particularly frustrated, stuck, or unmotivated, take it as an opportunity to tune into your body, Marcel recommends. "Ask yourself: Are you just not in the mood to train, or are you actually physically or mentally fried?," she says. "If it’s the latter, then doing some breathwork or stretching is probably ideal. Even meditating may help you decompress and figure out what’s gotten you off your game that day."
It also may be a time for some creativity. Switch up your planned workout for something more fun, like a pickup basketball game with friends. "Learning to decipher between discomfort and actual dysfunction is one of the biggest points of maturation in [your] fitness and wellness journey," Marcel says.
5. Get a Buddy
If you enjoy exercising with others, loop in a friend to help hold you accountable to your goals— and cement training as a habit. It doesn’t matter if you’re at the same fitness level or not, especially if you’re enlisting a virtual buddy you can high-five during Peloton workouts.
6. Keep a Positive Frame of Mind
Working out is hard, but it's also physically, mentally, and emotionally rewarding. On tough days, remember: your "why" is worth it. Cut yourself some slack and maintain a positive mindset through the process.
"It takes time, so have some patience with yourself," Marcel says. "I’ve come to realize that you’re always doing better than you think, so don’t forget that. It will most likely take you longer than the deadline you set for yourself, and that’s ok. Good things take time."