12 Tips to Build a Workout Routine That Sticks
October 1, 2021
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 introduce new habits and develop strong, actionable workout plans.
Fitness works precisely 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 lotta) sweat.
That said, diving into 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 mega advice on how to make a workout plan that truly sticks.
1. Pick Your Form(s) Of Exercise
When it comes to building a workout routine, you first need to select your style of exercise. 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) helps you score the best of both worlds, so you can not only build a well-rounded workout plan but also age well, boost your energy, avoid injury, and more. Most healthy people should opt for a mix.
2. Establish Your Fitness Baseline
Are you in shape, or are you trying to level up your fitness? No matter where your baseline stands, it’s important to acknowledge your starting point so you can track progress and remain injury free. There are a handful of ways to get a sense for your baseline:
Cardio Vo2 Max Tests
If you’re healthy and active, you can test your aerobic fitness with a 12-minute run, or Cooper Test, developed by Dr. Ken Cooper in the 1960s. This test measures VO2 max—or, how much oxygen you intake during exercise—which predicts your cardiovascular fitness and performance capacity.
Test yourself: After a warm up, run for 12 minutes on flat terrain (like a track or rail trail), and cool down. Then, plug your achieved distance timed over 12 minutes 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, and progress at a sustainable pace.
If you’re not running, the Rockport Walk Test is another similar, safe way to get a pulse on your cardiovascular baseline, according to research.
Test yourself: After an easy-walking warm up, start a timer and walk as fast as you can for one mile on level terrain. Push yourself, but avoid jogging. Then:
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).
Note: It sounds complicated, but a calculator helps.
To test your total body strength and stability, a plank fitness test engages multiple upper- and lower-body muscles that support the core.
Test yourself: To perform a plank fitness test, start in 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 for the left arm. Next, lift your right leg for 15 seconds, repeat for the 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, 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. Clarify Your Fitness Intentions and Goals
Kickstarting an exercise routine is tough if you don’t have goals. “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!’” says Marcel. “And it’s equally important to write down [why] you’re doing it. Are you doing it for your kids? Your siblings? Your spouse?”
One way to do this? On a weekly basis, set a small, manageable target using the SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound) acronym. Perhaps your overall “why” is to get healthier, and your “goal” is to take 10,000 steps per day to actualize it. Weekly checkpoints can keep you on track. So, think of a SMART target that gets you there. For example, you could gradually increase your daily step count by a certain amount each day.
Whatever your weekly target, reward yourself with something small, like a new book or a coffee from your favorite local shop. Then, set your next weekly target.
Bonus tip: Write your weekly targets down on sticky notes and post them in visible places, like your bathroom mirror or computer screen. Reminders provide strong motivation, especially on days when you don’t want to exercise, so you can ultimately achieve your fitness goals.
4. 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 or so as you ease into a new fitness routine. This gives your body downtime to recover and adjust. As you get fitter and 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.
The same goes for 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. Then, begin to increase distance, time, and weight. If your workouts feel easier on a consistent basis, amp up the intensity to continue progressing.
5. Optimize Your Strength Training Efforts
Lifting weights is a solid way to build strength and stability and support aerobic workouts. If you add strength training into your routine, the sets, reps, and types of weight will look different for each individual. In general, aim for strength workouts that hit on at least one of these three categories below.
(Use kettlebells, dumbbells, free weights, gym equipment—or, opt for bodyweight via pilates, yoga, barre, or circuits—whatever you’re comfortable with, as long as it creates resistance where your muscles can expand and contract through effort.)
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.) On the Peloton App, look for strength classes like Glutes & Legs, Upper Body, and Arms & Shoulders.
Bodyweight: Think moves like lunges, squats, hollow body holds, and hip bridges. Hint: The Bodyweight Strength classes on the Peloton App are a perfect fit!
With Weights: One to three sets of 12 to 16 reps using enough weight that you can only complete the rep cycle. (Again, aim to fatigue.) Try classes like Arms & Light Weights on the Peloton App.
Bodyweight: Movements that also challenge your smaller muscle groups can help build muscular endurance. You can try classes like yoga, barre, and Pilates, all available on 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. (Aim to feel fatigued afterward. If you could do more reps or sets upon completion, increase your weight.)
Bodyweight: Exercises like burpees, pushups, planks, lunges, and squat jumps are great for this.
6. 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. One strategy to try? Every Sunday, map out your workout plan for the upcoming week. Slate time for at least one hard or challenging workout (i.e. a long run or ride), and aim for a mix of weightlifting, mid-effort cardio workouts, and rest days.
It also helps to schedule a standing time each day for workouts in your calendar. This could be early morning, after work, or even lunchtime—pick what feels best to you, don’t double book yourself, and get ‘er done.
7. Track Your Workouts
When you’re sticking to a workout plan, successes and struggles will be normal. But tracking your exercise performance (the good, bad, and ugly) helps paint a picture of your mental and physical performance in broad strokes.
“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’,” says Marcel. “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 sleep, hydration, performance, and more, so you can optimize your efforts over time. 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,” says Marcel. “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.
8. Embrace Short Workouts
If you’re not used to exercising, it can be overwhelming to start with 30- to 45-minute workouts. Instead, start with five- or 10-minute sessions, either once a day or several times a day. Check the Peloton App for a variety of short classes, or just spend five to 10 minutes moving at home. You could 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 none.
9. 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—for instance, keep your yoga mat rolled out in your family room or stick a foam roller next to your desk so you get subtle but regular reminders to move throughout the day.
The key to sticking with a fitness plan is to make it as accessible and convenient as possible. Start by setting out your workout clothes before you go to bed, or pack your gym bag in advance.
10. Plan for Off Days
Rest days are as important as workouts, and if you’re feeling sore, fatigued, or burnt out, your body is likely telling you to dial it back. Be sure to schedule active rest days into your workout routine (especially after hard workouts) to focus on stretching, foam rolling, and other recovery techniques.
However, if you’re feeling 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.”
That said, if you’re simply not in the mood to train, don’t skimp. Instead, get creative and 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.
11. 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. Find someone who will motivate and encourage you, and who has a similar schedule and commitment level. It doesn’t matter if you’re at the same fitness level or not, especially if you’re enlisting a virtual buddy. What does matter is that you support each other as you each crush your goals.
12. Keep a Positive Frame of Mind
Working out is hard (it’s meant to be!), but it’s physically, mentally, and emotionally rewarding, too. On tough days, remember: your “why” is worth it. Cut yourself some slack and work to maintain a positive mindset through the process.
“It takes time, so have some patience with yourself,” says Marcel. “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.”
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